‘At first pass (= shot) some ten or so Numbers from our hangar were caught napping beneath the engine exhaust – absolutely nothing was left of them but some sort of crumbs and soot. I’m proud to note down here that this did not cause a second’s hitch in the rhythm of our work, no one flinched; and we and our work teams continued our rectilinear and circular movement with exactly the same precision as though nothing had happened. Ten Numbers – that is scarcely one hundred-millionth part of the mass of OneState. For all practical purposes, it’s a third-order infinitesimal. Innumerate pity is a thing known only to the ancients; to us it’s funny.’
She never regretted moving to this flat. It was her bolt hole in this fast paced city, a place where she could flutter and eventually fly free of her parents, beloved though they were. In fact, they were the reason why she had moved to the city. She couldn’t quite face looking into their eyes once Robert had been to visit her at the parent’s house. If they had known of all of the positions that they had made love in then her cheeks would be forever burnished, matching only those of rosy fresh apples. No, much better that she had moved away to a swanky new flat with him instead, free to both explore their love and to allow their careers to take a foothold upon the employment ladder in their chosen fields.
The flat wasn’t really swanky in all honesty. Sometimes, especially after a heated remark or two, it could feel like a shoe box and one that she yearned to escape. It was at times like those that she felt she could happily return to her parent’s house, to become engulfed once again in their loving embrace. But she realized that this would never happen again, she had flown the coop and would not return to live there in this lifetime. She visited, from time to time, and had hosted her mother and father in her adopted city, but they would not meaningfully live side by side again.
Robert was her immediate family now, her lover and confidant, her romancer and family man. Her father wrote often though, kept the familial bonds strong and she wrote back as often as she could, though writing was not her forte and clearly her path in life was not to follow her father. She loved his letters though, decorated as they were with doodles on each page. The notes on his latest writing project filled her with hope for her father and his health, as she often mistakenly equated the health of his imagination with the health of his ailing body. Her mother sometimes added a page or two of notes as well, updated her on school crushes and old boyfriends. It was these tidbits from her mother that she really enjoyed, kept her in the loop of small town life and let her feel guilt-free pangs of happiness. In this raging city of 24/7 access, it was grounding to know that life continued as much as it ever had in other parts of the country, parts that the creeping suburbia of the city hadn’t yet reached.
The illness unhinged her for a while though, the images of her father spraying droplets of blood was not something that she wanted to think about, neither was the fact that her parents were indeed mortal and not immortal, as a childish version of her thought still. Her foundation of independence had just become solidified yet it felt like even as she started to make her mark on the world, the world had started to shake the rock that she built her life upon.
In all honesty she tried not to think about the condition slowly taking over her father’s life. To put death at a distance and to keep love close. That was her motto, though she could never think of the words to articulate it, it was how she lived her live in the shadow of her parent’s slow, earthly demise. Her father would probably be writing a poem at this very moment and she could just picture it, his pen gliding across the paper in what would seem to be a well-rehearsed manner. The words would flow, the inconvertible truth that this man was born to give a voice to his generation would be undeniable.
In her darkest moments, sometimes the ones that followed the passionate lovemaking sessions with Robert where she lay in quiet repose resting, the thoughts would intrude into her mind like unbidden shards of shattered glass. He would be remembered by the many, not by the few.
It would not be long now.
Sometimes I read novels and often think that they hit the spot a bit too close to home. This was the case recently as I came to the concluding pages of On the Beach, which was written by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway in the decades following World War Two. The scene includes two of the main characters discussing the context for the apocalyptic situation that they face and openly lament the global use of nuclear weapons during an escalation of an international war:
“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”
“I don’t know… Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop”, he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”
“But how could you have done that, Peter? I mean, they’d all left school.”
“Newspapers”, he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”
Quoted from the novel One the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute Norway.
It is a wonderful novel and a book that I highly recommend. For me one of the most moving aspects of the characters portrayed throughout the text was their attitude and civility in the manner in which they led their lives, and how this civility influenced their actions throughout the novel despite the fact that they knew what was to come.
Next up on my reading list is a newly published novel that I have started reading earlier today entitled Here I Am, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer has previously released a clutch of interesting and diverse novels over the past decade and a half that have really captured my attention, especially his first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was published in 2002. Perhaps unwittingly I noticed that the Here I Am novel continues the theme of international and national destruction set in On the Beach. Perhaps it is somewhat fitting considering the way 2016 has so far developed…
We pulled up in our rented vehicle, dwarfed quite comfortably by the incumbent coaches ferrying tourists from sight to sight, and prepared to disembark once again as travelers in a foreign land. In reality the location reminded us, perhaps more grandly than we remembered, of our own homes and the landscape therein, the coast battered by salt-fused waves whilst brash accents announced a population who had become ingrained into the very land they lived on. Our identities remained the same half the world away and we became a self contained unit, a family of friends.
The final flight to a familiar destination, my body sighs with relief. You are my final stranger, the person who sits one empty chair away from me of who I do not know one bit. I see your passport briefly, possibly from the Emirates judging from the silver cross of swords potent on the cover and the colourful shawl draped across your delicate face.
Your body is tiny in comparison to my towering torso and broad hulking shoulders. You curl up in your seat as soon as the plane starts to taxi, covering your head fully and aiming for a fitful fifty minute sleep. I am envious of this talent, I can only stare straight ahead, dipping into a satirical magazine to ease my boredom. This is the shortest flight that I have been on for some time now, but even here my eyes cannot rest. I reacquaint myself with the politics and humour of this land, smiling to myself as the plane carries on heading to the north.
I look across from time to time, partly to see the green grass of home but also to check that you are still resting. Your left hand is placed across your stomach, holding steady as your wrapped head lolls from time to time. The silent movements in sleep stand in great contrast to the roar of the engines situated just a few metres from where we are.
We smile at one another as I let you pass me by to get into the aisle, we have arrived at our destination and I am glad. I am finally home whilst you, I feel, may be very far from it but I hope you find a home here too and a loving family of friends.
I love you and I need you, I wish that I could see you. I’m travelling down this corridor alone, strapped to this trolley with doctors by my side pushing through door after door. I can see the light shining but I’m not sure if it’s for me or if it’s for everyone around me. I cry out, not pain not in horror, I cry out in confusion. I need you and I want you, to be by my side again. Memories flood my frazzled mind, a skeletal hand clasps my own and tells me it will be alright, it will be okay. I can help but feel that this is a denial, that my body is failing even as I flail in the half-light of an under-funded hospital, staffed by sleep walking staff with the warmest of hearts.
I need you and I want you, I can hear voices in the corridor, not my own or those around me but others, crying out in equal pain or in anger at the wait. Where are my sons, where are my daughters? I wanted to say to grow up in peace, to love your family, friends and neighbours as one, to move on or to leave if you need to. We understand, we want you to be happy, we need you to be with us. I love and I need you, and I wish that I could see you.
The final corridor, my body is checked in. Checked once that I am who I say I am, that the arrows painted on my limbs are correct and that my brain is related to my body and my body is related to my name. I say I am who I am and they take it on board, and I’m made to wait at Heaven’s Gate. Two blonde angels guide me, make me comfortable on the slip green sheets which matches their sleek outfits. Only bras and knickers must be under their gowns I think, wondering who they share their bed and younger, supplier bodies with at night. My own is broken, battered and torn. A mess of surgical scars, shortened limbs but above average, well we won’t go into that but it is according to a litany of my previous lovers.
I want you and I need you, I wish that I could see you. I laugh, laugh at the futility of it all. The drugs, I yearn for the warmth of the morphine, of the wicked sleeping potion to crawl up into my veins and up into my arm and to flood the chest cavity and consciousness itself. I yearn to sleep with no dreams, where the minute that passes is not a minute but a moment between awake and awake. My eyes linger on one of the angels, filling in the paperwork in the corner of the room, haloed by broken bodies on stripped back beds.
I need you and I want you, I wish that I could see you. I’m moving, I’m moving, but I’m not moving, there are no words for this. Through the first set of doors I am pushed, name confirmed once more. Am I aware of what is going to happen to me and why it is happening? Yes, yes I scream still dreaming of the green robed angels in the theatre waiting room. Just do it, yes the heart always beats fast. I need you and I want you, but I just can’t seem to see you. I stare at the anaethetist’s eyes as the plunger is gently but firmly pressed down, a milky white liquid seeps into my own bloodstream diluting reality.
I needed you and I wanted you, but I just can’t seem to have seen you. I wake as if I have been asleep for years. I crave water, yearn to drink a thousand litres of the freshest water available. I want to drown in crystalline lakes and to never wake. A tube has been down my throat, a mainline into the neck is still present. I wish that I could have seen you, I’m sorry to have left you. I close my eyes again.
The guitar leans silently against the wall. Both the pint glass and the cup are empty, the plate too is bereft of what was once resting upon it. He is sated, fed and watered, content to watch videos streaming on the computer laid out in front of him. There was no conversation taking place here, no exchange of ideas or of intimacies, no special spark between a bond shared. It was as it was pictured.
That the walls once rang out with the thrill of love and the laughter of friendship was not deniable, that this would occur once again a known truth. For the moment though this was a simple moment to relax, to enjoy the stillness present at this known time of deep changes. For the walls did not move but the foundations surely did shake in their silent scream of protest.
Photograph by the author using a Pentax Super ME camera and lomography colour film (if I remember rightly), please attribute if used elsewhere.
My room, I realize, is covered in books and CD’s. Stacks of both poke out from under my bed, bulge on shelves, take root on free patches on the floor. I have boxes of academic books and reference texts resting below where I sleep, buried alongside those are boxes of CD’s and cassette tapes, filled with yesterday’s music and recorded jam sessions made during the proclivities of my youth. They are, it appears, my media of choice for consuming the experiences and thoughts of being human.
To be human, as to recognize to being alive, is temporary but what a beauty that it is in itself:
‘But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestige of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limb and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend , or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.’
From My Struggle: Part 2. A Man In Love (2014) by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
The office I worked in dealt with applications from students and our daily targets were monitored and recorded for prosperity, and to check against what was and what wasn’t correctly documented in our individual tally sheets. Of course these sheets were digital spreadsheets that were specially formatted for each different piece of work that was allocated to the worker. The spreadsheets highlighted how much allotted time was given dependent on the category that the piece of work fell into, whether we’d have five minutes to complete it or ten minutes. Simple pieces of work could be given only a few minutes whilst more complicated pieces, such as responding to emails with extensive trails or queries, were given a timing of a quarter of an hour or more. We felt that luck was on our side when one such piece of work fell out of the electronic basket and into our caseload, we had time to breath, to relax, to look into the faces of the person sat beside ourselves and to realize that we each went through the same, day in and day out.
Many kept to this electronic tally, toting it up at the end of the night by memory or by scrolling through the master sheet. I, unlike many of my work colleagues, kept a ink tally in Roman numerals of each type of piece of work that I had completed that day. Towards the end of the evening, when we each heaved a sigh of relief and gladness that the working day was over, I looked down with fondness upon my scrap of paper to find an ever changing squiggle of lines, crossed and solitary, segmented by type and time.
It was the last action of the working shift that so pleased me, that I could scrupple up the piece of paper with my jottings on, tear it in two if needs be and thrice more into smaller pieces so that no readable piece remained, and declare that I was the master of myself once again. No greater feeling of satisfaction came with the job then that final action of labour destruction, or rather rapprochement that my work towards the whole could be so simply and so justifiably torn up. That my value as a worker was counted as so little that I needed to be constantly monitored for each and every movement within the workplace, each piece of work accounted for and judged against the character of my soul. The residual of feeling of loyalty, that thinning pool of employee liquid that had somehow lingered through the various turbulent governmental changes and process improvements, now felt at a very low ebb indeed. It could evaporate at any moment.
My action was, in its way, a minor everyday rebellion at the absurdity of employment itself. That each man and woman shall spend a third of their life strapped to the face of labour so that the other third can be slept through and the final third can be lived in a state of fretful suspense. It is perhaps not fair to categorize in this way what so many want, what so many need, but for me it is not enough nor is it a rightful use of the labour market. To rebel, in whatever fashion is feasible or at least in which way is not detrimental to your standards, is to acknowledge that you recognize that this is so. Such is life.
My limbs are heavy and my head is hanging low. I’m smoking the last cigarette I have and on the last piece of paper I own I have wrote down my last will and testament. The money in the bank can be given to charity, I ain’t got no family no more. Give out my belongings to the homeless and give the food to the hungry.
Do what I couldn’t in life, spare me the embarrassment of riches in death. Do what you have to do.