in Plato caves
those calves below
my mind rise
don’t know me
therefore I is?
or thoughts are?
so I hear
all thoughts of caves
of us all
in Plato caves
those calves below
my mind rise
don’t know me
therefore I is?
or thoughts are?
so I hear
all thoughts of caves
of us all
There was, on the bus to school, a thin-lipped Romanian woman with bags beneath her eyes and prominent cheekbones: I was lucky on the days I sat next to her. A seat! Others were standing, pushing. The woman stared. She frowned. It was very loud at 8am. Everyone had to get to work. She would stand at her stop and shuffle past me without saying a word, eyes lowered.
I missed the bus. The next bus was twenty minutes later. So I arrived twenty minutes late. We were doing an exam. The teacher asked us to measure the periods of some pendulums. I felt bad about being late. I apologized. I measured the periods.
Faces: the boy who walked around with a briefcase and never tired of telling his school mates that nobody has free will: the laws of physics determine everything in advance—he killed himself; the boy who was unusually short and wrote “I’m gay, from John” on the backs of chairs and on soccer balls; the Romanian woman with the bags.
Bells all day, and after fifty minutes another one. Machine-boy. Jumping at every bell to rush. Who could say “stop”? We were busy: doing nothing. Sitting down at a desk only to get up again at the next bell. Loud! No wonder it is difficult to ever do anything. “He has ADHD” says the principal about the student. So do we.
“People need love,” and they don’t know they’re alive. Death-faces. The fat man who lived in a smelly house piled high with records, where I bought a ‘Diana Ross’ record: the man wheezed through his face and never looked me in the eye, like the Romanian woman. “Cheers,” I said and he closed the door.
Jon and Mark were friends—because they sat together and played video games. No talking. They didn’t have anything to say. They made ‘gay jokes’ sometimes but never hugged. Mark’s brother had just returned from overseas. “It was amazing,” he said. Always brighter horizons. There’s more life to be had: overseas.
You can’t escape death and being dead can be isolating. Mark didn’t know he was lonely when he sat on a bench playing with his phone in Hyde park. Overseas, finally, but so similar to before. His brother had escaped from life, and so had he: no life for Mark or his brother.
Or for the faces in the pews each Sunday. Women with their newborns, choked by plastic. The men who were boys: Steven collected old radios—he’s one of the elders; Jeff said “what’s next? They’ll make me marry my dog? I mean, two men: that’s ridiculous” after the marriage law passed.
Jeff on the gays, boys playing on the field, the beauty on Daniel’s face. He was older and I asked him to watch a film with me so that we could sit together, but he fell asleep and his mum told me about the importance of choosing ‘good friends’. But she’d never had friends, so how did she know? We were all alone, even then.
And in the side of the motorway, with steep banked sides, I waited alone, leaning against a car with a book in hand. John the pastor picked me up. We sat on a rugby field. There was nobody around. John told me a cautionary tale. A pastor, married, had gotten himself addicted to porn. “He watched porn all the time,” said John.
The first bell of school was for ‘form class’, where we answered to a roll. I sat next to Sam. He’s an engineer now. We drew little notes to each other. Not like the crude phalluses on the walls of the classroom: we did clever things—bridges, faces, urban sprawl.
One morning my teacher and I picked Sam up from home to go to a ‘Youth Conference’ where we heard lectures for ‘Talented Students’. (We were awash with fatuous labels, even then.) The first lecture was about how boys read pornography magazines and I thought the pictures did not look like women at all.
Bells. Bells. And gym class started in a changing room. (It took five minutes to change: leaving forty for running.) The floor was crunchy because dried flakes of deodorant spray were falling from the ceiling, which the boys had sprayed with deodorant until it dripped. Time to change. Running’s over.
Or there was a fire alarm. We stood on the field in rows while teachers yelled our names at us and I quietly walked away to the highway to start home. What does a name mean in a field of thousands? I turned off the highway to avoid seeing the bus go past. Quiet farm roads. No one around.
Until a car passed and they recognised me. “You’re easy to recognise,” they said, and I joined them because they told me that I had to. “How lucky that we saw you!” they said. And I hated them for stealing my walk from me. Their car got me home very quick. In those days, everything was fast, but nobody knew why.
The taxi driver looked twenty years older than the boyish photo on his driving permit. He had the radio on loud: playing west side story. And his car was a beaten-up 1980s Mercedes. The permit, the songs, the car.
Each room in the hotel is named after a city or place. ‘Dunedin.’ ‘Stonehenge.’ ‘Lake Wanaka.’ My room is called ‘Moscow.’ Gold. Orange. Brown. Grey.
“There’s a cafe around the corner,” said the concierge. “There’s a dog statue here. Turn left. It’s called fin de siecle.”
“Ha! Fin de siecle. Are there oil portraits and decadent wall hangings?”
“No,” he said.
And there is, indeed, a dog statue at the corner. The dog is posed in the act of pissing on a bollard. When I passed the pissing dog, a fat man-cow was patting the dog’s head and laughing. A woman-cow took a photograph.
In the square, a dowdy woman in a mustard dress played clarinet: backed by a bulky CD player. A boy splashed water in the fountain with his feet. Boys wearing thawbs and nikes gathered to play music on their phones and, as far as I could tell, to punch each others’ arms.
Back at the fin de siecle: an american couple line up their four drinks on the table. The woman, in black polka-dot dress, does her lipstick. She picks up one of the four drinks.
“Ready!” she says.
Tossing her hair, she smiles: sitting up very straight, looking neither left nor right. He holds his cellphone low, near his crotch: the 4 megapixel cellphone camera a 21st century extension of American manhood.
“Perfect!” he says.
A transsexual walks past, tripping on a homeless man who was sitting on his bag, fiddling with a defunct cellphone. The homeless man yells at the transsexual. Behind me, one waitress shouts at the other one.
“He wants a coffee with milk!! Cafe au lait! Coffee with milk!”
“Are you ever arrested by the crawling feeling that everything we ever talk about is inane?”
“Or that all those men in suits talking about ‘pride’ in hellenistic poetry and ‘texture’ in decadence-era French novels are, in fact, quite absurd.”
“Of course they are.”
“Perhaps that much is obvious. But, watching them, don’t you suspect that they are quite nefarious: dangerous creatures, — drunk estate managers ranging about with loaded pistols atop horses who suffer arthritis in their legs.”
“I never think that, no. They all seem quite harmless to me. Perhaps because I don’t care about their opinions. And because I have a private income from the estate of my dead childless uncle.”
“Well, don’t you think that they are, at least, damnable. Were you the prince of the underworld, wouldn’t you punish them with a thousand lashings?”
“What would be my justification?”
“They are guilty on two charges: sheer blindness, first, and, second, acting the child in adult affairs.”
“I can blame them for blindness. I can even make them blind! But in whose court could it possibly be damnable to act the child?”
“You see? This is why the boys at the end of the lane call you an arsehole.”
“Can’t you leave? I’m fine… I’m the best white man ever.”
“If you want to be the best white man ever, be more like your brother and buy a brownstone.”
“You know there’s no capital in my family any more.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. Anyway, you’ve wanted to buy yourself a brownstone for years … why do you look like that?”
“It’s just so silly.”
“What is? What’s silly?”
“All of it. Everything.”
“Sure it is. But it will all hurt less when you own a couple of brownstones. You could do them up a bit. Add some personal flourishes. All those damn flourishes that you have.”
“You know I don’t like you visiting me here.”
“And what a good friend I am for doing it anyway.”
“You shouldn’t come.”
“If I didn’t, you would only ever see Margaret. And that doesn’t count for much.”
“Yes, I’m going to be alone, with no friends, — I don’t know how: … any of it.”
“What a thing to say… Real smart. Look. Here’s a newly advertised four-storey on 53rd street. I know a guy in the group that owns it. They’re breaking up the group and he wants to buy a half-share. The rest is yours. Or ours. Whatever you like. You can let my lawyer do all the dirty: you don’t even have to visit. I’ll send you a picture or something. A selfie of me and the guy and the brownstone. All chummy.”
“I’ve already convinced Margaret.”
“You hate Margaret.”
“But I’m charming. And I don’t hate you.”
“No. And not if you don’t do what’s best for you and take a share.”
“Fine, you can send the signing pack to my office.”
“Good. Correct answer. And I’ll see you on Tuesday.”
“No — I’m flying to London tomorrow.”
“Well, — why do you ask?”
“I’m curious about your life. I’m showing an interest. I like you.”
“Yeah. Christ. I don’t know anything anymore.”
“Does anyone have friends these days?”
“What about me and Christian?”
“Unclear. I don’t often chance on you two together.”
“Right. I suppose you don’t.”
“Life can be so desperate. I fear I’ll soon be completely alone.”
“But you’re not alone.”
“Hm. Do you remember the old lady — ‘first female such and such’ from the 70s — who visited last week: with her patterned cravat and tucked in hair? And her bright turquoise suit: everything so done up and aloof and cold.”
“I remember her.”
“I’ll be her. The prospect is terrifying. She’s already here, in a way.”
“But you’re not alone.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Yes, this is perhaps why I am so skeptical of friendship. It seems that the need to chat is predicated on social insecurity: a fear of being alone. So people keep themselves around other people. But they also debase themselves a little, having conversations that they dislike and that strain them — only for the sake of company.”
“If you’re not socially insecure, what’s the harm in being alone?”
“No more harm than anything else. Which is to say: a great deal of harm.”
“Darling, I’m with you right now. I don’t feel alone.”
“No. You’re wonderful. You always will be.”
“And I enjoy talking with you so much.”
“Well, I’ll try to keep myself available. Just watch out for my cravats. — Oh, but I can’t stand cravats! I hate being alone.”
“You’re very friendly. Affectionate. You don’t seem to know that, somehow.”
“Maybe it will be a turquoise suit — but less the cravat. A generous opening at the neck, a small hanging pendant — something a little welcoming, less closed: more friendly.”
Life had not abandoned him. But he did his best to abandon life. ‘Oh,’ he thought. ‘Oh, dear.’ His life was not debauched. Quite plain. So it only made the gods giggle when he sat down to his wonky writing desk and used scrap paper to draft a few pathetic lines.
“Death note: well, you can’t blame me!”
“But don’t blame yourselves, either.”
A wasp entered through the window.
“Death note: it’s really nobody’s fault…”
The wasp left.
“I feel so sorry about everything, — I even pity you all. But never mind.”
The sky was darkening; more with clouds than with night. He stood. A pen fell to the floor. ‘This isn’t working,’ he thought. So when he walked into the gathering thunderstorm it seemed natural to retreat into a lobby and take the lift to a rooftop restaurant in one of those hotels that they are in London. A woman was singing cheap white jazz. So he sat listening to how she could only give her love. And how extraordinary her lover was. And how New York is just the best. The waiter brought him the wrong drink. The amplifier was unplugged. He sat up: three songs didn’t seem very many. The music gone, only chatter remained. It was hard to feel at ease. An LED tea light flickered its programmed flickering on the table. There was a plastic daffodil, too. And the woman at the next table appeared to be wearing a polyester cardigan.
“Aesthetics is everything!” he might have roared, once, — at a dinner party, — with some friends. Had he ever had friends? He did not think his friends were very friendly. They were busy. They rushed dinners to jump into cabs to go places. They patted, never held.
Outside, the storm was coagulated, hot. Blue fluorescents in takeaway shops cut together with wet tyre spray from passing cars. He found himself dripping onto the floor of a cab, watching yellow lamps drift through the sea outside.
“I can’t take cards.”
“Hmm?” he said.
“I only take cash.”
“Cash? Oh, yes, I am sorry — I’ll find an ATM. There’s one on this corner, I think.”
He read ‘card declined’ on the screen. It was difficult to know if it was the hotel bill that had done it. Or the rent-boy. Or the matinee that afternoon. It had been so nice to see Mark at the matinee. He never gets a private word with Mark, whose life is formed of public events and can bear no interruption. He had watched Mark dispatch emails before touching his prosecco at the interval. His other friends transmute constantly between ally and enemy — he can never discern if they hate him, secretly. But Mark is different. He only ever sees Mark at matinees and dinners and convivial business soirees: Mark is always the same. He finds this vaguely reassuring.
At the Wentworth hotel — a late-Victorian restoration — he booked a suite and called John. Besides John’s affiliation with the escort agency, he works small jobs as a caterer. But John is often free at short notice. Waiting for John, he lay on the floor. John knew that this meant he was to lie on top of him. Leg on leg. Hand on hand. He let the air rush out of his chest and sipped shallow breaths until his head began to swim and the floor was swelling and roiling under John’s body — arms, abdomen, thighs: all bursting with beating blood and floating steady on the roaring ocean: gentle anchoring weight. The carpet had a very short pile. It was white and smelled of cleaning products. As a boy, his clothes had always had this scent. Washing powder. Every shirt, pair of boxers, sock: all clean and perfect. It was was his mother who oversaw the cleaning. She employed a cleaner, a Kenyan lady, and grew very dependent on her (they were as compulsive as each other). His mother was devastated when, in Istanbul, she couldn’t settle on a new housekeeper. He had listened on the phone to how each new Turkish maid had dirtied the carpet, forgotten to vacuum, broken a vase — and his mother, harried by this parade of incompetent foreigners, had ultimately allowed the apartment to grow dishevelled and died there surrounded by relative filth. He had sold her apartment during his visit to repatriate the corpse. The housing market had been soft. After paying the mortgage and all the costs required to attend to an American’s death, he made a net loss and so derived no fiscal benefit from his mother’s passing. Nor did he derive any psychological relief: it was too late for that. He was already seeing John regularly. The week he returned from Istanbul, impoverished, John came every morning to press down on him. But today John’s weight did nothing to quiet the growing storm. The white carpet frothed and foamed: John gripped his shaking wrists and dug knees into his thighs and the storm buffeted. His ragged breathing mingled with the long deep pulls of John’s lungs — the sound of waves lapping at a calm shore that he knew was out of reach.
He could see the nose of the taxi waiting at the corner. The driver was not watching. He slipped into a restaurant and asked for a table at the back. They brought him a steamed trout with steamed broccoli in a separate bowl on the side: the usual fare. Mark disapproved of these spartan meals. But he had always ordered this meal at this place. Why stop? Why now? Seeing as his bank cards weren’t working, he pretended to receive a phone call and ran into the consuming rain; the rush and slip of the street; a true night.
The skin of life.
The rough and touch of it.
numb in safety
throw laughs to frigid winds
see each other naked:
no progress in
set it up: safe,
A quiet, local cafe. A triplet of Germans discussed their favourite alcoholic beverages, and their friend who had got the Epstein-Barr virus. Some French thirty-somethings smoked outside. It was small. There were books, board games, a chaise-lounge. I took to the chaise-lounge, reclined with my pad and pen, scribbled some physics, and sipped orange juice — they had shut up their espresso machine. Who would serve me coffee at this hour? “Ne personne!” In Paris, one can sip one’s coffees and do physics until the early hours. But Lyon stops caffeinating at 7pm, or so it seems. The cafe closed. They offered me a plastic cup for the orange juice.
The metro was closed. It had been so lovely to ride the metro after dinner on a work night: tired parents with hyperalert children, sleepy office-dwellers, bantering teenagers. I saw a waiting taxi, but the 20 euro in my pocket would barely be enough to pay for it. I decided to cycle home. But use of the city’s bicycles requires that your card have a balance greater than 150 euro: and mine did not.
So I started the walk. A beautiful, solemn walk beneath a full moon. Hard black waters. Neat rows of over-bright street lamps. Stately houses reclining in yellow on the other side of the river. ‘The authentic Australian Bar’ sat moored to the quay. And I followed the Rhone, flowing with it through this large, stately — French — public space. Close to home, I thought.
He was young and very obvious. He walked behind me — faster steps and still faster. I thought about running. Or stopping. Or crossing the road. But then he was there, gently holding my arm: the beginning of an evening’s courtship. Two women were walking ten meters ahead.
“Mesdames!” I said, half-hearted. “M’aider?”
“Non non,” he said.
And I acquiesced. He was right: the women weren’t going to stop. They knew what was going on — everyone did. We all agreed to proceed according to plan. The plan involved handing over my cellphone.
“Telephone, telephone,” he said.
I didn’t have one. So he sprayed me lightly on the face. It felt fresh and dry: I imagined him as a school bully spraying deodorant at me in the locker-room. I thought about the locker-rooms at Lincoln High School. How I had always felt so bad, so dirty in that place: the ceiling stippled with caked-on flakes of dried deodorant spray. Later, they built a new facility which was much nicer but had a minor flaw: one part of the changing benches could be seen from the outside corridor. It was here that Maia once spotted me changing.
“I saw Hadleigh in his underwear!”
I tried to find the attention flattering. But, instead, I was enervated by the labour of finding a response.
“Okay,” I had said.
Returning to the Lyon quay, to the Rhone, to Western Europe, seemed like a reprieve. My assailant had now pushed me to the ground — limestone chips. White dust hung in the air, on my palms. I couldn’t bring myself to feel scared. When he had first held my arm I was barely alert to the thing that was befalling me. After the first few sprays, I had looked at what he was holding with curiosity. So small and black. Then Maia and the deodorant stippling and now he’s tapping me on the left shoulder and saying ‘telephone!’
I could barely be bothered explaining that I don’t own a telephone. I felt a pang of derision: life is more sacred than all these little details — phones, muggings, attacks on Westminster bridge. When I was in the hospital in Trieste, a kind hearted Italian man with a bandaged nose, led me to the television room where he pointed at a news show and said ‘your country!’ Theresa May was decrying an ‘awful act of violence’, but, recalling my own memories of London, I felt more sympathy for the outsider — that confused, lonely person driving a truck — than I did for the leaders and institutions that helped to build a world where the rich man can live in a tower beneath whose feet lie millions. ‘Poor everyone,’ I thought.
The fact remains: I don’t have a cellphone. In my mumbled state — caught between reminiscences and being mugged — I couldn’t quite say the right thing.
“Je n’aime pas des telephones!”
He paused. It was a funny thing to say. I smiled.
“Ah, non…” I said. “Je dois direr que je n’ai pas un telephone.”
I said it badly, or else he didn’t believe me, because he started pushing me again and saying “telephone.”
“Regardez,” I replied.
So he rifled through my coat and my pockets and grabbed my document case: which contained a single memo pad. This seemed to cross a line. My wallet had contained only 20 euro. My bag, now, contained a worthless pad. I was a disappointment to him — rich looking on the outside, but worthless to the mugger. He had risked exposing himself for nothing: for 20 euro. So he pushed me back again, against some railings. (How good, I thought, that he can’t quite push me into the river from here.) He tried searching my coat again. And my pants. And grabbing my crotch. Then he stopped, with the air of a child made self-conscious, and pulled me to my feet.
He was agitated. I felt sorry for him. Especially because he was half a head shorter than me and so youthful looking. He had a tracksuit on. It was adidas, perhaps. Noticing how neatly he was dressed, I thought ‘he’s so organised.’ I felt guilty for thinking this. ‘Why can’t I be afraid of him? Or angry?’
There was a pause.
“Umm..” he said, stepping back.
He pulled my glasses forward and, his elbow crooked in a funny way, doused my eyes with pepper spray — pushing me as he ran off. This is when it began to hurt. And, suddenly alone, this is when I first felt vulnerable.
I thought of you in hospital when I saw your dying image hanging on the wall. But now I wonder if it wasn’t quite rude of you to remind me of death as I, myself, lay in pain.
I was quite alone when I found myself sitting on a quay, having been discharged an hour earlier. There were fish at my feet. Teeming bodies. They glinted silver when they plucked the surface. But below they lined up together as black hairs: combed straight. When the current turned, so did these fish. Wiggling and aligning and thick and black. Everywhere teeming. I looked at them and at the algae: so much infected muck — aqua- brown sludge, diseased.
Above the waters is a pot plot: and here, too, life teems. The pot plant drowns among tiny unthinking midgets, floating in the air as the fish do below. They all gather together, and move together, and breed: the flies and the fish. Here comes a car. Clinking boats and their moorings. Leaked boating fuel. Belched diesel fumes. The sun is lower. And the clinking moorings grow unsettled, rise in pitch, as the wind stirs them and a baby cries. My head splits open. White sears; steel stabs my face! I stand (careful!), — walk to the restaurant. Feel the tablecloth linen! Run it under your clammy fingers and tell yourself that you’re not dying. That you’re not dead. Drink wine again — do you remember it? — and call all of this life familiar. Hear the chirping birds! See the evening strollers walk by, and pretend that all this is familiar. Convince yourself to be alive! Eat your damn mussels. Drink wine. And hear the chirping birds. So many birds: teeming birds — they are like big flies.
From the hospital ward I could see highways on highways. In the morning, a convoy of identical trucks rolled along an overpass. Every surrounding hill face was covered by a plastering of blockish buildings. White, off-white, pale yellow. Leached air conditioner fluid. Rusty drain pipe. The clatter of an IV walker. Heart beat beeps. Velcro straps: blood pressure cuffs. When did the people become the fish? — the evening strollers now teem and gulp: groupers in a fountain, their mouths open, their phones lifted. When did they become so unbearable? I can barely look. The crucifix had hung above the hospital bed. Dying Jesus: watching over the highways and yellow apartment blocks. “Garish,” you would have pronounced. (Were you not the one who turned the money changers out of the temple?)
The sun is redder, further away. The baby is silent. An electric drill drills a hole. The lamp begins to buzz as the sun drips down: the young waiter assumes his melancholy air. Beans grind. Steam hisses. Air stirs the back of my head. (There is a train.) “Where can I go?” I say; gaze at the spot on the horizon where the sun had been. No cataclysm comes at the curt moment when the last drop disappears. Everything is the same.
There are starlings above me as the light dims: murmurating and turning and turning together. Everywhere life teems insubstantial: each individual is made so small beneath the crush of the moaning ensemble of billions. The drill whirrs. The boat masts turn black: swaying against the dark blue: their tips straining up to the dying sky: they are bacterial flagella, searching: the earth is a bed of coruscating, wriggling bio-rot — blossoming each morning to belch and fart in worship of the returning sun.
The excesses and diseases of the soul manifest in and are reinforced by the excesses and diseases of the body. So said Proust. So may have said Dostoyevsky. And when I lay there rolling my head, the pain delocalised, I saw around me the excesses and diseases of people.
The ED admissions room was filled, hot, breathing. A man near my feet banged his foot rhythmically against the metal of his hospital bed: a sound made all the more pathetic for his inability to find any rhythm in his stupid, anti-social pursuit. A middle-aged man was hacking to my left. My left eye was closed over, so I only saw him whenever my see-sawing head — seeking an escape from the bath of hot-pain — strained towards him. The treble was filled out with the steady, high-pitched wheezing of an old woman on my right. She had the unfortunate condition of having only developed one mode of communicating her displeasure to the nurses: whenever they did something, she yelled at them.
In the corridor outside admissions, patients were lined up waiting against the wall: stacked. One young boy had a robot toy which played robot sounds — that I could still hear as I lay in a small side room and watched a nurse insert an IV line.
All the nurses had, before my eyes, donned gloves to attend to me. But now, I watched as they removed their phones and ran their gloved fingers all over those grimy screens. I reflected on what a revolution it had been when handwashing was introduced into hospital routine.
In the ambulance, the men helping me on my way all had large dark patches beneath their eyes. They coughed and hacked and sniffed: making the ambulance sound more like a school bus than anything medical or hygienic. I wondered if their contracts allowed them much sick leave.
I took many drugs, and things started to get better. I lay there, in my ward, listening as the three men at the other beds chattered on their phones, watched DVDs, streamed television — a torrent of in-your-face noise pollution. My only respite was that it was all Italian.
I drifted away from the advertisements, the movie climaxes, and thought admiringly of how my body had looked after me in my room when I had been alone. My strong, 22 year old body: getting me out of bed, washing me, trying to feed me, trying to give me drugs, trying to help me sleep.
But there, too, I recalled opening my window for the restorative cool air of the outside, only to find my head hurting from the cascade of noise: the jabbering of voices, the crash of rubbish, the passing bus-train-car. In the end, I closed my door — raising myself carefully from the bed, my head splitting, my feet swaying — filled with hatred. Why should I get myself better, when everything is deeply and terrifyingly ill?
“How will I get back?”
“Um. I don’t know. Another ambulance will come. Probably me.”
“So I will wait for you here?”
I had been driven to this hospital for an eye exam by a garrulous and energetic paramedic. She had studied biomedicine as a postdoc in the UK.
“I was last in Oxford eight years ago,” she said.
She had liked the pubs.
“A good place to discuss research casually, outside of the labs.”
My eye was quickly checked: “it is probably fine.” They wheeled me into a hot, noisy corridor — my paramedic friend long gone.
I lolled my head against the back of my wheelchair feeling so awful and not knowing why. My body was big and mushy and unknowable. I seemed alone in this corridor lined with chattering Italians. Was I too hot? Was my glucose too low?
An hour passed. I half-slept. People grew concerned about my state and drew me into side rooms and held my head and patted my shoulders. Until the bubbly paramedic was back.
In the ambulance I eventually realised what I needed: my bladder was full to bursting. So when we arrived at the next hospital I explained that I needed the toilet.
“We will go first to the office. It’s very important.”
They were worried about how I would pay for my stay in the hospital. This was more important than the toilet. And who am I to say otherwise?
It was in these circumstances that I signed a piece of paper to affirm my personal liability for all fees that I was incurring: my bladder bursting, my head bursting, — my whole body ready to condemn its audience of bureaucrats and half-lives with a shower of exploding organ pieces.
I gave them what they wanted. Vague relief descended. My wheelchair was moving again — the world was moving again.
“Can I use the phone,” I asked.
I wanted to call someone (Mary?) who would assure me that everything would be okay.
“No, she says they cannot do international calls,” the paramedic translated.
“Will I be able to use the internet in the ward?”
“How should I know? I’ve never been a patient in a hospital,” said the paramedic.
She announced this as a mark of pride. Good for her. Never being sick. Never needing anyone. Going to pubs. Going to work. No problems. No worries. Congratulations.
The conversation was over. I was the powerless one. And I had submitted.
“Ciao,” I said to the office people.
When returned to the ward I was enraged.
‘I despise all of these people for wasting their lives, destroying my dignity — we burning little petals on the head of this overproliferating pot plant, this hell.’
For the first time in four days I tried to eat food. It was a tough proposition — pasta, and gravy-smothered meats. But I was determined.
‘I must get my strength. I hate being sick. Life is revolting.’
I ate as well as I could. Forcing the mechanics of my throat and mouth. When I lay back, my whole body throbbed, my face was hot and sweaty. My heart was everywhere, and the bed itself seemed to shake and pitch with the sloshing hot blood.
‘I will be strong. I will overcome everything.’
And I was so weak.
‘It’s very German, isn’t it?’
‘Everything: the lights, for instance.’
‘Ah, yes. Very white.’
‘Exactly. Thoroughly German. And the roads and trams.’
‘The trees, too, no doubt.’
‘Of course the trees. And the snow pooling under the white lights of the street lamps and filling in the gaps between the crisp straight lines of the railway tracks and the power lines and the curbs.’
‘But where does all of this get them?’
‘Peoples and cultures don’t go places. They don’t achieve things. They act, they breed, and then they die — only remembered by their progeny.’
‘Once a culture dies — it doesn’t take long — only the people who descend from that culture will record that it existed. When they do this, they will distort it: just as children cannot see their parents as their parents are.’
‘Orphans have no parents at all.’
‘Quite true. I doubt these harried lives — running along straightlinetracks to straightlinesupermarkets — recognise in themselves the vestiges of our past.’
‘They just see the lines.’
‘We all see the lines.’
Before his death, Lord Rayleigh decided that, though he was older than he had once been, he was presently in the very flower of his youth and he began to take an unctuous pleasure in every sensation: every touch and smell a revivifying assurance of his vitality. Hunger was a delight which spread across his broad lean abdomen and entranced his mind in exquisite fantasies about the food he might take to resolve it: food which he would eat slowly and in moderation — following certain principles of exclusion and inclusion as if they were written in Leviticus — with the precision of an English actor who believes that Shakespeare must be performed in a certain way (and this delusion of the actor is of the same kind as Lord Rayleigh’s deluded posture towards his appetite). When, after eating, it came time for the diarrhoea, what happiness he felt! The wetness was experienced in tandem with the dry warmth of the wool around his shoulders. The controlled urgency of the motions seemed to be essential evidence of his ongoing life: in the same way that one reassures oneself that one’s city is fine by checking that the trains are running, even though the city may have been invaded by foreign powers in the night and is now under occupation. As Lord Rayleigh sat in the damp aftermath, enjoying the air on his forehead after wiping away the sweat with a white towelette, he revelled in the hollow feeling below his diaphragm and swayed from side to side as small boats do when they come to a sudden stop and get caught up in their own wake. It was in this lightheaded state that he saw his reflection in the mirror and reached out with his eyes to caress his fuzzy black-white-pink complexion, feeling that he was looking on at a peach bursting with youth and about ready to be plucked from the tree. And it was thus in recollections of his father’s peach tree that Lord Rayleigh’s wake overtook him, crested his bow, and caused the fatal sinking that was reported the following morning as “a great loss.”
Crows are black.
They carry away the souls of all who lie in the cemeteries.
They have split personalities — souls battle inside — and their insomniac eyes are half closed.
Sometimes they hit one of the cyprus trees that grow up from the cemeteries.
Their black bodies fall onto the state highways that the American, Marshall, built around.
Death by a cemetery — “there’s nothing sadder than that,” says the traffic cop.
(credit: Slobodan Dan Paich)
“this one [points at lock] … there [points through the window] … no no no [throws hands in air and frowns]”
Mehmet understands. Together, they walk for an hour in the snow, until it is clear that all local locksmiths are closed.
So Mehmet calls a locksmith. And the foreigner walks into the snowy snow, with wet feet, to buy candles and an envelope.
The shop doesn’t have envelopes. And the shop next door doesn’t have candles. But they do have lightbulbs. They’re white.
There was more snow after that, making the paths icy. When he fell over, he laughed. But nobody else did. It was the ice that did it.
This is why he searched desperately for signs of human compassion as he scanned the street. There was nobody on the street.
“Hello!” he said to the locksmith. ‘I am so grateful to you for driving through all this snow to save a wretched child like me.’
Who knows what the locksmith was thinking. We only know what the foreigner was thinking. It was quite desperate.
Then he watched the snowflakes and he was unable even to have thoughts. That is what it means to be cold.
‘Kendine iyi bak’ [ken-dee-ney ee-yee bahk] is an imperative phrase meaning ‘take care of yourself’.
It is also the name of a popular song with lyrics
Take care of yourself, don’t think of me
What will be will be
Take care of yourself, don’t think of me
What will be will be
Can this bitch world
Make us enemies?
Can friendships end out of the blue?
Looking for you
Is just like fighting siblings
Does it go on like that forever ?
Take care of yourself, don’t think of me
What will be will be
Take care of yourself, don’t think of me
What will be will be
The storm inside me,
Could it end with the help of death?
Can feuds end without blood?
Looking for you
Is just like a screaming bullet
(credit: Slobodan Dan Paich)
There was a fly. Evolution, or its parents, or god, had equipped it with a neural system that commanded it to turn 30 degrees upon approaching an object. One imagines a despairing father bearing down on her as a baby fly when she neared a fence post.
“Dad! I don’t know what to do!”
“Think it through: land or turn?”
“I don’t know!”
“Use your eyes! Land or turn?!”
“Yes! 30 degrees! Turn!”
Father and daughter skipping over the fields, landing on cow pats, and turning away from the fence posts. But this education in strategy, transmitted to the fly I met in the bathroom, was not a success when pitted against four closed walls.
I’ve lived 180,000 hours so far. One of these was spent in the company of this fly: whose life will bless her with perhaps 600 hours. And during that hour she did nothing but repeat the same maneouvers. Ten times I watched her investigate the A-frame interior of a ‘caution: wet’ cleaning sign. She bounced off the yellow plastic, making her 30 degree deflections, only to come up against a wall and turn around — finding nothing. She worked her way around the four walls at shoe height, and again at eye height. Then she moved higher still: only to deflect from the ceiling and start again from the floor. She returned, time and again, to the draft beneath the door and to the window behind the toilet. Often, in her ambles between draft and window she would get distracted by the cleaning sign — giving another cursory investigation, just in case she missed anything the last ten times. Were I to be watched for a fortnight by some divine angel who had lived for, say, 54 million hours, I would look much the same to him as this fly appeared to me. The angel might laugh at how I complacently retraced my steps. He would see me think the same thoughts, sing the same songs, make the same mistakes. And he might pity me for how I had dispensed with the uneventful fortnight he had observed. He might wonder if my endless repetitions, my endless failures, were not tragic and upsetting. I found it upsetting to watch the fly. There is nothing more to what we are than patterns: drawn in space and time. The very essence of life is repetition.
I left the bathroom feeling wretched. My body unsettled and disturbed. A copy of Scientific American lay open at a page on which was printed a tawdry 500 word interview about the future of our species. A geologist wrote it. He proposed sapiocene as a name to be given to a new era of life on earth, characterised, he said, by life that is self-aware. He pointed out, aptly, the dramatic change in the history of the earth wrought by the population explosion of cyanobacteria two billion years ago. Their swollen population churned out enormous quantities of oxygen gas that would come to make possible all the subsequent developments to which we owe our existence. The geologist ended his little squib on a note of optimism: “perhaps the sapiocene will be the best eon yet!” This is not where my differences with him begin. I take issue with his notion that life on earth is at all self aware. There are over seven billion people. Each, taken individually, could be judged, under not too exacting a criterion, as ‘self aware’. But there is nothing self aware about our species, when taken as the coagulated mass of individuals that we are. Our species has no awareness of its behaviour. No one unit of seven billion can be expected to truly appreciate the global dynamics of which it is but a tiny mote. The ancestors of the cyanobacteria may have once congregated in a small line of settlements dotted along some tectonic boundary in the ocean floor. Two billion years later, having struck on a particularly fruitful mutation, their progeny managed to quickly spread throughout the oceans and pump their oxygen into their air. In like fashion, our ancestors were once tiny in number, only a few tens of thousands. Eighty thousand years later, members of our species are to be found on all our continents, on all our oceans, and in our skies. Where are the cyanobacteria now? We are the conquerors.
I feel compelled to take my point still further. Not only are individuals incapable of being aware of their species as a whole, the very circumstances which make possible our unregulated multiplication require that the individuals are kept in a state of non-awareness. Our system of resource consumption and management has emerged precisely by altering the status of individuals and, through vast and vulgar mechanisms, ensuring that they remain individually mindless and largely obedient (if not to their governments, at least to capitalism). The corporatisation, just as much as the television and food, of the late 20th century should be understood as yet another mutation in the chain that lead to our domination. The castration of the individual should be seen as the necessary switch required to make possible our senseless overpopulation. And the resulting boom in our population should be understood as part of the inevitable catastrophe entailed by our evolutionary success. We are not aware of this. Some people in some offices might say that they know what is going on because they write about it. But the existence of these people does not ensure that the course of life on this planet is any more self aware than it was during the proterozoic. Everything I see suggests the opposite.
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts. In the face of corporate academia, disgruntled graduates have been reduced to levelling a criticism which amounts to saying that they are being treated unfairly as workers in a competitive labour market.
Protest is voiced mostly by those in adjunct professorships and other short-term positions. They offer a correct but uncompelling critique of how they are being treated.
“It’s a rather bad deal,” said one graduate.
Few comment on how the production mindset of academia is detrimental apart from its consequences vis-a-vis themselves.
A man explained that this “self-interested tone is because the majority of recent graduates are millennials.”
“They are overentitled narcissists,” he said.
Not all millennials emphasize their own plight.
“Whether you are a tenured professor or an adjunct, you are working within a metric of productivity that all but guarantees you are wasting your life and whatever meagre talent you may once have thought you possessed,” said one millennial.
This critique is seldom heard by research planning committees — lest anyone suggest that academics are not doing good work, that there is no such thing as academic productivity, or that creativity is not incentivisable.
It is the opinion of this newspaper that the dream of academia in the minds of hopeful adjuncts is not tragic because of their exclusion from the academy: it is tragic because the academia they dream of does not exist.
“Apparently, these are just the facts of living in the real world,” said one person who did not appear to be suffering any heartache at the time.
I saw them from behind. Each carrying a black attache case. The right one had his attache case in his left hand. The left one in his right. A pair of devout souls divided by attache cases; two holy people in the most unholy of places.
They were two orthodox Jewish boys walking through a shopping centre. A garish, dimly lit shopping centre with dirty white walls. The architect had made no effort to cover up the fact that the owners were money-stooges: willing to sacrifice pleasantness for economy. All was bare and industrial and efficient. Shops cowered in the corners selling astonishingly cheap clothes — prices procured from the money-god by sacrificing the rights of foreign children. I was in a shopping centre like any other. A temple of mass consumption. And there they were, walking side by side.
I watched their black hats bob along as they turned their heads. Glancing at everything, but never interrupting their voluble conservation. Did they perceive, as they looked, the extent of secular degeneration? The soullessness of our time? The sadness? Perhaps not. Perhaps they saw only a shopping centre: they had seen it before. They will see others. After all, they are in this world, even while they cherish the idea of being apart from it.
But no one is apart from the world. I am not apart from the world. And I hated the shopping centre. I felt defiled by it, saddened. I envied the Jewish boys: because they have an exit. Like me, they can frown and sigh at this world. But they have the reassurance of feeling separate from it all. They have communities and ideas to which they can readily escape. Will they not soon return to their families and synagogues? To their days of rest and their challah eating? They will have candles and bread and automatically timed light switches. And there will be not an H&M in sight. I was jealous.
Later, I saw a nun. Walking slowly and rigid and bent to the left. She was alone. No one at the convent had offered to accompany her. Or perhaps she had turned down several offers: preferring to walk by herself. She shuffled amongst the hoards of people; she felt the heat of the midday; she heard the cries of children deprived of toys; she coughed in the dust stirred up by construction workers. I wondered if she felt separate from the world.
If I were this nun, I would be compelled to feel a modicum of superiority. I would look at the buzzing crowd and judge myself ever so slightly above them. I would be bustled by people with eyes stuck to window displays and cellphones: ready always to launch themselves towards whatever distraction suggests itself. I would gaze on, in my nun’s habit, and think, but never admit, that I know better than them. And that I, therefore, am superior.
But the nun herself didn’t think this. She wandered down the large Parisian boulevard just as she had done before. She had walked busy footpaths many times. She will walk others. After all, she too is in this world. She must buy socks and soap and medicine. And so there she was. There was nothing special about that particular outing during that sunny hour on that wide boulevard.
Glistening shops were everywhere to be seen. Glass-steel buildings rose above our heads. Inside these one can find still more rows of shops: layers upon layers of shops containing shoppers. Neither the nun nor myself went inside. We stuck to the boulevard. Picking around road works and jumping out of the way of a fast walking woman who, having just exited one shop, was in a fantastic hurry to get into another one.
The nun and that fast walking shopper-woman. What’s there between them? Are they so different? I suspect that there is little to commend either’s life. Both the nun and the fast-walker will have their happinesses and sorrows. The nun will carefully stoke her life-long fetish for Jesus. The fast-walker will forever itch her impulse to buy things. Viewed from this vantage, both the nun and the fast-walker have similarly unenviable lives.
It could be said of the nun that her life is better since it is more resource efficient. An environmentalist might commend the nun for her frugality while denouncing the fast-walker. But I feel unable to condemn the fast-walker for her excess. Yes, she probably buys clothes that she doesn’t wear very often. But she and her peers are responsible for sustaining the consumer-driven markets that have created the enormous material abundance of developed nations. I depend on this abundance. It is relatively easy for most people to obtain food and water and clothing. These were not always so easily procured by so many. All this development has created human tragedies on a harrowing scale. But the achievement of the consumer-driven markets cannot go unmarked.
However, consumer-driven economies cannot go on as they have been. It will become increasingly difficult to sustain this way of life. Change will come. How will people respond?
Jehovah’s witnesses visit in pairs. One rings the doorbell; the other stands back holding a bag full of pamphlets and smiles lugubriously. The doorbell-ringer launches into an animated explanation about how he or she is looking forward to the coming of an age of peace: in which the world is restored to a state of splendour. The trees will be magnolious and burdened with fruit. The rivers will run clear. The children will play nice games and not swear at each other. They ask me, don’t you want this too?
I send them away. And they walk, side by side, on to the next house, and to the next rejection. Here, my imagination fails me somewhat. I can almost peep inside the minds of young hasidic yeshiva students, or of nuns, or of busy shoppers. But what could possibly be inside the minds of these fervent Jehovah’s witnesses while they unsuccessfully proselytise?
I know this much: they feel separate from the world. Just like conservative Christians or Hasidic Jews or the wives of Daesh fighters. And, like these, they anticipate an apocalypse. They salivate at the thought of the end of the world: the coming of a messiah; the burning of the earth; a cleansing fire from heaven (or, perhaps, their own rocket launchers). And I wonder whether, in coming decades, they will only redouble their fervour as they watch the secular world struggle to protect its swollen populations from plagues and droughts.
As much as I wretch at consumer culture — and pine to leave — I refuse to renounce my citizenship. I am just as much a member of this society as the fast-walking women. As the children who cry for toys. As the pedestrians whose faces are glued to cellphones. And we will all, together, bear the weight of the coming decades. If it means the demise of consumer-dominated economies, I will be there to bemoan the consequences alongside everyone else.
And I will be there to watch those who think that our pain and our suffering is prophecy of an impending divine massacre. I will watch those who wish for fire and death. I will watch as they walk: their two feet on the same ground as my two feet; their minds ensnared in myth.