[Original image by Aftab Uzzaman]
[A variation and continuation of ‘Before I went to bed’ and another piece, The Archivist]
Appearances were no longer of concern to me. Instead I’d decided I was taking a break from the world; from the parade self-indulgence that had suddenly become so glaringly obvious, yet to which I wished to return with every atom in my body. But it was too late: that boat had sailed, with a broken compass, an incomplete map and a blinkered captain.
In this state it’s hard to find things to occupy time. Just about every activity seems pointless – is pointless, really – aside from those given purpose through abstract human traits: love, duty, survival. When I wasn’t putting out breakfast for the children and taking them to school, I found myself at a loss. The only thing that appeared to displace this emptiness was to walk: to just move from one place to the next and fill time – fill space, I guess – with indirect activity. I could fill whole days with walking, such was my reverie: the key was to live outside of things, and avoid purpose, or purpose as I would previously have conceived it. Yet the human spirit, and the human propensity for thinking, cannot be dissuaded so easily.
On one such day of thinking – wandering aimlessly through the town, barely dressed up for the outside world and outside-people – I passed by a quaint café with wooden, Parisian-style bistro chairs and tables outside, bordered by miniature conifers and colourful, potted plants. As pretty as it was, it was entirely out of sorts with the surrounding area. A young man entered as I passed and seemed to freeze in the doorway, stuck in thought, or simply stuck – I couldn’t tell. For a moment, I recognised the same physical manifestation of being (momentarily) at odds with the world and its visard. I wondered how I hadn’t noticed it before, or how people don’t notice it more generally: that moment when someone disconnects, and in so doing steps out from the background landscape of life as if to ask: Wait…what? What’s all this? A moment later, the young man continued his journey inwards, though with discernible trepidation. He’d seen something, stepped out of reality in shock…and stepped back in, now changed, now different. The difference is, I hadn’t yet stepped back into reality; I was content merely dwelling in this ‘outside’ place looking in at everything and asking: Wait…what? What is all this?
A little while later I started to retrace my aimless wandering to my house and, passing an empty bus stop with a driver just pulling away, was nearly knocked clean over by a lady sprinting to catch the bus. She was late, clearly. Not merely for the bus. Something bigger, apparently. A ‘meeting’ or something equally prosaic and pointless. But, as she turned back towards the pavement (she was standing in the layby at this point, staring after the bus) I recognised the same disconnect. However this was less of a fleeting moment – less unexpected, as if her connection to the world had been fraying and straining all day, and was at snapping point. Our eyes met – and they met in the ‘outside’ space. No flailing curtain of reality between us: just the naked ‘stuff’ of the world, reflecting photons and various waves of this and that. I cursed myself for presuming she had been just another unwitting apologist for the world, and was merely late for a meeting of little material consequence. I thought: Here is someone who has experienced the disconnect. I thought: Here is someone seeing things plainly, as they are, and is wanting to understand. I thought: I should buy her a coffee.
After a slight reassessment of the situation – through our initial exchanges – I upgraded coffee to wine. We homed in on the nearest pub, a tired and sombre looking place with charcoal black facade and faded frosting on its windows.
I’d recently reflected that this outside place is quiet, but only due to there being only myself for company. Now that there was two of us, I noticed how truly quiet it was – alone or otherwise. We sat in silence, neither of us touching the two glasses of wine between us; two marathon runners poised at the start line, waiting for the gunshot. Or perhaps this implies too much willingness on our part – an inapt metaphor. Clearly she was unfamiliar with this place – the outside – and I would need to reassure her, introduce her to its ways. I took a sip from my wine. She watched the glass closely, from table to mouth and back again.
‘You can drink it, you know. It’s not poison.’ She looked briefly into my eyes, and then away just as quickly, toward the frosted window and onto the street. ‘I’m sorry, that was a little flippant,’ I offered, trying to test the water and her temperament. She shook her head lightly as if to reassure me, and then reached for the glass to take a courtesy sip.
She folded her hands together, and rested them in the lap of her pleated skirt. I took a moment to observe her: hair pulled back into a short pony tail, with a strand of auburn hair falling down the side of her face, and around a high cheekbone; skin with a light frosting of freckles… There was a thin ring of red around her eyelids that might escape a brief glance but that suggested she was either tired or had recently been crying; perhaps both. She wore a white shirt, sleeves rolled up to just below the elbow, and an intricate silver chain around her next, with presumably a pendant of some sort disappearing undere the shirt. She had a slight imprint in her left cheek, evidence of a dimple that might only be revealed when she smiles.
‘I lost my job recently. Well, in a manner of speaking.’ I took another sip of wine, and she followed suit – less of a courtesy this time. ‘It’s odd, never taking a moment and having absolute conviction and motivation for what you’re doing – then suddenly stopping.’ Across the bar, a piece of the furniture empties his pint and orders the next in one swift motion of hand and head. The waitress obliges with equal efficiency, pint tankard under the tap in rhythmic and choreographed time. The image of Solomon’s Knot flashes into my imagination. ‘I wonder how long he has been outside of things,’ I say, taking another handsome gulp, ‘If that performance was anything to go by, I’d hazard quite some time.’
She shuffles in her chair and revisits the glass, instinctively brushing the loose strange of hair around her ear while replacing the glass on the table. At this point I’m thinking that there might well be a correlation between how much I talk – offer of myself, my situation – the glass of wine’s increasing half-emptiness, and the likelihood she will open up to me. Outside the pub, the world passes by at a different speed.
‘I work – worked – in a museum. Collections and curation. Building experiences of history for the benefit of people today. Educating them in our collective history. Learn from our mistakes. Cherishing our culture and values, that sort of thing…Jesus, I sound like a pamphlet.’ A sparkle of interest; an almost imperceptible flick of her eyes and her head. We’re about halfway through our glasses now, so I take another sip and move beyond the midpoint. ‘Anyway, that’s what I did, and that’s what I enjoy; it had purpose. I had purpose.’
‘Why did they fire you?’ She spoke. It caught me off guard, if I’m honest. I jumped a little.
‘They didn’t. they offered me a new job,’ I clarified.
‘What’s the issue then? Why don’t you just take the new job?’ I couldn’t help but smile at this – though I wish I hadn’t: she bristled and flushed with embarrassment, presumably thinking she’d said something wrong or, worse, stupid. She took another drink, longer this time, and pushed past the midpoint too.
‘Why do you think I found purpose in my job?’
‘I don’t know – you like to teach people about the past?’
‘Yes, but why?’ She sank back into her chair, glass in hand, and looked into the dark of the other end of the pub. I explained how, sidewinded as I went through the routine of my usual day, I was summed by the mythical archivist Simmonds. In a darkened but clinically clean box-room, with little more than a desk, elaborate computer system covering one wall, waste paper basket and basic inbox tray, Simmonds introduced me to his project: for many years Simmonds was known but never seen around the museum; he had been working on a project of some significance – the money trail would tell you that much – but with no other identifier other than it was an archive that would take many years, perhaps the last of his working ones, to complete.
Simmonds asked me what I thought of the end of the world. I regret the involuntary laughter that burst through my body at this question, but it did seem a little far fetched. Simmonds continued: ‘Do you have children, Carruthers?’ I do. Two: a little boy and a teenage girl. ‘And, when you are gone, what is it you want for them?’ What every parent wants, of course: that they are well rounded, moral, compassionate and curious individuals, with good friends and family around them and all the tools that they would need to pursue whatever they might wish to pursue. So far, so obvious. ‘And, when you are going, what is it you would want for yourself?’ I confess, I didn’t understand the question. He elaborated: ‘I presume you wish to be remembered, by your children at the very least, and perhaps even in wider circles – such is the popular obsession these days – but in what way, and why?’ I surmised he was carefully prodding around the idea of ‘legacy’, and answered as such: ‘I do not have any desires to be remembered in any way that resembles reverence; merely that I am remembered as having lived with a certain conviction that they might look to it for guidance in hard times. And that they are aware of what I – we – did for them, so that when the time comes they will do the same for their children.
Simmonds fell quiet – a purposeful silence, I’m sure, to let my own statements sink in before he dealt his punchline. I did the same. She held my gaze, but I couldn’t tell if this was out of politeness or genuine interest.
‘Now remove your children from this equation,’ Simmonds had continued, ‘what do you think, now, of your life’s work – of your ‘legacy’?’ Just beyond the glow of the desk lamp, eyes glistening in the reflected light of the desk’s shiny metallic surface, Simmonds sank further into his chair, a quizzical grin bleeding across his face as he eyed up his prey entering the trap of his making.
‘Well…who or what would any of this be for?’
‘That is the correct question.’ An awkwardly long silence, his grin transforming to into something menacing without so much as a twitch of adjustment.
‘And you have the opportunity to not simply provide a legacy for your children, or even yourself, but for the entire human race. What do you make of that?’
‘I think it’s absurd,’
‘And yet entirely pertinent: after all, the world is coming to an end, just as every life must, and what use will it have served if it eschews a legacy altogether?’
‘That isn’t for me – for either of us – to say: we don’t represent the human race,’
‘I… I don’t know.’ I was stumped. He was revelling. My life flashed before my eyes – much slower than you might be led to believe in most stories; a rolling and lumbering impression, more than a flash – and I couldn’t catch my bearings. I was stepping one foot into the ‘outside’.
‘Carruthers, I brought you here to offer you a new job. In fact, it is the only job that you could do, and probably the only job worthy of the title ‘job’ in any case: everything else is nought. You understand that the museum will shortly suspend all activity relating to the enrichment and education of humans, and divert all of its resources to creating the only exhibition left to be of any value, don’t you?’
‘But…’ I couldn’t quite compute this. It is like being told 2 x 2 isn’t 4, and the answer isn’t even a number. Except on a grander, existential scale.
‘You need time to think.’ With this, I was ushered, shell shocked, out of the tiny room and back into the stark light of day, which suddenly seemed naked, inhuman and irreconcilable with everything it illuminated. It was a stranger to the world it gave life. As I stepped onto the pavement, my other foot followed, to join the other in the ‘outside place’.
‘Is the world coming to an end?’ She brought me out of my barely concealed reverie – her glass was now empty.
‘I don’t know,’
‘Then what will you do?’
‘That’s the correct question.’