At 9.48am on a mildly warm and breezy late spring morning in Bath, a young man is tidying chairs and tables away in a large marquee, the evidence of the previous evening’s nuptials strewn haphazardly over the muslin carpet.
His languid and arrhythmic movements betray signs of the night’s events, yet with the lingering impression of an accepting, almost satisfied, smile.
Prior Park College towers above the marquee with its neoclassical Bath-stone columns and baroque steps above grass banks rolling away into the valley. On the other side of the valley, steep streets lined with neatly packed, slate-roofed houses rise up from the town centre.
The man works back and forth between the tables and the marquee’s central column, against which he leans the collapsed furniture. The morning sun cuts intermittently through tufts of fluffy cloud, bringing to life the green of the landscape, and then subduing it in turn. The man casts a glance over the valley and reflects on how beautiful the wedding was and how lucky they had been with the weather. The newlyweds would arrive soon, at which point he could make his farewell, thank them for involving him in their big day, and return home. An eagle soars silently over the valley below as it scours for prey. The man is looking forward to returning to his quiet house – his quiet life – after a loud few days, to which he is not naturally given: all that marshalling of people, marshalling of agendas and the pressures of perfection in the greatest day of their lives….Nevertheless, he is content in his labours, and thankful to have been here.
In his back and forth, the man ponders his situation – a finite being, a speck in time and space – and, far from being bewildered by his infinitesimal existence, he marvels at the magnificence of it all; at how lucky he is to have opportunity for a brief cameo on this vast stage.
Then the man hears a groan; a straining sound that abruptly erupts into a sharp silence, then a crack, and all is still. He cranes his neck and looks to the inner roof in time to see the structure collapsing towards him, an implosion of white cloth like a sharp intake of breath.
Daniela finds herself shoehorned into a tube train, amid the hordes of Marathon runners and supporters. It is close to one of the worst times of the year one could choose to travel into central London and Daniela, having made a specific and concerted effort to take this trip today, is wondering how she managed to drop this marathon-sized diary clanger, and how other people seem to so effortlessly make, and execute, successful plans.
The general disorder of ostensibly ordered plans has always been the reality behind Daniela’s bargain with the universe: that she will play the game of life and follow each of the steps she is obliged to take. In reality Daniela has always wished to live as though she were an atom, a photon, a quark, floating through the vastness of space, just watching. Taking it all in. Witnessing the burning entropy as energy lived and died through various phases, but never disappearing. She has always had trouble reconciling herself with the world, hence preferring to observe it, rather than interact with it. For instance: ever since she was a girl, each morning she would painstakingly arrange her hair with a neat side parting, just how she wanted to look: ‘just so’. However, the unsettling duality of this ritual became apparent in time, and eventually wouldn’t escape her daily notice: the Daniela staring back appeared to have a parting on her right side, and to Daniela’s left: in reality, the parting lay on her left side and to the observer’s right. This is the opposite to how she wished to appear, yet all the while she was doing her hair each morning she had the contradictory impression of looking at how she wished to appear while simultaneously constructing the opposite look to the outside world.
When she finally manages to extricate herself from the sweaty embrace of the tube network, Daniela emerges onto the teeming streets of South Kensington, brilliant white buildings reflecting the morning rays of sun. Daniela follows the curving road away from the station, past the cafes and bistros, until the Romanesque facade of the Natural History Museum announces itself, it’s terracotta tiles and brickwork in stark contrast to the surrounding Georgian Stucco. Approaching the museum, she reflects that she has no idea what she might see, or even what she might be interested in; she only knows that just twelve hours ago she had decided, rather randomly, to make this journey.
Last night, Daniela spent her first night alone in a newly acquired studio flat. Until now she had shared with friends, but with their recent marriage and designs on a home of their own, it was naturally time to part ways. Daniela was excited: space to create her own introverted sanctum. But as the first evening came and went without so much as flutter of excitement she realised it would no longer suffice to simply be there, as she had been with her friends; to have things happen around her and plans made for her; to observe and interact as she wished: she would need to affect the world on her own.
Arriving at the museum, she follows the flowing crowd into an exhibition entitled: Humanity: A Hiccup in Time. The exhibition consists of a series of images from the solar system, starting with images captured by far-flung telescopes and proceeding backward in time through the oldest images of the cosmos available, and eventually to scientifically-informed artist’s impressions of the early solar system. The exhibition is at pains to remind its viewers of how tiny humanity’s existence has been in the history of its own back yard – let alone the history of time itself. A hiccup. The involuntary spasm of an organ gasping for respiratory relief in the face of real or imagined danger. The solar system, or the universe, having an attack of identity, perhaps, and hiccupping to right itself, thereby seeding the very first organisms that would eventually lead Daniela to this point: appraising the raging storm of Venus’ sulphuric clouds, red spot in its fledgling infancy – and the nascent epiphany that, not only is the history of human existence, culture, language, expression, survival, and spirit, but a hiccup in the history of its habitat, it is barely a hic- in the universe’s own story.
Daniela is now back on the pavement outside the museum, squinting into the radiant daylight and reeling at the reality of just how small she is. A gaggle of students, speaking a language she does not recognise, rolls by, nearly squashing her toes beneath their tyres. She searches her mental diary for What next? but comes up empty. Had she so little in her life to be able to fill one morning? She removes her phone from her pocket and flicks aimlessly through the names in the contact book; they appear and disappear without registering any emotion or inspiration, like cars on a busy motorway.
A little way down the pavement in the direction from which the students came, a zebra crossing extends its invitation. Daniela strides towards the zebra crossing, conjuring purpose as she goes.
In this state it’s hard to find things to occupy time. Just about every activity seems pointless, 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. 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. 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 altered. 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 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 I recognised the same disconnect. 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 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. We sat in silence, neither of us touching the two glasses of wine between us. Clearly she was unfamiliar with this place – the outside – and I would need to reassure her. 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. ‘I’m sorry, that was a little flippant,’ I offered, testing 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. 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 neck. 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. 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.
She shuffles in her chair and revisits the glass, instinctively brushing a loose strand of hair around her ear while replacing the glass on the table. 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. Cherishing our culture and values, that sort of thing…Jesus, I sound like a pamphlet.’
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 proceeded to explain:
As I went through the routine of my usual day, I was summoned by the mythical archivist Simmonds. In a dark but clinically clean box-room, with little more than a desk, computer, waste paper basket and inbox tray, he introduced me to his project: for many years Simmonds was known but rarely seen around the museum; he had been working on a project of some significance of which little was known, other than it was an archive that would take many years 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. So far, so obvious. ‘And, when you are gone, 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: ‘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 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 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. My life flashed before my eyes – much slower than you might be led to believe in most stories; a rolling and lumbering impression, rather 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. 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?’
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 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.
‘Is the world coming to an end?’ Her glass was now empty.
‘I don’t know,’
‘Then what will you do?’
‘That’s the correct question.’
A man dressed in a hospital gown shuffles down the pavement of a dusty, litter-strewn side street, somewhere near Euston Road. He is pale and drawn out, a layer of perspiration covering his skin, and sunken eyes lined with an interminable tiredness. Passersby merely register his odd appearance, before carrying on past him; in other parts of the world they might ask if he is okay, and if he needs help, but the spectre of London dissuades such action – lest he be dangerous or, worse, weird. But the man isn’t interested in help, or pity, or in fact any such attention: he hopes to continue this journey unnoticed, unpursued, alone.
Across the road a news agent’s newspaper board heralds the week’s shocking event and inexhaustible talking point: that two lunatics with assault rifles had taken to the streets and started shooting indiscriminately at pedestrians, shouting something indiscernible, yet chilling all the same. The attack had come to a stop when a man heroically attacked one of the assailants with a piece of scaffolding, incapacitating him; the other, suddenly aware he was shouting alone, turned to see the man, grounded by shock, standing over the motionless body of his comrade. The assailant pursued the man, round one corner and then another, before turning into an alley with a dead end. The man, cowering behind a skip, a seeping wound in his abdomen, mustered the strength to look up to the figure towering over him, saying something he did not care to listen to before disappearing into a deep unconsciousness.
Three people had been killed in the crossfire, and several injured. The man had been recovered from behind the skip, a seeping wound in his abdomen and unconscious with shock. Next to him lay the expertly incapacitated body of the second assailant, his lifeless body in stark, calm contrast to the events of just moments ago.
The man awoke in a white box room, with white sheets, a white hospital gown and a white memory of how he had come to be here. Doctors and nurses flitted and fussed around him, before his wife and young son were allowed in to see him. They rushed over to him, teary eyed and palpably relieved, and with a lingering disbelief that her husband, his father, could be the man to have risked his life to save others. Their tears and relief touched him, but his thoughts were arrested by this lingering disbelief, for he too could not believe that he had done what they said. What’s more, that he couldn’t remember it happening nor even locate the residue of emotional charge that must have coursed through him before and after he acted, interminably separated him from this supposed act: he could not reconcile himself.
By now the authorities had released his identity to the outside world. In the days that followed Mr Cartwright heard his name upwards of two hundred times, which must have been at least a hundred and fifty times more than in the previous decade. Between fitful and feverish sleep, he was visited by people he did not wish to speak with. A besuited man with Home Office credentials perched at the end of his bed, a sugary smile in which he found nothing to trust. The man removed a notepad and pen from his jacket pocket and proceeded to interrogate Mr Cartwright with a comradely demeanour that appeared somehow insidious, waspish. How had Mr Cartwright come to be in the area, at that precise time and date? From where did the piece of scaffolding appear? Could Mr Cartwright make out what the men were shouting? Did this mean anything to Mr Cartwright? Does Mr Cartwright feel lucky to have survived attacking highly trained and reckless murderers? You understand, Mr Cartwright, that it is my duty to establish if you pose any danger to the wider public; and I mustn’t dismiss out of hand any possibility of complicity, in some complex martyrdom relationship? Mr Cartwright answered in a daze, finding it difficult on behalf of actions he did not – could not – feel responsible.
Later a journalist arrived to allow him to tell the world his story. She revealed to him the zeal with which the public had taken him, and his actions, to heart: that Mr Cartwright was referred to widely as a hero; a defender of the people; a symbol of democratic virtue and shared values. He answered the questions with little desire to tell any story, not least because he could not remember. Would Mr Cartwright have a message for people out there, people who might be scared that something like this might happen to them? People that may find themselves in a situation where they could act, as he did, to save many lives at the risk of their own? He does not; he’s sorry.
The following day his wife came again, bearing the news article that had just been published. She beamed with pride, and glowed with love, both of which disturbed him: he did not recognise them, and resented them for replacing what had been there before. He realised, much to his disguised dismay, that since waking in the hospital she had not once used his name – his given name.
That night, exhausted and unable to sleep, his body clock shattered into a billion pieces, he reflected on his new life: he felt adrift, atop of piece of driftwood that disintegrated a piece at a time, floating upon a vast ocean on the horizon of which all ports led to Mr Cartwright and life after the act. He resolved, in the dull, whitewashed glow of the white box room, that this chain of events was irreversible; that he had been decimated, and all the pieces of him had been distributed far and wide for purposes not his own. That night, he decided to leave Mr Cartwright behind in the hospital bed: he lifted the sash window of the third storey room, maneuvered himself onto the fire escape and began the long and painful descent, careful not to break the stitches in his healing wound. Each step down, he reflected, was one towards unchartered territory of a life he had not expected to lead and person he had yet to meet; each step, he realised, was one away from the man, the hero, he had never been, and had never wanted to be.
No sooner had I finished the glass of wine, did the woman abruptly stand to leave. Roused by something – I could not tell what – she thanked me for the drink, wished me luck with my decision, and made to leave.
‘I thought you might tell me what it was that had… you know… the disconnect.’
‘Yes – the moment at the bus stop; you were running for it – I presumed you were late – and when you didn’t get there in time, you had this look…like you had taken leave of the world for a moment.’
She pondered this for a moment, a vague frown wrinkling her brow, the dimple impressed by a twisting of her lips.
‘I hadn’t been running toward anything. I had been running away.’
‘I saw something – something brutal, evil and horrific. It doesn’t – didn’t – seem real. In a moment, a flash, a split second, all this,’ she gestures to everything and nothing, ‘extinguished. Gone. How is that even fathomable?’
‘I should expect it isn’t, but it will come to all of us.’
‘Yes, it will. I’m sorry, but I need to go.’ With that, she walked out of the pub. The man at the bar gestured for another pint. She was right: it is unfathomable. But somebody has to fathom it.
A zebra crossing, a violent and horrific witnessing, a glass of wine and a train later, Daniela climbs the hill – a steep and winding road, its end obscured by each turn – willing herself to find the summit, to rise out of and above the town. She turns into the driveway leading toward a grand, baroque building. A little way down the driveway, Daniela sees what she is looking for, through the windows that look onto the other side: the steep decline of a grassy bank, overlooking the town below. A summit, and above all a summit with the gaping blue sky expanding in all directions, just how she remembers it. She wants to float away into its vast spaciousness; to float, as the atom, the photon, the quark, and to be swallowed up by the great anonymising of the universe.
Daniela plunges through the building to reach the other side, and emerges at the top of a set of wide, stone steps descending into the green valley. She is home – that special home that belongs to the child that lives and breathes in each of our memories. She sees a man clearing tables and chairs inside a large marquee below. She observes him for a moment, seemingly blissful in the world of this most prosaic activity. His slow movements – unplanned, almost accidental – mesmerise her. She wonders again at her infinitesimal existence but, this time, not overawed by this thought, she presses a steely resolve to the surface, willing herself to take control – some control, any control – of that which she can. She wishes to affect something, and to do so in a lasting way. A loving way. A way that does not require itself to be a huge gesture to be remembered down the years, or to make sweeping change across the world and all its inhabitants. She wishes to affect a moment; a person, a thought, a feeling, a fleeting gesture….she wishes at this moment only to affect him.
Simmonds sits behind the metal desk in the half light glow of the desk lamp. He straightens up in the chair, and scrolls back through the present entry from end to beginning. He picks up a pen and marks a large ledger with morse-code like efficiency, and then closes it slowly with both hands. He returns to the computer screen glowing below. Moving the mouse over a Delete button, Simmonds pauses a moment, before he curtly clicks. He stands up, stretches his arms above his head and switches the desk lamp off, plunging the room into nearly total darkness.
At 9.48am on a mildly warm and breezy late spring morning in Bath, Daniela bounds down the stone steps – the sun passing behind a canopy of clouds, an eagle soaring high above ready to swoop – she hears a tired groan, followed by a sharp crack that plummets into a deafening silence in the next moment. She stops, holds her breath, and observes the young man below arch his neck to the inner ceiling of the marquee. She screams to him, intending her voice to carry him through the open side panel. He sees her. He moves. With the last sigh of a dying breath, the white canvas billows and collapses inwards, swallowing the image of the young man whole and flattening out of existence the idea she had fleetingly cradled, so urgently loved.
A silence drifts over the fallen marquee and sweeps down into the valley on the cool breeze, above which the eagle swoops incisively, deadly, silent; Daniela and the man look on, upwards and out into the universe, the flattened marquee reflecting the morning sunlight.