Mr Mutze always seemed to get the wrong end of the stick. He found this to be quite frustrating, not least because no-one ever seemed to explain what the right end is, and how he might recognise it. Both sides appeared the same but no matter which he chose he always appeared to be wrong, much to his friends’ enjoyment or distress.
There were varying levels of consequence to his apparent indiscretions. He could equally misinterpret an apparently innocent question – being asked for the time by a woman wearing a watch – or a question from a friend’s ex, stumbled across in a bar, as to why the friend wasn’t drinking and how long this had been the case. The latter was particularly indiscreet of him, apparently; whereas the former elicited no more than a few chuckles and a pair of rolled eyes. Yet on both occasions he was culpable of no more than answering honestly. Why should he not point out the watch strapped to her wrist? Eminently logical, he thought.
On several occasions his friends admonished him with talk of context sensitivity and frames of reference. So, as a logical fellow, Mr Mutze decided to construct a system that might help to mitigate the frequency of such occurrences. If a frame of reference was what he was missing, he would surely be well served to have one.
The frame was ornate: a dark mahogany with swirls like the crests of waves worked out from the centre of each side that seemed to expand the frame’s reach beyond its material borders; beyond its subject of focus. Mr Mutze fixed handles to each side for ease of manipulation and operation.
At first its use proved awkward:: transportation posed the problem of it being unable to fit neatly into any suitable bag; and then there was the issue of its reception in the midst of conversation. The former was relatively easily solved, with hinges and sleight of engineering, however the latter was less so: he had not anticipated his interlocutor’s reactions at the revealing of his frame, at a moment he deemed worthy of its need.
The first time he unfolded the frame was in a pub in town. Out with a group of friends, he found himself talking with someone he knew to be surfacing from a particularly unpleasant breakup. It was her first ‘outing’ into the unrelenting, panoptical parlour of Saturday night. She complimented his new shoes. Thank you – they were surprisingly cheap. There was a pause and a flickering of eyes. Another second passed. As the cue slowly rounded the corner, glaring at him in exasperation from the middle distance, he realised too late that it was his turn to offer a compliment: she was about to speak again.
“I’m not sure about this dress. Is it a bit…?” Mr Mutze was sensing familiar territory – and not in a comfortable way. But on this occasion, his bag resting against the bar, he felt armed for the task.
As he pulled the frame out of the bag her bewildered expression set him on edge. He shuffled his feet and unfolded the frame. Lifting the mahogany structure in a portrait orientation he focused the view, moving left to right, up and down, and squinting one eye intermittently.
He then manipulated the frame into a landscape orientation, moving its subject from one side to the other, capturing in turn a subtly varied mise en scene, with characters in this potential plot invading the background like a gathering wood. Amidst the trees he discerned the glances of could-be-would-be suitors, and felt the giddy flutter of a realisation: that he would not have noticed their presence nor possible part in this play, were it not for his trusty frame. Gathering his wits and newfound intelligence, he replied with alien assurance:
“Oh most certainly. I’ve already identified several potential suitors.”
Time stood still. She stood still. Aghast had never been so still. He was thankful, afterwards, that she had not in that moment decided to pour her drink over him, or direct any other vent of (righteous) anger towards him.
She turned on her heels and left him, framed by his own contraption, lamenting a less than successful first outing.
Several outings followed in situations ranging from a momentary confusion as to whether he should offer his seat to a lady who may or may not have been pregnant, to his attempt to resolve an instance of repeated eye contact by framing the many ways in which they must know each other, because why else would we keep up with this? There was even an occasion in a business meeting where an unspoken yet palpable tension between several of the group thrummed the air.
In each situation Mr Mutze found the frame to be diagnostically useful and even instructive. However two issues that he had, again, not anticipated, blighted its effectiveness. On the one hand, his use of the frame not yet being socially normalised drew a schism between his newly minted powers of context sensitivity and any desired outcomes: somewhere between a perturbed expression, disbelieving laugh, and incredulous What the f…? lurked a barrier to success. On the other hand, he was beginning to realise there is perhaps such a thing as too much context; a dangerous multiplicity of context.
Much to Mr Mutze’s surprise and exasperation, the frame proved to be less utilitarian than he had expected. He may well have found positive results in his appraisal of social situations by using the frame in his originally intended way, however this was persistently outstripped by: i) his apparent need to frame without physically framing, and instead imperceptibly adjust his conversational balance like a gymnast on the beam; and ii) the several ways to fall off the beam, in pursuit of fictitious contexts made up in the myriad ways he might frame a situation.
Mr Mutze now knew what it meant to second guess. With each turn of the mahogany structure, with each slight manipulation or focussing of its subject, foreground, background, Mr Mutze bounded from one room to another in an infinite palace; an impossible world of Borges’ making..
Such was the impact of this disorienting adventure, Mr Mutze began to recede further from social situations. It was not without irony that he kept up the use of the frame: finding himself in the same or similar Saturday night situations, he would skirt the edges of the panoptical parlour of interaction, framing and reframing the scene in front of him so as to avoid any potential compromising situations. It was tiresome work, but effective in keeping him out of trouble.
One such evening, moving out of the winter cold into the warming embrace of the his local, Mr Mutze, frame in hand and now operating with a dexterity boarding on mastery, maneuvered his way to the bar. It had been a number of weeks since his last awkward encounter.
He placed the folded frame at his feet and ordered a drink. The mahogany displayed the signs of wear and tear; bright blemishes of exposed wood attested to a life of attrition. His pathway to the bar had been relatively smooth: he had concocted a risk register of encounters that numbered only in double figures.
Suddenly he was aware of a presence at his side ever so slightly too close. He looked to his other side: the bar was empty. Deigning to glance unnoticed towards the body at his side, an elbow and upper arm largely obscured by dark brown curls came into view. He must have moved his head slightly more than he had wanted, because
“I’ve been meaning to ask about that… thing. The frame. What is it?”
Mr Mutze had been asked this on plenty of occasions, but the stealthy approach had caught him off guard. He faltered, any response lodging in the back of his throat.
“Will you do me?”
Again, he faltered.
“I mean – look at me. Through that.”
He had been quiet and still for longer than is polite and he felt the cold, familiar hands of uncertainty sliding up his back.
“You seem normal enough to me.”
She looked at him uncertainly but with a wry smile edging out of the corner of her mouth. He felt on firmer ground now, having broken his silence and erected a conversational defence.
“Indulge me. I’ll buy your drink.”
Mr Mutze thought for a moment, unfolding various scenarios in his mind.
“Okay,” he said, interrupting said rest “On one condition.”
The woman and her mahogany curls tittered with excitement, as she extended a hand to seal the deal. Mr Mutze, satisfied by this due diligence, raised the frame from its slumber, unfolded and inserted it between her expectant smile and his own.
He manipulated the frame with practiced hands, deftly moving from portrait to landscape; close-up, middle-distance and (as far as space would allow) a longer shot. He moved her in and out of focus, playing with his scene’s subject. Yet something was different. Something absent. Noise. Or light. Or noise-light. Context?
Mr Mutze paused, holding her profile right of centre in the foreground, the bustle of the pub melting into an indiscernible wash of colour, light and sound in the background, bleeding like a Turner landscape. And that absence. It hung not between them, but all around: the noise of proliferating meaning, of the adjacent possible, of his assembling anxiety and the multiplicity of ways in which he could foresee this ended badly-
“Well, what do you see?”
“Nothing,” he replied, hearing his words as though from a distance.
“Well that isn’t very nice-”
“No I- I’m sorry. I didn’t mean nothing.”
“What did you mean?” It was a good question.