At 11.48am on a mildly warm and breezy late spring morning in Bath, a young man is tidying away chairs and tables 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 fluffy clouds, 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. A kestrel 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’s one of the worst times of year 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 and taking it all in. Witnessing the burning entropy as energy lives and dies through various phases, but never disappearing. She has always had trouble reconciling herself with the world, 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. She follows the curving road away from the station, past the cafés and bistros, until the Romanesque facade of the Natural History Museum announces itself, its terracotta tiles and brickwork in stark contrast to the surrounding Georgian Stucco.
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 a 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.
And so she resolved: Tomorrow she would rise out of bed with purpose. Tomorrow she would go into the world as if she meant it, interact as well as observe, and banish from the pit of her stomach the feeling that without others’ plans onto which she might hang her day she would be directionless, at a loss. What was the exhibition called that she’d seen advertised on the tube platform that peaked her interest?
At the museum, Daniela 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.
The mandatory exit-via-the-gift-shop brought Daniela back to Earth with a thud. Children run in circles around her, releasing the pent-up energy they had accumulated in the quiet of the gallery, chasing each other with figurines of astronauts, model spacecraft and (oddly, she thinks) Slinkies. From the impossibly large and cavernous, to the claustrophobically small and cluttered, Daniela’s mind struggles to realign itself with her present reality, her mind’s eye dilating and contracting with unsettling speed. The exit beckons.
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. At how alone she now is. At how tenuously connected she has been to those around her; an umbilical cord now being severed by the inevitable march of ‘growing up’.
A gaggle of students rolls by, speaking a language she doesn’t recognise and nearly squashing her toes. She searches her mental diary for What next? but comes up empty. Did she have 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 crossing, conjuring purpose as she goes. Farther down the road she rounds a corner, a bus following closely behind. A bus stop comes into view and, for no reason in particular, Daniela breaks into a desperate sprint.
Earlier in the week Daniela had been sent to a hospital to interview a man who found himself quite suddenly at the centre of a narrative of national and international significance. Two lunatics with assault rifles had taken to the streets and started shooting indiscriminately at pedestrians, possessed by something and shouting repeatedly about it. 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 assailant, suddenly aware he was shouting alone, turned to see the man standing over the motionless body of his comrade. The remaining assailant pursued the man, shooting and wounding him, before himself being shot at and killed by armed response police. The man had been recovered from behind a skip in an alleyway, his wound still seeping and unconscious with shock. Next to him lay the expertly dispatched body of the second assailant, lifeless and in stark, calm contrast to the events of just moments ago.
Laid up in his hospital bed, pale and sullen and with a film of sweat shining across his brow, the man indulged Daniela’s inquisition with monosyllabic answers and at a tangible distance. Somewhere, towards the back of his eyes and deep within the recesses of his self-consciousness, the man paced an inner attic restlessly, pouring over the week’s events in search of some sense of meaning. This is what Daniela would have liked to have written in her column; this is what she perceived, without being able to evidence or quote it, and this is what would unfortunately escape public notice. In its place the story would predictably condense the man’s actions to that of an singular, heroic act, in the name of a speakable, tweetable cultural value to be wielded against those who would seek to challenge or even destroy it.
Though she would go on to write up the story in the hand-me-down journalistic prose of little authenticity, Daniela would leave the hospital affected for her experience. The man was so absolutely alone and yet so abundantly in company: wife, child, the entire nation purporting to know him and collectively thinking of him as standing for something they equally share. She saw the terrified loneliness in his eyes and it shocked her.
During the same week Daniela had been moving house. While packing up her meagre belongings in a house cluttered with accumulated items over the five years she had lived there with various friends, she noted how little of it was hers. Strip away the tat to be thrown away, and the possessions of her friends (so much of which had been communal these years, but now ostensibly had an owner) Daniela owned very little. She surveyed her empty room and thought of the one car-load of belongings waiting for her on the street below. Even though the flat she would be moving into was hardly massive, she worried how she would fill it; how she would make it homely, and not be reminded of how little she owned and how absent it would be of that which she had taken for granted all these years: communal living with her closest friends. The subduing thought that she had been renting and borrowing a full life all these years lodged itself steadfastly in her mind.
The bus pulls away from the stop and turns into the crawling traffic of Cromwell Road. The sun is sitting high in the sky now, irradiating the red box in which too many people have squeezed themselves; the windows are open but it is neither reducing the temperature nor is it adequately subduing the tinny percussion of several sets of headphones – a sonorous landscape of colliding personal soundtracks. Daniela manoeuvres herself close to the exit, in the event of needing a quick escape: she hadn’t taken note of the bus’s destination and hadn’t yet deduced the direction of travel in an unfamiliar part of town.
Unsure of her destination, and caught between a will to leave it to chance or jump off at the next bus stop, Daniela hovers on the edge of a decision like a tightrope walker considering their first step. And, as one small thought blooms into a larger one and the subduing thought of having lived a borrowed and rented life wells up from the pit of her stomach, she dwells on how she and everything around her is entirely made of the chance fusion of borrowed elements that were around billions of years before her, and that will exist billions of years after she is gone.
Daniela has always found herself able to construct a narrative of her life that she is convinced is hers, but now it appears this may have been an illusion. Sitting in the hospital and witnessing Mr Cartwright visibly recede into himself, she had wondered if he was struggling to hold together the bigger story of himself; one seemingly now appropriated in a grand symbolic schema of cultural pride and resilience. Daniela’s mind, in a limbo both real and subliminal, grapples with the Rubik’s cube that is her own story.
A seat becomes available at the back of the bus; Daniela, thankful for nudge away from the precipice, swoops towards it and scoops up a discarded newspaper. The headline, atop an image depicting the Earth with a filing cabinet drawer of mantel pulled out at the equator, reads: Project extinction: Humanity remembered. Primed all things cosmos and humanity today, she reads on: the article announces with a dubious sense of occasion that the British Museum has unveiled the exhibition to end all exhibitions. Existing exhibitions are to be wound down and incorporated, where appropriate, into the new one; furthermore, all items on record for past exhibitions and present projects of record, will be assimilated too. The result: The definitive curated archive of humanity and all of its triumphs and travails. An unnamed source at the museum close to the project describes the work as the only exhibition worth doing anymore and that the sooner their colleagues across the world recognise this, the better account we, the human race, can make of ourselves once the inevitable comes to pass. Another employee, also unnamed, calls into question the ethical implications of curating a definitive account of human history and experience, much as with history having been written by the victors, and with the subjugated and their worldviews written out.
Staring out of the window, pedestrians, cars, trees and buildings speeding by in a blur of sunlit colour, Daniela wonders how the museum had decided now was the time to start this work. What must they see on the horizon for them to feel the story of humanity must be drawn together now? At what point in a person’s life do they decide to consolidate their legacy; have children, write a will, put their affairs in order? Is this how people take control of their lot – a lot that, upon closer inspection, seems so random, so incomplete?
In the lower right corner of the front page sits a thumbnail image of Mr Cartwright, smiling the smile of the contented. Daniela imagines it is taken from a family photo some years old, for it is a far cry from the ashen visard of the man she met in hospital this week. The few words dedicated to the image explain that Mr Cartwright – hero, national icon, virtuous human being – has disappeared. The briefest of words: Mr Cartwright disappeared out of his hospital window and down a fire escape early yesterday morning. Family and friends do not know where he has gone, and no note or word accompanied his departure. In a brief statement, his wife said she does not know why he would want to disappear, in spite of recent events and attention.
Daniela folds the paper up and drops it into the foot well. The bus pulls into a bus stop outside Paddington station and for the first time today she feels vaguely oriented. Like the collapsing of gas and dust under its own immense force of gravity, the day’s events coalesce to a singular point in Daniela’s mind’s eye: it dilates and focusses, and she realises where she is going to next.
Daniela is now on a train out of Paddington station. From her bag she pulls a notepad and pen, long-time travel companions of Daniela the journalist, and long-time since Daniela the diarist. Outside the window, Tetris cubes of glass office blocks give way to suburban residences; greenery announce itself slowly before claiming the urban city sprawl and opening out into the rolls of still farmland.
Daniela addresses the note to the Open Letter desk at her own publication:
Dear Mr C,
At first I wonder if this is still the name you’re using. I suspect it isn’t. I then wonder if this troubles you as much as you may have initially thought. Is there anything terrifying but liberating in it? I’d hope so.
Today I learned something astonishing about the universe that I wanted to share with you, should you happen across this letter: did you know that every single atom in your body at one point existed in the heart of a star which has long since perished? What a beautiful thought. But more significant for you, I think, is the idea that everything that makes you, pre-exists you, and has been repurposed in you – just as some of you is being repurposed in ways you cannot control nor could have anticipated in the moment you acted. And when you are gone you will again be repurposed, across a plethora of things in the universe.
So I ask you, in our short and seemingly insignificant lives, borrowing these atoms as we are: who lays claim to you? Who ascribes to you what you are, and what you do? This is what I learned today: All matter, clutter and possessions aside, there is nothing borrowed that is making up this thought; no star, rock, insect or plant, can lay claim to this thought.
I wish you all the best in your journey.
A night alone, uncomfortable tube journey, cosmic exhibition, zebra crossing, random bus journey, and train later, Daniela climbs the hill – a steep and winding road, its end obscured by each turn – willing herself to find the summit and to rise above the town. She turns into the driveway leading toward a grand, neoclassical 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. She emerges at the top of a set of wide, stone steps descending into the green valley. She is home. 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, presses a steely resolve to the surface, willing herself to take control, some control, any control. 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.
At 11.48am 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 and a kestrel 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 shouts 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 kestrel swoops incisively, deadly, silent. Daniela and the man look on, upwards and out into the universe, beside the flattened marquee reflecting the morning sunlight.