XII — Every now and then
Every now and then the old man would rock back on his heels. Every now and then. Every now and then he’d look across at me, nodding very slightly; listening to what I was saying? So tell me. How did that feel? He’d ask. But mostly he just listened. At the start of each meeting I’d go through the black iron gate and on the other side he’d be stood outside the cabin; waiting for me with a paid for smile. We’d go into the cabin and I’d sit under the shelf of books, never able to see what they were about. Books about what to do with people, I supposed. I always looked around for a while before finally smiling at him. And he would smile at me and say nothing. So neither would I. We just smiled at each other. But no matter what I said about it all in my head, that this time I wasn’t gonna crack, that he was gonna crack, he never did. That was his job.
Odd isn’t it. An odd job where you sit there smiling at someone until they talk. I always started first by saying something like I didn’t know where to start but that was the start always. And then what ever came next came from some place I forgot. Stop trying to control this situation that’s uncontrollable. What I need is what we all need and so on and so forth and over and over the same pattern of ideas, of images going round. Same images from before? Maybe. Some were. Liked the idea of the trail? Yes I did. Give me something new I can work with. Something for now.
Okay. Try this: history has a way of repeating itself, so the saying goes. What does that mean? History has a way of repeating itself, I said. Well I don’t want to go all analytical on you. That’s not going to get us where we need to be. He perks up a little. Smiles at me like he knows and murmurs for me to carry on. I’m trying to avoid all use of the common resources. I don’t want to seem clichéd or any such thing. I don’t want any reference points beyond the fact that it’s all referenced off itself. That way you got to make it all up yourself and work extra hard. His face straightens. Why? What makes you think that it requires extra work? That’s arrogant of you. What makes you assume anyone will bother? Well let me make up a story. I stop to give the story time to come up. The tree just outside the cabin window struggles in the wind. I can’t remember much about the story because all that wants to come up are the wrong memories. So I have to make something up. Perhaps he won’t notice.
It starts with a picture. I can see it. I can feel it in my breast pocket. There was this boy once upon a time. Who lived in a small village with his mother? His father and his sister. The village stopped short of the foothills, beyond which was the longest mountain range in the country. Out of the mountains flowed the ice cold river that wound past the village and away across the plain down to the delta, I start to say. But then I say no. I’ll tell you another story. About the sales assistant in the department store. His name was? His name was? I rub my chin. His name was. I don’t know his name. But I first saw him one day when I was buying some new sheets for my bed. And I went to see him to get it all straightened out; get this cycle thing up and running. The sheets were reasonable quality. The quality was okay. I was worried that the material might go weird and rough. There’s a name for it. But then someone pointed out that most sheets were made of the same mixture and seeing as most of the sheets I’d owned before had been okay I thought I’d risk it. I had in my head some fabric that had been around, say, two hundred years ago. All natural and rustic. Long lasting. Nostalgia, he suggests. Yes. I suppose so. Anyway. And the choice of colors was impressive too. I mean it was a cheap store. We weren’t talking quality items. But then I’d noticed over recent years that lots of things had come down in price and the quality was good. And the range of stuff you could buy these days was awesome. I mean. When I was a kid. All those years ago. I can remember seeing films. Big popular films about space and things. And about inhuman stuff. I look up and catch the man looking right into my eyes. Or where my eyes would be if I’d looked up. Which was a little strange. But the toys we had were just the usual things. The things all boys all over the place played with. Wooden guns from tied up sticks. Maybe a box lid for a shield. Nothing much related to a film that I can remember. But these days it’s all films. The point is that the kind of stuff you can buy is just like in the films. And it’s fantastic! I can see a film and go out and buy the same laser gun. Or I can get the whole outfit and it’s identical to the one the guy wore in the film. It’s amazing. I become the man in the film! There’s no difference. You can see these people walking down the street and they are absolutely identical to the ones in the film. And now it’s not just the kids. It’s everyone dressed up out of a film and all immaculate replicas. They don’t know even know they’re not in the film.
I pause. The man nods and smiles. You were saying about a sales assistant. I murmur. Tracing back my thoughts. Yeh the first day I saw him was when I was buying these sheets. He stood out because of his walking stick. He had a walking stick: what looked like an anodized aluminium retractable walking stick red-pink in colour with a cherry-wood handle. So not just a walking stick, he says. A specific walking stick. I think about it about and then agree. He had this stick and he had a limp; a really pronounced limp on his left leg. Same side he used the stick on. He had the same uniform as the other staff but all the other staff were women and girls. He was always the only male I’d see in that shop. I let the images of the man come back to me. Take me back to the store. The bulging gut; straining under a black shirt, doing its best not to spill over a pair of regulation black synthetic trousers. No wonder he had a limp. The weight of that gut would force a giant to its knees. Rock hard. Swollen. But the rest of him was not fat. His arms were slim and I suppose his legs were too. His face was slightly chubby. Especially as the hair had receded to reveal a good area of forehead; made it look all the rounder. Physical features that were complemented by his fixed and retarded smile. I mean he always was smiling. He came limping up this aisle towards me. The foot falls and that stick so unusual. Made me turn round when he was about ten feet away. The first time I saw him and that retarded smile.
And that was my first thought: poor guy. Had an accident? Got brain damaged and now he’s moronically blissful. Had an aura of calmness and contentment too. Washed right over me and over the shelves of sheets stood by me. Odd thing was he didn’t acknowledge me in the slightest. I emphasize ‘slightest’, and the man frowns. I carry on. Made me feel like I wasn’t there; like a ghost among the living. Just walked on past me and straight up to this lady who at that very moment. And this is the uncanny thing. At that moment so even she didn’t know it was going to happen, caught the heel of her shoe in the cover of an electrical socket sunk into the floor. I suppose the cover was loose. And she went straight down on her face and cracked her chin. She’d not even hit the floor mind you and the assistant was struggling to get down on one knee to pick her back up. Like he knew it was going to happen. I stood and watched. The woman, not that old, maybe forty five. Average size. Had blood coming off her chin and the assistant got her back up and gave her a clean white handkerchief to hold on it. Still had the same smile on his face. Put his arm on the woman’s shoulder. Then they went off somewhere to get her cleaned up I suppose. I watched them disappear round the shelves. I can remember it. That was the first time.
The man waits for me a while. I saw him every time I went in the store after that. I found one day that I’d wound up in the store and I didn’t even need anything. I needed to speak to this assistant. Just get him to acknowledge me because he never did. I said I felt like a ghost first time I saw him and that feeling just grew. Every time I was there I saw him helping someone else and he never seemed to see me. It was a drag standing round the shelves. It made me feel uncomfortable. Waiting for a moment to grab his attention and get him to acknowledge me. But he never would. Never would follow me. Just wouldn’t follow me. I felt this surge up inside me and started to get transported to the shop. Getting restless like I wanted to cry out: won’t you follow me. I could see the man getting nervous and he shrunk back a little to the point where I stood up and so did he. I guess he was debating whether to exit the cabin or see how it panned out.
So I went up to the assistant. Straight up. Said to him: excuse me. Can you follow me to this section and give me some help. Can you follow me and give me some help? Can you help me out with this? Though it seems to be a drag. Saying it this way is uncomfortable. Won’t you just follow me? Won’t you just follow me? Please. I shouted it again. Please? I need you to just say I’m here. Because I am. Turn around and follow me. She says: you aren’t really there. You and your words. Shouting at me all this time crying out for recognition. Recognition of what? That you aren’t really you? That for all your talk of history and fragments the fact is you are not even right about being thrown into a stream.
I never saw her step out from behind the shelf until she was talking at me and, now, not only was she telling me nothing about love, she was telling me nothing about me. But as usual, she read my mind. The words aren’t yours. And because they’re not yours and never were, never were any of ours, you can’t own them. And we can’t use them to explain us. Worse is trying to string them together in odd ways or what you may think is novel ways. Doesn’t get you any closer to the truth. All that does is take you further away or at best spins you round the flame one more time. Let me show you what I mean. Listen to this, she tells me.
I sit down to listen and she says: a new mystery has died and with it its spring. Look to the mountains as the last horde of primitives crawls down and spills out the caves to visit on us. They will never find their road back because the road was paved each step behind them by new primitives from new caves and new mountains. Good. Good. Let them stand bewildered as they look behind them and see what happened.
There you go, she says. What does that mean to you? I ask her if she is still speaking or if she has finished. She says she has finished and again asks: what does that mean? It brings some things to mind. I can’t help but join the words together and make sense of it and tell her what it means. Yeh. And now tell me a different meaning. So I re-join the words and do just that. Five meanings I give her in total. Now, she says, which one of your six meanings is the truth? I reply that it’s one of these: the one I choose to act on and take further or the one that I weave into and re-write history or the one that you tell me is correct or the one that other people agree with, having fought with each other to the death. Which one is it? She replies it’s the one that as far as your concerned makes me real for you. But none of them do that. What do you want? Something profound? Something in a sentence that can make it all good. You think by sharing words you can be at one with me? You think by leaving snapshots of your life for me to find that will make you any more real to me? You are one side of a mirror looking at your reflection of me the other side looking at mine. You’re no closer. Then she shrugs and walks back round the shelf.
I sit back into my leather chair and contemplate what has just been said. The old man looks concerned. I wonder if he can see me. I ask him that and he sits back into his chair. The lamp light throws shadows down my cheeks. I think you need to throw in some cataclysm. Something that can act as a center for you. Something sexual? No. No I reply. That’s just part of the same thing. Should you be giving me advice, he asks? Probably not. I just want to use it as a test. See where it splits off.
Picture this: a girl in her twenties laying back on some large luxurious cushions with yellow stars, wearing just strings of amber beaded into leather that run down over her breasts and across her chest. Her right leg crosses over her left, bent slightly down at the knee, toes pointed downward. You can’t see any strap that would suggest panties, or a thong. Not suntanned but darker than light skin. Dark dark hair with a kind of gold head band thing across her forehead disappearing under those long dark locks spilling down over shoulders and across one breast. Dark brown eyes. A thin leather strip tied round her right ankle and big white pearl beads round her neck. Behind her the wall is deep red and under her an exotic rug with gold running through it. She holds in her left hand, propped up from her left elbow which lays on the cushion, a thin white cigarette coiling up a thin stream of smoke and her right hand rests on her right hip. Her head tilts slightly to the right and she is looking straight into your eyes with an ambiguity just not quite ambiguous enough. The man pushes his shoulders back slightly. I see him try and suppress the automatic swallowing reflex. Her smell. His pupils dilate just a little. Describe it.