XV — So in this photograph is a boy and a girl
So in this photograph is a boy and a girl. The boy sits on the ground to the left and the girl lies on the ground to the right. Her head’s under a shopping bag and he’s got a sack on the ground next to him. About as big as himself. Cloth sack. The shopping bag has a woven in twist diamond pattern running around it. Could be red and blue or blue. Yellow? But you can’t tell from the black and white photo. The ground is hard. The grass is coarse. Sparse. When you go to a fair in the middle of summer and the grass is cut short and trampled on by a thousand people. When the fair goes: that’s what the ground is like. Ten or so feet behind the boy and girl lies a narrow worn-in path. Maybe a thousand people passed that way or ten thousand. Running, walking, limping. Being carried or carrying someone. Just trying to get away. Leaving behind the debris of displaced humanity. Fragments of paper. Possessions no longer worth possessing. Valueless. The girl is lying on her right side; her right knee bent forward and the left leg almost straight but you can’t tell if she wears shoes from her right foot hidden under her leg and the left foot lying outside the frame. The boy’s leather boots are worn but his suit with three-quarter trousers and white collar out shirt is clean. The boy stares into the distance and holds his world in that cloth sack in his right hand. That’s where he lived for five years. And the photograph is only one thousand years old. The boy could still be here.
I watch the paper scraps blow around and the shopping bag gently gives just a little but doesn’t fall away. This time, the boy takes his hand off the bag and rubs his face. He glances over to the girl and looks at her for a long time. The wind ripples across her skirt. The boy looks out of the photo and right at me. I understand. And after thinking about it for maybe no more than six seconds I start slowly winding it back. The boy looks back to the girl. The hand goes to the top of the sack. The wind whips across the paper fragments and the broken grass moves only slightly. A long while later the feet of people can be seen on the path. Sometimes one or two, a small group. A great crowd. Moving from right to left and back to wherever they came from and through all of it the boy is sat there. But as the light grows stronger and the breeze gives way to stillness: the boy is suddenly stood over the girl and holding the woven basket over her head and at once he’s away from her and the basket is on the ground and I see the girl clearly. This part will pass. The boy gazes down at her and cries and shakes. I let it slow. Nearly at the point where it can be stopped. The girl is on her feet and figures move around them. I stop the photograph. The scene is different. A point in time just before all the versions split off in a billion directions. A billion different outcomes. The girl is stood slightly hunched; facing to the right out of the picture and behind her is a man pointing a rifle to her head. The back of her head. Brown hair across her face. His legs are braced; the rifle butt tight into the shoulder looking down the gun sight. The muzzle only a narrow space away. His finger is less than a second from squeezing the trigger. Less than a second between it and the single outcome that the boy and I have seen. I struggle to make sense of this new snapshot of time because I know exactly what follows and so does the boy: sat on the ground with his horror of what will follow. His horror. I try to penetrate the picture and do away with the frame; see the surround. Make sense of how it all came to this. But I have a limit and despite my greatest effort nothing reasonable can be said about it. We have to endure it and a million identical other acts.
The man sits back in his chair and murmurs something to himself and then smiles at me. Waiting for as long as I need to take. So I say: that’s about it! That’s what it is now. You have the girl with a rifle pointed at the back of her head. The horror of the scene you are with. And you have seen the outcome? You can’t make any sense of that. I listen to what he has to say but don’t reply. If I do there’s a danger of a crack appearing and who knows what it opens up into. It takes some time to suppress. The man encourages me to say what I feel. That is: what my body is feeling right now. I say that in the main and for most people, lives really aren’t that dramatic. That scene, which was a dramatic moment many years ago: all we can do is project our fears into the image and extract some fantasy that it all turned out okay for that girl. That may have been the only dramatic moment in her life! Just happened that a boy with a camera was passing by. Captured the moment. The soldier lowered his gun, he was just a bully after all; not a killer. He went on his way. Just caught up in a moment. The girl went on her way too. The rest of her life was mundane. Nothing happened. Every one survived.
Peoples’ lives: they’re dramatic in stories. There not dramatic from the inside out. Only in some parts of the world for some people some of the time. So we jazz ‘em up. Most people are born into a mundane world. That’s what mundane is. Live a mundane life and die like that. I speak only of what is loosely my culture, it doesn’t apply to other persons in those other parts of the world all of the time. Sometimes it does, as I mentioned. It may in fact only seem mundane from over here but over there, even though your neighborhood gets shot up every day: it’s mundane for them. And on the topic of culture, that dumping ground for shit ideas and excuses [I read that somewhere. I think in a magazine in a hospital waiting room], I don’t mean this is a cultural-relativity absolute thing, you know, I can’t understand a word you’re fucking saying cos you’re just not the same as me. No. I doubt that. We’re all the same basic organism so look for the universals. What do all cars have in common: four wheels. They drive. Planes have wings: they fly. People: we feel pain. There are other things too. But it’s easier to build a story around pain than the other things, and there’s so many different ways to do it and so many different places to start. It’s like a mix and match menu of a few basic devices, but the outcomes are all the same.
The old man inquires about the limited form of narrative; that we can only tell things in a limited number of ways. Is that what I mean? Yes it is, I tell him. Of course, but there’s more to it. These stories we tell are organizing devices at every level of being. Individuals fuck up and rise from the ashes and so do nations. People love that story. Some impoverished kid with one eye from birth and a mother who was never loved makes it from the poor house, up the cobble track, up the gilded ladder and saves a million other poor fuckers on the way. We all benefit from that! We can do that! I can do that! Give me that helping hand the kid got when he broke his back and things took an even worse turn and I can do that! People really love that one because it gives them hope that they can be the same. And come out on top. What they don’t see is the side lines, the wrong turns, the kick in the ass, the missed opportunities, the bad decisions the good decisions. The other players just skirting the stage. They don’t see the ragged fabric woven from threads of empty gestures, vacuous words. If they saw all those things, the people, they’d get lost in the confusion. But that is the reality of it. There’s no straight path through this life and into the next. The best thing you can do is stop adding to the confusion. Keep your mouth shut. Don’t kid people there’s a way out. Any attempt to do so leads to illusion. Words fall apart. Worlds that fall apart.
I remind him the whole state of affairs is not held together in that way. He sits further back into that worn chair; always in the corner always under a lamp turned on. We have to sell everything to buy the key to the door and most people can’t afford the buy. He says: my friend died forty years ago. I watched her come one night in ignorance of the doorway. I heard, not so long after, the doorway opening. Sometime more and the doorway closed. The elements reconstituted themselves. The elements made me cry as I had learned to cry. It’s an ancient story. One of ‘those’ stories. We put our kingdoms up for sale but they never raise sufficient funds. Metaphor. It’s all there is. Make the most of telling some stories. It’s all there is. Is that what you mean? I nod. Many stories over many years and they’re still here; occasionally when we wake up in the morning and the sky is a delicate blue, we can bear our mortality and say to ourselves: it’s okay. It really is. We know what’s coming and that’s part of it. It’s part of what we do. Mortality ebbs and flows as the character strengthens and weakens. When we wake up and the sky is blue, promises a fresh day, pushes it away to the edges of the frame where it waits on its own time and its own values. We wake up to grey and it’s staring back at you through the window. Wake up alone and it stares through the window just before you throw back the curtains. Corrupts the operating system. Forces a reboot and a re-adjustment. A distraction. Staring into the shaving mirror, the beauty mirror, the picture glass in the hall way. It wanders around on our left side and waits for your gaze to remind you: you are finite. Your children are finite. Your parents were finite. Mortality is weather dependent. It’s part of the cover sheet that life comes with. The cover sheet is a text that contains lots of things about what to do and not what to do and reads more or less as a set of rules, but fuzzier than dogma. Gaps to fill your own words in here and there so you construct your own narrative [within very limited limits] or the illusion of your own narrative. If you step back from the cover sheet and squint up your eyes and describe what you see and you get everyone to do this in perfect isolation at the same time: they all describe the same thing. That in itself gives the game way. But no one squints enough.
He smiles at me, let’s me reflect a while on my monologue and then asks me: where is the old lady? She isn’t in the photograph. No. No you’re right. She wasn’t there. She died before it all happened. Tell me about that. The old lady had a daughter and a grandson at least. But she chose to live alone; her own husband had gone long ago. Ages ago. She told me about him once. That he worked in a foundry ten hours a day and more if it was there. A hundred men sweated red hot iron hauled into usable shapes and ignored the sparks permanently filling the air; landing on their backs and arms; burning straight through to the skin. Even though everyday was the same, each man would go home and have his shirts darned, those scorched wholes endlessly repaired over because they had pride enough keep up the appearance. The old lady darned his shirts every night. She had food ready for the moment he came home and out on the table. If it wasn’t on the table, he could get mean. And when he drank, which was pretty much every night, he got meaner. The old lady had a faint scar on the right of her forehead. He’d stopped for a drink on the way from the foundry and it found him already with a mean spirit. He got home. Sat down at the table. Didn’t wash his hands as usual and stared down at his plate of food. Didn’t take one mouthful. Stares at the plate awhile. Picked up the plate and hurled it straight. The old lady gets a knock on the back door one afternoon in summer. There’s a lad from the foundry out of breath and with a message to come quick! The foundry doors are wide-open and all the foundry-men are straining round in a circle. The old lady appears and the circle parts; the men say nothing but look at the floor. One or two take off their work caps. She looks down at her ……… husband stretched out on his back. Two men kneeling by him and one saying something to the other shaking his head. Heart had stopped just like that. Cinder burns on a white linen shirt. A little black soot smudged over the left hand. A drop of sweat settled in the corner of his left eye and now with nowhere else to go.
The old lady hid herself away for a couple of years. But she was liked by the neighbors and they saw her through. And she was old, already old, when a vacancy came up for a manager at the cafe. The neighbors persuaded her to apply for the opening; she’d had some experience with that sort of thing. It gave her a new reason to be here. Always the last one to switch off the light. Cleaning up after the girl had already cleaned up. Keeping the drinks cooler stock-full of fluorescent green fizz, fresh-cut sandwiches under the glass cover, clean table cloth and a real white flower in a vase on each table. She busied herself there for maybe five years? Six? She didn’t need the money because she never went out. Spent only on food and basic stuff for the house. She liked flowers. Eventually the tiredness grew. Her hands didn’t work like they should and more and more she stayed around the home. Maybe in the garden keeping the borders free of weeds, waiting for the flowers to bloom one after the other all summer long and watching from the back door as the birds ate up seeds in winter. She got a kid to help her out weekends. Young kid of twelve. Bright blue eyes that looked right through you. Even when he was twelve he could see straight into and out the other side if he wanted. Just an average size kid. Not thin. Not fat. Average height. But it was hard to place his parents. That is, it was hard to place what his race was. Eyes that could have been from anywhere in the world. Smooth skin essentially white but as dark as white can get. Didn’t sit right with his eyes. That old lady was indifferent to him I suppose. So he would say. Always made sure he had a drink and a sandwich at some point and never worked him too hard; polite when they spoke, not patronizing, not soft, not anything really. Made sure he was finished plenty of time before dark so he could get to his house a couple of streets away. The kid really liked being there because the lady gave him sweets and green fizzy drink. It went on like that for a while. He was there when she died. Found her on the ground in the front room with the piano. Said she must have fallen over with a heart attack. Looked like she’d just been watching out the window or waiting for someone and then died. Just like her old man. So no: she was gone before the photo.
I adjust my position in the corner of this sofa. Wait for the man to say something. After looking down at his hands for a moment or two he looks up and as he looks up he asks me what I feel about the photograph now. It’s so old I say. But the story hasn’t changed in all those years. What I mean is: the story the photo tells. It’s always been that way and as far as I can tell it always will be. I reflect on that statement and re-calibrate it. It may be. It may be. It won’t be one day. There’s always been conflict but that doesn’t mean there always will be. No, of course not, the man agrees. And there will be an end or a beginning many years from now. But it’s hard to see otherwise. Do you want conflict? Who can say? I’m asking you. Do you want conflict? At some level. Don’t we all? Then I re-calibrate again. I can’t answer that question. We can’t answer any question. Why not he asks? Because I can’t step outside of me and get to a place where I’m detached enough to care about the answer. But that’s the point, surely? It’s unusual. He doesn’t usually tell me what he thinks, or point me to thinking what he thinks and here I feel he is restricting the outcome. Giving me a lead. I go along with it to see what falls out. I say: yeh I know. We can’t step out of history and swim away to some island of perfect detachment. That’s a wish. So all we can do is account for our own place in history as best we can. The question is which bits of history, I should say the history of others, get stuck to you on the way. Or that you stick to yourself. Whichever. A two way thing. So the question is more about that. About those bits of history we accrete. So where does that leave you and your wish for conflict? Or not. Conflict is necessary at an abstract level. And horrific at the personal level. The individual. It defies logic. Well, it defies rational logic. It makes sense in the logic of a dream. You know: where your house is not your house but it is your house. Yes I know, he says. There is a pause in the conversation. The light shafting though the window picks up the dust in the air. Maybe the light causes the dust to move a little. A little extra beyond the other bits of dust and the air currents. And so what is the only conclusion, given that we can’t seem to get past conflict? That we throw our hands up and tell each other how terrible that is at the same time as killing your neighbor? Well, I can only conclude that we are in a dream. Or at least the logic of the dream applies.