XVIII — Where did those men go?
Where did those men go? What men? He says he didn’t notice; had his eyes closed listening to some music the barman had put on. Old couple are still in their beige cotton-mix windproof jackets; stay-pressed pants. They became one person split in two. They are not harmless. Sitting back into the chair I get a moment to contemplate what to do about this old couple. Hey! I’m going up when this beer is done. He says he’ll turn in too. That tomorrow he can drive and I can watch the grass.
The old couple have both turned to look at me with a shared expression. The expression tells me they are from another time and space. They’ve slipped between worlds just for me. The fabric of the old man’s beige stay-pressed pants resists all attempts at aging. Liquids run off it. The fabric resists looking any different from the day it was made. The old man came with his age pre-programmed. The wrinkles around his mouth, the thin white hair and the sunken cheek all pre-programmed and not the mark of a lifetime of experiences.
It came as a shock when someone realized old age could be commodified and sold as a lifestyle choice. This old couple could be any age from sixteen to six hundred. They may have made the choice themselves as aging adults or maybe they had been kids given the latest present. You just couldn’t tell because the process was just that good. But when the companies cottoned on to the fact, a completely new market opened up. And it did wonders for the social fabric, breaking down the divisions between the various groups that formed and reformed, some naturally some artificially, as everyone clamored after the latest thing. On the back of the old age option, surprising other options came online: the down and out, the terminally ill, the neurotic, psychotic, traumatized, banal, bland and the religious convert. The Housewife. You could opt for any one of these comprehensively valued personas for a minimum of time and pain. And very quickly and for a short period, no-one really knew who anyone else was. There was a sudden and brief collective gasp of realization and the differences melted away. No one was alienated by a less than pretty face. Skepticism about in-the-head illnesses became just a legitimate and expected response: Oh! That lifestyle choice. No one could tell. That old lady with cancer. May have been the real thing. Maybe not. Cancer had become a life choice; desirable; fashionable; virtuous. What it amounted to was this: the anxiety that normally faced people when faced with a compromised body, an uncontrollable mass, no longer had to be defended against in the same way. The anxiety didn’t have to be consigned to the ill as other. This was how it was for a short time. But eventually, when everything and everyone had become symmetrical and identity had become a global property, the marginalized others, that is the marginalized others that hadn’t made a lifestyle choice, vanished. It was a master stroke and it started as just another marketing strategy. They vanished and the official version was there never had been any homeless. No psychiatric patients. And no-one could remember. But eventually, out of the order, disorder crept back in.
The old man is looking at me. An unsettling smile. Something behind his eyes that I don’t know. Which way does the wind blow? You know, I say to the man as I stroll over to him. You know what! I reckon you are no more than thirty years old. Am I right? My processing vacillates between certainty and uncertainty. My fluidity is stretched and hardening into crystalline areas. The old woman now looks up at me and the old couple share that behind-the-eyes smile. I try to recall what happened last time. I remember that there were some birds talking to me and some kids, youths, ending up in an altercation. But what about this old couple? Or young couple trying to do an old couple? Well, the old woman had a bag with her. An imitation leather, beige, very beige, cross between a shopping bag and a handbag. I wonder if she had been a man at some point in her early life and had been arbitrarily predesignated as a woman. She/he may have even carried out a suicide in a slightly different time and place. Not here. What a mistake was made that day! XX? XY? XYZ? Dress it up in whatever framework you want. Dress it in a delicate pale gold floral dress. Put it in coarse hare-grey pants. As it stands, someone is making a less than arbitrary decision.
Nonetheless. I have this old/young couple before me and I need to do something about it. They grin at me. I sit down in the soft brown chair next to them and open up a dialogue in which they tell me where they’re from, how the dinner was, how proud they are of their daughter the violinist. They affirm each other’s stories with the fixed grin and excited nodding. Every now and then the old lady sits forward in her chair and clutches my left elbow. Or the old man slaps my knee. I notice a barely perceptible red stain on the edge of the low table. Why don’t you come with us, they ask in unison? Both of them look me straight in the eye and the grin doesn’t give an inch. The old man gives a barely perceptible nod, makes as though he’s gonna push himself up out of his seat but gives me the time to agree with the suggestion. I remain. The old woman tries her hand. You can ride in the front. I don’t mind. I like it in the back. We can show you round the waterfall. You can stay in the guest room. The old man hovers an inch out of his seat. His hands grasp the chair but show no sign of tiredness. No muscle fatigue induced trembling of true old age. That’s what gives him away and now I know how to play it out.
It feels like I’m stood on a record album sleeve. There is some yellow, some black or maybe dark green. Straight lines like a window at night like a scene trying to work itself out. A street scene in the west of the warm country. A club? A music club? Organizing all the actors in to a position where they make connections. People are present but they can’t be seen. The scene is a memory of a dream or a thought that someone had and so there were never real people there. Just the idea of people. And the music conveys this sense of an idea of a thought too. The scene creates a space that pulls in and positions against this repeated, tapping, clack clack clack clack sound with the electric piano undulant beneath. Over and over. A wind driven pipe plays a parallel tune. The music climbs a circular stair and then back to the bottom to climb again. Breaking out on top. Light. Space. Climb the stairs again. Goes on for miles.
I suddenly notice that none of the pages in the coffee table book that sits by the old man’s knee are the same. That is to say: as I look at the side of the book I notice that each page is a micrometre more or less wider or narrower than the next and this gives the book a sense of its own finitude. It restricts it. It’s not right. It’s not real. The ceiling light cascades horizontal laminar shadows down the book’s layered side. It’s not the endless smooth side of a book that has limitless possibilities because I can clearly see the limits of what is possible. The book is limited. It’s not an endless story. It has contours and texture. It is less than veridical. It has spaces of coherence and spaces where the coherence smears it around. The old man follows my eye down to the book and he reads my thought, grits his teeth and snarls in the back of his throat. Clenches his fists up. I look for other elements in this scene: low table; fake wood. Plasticized. I notice blank spaces under the chars and table which should otherwise show orange carpet. The red stain is growing. Making its way down the table leg and across the orange carpet. Plastic plant in the corner. Large leaves. No back to the pot. Two dimensional. The music hovers over a beat like a car in a jam. It pushes forward. Swells up! Goes round. The old man hobbles round toward me fumbling for something in his pocket and muttering with flecks of spittle irrupting from the corners of his tight smooth lips. The hobble smooths up and he gains a little height. I back off to give him time to change. His pace flows into sync with mine and the years fall away. By the time he’s in my face, we’re same age and an equal match. More or less. Well, more for me and less for him. He swoops at my throat with a small knife that came down his sleeve. But I have sharper teeth.