If you were free to do anything would you do nothing?
|The Son of Sisyphus, Son of Eris
By T. D. Eldridge
Men fling themselves from high buildings.
Women run screaming, with many tears.
Children stand confused, distracted.
All I can do is write.
A necessary and fitting introduction, you see, a calamity, of a rather sizeable scale, is going to occur. The end of the world. The cessation of all life in all its forms. This is a prophecy. This is Man’s future. This happens in a matter of days’ time. It is unavoidable. The instrument of our destruction is very visible and a panic presses me forward.
It was a grand, celestial mass of rock that had become detached from its elliptical orbit around the Sun, deviating from its prescribed path, from the push and pull, capture and release, of the Sun, finally defeated by the task that was its charge. And this great boulder now runs wild, rushing down to crush mankind, its spirit to continue now absent. This event has been handled in different ways; some have viewed the prospect of destruction as an unwelcome challenge to their existence, either taking up arms or submitting to it, some have denied its possibility vehemently, some have accepted it, some have despaired, some have been indifferent and others ignorant.
I am fully cognizant of the limitations of time that our frail bodies place upon us. Usually, Providence, Inclination or Necessity provides enough distractions to busy the mind from thoughts of our own transience. Usually, there is consolation in the fact that there is potential illusion of some sort of immortality: Children, religion, artistic contribution… These things take on a different character when there’s a massive rock heading, hurtling towards you and it is a struggle not to contemplate death and its consequences. I am attempting to do so. I am providing a record in these last hovering days, for whom I do not know, but this is a history, perhaps Humanity’s last history, so that the last chapter in Man’s story may be written and if there is some eternal spirit of us all it may find some closure and find its peace. For my part I sit in fear and type away, outside there is only despair and violence, or, more frequently, a silence so powerful, so lingering, the very marrow of my bones sits uneasily and my hand start to tremble. I cannot face the outside, though free to explore the streets beyond my comforting doors, I choose not to. So I write, and I will let the spirit of Klio, muse of History, guide me, hopefully to salvation. So goes my preface.
A rather sizeable object the width of a country – maybe Wales or Luxemburg – was spotted on a direct course with the Earth. Over the following few months mathematical models were evaluated, options considered and the gravity of the situation was fully realised by scientists and government types. Only a small number of scientists knew the full extent of what was happening and they were asked not to talk by the aforementioned government types. One scientist, though, felt burdened by knowledge of this fact, and told a newspaper, secretly. This knowledge spread faster than it should have through all forms of the media, with speculation building on half-truth. No-one knew much but many were alarmed. This knowledge dissipated into the air forming a miasma of confusion, an aroma of discord; a strange, accumulated, lingering odour.
Some people, though, and I include paunched David Gillson here, always seemed to deal with this fact rather calmly. He was sitting on a settee, in a cheap student house, in the moderately sized city of Gradchester, with the television on when he heard. Lest you be ignorant he was a student and the room had a strange, accumulated, lingering odour to it, the origins of which were so numerous I shall not dwell on them, but mostly spilt food, beer and mould. At this stage the event was only a possibility. The newsreaders that presented him with this information were suitably reserved if strangely insistent. One, who possessed a certain symmetry in his appearance, was reading an autocue:
“Scientists from astronomies around the world are starting to confirm the possibility that an asteroid could strike the Earth in the near future. The strike, predicted to cause severe devastation, is set to occur in less than twenty years’ time. On the line we have Professor Calthrop of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration…”
From David an eyebrow was raised and he did sit up, but, to be fair, this was a rather moderate response. April, one his housemates in the cheap student house, this terraced symbol of Victorian industrialism that lay on a long stretch of road from the town centre to the town’s university, screamed. Screamed and screamed then called her mother. One should credit the journalists, though, for they themselves did not overreact. This newsreader did not once infuse his words with any unnecessary emotion. He merely read his story.
David decided that he was hungry and quickly microwaved a meal. He sat down to watch the House’s communal television, with him sat April, Sadie and James – the House’s full compliment. This was a relatively rare occurrence. They lived together, directed amicable conversation at one another, but this arrangement was, for the most part, a marriage of convenience. They were all in their final years, restless to move but directionless. They were office fodder, soon to be yoked by the white collar, consigned to mediocrity, office-bound servitude, and were dead fish following the tide. This did not trouble them.
“Should we do something?” Sadie spurted. The rest didn’t know.
A sense of impending doom filled the room, mixing with an unprecedented sense of community. Sensing these senses David smiled. These four had shared halls in previous years, drank in pubs together and now paid bills together but they didn’t know each other really, didn’t want to know, didn’t know how to know. Knowing wasn’t their priority, only to rush through, ‘do’ university, move on, quickly. Now they sat just that little bit closer. Within each of them lay a discontentment that was rarely abated, never articulated, but continually suppressed or denied, a discontentment that found expression in restless languor and vague yearnings to move and experience something new. They carried out their assigned tasks, their work, their roles, as student, son, daughter, runner, extrovert, introvert, Briton, man, woman, human being, individual, without loudly expressed complaint because they did not know the cause or solution and presumed their toils were a good thing and would be rewarded by whatever forces of balance control the universe. They were developing identities, goals, conceptions of life, all of these things to focus energies, guide, assist and channel their lives, for chaos and war were thought bad things.
“A few more asteroids and there would be no more conflict in the world.”
He thought as they sat together.
“Zero more asteroids and there would be no more conflict in the world.”
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. The price of peace is general annihilation. April, at this point in time, was rather panicked, fidgety, trying to tell herself not to get worked up about it, which was like trying to ignore an elephant in the room or some great blemish in the middle of your face or watching a film with nudity in it at school or laughing at a racist joke or enjoying a man getting beaten or lying out in the sun having just drunk three beers and a glass of wine counting cumulus clouds when its your Nan’s birthday and you need to call before two as that’s when she’s going out to town to buy groceries and a copy of ‘Bella’ and get her hair cut, some sort of perm you presume, which you need to do or the rest of your family will give you an earful and call you a lazy bugger, which you can partly agree with but that is unfair considering you’ve have done a fair bit of work in the last week, especially compared to some who are considerably worse but who will probably get a really good job in a few years time just because they know someone or get lucky, not that you’re that materialistic but you’d like to have some money to spend on things, such as a new car since yours is practically falling apart and has a few dings in it that weren’t your fault to any discernable degree but detract from the overall look and performance of the car. These things are a guilt born of knowledge, a contest between what you think you should do and you struggle to avoid doing, a decision to be made of who you are, indicative, reassuringly so, of a complexity of character.
This fidgeting was rather infectious for the others. David thought a bit more logically:
“The world is going to end therefore I should have lots more sex.”
However, he suppressed this thought, though it was fast gaining acceptance in his mind, and replaced it with disbelief; he was after all a sceptic. It might all be a mistake, it might not quite the right moment to act on this aforementioned thought.
On the whole one would describe David as quiet. His pensive countenance and almost catatonic stares persuaded many that he was of great intellect, that his conversational hiatuses alluded to complex and intricate thinking. It would be more accurate to state that David was easily distracted by his own thoughts and that conversation was a social necessity that, for the most part, he had convinced himself was of little value. People were a struggle and a not very worthwhile one at that. He was happy to collude in the vision that others often had of him, it was a way that he find his place and fit in to society and social interaction, being the meditative ‘quiet one’, the thinker, the self-contained idler.
That night, as broadcasts continued but interest waned, lying urgently in bed, thoughts and ideas trickled from the deeper, darker parts of his brain, of so many other brains too, to that part which produced the normal perceptions and conceptions of the world, ravished them then departed as sleep wiped clear the cerebral pathways. Only their minute and barely perceptible seed remained, the next few weeks to witness its fertilization.
“An asteroid! If it were true… Would I be free to do whatever I want? A carte blanche? But what stopped me before? What will have changed? What will change? People? What do I want to do anyway? If I were free to do anything…what would I do?…I would…probably do nothing.
David rolled onto his side,
put some music on
then went to sleep.
The next morning the mood changed. The mood of an entire nation. A collective hangover of sorts. Those who presumed to know things attempted to place doubt on the previous day’s reports. The government types, the media, the scientists all asserted that things were not as clear as they had seemed. Mathematical models were doubted. Observations were now not so clear. Any panic was “hysteria”. Calmness and moderation were vehemently and almost violently advocated. In general, people acquiesced with that, with what they were told, it all seemed reasonable enough and they didn’t want to be unreasonable. The truth was, though, that an asteroid would hit.
Chemistry was David’s calling (he thought at least) and today he didn’t know why but he approached his test tubes with an added zeal, a spring in his step, if one wishes to describe such things in such terms. The many stains of his lab coat seemed to spell out a paean to self-contentment. There was bubbling hydrogen in front of him, there was effervescent laughter a little further away: Other chemists.
This caused David to lurch into action, asking his lab partner, Stewart, his thoughts and opinions on the pressing topic at hand.
“Well I don’t really know. The news was quite insistent yesterday.”
Chemistry experiments are long and tedious affairs, watching for minute changes over many hours. Little bubbles of hydrogen dissipating. It was necessary to amuse oneself somehow. Stewart opened a newspaper:
DECREASED TORINO SCALE LEVEL AS ASTEROID FEARS DOWNPLAYED.
“Astronomers monitoring near-Earth objects are playing down the chances of a newly discovered asteroid hitting the Earth...”
The Torino Scale rates the danger of near-Earth objects. The Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale is a similar, but more complex and mathematical scale. On the Torino Scale, Zero means zero or virtually zero chance of impact; Ten means certain collision causing global climactic catastrophe. The government was sure that any reports on the asteroid included this scale, preferably in picture form. [diagram] They presumed that if it appeared someone was thinking about it, someone expert, then this would help people process the danger, file it away. This allayed some people’s fears. There was some safety in numbers. ‘People’ is the wrong word but in general people put the danger at about a four, which was itself two higher than the government said it was and six lower than what it should have been.
Stewart was continuing to talk
“I heard…from a mate who does Physics…that there was a computer error in America, some telescope, you know, that caused the whole thing.”
I gain satisfaction in pointing out there had been a glitch, a major one, in the operating system of the Hobby-Eberly telescope, which caused Professor Lance T. Supsberg’s research on quantum phenomena to be severely hindered. It also caused the firing of technician Walter Gupman for incompetence. Justifiably so – it was his fault. He was accustomed to presume an aptitude for computers that was in reality lacking, for it was in the movement of files in an organisational exercise that the data was lost, something that should not have been done in such a slapdash manner, without even making plans or copies, the fool. Gupman didn’t see it this way, though, and complained to his girlfriend as soon as he got home from work about the flaws in the system, the failings of his boss, how he didn’t like his job anyway, but I don’t know to what extent he believed himself when he said it. This information, of his firing that is, evolved as it circled the globe through physicist gossip. It is strange how information gets passed around but then again the world of astronomical physics had become saturated with rumour in the past six months.
Two months previously to the announcement of the asteroid, in an unrelated way, the Gradchester University Board of Governors who were in charge of allocating funds to various departments were made aware of an error in calculation that had led to a significant shortfall in the funds that had previously sustained the Chemistry department. As a result the Board decided that the department must therefore be shut down at the end of the academic year lest debt be incurred. This fact was made aware to the student body a number of days before the general public was informed of the asteroid. Initially, it was only the more vocal who objected, a minority, with others more timid concurring with this objection, others more indifferent busying themselves with other concerns. The student paper, the ‘Gradchester Inquirer’, comunicated, in a 500-word article haranguing the campus, in the words:
“Gradchester Students to hold protest over proposed department closure”
its message that:
“The Student Body, once powerful and mighty, now lies dead! Moreover, it rolls in its grave having suffered a long, lingering death. Rise up! Protest! For the good of the campus we must keep the Chemistry department open!”
translated and moderated into good newspaper language. In twelve years’ time the campus will be desolate and empty, save for an occasional plastic bag.
David was reading this article whilst sitting in a lecture hall, at the back, waiting for something to start, specifically, a lecture on mathematical models in chemistry, his experiment long finished. The row in which he sat was relatively ancient, maybe from as far back as the Eighties, littered with the accumulated thoughts of generations of students with too much time or too many thoughts on their hands.
“Pete is a bender.”
All of these were preserved in the wood, written by biro or carved by compass. Pete will live on, for a while at least.
“Press for fifty five minutes to end lecture.”
This had a small circle carved in the wood next to it. Nearby was another with:
At this David speculated that having mystery in life was a good thing.
The call for protesters, the great rally for disgruntled students objecting to the outrageous actions of the University came two days later. The ‘Inquirer’ had done its job. A good number presented themselves including Sadie and April, attended by lots of sunlight and a warm breeze. There was lots of good-spirited cheering, a bit of cheeky name-calling and a local newspaper journalist – from a proper newspaper, with classifieds and everything - so, whilst in reality the protest counted for little it caused some noise and fulfilled the students’ self-imposed obligation to do such things. April used the opportunity to shmooze, meet some people and attempt to get in the paper by standing close to the photographer. As has been mentioned, Sadie came too.
April was always friendly to Sadie. There was friendship between them and loyalty. To a point. April was often frustrated with Sadie’s despondence. Sadie was often too restrained. She rarely wanted to go out at night, she always was too quiet when she met new people, too studious, too un-April. Even as a drunk she not that fun. But she was good-natured and let Sadie take control, dictate the agenda, form the opinions, so they got along. They became separated in the melee, Sadie clumsily talking to someone familiar, April in the throng of the assembled crowd, having spotted some other friends. A self-styled leader of the protesting with a downtrodden scarf and political aspirations shouted at the crowd with a megaphone. What he lacked in charisma he made up for with energy, and, in this context, that was more important. Over the next few weeks it was people like him that sustained the protesting with a curious blend of idealism and egotism.
The speaker, Andy, was fondly regarded by April. Mostly, I suspect, on account of the fact that she saw him as a good socialite, a clean-cut, good looking, pillar of the community ‘type’. He fit in nicely with her ideas of her own place in the world. She saw reflected in him an appealing image of herself. They seemed both motivated, reasonably clever, him from an affluent Home Counties suburb – it doesn’t matter which – both with nice, stable families and both keen to ‘do’ something in their lifetimes, achieve something.
Maybe even be a lawyer.
James was running. His course took him through various bits of green on the outskirts of Gradchester. He hated running through the grubby city streets with their grubby people and annoying brat kids who would shout obscenities at him. A song, Bob Dylan’s ‘Man in Me’, (“The Man in me will do, nearly any task, as for compensation there’s a little he would ask…” etc.) kept repeating in his head, keeping the rhythm of his steps. He ran every day, except rest days. James ran because that was who he was. It was his assigned role. He was a runner and a sportsman. That’s what he did. There was him, his destination and the road between in beautiful simplicity. Events of a day might impose themselves on him but they were secondary and he tried to make them peripheral. The monotony of his footsteps and uniform footprints on scenic landscapes allowed his mind to wander. On routes that were familiar he might very well immerse himself in his thoughts to such a degree that he would awake in the latter stages of his run oblivious to what had come before, perhaps lost visualizing that he was running and winning a race. This visualization could be made more effective and motivational if his father was in the race. Lagging behind.
Thus, he would dwell in his own mind and, in this sanctuary, feelings of endorphin-induced elation, which were otherwise somewhat elusive, were experienced. This was escapism. This was a mild fantasy. From what did he need to escape? He had friends, prospects and on the whole a good time. I guess everyone just needs a hobby. Paradoxically, it was during these periods of dynamism, when his body was forced to exert itself, when limbs ached, sweat poured from him and his physiology was subjected the pressures of constant motion that solace and serenity were experienced. It was when thoughts could be pondered with a clear mind, or, more often, subsumed to the rhythmic poundings of his feet. Yet, more than this, he was asserting his presence, affirming it over the environment around him, a sort of re-acquisition of the terrain, from brittle twig beneath his feet to the grander, more panoramic perspectives when, in his isolation, the very nature of being seemed to change, as if temporal qualities did not exist, not timelessness but timefulness, as if every experience in the location were being experienced simultaneously and were being absorbed. He felt that he was communicating with the very soul of his surroundings as he knackered himself propelling his body around 10 miles or dirt track. That’s what it felt like as the endorphins ran to his brain and that’s, in part, why he did it.
What motivates? James was motivated. James was now running over a long stretch of grass, unevenly cut and on uneven ground, with a footpath far in the distance and one far behind. The idea of stopping and lying face down and putting his arms out as if to make a snowless snow angel came to him, fluttered about in his head then departed. An action, barely sensible as a thought in James’ mind, the performance of which would have been regarded as Eccentricity itself, that was quickly laughed off. In ascendancy were thoughts of aesthetic amelioration – he nearly had a rather good six pack - and thoughts of sticking to his running plan, regimen, if you will. But sheer vanity could not sustain such activity, mostly he kept going because he was a sportsman and in the future when people conversed with him he would say this with no indecision or lack of clarity and he could talk about the sport he did and what he would do and make comments on other things from a sportsman’s perspective.
On this occasion he returned from his run, showered, ate a quick snack, did a small amount of work then went to a lecture. He was more studious than he felt he should be but less than he needed to be. He sat with his mates. They were also sporty. They were also loud.
“Car Park was jammed with protesters.”
They didn’t generally approve.
“When’s the essay in for?”
They didn’t precisely know.
They didn’t really care.
A band of brothers, with a bond forged in beer and hours shared in sporting exertion and endurance of banter. It was a sort of constructive competition. Yet they would do anything for each other save doing anything, but they didn’t need to as that’s not how it worked. They did their own thing but their own thing was each others’ by definition. They were mates. Imagine, for instance, Adam Smith in a rugby shirt.
It worked because they got to express those antisocial parts of their psyche in a social environment, made acceptable as they can do it to you, and if you don’t like it you can loudly object. They knew they had each others’ interests at heart in general but the arrangement permitted room to make known the fact that their mind was not in complete, absolute, univocal agreement about this. If our minds and personalities are fractured, multiplicitous things then those desires and thoughts that are irrational, unpleasant and discourteous need attention and the power to make themselves known and felt some of the time, do they not?
In the aftermath of the rally April, her friend Pete and two other friends of theirs had retired to the local student union pub. It was glossy, new(ish) and inviting. The furniture and sometimes the floor, depending on how good a night it was, were sticky from spilt drinks which contained too much sugar. The prices were good though, so they couldn’t grumble. Since it as about five it was relatively empty and staff looked relatively bored (one was either bored or overworked in their job so they couldn’t grumble). April approached the bar.
“Two vodkas and coke and two Carling, please.”
The person working at the bar smiled.
“You’re April, right?”
April smiled but was at a loss.
“Trev, from Jo’s house party.”
“Oh yeah! Sorry, my memory is terrible. I had had a lot that night.” A nervous laugh.
Steve accompanied his response with a friendly smile, before going for a couple of pint glasses.
“I could tell…”
- A momentary pause, as the pints filled -
“Did you see the protest, cameras and things, I was in here but apparently was good.”
“Yeah. Good vibe, you know. Good speeches.”
“Hear that Andy! Apparently you made some good speeches.”
Further down the bar, previously unnoticed by April stood Andy. His eloquence from that afternoon had not departed.
“What? Oh, Thanks”
“This is April. April, Andy.”
The evening when the asteroid impact was announced to the world some were genuinely scared at the prospect. Television ratings increased significantly as sizeable numbers wanted to learn the scale of the disaster, but, having learnt and having convinced themselves that it was being dealt with, they, on the whole, continued in their lives as before, reading, going to the pub or, as in David’s case, sitting there watching the tv and cutting toenails. Well that’s a bit of a generalisation since an entire country, well planet, can’t react the same way. I can speak of the students of Gradchester, though, and say that the announcement did not faze them much. Their minds were elsewhere and on other things. Not, I might say, on the closure of the Chemistry department, not on their work to any discernable amount, not on anything like that, really.
Sadie was sitting in front of her computer with an essay due in for the following week. It was all but complete and competently done if rather uninspired. She checked her emails every few minutes to distract herself as well as snacking. The work was there, but not her focus. She was doing work. It was just that no work was being done. A sort of active laziness. She refused to admit that it was boredom that plagued her for it was a self-imposed imprisonment that she chose to endure and she knew it would be beneficial in the long run. Besides, what else would she do with her time? She suppressed her restlessness and produced anther burst of typing. Her door was open, inviting diversion and it came when James came in and thundered up the stairs. He gave a nod and a laconic verbal acknowledgement.
He went into his room, opposite hers, and silence resumed.
She began typing the letter ‘r’: rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
In the middle of her work.
This little expression of herself was deleted and, after she recognised the fact that not enough work was being done, she stood up to get something to eat. She wanted something snacky, something sweet or saccharine to nibble one but when she opened the cupboard with her food in it such an item was not forthcoming. She would have settled for some jam and toast but her food supplies were understocked due to procrastination. She therefore decided to make a little sojourn in the direction of the local shop. The shop itself, this local shop, was indistinguishable from any other one might encounter in the country. The goods it contained were utterly predictable. The wall opposite, though, one might describe as rather interesting. On this wall was spray painted in stencilled, uniform letters the word ‘INCOMING’. There were other bits of graffiti, to be sure, but they were the usual incomprehensible tags done by bored teenagers. This one stood out. Underneath it, in smaller lettering was “Vincit omnia veritas.” Truth conquers all. She thought this rather pretentious. And it was - bloody students. But unexpected, so she was quietly grateful. She had not noticed, though, the small depiction of an asteroid placed next to it, a circle with lines emanating from it signifying motion.
April, Andy, Trev and a small collection of their colleagues of the college that night had decided to revel in the blissful inebriation of alcohol. From pub to cheesily musicked club they journeyed, the drinking serving a number of functions, ranging from being a topic of conversation, inducer of entertaining behaviour, form of activity but most importantly speeding the progression of the seemingly excessive expanse of time that they had available to them. By wilful negligence Andy and April had been separated themselves from the rest, leaving the insipid kitsch that that is played in ‘student’ nights, (though they themselves enjoyed it, the ‘retro’ tunes, the poppy hits, the horror!) and sought their own amusements. It was a mild spring night and they walked back through the Gradchester streets and across campus, exchanging conversation playfully with one another. However, in the far distance – and it was briefly remarked upon – the University of Gradchester Physics building had gathered a small crowd. It lay on a hill – a big hill – and was the highest point in Gradchester; a huge, grey, modernist, monolithic expanse of concrete that seemed to have been popular in design (for some reason) during a bygone age. It formed an aedificial trinity with the Chemistry and Biology buildings that lay lower than it, the former just as old, with many windows, the latter new(ish) and shiny, its glossy finish not yet made murky. On the Physics Building a man stood with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a megaphone in the other, too far away to be heard.
“Poor fellow”, April remarked.
Yet, her attention was not held long and she continued in her merriment as before, indulging in the passions of the night. They did it the next morning too.
The next night David lay on his bed as he was wont to do. Lying on his back he glanced sideways to see from his bedside clock that it was half past one.
“Fuck.” He thought. “I don’t want to be tired tomorrow, need to get to sleep.”
However, he knew he wasn’t going to go to sleep any time soon. He wondered what to think about to stop himself thinking about not being asleep, thus a stratagem of distracting the brain and allowing sleep to take over.
This was his overly-analytical brain in action again:
“It is not a joyful event per se that makes one happy, that constitutes the experience of emotion, but the change in state, and speed of change, the dynamic condition of becoming something better or of disorientation. That is why happiness and sadness are interlinked. One can cry at a moment of joy, derive enjoyment from a depressing song. The old cliché: What goes up must come down. Yet…what goes down must go up. That’s why popstars turn to drugs, to handle the rapid descent from the elation of playing a concert but also why Radiohead are so popular and S&M people exist. It’s all very mathematical:
For a person who experiences the very negative seemingly mundane things are enjoyable. Look at Epicurus: The philosopher who lived in constant (but fluctuating) pain who said the best state of affairs was to be without sensation, without pleasure or pain. A modest request. To be in the desert for an extended period of time means a simple glass of water takes on significance otherwise lost. If you are in the negative by a lot then nothing, mathematically zero on the scale, is desirable, or rather feels positive. In each moment of enjoyment lies the seed or remains of its opposite, some pain endured or impending, upon which it is dependent. Thus, too much fun means no fun. Thus, everyone’s enjoyment is equal since every up is matched by a down and vice versa. The product of one’s life is necessarily zero.
Ah!” He was tempted to say this out loud. “What if one dies on a high or low? Probably low, I presume it’s quite painful. Or sleep, which resets things, or what if one remembers some things more than others? We shape our own memories, choose which artefacts to retain, the photos or mementos. But wait. Our lives are not some cumulative whole to be judged, they only exist the present, a series of moments continually lost, displaced, unstructured. Happiness is a dynamic and discontinuous value, the same state of affairs in one’s life does not mean contentment, contentment can only be found in a perpetual state of movement, a continual becoming at exponential rate, which is hard and unsustainable. I wonder, though, if we exist in some grand scheme that society creates to perpetuate itself and motivate itself to do things. Who chooses what makes us happy, prescribes what is an enjoyable pain or discomforting pleasure, when we should struggle against our urges and when we should succumb to them?
I should be a philosopher.
Actually why do I think of these things? I bet its wrong and in the morning I’ll think it stupid.”
Such theorising had precedent. The theorising, though, was soporific - a minor success won against himself. He produced many such ideas to explain the world, never fully formulated, only unwatered seeds of thought. Without an answer, The Answer, that would put everything in its place, then all else seemed irrelevant. He never gave up hope, if that is the right word, that he would find it.
James, as usual, was the first up and was stretching for his run and had the television on for company. A journalist with brow firmly furrowed was interviewing the head of a governmental scientific board about the state of the solar system.
“So, Michael Johns, what is the truth about the asteroid, is it going to hit?”
“The truth is, Jean, that the report which caused the alarm was by no means certified, that is to say attested by and in compliance with regulations and protocol that ensure scientific rigour, I...”
“So there’s no asteroid?”
“My organisation, and indeed the scientific community as a whole, feel obligated to therefore criticise, that is to say, highlight the questionable interpretation and application of the astronomical data which…”
“What do you say to Professor Humbert’s report that asteroid impact has a high likelihood of occurrence?”
“When one examines the material that is available from observation of near-Earth and also objects that exist further away within a framework of analysis that induces…”
And so it went on. James had already left.
David arose mid-morning for a twelve o’ clock lecture. As he ambled towards the Chemistry department a car pulled up on the road next to him to inquire where the Vice-Chancellor’s office was. He was reporting the story of the drunken man who had toppled to his death from the Physics Building.
Surprisingly the man who fell was not a Physics student.
His fall had adhered to the laws of Physics.
The mess of impact had now been cleared away.
Apparently, he was an assistant professor in the Mathematics and Philosophy department, in fact someone who had taught David and James and April and Sadie basic statistical maths in their first year. They had to study it: It improved their ‘employability’. He had a small office room, with computer, books, a plant, a whiteboard. On it he had drawn a phallus in a childish, graffiti-esque style and written in bad handwriting ‘bunch of fuckers’. On himself he had drawn circles with three lines next to them, denoting movement. All over his face mostly. Why he had done it, killed himself, was by no means immediately apparent, but officials were inquiring and there would soon be a report.
I have no desire to talk about the lecture, or the people David conversed with after, or its topic, its length, its importance. He went to it, to be sure, and left.
Made notes, learnt new things.
On his way back, though, he went on a path that intersected two big bits of green. It was sunny and people were outside.
On the two sides of the path – a standard path – were two rows of people. Imagine a wedding or funeral in a church when a person walks up the central, with spectators either side. These people were lying back, looking at the sun. They sat up synchronously, stared at him, without speaking a word and lay back down. They thought he was someone else, perhaps.
Not that this was normal, like a five pound note, but it happened.
The four members of the house each had dinner at about six. They were all in the kitchen, moving around, preparing food, with gas burning, microwave humming, stomachs not empty not full but wanting food.
“How about we go to the pub in a bit?” Said James.
“Hmm... I don’t know I…”
“Aaah Go on!
“Well I’ve got this..”
“It’ll be good! Yes? Good!”
Bosh, an evening’s entertainment organised.
It did not take long before April spotted someone she recognised and darted over to speak to them. Sadie, James and David were left to their own devices and entertainments, mostly involving swirling their drinks in an anti-clockwise fashion. This did not phase David, the silence I mean, as he began to look at bar paraphernalia, an activity that proved sufficiently distracting for him. For the most part old posters for Guiness or old pictures of drinkers: ‘My Goodness, My Guinness’ or dusty miners with foamy bitters, the quasi-nostalgia that pubs try to create, a sense of history, community, identity that comforts the drinkers, the customers, built from old tat from a car boot sale.
In a pub where loud, drunken conversations competed with one another the absence of speech was to prove uncomfortable for Sadie and James. James tried to start talking, knowing that with Sadie it was an arduous task, for she was normally so quiet. However, on this occasion both parties derived enjoyment from a conversation that merrily frequented from topic to topic, sustained by witty interjection and founded upon many well expressed opinion and recounted experience. On occasion David might chip in but his heart most assuredly wasn’t in it. On other nights like tonight, he was often keen to go out but just as often he regretted doing so, his naïve expectations of an evening disappointed by its reality. He could not help but think at times such as this that his conversation was drivellous, his actions regrettable, his attempts at amorous advances and adventures ill-conceived and his hangovers horrendous, or at least paid with too great a price, financially and in other ways.
A man, Geoffrey, stood at the bar, drunk. He was connected to James in a friendship of inebriation, that is, when both parties had had a few they would easily engage in talk concerning matters social, political or universal, the state of their colleagues, the government or the university. Loudly I might add. Yet, when Chance would place them together in a condition of sobriety this talk would possess much brevity and little substance. “How’s it going?”, “How’s the [insert pastime here] going?”, basically expressing a desire to be cordial but not be detained for too long, the urge for socialising having passed. This would occur perhaps running into one another on campus, in town possibly, it was only a small one remember. Geoffrey had good shoes, an expensive coat – a fact he was not afraid to mention – and carried a drinking flask with whiskey in it, “a fine malt” he would mention when offering it around. He said he saw himself joining the Army, Household Cavalry. He had the accent for it, a bastard progeny of Giles Brandeth and Brian Sewell. It irritated many, including James: So conspicuously pretentious, so seemingly disingenuous its nasalized pronunciations and fallacious identity of upperclassness was trapped between parody and reality. It was an unwitting artefact of a middle-class aspiration that now seemed anachronistic, the redundant wish to be a toff, emulate the styles and values of a gentry now discredited and now, like perhaps before, a fiction, the unfortunate product of a grand confusion of social identity. He was unsuccessfully adhering to two-dimensional, illusory, rose-tinted, idealized notion of a group yet unaware of this fact and unaware of the finalities of an ironic depiction of this kind. He was playing a character and discerned little between the artistic conception and the validity of a world external to it. A character from some black and white 1940s film, Woodhouse novel or American blockbuster which contained some quintessentially, stereotypically ‘posh and British Brit’. He did this, though, to be salient, individual and colourful yet came across exhibitionistic, tedious and unsightly.
Geoffrey would express opinions in self-consciously chauvinistic ways, with the straw men of ‘political correctness’ and ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ being made the subject of hostile and vitriolic remarks. Following this conversational gambit of controvertiality that in its more extreme forms might include the deployment of not malicious but over-generalizing statements, “those Frenchies”, remarks about ‘the Asians’ or “I’m not racist but…” rants. As I say, crude, simplistic but often gaining an uncomfortable titter of laughter, not agreement but almost suppressed encouragement. He was twenty-one and an amusingly bigoted, buffoonish, middle-age Colonel Blimp. This was a world which idealized Boris Johnson. (A note to posterity – if you are not familiar with this name imagine a highly intelligent drunk wearing Andy Warhol’s wig.)
Characters in films, though, have scripts to sustain them; Geoffrey was only a character from a film. After attention was directed towards him he struggled to retain his interlocutors’, his audience’s attention. Often he felt it necessary to create stories, anecdotes and incidents to make himself seem interesting and be able to contribute on diverse topics. Some, as a response, thought him suspicious and untrustworthy, most for the greater part didn’t care – he entertained them and later in his absence he would give them conversational fodder: “Geoffrey’s such a liar, he told me that...”
He strode from one group of people, with whom our housemates were not familiar to our housemates, pulled up a chair and began talking to James, introducing himself to the others, particularly Sadie. On one level some territorial instinct was aroused and mildly incensed by this intrusive act yet it soon dissipated.
“I went to the office today and met some ghaaaastly woman, secretary or something, about the essay result I got back,” one conversational strand began, “she was theeee rudest person I’ve ever met. I mean it’s not myyyy fault the bloody computer messed up the marking is it?”
Later, on another topic:
“ ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘that may be how you do things in yooour country but round here we take things a little more seriously.”
“I thought to myself, ‘if I were in charge round here the lot of you would be out of work, that’s for damn sure.’
Some may call it ranting, yet this was only an aspiration and not a reality. Needless to say it far from a grumble. The preferred nomenclature for me is ‘whine’, since the word implies an excessive amount of complaint and yet a powerlessness of the protagonist. A whine expects some response from the listener. It is an attempt to construct an identity of victimhood, the speaker and acquiescent listener are fellow sufferers against an unjust world, it is an entreaty to take up arms against a vague and abstract foe. Yet, this differs from a grumble as a grumble is more individualistic in tone and expects no pity or sympathy, it is more stoic and fatalistic. A grumble is defiant and angry, a profound indifference to life’s hardships, or an attempt to seem indifferent. The rant, of course, can be the most compelling and the most annoying form of complaint as it imbues its topic with the passion of those who have suffered or perceive a provoking injustice. It can be energetic and vibrant as defiance finds a focussed expression, its reception, though, dependent on its validity and agreement; its argument, unlike the whine must be seemingly well-conceived, consistent and worthy of acceptance.
The inane chatter and diminishing accent of Geoffrey was swiftly consigned to the background of David’s attention. This consignment yielded a dull mental ache that simple self-reflection could not expunge. He was conscious of his reticence which formed a discordant, unexpressed expectation and this expectation produced the following exclamation, delivered a manner as intrusively and inexpressive as was possible for him, spoken not addressed to anyone, just an enigmatic comment in one exhalation of breath left floating in the air:
“Ay, ay, ay, my back.”
It was articulated as if to introduce some lengthy comment, a precursor to an anecdote or topic, which the others realised was not forthcoming. It succeeded in its objective of disruption, attracting attention to himself but most importantly creating an atmosphere of instability, of conversational flux, if you will. An interjectory injection of randomness to disturb the patterns of discourse that were visibly developing. Yet, his colleagues were by no means overwhelmed by this assault and parried with an expression of tolerant discomfort:
“Right.” And they then continued as before.
David tapped his hands on the table in a gesture of restlessness.
“I’m gunna..err..” he motioned to the door and with this aposiopesis he then thus departed thence.