THE LOST AND FOUND COLLECTION
(First published as a collection in 2013, edited with two stories added in 2014, current edition 2015)
Different Maps of One City
I don’t think I will ever quite understand geocaching.
Tumbling along the road to somewhere on a shaky bus to nowhere in particular and staring out the window at an endless line of building facades with a long forgotten purpose, now merely serving to evoke sighs of impotent shame from passers-by, the mind tends to take a similar pointless turn. Except this time it homes in on something.
Geocaching; an all-inclusive, world-wide, free-for-all game – a bit like a treasure-hunt using technological gadgetry designed to release the inner child and offer a bit of adventure. The appeal of it, on paper anyway, makes sense. Bit of fresh air and everything. Yet it eludes me, not just due to a creeping lack of motivation which has started to pervade my general existence. A helpful pre-requisite is to have a reasonable sense of direction. Plus a map – paper or electronic – to help you navigate your way to the invisible X – of which I have nothing of the like. My internal sense of direction is no better than a homing pigeon which has just suffered a nasty concussion after having flown through an archway which had a glass covering due to a random public art project on street-mime.
Even in this city I’ve lived in virtually all my life – excluding the couple of short-lived attempts to build a nest elsewhere – I’ve erased the detail around me, through continued ignoring, to the point of having virtual tunnel vision. I go where I need to go and rarely anywhere else. It just sort of happened that way…
My map – let’s call it a proverbial one for now – is becoming all too familiar, all too recognisable, all too predictable, to the point where it’s like a disintegrating piece of paper in which the landmarks are either missing or simply not even connected anymore. That is the way I’ve come to see the map of my life and all the endless steps I’ve taken in it. Itching for a new one. A new way to see things other than as a blurry smudge in the corner of my eye. The answer could be geocaching. But maybe not for me, having tried it once or twice.
Just when I think that I’m maybe getting the hang: People staring, sleet stinging, litter blowing, people muttering, cold biting, fingers numbing, mind wandering, traffic congesting, darkness descending, pubs crawling, people shouting, people singing, people beginning to invade my space.
That’s more or less what I’m thinking as I continue to tumble along; stopping to alight and make an attempt to blur into the crowd and scurry away from the nagging thoughts that continually amount to little, and be on my merry way.
Destination: particularly, nowhere.
I try to bring the package into focus, in vain.
When I sent the blueprint away to the factory, already I could tell that this would not be what I was expecting. It is far too small to be taken as an exact imitation. Even in the cold light of day it seems too unreal to be “the real thing” – it doesn’t even smell the same (smell being an important sense) – when I tentatively position my nose above the surface and inhale, waiting for a sense of familiarity… nope.
Dreading and anticipating the unveiling, the outline gives away the dark secret within, a hint of what’s to come. Time to find out to be sure. I slowly unwrap the thing, dreading and anticipating every fold which reveals not that much more than the one previously.
The first thing I see are its eyes – glassy and glazed yet looking intently at me. The waxy skin – too lifelike. This is before I can even bring myself to touch it without the additional layer of the packaging. I dare – and instantly draw my hand away. Oh well, I’ve come this far – might as well rip off the bandage. Ta-da. It’s….. me.
Well, this is Version 2.0.
I only wanted a reality check from this company, who promised to deliver just that – I sent in a picture, my best one I’ll admit, and they would send me a replica. For comparison purposes, you see. I had started to grow suspicious of the mixed messages from people:
“You look great! (when I was clearly looking my worst in a while)” – “Ok, you’re bigger than when I last saw you but that’s fine, you’re still smaller than that picture (a caricature made so thoughtfully for me at a recent party)” – “Everyone has a right angle and a wrong angle!”…
They offered an impartial and objective perspective – I would see for once what I really looked like, then throw it away.
I suspected all along that this whole thing was… quite vain. A figment of our image-obsessed, hyper-navel-gazing age. But if no-one found out then it would only be a good thing. But this thing almost made a mockery of me. It was a fraction of the size of me, but every flaw was replicated almost even more clearly than in any picture.
I’ve an urge to complain but that would also be in vain. I got what I asked for and they merely provided a service. No return policy for this thing, apparently. Terms and conditions may apply. That’s the rule. If you’re not fully satisfied you’ve only yourself to blame.
Never again, I thought, I was probably better off in blissful ignorance.
But you can’t be ignorant for long in this world – eventually you are going to come across fragments of the truth, distorted though they may be. The full picture is probably going to be more than you can handle. All I can do now is put the thing away, have a drink of something nice, and pretend that this weird experience didn’t just happen.
Except that’s probably going to take a while.
The Ferry To Arran
To anywhere but here – is my destination.
But I’ve picked one place
Not too far from my residence.
To mark the day I stayed alive
It warrants a mini-vacation, I’d say.
Scotland in miniature. Easier to manage.
Except nothing can
Go wrong there.
It already feels like
Troubles are ebbing away
Arrive at Brodick, feel uncannily
Gaze up at Goat Fell with pride
(Having been up there once before)
On a clear day
Take the bus, leave civilisation even
Further behind by the mile
Go around the whole isle?
Or cut through The String?
Renounce it all and retreat to the Holy Isle?
Where to stop, where to begin..?
There is no right decision –
But a decision – has to be made.
Anything – everything
Is better here
Than going back home.
Where the circle of life may long continue
But one does not necessarily
I’d long suspected something being wrong with Jan for a while. When he suggested packing our rucksacks and deserting our “station” for a couple of days – at least, with him it could be more – I could tell that the uncomfortable truth was finally about to emerge. I had been speculating what it could be.
But at the same time, after devising in my mind many a scenario of what it could be, I had rather gotten used to the idea of Jon’s mystery, couldn’t be sure that I was ready to give up the ghost and accept the reality. Or did I maybe not want to know so soon for some less obvious reason..?
Jan always seemed quite the enigma. He would say one thing, implying quite the opposite, and then doing something else not even in the equation. He made little sense but became used to that over time. That’s just the way he has always been and always will be.
We clambered up the hill, which seemed to require more and more effort with every strained upward lunge. The smallest hints of mountain peaks caught in the corner of my vision, offering some promise of temporary respite from the most (physically in any case) challenging part of the journey.
“COME ON!” – Jan apparently was far less apprehensive than me, simply impatient to tackle this hillside head-on. Typical Jan. So far so in keeping with his incorrigible disposition.
Keen not to show any weakness of spirit or body, I sucked in the next breeze that came by and hauled on a bit more. It wasn’t long before the twinkle of the sea greeted me, and showed that the destination was within reach of us, becoming palpable. The faint scent of ocean was an encouraging sign, as was the indication of a downhill turn the road would shortly take. However it entered my mind once again; the closer we get to the point of respite, the sooner this secret will change the way things have always been, never to return to being that way again.
Throughout my life – most of which has involved him in some way – I’ve felt the build-up to something significant, which will alter what of my life may remain.
There was a rustling in the shrubs nearby, interspersed with gorse, from which darted a deer – a fawn – lithe and agile, almost faster than I could see. The motion ceased suddenly, and I would most likely have missed the vulnerable creature, as it blended so well into the path in front of me, giving me a stare both trusting and wary; as if my being there would have no consequence on the remainder of its life, but also that it would be wise for me to keep my distance.
It disappeared back into the bushes almost instantly; almost at the same time my thoughts returned to Jon. I called out his name; I called it out for what seemed like ages, but Jon had vanished without a trace. At almost exactly the same time as the fawn.
At one point, briefly, between my realising Jon had probably left my life, as suddenly as he came, to continue his own existence somewhere, I reached the top of the path on the same hill we were walking that day. I looked onto the bluish sky, turning into twilight I could see with the emerging flecks of pink and purple, and onto the path which continued into a forest which stretched out as far as I could see, on another hill which gently rose onto the horizon.
Jon would tell me his secret one day; he’ll send me a message from somewhere out there. All the while still wondering what it could be, I went home.
He’ll come back in his own time. I have no reason to believe otherwise.
There Will Be No Miracles Here
I walk up the stone staircase, through the chiselled gateway, soft and barely discernible gravel beneath my feet, swishing quietly with every trepid step I take as I ascend onto the main courtyard in front of the house.
I cannot say that I take in much at once, for on the surface very little of note is happening today, apart from the quiet murmur of routine activity and the odd stolen glance in my direction by what appear to be workers in the home, in the way they scurry along and quickly lower their gaze. Timid yet on display to all and everyone – like a goldfish which cannot hide yet manages to entertain spectators and passers-by in endless circles for a fleeting lifetime. That is how I anticipate feeling once I enter the domain of The House, and that feeling rises slowly but surely within me.
Either way, however this time as an apprentice turns out for me, I will learn for myself what lies behind that piece of verse; until now having no meaning. I think vaguely that the sign to the house should read more like;
“Abandon hope all ye who enter here – Tea and coffee served all day”
I walk on, and the wind ceases and a musty stillness faintly wavers before me, and my eyes attempt to adjust to the dimness within, speckled only slightly by rays of light coming through from the other side of the house. And I hesitate.
I sense shifty eyes upon me, beginning to wonder what my business in this kind of place could possibly be. All around me, figures making muffled movements, eyes darting up and down, making no movement which isn’t immediately necessary. When I suspect I’m not in anyone’s line of vision, my own eyes shift around the room I find myself walking into, as it registers piece by piece, looking for any indication of where I should be going and with whom I should be speaking; instead I notice odd items of curiosity. On in particular stands out in my memory.
A small sphinx-like black figure sits on the oak table in front of me, facing me, hiding any hints of its obscure origin. As if I could tell anything from its fixed, glassy stare. It seems an adequate expression to stare someone down, out the door, away from the house and back to whence they came. I suddenly sense the air becoming stagnant and potentially suffocating – not very conducive to comfortable breathing. The sphinx-thing seems to say that it will never say anything, and dooms anyone looking at it to keep guessing.
I would be tempted to linger slightly longer on the guessing if I didn’t sense that I should look away, and for that matter keep my attention on why I’m here.
“Are you the one we have been expecting?”
– a voice comes from an unclear corner of the room, and it takes a few seconds for my eyes to focus on a faint outline of a man of uncertain age, with only a hint of hair and eyes that seem to look not quite at me but on either side of me…
“I… came about the ad… that was posted online…?” I begin. It does seem quite ridiculous at the time to even say the word “online” in surroundings such as these. But that’s how I got here in the first place.
Half-expecting the man to look baffled at the mention of the internet, I’m somewhat surprised when something appears to click suddenly.
“Of course, yes, well I suppose you’ve had a look around the place already. Let’s get started, shall we, not waste any more time…”
Time certainly doesn’t appear to be prompting anyone around here to hurry. Suddenly the carpet, starting just before my feet, appears to start folding in on itself, and soon I can see a hole in the floor, with the top of a staircase only just visible. The man beckons me to go down.
I don’t really want to be the first to go down there. I peer down, and there is only enough light that I can just about make out the floor at the base of the staircase, but nothing more. Not really knowing how to object or what to be questioning here, I reluctantly obey. We descend into a dim and musty chamber which turns out to be far smaller than I thought it would be. Before me there is – what I can only speculate as being – an altar, or a shrine. There is a single step, apparently to kneel on, and a small cluster of random objects, which I imagine to be gifts to some unknown spirit or deity.
Perhaps my open-mindedness about coming to this place – not knowing in the slightest what to expect here, other than “THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE” – has temporarily blinded me to the sheer bizarre nature of this whole situation. After all – why have I been led down here? Am I supposed to know what I should be doing?
What is going to happen…?
Suddenly I realise that I am alone down here, having failed to notice the ceasing of creaky footsteps behind me. I turn around in a semi-circle, look up, and my “guide” smiles faintly from the first stair, above and before me, and says only one thing:
“Stay here until you have made a miracle”
Now, before I can think what that is supposed to mean, the opening from which I came closes, leaving me in this strange room, still trying to figure out what would constitute an acceptable “miracle”, and if I was really capable of making one happen.
All I can think about – actually, I’m already having trouble thinking about anything other than what just happened, and what can I expect to happen..? Something tells me that it would be pointless to ask for more clarification; if only because I’m seriously doubting that the man, otherwise quite nice, would come back for me anytime soon. In no uncertain terms it has been made clear to be that I’m meant to stay down here for quite a while.
My curiosity is now piquing, admittedly, and I’m thinking, if I came this far with an open mind and willingness to embrace another way of thinking, of being, then I might as well kneel down and allow that proverbial bolt of lightning to strike.
On the piece of furniture before me – which I can’t quite identify other than it looks a bit like a miniature throne – the material is humble but the design is surprisingly ornate. Like it has been made in veneration of… whoever it is I’m meant to be reaching here. I close my eyes, inhale carefully, and wait a minute.
Instantly, I see that figure which I set eyes upon in the house entrance. The one with the gaze. It’s gazing at me through the speckles of light which are puncturing the darkness brought on by my eye-closing. Is this thing – this being – trying to tell me something?
I try to dwell on it for a while. Then the lightning does strike.
I am locked in my own body like a coffin. I cannot move and can barely breathe. It would be like paralysis if not for the slight stirring I can muster from within. And I have to run to the point on the other side before the light fades away.
I summon all the will within my being, trying to compartmentalize my body, into pieces that I can control and manoeuvre. The weakness fizzles through my tissue, rendering me helpless and stationary. My breathing, I realize, does not require me to be aware of the action. It happens anyway. But I can control the way I breathe. I can make a point of drawing in airborne reserves and charging my body, awakening the cells and molecules one by one, until they rise like an army and reclaim the power of mobility.
I imagine dancing. An action so free and easy it requires no thinking, only feeling. How did it go from that, to struggling to show any sign of life?
I see the face of a figure in front of me; I can’t even tell whether or not it’s actually there but I see it. It is so fuzzy yet so intense that after a fleeting moment I have to just assume it’s there. Urging me on. To use the miniscule reserves I might still have to just… MOVE.
Almost before I realise what’s happening, I feel myself moving. A faint but distinctive surge of energy fizzles through my veins, and it is actually making something happen rather than my feeling it helplessly. I am moving. Slowly but surely. Away from those trying to bring me down with their noise. The voices blur into one unclear noise, a rabble that begins to lose all meaning, and almost all ability to hold me captive.
-MOVE YOU CAN MOVE YOU CAN MOVE-
Um… can I? – yet the fading of this “dream vision” is too fast for this moment of doubt which inevitably pops up in my mind, it is losing its ability to persuade.
Everything fades into the distance and I land back in front of the altar, the colour and the shape of the furniture merging back into place, until reality comes back together like a jigsaw puzzle. I only see the altar before me, but there is something on the table. I pick it up, somehow not all that surprised at it being there. It is a bracelet-like object, smooth and silver, with the subtle inscription;
“No virtue. No miracle. Only being.”
I realise that I don’t really care how long I’ll be down here, or where I’ll end up going when I finally leave. I don’t want to leave right away. With the image of the sphinx-like “Figure” fixing its enduring gaze on me in my mind’s eye, I decide that it can’t hurt to try and find the answer to just one more burning question…
For Your Convenience
(originally written in 2008 for a university module in creative writing)
“A life of total convenience? Impossible! But now – it’s true!”
“Could you be the one to give it a try?”
“It’s easy – just press The Button TM”
X enjoyed a challenge. And she was impulsive. That was a part of her nature. So, typically of her nature, she suddenly decided to respond to an obscure but eye-catching advert which invited an anonymous volunteer to test-drive a “life of total convenience”, and this sounded like the perfect antidote to her current life.
How bad could it be?
Things could hardly be worse. Stuck in a stressful AND boring job – trying to “have it all” by doing it all – but in fact gaining nothing (a phenomenon known as The Curse of the New Generation TM), she felt she had no real life to call her own, and spend most of her time plotting in vain of escape. This dream became quite a common one, as people started to yearn, above anything else, for a life of ease. Ironically, in the current time of The Renaissance II TM – a golden age of science and technology – this was a virtual impossibility.
It was in equal measure a basic human necessity and a remote luxury; and so, a potentially lucrative one too. So she cast aside any doubts about the ad’s dubious nature by asking herself again:
How bad could it be? Really?
With that, she pressed The Button TM, and that was her last memory…
Her next memory was awakening in a moment of total peace – followed by the sudden interruption of the electric curtains opening with a whirring noise, and a growing ray of light filled the room instantaneously, casting a cheerfully blinding glare upon everything within it; nothing of which she recognized as her own.
Frankly expecting anything by this stage, she put this unfamiliar setting down to the experiment’s conditions; all she really knew for sure was that her life was about to get much easier today… But then she was also very much half-asleep and it was likely that the full significance of her situation hadn’t yet come to fruition, for she barely had time to think any more about it before a Robot TM appeared from outside with a big burst of electrical energy, singing its own version of the morning chorus in a similarly upbeat tone – pleasantly melodic, but in a metallic kind of way.
It was carrying a try with everything one could need for the morning, or indeed, possibly for the entire day – a full breakfast with all the trimmings, a newspaper, a remote control with an inbuilt multiple-choice itinerary, a Pen TM, and for a nice finishing touch, a single Rose TM in a vase. The list of options as a whole seemed a bit overwhelming, but as she scanned it with a growing curiosity –
- Stay in bed
- Make a phone call to someone nice
- Have a cup of Tea TM
- Use the bathroom
- Sit by the window
- Look out of the window
- Have more breakfast
- Sit in the lounge
- Use spare breakfast napkins to make origami…
– individually, none of the options looked at all like too much to handle. She wanted to make something of the day, but she also wanted to spend it alone and didn’t feel quite up to the challenge of attempting a new and creative activity such as origami-making – and certainly neither wanted nor required any bathroom-related assistance…
So she made use of the Pen TM to select 8.- the second most interesting option available which she felt capable of accomplishing on her own. With that – as if to take a hint – the Robot TM promptly retreated from the room, but about 3/8ths of a second later, it returned with a pair of slippers and a dressing gown. Once she had thanked the Robot TM – as it had apparently gone to a lot of trouble to make her feel welcome – it retreated again, not returning this time, but she still waited an extra couple of seconds to be sure.
During that pause, she had a fleeting notion that she ought to be questioning how she would cope with a day of such ease, but frankly she was too distracted by the novelty of the situation to care. She attired herself in the slippers and gown and rose tentatively out of bed to make her way through to the lounge. In passing, she glanced out of the window, and was taken by surprise to see that even the view outside – a pretty little Garden TM with a decorative fountain in the centre – seemed to have been created to perfection, just for her viewing pleasure…
She passed through a very short and bare hallway – hearing the faint whirring noise of the little Robot TM dutifully attending to its morning chores – and stepped into the lounge.
It was nice, conventional, homely, clean, comfortable; if there even existed such a thing, it was nothing short of the perfect lounge, There was even a plasma-screen TV and a self-watering bonsai tree. It had everything. But the piece-de-resistance was a single settee TM, right in the centre of the lounge, which looked both very high-tech and very comfortable. A normal-looking settee TM, but on the right armrest was a device that appeared to be an entire control-panel – a larger one than that presented to her earlier own – but in any case it was something that wouldn’t look out of place within the offices of the NASA space centre.
Initially, it looked a little intimidating, but she was still game.
All in the name of science.
She sat down on the settee TM – which was quite possibly the most comfortable settee TM she had ever sat on in her entire life. She cast a leisurely gaze around the pretty little lounge, everything around her in the right place, all strategically positioned to be easy to reach AND pleasing to the eye; just as it should be. In fact, it was gradually becoming easier to imagine never wanting to move or to do anything ever again…
A little on the quiet side for her taste, but in itself that could hardly be a bad thing.
Don’t we all want a more peaceful and relaxing life?
If you don’t want that kind of life then what’s wrong with you…?
But there were choices to be made as to what to do next that day. So she briefly examined the control-panel resting just under her hand to review her available options. They were remarkably similar to the options available to her earlier on, so she decided to try something a little different this time.
I quite fancy a cup of tea.
Then, with the decision made, she pressed the relevant button, resting assured that this would be just the thing to help her relax and aid further contemplation. But in fact literally no time had passed – it surely couldn’t be possible – between making her selection and the Robot TM appearing from nowhere with an almost startling efficiency, bearing a small tray with a kettle, a delicately handcrafted porcelain tea-set, every little savoury accompaniment to tea known to humanity, and finally some Tea TM.
But she liked her tea black and plain. Like her style. Politely, and with only a vague hint of surprise, she thanked the Robot TM, took her Tea TM, and quickly disregarding the unusual circumstances of this moment of solitude, began the task of enjoying her cup of Tea TM.
After a moment or two, she couldn’t help catching, out the corner of her eye, that the Robot TM was still there. In the corner, discreet, silent, and entirely unobtrusive. But still there.
Awaiting her next command. Whenever that would be.
Doesn’t it have other things to be doing around the house…?
But as she was quite content already – at least for the time being – she also quickly disregarded the slightly niggling feeling that she should also like a little more privacy to enjoy this rare moment of solitude – grateful for having one in the first place – and continued to just sit and be. Things could be worse.
MUCH worse. I should know that better than anyone from experience.
But being so unused to having so much time at her leisure, it was not long until she felt like a spot of lightly stimulating activity. But what, she wasn’t sure… After a moment’s hesitation, she decided first to consult the list before making another decision, to see if anything suitable was available, just to be on the safe side…
- Put clean feet up on pedestal
- Have another cup of Tea TM
- Have Robot TM spring-clean lounge and re-arrange flowers on the mantelpiece
- Tap out the Japanese national anthem on saucer with teaspoon
- Do nothing
- Select another option- (that sort of thing)
Hmm. The options were certainly showing a little more variation, but none of them seemed to
be very demanding, or productive, or potentially interesting for more than slightly less than a
minute at a time…
But why would that be such a bad thing?
Because… what’s that old saying? Something about “variety” and “the spice of life”…?
I think I’ll go for a walk outside, I need a little fresh air and it looks quite nice…
But the door appeared to be locked quite securely, and she couldn’t see any sign of a spare key anywhere. That’s strange, why bother having a door when one is unable to even go outside?
A little bird sat outside on the branch near the window ledge, and it began to sing. Now that’s something I haven’t heard in a long time. The simple joy of a bird’s song. A little consolation from nature… slowly accompanied by a faint whirring noise. And the bird stopped singing. She turned around suspecting exactly what she would see there. The Robot TM fixed her to the spot with a steady but empty gaze.
Sorry. Listen to Bird Singing is not an Option.
Sorry. Open Door is not an Option.
Sorry. Go Outside is not an Option.
She remained as still as a statue, not quite sure how to react to this unexpected attempt to enforce restrictions, as the Robot TM had previously been so hospitable.
No response. Recommended Option: Return to Lounge.
No response. Recommended Option: Return to Lounge. Please.
No response. Failure to accept Recommended Option. Assistance Necessary. Begin Procedure
to Restore “State of Convenience”.
The Robot TM slowly advanced towards her upon this last sentence. It had been programmed to handle these situations with care.
But needless to say, by this time she had started to realize the strange situation she was really in…
RULES OF “A LIFE OF TOTAL CONVENIENCE” TM:
What, there are rules? And why exactly wasn’t I warned about them before?
OUR AIM IS TO IMPROVE QUALITY OF HUMAN LIFE. THAT IS WHY WE AIM TO ACHIEVE THE
HIGHEST LEVELS OF CONVENIENCE AND EASE IN EVERYDAY HUMAN LIFE.
It’s not really working – you’re not making my life very easy by standing in my way…
FOR THIS REASON, ACTIVITIES WITH AN UNACCEPTABLY HIGH RISK OF INCONVENIENCE ARE FORBIDDEN.
So you think you can control me? I’m a free human being!
FULL COMPLIANCE WITH THE LIST OF RECOMMENDED OPTIONS WILL HELP OUR MISSION TO ENSURE THE HIGHEST PROBABILITY OF SELECTING THE EASIEST OPTION AVAILABLE. WE AIM TO ERADICATE INCONVENIENCE.
What – even if it causes so much IN-convenience to achieve it? Oh the irony. Something has gone a bit wrong there…
Actually, I was wrong in the first place. This life of convenience has too many rules and restrictions which actually impede quality of life, so ultimately it looks like it comes with a price but I’m not paying. I quit. I log off. I’m out of the game. I like my NORMAL life.
THIS IS FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE.
To hell with convenience! I just want to make my own cup of tea the way I like it – nice and boring – and to go outside and listen to the birds sing!
She pressed the well-hidden Escape Button TM. This was intended for emergency use only, but she was too bored, irritated and in need of a normal day to care. This whole experience turned out to be probably the biggest inconvenience that she had faced in her entire life.
With that, she quit the game. And as she walked down the country lane, the bird started to sing again.
A moment later, a Bird TM started to join in the song…
State of Independence
I take a deep breath and walk in, taking up my position centre-stage.
Everyone is half watching me, half preoccupied with something else; fiddling with papers, pens, felt-tips, erasers, smart-device-paraphernalia, loose teeth, loose change, who-knows-what-else. It’s the attention/inattention combination which makes me all the more unsure of my standing. Okay. Focus now. Start drawing them in.
“Good morning, children!”
“Good morning, Robin!”
The academy I’m in is trying to be more progressive, so they’re trying out the use of first names for everyone, children and adults alike, for the foreseeable future. It’s taking a bit of getting used to; it can be quite jarring, although it would be pretty lame of me to actually say this to anyone… I half-expect someone to call me, out of the blue, by my pet-name – which I’m not revealing to anyone. Too embarrassing. Anyway I don’t get called that name anymore.
I’ve been given a special topic to broach today in class, and since I’ve not been here very long, it’s a welcome change to have a definite focal point for the lesson. Just throw it out there before you have time to hesitate.
“Class, I’m going to ask you a very important question, and that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. Here’s the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
I was genuinely curious to hear the response. It has been THE question of late. A mixture of “yes” and “no” came from the children, but none sounded too decisive. Perhaps it’s slightly too big a question for first thing in the morning. I was going to have to approach the subject in a different way, to ease them in.
“Hands up all those who believe in independence…”
Two or three hands go up, but only tentatively. Each one is attached to an unsure-looking owner, nervously seeking the approval of everyone else in the class, in case they are in danger of ostracization if they put their hand up for the wrong thing. The sad thing is, often, they are. With good reason too.
“Ok – can anyone tell me the definition of “independence”…?” Even fewer volunteers this time.
“Ok – let’s break it down. How about the definition of “dependence”…?” One hand slowly ascends to the ceiling.
“To depend on someone?”
“Yes, or something, even?”
“To rely on someone?”
“Well… yeah, maybe. So then… what does independence mean?”
“To be inreliable!”
shout a few more confident members of the class in unison, before giggling with youthful pride. I carry on:
“Independence means to not be dependent on anyone or anything else. It means that someone – or something – can make its own decisions without having to consult, or ask permission, from anyone else. It means being able to take care of oneself without any help from anyone else.
“The word “independent” – a derivative of independence – is an adjective, which means that it usually applied to a noun. We usually use the state of “independence” as a noun – what is a noun, everyone?”
This one, the class knows perfectly by rote, thanks to last week’s grammar revision:
“A PERSON, A PLACE OR A THING!”
“Excellent, so you have been paying attention! Now-
“Independence, or the adjective of being “independent”, in this case, can apply to a person, a place, or a thing, but it will usually alter the meaning in some way. If a person is independent, that is often said as a compliment – meaning a good thing – and it means that the person does not rely upon anyone else.”
A small but assertive voice reaches me:
“It is better to be independent than dependent, isn’t it Robin?”
“Well, when talking about a person, the answer to that is usually yes, because… no-one wants to depend upon anyone else, it means that you have less of a say in your own life. It means, above all else, that someone else decides things for you, and who here likes people to decide everything for them, telling you what you can and can’t do…?”
The class remain largely unanimous in the “no” response.
“On the other hand, who here likes someone to depend upon them for everything?”
There is some palpable uncertainty here. I take advantage, trying to establish my place here as a “good influence”…
“It sounds like a good thing, wouldn’t you agree? Come on, I was your age once. Being in control of someone else’s life, someone else’s future. Sound like fun? But in truth, everyone, that is no more of a good thing than being dependent yourself on someone else. It means that you are responsible if something bad happens to that person, and that if you don’t do the right thing, they will suffer as a consequence.
“So class, the state of dependence can be a mutually bad thing. Now we close in on the whole point of this discussion. If a place is independent, it means that the place can make its own decisions about what happens in that place. A place is usually called a “country”, or a “nation”. What country do we live in, everyone?”
“SCOTLAND (the brave)”
– chants the whole class (interjecting one smartarse somewhere in the middle) – The kids know where we live, which is a good thing.
“Top marks for everyone! Scotland is due to make a big decision very soon about whether or not it should be an independent country. Now, given what we have been discussing so far, hands up those of you who think – believe – that Scotland should be an independent country? And also, why…”
On second thoughts, asking them for a reason might be too advanced for them at this stage, maybe take it down a notch or two – then not quite half the hands in the room go up in the ceiling. Some of these kids look like they’re trying to reach a sweetie just out of reach, or to perfect a novel yoga position. Let’s see what the people have to say…
“Why should Scotland be an independent country… let’s see… Cameron?”
“Because England shouldn’t be bossing Scotland around anymore!”
“Fair point, nobody should boss anyone around, should they? Ok now… Tyler-Durden?”
“Because BRAVEHEART AND FREEDOM AND IRN-BRU!”
This response launches most of the class into a giggling frenzy. Surely it has to be a good thing to get the kids excited about politics at such a young age? Within moderation, of course. There are guidelines to follow and everything.
“Settle down, everyone! That’s a very passionate response, even if it wouldn’t make a lot of sense in the context of a political campaign… anyone else? Can anyone else tell me why – a reason – Scotland should gain independence?”
The hands which were already in the air remain there, but many wavered and looked set to sink back down. Nobody was forthcoming in any more responses to the big question. Then it hits me like a violent dawn. I can’t come up with a reasonable response of my own, because honestly the various doubts begin to nag at the edge of my brain. I blame the radio, to name one thing.
(“We’re better together – don’t break up a good thing!” / “We have been a formidable ally when we’re together as a union!” / “We have so much history, and it would be a shame to throw all that away.” / “You won’t make it on your own if we separate.” / “You need us and we need you.” / “We won’t make it on our own if we separate.” / “That’s just the Way Things Are.” / “On some level we knew this was going to happen.” / “It’s not you, it’s me.” / “Please stay.” / “Don’t leave.” / “You have to change.” / “I can change.” / “I can never change.” / “Why change anything?” / “I hate you/I love you”-)
I begin scrawling on the blackboard in an effort to channel these “arguments to the contrary” into something more articulate. It occurs to me before long that I’ve no idea what I’m meant to be drawing. Better come up with something.
“This… is… an independent article. We’ve covered person and place. Now we come to the independent thing. Can anyone give me an example of an independent thing?”
No hands go up this time, although I can see that one or two are apparently preparing to shoot one up the minute they think of something worth sharing.
“It’s a thing that’s on its own?”
“Yes, that’s correct in a way.”
(Correct, but not quite satisfactory… Someone pipes up closer to where I’m standing.)
“Someone that doesn’t need to be around anyone else… but they can, if they want to be.”
“That’s a good point there, Alba, but that’s going back to an independent person.”
“An independent thing is just lonely. It can’t choose to be on its own or with something else.” “
Independence is a lonely thing.”
Damn. We’ve either struck gold here or we’ve come full circle.
(Alone isn’t lonely. Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. Alone isn’t lonely. Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. Alone isn’t lonely. Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. Alone isn’t lonely. Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. Alone isn’t lonely. Repeat to fade. Repeat to nothing.)
“Okay everyone – I ask again the big question, which has as yet gone unanswered, I notice. Should Scotland be an independent country?”
A mixture of “yes” and “no” came from the children, but none sounded too decisive. No change there.
“We have a long time to decide though don’t we?”
Poor things, they have no idea that whatever they decide then, it is still not their time. Any votes they cast in the upcoming mock election will go straight in the kiddie ballot box and be used as papier mache mixture on the last day before the Easter holiday. Pester power is currently all they have, but in no time, it will come their time, like the tide, to decide – to re-do or un-do whatever decision their parents end up making by then.
“Well make your decision, whatever that may be; but think it through VERY carefully, and come to a decision as soon as you can. Whatever you decide can’t be undone.”
(Maybe it can. Surely anything can be undone if you can find the right loophole. I made the wrong decision, didn’t I? The union came into being for a reason. Things were fine the way they were, weren’t they I didn’t have to leave. I didn’t have to ruin everything. / No. Yes. No. Yes. No. No Fucking Idea. / I did the Right Thing. / This decision is the Best One For Everyone. BOFE.)
I don’t know how long I’ve been standing, staring unfocusedly out onto the classroom, with one solitary, sure hand waving affirmative in the air; one that has already been up more than down most of the day. Cameron. Might’ve bloody known. Never stops questioning.
“Do YOU think Scotland should be an independent country?”
I am about to give my answer, something I made earlier before the kids came in this morning. Although it had been something worth having an opinion on ever since it became THE question to ask at every social gathering. But I hesitate even if only briefly. I don’t know whether it is from discretion, or uncertainty. I smile placatingly, and reply:
“I’m not supposed to say. I’m not supposed to influence you or anyone else.”
I’m just not ready to decide, now that I realise the magnitude of the question. Let me walk blindfolded into the town hall where the voting takes place and then put a big sparkly cross in the ballot box next to the “You decide” option. Let me never make a bad choice for which everyone will suffer as a consequence. Cameron is probably never going to vote; he’s going to believe that it won’t change anything.
The bell starts ringing for break-time. Any pretense to maintain order and peace falls apart instantly and everyone starts shouting and laughing with complete abandon, the lesson already forgotten as they create a human pile when filtering into the hallway.
I must stay on a little while, so I close the classroom door and sit down, turning on the radio. An independence debate. No more questions please – I’ve already had my fill today – so I switch to another station.
“If only I could turn back time…”
The most generic song lyric in existence yet exactly the one which has been haunting me for quite a while. If I could turn back time – if indeed anyone – I wouldn’t be here. I would be somewhere else. Maybe even not-alone. But then who am I to try to turn the tide at this stage? It’s beyond me. But I am here. Like the country, like the kids I’ve just had sitting before me, I’m facing a future that’s coming too soon. In my own private history, I’ve said and done things that are irreversible, which have lead me here, to the point of no return.
Just make a decision and we can all move on. The future’s coming. The kids will all be half an inch taller next time they come in. By then, I’ll have cast my vote. Then I’ll still be here.
With the decision which I cannot change, for better or worse.
Edge of Eighteen
I turn eighteen in slightly less than three weeks’ time.
I am walking – not quite walking – into the park on a very undecided day, weather-wise. As I’m speaking, there is the odd whooshing of celestial spittle which is not quite strong enough to be “legitimate” rain; merely, its potential for heading in that direction…
The sky casts a light on the place, which ends up being mostly bright grey with a subtle luminescence, which looks from here as if it has been pressing through the atmosphere from an alien sun. The path is slightly crunchy, slightly mulchy, under my treading, with twigs having fallen from trees lining the way. One every second or third tree, there are the barest hint of buds not quite ready to announce their impending existence, so they continue on biding their time.
I breathe in the drizzly air as my brain continues a struggle to deal with the information it’s just been given. I see a sliver of a ray of sun descending, probably onto the affluent neighbourhood a few blocks away. Fragments of an emerging rainbow begin promising to gather soon to form a whole.
Equally, my dream in life is nearly outside my line of vision, threatening to dissipate. The conversation from which I have just come – if you could call it one – plays a continual loop in my brain:
“You need to see the whole thing from our perspective. We’re looking for something quite specific here. Something which will jump out from the crowd shouting “I’m the one!” You’re not the one.
“Sorry…” – ….. was my response.
I can only sit there – fiddling with the Celtic bangle I had worn faithfully since I was fourteen, and even more impressionable, with a growing nonchalance – and allow the words to permeate my body. My precarious plan to escape the life into which I’d fallen was no more. It turns out that I will be not going to university. I will continue to struggle. That is now the plan. For better or worse.
I try sitting down on a bench, covered with the residual dew scattering of the morning, and scribbling for a while. A patch of snowdrops poke tentatively out from the grass nearby. Spring appears to have come early; this is enough to fleetingly re-align me with the innate rhythm which helps to guide my one-day-at-a-time plan of late. Anyway, this is currently likely to be the best I’ll be able to do when it comes to being “creative” –
“On a day like- / I am lost in- / I look up to the sky- / somewhere a dog is barking-” is pretty much the jist of what I manage to produce. I should probably scrunch up the note and throw it away in a fit of frustration – masked finely as insouciance – at the bone-dry state of my inner fountain of inspiration, but I feel compelled, for some reason, to keep it safe somewhere. This may be the best thing I produce for quite some time.
The path initially opens onto a field-like area, with people wandering here and there, dog walking or simply strolling. I feel as if I might as well be the only person in the whole country. However, it’s surprising that I don’t notice this earlier, but out of apparently nowhere, what appears to be a small ruin becomes more noticeable, at the point where the path I’m following turns into a “junction”. I now cannot stop walking towards it, as I’ve never seen anything quite like it in the area before.
In a recent bid to eradicate any sense of deprivation – the “old town” – the council has begun demolishing everything remotely unsightly in favour of the new and the shiny and the sparkly and the inoffensive. The place is now practically an “everyplace” for everyone. Most people.
I realise, as I move closer to the ruin, that I almost didn’t notice it because of the rogue foliage that has overgrown all around it, and now it can only be seen from a very specific angle. I’ve happened to see it at precisely the right angle today.
The ruin is little more than a crumbling pile of rocks, with something resembling a tree in the middle. Weeds have long since choked the life out of anything else that might have grown inside. I look a little closer inside, and it turns out that the tree is not growing out of the ground as it looks like, but it is growing from the middle of a platform – a stage..?
A few wedges of wood before it begins to comprise a staircase, leading up onto the stage.
Seizing a current of impulse – before I really think about what I’m doing – I climb onto the stage; then, standing in front of the tree, I look out onto what the tree has been facing for an unknown length of time. I see the world as if I am looking into a mirror image; everything looks similar, but not quite the same. At that moment, it is as if I have stepped through an invisible partition into a realm of complete silence. It is like I’m looking into a picture.
Then I feel that I, too, cannot move, like I’m rooted down just as firmly as the tree. I shut my eyes for a few seconds, trying to hear anything through the density of the silence, then when I open them again, I see a reddish-orange streak through the grass, and when it moves closer it turns out to be a fox; now I dare not move for fear of scaring it away as I’ve never seen one before. It is watching a spot just beyond me, I realise; a robin flutters out from behind me and rests on a shrub, potentially within reach of the fox if it is quick enough to pounce.
The fox stares at the robin, intensely but in less of a hunting mode than a passive, observatory one. Then its gaze drifts from the robin to an unidentified spot between the robin and me. Its expression is one of total neutrality, as if has no fear of losing time. The robin has evidently settled on a resting place, and seems equally in no hurry to leave. It is then that I notice that it has the most intense red colouring in its centre that the idea crosses my mind that it has been pierced there and that it is bleeding.
The robin has an expression – if you can call it one on a robin – of plucky defiance, which is enough to assure me that it is in no trouble, but I cannot help wanting to shield its crimson colouring from the feral and the predatory… This could be a scene from a modern tragedy; in fact it could be a scene from the meeting today. The fox could pounce on the robin, or it could tend to its injury, but it does nothing, choosing to be both heartless and benign. The robin has no clear place to go, yet has to settle somewhere, under the watchful eye of indifference. I am the audience, here only by chance.
I begin to feel a twinge, and the feeling of implosion within me, from the rejection, lowering any idea or preconception I’ve been having of what the future held for me, into the earth to be subsumed into non-substance. All I can do is observe it happening. Breaking the stagnation, I retrieve my folded-up-neatly note and begin re-writing what should have happened today. I should have gone running nowhere, broken into a smile, done a dance, taken a bow as if the whole world was my goddamn stage…
Anything but what I had already done. Which would be nothing.
What I see before me turns into something resembling a song, and by the time I run out of regretful reminiscing, I look up and see that dusk is falling and the localised shimmering of the street lights in the middle distance are just about visible over the treeline.
The fox and the robin are still there. Before losing another micro-instance of time, I begin to recite what I have down. I am less of a fool now than I was earlier today; I began recording as soon as I began, as evidence. As proof that this scene has actually taken place.
Somehow I’m not sure I’ll ever return to this place, so taking a snowdrop and a piece of fern as evidence of my being there, I make my departure from the ruin, breaking into a run as I embark upon the search for lost time, the odds against me, the wind and drizzle in my face, the fox and the robin already little more than a figment of my imagination.
I turn eighteen too soon. I’m not ready but then I never will be. Time and space don’t care. The story will never be done.