Posts Tagged ‘speculative’

The concluding part of my story The Man Who Could Not Forget:

In the end, I was disappointed. Lanchester’s prose was convoluted and ultimately banal. Speed reading, I devoured the entire text, looking for just one jewel of home-spun wisdom, but there were none. These were the memoirs of an ordinary, and poorly educated man, the record of an unremarkable life, bloated with pedantic minutiae. Brady and I were of the same mind: fifty pence was about its worth, and I regretted wasting my memory on it.

After finishing the book I dozed a little, only to be roused by a loud rapping on the door. I looked at Clarissa, but she was still sleeping. Thinking it might be an anxious relative, I hastened downstairs to open it.

It was Brady. “I should have guessed you’d be in it together,” he said.

“What? You followed us here? For fifty lousy pence! You’re crazy.”

“It’s the principle,” he replied. “Now, where is it?”

I still had the book in my hands and there was no point now trying to hide it. Brady reached out and took it. I felt powerless to stop him. It was his, after all.

“I don’t expect to see either of you in my shop again,” he said.

Clarissa woke after dawn, looking brighter and fresher. I knew her recovery would be short lived, though. She gave me a tender look when she saw me waiting at her bedside, but became gloomy when I told her what had happened.

I tried my best to reassure her. “He won’t come back,” I said. But she was less concerned about Brady’s visit than the book he had taken.

“I’ll never find another copy,” she said.

I tried to make light of it. “Well, from what I read – it’s not much of a loss.”

“You read it?”

“Cover to cover, while you slept.”

“So you could recite it to me?”

I didn’t like the sound of that. “It would take days.”

“You could do it, though? Word for word?”

“Of course. But it’s dross. Why waste your mind on it?”

She looked at me then, a steely determination coming over her. “I must have that book,” she said.

“Why should I help you to commit suicide?”

“Is that what you think?”

“What else am I to suppose, when you seem bent on burning yourself out? You’re almost there now. Another book will kill you.”

She looked at me curiously. “I don’t keep this knowledge, you know? I pass it on.”

“What do you mean, you pass it on?”

“I mean, literally. To students, mostly,… I’m a tutor at the college. I also do other,… freelance memory work. But you don’t understand, I pass it on directly,… from my memory to theirs – not that they’re aware of it of course. They just think I’m a good tutor.”

She could see I was struggling with this concept, so she enlightened me further. “That time we met, at college, remember? I gave you some saucy images of me, so you’d want to go out with me. They were Polaroids I’d taken of myself. I thought of them, then projected them into your mind. It was cheap, I know, but I was younger then and not so sensitive. Funny, it had always worked on men before.”

I felt myself go pale. Could it be true? Was it possible? Had she really done that?

“I’m surprised you don’t know the technique.” She grew serious then, and drew herself closer. “You don’t do you? You really don’t. You’re still carrying it all with you! Your whole life! But,…. how can you bear it?”

“What choice do people like us have?”

“But surely, you know that in passing it on, you’re relieved of the knowledge yourself? That’s why people like us live the way we do,… so we can put other stuff in there as well – like,.. like,… those bus numbers from last night and any other trifles that keep accumulating. We,…we,… excrete them.”

I shook my head in disbelief at this. “You mean you dump the garbage into other people’s heads? But don’t they know?”

“You jumble it up,” she said. “It’s just background noise to them – and quite harmless,… but to us,… to us, such a relief!”

“But, how is it done? How do choose your subjects? And what do you mean, you project it? You mean like ESP or something?”

“I don’t know about ESP,” she said. “I only know that it’s easy. You can do it to anyone – even a passer by.”

It was a revelation! Such a technique, if true, would extend my useful life to the norm. SO, the obvious question now was: “Can you teach me, Clarissa?”

She gave me a sly look. “Of course,” she said. “Just as soon as you’ve given me Lanchester’s essays.”

“But if you teach me now, I could give you the essays directly, and rid myself of them in the process.”

“It might take months to teach you,” she said, “And those essays are urgent. My client must have them, and soon.”

So we began – me typing out the essays word for word, comma for comma. It was not a difficult task, only tedious, like copying out the pages of a dictionary. Every hour or so, I would produce a sheaf of printouts, which she would then settle down to read. The task took two long days to complete, the last full stop being punched in around midnight. After that I slept on a futon Clarissa had prepared for me in her spare bedroom. I woke the following morning to find her sitting cross-legged on the floor regarding me strangely. Something was troubling her.

“You will teach me?” I reminded her. “You promised.”

“Yes, I’ll teach you. Have you realised though, the price will be your memories? Which ones and how many, only you can decide. Once gone, they are gone forever. I’m worried you’ll be reckless, destroying half your life in an attempt to preserve it.”

“Surely I’m the best judge of that.”

But already I had begun sifting my memories in an attempt to label them for execution. It had been harder than I’d thought. Was it only the good memories that sustained us? The successes? The times of deep satisfaction? Could I safely dispose of the failures? the cringing embarrassments? the heartaches, the insults? or were they as important in defining us? Was Clarissa right? Was there a danger I would destroy my person in an attempt only to preserve its mortal vessel?

She reached out and squeezed my hand. “Of course I’ll teach you.” “Besides you still have pictures of me I’d like returning.”

“Ah no, Clarissa,” I replied, teasing her. “Those pictures have kept me warm for years. Some things I will never be persuaded to part with.”

By now she was almost too weak to leave the house. It was as if Lanchester’s infernal essays had proven too much for her. In the end, I had to drive her across town to her appointment with the mysterious client. I was curious about him – even more so when she directed me through the gates of a geriatric home.

We were greeted at the door by a senior nurse. Clarissa’s client?

“Clarissa, darling. We were worried.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“You have them?”

Clarissa tapped her head. “All in here,” she said. “Safe and sound.”

We were shown along a corridor, the air heavy with a soporific heat, and finally to a lounge whose walls were lined by the vacant expressions of many ancient souls, each one looking up in expectation as we passed. The nurse led us to a frail old guy in a wheelchair, and knelt beside him. He was in a bad way, his skin almost transparent over his bones. I offered him my hand, a gesture he returned by some long embedded reflex.

The nurse smoothed back the thinning remains of his hair. “Poor love,” she said. “Stone deaf,… Can’t even remember his own name any more.”

But I knew it of course. “Mr Lanchester, I presume.”

Now I understood the value of memory. What to me had been worthless, to him was a spotlight, cutting clean through the fog of his decrepitude to the finest of his days, days that had leaked away from him to be gathered into two temporarily stronger minds.

I tightened my grip on his hand, and Clarissa lowered her head, as if to concentrate. Then she sighed and I swear, as I looked into his eyes, I saw a glimmer of light, not much but enough perhaps to sustain him.

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Continuing from part one of my story, The Man Who Could Not Forget:

The bus station café was just across the street. It was not renowned for its cuisine, and even less for its ambiance, but it was rest and refreshment we sought, and she really looked like she needed to sit down. So we sat, and for a while we watched the buses swinging in and out. Her name was Clarissa and her memory was indeed every bit as perversely proficient as my own.

“You were reading art,” she said. “You were writing notes, in green ink. You had a lovely tortoise-shell fountain pen. The ink had stained your fingers.”

“An essay on Monet,” I recalled. “You were reading Wordsworth’s Prelude. You had on a denim jump suit, a blue scarf, and a little badge on your lapel, a teddy bear,… yellow enamel.”

As we continued to compare notes from that brief encounter, I began tingling with anticipation. Clarissa was different from all the other women I had known. We could understand one another, but almost in the same breath I saw the futility of it. A relationship with her was no more likely to succeed than any other. Indeed it seemed twice as likely to fail, neither of us ever able to forget a single word of all the words we might share, and especially the cross ones. As a distraction, I asked her why she had taken the book.

“It’s rare,” she said. “It’s the last copy in existence. I’ve searched everywhere for it and would you believe it? I find it on the day I’ve left my purse at home. It didn’t seem such a dreadful crime – and I was going to sneak it back when I’d read it. As you know, I need only read it once to possess it.”

“Woudn’t Brady have put it to one side for you?”

“You clearly don’t know him very well. I’ve asked him to do that sort of thing before and he’s always refused. He’s not exactly the most obliging of characters.”

“Actually, I do know him, and you’re right. He does have something of a cantankerous reputation.”

“It sounds irrational, but I was afraid it might be gone by the time I came back. You’ve no idea how important this book is to me right now. It’s vital to my work, to my client.”

She took the volume from her pocket and turned to the inside cover where I noted it was a first edition – 1946. Here also, the price was scribbled in the top corner: fifty pence. For all his faults and they were many – Brady did have an eye for a book’s worth. From the looks of it, J. V. Lanchester did not have much of a following.

“There’s one copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels,” I said. “That’s priceless. But this?”

“No, there are many copies of the Gospels – just the one original. But these essays are probably the last existing vessel of this man’s knowledge. Your paintings by Monet, my Wordsworth – those works have been recorded and printed many times and are in the minds of so many people, they will never be forgotten,… but Lanchester’s childhood in a Manchester slum? His experience as an overseer in a cotton mill? His views on social change in the nineteen thirties?”

“But they’re just some dead old geezer’s memories,… they’re not important. They don’t exactly make the world a richer place, do they?”

“Who’s to say?”

She broke off suddenly, overcome by a pain in her temples. She kneaded them with her fists and tried to shake her head clear.

“You’re unwell,” I said. “I should let you rest. Is there anyone I can call?”

“It’ll pass,” She looked at me. “I’m sorry to ask this when you’ve already been so kind but will you walk me home? Please don’t get the wrong idea. It’s just that I’m afraid I’ll pass out on the way.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”

“There’s nothing anyone can do,” she said. “It’s my mind. I’ve been filling it with too many books lately. Now and then it shuts down in protest, or like just now, it threatens to burst open. I’ll be fine if I can sleep a while. So, if you could just see me to my door?”

“You mean you still make a habit of reading books?”

“Of course. Don’t you?”

The thought was appalling. “Not books,… no way. There’s too much information in them. I collect pictures, that’s all. They’re a much more efficient way of saying something. You know? A picture says a thousand words, and all that?…”

It was essential to avoid filling one’s head with too much information. The numbers of the buses manoeuvring past our window? the faces of the passengers gazing back at us? I would remember them until the end of my useful life. And each day added inexorably to the burden, so it was enough without actually setting out to deliberately look for more. With care, I might have another twenty years before my mind burned out. After that lay only confusion in an asylum. Now I understood the nature of Clarissa’s sickness: she was nearing that stage already.

We walked slowly while she complained of dizziness, and paused frequently, crouching now and then on the pavement like a drunkard. Eventually, she led me to a respectable suburb and to the door of a tidy terraced cottage. It was here, while fumbling for her keys she collapsed, leaving me to carry her inside.

The house was impressively neat, though what struck me most, given her apparently suicidal thirst for text, was that there were no books. The walls were white and the floor was bare. There were just a few plain rugs ordered with geometric precision, and some simple chairs. It was much like my own home, nothing to arrest the attention, only blank spaces where one might safely stare and put the receptor circuits on hold.

There was no sofa to place her on, so I took her upstairs to her bedroom. This too was in the minimalist style with a low bed and a plain wardrobe. Everything was white, and without feature. I laid her on the bed, arranging her as best as I could, then sank down in a chair, beside her.

She was such a pretty woman, and we had so much in common, but all thoughts of pursuing a relationship with Clarissa, no matter how sweet, were pointless. We could become friends of course, but I already had a string of women with whom I shared a pointless friendship. I say pointless because all my life, I had craved so much more. Had I not been concerned for her health, had she simply passed out blind drunk, then I would have walked away, never to return, but under the circumstances, common decency obliged me to stay.

Perhaps it was boredom then that had me sliding Lanchester’s essays from the pocket of her overcoat. I admit I was also curious about him and I wondered if there might, after all, be something profound about his insights. I wondered too about the mysterious client she had mentioned. I mean what was so important here it could have driven Clarissa to possess these words at any price? I turned to the first page, and began,…

The Man Who Could Not Forget concludes with part three, tomorrow.

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ramblerContinuing with part two of my story, The Choices:

For reasons that should be obvious by now, I no longer fall in love with the woman in the red dress. Love is not always a solution to things, though it’s often tempting to believe that it is. This is not to say it cannot occasionally alter the one’s path for the better. It’s just that the possibilities are somewhat limited on this particular night. As for the woman in the red dress, she is incapable of returning love. I should know, it being a lesson I had to learn many times before I wised up.

For the moment she’s a fledgeling alcoholic and a drug addict, her fate having locked her, long ago, into a downward cycle of repeated self-destruction. For her, escape will come, not through me, but through the solution of the enigma of her own route through time. Should she ever manage it, there will come a time when she no longer props up the bar of the McKinley Arms Hotel and no one will be happier than me when that happens. It’s also troubling, the thought there might come a time when all the other pilgrims in here find solutions to their journeys in time, and disappear – all of them, except me.

I get up and, for want of distraction, sit in the chair next to mine, but I’ve done this before and it makes no difference. In a moment I’ll go and sit in the corner by the clock, but these are not real choices, just trimmings around the edges. The big turning points come from the roads we take, or from our encounters with people. There is nothing random about such things. Only from the perspective of a single expansion might they appear so. But once you see things the way I do, the patterns stand out. There’s the dynamic thrust of the clear path. Then there’s the cloying heaviness of the strange attractors, like this one, this night in the McKinley Arms Hotel.

Some times back there was a woman in blue jeans and a pink tee-shirt. She’d been travelling my way, heading for Fort William. On a couple of expansions we’d met up there, and spent some days together. She was soft and gentle and had a scent of rosemary and sandalwood about her. I should have made more of it than I did, but I always ended up alone after waving her off on the train to Mallaig.

Things had been going pretty well, and we’d started looking at each other like everything was meant to be. But then I stopped to think about it for a moment too long and the opportunity passed. It was not so much love, more a subtle magnetism drawing me towards fresh pastures, fresh opportunity.  The next time, I’m thinking, I’ll get on that train and go with her. But she must have veered off some expansions past, and I’ve not seen her since. Thus, I find myself at times in the unusual position of aching for memories of a future I have not yet had.

Of course, my biggest fear is that that was it, you know? Somewhere in that encounter was my one chance of solving this puzzle, and I missed it! But there would be no point in these continuing expansions, if they no longer served any purpose, would there? Surely something else will turn up! Someone will walk through that door and change everything!

So here I am. Waiting.

There are worse bubbles of time to be stuck in. I mean like those beginning around 1900 and expanding through two world wars. They drafted whole generations into the carnage of mindless, mechanical mass slaughter. I suppose, from one point of view there’s a lot of interesting material there to work with, lots of life altering choices, and it may be that it’s easier to make progress in a sea of such upheaval. But what does a middle-aged Englishman of my generation do? Much of life’s nastiness has passed me by. The most dangerous thing I do is get behind the wheel of a car. Still, since I’ve no choice in the times I’m dealt. I can only work with the times I have!

How long I sit here varies. With some expansions it’s about the time it takes to finish my drink. With others, I linger until “last orders”. This marks the bounding condition, and prevents me sitting here all night.

I’m not sure at what point one wakes up to my peculiar perspective, nor even if it’s a natural phenomenon. I mean, I’ve never met anyone else like me. It could be a freakish delusion, I suppose, except one does have a very real sense of the repetition of things, that in certain situations, like this, you have the ability to predict the probable run of events, based on experience. In a moment for example the woman in the red dress will pick up her glass and there’s a good chance the coaster will be stuck to the bottom of it. Then, the old guy sitting beside me will turn over his paper and begin the crossword. It’s interesting how the clues are always different from the time before. This suggests to me the similarities of each successive expansion are only superficial, that at some fundamental level it’s not possible to cheat at life by knowing it line by line. There are probabilities involved, and it’s a probability I’m waiting on now, a slim chance to be seized before it slips though my fingers.

The woman in the red dress laughs. It’s a haunting sound, reminiscent  of the times things were different between us. But for now she is a prisoner of her own circumstances. I’m the only one who knows it and it puzzles me how I can be so prescient regarding the fate of others, yet powerless to guide my own.

I go up to the bar and order another whisky. There are several fine malts to choose from, but my choices here make no difference. I’ve learned to savour each one without worrying too much about the path it might be leading me down. Remember – one shouldn’t try too hard in navigating one’s expansion! I’m sure there’s a Chinese proverb about that sort of thing. But anyway, while I’m here, I eavesdrop on the patter between the man in the blue suit and the woman in the red dress. I’m thinking to myself I could make a lot of money telling fortunes. Like all things, its obvious once you know how the trick works. You’ve just got to be careful not to home in too much on the specifics.

Things are going well between them, so I sense his fate is sealed once more. I back away, taking with me the memory of her perfume, keeping it always as a souvenir of times past, arousing as it does feelings of hopeless attraction and danger.

She’s very tipsy now. The man in the blue suit leads her towards the door marked “residents only”. Her leg collides with my table and the glasses teeter. This hasn’t happened before, and I’m not sure if it’s significant, not sure if it presages a subtle undertow worth surrendering to – but how? How does one to respond to such a thing, and in a way sufficient to alter the course of an entire life? Before I can work it out it, it’s over. She giggles an apology, and they’re heading upstairs to their usual fate.

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pier sunsetA bit of a change this evening, one of my old stories, reviewed and rehashed for the blog, in three parts:

So here I am, sitting in the bar of the McKinley Arms Hotel, again. We’re by the shores of Loch Lomond, at the wrong end of a long drive, and I’m staring out into the twilight at my choices. I’ve been this way before many times, and always seem to go wrong at this point, so I have to be careful because I’ve not got it in me to pass this way again. I simply have to get it right this time!

I’ve pondered the course of all the lives I remember living and have come to the conclusion the evening I spend here is crucial to the unfolding of things. This is unfortunate, because it’s not as if my choices are unlimited. In fact, they boil down to only half a dozen or so, at least that I can see. At one time or another, I’ve played each of these choices out to their conclusion, and found them all wanting. What’s more, they all lead right back here, to this one evening, to this time of deepening twilight.

I learned early on not to go for choice number one. That’s the woman in the red dress, over by the bar. Nowadays I realize how obvious that path is. I’ll admit, it’s a wild ride for a time, but I’m always left feeling cheated. This is on account of my demise at the hands of her husband, who turns out to be a “fixer” for a Glaswegian mobster. Right now though, it’s the guy in the blue suit, entering the bar, who’s locked into that particular cycle of bad luck. He’s what you’d call a well groomed predator of womankind and I’ve never warmed to him. That’s not to say I don’t pity him as he singles her out yet again. I’m only wondering how many of his own lives it will take before he finally wises up.

Choice number two is simple. I can get up, walk out, drive on through the night, and seek fresh connections in the Highlands. I’ve done that of course, many times, but my path cycles right back here. Time after time. It’s thus I’ve come to believe my escape lies in the unseen choices this hotel provides, on this one evening, at this phase in the expansion of my personal bubble of time.

I’ll let you into a secret. You can forget all that reincarnation stuff; this life is the only one you get, but you get to play it over and over. I don’t mean it’s the same each time – that would be pretty dull after all – and you do have free choice in the paths you take. But certain situations have a mysterious way of drawing you in time after time, no matter what you do.

I’m born on December 21’st 1960. The biggest expansion I’ve managed was out to 2057. That was bore. For all my time I seemed to achieve nothing more than a vast brood of useless great-grandchildren and gained no understanding whatsoever of my purpose. At the other extreme, as a child, I once got bound up in someone else’s bad run, and for many lives I couldn’t get past the wheels of their truck in 1972. For all of that though, I’m particularly fond of the summers of those early years, and I tend to repeat them if I can. They’re still the best things I recall, on account of their innocence. I mean before I woke up to this peculiar way of seeing.  I have to remember to avoid a particular street on a particular day if I want to wriggle through into my later life, even if that life only ends up delivering me right back here.

In the main I live to a reasonable age and, in general, my lives are good. It’s just that I’m never able to understand what it is I’m supposed to achieve by living them. I mean, I do suppose there is a point to this endless repetition of things. Call me a hopeless optimist, but I’m guessing we must expand our bubble of time over and over, until we get it right.

Whatever it is.

Now, my life’s path seems okay up to this point. I tend not to vary it much because you never know what’s going to throw you off course. I’m not sure “managed” isn’t the right word though, except in the sense that the best way of managing things is to leave them alone. When you do that, when you give in to the flow of things, you look back at some point and see the purpose in your direction. It’s like being swept along by the current of a broad river. I’m happy – charmed it seems – and everything is spot on, until I walk into this place.

I can’t tell you how many times my bubble of time has expanded. It’s for the same reason infinity is a circle, whether it’s diameter measures a mile or a micron. There is no number to count it, nor to give it any meaning, at least not in your terms. However many times it’s been though, I’ve only ever made it this far in my journey: I’m a lone guy, sitting in the lounge-bar of a hotel, on his way up to the Highlands. I walk in as someone who is going places, and I walk out into a lifetime of disillusionment. It’s as sure as the taste of the morning air, a feeling I’ve lost my way, and that anything else I do in life is wasted. Call it a mid-life crisis if you want, but to me, it’s like being stuck in time. It’s like one of those computer programs with a misplaced “goto”. It cuts mid-sentence, then sends you right back to the beginning.

Choice number three is the bar-menu. But my selections there don’t change things very much: Steak, fish, potatoes or chips? Of all the senses, taste seems to be the least likely to alter the course of one’s life. Choice number four is similar to the menu and pertains to the relationships with the people I can see. Like me, and the woman in the red dress, everyone is pretty much a fixture of this moment. Our individual bubbles are overlapping. I’ve connected with them all at one time or another, followed each path to its equally fruitless conclusion. So, I’m thinking my only chance lies with the random strangers who occasionally walk through the door. They lend a flavour of freshness to the occasion, a buzz of anticipation. But there are no strangers in tonight.

Not yet, anyway.

To be continued. Next part tomorrow.

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