Wednesday, 20 February 2008

the premature end of this novel-as-blog blog-as-novel

My apologies to anyone who has been reading the novel here, but the writers' co-operative, Turner Maxwell (, came and read a chapter and offered to publish the novel entire as a paperback. With their investment in the book I can hardly continue to blog here.
My thanks to Google, however, for having let me do so.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

...even more of John John

Every bed in the ward is now occupied. Many of the beds have their curtains pulled around them, nurses billowing in and out. There is no tea. On his way to the bathroom John John sees portly Mr Assan in his shirtsleeves and waistcoat earnestly consulting with the matron. Beside them one of the younger doctors holds a sheet of paper against a wall and writes.
There is no hot water.
"What's happening?" somebody asks. There are many instant explanations, but without the TV or radio to enlighten them all they have to go on are rumours. 'A nurse said...' 'A porter told me...’ 'I heard a doctor say...’ All the patients have stories to tell of being woken in the night by the comings and goings of porters, nurses and doctors.
Some men shave in cold water, others brush only their teeth, comb their hair. John John starts to shave. The lights go out.
"Apparently it's an electrical storm," the small pedant excitedly tells John John, "That's why all the beds are full — it's upsetting their pacemakers. Assan and Burton have been operating all night." The man sounds as if he has been involved in those operations. "They've had to take the pacemakers out and put them on sedatives instead. Some of them won’t last." In his agitation the man keeps flicking cold water off his razor over the twilit mirror and onto John John, "That's why there's no hot water. Because, although the boilers are gas-fired, they're electronically ignited. And all the valves are electronically controlled. Apparently it’s affecting everything electrical."
Breakfast is fruit juice and cold cereals. No tea, not even the offer of scrambled eggs. The nurses are preoccupied with the pacemaker intake, have no time for anyone else. Neither John John's blood pressure nor his pulse, nor his temperature are taken. He has come to accept their being taken as an inconvenience, as an interruption to his reading; now he feels neglected.
With relief he greets the arrival of the newspaperman; only to find that he has no newspapers, only old unsold magazines. The patients vent their curiosity on him. Standing by his steepsided trolley he turns from face to face saying,
"It's an electrical storm. It's knocking out everything electrical. Telly, phones, cars, buses, trains. Prints for newspapers are electrical. I had to come by bike today. Car wouldn't start. Should've seen the sky last night. There's nothing," his voice rises in his own petulant defence, "I can do about it."
Several of the day nurses don't arrive. Two or the night nurses don't go home. A sulking cleaner appears about noon with a wide bristle-splayed broom. The lights come on, go off again.
"If cars don't work, nor will the emergency generator," Osman Rustar tells John John, "Though my wife will come. She will walk. Not like these English women with their buses and their cars."
Lunch is salad.

Voice Off. Of all the three million species on Earth humanity is the only one which kills, not for food, those of its own species, which is prepared to die for the possession of a thing. Other territorial species skirmish, make a bullish display of power, lock horns or antlers in a ritual show of strength; and the loser accepts his or her humiliation and abandons all claims to the disputed territory. Not so humanity. Humanity has so de-formalised this territorial aggression that, as individuals and as groups, people are not prepared to accept defeat. Thus each of humanity's wars is a continuation of the last.
Human intelligence has come to overlook the original purpose of territorial aggression — that with the territory go exclusive breeding rights — the breeding rights being for the duration of that dominance, or solely for that breeding season. Humanity has thus forgotten that territorial aggression has to do primarily with the perpetuation of the species, not with the destruction of it.
Only when the car is stopped do the two women talk to him, to ask him how much longer. And when the car is not stuck in traffic it is stalled in the open road.

He asked for a WPC, but all are on traffic duty — Northampton’s traffic lights having become so unreliable that they have all been switched off. Not that there’s much traffic.
Only when not in the other’s presence have the two women mentioned the man; and then only to ask if his memory has returned, in order it seems that they can then cut short their visit and leave Northampton. Between themselves all they talk about is their erratic journeys here.
When finally they reach the hospital the lifts are inoperable and they have to take to the stairs. The fat one groans, the thin one hobbles on high heels. Neither seem intelligent enough to be the man’s wife. Maybe they were pretty once, DC Hawkins thinks, maybe once they were seen to contain a mystery other than their menstrual organs. Now, however, this hospital serves only to remind them of their operations, the servicing of their antique plumbing. Step, pause; step, pause; he matches his pace to theirs, the funereal shuffle in keeping with his misery.
An advocate of the new he has seen this day manual typewriters resurrected in the station; and, in a house full of electrical gadgets, on a brief visit home this morning, he had to boil a pan slowly on a camping gas ring to make himself one cup of tea.
The power cuts have also created a mini crime wave. The habitual order of their lives having been upset people are acting irrationally, are beating up their accusing wives, vandalising their disapproving neighbour's fences, robbing their superior friends. With the phones down people are coming to the station to report their grievances. He is needed there to take statements.
At last he parks the two women on a low wooden bench outside the ward, grabs the sister and explains the purpose of his visit.
"I’m up to here in faulty pacemakers. Use the telly room. I'll send a nurse to assist. In case," she says as she hurries away, "the shock proves too much."
The one available nurse is a tired auxiliary in grey and white stripes. DC Hawkins explains what he wants of her. They accompany a complaisant John John to the telly room.
"Dental records were negative," DC Hawkins tells him, "Doesn't mean you're not known though. Only in this country. I’ve been in touch with the Pakistan Embassy in London, given them all that we so far know about you. Now that the phones are down though..."
The phones being down have also put a stop to another line of enquiry. In case the choice of the name John John had any subconscious promptings, DC Hawkins checked the records for any missing John Johns. None. So he looked for any with the surname John or Johns registered as missing. There were eight, none of whose descriptions matches that of his man. He then started searching through the local phone directory, and the voting register, for any John Johns. He found forty five with the surnames John and Johns. He was about to start contacting them on the phone when the interference arrived.
Now he sends the auxiliary for the first wife and installs John John in a deep chair with his back to the telly room door. He stands opposite him. He is more interested in seeing John John's reactions than hers.
"They're just going to have a look at you," he reassures John John, "If they’re not certain then they'll talk to you."
The auxiliary brings in first the thin woman, Mrs Bofill. She comes around the chair and stands beside DC Hawkins. John John looks her over as curiously as she appraises him: specimens to each other.
"It's not him," she says. "Who are you?" she bluntly asks John John.
"I don't know," John John blushes. A natural enough reaction, DC Hawkins, decides, in the circumstances.
While the auxiliary goes to fetch the fat one DC Hawkins wonders at Mrs Bofill's certainty. After all what is the human face — shape of head, distance between the eyes, eyebrows, nose and mouth; variations on which just about make us recognisably different. How different though? Take this one, he thinks, he'll do, as good as anyone else, maybe an improvement on the one you lost.
The fat one sits wheezing opposite John John, squints at him.
"I dunno," she says, "Could be. It’s been so long..."
"Do you mind?" the auxiliary drops into a corner chair, pulls out a packet of cigarettes, "I haven't had a break since ten this morning."
"Do you recognise this woman?" DC Hawkins asks John John.
The fat woman simpers self-consciously while John John studies her.
"I’m afraid not," he says.
"Sounds like him," she says to DC Hawkins.
"Could you be," DC Hawkins glances to his notebook, "Colin Geoffery Knowles?"
DC Hawkins is used now to John John's self-examining silences. The fat woman isn't, seeks a sympathetic smile from the auxiliary.
"I could be I suppose," John John says, "But then I could he anybody."
DC Hawkins wonders, if Mrs Knowles was a younger and a slimmer woman, John John might now be more forthcoming. He himself wouldn't want to be claimed by this fat old boot; but then he has an aversion to fat women.
All policemen’s wives seem to have broad hips. He deliberately married a slim woman because he didn't want to be a typical policeman. Since the baby, though, his wife has put on weight and he now wishes that she wouldn't wear jeans in public.
"Tell him about himself," he orders Mrs Knowles.
The fat woman begins telling of her two daughters, of how the youngest has married since he left, the trouble she had with the wedding arrangements, being on her own...
"Tell him of what he knows," DC Hawkins interrupts her, "Your own wedding maybe."
The shining fat woman blushes, laughs,
"You had a hangover, remember? You and the best man, whatsisname, that friend you worked with. The pair of you were ill at the reception. My Dad was furious..."
The fat woman, bottom lip trembling, weeps. The auxiliary, exhaling twin streams of smoke from her nose, wearily stubs out her cigarette.
"It’s not him," the fat woman says into the tissue dragged from her sleeve, "To come all this way... Hide nor hair for three years..."
"I’m sorry," John John says, but not for anything he may have done, just for her.
"Go home!" she sputters at him, "You don't know what you're doing," John John looks in confusion to DC Hawkins and the auxiliary.
DC Hawkins signals the auxiliary to take the snuffling woman away.
"There were two more women supposed to have come," DC Hawkins tells John John when they are alone, "Surprised those two got here. Don't hold out much hope in that direction anyway. All of 'em reckon you’ve lived in this country all your life, and if that's the case we should have records of your three fillings. It’ll all take longer now anyway, with the phones down."
"What exactly is happening?"
"Electrical storm. Sky's lit up at night. Burglar alarms and bleepers going off everywhere. We got so much work we don't know where to start. I’ll be in touch."

Voice Off. Barbarous times make barbarians of all but the stubborn.

"Take my word for it, the universe is eighteen thousand million years old. So, should we all be wiped out tomorrow, even in terms of this galaxy, let alone this universe, the whole of humanity's one million years, from its evolution until right now, will hardly rate a mention."
The two security men are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as insignificant. To escape the fug of their inflated little minds Barry decides to walk to Herstmonceux.
"Why?" the senior security man plaintively asks, not wanting to have to walk that distance.
"Someone there might've left a message for me. Might be able to find out exactly what's happening. No need for you to come." Both security men grimace at his trusting naiveté.
With no phones, no electricity and no car, the two security men have spent their day in the house wondering anxiously what they should do. Their isolation worries them. For two hours or more they discussed whether or not one or them should try to somehow get to London, or if they should attempt to contact their small local office in Portsmouth. The situation has drastically changed: both know that their orders will also have been changed; but to learn of their new orders they will have to disobey their existing orders. A dilemma indeed for two self-made automatons.
Before he reaches the end of the street Barry hears his front door slam.
The sunset is orange, the back streets of Hastings deserted. No sound of traffic, no murmur of televisions behind closed windows, only the forlorn bleating of a rooftop seagull and the syncopated footsteps of the two security men. Barry Tappell smiles — at himself in one of life's occasional tableaux of pleasing and total absurdity.
The two security men are the same distance behind him when he reaches the road through the Pevsney marshes. The sunset has now faded and the aurora is twisting in the violet sky, like hand-held sparklers fizzing deep under dark blue water. Both security men are walking looking up at the rainbow aurora. Barry waits for them.
Away beyond the dry yellow grasses Sunday church bells peal their sonorous levity. White gulls, lit by the aurora, fly flickering inland to their roosts. No horizon glow or streetlights this evening.
"’Tis a long and lonely road," he greets the two security men, and falls into step with them.
"What’s it made of?" the junior security man asks him.
"Ionised particles."
The black blocks of the castle buildings establish themselves within the pale strip between the dark blue land and the dark blue sky. The nearby yellow grasses of the marsh are alive with the crepuscular rustlings of rat, vole and warty toad.
"Wish I’d brought a torch," the older security man says.
"Probably wouldn't've worked," the younger says, asks Barry, "Would it?"
Across the sky the aurora ripples like a fat purple and golden caterpillar.
The observatory tower is cold and silent: a vertical tomb for extinct artefacts. Barry looks into his own and into the Director's office. With his lighter the junior security man searches the desk tops for messages. No-one has been here since yesterday.
"Marie bloody Celeste," the senior security man mutters.
"You can now consider your sensible selves to have joined us freaks in this freakish world. You two aren't normal," Barry grins at them. Beyond the office windows the aurora swirls like a team of flamenco formation dancers. "Here you two very normal people are in a Sussex marsh in a blacked out science zoo. Perceptive devices all intact, are they?"

Voice Off. Because of their brief lives human beings view every transaction as having an end, as having a definitive result; rather than as all actions being a part of, a link in, the continuous process of matter.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

...and yet more of John John

Awaking with a pain in his lower stomach he turns his body away from the pain. The pain follows him. He pushes himself up the bed.
The nurses have already opened the curtains. Has he woken late? No, other patients are just joining the morning rush to the bathroom.
The pain sits within the cradle of his pelvis. He raises his hips above the pain. It eases.
He considers telling a nurse of the pain, how to describe it. The nurses appear unusually busy this morning. Fresh beds are being prepared and the phone keeps ringing. No sooner has a nurse answered it and hurried back down the ward than it rings again; and with an exasperated sigh the nurse leaves the bed and the patient and to go striding back up the ward. The tea trolley is not yet in sight.
The pain grips him again, slicing up through his abdomen, abating. He finds himself gasping, is damp with sweat. Hearing voices in the bathroom he wonders if moving will help.
Cagey of rousing the pain he swings his legs out of bed and stands. The pain moves to one side, and decreases. Collecting up his shaving equipment he makes for the bathroom, where a croaky chorus of 'Morning John’ greets him. He forces a smile to his face, urinates. That alleviates the ache. Letting out his breath he shakily joins the queue at the basins. The pain has now changed character, has descended to deeper in his bowels.
A cistern flushes and a cubicle door opens. That’s it, he realises, and goes pushing past the tottering man coming out, bolts the door on the surprised laughter of some outside.
The cubicle stinks. Trying not to inhale the airborne bacteria he drops his pyjama bottoms and sits on the still warm lavatory seat. His anus instantly opens. As his turds go plunging into the water below he thinks Oh the horror of it, Oh the horror of it...
He stares at the plain wooden door before him. That he should have no memory of ever having done this before... That he should not be able to read such a mundane signal from his body... That, now that the pain has gone, is the horror. To have no memory even of this cloying stink.
He drops his head into his hands. To not know here, where the nurses' main preoccupation is with bowels and the composition and colour of shit...
Lifting his head from his hands he puzzles over a new sour smell. Sniffing over his fingers and wrists, he rubs his hair again. His scalp is excreting a sebaceous ordure. Distaste for his own body pulls up his lip. Calculating the correct use for the roll of white toilet paper he wipes his anus. It still feels unclean.
Emerging from the cubicle he re-examines the bathroom. One door is labelled ‘Shower’. He opens the door. It is a small room, tiled, pipes on the wall, a porcelain square in which to stand. The air steamy from its recent use.
He returns to his bed. The paper trolley has arrived, so too the morning’s cup of tea. He buys a Guardian, collects his shampoo and goes back to the bathroom. Hanging his pyjamas and towel behind the door he turns on both taps, tests the temperature of the spraying water and takes his nakedness under it. The wooden slats feel slimy underfoot. Turning carefully, he adjusts the temperature, increasing the hot, then reaches for the shampoo.
He finds that he has to step out of the spray to get up a lather. The bruise at the back of his head is still tender. Coming back under the spray he feels the suds sluicing down over his body, cleansing him. Taking up a square bar of yellow soap he sets about scouring himself from head to foot.
Finally he deems himself clean. Shaking the water from his body he steps out of the shower and towels himself dry, all the while examining the patterns of the hairs on his pink skin. He has no memories of this his body.
His pyjamas have a stale smell. As he buttons them over his clean skin he tells himself to ask the nurses for a clean pair.
Having shaved, feeling refreshed and not a little foolish, glad only that he didn't tell the nurses of his pain, he returns to his bed, drinks his tepid tea and glances through his paper. The day nurses and cleaners arrive. One of the women cleaners, a dumpy miserable person, complains that her floor polisher is on the blink. Whenever it stops she walks over and kicks its plug. Kicking the plug has no effect. The polisher's fickleness is more in tune with the flickering lights. The woman finally curses aloud and flinging about its lead she packs the polisher away.
When breakfast is brought John John recognises his hunger, has orange juice, porridge and a poached egg on toast. Then he sets about the crossword.
Two new patients are wheeled in on stretchers. Both men appear to know the nurses. The curtains are hurriedly drawn around their beds. There is much urgent coming and going and ringing of the telephone. Neither of the new patients is Assan's. All the nurses this day appear preoccupied, subdued. John John wonders at the change in them; or is it in his perception of them?
John John watches Osman Rustar wince as he turns in his bed, as he wincing moves again, the pain within not letting him settle. John John realises that he has screwed up his own face in sympathetic mimicry. He studies Osman Rustar: he is breathing open-mouthed now, looking up at the ceiling. Osman Rustar is a man collapsing inside himself, going ever deeper within himself to escape the pain.
John John has three clues of the crossword left to solve when the young doctor, who first examined him, stops by his bedside. He asks John John how he is feeling. He does not call him John John. John John tells him that he is feeling much better. That does not appear to cheer the doctor, who asks if his memory has returned. John John tells him not.
"Well," the doctor looks at the nurses busy with yet another new patient, "we can't release you until we discover what was wrong with you. Don't want you collapsing in the street again. And we can’t let you go until we know who exactly you are. Just have to be patient. Mr Assan will be seeing you tomorrow."
The doctor seems to be searching for other things to say to John John. John John realises that the doctor hasn't come to him with any particular purpose in mind, has just happened by.
"Could I have some clean pyjamas?" John John asks him.
The doctor expressionlessly studies John John for so long that John John becomes uncomfortable. Finally the doctor says,
"I'll have a word with sister," and he goes.
All three of the new patients are taken to surgery. John John asks Osman Rustar if he knows what is wrong with them. Osman Rustar doesn’t know, remarks though on the downcast faces of the nurses this day, says that whatever is happening it must be bad.
John John begins the second of his library books. He is reading when a man in black clothes kneels beside his bed. The man introduces himself as the hospital chaplain. He smells of sugar, as if he has scented his breath. His unscented breath therefore, John John deduces, must stink.
The chaplain, smiling, continues to breathe into John John's face. John John waits to find out what the man wants. Mr MacMaster's bed is still stripped. John John wonders if the chaplain has come especially to see him or if he has come to see everyone in the ward and his is the first occupied bed.
The idea of the unscented breath is making his own breathing difficult, and the chaplain's face being so close disconcerts him. It is a long face with large discoloured teeth. And why is he kneeling? He is a long limbed man, but so too is the spotty doctor and he used the chair. This is behaviour wholly at odds with what John John has so far witnessed in the ward. Even the most ebullient of visitors hasn't behaved like this. Even the fussing wives haven't stayed this close.
"I don't know what denomination you are," the chaplain speaks just as John John is about to turn away, "but here in the hospital chapel we hold en ecumenical service."
John John knows what the man is talking about: he can’t see, though, what connection it has with him.
"And should you not be of our persuasion," as before he gives John John an understanding look, an inference of forgiveness, "that will not stand in the way of my doing all that I can to help you. Is there anything that I can do for you?"
John John can think of nothing that this man might do for him. He shrugs into the face.
"Are you C of E?" the chaplain asks him.
"I don't know." John John says, recognising at last his prejudice against the man. The chaplain is false. He is trying to give the appearance of intimate concern and yet he hasn't bothered to find out anything about him.
"You were baptised?"
"I don't know."
"John's a biblical name. A doubly biblical name," the chaplain savours his own astute observation.
"John's the name they have given me here," John John tells him, "They don't know my real name. I’ve lost my memory."
For the first time the chaplain lowers his eyes from John John’s. The large chin is unshaven, the dog collar dirty.
"Surely though," the chaplain's eyes come slyly up, "no man can forget his God. Be it," he dismissively signifies Osman Rustar in the bed behind John John, "Allah or Jehovah."
"I think I may have forgotten him," John John says, "Though I do know what you're talking about."
"Do you know the bible?"
"I know what it is."
"Then you are a Christian."
John John searches for a rebuttal. He doesn't want this false man with the shabby theatricality of his dress and gestures and his television actor's grimacing to be right, recalls a conversation with Osman Rustar and his wife. She too said that no-one could forget their religion.
"Does to know or something make me a follower of it?" he asks the chaplain, "Because I also know of the Koran. Does that make me a Muslim? I also know what’s in these books," John John gestures to his four library books, "it doesn't mean that I am a follower of their philosophies."
The chaplain tilts his head to the book titles,
"These are novels. That's a biography."
"A life story. And parables. Ideas. What else is the bible?" The chaplain, wearing now an expression of sad resignation, ponderously nods his large head. "If your memory does return," he lays a heavy intimidating hand on John John's shoulder as he rises, "and you do find that, after all, you are a Christian, and that you do require my services, then don't hesitate to call me. God be with you."
John John watches the chaplain in his loose black suit stride past Osman Rustar's bed and kneel beside the next bed. The kneeling, John John sees, is an affectation, an advertisement of his calling, as if the black suit and the yellowing dog collar were not sufficient.
Osman Rustar is looking over the top of his Daily Mail.
"He doesn't call on you then?" John John asks in Urdu. Osman Rustar grunts, presses a hand to his stomach.
"Some holy man," he says, and burps. They smile at one another and return to their reading.
Between pages John John watches the chaplain progress from bed to bed, kneeling beside each, even clasping his hands in prayer beside one. Two of the patients call a nurse over to adjust their televisions. He hears her tell them that there is some interference that's affecting the phones as well. The chaplain, with grey dust on his trouser knees, leaves the ward. Lunch is served. Another new patient is brought in, is put in the isolation room. Nurses and doctors are busy.
Before afternoon visiting John John solves the last three clues and looks with satisfaction upon the completed crossword.
During visiting he takes his novel into the television room. A stiff-backed patient joins him there, tries to find a television channel without interference. On all are a crackle of black and white diamonds.
"Freak weather conditions," the man crisply informs John John, switches off the television and, picking up a magazine, he sits in one or the high caramel armchairs. He glances at the cover of the magazine, tosses it back onto the table. His fingers tap on the arm of the chair.
"Hate hospitals," he says, "This public sitting around. All this waiting. Hate it." John John makes a sympathetic face, and realises that he does not know what it is to be private.
The man abruptly leaves. John John notices someone's discarded Daily Mirror. Laying down his novel, he finds the quizword. His mind answers eight of the general knowledge clues. He wonders if his memory is returning. Or is he learning?

Voice Off. The idea of truth is a fiction.

The radio clock's red numerals are flashing 12:16. On losing power and being turned back on the clock resets itself to 12:00. The real time has to be late afternoon.
Barry looks to the yellow light flickering around the drawn bedroom curtains. How many times today, he wonders, has the power been cut? The last time it came back on was sixteen minutes ago, of that alone can he be certain.
Turning and stretching in bed he recalls the events of yesternight — the aurora, the Nimrod losing control, the drive home, his trying — to the security men's consternation — to phone both Steve Church and Brian Waters, the security men's relief when he was unable to reach either, their waiting for him to go to his dawn bed and out of earshot before they again phoned their masters and adjourned to their car.
The more he remembers the greater his interest in what has been happening while he has been asleep. Curiosity will not let him lie abed. Flinging off the duvet he tiptoes to the window and looks around the side or the curtain. The security men's white car hasn't moved. Both men are sat in it. One is looking up at him. And having seen Barry, out of habit, out of longstanding practise, he averts his face.
The duvet is folded over like a fat triangular sandwich, the thought of which activates Barry’s gastric juices. His watch says 19:08. Or is his watch slow too? No, the day has that feel to it — the angle of the sunlight, the lack of urgency in the noise of the traffic.
Dressed he flips aside the curtain, acknowledges the presence of the security men with a lift of his chin. Neither responds. Before leaving the bedroom he checks the radio. Crackle only. After the bathroom he tries the phone. Not even a dialling tone now.
The cooker still has gas. His mind though balks at cooking a meal. But, he tells himself, this might be his last hot meal for days; and, if the electricity is cut for any period, the contents of his freezer will ruin. So, out of the freezer, he wrenches a packet of lamb chops and a lump of peas. The chops and peas go into the microwave while he scrapes some potatoes. When they are in the pan he pops into the living room to check the television. Crackle only.
He eats his dinner on the living room's round table, pacing himself, having cooked too much but loath to waste it. As he eats he flips through various books, laying down both his knife and fork to make notes, calculations. By the time he finishes coffee his watch says 21:17. The day, though, is already darkening. He has not one mechanical clock or watch in the house. A few streetlights are showing beyond the houses out back. But that too means nothing; their timers will have been upset by the power cuts.
He is in no hurry to reach the observatory, knows that the scope will, in all likelihood, be out of action. But neither does he want to settle down here to some serious reading before he is certain that the observatory can be of no further use to him.
This time he doesn't wave to the security men, simply climbs into his red car and drives off. His car stalls at the first junction The white security car is behind his. His lights flicker as he restarts the engine.
He drives out through Hastings towards the marshes. A line of streetlights glow red as they come on, go abruptly off again. His engine stalls. In his mirror he sees the lights of the security car fade and die. His battery acts as if dead. Barry sits in his car and waits.
There are no lights in any of the houses in this street. Above the black roofs the golden aurora curls in the violet sky.
Barry looks again at the darkened windows. No lights, no telly. What are the people doing, he wonders. Rise in the birthrate probably. Will the television stations continue to transmit? Probably. Even if no-one's receiving them. While they have local power people will be able to catch up on their backlog of videos, play computer games. For a while longer. News addicts, though, must already be screaming without their regular supply.
Lights come on. He starts the engine, stalls twice more on the way to the castle. He notices too that his watch stops. Once he sees the security car stall, leaves them behind. When next he stalls the security car catches up, stalls behind him. The interference, Barry realises, cannot then be distributed evenly overall, but must lay in pockets or descend in swathes.
Not wanting to waste time turning when he comes out, especially if he's stalled then, Barry parks near the entrance to the carpark. The security men park alongside him. Both security men get out of their car.
"I doubt I'll be here long," Barry tells them, "Better come in with me."
The carpark is lit by the aurora, its organ pipes seeking a golden infinity. The light casts no shadows. Both security men regard it suspiciously.
There is no-one in the observatory nor in any of the offices. The lights go off, come on again while Barry and the security men walk the corridors.
From his office Barry collects two yearbook directories and three almanacs. In the observatory someone during the day has switched off the computers, has left the scope vertical. They must have been unable to close the roof: like two wayward leaves of the Sydney Opera House it is stuck partially open. A black plastic sheet has been tied over the scope.
"You’re witness to the end of an era," Barry tells the two security men, "From here on in it’s back to manual adjustments and chemical plates. So bye computers," he pats one, "Yours was a short but productive existence. Bye electronographics. Bye yon speckled interferometer. Bye photon counter. Bye satellites," he waves to the ceiling; and at that the lights go out again.
In the dark Barry says,
"I'm going home. You still with me?"
"Until further orders."
"They could be some time coming. This way," Barry guides them out of the tower, "When we get back you'd best come indoors and stay with me. One of you can have the sofa, and there's a spare bed." They are on the soft lawns now. "If this lot," Barry indicates the aurora like a festive Chinese dragon chasing its own tail, "should move on to the sun, there's bound to be a big flare. If it’s day here when that happens, this whole side of the planet might burn. If you're sat inside that car you'll roast in seconds for sure."
"What," they reach the cars, "if that, what d'you call it, flare goes on for twenty four hours?"
"The end of all our worries and trifling cares," Barry opens his car door, looks over to them, "If either of you have families..."
"We stay with you," the older security man tells him.

Voice Off. Human intelligence is preoccupied with limits. Higher than, further than, faster than, deeper than, smaller than... Humanity is incapable of viewing anything simply in relation to its direct cause and probable effect.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

....more of John John

Mullard’s voice, as Barry expected, is thirtyish. Mullard's voice is not, though, as Barry pictured him, small round and balding. Mullard's voice is sharp and muscular, probably a jogger, introduces himself as Fitz.
Fitz's fashionable clothes and immaculate haircut give him the look of a devoted philanderer. Barry has met the type before: Fitz will be energetically obsessed by his work; and the energetic seduction of women will be his obsessive hobby.
To a man like Fitz his job is everything. Women are a sideline, are incidental, and his apparent preoccupation with them is a veneer of frivolity with which to disguise what he believes is the unbecoming and boorish be-all of his existence — his unwavering interest in his work.
Barry is led away from the machines, is shown into a cluttered and dribble-stained coffee room, is handed a plastic beaker of machine coffee.
"Just had a call from the gate," Fitz is smiling, "You have an entourage."
"Suddenly," Barry gives a lopsided shrug, "I’m a very important person."
"They're going to have to wait there. They," Fitz says with relish, "weren't invited." And picking up the phone Fitz makes plans to leave by another gate for the airfield.
In coming to work for the Mullard zoo Fitz must have accepted security as an inevitable part of the job; Fitz, though, obviously has no liking for security, is enjoying duping the dolts in their grey suits. Fitz, Barry decides, is one of those men who are amused by authority's pomposity. Barry it angers. Barry wishes, for his own sake, that he was more like Fitz.
The car has a uniformed chauffeuse with fat ankles and a short neck. Undistracted Fitz and Barry talk of the characteristics of the 'line', with Fitz producing sheets of printout and explaining their significance. Barry occasionally has to ask for an interpretation of Fitz's working jargon. Fitz elaborates, digresses, sketches a diagram on the back of a sheet, returns to the 'line's' constituents,
"And here, see, we've got formaldehyde, formic acid and hydrogen cyanide. It’s got to be nebula."
At the airfield they have to don pressure suits. Fitz, zipping and unzipping all the pockets, wonders if the air crew will let him keep his. Posturing before a locker room mirror he adjusts his hair, then goes off to supervise the loading and installation of equipment into the belly of the bulbous nosed Nimrod. Barry tries not to get in the way. Above the field's lights the sky appears clear.
"Wouldn't be able to see it anyway," Fitz sees Barry looking up, "We are now wrapped in that net curtain."
Barry follows the pilots and the technicians on board, sits where he is told. Every cubbyhole on the plane has a machine of some sort wired into it. On takeoff Barry misses, as he never thought he would, the comforting presence of a cosmetically smiling hostess. Then Fitz is telling him of the Nimrod’s limitations for what he hopes to learn. A technician, overhearing him, disagrees with Fitz. A technical dispute follows, unresolved when the pilot sends for Fitz. They are now over the North Sea. Far below them, like a guttering nitelight, is the orange flare of an oil rig. They are still gaining height.
Fitz returns from the pilot.
"Our mission," he raises his eyes at the word, "is simply this. We know it's coming in, like the auroras, through the poles. What we now have to determine is its density, how deep it’s coming, and how far South. You can go forward and have a look if you want," he steps aside for Barry, crouches to his equipment, "Take your camera."
Barry picks his way along the fuselage. The two pilots are silhouetted before the aurora borealis, its golden drapes like the hanging corner folds of a yellow and orange tablecloth.
"Where are we?" Berry asks the co-pilot.
"Just coming level with Scarborough."
"Bloody hell!" Barry stares hard at the fluting mirage, in depth and density as deceptive as his Line, "It's August."
"Quite," the pilot says. The plane rocks. Both pilots scan their dials. The plane tilts again.
"Better get back and strap yourself in," the pilot tells Barry, depresses a switch and orders the crew to secure themselves and their equipment.
Barry manages to take just one photograph. In the fuselage he passes Fitz on his way to see the pilot. The plane rocks again before he has strapped himself in.
Among the technicians there is now a palpable air of concentration. Those few technicians Barry is able to see are frantically adjusting knobs. The plane drops, steadies. One technician glances behind him in perplexity, in confusion, looking for his long ago instructor.
Fitz hurriedly buckles himself in beside Barry.
"They don’t believe me yet," Fitz gestures impatiently forward, "but it’s all redundant."
"This! With this equipment it's immeasurable." He has raised his voice for the benefit of the technician he earlier disagreed with, "A measuring device has to be objective, has to be apart from the object being measured. Yes? Well all this equipment is electronic, is to a greater or lesser degree magnetised." The plane's speakers crackle. "Here we go," Fitz grips his seat.
The plane drops. And drops. Technicians, Fitz and Barry hold on to their weightlessness and wait. For death? Is this it? Crash! Broken bodies? Floating wreckage? Finish? Kismet?
With a roar they stop, are pressed into their seats. Barry's head tries to burrow into his shoulders. He wants to shut his ears to the noise but cannot lift his hands. The plane is banking, noise tailing off. They are flying level again.
"We’re only a hundred feet up," a technician says, then, "Christ the rigs!" and he bends to his instruments.
Barry looks to Fitz, who, aware that he is being looked at, relaxes and releases his grip on the seat. Some of the technicians have given up on their machines.
"It's entering all our electronic systems," Fitz says, "Including the plane's. Hear the engines stop?"
"I heard them start again," Barry smiles feebly. Fitz shakes his head in wonderment,
"This is going to be far more drastic than anyone thought." He unstraps himself, goes over to one of the technicians, returns to Barry, "Radio's out."

Voice Off. That they choose to call their heroes brave, that they try always to credit their heroes with bravery, is symptomatic of humanity’s warring mentality. A peaceful mentality does not consider bravery at all, let alone as a virtue. Without war, away from the arena of war, bravery has no value.

Early in their police careers both security men got in the way of concealing their every thought, their every emotion; and soon, presenting a phlegmatic mask to the world, they ceased to own emotions. Now, so practised are both men in the concealment of their emotions and thoughts, they have become blank-faced soulless observers of the world. They display neither fear nor anger, apprehension nor irritation, love nor pride; and showing neither compassion nor sympathy they have come to feel neither. They simply watch.
They wait now in Mullard’s carpark. The only difference between the two expressionless men is that one is older and slightly shorter and, by the brevity of his few utterances, the senior.
"So they finally let you in," Barry laughing greets them. They make no response. Barry takes his car keys from his pocket. The younger security man snatches the keys from his hand.
"From now on," the older security man levelly tells Barry — their voices are as featureless as their faces — "we're sticking close."
Infected by Fitz’s example, Barry mentally steps back a pace from the hot inner flare of anger, unpeels a smile and cheerily says,
"In that case you can drive. I'm knackered."
The two security men engage in silent communion over the car roof. The senior security man takes the car keys and tells the smiling Barry to get in the car.
Smiling Barry waits for the passenger door to be opened. Smiling Barry clips on his seat belt,
"Back to my place please." The security man starts the car, finds the gear and reverses out of the parking space.
"You know that your invitation here was unauthorised?" he tells Barry.
"Probably." Barry maintains his smile: he can't see Fitz having bothered with the proper procedures. The other car follows them through the gate.
"Until this you were low priority," the security man is still trying to scare Barry, "Not anymore you aint."
They are silent. Barry thinks of Fitz and how, much to Fitz’s disappointment, the air crew did not let them keep the pressure suits. So Fitz tried to steal his, was good-naturedly prevented, and he good-naturedly handed it back. Barry wonders that, with matters of such moment, Fitz should bother his head with pretending to steal something as frivolous as a pressure suit. And he tries to reconcile Fitz's obvious commitment to his work with his lightness of touch.
After a quarter or an hour's driving he asks the security man,
"Why exactly were you following me?"
"You’ve been acting out or the ordinary. We take notice of anyone who starts acting out of the ordinary. Phone calls to Australian subversives, your own chequered history, now this little joyride... And you ask why we're watching you?"
Of course, Barry thinks, the age of the ordinary man. Mister Ordinary Man with his ordinary failings, ordinary vices, ordinary guilts and ordinary shames. A world where the one virtue is being ordinary, is being no better no worse than... Where being ordinary is of itself the virtue. The different are dangerous. And the rule or Mr and Mrs Ordinary is total. Even internationally. Because Barry can see little difference, physically or mentally, between the administrators of any political system. All are more alike than dissimilar. All their personal bodyguards look the same. All have led themselves into the same nuclear trap; and the reactions of all administrators to that trap have been identical. This is the age of mediocrity, where only the dissenters have an identity. Mr Conformity is in charge. Mr Orthodox. The rest of us are freaks.
"All that line has to do with me," Barry tells the security man, "is my name. You lot, though, don't see the obvious until it slaps you in the face. And it's going to do that soon enough."
"What're you talking about?"
"I think you’d better prepare your masters for a shock. Soon as you drop me I suggest you contact your superiors and tell them what I am now going to tell you."
"We’re not dropping you anywhere. From now on we're living with you."
"In that case you can use my phone. If it's still working. But I do devoutly suggest that, by whatever means possible, you contact those superiors or yours."
"Because life is never going to be the same again."
The man was at the observatory last night, heard the Director describe the known physical characteristics of the line, heard Barry’s own speculations later. No need to dwell on that.
"My line has now entered the Earth’s atmosphere through both poles. Satellite communication is already down. That Nimrod we went up in lost control. When we got down we tried phoning Iceland. No luck. We tried the Shetlands. No luck. We tried Inverness. No luck. Edinburgh answered, but the interference made it almost impossible to hear what was being said. What we did hear is that radio and television there are out, cars and buses are stalling. And it's heading South."
Barry notices that the driver, probably subconsciously, has accelerated.
"How long," he asks Barry, "before it reaches here?"
"No idea. Its effect might diminish as it spreads South. There's an awful lot of it though."
"So we're going to lose communication temporarily," the security man dismisses it as another scare story. He doesn't slow the car.
"How temporary," Barry asks him, "is temporary? A day? Three days? Three weeks? Ten years? And you’re going to lose far more than communications. Every single thing that depends on magnetised circuitry is going to be affected. Anything that comprises one single magnetic switch is now just so much junk. That means all computers, all internal combustion engines. Steam engines will still work. That's a thought... Overnight, literally, we're going to lose an era of technology. Look at your own profession of arms, and remember that everything dependent on electricity is obsolete. Like I said last night — your missiles are now redundant. I'll give you an update on that. Your most sophisticated weapon now is the rifle, and the artillery shell. And your most mobile troops are the cavalry."
"You'd like to believe that."
"Whatever... I recommend that you relay this seditious talk to your masters. For your own sake. I daresay they'll be more credulous than you."
The Dartford bridge is soon behind them. The security man is trying to think of things that won't be affected. To all — electricity, water, gas, sewage — Barry answers,
"Computerised circuits."
"It can’t be that easy," the security man refuses to accept it.
"Internationally we're down to landlines now. By tomorrow we’ll be back to pigeon post and heliograph."
"Still got fibre optics," the security man clutches at that straw.
"Need electronic processors to encode and decipher."
"You're enjoying this," the security man accuses Barry.
"One thing it will cure," Barry says as they enter Hastings, "unemployment. Automation is now a thing of the past."
The security man precedes Barry indoors. The younger security man follows once he has parked their car.
"Keep your eye on him," the newcomer is told, "I've got to make a call."
"Good boy," Barry tells him, "Tea anyone?"

Voice Off. The expectation of constancy is the greatest corrupter of all intelligence.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

.....more of John John

"Your bossman gave me your home number," the voice of Mullard says, "Hope I didn't wake you?"
"No," Barry sits down at the round table in the small living room, "I was just thinking what to cook myself for dinner. When do you sleep?"
"Whenever I get a chance. Which, these days, hasn't been often."
"So what's new?" Barry pushes books aside, reaches for a pen and pad.
"What is new is that at last I've got some sympathy for you lot. We've got a complete whiteout here. Blinder than deaf bats."
"It's in the ionosphere then?" Barry rearranges one of the tilting stacks of books on the table.
"And descending. Why I called you is... your forecast is unfavourable as well. And we've got this old Nimrod. Picked it up cheap you might say. Perfect for this kind or work. We're taking it up tonight. Over the North Sea. See what measurements we can take. Get some idea of its strength."
"Should be a pretty aurora."
"So bring your camera. Thought you might like to meet your line face to face."
"Where're you leaving from?" Barry has straightened.
"Meet us here."
Barry looks at his watch: five thirty.
"Take me at least two hours to get there. Dartford tunnel, rush hour."
"We won’t be leaving much before nine. Take your time."
"I'll be there. And," Barry takes a deep breath to tell the phone, "thank you very much."
"Can’t very well leave you out, now can we? Look forward to meeting you in the flesh."
Barry leaps from the phone up to the bedroom, ties his shoelaces, looks for his credit cards — in case he runs out of petrol — grabs up his jacket, checks for his car keys, finds his binoculars, camera, and slams the front door behind him.
His small red car is parked outside his small white terrace house. Chucking his binoculars, camera and jacket onto the passenger seat he fastens his seat belt, starts the engine and pulls out into the road.
From the opposite side of the road a white car swings out behind him. Barry sees it in his rear-view mirror.
"Hope you've got enough petrol," he says, and laughing loudly he turns left.

Voice Off. Humanity owns an inherent and acute sense of justice. Humanity also owns an innate desire to live in large groupings. The organisation and administration of such large and complex groupings leads inevitably to inequities. Those inequities affront some of its members' sense of natural justice. Human societies are therefore constantly in a state of flux; the repair of one inequity leading to the creation elsewhere of another.

Again the smoke unwinding from the visitors' cigarettes drives him from the telly room. In the ward visitors hunch around the beds. Once Mrs Rustar sees John John settled in his bed she sends her son over with a packet. The boy does not speak Urdu. He regards John John suspiciously. Folded inside the tissue paper are some small square cakes. John John thanks Mrs Rustar.
"Taste them! Taste!" she waves a be-ringed hand at John John.
With Mrs Rustar intently watching him, he nibbles at a corner of one sugary cake. The cake is excessively sweet and scented.
"Very good," he tells Mrs Rustar, thinking that is what she wants to hear.
"Any memories?" she asks him. So Mrs Rustar too is intrigued by his past. John John examines the taste, takes a bigger bite, eats the whole cake. A fiery indigestion seems to rise up his gullet to greet every mouthful. Small wonder Osman Rustar has ulcers, he thinks.
"Yes and no," he finally tells her, placing the sticky packet on his bedside locker, "The taste isn't unfamiliar. My tongue has memories of it, even if my mind hasn’t."
The children watch him talk in their parents' language. To rid himself of the cloying cakes John John offers the packet to them. Both look to their father.
"One for me too," he laughs. His wife chides him. The children politely help themselves. Osman, chuckling at Mrs Rustar’s nagging, accepts the necessity of his diet. He does, however, go on to talk of other Pakistani cakes; and, from there, smacking his lips, of other dishes. So Osman Rustar becomes nostalgic, talks of his home town Khanpur, breaking occasionally into English to explain to his children.
"Khanpur's on the railway," John John ventures.
"Yes," Mrs Rustar leaps on it, "You remember?"
"Just that it's on the railway."
"Maybe you passed through it. Coming from Lahore?"
"I don't know... Just the railway. Nothing else."
Then visiting time is over. John John watches the variously dressed visitors crowding out. He tells himself that he is disappointed because the detective didn't come with news from the odontologist and bearing like a prize his identity. His other identity. His previous identity.
Osman is still talking of food. John John smiles: Osman Rustar is a happier man in Urdu.
"Why did you come to this country?" John John asks him.
"Ah..." Osman Rustar sighs, "Because of the dust mostly. And the dirt. And the disease. In Khanpur I would not have been able to afford even this," he signifies the ward, "Nor my house. Nor my car. And here I can vote without getting shot."
"Why don't your children speak Urdu?"
"They are going to be British. Not live in a ghetto. A minority language is an intellectual ghetto."
"Yet you miss Khanpur?"
"Yes. My friends there. My past."
"Yes...." John John says; and they share an understanding greater than the language.

Voice Off. Human beings frequently show more interest in others than they do in themselves. Ignoring their own problems they diagnose the worries of others and put more effort into curing the worries of those others than they do into the solving of their own problems and worries. This is because many human beings are led, early in their lives, to believe that they themselves are not worthwhile human beings, that they do not matter, that they are expendable. To sacrifice oneself for one’s fellows is regarded as being commendable by all human societies. Such cannon fodder in the past ensured the survival of the tribe, even of the species. In post industrial societies, however, such social attitudes led to many complex neurosis, whose roots lay in the frustration of being unable to sacrifice oneself. Those neurosis made those selfless individuals harmful to those very societies that they wished to serve; and, being aware that they caused harm, made those individuals despise themselves even more and hate the societies which they were unable to serve.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

....and more John John

This day John John buys only a Guardian, avoids the grey scrambled eggs, has cereal, tea and toast for breakfast. The day shift greet him by his new name. He smiles; and again he has his temperature, pulse and blood pressure taken. Osman Rustar returns from the bathroom and grumbles to him, in Urdu, asking how can they expect him to get better when they wake him at such an early hour and then feed him such insubstantial victuals.
John John reads the paper. The news is much as yesterday's. All that he reads in full are two articles; one a woman’s opinion on how to treat male child molesters, the other a technical analysis of suspected nuclear weapon proliferation and current capability. He spends mere time comparing the solution to yesterday's two crosswords with yesterday's clues. He cannot understand the exact process whereby some of the solutions were derived from their clues, although those solutions were the same that he arrived at, if for no other reason than they could have been the only answers. Even so, though pleased that his answers were right, he would have liked to have known exactly how he did it. Sighing over his incomprehension, he deems the fault his own, and he lends his attention to today's crossword.
So the day passes, subject to the hospital routine and the procedures that Mr Assan and the detective have set in train. At ten thirty a porter comes to take him to Neurology. In the corridors the wheelchair overtakes women patients in dressing gowns carrying handbags. In Neurology he is laid on a raised bed and has pads stuck to his temples and a wired rubber hat fitted to his skull. He is told to relax. Fat chance. The white-coated operator, apart from gruffly informing John John that there are ten billion nerve cells in the human brain and so they have at best a billion to one chance of discovering why he has amnesia, is apparently preoccupied with weightier matters and is uncommunicative. The porter equally so. John John is returned to the ward little the wiser.
Osman Rustar has been taken somewhere for tests. John John concentrates on the crossword, has his blood pressure, pulse and temperature taken. He notices that, to distract from their ministrations, the nurses chat to the other patients about their families, their jobs, where they live. With him the nurses tell him of their own families, of where in town they live, of where their husbands, brothers, sisters and boyfriends work, asking him always, he thinks without ulterior motives, it he knows of the place.
A small Pakistani nurse from another ward, as slight and as slim as Osman Rustar is heavy and fat, stops by to test his Urdu. Her accent is different to Osman Rustar's. She says that her family comes from the Chagai mountains. John John doesn’t knew of the Chagai mountains; although he does, she tells him, speak better Urdu than many of the Pakistanis she knows here.
Osman Rustar is returned burping just before lunch. Osman Rustar complains about his lunch. Osman Rustar looks a profoundly tired man, a man weary of living, a man unable even to pretend to the tiniest appetite for life.
After lunch a young man in jeans comes to John John. He introduces himself as an odontologist, apologises for any deficiency in his bedside manner, says that he is more used to working with cadavers. Or bits of their jaws. Asking John John to open his mouth he picks pieces of John John's lunch out of his teeth, makes notes on a pad.
"Three fillings, one front upper crown," he tells John John, "Shouldn't be too difficult to trace."
During the afternoon lull in hospital activity other patients come up to John John with a smile, intrigued by his mystery, discuss him with Osman Rustar. Both John John’s English and his Urdu are pronounced impeccable. Many conclusions are reached concerning his possible identity, none verifiable. John John smiles, but greets each of these amateur sleuths with nervous unease, lest they trip him and he fall pell mell into his past. Yet the certain knowledge of a past would save him from being this object of such easy familiarity, such public curiosity.
He is saved from their speculations by being taken for a brain scan. Glad of the rest he lies passively on the metal bed, lets the metal tunnel move over him. By the time he is returned to the ward the other patients are quiet in their beds.
The library trolley appears during afternoon visiting. A passing nurse informs the bangled woman is charge of the trolley that John John is an amnesiac. Rising to the challenge, guided by his reading of The Guardian, the women selects three books for him — a biography, one detective mystery and science fiction. He is flipping through the books when the social worker arrives.
She laughs her squeaky laugh to see ‘John John' written on the bedhead; and setting her bulging case on the bed she tells him of the difficulties she has had in defining him for the DSS. No category exists for his precise circumstances. However they did agree to grant him a daily allowance, five days of which she has been given, but which are reclaimable on the return of his memory. She hands him the money in a small plastic bag,
"If you'll sign this receipt."
Again he holds the pen sketchily over a dotted line, then — with a beam of inspiration — he carefully writes 'John John'. The social worker studies the signature: the laboured handwriting is at odds with the reading matter on the bedside locker. But a signature is all that is required; and with a promise to bring his money again next week, telling him to contact her if his memory returns, in a rush she is gone.
He starts reading the biography of the opera singer, darling, understanding little of it, darling. When next his temperature and blood pressure are taken he asks the dark-haired nurse where he can buy some shaving soap and toothpaste. The nurse doubts that he will be allowed to go to the hospital shop on his own, tells him to make a list and she will go for him. Borrowing a sheet of paper from Osman Rustar he laboriously writes his list; shampoo, toothpaste, razors, shaving soap, deodorant and comb. Osman Rustar earnestly tries to dissuade him from buying anything in the hospital shop, says that if John John gives the list to his wife that evening she will buy them cheaper outside. John John thanks him, but says that he will need the things tomorrow morning.
The dark-haired nurse returns during afternoon visiting. John John gives her the plastic bag of money, tells her to take the pound, that Mr MacMaster gave him, for the nurses' fund. She is gone ten minutes, comes back with a white carrier bag and the price of each item written beside it on the list. As soon as she leaves Osman Rustar takes the list and shakes his head over the prices.
John John studies one by one his purchases, reading all of the print on all of the packages, before arranging them in his bedside locker. With each new possession he feels himself becoming more substantial, more here.
For the rest of the day he perseveres with the biography, darling.

Voice Off. Most human beings spend the greater part of their lives in a semiconscious state, being forced to evaluate their circumstances only in moments of crisis, of drastic change. These semiconscious lives are based on the fiction of non-change; thus change must always unsettle them, force them to address the frightening realities of their lives that, in their semiconscious state, they are avoiding.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

more John John

In the sightless dark he is aware only of his fear. Then something (a single snore?) reminds him of the hospital: he pictures to himself the lines of beds on either side of the ward. A deeper grumbling snore from a nearby body further reassures him. Relaxing he wonders what it was exactly that first told him where he was. After several minutes he pinpoints it — the distant breathy whisper of lift doors opening. Followed by the almost inaudible whirr of cables.
He is pleased with his discovery, is encouraged by that small exercise of memory: his mind is capable of making connections, conscious and unconscious. But still only of this life, this hospital life.
Nervously he tries to recall his precise state of mind on waking. He didn't know where he was. Did he imagine himself somewhere else? If so, where? But those black waking moments were filled only with the horror of his not knowing, a timeslip memory of his first fearful awakening.
His unknown past frightens him. He fears what he might have been. Even if it was only someone mundane. Especially if it was only someone mundane. He does not want to be reclaimed by the owner of those clothes. The past is standing like a trap before him; one wrong step and the amnesiac will again be that equally anonymous man. Simultaneously, though, he longs to be more than this, than this joke-named hospital patient, than this object of easy curiosity.
Ignorance of himself is shaming. He wants to know, and fears the consequences of knowing. There will be no escaping him again.
The nurses are rousing themselves from the torpor of their uneventful nightshift. He fingers the covers free of his face. The slowlimbed night sister is packing up her papers at the table in the centre of the ward. He can hear the clink-chink of empty cups from the entrance to the ward. He knows the routine now. In a few minutes the nurses will begin opening the curtains, chiding patients from their sleep, sitting men up in their beds, remembering if and how many sugars they take.
The night sister reaches up to switch out the light above the table. Two patients from the end of the ward are making stealthily for the bathroom. John John hugs his stillness close to him, loath to move before he has to, reluctant to pre-empt the routine.
An unvarying routine, for a man with no past, is a comfort. Ensconced in a routine, with his mind employed only in the serene contemplation of what is coming next, the past cannot leap out and frighten him. That past, that huge past of all those years, is terrifying in his having forgotten it. That past, of all those people he supposedly knew, has nothing to do with who he is at present, is an alien being inside himself, the revival of whom will mean the obliteration of his present self. To have that unknown past suddenly entrap and possess him is a fearful prospect, will mean a death of sorts. He can shut off such fears behind the anaesthesia of hospital routine, can limit his whole existence to that predictable routine. Therefore, his instincts reason, better not to thwart the routine lest some wrong step start an avalanche of memory, bring his past smothering down upon him.
When the nurses finally abandon the susurrations and languor of the night, more patients struggle into armtwisting dressing gowns and, towels over their shoulders, slop towards the bathroom in loose slippers. John John now feels conspicuous being awake and still abed; and he doesn't want to attract unnecessary attention to himself. So he too slips out of bed, takes the hospital towel from the bottom bedrail and joins his bedsmelling brethren in the bathroom.
He is practised now at urinating; but not until he joins the three deep queue at the washbasins does he realise that he does not have a plastic toilet bag, nor its contents. Second in the queue he feels over the two day growth on his chin.
"Course," a large man says to him via the mirror, "you got no razor. I got a disposable you can have. Drop my soap back to me later."
'Thank you," John John says to the reflection, watches the large man scrape his pliant jowls.
The large man has drawn the bathroom’s attention to John John.
"Nurse says you can speak Urdu," a thin little man says from the queue beside him. His shoulders curve in around his sunken chest.
"Heard who?" the large man at the mirror says. Last evening the large man was jovial with his visitors.
"I heard one of the nurses say..." the small man begins. The other men groan at his humourlessness. The small man blinking shuts himself up: he is used to being disliked.
The other patients, having realised John John’s predicament, they too hasten to help. A man in the queue behind has two toothbrushes, blushing explains that when he first came in he bought a toothbrush in the hospital shop and then his wife brought his old toothbrush from home. The man in the queue before him offers a squeeze of his toothpaste, others offer the use of deodorants and shampoo. Nodding his gratitude to all, John John finds himself at a basin.
He recognises the face now as his own; and, though, made hasty by the lengthening queue behind he has time to realise that he has no memory of something so mundane as cleaning his own teeth: a thing he must have done every single day of his previous life. Even the minty tang of the pink toothpaste is unfamiliar. He knows what to do only from his five minute observation of the others at the washbasins. So too with shaving: if he hadn’t watched the other patients he would have had no idea what to do. So unpractised is he with the aerosol foam that he almost covers his eyes; and then he cuts the slack skin under his chin, the bright red blood spidering over the wet pink skin; and only then does he realise why the other men reached their heads back, and belatedly he does so.
When he re-enters the ward the curtains are all open and the tea trolley has made its rounds. Having returned, with more thanks, the tin of shaving soap to the large man further down the ward, he hurries to the normalcy of his bed and his waiting cup of tea. And, sat back in his familiar bed, cup of tea before him, the mound of Osman Rustar still clinging avariciously to sleep, he glances often and with pride to his new possessions, accoutrements of an ordinary man — a red toothbrush and a blue razor — and he pats his smarting cheeks and once more sinks comfortably back into routine, to await the appearance of the grumpy cleaners.
While waiting he recalls that first glimpse he had, through the curtains, of the old man opposite sat in his chair, as now, waiting. That’s all we do here is wait, he thinks; is that why we’re called patients? He grimaces at his mechanical attempt at humour. This waiting, though, does lay to rest the last of his bathroom agitation. And he knows that, after the cleaners have been, the newspaperman will come, then the nurses on day shift will drift in with breakfast. Nothing to alarm him there.

Voice Off. When a chimpanzee cannot make itself understood, in despair it throws itself onto its back. Au eighteen month old human child reacts in the same manner. An adult human when earnestly trying to put over an argument sits on the edge of its seat. When its interlocutor refuses to understand, the human adult throws itself back into the seat in despair.