It doesn’t seem to matter how many times you look into your reflection, there’s always that feeling of surprise, that you are seeing something you hadn’t expected. Even when you prepare for that, it’s never quite the right preparation. Another space opens up in your skin, or an altered gaze loops out of one of your eyes at a precise moment that immediately escapes memory. Curiously, sometimes it’s possible to look into someone else’s face and to see the bits that elude them. Sometimes you can imagine, with startling accuracy, the younger face of a stranger, the particular beauty that they yearn for. The ghost of the younger body reveals its form only to those who don’t care and never knew. Those who are familiar have to live with the experience of repeated disappointment, right here, right now. Once or twice, I’ve watched the gaze of a stranger on my younger form and, moments later, that look of pity.
you told me you know that charisma is a favour from God and Africa has a personality and Europe has an identity and Asia has a heart and the MPLA is socialist and Maria Miller is a witch and the Grand National isn’t cruel any more and you’re only as young as you feel and Walthamstow is 80% muslim and Halliburton provides employment and Afghans are voting and the ICRC has never been involved in transporting weapons in war-torn countries and war-torn does have real meaning and you have to be stupid to be a decent jockey and attractive women make crap journalists and coconut oil is bad for your skin and carpets reduce asthma and most NGOs in their own back yards don’t behave democratically at all and all children like candy floss and women who return to work after having a baby suffer appalling discrimination and diesel is good for you and Wolfie keeps the best onions for his favourite customers and marriage is progressive and an act of faith in God and people with personalities never get hitched because it robs them of their identity and breaks their heart which is why they are socialists and witches and cruel and elderly and non-believers and dependent on the state and politically apathetic and fake pacifists and meaningless and stupid because they hate hunting and don’t read the papers and have dry legs and varnished floor boards and never give to charity and refuse to have kids and because they eat junk food and don’t want to work anyway and
all this time worrying about how to fill all those pages, worrying about the importance of fuzzying, the importance of nuance, the importance of doubt, the importance of contradiction, of confusion, of untruths, non-truths, half-truths and no truths, of faulty memory, real trauma, imagined trauma and imagination, of avoiding certainty because there is none, of avoiding definitive accounts, of refusal to state the facts because there are none or there are too many or there are some but they don’t really make that much sense anyway… all this time, and now she’s told she’s got to sum it up in one sentence or perhaps a paragraph or, if she’s really lucky, five paragraphs, because if she doesn’t do that bit no one will buy it… in producing what she calls the sales pitch, she is forced to unravel all those years of rewiring her brain (in order to avoid the false truths she’d been trained to produce)… so what was the point of all that? the horror! the horror! after all that, you have to sell the product in precisely the tooled-up terms that you had run from, screaming that you’d never ever do it again, because, she’s told, that’s the only way anyone will be persuaded to buy the bloody thing.
They rose early, having decided to keep that morning clear. They took their tools to the corner of the room and, carefully, with a routine that only an old couple could share without prior planning, began to unscrew the cupboard that, 43 years earlier, Mr M had worked into the wall as a place to store their shoes. A steaming pot of tea cooled above the fireplace; they worked with such focus that they forgot to pour any into the two white mugs waiting on the tray.
When the cupboard eventually came down, it was as she had expected. ‘I told you,’ she said, breaking into laughter, ‘I told you he’d be there.’ Mr M nodded. He couldn’t disagree with her, she was often right about things like this. There he was, Paolo Facchinetti, with a small brush and a pot of black paint at his feet. ‘I was just trying to capture the mould,’ the painter said, ‘before the summer comes and dries it away.’ Mrs M chuckled still more, nudging Mr M with her elbow. ‘I told you,’ she said. ‘I told you.’
The words were spoken, D was certain, by his hand. On the desk, where he must have left it the night before, it seemed to hover. He looked a little more carefully. He noted that the base of the wrist was resting lightly upon the green faux-leather panel. He looked at his right arm. His hand was there at the end of it. He held it up to his face and moved the fingers. He touched the fingers of his right hand, one by one by one, with those of his left hand. They were all there. Yet the hand on the desk was real. It was twitching, spinning the mouse-wheel, and talking. He felt no corresponding twitch in the hand at the end of his arm. Or perhaps he did. He watched the hand on the desk, observing the way it handled the mouse, and the corresponding changes on his computer screen. He thought he felt a buzzing in the middle finger of his own right hand, but it was just a trace, as if an ant was trapped beneath the surface of skin at the tip. Surely the hand on the desk was his own right hand? He wanted to sit at the desk. He wanted to start work. But what to do with the hand? He was afraid. He pulled back his office chair, which moved easily on wheels. As he positioned himself in front of it, and sat down, the hand on the desk rose up to the vertical. D almost expected it to wave. He pulled himself in towards the desk, using his feet and also his fingers, which pulled on the wooden ridge that framed the furniture. As his body came in tight towards the desk, his legs slipping underneath it, the hand on the desk turned at 180 degrees so that its palm was facing D. Immediately, he snapped his own right hand under the desk, fearing some kind of assault. But the hand before him remained completely still before dropping into a low bow. The fingers flattened down, spreading straight towards D. When the hand rose again, back to its upright position, it spoke those same three words, the ones he’d heard when he’d opened the door.
[With thanks to Benedict Drew, Heads May Roll, 2014]