Something Strange Happened At Camus’ Bridge.
“I’ve never had much hope. People have mentioned to me that their experiences made them who they are. Well, then, I’ve had no experiences, therefore I’m no one. All I’ve collected about life is the following: I was born into a large grey building, educated in a large grey building and now I toil away in a large grey building. There will be a day, probably soon, when it’s my turn to fade out from the world. I occasionally ponder if I’ll be lucky enough to do so inside a nice holiday home somewhere – that I’ll be warm, feel pleasant. However, most likely, I predict, I will also die inside a large, grey building. Live, produce, consume, then cease. That’s my fate. That’s the so-called life-cycle. I hate tasting that bitter disappointment every single time the world stubbornly refuses to collapse into flames, like back in 2012. Remember? Such cruel jokes. I had been promised something spectacular would happen! Nothing. That was the only time I ever felt hopeful. It was when every lunatic seemed to unify to tell tales of overflowing oceans and civilizational meltdown. Maybe there was something in it? And… nothing. Newspapers still squawked about nonsense, tea was still brewed. Careers, lives, reputations were made and then destroyed. Same old, same old. Every now and again, a different societal collapse is promised by the regular types, but… I’m careful not to let my hopes become raised again; I’m something of a quick learner. No, the decline is already occurring but it’s happening as more of a disappointing crawl than a spectacular implosion. Pity, pity… well, what do you think?”
“Uh, thank you,” a hesitant female voice falters, “but, actually, I was just calling to check if you could cancel a transaction I made for a power strimmer?”
“Let me put you through,” I sigh and shunt her off to a random department.
Just before lunch, my co-worker Joshua comes over to ask if I ordered in more toilet paper for the staff room. I ignore him as I struggle to tear open the lid of a yoghurt pot. It loosens, removes itself. I don’t answer whatever he says, and continue:
“The temporary service stations of respite from life’s undifferentiated suffering never quite seemed to function for me as they do for regular people. Other human beings, to me, seemed stuck on a loop; their mutual programming was somehow both mysterious yet predictable. Music has never really spoken to me either; it seemed like a practice designed for others. The feeling of music is, after all, merely just an illusion. A vibration interpreted by the human auditory system; it only hints at meaning, gives the appearance of feeling. It’s completely hollow, a disturbance sent through the ear-drums. How can meaning be represented through something called the ‘cochlea’? That’s a name for a part of the ear, and it is inarguably bloody ridiculous. How can ‘feeling’ exist in a vibration anyway? And they say now you can provoke ‘love’ with a neurochemical administration. Do you understand?”
But Joshua already has his back to me, mutters something about one of my regular moods, he’ll come back later, has a headache and so on.
Nonetheless, a truly good performer will continue with or without an audience. I believe Jesus once claimed: ‘blessed are the ignorant’, or something to that frequency. Ignorant just like Joshua. I think this is because if such heavy realisations seep into your synapses too young, you’ll be plunged headfirst into suffocation for the rest of your life. I earned mine early on. My way of thinking is a structure that’s too heavy for a young man’s feeble mental scaffolding. If these thoughts get woven into your stream of consciousness, they won’t ever, ever become untangled. We’re always teetering on the brink, always just one possible decision away from annihilation.
What a misfortunate species we are - an organism capable of comprehending its entire existence stretched out in front of it and its unfathomable origins stretching behind - with nothing it can do to change its course. Let me ask you, how can you still make a coffee each morning or chit-chat nonsense with strangers with this unbearable weight encompassing your lungs? If people knew, if they really knew what thoughts descended upon you every day, they’d expect far less of you. If they knew, well, they’d reward you for the effort of even leaving your bed! For not just ending it all!
Still, what does it even matter if I’m dissatisfied with it all? I still benefit from having my rubbish collected, from hospitals that will take care of me, from millions of living beings that are slaughtered for my whimsical consumption. How am I kept so fat, dull and complacent? All of this relies on overabundance; and an overabundance of a singular resource: human beings. But if these beings become aware of it…then the whole system collapses! If too much consciousness is achieved, the entire process breaks under its own weight and we return to the primitivity. This is why those who realise, who truly realise, perhaps by evolutionary design, are compelled to take themselves out of the system. We delete ourselves from the final draft. A rotting abscess that must be removed. A failsafe to prevent a virus infecting the rest of the organism. This is why…
My life, my will, is slowly grinding to its finale. Let’s briefly chronicle its end. The early March wind rattles my car and bites me as I exit it and refill it with more petrol. Inside the station, a thirty-something blonde woman, pale, stoically guards her mosaic of fags and alcohol. I look over at the small refrigerator near the counter: diseased-looking food sits inside brightly coloured packaging. The cashier stares outside at no one.
I approach her, deciding to say, “Hey there, do you ever think: is this all we are?”
Her bored expression dissipates. Her pupils suddenly enlarge, but I don’t think in the positive way.
“No, no,” I soothe, “I’m not crazy. I mean… the topic interests me, academically, psychologically… in the sense of…are you happy?”
She still looks aghast. Oh, come on, indulge me.
“Uhh, well…” she replies slowly, mouth ajar.
“Sorry, I’m a little tired today. But actually… let me introduce myself, I am a researcher, actually. Yes, a researcher. I research human happiness and…. job satisfaction and similar such things… y’know? For books and so on. Newspapers….”
The woman’s face has contorted into a blend of shock and intrigue. “Oh, um, yeah I suppose that being here’s alright.” Pause. “Don’t you ave any forms or things like that?”
“Nah, I mean no ma’am. I’m not conducting formal research right now, just making some... general preliminary inquiries. ‘Alright’, you say, good, good. So, I mean,” I cough, “do you feel that your life actually contains any intrinsic purpose? Do you feel invigorated to start each day or does your life situation slowly suffocate you each and every morning? And, not to load the question, but is this suffocation slow and all-encompassing or more of a hard, crushing force?”
She nervously looks over to the other customer in here with us - a large, dark-haired, sluggish man, a plasterer by the look of his clothes. He picks up a bacon and sausage roll from the fridge. It looks disgusting. I turn back to her and see all the intrigue is gone.
“Look, don’t worry about all that. Just try to have a nice life OK? Or just a nice day, in fact. Yes,” I say.
There’s a long pause before finally: “So, what number was you?”
She punches her machine with her finger, either annoyed or bored. I haven’t had any cigarettes in a while, as I keep forgetting to stay addicted. I ask her for twenty Monarch and she scans them. I pay all of it and leave.
Later, I decide to light one up before going into work because I’ve arrived early and the cold morning air makes me want fire near me. This cigarette has an empty, oaky taste. It doesn’t really invoke any imagery. I try hard to imagine I’m a soulful detective, someone with a strong purpose or maybe even some kind of intellectual; a tortured writer also. No luck. I observe the sad, grey cigarette packaging. A diseased eye on the packaging stares back at me. I give up. I throw half of the cigarette underfoot, giving the remaining nineteen to a homeless person.
I’ve never really had any dreams. The girls I’ve had sex with, and they don’t add up to a huge number, produce disgust in me after the second or third time. Eventually, I can’t help but imagine them as just a collection of organs, decaying slowly, processing food, creating mucus in their sinuses and so on. True, the first few times a powerful and idealistic spirit welled up inside me. But soon I see the blackheads in their pores, so to speak, and I become too close and then I cannot rationalise my way back out.
At work now, and apparently it’s Bryan’s twenty-ninth birthday. It seems nobody turned up to his birthday drinks last night, apart from two awkward and agreeable co-workers of ours. He was desperately looking forward to it, obviously. He must’ve visualised a scene plucked straight from an advert: friends clinking glasses, everybody happy, attractive people living for the moment, well-dressed and content with their futures, etc. Instead, he sat slumped in an uncomfortable chair at a wooden table, a painfully awkward atmosphere smothering them all. A contemptuous barman or barmaid would’ve sighed and rolled their eyes at Bryan’s mere existence daring to occur in front of them. He tells me he drank until moderately drunk and extremely resentful then left, cursing the price of the (admittedly expensive) cab journey home. He goes to work the next day, where I greet him and wish him a belated happy birthday.
After the pleasant chat with Bryan I walk over to where I perform my primary function for the majority of my life. I sit at a small desk. ‘My’ desk. In the background phones ring, people chatter, kettles boil. An audio recording from ‘sounds from the last stages of Earth’s civilisations’. The manager tells someone to stop listening to music. My colleagues cluck and bicker around me. A generation of people continuously ‘finding themselves’, ad nauseum. Nothing is ever found. I drink a coffee for energy and have another caffeine pill. I stare outside; it’s a fairly cloudy day. Another cloudy day tomorrow doesn’t seem very appealing.
And, finally, night-time. I drive to my personal sacred location: Camus’ Bridge - a place of great spiritual importance to me. This bridge connects two large towns like an artery and overlooks a steady river that lies in wait a good fifty feet below. Parking nearby, I slam my car door shut and walk for about a minute to the edge. I hoist myself onto a concrete platform perched on an embankment, which is tucked on a hill just next to the bridge. The river surges below. I close my eyes and imagine myself unifying with it; a powerful energy that reaches up and absorbs me into it. Slowly, I begin to summon the courage to take the plunge. My stomach churns; here’s hoping that my gut can override my brain. The night wind gently travels through my hair. I look down. A steep drop and then a comforting, welcoming, brutal expanse of deep, dark blue. For the first time, the colour blue tries to hint something to me. What is it? I nudge a little closer to the edge, the ridge of my arse the only thing keeping me from probable death. I look up at the stars. Ancient people could’ve seen vast galaxies from where I’m sitting now, but these days our dazzling lights and compacted cities cover over them. Still, the stars can’t help but produce a strong feeling of contentedness in my heart and stomach and… Shall I do it? I savour my options…if you close your eyes, they say it’s easier…
…Is that laughing? I can hear laughing. Or maybe it’s weeping? It’s human at least, definitely. It’s so dark I can’t determine where it’s coming from. Turning my head in every direction, I finally manage to locate the source of this strange sound. Through the night fog I can make out it’s coming from a tall, seemingly well-dressed figure standing on the other side of the bridge. Somehow, he appears different to me – but only in degree, not in kind. Tonight’s coldness produces within me a spontaneous feeling of strange solidarity with him. I have no idea if he feels it too, or if he even sees me. Carefully, I pull myself backwards up onto the concrete edge – the one that separates me from my death - and jump back down onto solid ground. Walking over in his direction, the fog wraps around me and, underneath two jackets, my shirt sticks to my flesh from the cold. Ten metres ahead, I spot the strange man peering down into the murky water beneath. It feels as if he is on the same trajectory as I am, but with a mere one-minute time delay. As I approach, the contours of his face become slowly apparent and produce in me this uncanny pang of discomfort.
“Hello there!” I shout.
Either he doesn’t notice, or chooses to ignore me.
“Oi! You over there, hello!”
The man snaps his head sharply towards me. He couldn’t have noticed me before. The fog still obscures some of his facial expression, even as I move closer. Is he smiling? Suddenly, the man crouches like he’s preparing to jump.
“Stop!” I shout, now running. My voice resonates with so much genuine emotion that I surprise myself. “Don’t jump!”
To me, it looks as if the man responds only with a smile. He almost bursts into laughter, clearly uninspired by my clichéd choice of phrasing. We’re now only about twenty feet apart. Turning away from me, he dangles one whole foot off the edge, savouring his own conceptual annihilation. It feels like I can see all his gravity descend into that one foot, begging to pull him down into the river.
“Stop!” I find myself shouting again, “this isn’t the answer to anything!”
If he’s listening, he doesn’t show it. He may even be grinning, but his body language seems to show a directional determination. I stop to catch my breath and see him looking as if mentally preparing once again. I must be quick.
“Can’t we at least talk?!” I choke out, one hand extended towards him – he’s almost within reach! I stop and buckle to catch my breath, he’s right next to me.
“…About what?” he finally replies. Oddly, I find his voice silky and calm, soothing even; he doesn’t sound like the man in the grip of a deep existential crisis. That must mean his odds of killing himself are even higher.
“Well… about what you’re doing, I mean, what kind of choice is this? And it is a choice. A series of choices and realisations have rocketed you towards this Now. And this Now is not the time for you to die.”
I can’t gauge whether there’s any change in his expression, but he simply shrugs: “Oh?”
Slowly, I creep forward. His face is clear.
“You’ve covered over your own vision,” I continue. “You’re blind to reality, or rather blinded by your reality. Your life, not Life itself has made you forget what’s primal, inherent, what can never be spoken. We live in the most prosperous, enlightened, hygienic society of history. Ancient emperors, certain of their divine providence to an unparalled pleasurable life couldn’t have dreamed of the luxuries we enjoy, without thought. So what if it’s ‘boring’? And who says so, anyway? These promises of new technology, new medicine, new drugs, better understandings, better movies, art, books, progress all of it! And if your mind encloses you like a straight-jacket, then just take it off!”
The man pauses for a long time before shrugging again, “It seems we have different overall perspectives”.
I continue unphased, “So, what then? Two-hundred and fifty thousand years of human evolution to opt out like some coward? In fact, do you know that you’re the product of three hundred thousand years of successive genetic improvement? Perhaps three billion if you go all the way back! Contained deep within you is a code that has traversed the harshest climates and survived the greatest odds! It can’t eliminate itself now, on this bridge, over nothing but a choice!”
“Maybe I don’t particularly care… words don’t contain much inside them for me. So, I’m not very interested in whatever you say,” he replies, glancing back, glancing through the river below.
“Then I won’t let you.”
The man freezes. We are standing close now, only a metre apart. He’s within grabbing distance. We look at each other. Another laugh erupts from his thin lips; a genuine, authentic laugh that is rare to hear.
“Quite the noble humanitarian, aren’t you? Your love for other people is returned to you manifold, I take it?”
“Not at all. I don’t have any such pretensions. In fact, I have surprised myself tonight to be completely honest. But some surprises are pleasant and that’s what this one is. So, you know now you won’t – that you can’t - kill yourself?”
“I know, I know” he waves before taking one last nostalgic glance down at the cold water.
“Well, good… I’m very glad to hear that. I’m, uh… not really sure what to say now,” I start to mumble, my heart rate beginning to climb down to a normal rate. After a silent few seconds I add, “So, do you need a lift home or anything like that? If it isn’t too far I can drive…”
“No. I wanted to ask you: Is it common for people to come down here at night alone?”
“What? Oh, yeah, maybe. Yeah, no, not really. Why?” I ask, confused both with his question and strange tone and rhythm of speech.
He looks at me with a knowing grin and piercing eyes. “Are you sure about all this?”
I start to feel slightly uneasy. “I’m sure. I like the view here, it’s relaxing for me. The sound of the water, of naturally flowing water… it’s a primordially important noise that we so often lack.”
“Good, good,” The man turns snickers as if he doesn’t believe me before quickly turning around. Over his shoulder, he says, “Well, there goes my plans for the day. I hope to see you around,” and he disappears into the fog.
I return home and collapse into bed. Tomorrow, my routine will continue as normal without any little interruptions.
V - Cursed Man
“All of us are dispensable” is the first thought that arrives as I enter awakened consciousness. I get up. Nothing of much note happens; I am a singular unit in a sea of thousands of similar units. I cook an egg for breakfast. I brush my teeth. I sit on the sofa for fifteen minutes unable to produce the motor coordination to leave the door. Eventually, I leave the home. Driving to work, the people on the radio laugh about a child that thought it was talking to the Easter rabbit. Afterwards, a social worker calls the show and claims that the child was developmentally deficient in distinguishing external reality from fantasy. She also asserts that the humorous segment was inappropriate for the time slot that and, furthermore, that it was inefficient in its capacity to elicit laughter. The hosts sit in silence for a few seconds, then agree, then complete a segment on today’s traffic. A solemn voice comes on afterwards and apologises. Then, today’s weather report is disclosed. Overall, I’ve learned that the traffic is congested and the weather, rainy.
Work again. My office looms tall above me; a building from the early nineties, nondescript and soulless. Just as I’m walking through the entrance I think for a second I see a well-dressed man watching me from across the road. I’ve thought so for the last three days, ever since my most recent trip to Camus’. My sleep’s been poor, so I attribute it to that and continue my schedule by entering the building. Inside, a small, silver lift takes me up to the fifth floor. The lift is clean and efficient, I can’t really complain about it. The lift beeps, my floor arrives, and I walk out into the carpeted limbo that consumes most of my waking existence. I walk past Bryan’s desk; thinking I’m our boss, he quickly exits off some dating website. I stroll past him into my little cubicle. What will I eat for lunch? I don’t have anyone to make lunch for me. Even if I had someone, it’s doubtful they would make lunch for me. Those small acts of tenderness don’t exist anymore. Have I myself ever in my life made-
“Hello there,” says a man standing in the corridor next to my desk.
I snap around, startled. Peering down at me is a lean, suited man. The man from that night on Camus’ bridge!
“How’d you find me here!?” I quickly ask. “I mean, I knew security here was lax but…”
He tilts his head back, chuckling, “You’re the one who gave that big, noble speech about the unparalled glory of the modern age. In our weird and wonderful technological era it isn’t all that hard to find somebody these days, is it? In fact, quite easy…”
“Can doesn’t quite equate to should, now does it?” I hiss, “anyway, can we talk after work or something? This is highly unusual...”
He shrugs, laughs, “It’s all the same to me, you know. I have time to kill.”
“Ok, well then, I definitely can’t talk to you now. Meet me outside when I take my break if you like. My break starts somewhere around half twelve to half one.”
“Half twelve to half one!? You don’t know what time your own lunch break begins?”
“No, it depends on our rota for today. Nobody knows. What, have you never had a job before?”
The man just stifles another self-satisfied laugh before turning on his heels, putting his hands in his pockets and leaving the corridor.
Today’s break is unusually late: quarter to two. Putting my coat on I take quick look around for the man I ‘saved’. I can’t see him anywhere on the floor and conclude he must’ve left the building. Presumably, he just wanted to thank me but clearly has very poor social skills, even by my standards. Oh well, we’ll have forgotten each other by this evening. I take the lift down five stories and cross the road, into the small sandwich bistro opposite. I’ve been coming here almost four years, but no staff member knows me by name, although I believe it’s possible that Russian lady might recognise my face, maybe. I order my regular sandwich (turkey salad) and take a large coffee with an added espresso. Today’s red-top tabloid rag has been left folded on the counter. I hesitate over whether I should read it but decide against that little masochism. Heading over to my regular spot to sit down in the quieter, darkened area of the restaurant, I spot a figure sitting upright in my usual place. Approaching the table, I sigh; it’s him.
“Hello,” he says brightly as I take a seat.
“Jesus Christ, I have never met anyone like this. I mean, we met under unusual circumstances, yes. At a… suicide bridge, let’s be honest… so I suppose that’s partially the reason… unusual sample group and all. But, still… and I hate to say it but… I’ll be blunt. I think I now see why you wanted to kill yourself.”
The man turns his head toward me at a perfect angle. His body remains positioned forward, facing the back of the restaurant, but his head is turned at the side to look at me.
“Well, you should’ve let me! You can hardly complain now,” he replies.
I take a bite of my sandwich and a big sip of the coffee. He’s still wearing a fucking suit, beige or green - I don’t know colours well - and seems remarkably stiff and composed.
“Listen,” I begin slowly, “I don’t usually save lives. I don’t usually do…anything. It’s not my business, not my concern. In fact, other people’s lives rarely interest or concern me at all. But, that night, I felt an urge to intervene. Call it God, or the Universe, or the call of the conscience…whatever you like. It felt to me like whatever called me did so from outside of me… that I received rather than generated the call. I was ordered and I acted blindly. I’m very glad you’re grateful, OK? I am. But I think I have to tell you now that I don’t require any more friends.”
He continues to grin, “Did I say we were going to be friends?”
My gaze narrows, “That some kind of threat, or what?”
He shakes his head and drops his hands onto the table. While he does this quickly, the contact makes no noise. “Not at all! I’m just saying that I wouldn’t dare to make such a large imposition on you. Friendship is a big ask… it’s two different forms of consciousness coalescing. I would neither want nor demand that of you! It would be too much, of course. We don’t have to collapse into each other.”
“Well, I thank you for not wanting to impose on me. That’s pretty damn thoughtful of you. And you’re a thoughtful person, it seems. So, yeah, maybe like yourself, I’m not overly one for friends or friendship. But I’m even less one for stalkers and creeps, and you seem to be more of the latter than the former. Now, I don’t mind seeing you, but only in the basic perceptual sense of seeing, not in this kind of way. Or this often”
“That’s fine by me.”
“Right, good, glad we’ve cleared that up. So, while we’re here now, what’s your name anyway? And if you tell me my name backwards…”
He emits another short chuckle. “Good one. No, it’s Arthur.”
“Arthur? Arthur, Arthur… is a name like that supposed to disarm me? It’s very bland.”
“Look who’s talking,” Arthur replies with a wink. “Don’t forget that I’ve seen where you work.”
“Hmmm, OK. And where do you work, eh? How have you survived up until now, like this, without being fired or incarcerated, or sedated?”
“Hey pal,” he says with another wink (it sounds unnatural for him to use the word ‘pal’) “that’s the stuff for friends only, surely? I know how to take a hint, as they say.”
“Whatever. Anyway, I need to go,” I lie after looking at the clock. I gulp down the rest of my drink, “see you, alright?”
“Fine, friend. By the way, it wasn’t God or the Universe that spoke to you on that night. It was that even larger, more unshakable and grandiose of concepts. It was… Ego.”
I stop mid-air in the process of getting up from my seat. “What a profound statement. I’ll go re-evaluate my entire existence and do some serious reflection on my mind and soul. But now, I must get back to work. Bye.”
I stand and leave the restaurant in a rush but then as I imagine Arthur’s vacant eyes setting on my back like a spotlight I decide to slow down into a calm walk.
The rest of the day I feel less contemplative than usual. I spend the rest of it simply making several cups of coffee in the kitchen while muttering various inanities to my co-workers. All of this is marginally less unpleasant than I usually find it. Strange. For the next few days I begin to see Arthur everywhere, real or imaginary. A man of a similar build almost had a heart attack when I began to shout at him in a shoe shop. I thought it was Arthur hanging over me. The next day I received a call in which no one spoke, so after I while I hung up. Another few days pass, no Arthur. Slowly, I begin to forget our encounter and get back into the swing of things.
VI - Restless Man
Another night. Recently, my sleep has become even worse. Most nights are spent endlessly moving around. I am left to think about sleeping and about my new friend. My thoughts flit between these two very different concepts: one sanctified, one diabolical. I lay awake savouring the image of sleep, trying to cross its border. I receive nothing. My sheets gradually become dampened with sweat. My problem is I’ve never felt there’s much need in being tired. In the day I feel little need to read, exercise or have sex, so there’s no real sense of accomplishment to help guide me into a restful peace with the world. No sense of succumbing to the pressure of day well utilised for achievement. Sometimes the train of thoughts just slow to a small trickle, and then, without me noticing, into nothing.
Another morning; another work day. At lunch I return to the sandwich bar, ordering my usual turkey salad sandwich. As expected, Arthur sits in my (or now his) usual spot, just as he’s done for the past week. Upon seeing me, he greets me with his characteristic smirk. I notice he hasn’t ordered anything.
“Do you want to at least order something?” I soon sigh without looking at him in the eye.
Still grinning, he nods and calls over one of the waitresses. I order a coffee, black. He orders a fucking tea. We sit there in silence for a while. I utter something about work, start mumbling inanities about my lack of motivation and gossip about the few quasi-friends I have. I’m so tired that I can’t really function socially in any kind of normal manner. Arthur listens without saying much, always with an air of detached judgement. Sometimes, he interjects with a question which, to me, always sound like riddles. Other times, he merely adds a snide remark.
“Drink your fucking tea,” I say eventually, tired, pointing to his untouched mug. “It’s probably cold”.
Arthur responds by leaning back and downing half the mug in one go, emitting a sound of exaggerated satisfaction.
Once I’d have felt like punching him. Instead, I attempt to eat my food and take a large bite of the sandwich. But the sandwich tastes of nothing.
“This tastes of nothing!” I exclaim.
“I didn’t do anything!” He declares with the characteristic smile, nodding towards the sandwich. “You expected that to contain ‘taste’? How presumptuous!”
“This is going too far…”
“What is?” He asks with a bigger grin.
“Waitress!” I call.
The woman making her way over is about forty with curled auburn hair. She’s new here, or at least I think she is.
“Yes? What can I get for you?” she asks with a robotic politeness.
“Let me ask you – oh thank you for the sandwich by the way – but let me ask you, or just confirm rather… there is a bloke sitting opposite me there, right?”
For a second her eyes display shock but then, just as quickly, they return to their default setting of boredom.
“Yes, there’s a gentleman wearing a suit sitting just there in front of you,” she says as if playing along with a game. She adds, “He seems nice enough,” and removes my depleted coffee mug from our table.
I sigh again. “Well then, it seems you really are a real, existing person. I guess that makes me less scared for my sanity and more scared of you. I’m becoming more and more… unsure of all this. We’ve seen each other so much but I can’t think of what we’ve even spoken about.”
“You are a man who just asked if someone sitting opposite you is really there or not. Is any information currently going through that brain really to be trusted?”
“Oh, shut up.”
“A highly articulate response,” he sneers, “have you got anything more substantial? Or is our conversation today going to operate at such a lowly level?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I want to know if there’s anything you have to say for yourself as to what you really want with me? This doesn’t seem to be about any kind of gratitude for saving you. For almost a month now you’ve watched me or followed me along or gone to the places I like to go to and thrown strange questions at me. Is there a point to all this?”
Suddenly, the buzzing aura around Arthur seems to stand still and he loses his appearance of eerie detachment. Leaning in, he quietly asks: “Do you want me to tell you what happened for me that night?”
Hesitantly, I nod.
Arthur leans back, “life wasn’t excruciating for me, but… I knew I wanted to finalise it. My decision wasn’t poetic. There was no big, dramatic farewell. Waking up to face another morning just couldn’t… fit into any overall thread for me. Do you understand that?”
“Of course I understand.”
“No, no you don’t understand.”
“Then why don’t you illuminate me? And why did you look at me in the way you do? With this, this… horrible mixture of amusement and disgust.”
He emits a short grunt. “You really want to know? Funny story, actually. After I saw you that night, the night you presumptuously think you ‘saved me’, I became somewhat obsessed. Obsessed with your arrogance and pretense. There was something in your face, the obnoxiousness of your hope. I became infuriated with you, I had to know more. I followed you and looked into you; into your life but also into you. What I found was that you weren’t hopeless, not by any stretch, not like me. You savoured the idea of hopelessness and romanticised suicide, this romanticisation and exploitation of my hopeless despair. It finally struck me. You were a liar. A shadow. ‘He isn’t one of us!’ I realised. ‘He’s just some play-acting charlatan’.”
“Oh I’m so, so sorry I didn’t live up to your expectations! I didn’t know you were watching me!” I shout back.
Arthur remains still for a while before speaking. “Tell me, do you think it’s sensible to say that either we believe things mean something, intrinsically, or they exist while devoid of any meaning? That ‘meaning’ can’t mysteriously exist within a physical object or a physical world? That any talk of it is all some big futile illusion?”
My forehead meets my hands in exhaustion. “Yes, that makes perfect sense to me.”
“There we have it,” says Arthur, leaning forward. “One can’t be convinced of nihilism through argumentation. If one is, then you believe in the sanctity of reasoned logical reasoning.”
And nobody spoke for the rest of the time we sat there. Before long, Arthur left and then, soon, I left too.
For days after that conversation ended I become increasingly docile and impoverished in my ability to think. And that conversation would certainly not be last I met Arthur. Over the next few days Arthur would descend upon me at various times: at the bus stop, on the train, at work and in the street. He would appear while I did my shopping to mock my susceptibility to consumer advertising. He would manifest at coffeeshops to make a snide remark on my penchant for drinking black coffee “like some kind of tortured soul”. And after each time I saw him, I felt something of me became more and more depleted without any explanation…
VII - Final Man
I awake in the dead of night. A thought is present in my forehead. Some ancient Greek claimed: “the rich man and the poor man experience the same level of happiness for half their lives.” I feel like I awaken from my dreams feeling liberated… but their content always eludes me. Now, I am lucky to get more than three hours sleep per night, so the next day takes on a gray, hallucinatory appearance. It’s been exactly three months since my trip to Camus’ bridge. I have not returned since. Since then, I have had less and less sleep and all that I have now is a feeling of being anaesthetised that has increased hour by hour, day by day. What coul-
I hear creaking downstairs. Suddenly, the noise of various objects being moved around travels upstairs. Now, footsteps are traversing my front-room. Something internal to my physiology shoots up my arms and chest - some kind of chemical: a residue from the hunter-gatherer times. But I’m no hunter, I could barely even pass for a gatherer. I have to bite and swallow my fear. A reassuring thought lands in my brain. Could it be him? If this intruder I hear isn’t imaginary, and it is him, then at least I may live to see tomorrow. Wait, surely this can’t imply that I’d actually be glad to see him? No, of course not. His appearance would simply drastically decrease the odds of my brutal murder. That’s all. Footsteps begin to ascend my stairs. Fuck it. I burst open my bedroom door, screaming incomprehensible obscenities. I actually enjoy this surge of condensed rage and don’t want to end it.
“Playing at being a lion are we?” -a self-satisfied voice floats out from the dark.
“For Christ’s sake! This has gone beyond fucking OK magazine worthy. You’re a fucking lunatic. I’ve had enough! Where are you!? Enough! I’m calling the police”.
My eyes gradually adjust to the darkness. I can make out his lean figure in between my table and TV. An unwelcome entity among my things.
“Listen, don’t do that! Don’t be so rude. You seemed to me to be someone quite big on politeness. I just came to share some time with you. Isn’t sharing time important? Think about that. Time isn’t just measured by a clock you know. It drips away.”
“Share some time? Who the fuck says that, you aren’t…. you aren’t” I sigh, anger slowly departing my body, “properly socialised.”
He holds his hands up, says, “Sorry, doctor!” and continues to walk towards me, aiming for my bedroom.
I hunch down and ball my fists. “Don’t you fucking dare! You hear me!?”
Arthur brushes past me like a feather in the wind, a piece of paper gracefully making its way to the floor. He enters my bedroom.
“He who dares…” he smirks.
“Look,” I snap toward him through my teeth, “you aren’t the ghost of Christmas past. You shouldn’t even be haunting me like this! What do you need from me, are you trying to convince me of something?”
“I’m not trying to convince you of any-”
“Oh, bullshit! You’re poison in the IV drip of my life! A slow and insidious trickle of toxins. Well, that’s something of an understatement now, isn’t it! You’re not subtle, you’re in my home!” My voice begins to hurt with all the shouting and a brief panic washes over me as I wonder what the neighbours can hear. The panic soon transmutes into anger again, so I shout even louder and more incomprehensibly as I take him by the shoulders and throw him out the room.
“Is there really a need for all this?” he asks calmly as I shove him out.
“You better believe there is! And there’s gonna be a lot worse!”
“Oh, come on! It’s not as if you’re living with anyone. If that was the case, this reaction would be understandable, admirable even.” He turns his head back and makes a condescending tour of my room with his gaze. “I’m not exactly interrupting anything, am I?
“You’re interrupting my life!”
Well, you interrupted mine,” he pauses, reflects on something, then smirks – “Well, the ending of it, anyway.”
“I said I was sorry, didn’t I?!” I scream at him.
“Too little too late!” Arthur laughs again. “You’ll have to live with the consequences for the time being. A little extra misery should be problem for you, no? You hardened-to life man.”
By now I’ve forced him back down the stairs and to the front door, but I can’t even seem to keep a grip on him anymore. Losing all energy, I let go of Arthur and fall backwards into my passage wall, slowly sliding down onto the floor. Arthur’s shadowy figure looks down at me, a black silhouette in front of the streetlight shining in from outside. I must look like a defeated man. I am a defeated man. Why do I feel I can’t tell the police? Well, I have to stop this somehow. I regain some energy, get myself on my feet.
“You have to leave now. I will force you out if I have to, I will knock you out and drag you into the street. If I see you anytime, anywhere again I will call the police. Everyone will have seen you by now.”
“That’s all you had to say,” Arthur replies casually. “And I doubt anyone has noticed my being here. Anyway, they wouldn’t have remembered. But I understand I’ve overstayed my welcome. Please, stay there. I can show myself out.” And with that, Arthur leaves me.
The front-room stands silently as if nothing exists. Sitting against the wall in the deep darkness of my home I slowly begin to find a new type of clarity. Although Arthur has left, his presence remains attached to the room, dripping from the ceiling. My legs begin to stand. In spite of my drained and delirious state, I become acutely aware of what I must now do. As if my own will escaped my body, I am drawn outside into the cold night and into the driver’s seat of my car. I drive back to Camur’s bridge, a personal sacred location for me. I drive until I see a small concrete block on an embankment. Mild nostalgia takes me as I see it; I have been coming here for years. Leaving my car, I slowly, and with great determination, walk over to the block and hoist myself onto it. This time is very different from all the others. Now, I can barely feel the wind in my hair while I’m up here, and looking down at the vast, black pool of water below produces no churning in the stomach. The descent would be a release. Not a ‘statement’ or a final message. Just a silent withdrawal. The water seems louder than ever before. Finally, I understand. I understand Arthur’s plan; I understand how he, not I, belonged here that night. I understand that I belong here now. I take my last breath.
No more than a few newtons of pressure away from an eternal, pure silence, I abruptly notice another figure. On the other side of the bridge is a man, also standing with his feet at the precipice. He looks to be wearing a brightly coloured shirt and blue jeans. Although he’s glancing down into the river, I manage to notice that he has a thin beard and a stylish hair-cut. Silently, I observe him for a few seconds. Suddenly, the man senses something, looks up, and makes direct eye contact with me. This night is less foggy than the night with Arthur and I can see the expression of surprise on his face. He takes another glance down into the river but instead turns and begins to cautiously walk towards me; slowly, at first, and then increasingly swiftly. What does he want? Why does he look so surprised? Wasn’t he about to do the very same thing I am going to do? Doesn’t this idiot understand anything? He continues towards me, stumbling like a moron, shouting something, seemingly determined to stop me. He holds his arm out and picks up speed; there’s even a slight spring in his step. The more I observe him, the more contempt for this stranger arises inside me. Did he think I was fooled by his little make-believe act of standing at the edge of the bridge? This disgusting fraud, why did he come here, to my place? And now he fucking deigns to interrupt me? For what? Oh, I know. He thinks this is a game. He believes I’ll be reduced to some conversational topic for him to spout at strangers and then sit back and lavish up their praise. The arrogance of this pathetic connoisseur of tragedy. Yes, he’s nothing but a mere tourist of despair and a counterfeiter of suffering. But I will enlighten him to reality. Oh yes, I’ll show him just how miserable this life is.