An extract from a novel by Alastair Wong, oh, my better self.
The pressure outside had dropped; red out now, but quickly becoming sunless. Fog curled everywhere around the tall white buildings, hanging loose off the tops of them, bending all the light around and making details—the subtle gradients between, say, white stone and the cream-coloured chewing gum plastered to the ground—indeterminate like the London from a Whistler painting, Nocturne: Blue and Silver…or was it Blue and Gold?
This reference popping up, unbidden in my head, surprised me, as I hadn’t realised I’d known the first thing about Whistler. And I began marching, unthinkingly, the minute or two from the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields to Trafalgar Square. I felt unsettled and took a deep breath, trying to right myself. Inhale. Exhale. The air, filled and dripping like a sponge, was full of that cool dirt scent: the concrete tang of cities in the cold, metallic and almost menthol-sharp; descending stone steps, it rose to bite at my nostrils—
The hard-fought wind seized from my lungs, some fucking thing jabbed me under the ribs: a concrete balustrade crouched in fog, encircling a deep pit that I’d nearly stumbled into. I looked down. The pit was a straight drop into a crypt that had been converted into a fashionable café. Beneath curved glass, people filled their mouths. This now struck me as strange, even disrespectful: drinking tea and eating charcuterie and then finishing with something sweet, soft ice in a cone, maybe—the dead on all sides being disturbed by the quick having their polite little conversations.
Groping outward to steady myself, my hand caught sharp edges and I discovered, upon closer examination, raised steel lettering installed on the circular balustrade itself. These metal letters jutted out and seemed to hover. They felt intuitively significant to me, and I knew that, seen in a book, I would have highlighted them. That past self of mine—whoever he had been—would he have thought as much of these words?
So vanishing becomes a second birth.
Fare well. Return. Fare well. Return again.
I closed my eyes and, staggering in circles, one hand holding the handrail, stroked my free hand like braille over the hardness of individual letters, units that through touch came together as words and ultimately meanings.
S-o v-a-n-i-s-h-i-n-g b-e-c-o-m-e-s a s-e-c-o-n-d b-i-r-t-h.
F-a-r-e w-e-l-l. R-e-t-u-r-n. F-a-r-e w-e-l-l. R-e-t-u-r-n a-g-a-i-n.
The tactility of this made-up ritual was meant to instil this sense-data inside me, to archive it into memory. Repeating those words like an incantation. Repeating them. Repeating them. The shuffling steps. The groping after. The stumbling in the fog. Hearing the footsteps of a crowd, I saw myself from the outside, from the confused perspective of a rubbernecking pedestrian who regarded me as the object of passing ridicule, becoming an anecdote later told to a colleague, also in passing.
Onward, then, and invigorated, to Trafalgar Square where the crowd splintered, joining loved ones, breaking off into clusters over by the fountains, there, by the lions, the column, the steps for walking and sitting, leading up to the National Gallery, social units all. I arrived at the wooden bench where I had woken up in distress four weeks ago as if for the very first time—no memory of who I was or had been.
I stroked the browning leaves away and sat down, putting the empty crisp packet that was stuffed between the slats into my blazer pocket. Absently, I passed my thumb back and forth over the armrest. My theory was that after a period of oblivion—what I’ve come to call ‘the incident’—I had woken up here for a specific reason. My gut was telling me to sit here, to keep coming back; if I stayed loyal to the bench, paid my respects, surely something, in turn, had to come back to me. It was only fair. Whatever I was looking for would announce itself, all in good time. Time was what I had in abundance. Hell, I had nothing but time.
I people watched and took it seriously, always concentrating. An exercise in empathy. See the children playing tag around the fountain; see their parents drinking coffee and talking; see bollards; see the tourists looking judiciously through their phone screens like professionals, snapping away; see street performers covered in gold paint, walking tight ropes, or trying to stand dead as a statue, dead as Admiral Horatio Nelson who, frozen in time, perched atop his column, looked down upon the rabble—everything had to be interrogated for significance. Unable to establish a hierarchy of importance, for anything might trigger my memory, I was always terrified of missing something, the thing; everything was saturated with this same potential.
But without memory, with no phobias to confront, relationships to unpack, no great mountains to climb or deserts to cross, what was there to daydream about? I had an active inner life, sure, but one riddled with self-doubt, a hamster wheel in my head, running and never getting anywhere. It was just me and the bench—in that moment, the only things that existed for certain.
What I did notice from all these daily sessions was how rarely people raised their heads skywards or looked down, always absorbed in something, their field of vision narrowed, looking sort of half-down at a phone or some grey spot of pavement while they walked. But never at the pigeons. Never really paying attention to where they’re going or what was right there—until the pigeon that startles and nearly grazes the tops of their heads panics them into looking over their shoulders and realising their surroundings.
At times I identified with these pigeons over and above the people, jostling. So much to remark upon the social life of pigeons. Huddled in gangs, the bread must be like crack to them, so viciously do they compete, do they buff their wings and beat each other to scraps. My loneliness occurred to me then: I needed to get out more, make friends—at least, maybe, just to start with, one friend, though two, without getting ahead of myself, would be better…
But, to make a brief confession, it was not quite true I had forgotten everything. Rather, the one memory I did have I was obsessed by and reluctant to revisit too often—not that there was anything scandalous about it—but because I didn’t want to wear it out, like how if you eat enough of a thing, or listen to a song enough times, no matter how much you liked it to start with, it begins to make you feel sick just to look at, or give you the ick to hear the first few chords. Though the core remained the same, already it was shifting. The more I went over it, the more that details, new and old, which I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t invented, swam in and out of focus; the more the sentiment of the scene, its original emotional tenor, or what it once meant to me, got muddled up with what it now meant—which was, without hyperbole, everything.
The memory itself was vague, I’ll admit, passing frames with no sound to go with it—just me sitting next to a woman on some sort of bus. Let’s call her the memory girl. I’m sweaty, tugging at my collar. She’s in a white dress. We’re having a good time, I guess—just sort of sitting there and staring out, laughing a little. There’s a comfortable intimacy, the kind of comfort you get from going through something together—what something? Were we together like that? I couldn’t say. Her face is blurred to me. But then something changes—something I said or did, a bad joke, maybe?—we turn simultaneously inwards, become dark, become brooding. The polished metal backs of seats—I could see them—and shiny poles gripped tight by nervous, claw-like hands.
Sure, I didn’t know what it meant exactly, if memories are even supposed to mean, as such. Or why my mind had chosen—if it had chosen at all—this memory to reserve for posterity, in all its frustrating ambiguity. But it was mine. Of that, I was certain because I felt it somewhere, like maybe in my loins, or somewhere nearly as profound.
And so, this bench was a constant battle against myself, against my revisiting that memory. What’s that famous example…whatever you do, for the love of god, don’t think about a pink elephant? The memory was my pink elephant. Sighing deeply, I got up to go. It was already dark, and the square would soon clear out. When empty, it was frightening. To the station then, coming off the square itself, within eyeshot of the bench, to take the train home west. Absently, I packed myself into the crowd again that flowed up and down the steps, two lines alternately swallowed and spat out by the narrow jutting maw of Charing Cross Station.
A girl—no, a lady—came up, emerging from the mess of bodies, and flitted fast by me carrying a big, long bag that made her right shoulder droop, heavy. A double-take. Early forties, maybe. What had I fleetingly noticed? That black leather officer’s coat like armour, several sizes too big? The bobbing of her wild brown hair, tied loosely in a bun? These things, yes, but above all, it was her distinctive way of marching with such clear determination—if everyone else in the crowd was smudged with a childish thumb, only she had sharp edges—I wanted to learn that for myself, that purpose, that knowing where one was going and why.
A moment’s deliberation before I followed, hesitatingly, and felt the creep of this clear in my bones but justified it as I didn’t mean any harm by it. Only to observe and to learn, I reasoned. But something more than idle curiosity, I knew, drove me onwards, something about; there was something familiar about her, wasn’t there? Something shiny—
But there she went, off, and walking so quickly too; she was disappearing, off into the crowd, taking that feeling like an arrow fading with her, one I felt compelled to pursue, my body affecting a casual air—to be uninterested, yes, better still to be invisible, to fall into the cadence of sincere movement, to become nothing but a man, walking—all in case she turned round.
She marched lopsided toward The National Gallery. I slinked in her wake.
Had I been here before?
Over the chessboard tiles of a portico terrace and then on into a marble foyer and up a set of stairs, between ugly brown pillars, past a help desk, and on into the central hall, quiet and clean—not slowing down one jot, she went.
Some of the paintings we passed—Holbein’s The Ambassadors, Manet’s Execution of Maximilian—she stopped at briefly and considered them, tilting her head, before turning suddenly away in disdain and marching on. I felt I’d seen some of these rejects before but wasn’t sure, since I could have seen them anywhere, it’s true: online, in a book, on a postcard, maybe.
Because it was quieter here, I could now make out a loud jangle of keys, or maybe coins, from her bulging pockets, that somewhat disguised my footsteps and sounded like an exaggerated sound effect which made the whole situation feel unreal, like I was a bit part in some movie, acting in some tense scene where a prison guard is approaching, someone either trying to escape or break in, the stakes artificially heightened. And in this new unreality, I walked a little faster, emboldened by a feeling of impunity, already beyond the pale.
She stopped in front of a painting and put her bag down with a resounding thud. She took off her coat, laid it beside. I was surprised at how slight she was, slighter even than what was suggested by the generous drape of her outsized coat. A close-fitting black jumper underneath, whose surface appeared densely woven, all pilled and puckered, as though washed carelessly on the hottest setting and shrunk to fit. She was still tall—5”10, maybe 5”11—but in that process she had somehow shrunken inwards herself and become dense with it. Struggling with that big bag now and yanking the zip which got caught while prying something out—everything she did was loud; she didn’t seem to notice, or care; watching, I winced at every sound—then telescoping an easel’s legs long, planting it over her coat and bag, with grainy paper and a thick stick of charcoal, she began to draw.
I strolled around the room occasionally stealing furtive, sidelong glances at this lady, watching her watching the painting, mindful of never staring for creepily long. I was nervous, caught myself trembling.
What the hell do you say in a situation like that? I thought of complimenting her hair, but it wasn’t all that special—this messy sort of bun—so I thought that might come across sarcastic. Maybe her coat? I could ask where she’d got it? But then maybe she’d think I was hitting on her, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that, yet. I could ask what she’s doing? But, how stupid, isn’t it obvious what she’s doing? Drawing. Any idiot could see that.
She crouched down and, rummaging in her bag, produced headphones, big silver ones like soda cans taped to her ears.
I could maybe just say: Hi, how are you? But, well, she’s clearly busy, isn’t she? Busy with the drawing, and now the music. Whatever she was listening to bled out; it was muffled but sounded repetitive, aggressive, just kick drums and synthesised bleeps. Who’d want to be distracted while they’re in the zone? Not to mention by some random guy, how obnoxious that might be for her. Weren’t the headphones more or less a sign that said leave me the fuck alone? I sandwiched my hand underneath my armpit and felt wetness.
Minutes passed like this with me shuffling in and out the room before the first step, suddenly obvious, occurred to me. I went up to read the signage: Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, then sat down on the bench facing it, conscious of her presence near to my left side, amidst the silence the scratchy sounds of her hands busy at work, her music’s unrelenting drums. I glanced: her brow was furrowed. I didn’t realise you could learn from art so directly, take from it, make it your own and then carry its wisdom around in miniature as sketch. I had no idea, of course, if that was what she was doing, or just some romantic projection.
Regarding the painting, I only cared that it might reveal her character—give me a way in, so to speak. But then its details emerged, as when eyes adjusting to a dark room begin to grasp dull outlines—a shapelier darkness resolving itself—dim forms that had always been there, contour slowly appearing. Look.
A sumptuous man at a banquet—drenched in finery, a jewel-encrusted cloak lined in sable fur, wearing both turban and crown—a king perhaps who, turning his shoulder, eyes bulging like a dead fish, finds words, golden and ghostly, conjured out of a cloud by a disembodied hand in the sky:
מנא מנא תקל ופרסין
Every guest around the table shares his mute expression of horror, gesticulating, showing wildly the whites of their eyes.
I took my grey cap off and tousled a little sweat from my hair and then put it back on and stared, hard. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this painting was especially reaching out to me, placing its floating hand on my shoulder, nudging me to attention.
Look, it seemed to say. Start looking. I flushed, felt seduced.
Had seen it in the flesh before? Or was I recognising Rembrandt’s consummate skill? Was I impressed by the size and scope of the canvas? Was my loneliness resonating with seeing people gathered for a meal? Was I being affected by the grey gallery walls? My distance to the wall itself? The conditions of light, the time of day? Or, the simple explanation: I liked this painting over the rejects we’d passed en route. Simpler still: I liked it because she liked it.
Though hadn’t I felt familiar with those others—the Manet and the Holbein—too? And yet something was different; if all those rejects seemed like secondary sources, I could actually imagine myself having once stood or sat in front of this Rembrandt, never mind the fact that I was, just then, sitting in front of it. And I know how that sounds. Really, I do.
So, another memory at last? But then a second-order problem arose, that of the undecidability, rather than mere uncertainty or indecision, between, in this case, memory and imagination. Without context to tell me whether or not something was so-to-speak ‘in character’ for me, my basic likes and dislikes—to then be able to say: this, you only imagined, whereas this really happened—then whatever I ‘remembered’ could turn out to be a trick of the mind. The invention of memory, or remembrance mistaken for something imagined; I was alert, self-conscious now, to this matter of perception and its direction. Watching myself watching her watching the painting, the doubled experience of myself as viewer now, and maybe also in the past, the experience of experiencing.
I stood up and began to pace and examine details.
The difference between the two then—memory and imagination—lay in conviction, and I was not convinced of the truth of my having been here once, standing contrapposto before this picture, stretching out my arms, placing them behind my neck, thinking. Because what was not possible to invent, if I could even project myself into the scene, into that crowned head rapt at the sight of sign and symbol. Becoming both first and third persons at once.
Watching myself react to the painting, I became anxious that all this was only posturing, that whatever I felt had been altered, affected, made artificial by the observer effect of my own looking. I was trying to sneak up on myself, to catch myself feeling something—but what?—and failing.
Was this the sign I had been searching for? The sign that would reveal me to myself. I sat back down again, steepled my hands under my chin. I had hoped for something more dramatic, something more like a shock of recognition. Instead, what happened, happened slowly.
Time passed. The mind, its steady gymnastics, diving toward meaning—grabbing at that hanging ring suspended far over there—the beat and flutter of time momentarily stilled by the act of slow, deliberate looking.
The thick impasto globs of jewellery. The dot of life and direction, white in the eyes. The anxiety of tense hands, here clasped, there pointing. The sinister figure back-left, jester-like, blowing a recorder. The captured ugliness of faces transfixed by abject fear. And the words, foreign, floating free of the canvas, the hand of God or Angel massaging them into existence.
I looked down at my hand as though there was something indelible and untranslatable etched into the flesh, recalling how metal had felt cold against it. The sharp edges of that poem, how those words had pierced through the fog. This was my sign. Cosmic design. The key to that former life of mine. I had to know what those words—
‘You look all fucked up,’ a voice said.
The woman—I had almost forgotten about her—she was a few feet away, staring intently at me. I didn’t expect her voice to sound like that. So weary. Timewise…how long had it been?
I jabbed at the painting. ‘Do you know what it says?’
‘I can tell by the characters that it’s Hebrew, but no.’ I must’ve worn my disappointment because her tone softened. ‘But what I do know is….’ She paused as though for effect. ‘That God sent this message to Belshazzar the king to warn him of his doom.’
Frankly, I didn’t like the sound of doom one bit.
‘I can Google it,’ she said, ‘If it means that much to you. If you promise to stop making that godawful face.’ I started itching my neck, self-consciously trying to put my face into a neutral gear while she got out her phone and typed. ‘It says here on Wikipedia: God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end, you have been weighed and found wanting, and your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’
And what did that mean to me, really? It was obvious now. I was too much reading into things. In my desire to remember myself, I had tenuously joined these dots together between things that didn’t belong. And on what grounds had I joined them? Visual patterning? The resonance between like feelings and images? A hunch? It frightened me that, for a moment, delusion, this referential mania, had been so easy to fall into, so badly did I want things to start meaning again.
I’d even imagined some divine purpose for myself. There was no way this sign, meant for a king, was meant for me. Following instinct? Don’t make me laugh. Sod instinct; what about reason? How about being a reasonable human being? All I’d done was pick signs from thin air and followed them around like some flag bearing fanatic. ‘DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR’ glided through my head, as a wavering banner does, dragged by an aeroplane through a turbulent sky.
‘What’s wrong? Are you ok?’ The woman, sounding genuinely concerned, had sat down beside me, albeit at the other end of the bench.
I started rubbing my temples; my head ached from these incessant thoughts. I spoke to distract myself. ‘So you’re an artist?… You do this for—a living?’ Was this normal, I wondered, a normal thing to say? A logical progression?
She looked sheepish. I didn’t understand why. My legs were stiff, but I hobbled over and looked at her drawing. From where I stood at the easel, positions exchanged, I could see her sitting the way she must have seen me. Swept up in my manic but silent negotiations with the original, I hadn’t thought to examine her work.
I knew nothing in this world, absolutely nothing, but that her drawing was bad. I hadn’t considered it possible, not with her serious expression, all that kit, her contemplative painter’s stance. But there was no resemblance to the model. The figures were flat and distorted, childlike and naïve, held up by a scaffolding of basic geometric shapes, still plainly visible. She had only used a small section of her paper, but thumbprints of black dust went all over the sheet, and there was no fineness or delicacy to the messy lines. Maybe a certain charm, but was the charm hers, or the drawings? It might have been deliberate, a stylistic reinterpretation. A commentary on…badness? Somehow, I doubted it.
The painting itself only occupied one section of her drawing; she had sketched part of the room too, and in it was a single ghostly figure that I had initially glossed over as a smudge. Then I recognised—it couldn’t be—was that supposed to be me?
The figure was blurred, caught between a sitting and a standing posture, side-on, face partially obscured in a turning motion, hands at their temples; I could see my suit, its creases, my slouch, my cap. But I recognised less the figure’s details and more the style: something about the confusion of lines, their harshness, felt right. Since the incident, I had seen photos of myself, sure, had checked myself out in the mirror, played with my face in disbelief, stretching it like putty, every morning, every evening, but now I didn’t want to admit to myself that this cruddy drawing was the first image of myself that I had truly recognised. My embarrassment deepened. I looked away.