The man on the pavement grimaced as if in pain.
He tightened his grip on my jacket and drew me closer until our faces were bare inches apart.
His eyes were insistent, boring into my own with a force that thoroughly alarmed me. My automatic response to this assault on my personal space was simply to go limp. I felt that if I put up no resistance, and let the guy say whatever it was he obviously wanted to say, then maybe he’d let me go.
“Failure is the price of success. Success is the price of failure.” The man grated out, “Do you understand what I am talking about?”
“Yeah… I think so.” I lied weakly.
My unease at being in such proximity to him, as well as my total incomprehension regarding anything he had so far had to say, must have registered somewhere because the guy’s hold on me loosened slightly. Rather than having to lean over, my face inches from his, I was able to assume a sitting position which was a lot more comfortable. The guy sighed, as if he had suddenly changed his mood down two or three gears from the apocalyptic into the merely melancholic.
“During the course of my life I have tried everything,” he said in a morose but conversational sort of a tone, “I have tried morality and I have tried decadence. I have tried sleeping too much and I have tried being awake too long. I have inflamed my senses with loud music and flashing lights. I have experimented with mind-altering drugs. I have subjected myself to hallucinogens and deliriants of every description. I have injected myself with stimulants, depressants, tranquilizers and veterinary anaesthetics…”
He paused to cough. A long, hacking cough that threatened to go on and on forever. Eventually, after painfully voiding a very considerable quantity of yellowy-brown sputum he continued.
“I have starved myself, whipped myself, chained myself up, held myself under water in a harness until I was within an inch of drowning. I have humiliated myself in public and made a fool of myself in front of mocking, jeering crowds. I have given pain and I have received it. I have rubbed burning ointments into my private parts. I have consorted sexually with animals, domesticated and otherwise, both dead and alive… In short, I have done my level best to experience every emotion and sensation that the human organism is capable of.”
He scrutinized me carefully. “And do you know what I have learned from all this?” he demanded.
I shook my head in a bemused fashion, somewhat transfixed by this remarkable list of behaviours. Trying to get my head around what he had just told me.
He beckoned me closer, obviously wanting to go on despite an apparent attack of weakness, and as I bent closer he startled the life out of me by roaring out in a voice of thunder “NOTHING!”
He spat disgustedly in the gutter. “Zilch. Zero. Nothing.
He was quiet after this outburst, quiet and pensive. Then, after a little while, he spoke again. I hadn’t expected him to say anything else, but he did.
“Well, perhaps that isn’t entirely correct. Not quite 100% true…” He grinned at me, his foggy little blue eyes taking on a cunning gleam.
“You may have difficulty believing it, young fella, but I used to be somebody. I used to be quite the man about town in fact. A successful and respected member of society.”
He looked disgusted as he said this – deeply scornful, if not to say thoroughly nauseated.
“That in itself taught me nothing. Less than nothing, in fact. But now I have found my final and kindest teacher. Shall I tell you the name of that teacher?”
I nodded, surprising myself with a genuine desire to hear what he had to say. The old man fixed me with his most penetrating gaze yet.
“Failure and death. Failure and death is my final and kindest teacher.”
Immediately he said this he seemed to collapse again, and broke off into another painful fit of coughing, only worse this time. I was beginning to get quite worried when, with an effort, he pulled himself out of it. Wiping away spit and phlegm from his lips with a tattered old sleeve, he addressed me again.
“I know something about you. Something that you don’t know. Something you really ought to know. I can’t come right out and tell you it though, because you wouldn’t believe me.”
The old guy seemed positively concerned about my welfare all of a sudden, and for a moment he almost looked tender. He looked down at the pavement then, as if unsure what to say next.
“You see, there’s something very important that you don’t understand, something you need to find out, something I can’t tell you. So what I’m going to do instead is to give you a little bit of advice. Stop looking down at your feet wherever you go. What do you expect to find there anyway? There’s nothing down there but dog-turds and fag-ends. Look up! Look up!”
His voice rose in intensity and became a roar: “Look up you stupid fuck-witted drongo bastard.”
Involuntarily I did what he said, and saw a wooden sign swinging slightly to and fro from a short pole attached to the side of the building next to us. The sign was a golden yellow colour, the paint old and cracked. It had a crude picture of a kebab on it. “I didn’t realize that you…” I began, but he cut me off with an irritated wave of his hand.
“Never mind that. Tell me what you see.”
“It’s a sign, it’s a sign for a kebab shop,” I said.
“Good,” he rasped. “Now I want you to remember that. I want you to remember what I am saying to you. I am serious now, very serious. It may well be that you won’t like what is going to happen to you next. It may be that you won’t like it at all, but that doesn’t matter much in the final analysis. That doesn’t matter at all, actually.” He shook his head sombrely at this point for emphasis.
I didn’t like this new ‘serious’ tone that he was adopting. There was something about his way of talking that was beginning to thoroughly alarm me.
“I want you to keep your eyes open from here on. You are going to get messages from time to time. Signs. It is important that you don’t miss them. Do you get what I’m saying…?”
He coughed again. After a while I started to think that he was laughing as well as coughing. Then his body stopped moving and he just lay there, his head resting on the crook of his outstretched arm, his face hidden.
I tried to turn him over a bit, to roll him onto his back, but I couldn’t budge him. He was a dead weight, immovable. It occurred to me then that he might really be dead so I put my head down close to his to listen for any sign of breathing. There was nothing. Nothing at all. Not a flicker.
I got up hastily, and after looking around to make sure no one was looking I started to walk off at a brisk pace. It didn’t seem very sensible to hang around until someone, possibly the police, turned up. It was still very early in the morning and the streets were quiet, thankfully. It occurred to me that it was unnaturally quiet, and this gave me an eerie feeling.
I quickened my pace.
After a while I realized that I was looking down at my trainers as I walked and I jerked my head up guiltily. That really got me. “Stupid old fuckwit,” I cursed, full of anger and resentment and unable to find contentment in my mind. “What the fuck is his game, anyway?”