My resentment towards the old man came as a bit of a surprise. He seemed to have succeeded in completely unnerving me. Maybe, I thought to myself, he was some sort of a cracked joker and I had been the recipient of his last and most cracked joke of all. His parting shot, so to speak, on leaving this world. His last and most diabolically clever jape – to fuck up the head of some innocent passer-by.
“Are you innocent?” came the answering, involuntary thought, from some deep-down, hitherto inaccessible, region of my mind.
No answer came…
I walked on, trying to still the disquiet that was troubling me. The thing to do, I reasoned, would be to find the nearest tube-station and disappear. Get out of here before the police found the body. If a police car was to drive by right now, they would be sure to stop and question me.
My journey to the tube-station was fraught with anxiety. Every time a car came up behind me I had to steel myself not to look over my shoulder. I felt painfully conspicuous and horribly self-conscious. It wouldn’t be long at this rate until I became a complete mental wreck, I reflected.
At last I saw the first sign for the Wood Green tube station. To my great relief I was no longer the only person on the street – dribs and drabs of commuters were appearing out of the grey of the morning. Before long they had started to form a thin trickle, then a steady stream, and further down the street I could see that the stream had turned into a veritable river of bodies which was pouring itself down through the subway entrance to the underground.
I merged with the river of anonymous bodies and allowed myself to be carried along by them, and as I did so I felt a glow of warmth and safety. I had made it! I even felt stirrings of gratitude to the uniform masses that surrounded me – they were protecting me, though they didn’t know it.
I didn’t really relax however until I was on a train and heading off through the stale darkness of the south-bound Northern Line. I was safe now. Untraceable. From this point on there was nothing to connect me with the death of the old man. My resentment suddenly resurfaced. The deranged pestilential fucker, I swore to myself. That stupid old cunt had no right to give me all this hassle.
I didn’t feel sorry for him at all, I realized. If I were to be honest I would have to admit that the only person I felt sorry for was myself. Sitting there safe and warm as I was, my sense of self-satisfaction began to dissipate. I wondered what I ought to be feeling. Some kind of genuine human emotion, perhaps. A man had just dropped dead in front of me, for God’s sake.
Is there something wrong with me, I wondered, that I don’t respond in a normal way. Some essential ingredient missing from my psychological make-up, perhaps? Maybe I was suffering from a defective personality. Maybe the old guy had sussed onto that. He had definitely sussed onto something about me. Something that he hadn’t wanted to tell me, I remembered. Something bad…
The train continued heedlessly on its way, crammed full with people now. It was packed with men and women wearing suits or smart skirts, their brief-cases on the floor besides them. Some looked the front page of their newspapers whilst others simply stared into space, waiting for the train to convey them to their places of work. I wondered where exactly I was going – I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. I couldn’t stay on the train forever. I had to get out somewhere, and try to get my head back together again.
Assuming, that was, that it had ever been together in the first place. Which was a point that I wasn’t entirely sure about at this precise moment in time.
For the first time I started to feel a bit uncomfortable about being on the train, with all those people. For a start, they all seemed so self-evidently sure of themselves – they were sure of who they were, and they were even sure of what they were. It was abundantly plain that they knew where they were going, and that they also knew why they were going there.
But what about me? I suddenly realized that I wasn’t sure about anything at all. I didn’t know where I was going, and I certainly didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there. And as for any over-arching purpose – who I was and what my life was all about – I didn’t have a clue. Actually, I wasn’t even sure that I was a person – maybe I was only a figment of my own imagination?
I found this an unpleasant line of enquiry – it was leading into a type of fantasy that had a distinctly nasty feel to it. I couldn’t help wondering if I was perhaps in some way invisible to the people around me, these people whose lives were so unquestionably solid and briskly purposeful. After all, I thought, no one had actually looked at me so far, or paid me the slightest bit of attention. I found it strangely easy to indulge in the morbid fancy that I wasn’t real to these people at all.
Perhaps it wasn’t the case that I had a defective personality – maybe I actually was a defect. The defect wasn’t in me, it was me. Maybe I was some kind of sad, self-perpetuating glitch in the system – a construct of my own obsessive self-concern, an error in my own fucked-up perception of the world which persisted by default, so to speak. Maybe I was just an echo, just an empty repetition of the same old thing over-and-over again, a self-created ghost that hung on pointlessly even though there was no place for it in the world. Maybe I was a kind of redundant echo that could never quite bring itself to face the fact of its own grotesquely pathetic redundancy.
This way of thinking had a bizarre sort of plausibility to it – once you started thinking that way, it all made perfect sense. It had a feeling of ‘rightness’ to it. And then, the next thing that happened was that when I really took in what it was that I was thinking, something in me, some powerful instinct of self-preservation, took charge and I instantly recoiled in horror: “What the hell am I doing thinking thoughts like that?”
I pulled myself out of the fantasy. This wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. It seemed to me that I was ‘see-sawing’ – going from one extreme to another: I had, after all, gone from feeling acutely conspicuous to feeling utterly invisible (if not actually unreal) all within the space of ten minutes or so. I wasn’t sure which feeling was worse, but the overall effect was not good.
I had to think of a plan, it occurred to me. That was my problem in a nutshell – I was drifting aimlessly. I had no ‘sense of direction’, there was no ‘higher purpose’ for what I was doing. I had to admit, on the bigger scale of things my life was completely purposeless – I had no ‘game plan’, no overall aim or anything. I didn’t even have even the faintest sense of what sort of direction I should be heading in.
Actually, it occurred to me, I never really thought about that sort of thing very much. I was always too busy drifting to wonder why I was drifting; I was invariably too busy being absorbed in the petty details. And when it came to the small scale of things – well, I was even having serious problems making up my mind about what tube station I wanted to get off at. And after that –I realized with a sudden jolt of fear – things were a complete blank.
What the fuck is the matter with me, I wondered. I’m cracking up on the Northern Line, surrounded by the impassive faces of city executives. What exactly is your problem, asshole, I asked myself. Snap out of it! Cop on to yourself! Just try to focus on something…
My self-admonishments seemed to work. Slowly I came back to myself. My perceptions returned to normal again. I had a sense of myself again, albeit a rather faint sense.
I felt perplexed. I couldn’t quite understand what had just happened to me – it was a bit like some sort of ‘mini freak-out’ on acid, but I hadn’t taken any. I hadn’t taken any acid for a long time now – it didn’t seem to agree with me these days. It made me feel unreal. As if I wasn’t really there. Or even anywhere else for that matter. Fuck that shit… I don’t need that kind of crap!
Must be all that bullshit the fucked-up old guy sprung on me before he died, I thought to myself. He’s got me believing that there is something seriously wrong with me. He actually said as much, I remembered for the second time now. He said there was something important that I needed to know, something he couldn’t tell me because I wouldn’t accept it. Naturally I wanted to laugh at all of that stuff but one little thing was stopping me – the look that the guy had on his face at the time.
That look kept coming back to haunt me, and I knew all too well why I found it so disturbing. I had been struck at the time by the remarkable look of compassion on his face. I only saw it very briefly, but there was a power in it that I could not forget.
It wasn’t a look that I had seen anywhere else, but it had been instantly and unmistakeably recognizable to me all the same – it was as if he had been in a type of great pain, as if he was doing something incredibly difficult. He looked as if he was having to do something that was awfully hard. And whatever this thing was, he had been doing it for me…
And I didn’t like thinking about the implications of that at all.