I was still sitting there on the bench on the side of the High Street – I don’t know how many hours had passed. I was having too much fun with this new sense of mental freedom to notice the passage of time.
My mind, it felt, could go anywhere. All the walls had come down, everything was clear to me now. Life was an open book, the only question being where to start reading it.
Anyway, there I was, sitting on the bench with no immediate plans of moving or doing anything in particular when I realized that someone was watching me. This discovery gave rise to a most unpleasant feeling – incredulous though I was of my own emotion, I had to admit to myself that I was terrified. A deadly chill settled on me and would not go.
I had only seen him out of the corner of my eye; just the briefest and most discrete of glances on his part but I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he had clocked me. He had got my number, as they say. It wasn’t so much that he looked at me, for whatever reason, but rather it was the feeling that I was somehow ‘known’ by him, just through that little innocent look.
What was I to do?
My first reaction was to lose myself in the crowd, to disappear as fast as possible. I started to get up, only to sit down again a moment later. What was I doing, for heaven’s sake? What did I think was going to happen to me? As casually as I could, I turned my head around and had another look in his direction. He was coming towards me.
He gave the distinct and uncomfortable impression of some sort of homing device. There was a feeling of inevitability about what was going to happen. He moved against the flow of the crowd, dodging neatly this way and that with an agile grace. Persistently and adeptly finding openings.
He moved with a sureness of purpose that spoke volumes.
As I watched him that first, unaccountable stab of fear disappeared as quickly as it had come. I could see his face now. It was a broad, pleasant-featured face. An open face. A humane kind of a face really – nothing in it to strike terror into the bosom of the faint-hearted.
As he closed the distance between us, I puzzled over my initial reaction. It was as if I had been caught out, in that very first instant, caught out in a prohibited game. I knew of course that I hadn’t really been doing anything against the law – it just felt that way, somehow. Most of the bustling mass of people that were streaming this way and that had already determined their future course of action. They already knew their aims and objectives.
They had no time to stand around.
Who else would play this game of watching? Furtively scanning their fellows from behind the curtain of their apparently conventional social behaviour, as it were.
The criminally inclined, necessarily camouflaged in the midst of the law-abiding masses?
The agents of social control, overtly and covertly watching, monitoring, assessing?
The students of social behaviour: the ethnologist, the field ethnographer, the sociologist, the semiologist, the sociobiologist, the cultural anthropologist, the social-psychologist?
But who else?
The man drew next to me and held out a hand. “I saw you sitting here,” he said, “and I thought you looked like the sort of person who wouldn’t mind if I came over and took up a bit of your time…”
He looked frankly into my eyes as he spoke and after just the briefest hesitation I grasped his hand. I noticed that he held in his other hand a largish book, expensively bound with embossed writing on it.
“I’d like to know what you think. About all this…” He gestured expansively as he sat down on the bench next to me. “This modern world of ours. What are your personal feelings? Have we got it right?”
He paused to allow me to answer him. This threw me a bit. “Well, society’s far from perfect…” I offered vaguely.
He looked at me, silently encouraging me to continue.
“Quite possibly, in its present form, it is dangerously unstable, heading for some kind of crisis…”
He seemed pleasantly surprised by the perceptiveness of my answer. “Yes! Indeed! In fact I am quite sure the majority of responsible persons would agree with you, if only they would only bother themselves to think about it. As you obviously have done.
After all, we have only to look at a newspaper or watch the news on TV and what do we see? Omens of approaching darkness. War, famine and disease seem to be always with us. The four horsemen are abroad. Violence, crime, public licentiousness, sexual perversion, drug-abuse, AIDS, all of these are constantly threatening us, even in a so-called civilized country such as ours. Homelessness, delinquency, the breakdown of relationships, mental illness and suicide – they are all on the increase!”
He was getting into his stride now. “Why do you think we are cursed with all these problems? Why is society in the shape that it is?”
I started to see a glimmer of light in all this – perhaps we spoke the same language after all.
“The external world,” I said, “the external man-made environment that is, is really just a concretization of the inner world. It is our values, beliefs and attitudes made solid. Society’s structure and form emerges from our thoughts, from the process of thinking. What goes on out there is determined by what goes on in here…”
I tapped the side of my head.
He seemed perplexed for a second or two at this, but then a delighted smile appeared on his face.
“Exactly! Exactly! Evil in the world stems from the seven deadly sins that we harbour in our hearts and our minds. Greed, envy, lust, sloth, and the rest.
But what do you think the solution is? How do we extricate ourselves from this terrible situation?”
Giving me a look of great seriousness, he pointed to the book that he held in his hand. “With this, my friend. This is the User’s Guidebook. The Operating Manual for Life…!”