Putting the square in e=mc2

Jane was always frightened that she might get pregnant. She used to perform an erotic dance routine featuring rubbers, pessaries, diaphragms and distraction techniques. I thought how much easier life was when everybody was just an accident.
For someone so keen not to have an accident, she seemed pretty keen on me having one. Turn left here, she would say at the last second before a corner, and grab the steering wheel to yank it round. We would skid into startled pedestrians, policemen, articulated lorries, and apologise profusely. After which, addresses suitably exchanged and court cases pending, we would fight; great blazing rows, preferably with guests in the house or strangers in shops as witnesses so that any violence would be carefully noted and the culprit properly identified.
“One day you’re going to wake up dead,” she would say if I so much as took a swing at her. “Go on! Go on! Just you dare!” she would add as I relented and unclenched my fist in the hope she would let her guard down and I could catch her one on the chin.
At moments like those, the thought of having to be seen in public with a damaged wife, skull caved in, and the subsequent plastic surgery bills, did not enter into my thought processes. It would have been socially and financially inconvenient, and she would never have forgiven me, probably reverting to her ploy of slipping contaminated foodstuffs into my lunch box. But it would have been worth it.
The last time she poisoned me, she pleaded accidental attempted manslaughter, and allowed me to punish her when I recovered. Severe sex was the preferred punishment. It left no visible bruises and I allowed her to choose her own humiliation. So ardour and honour were satisfied. Though it was always me who cleaned the fridge afterwards in a frenzy of hygienic indignation.
Why our house was always so rancid I will never know. We did not keep cats, dogs, and had no particularly virulent forms of infestations, beside house spiders dying of starvation amidst great balls of fluff, and the scurf that sloughed off our bodies daily - though I never noticed it happening. In fact, neither of us were good at the noticing business. We lived in our own world, three milliseconds to the left of everyone else’s, and a few photons’ height above the surface. Ours was the real world whereas yours, dear reader, was and still is, the imaginary world where we might like to exist on occasions but for the most part consider a botched job hardly worth bothering with.
So we continued in our own embarrassing manner, sexually molesting each other, destroying the harmony of the other world, and wondering if one could ever make the transition from our fiction to your reality, or bring you down to our level. Somewhere in the process we suspected procreation to be at the heart of the matter. The perpetual adolescence that we indulged in kept us running on a different time scale to that of the civilians. What controlled and shaped our lives was a mysterious spiritual urge that demanded futile cultural activities. And so I restored old movies instead of procreating, and Jane worked in the Records Office for her psychological compensation. What the Freudian connection is, in both cases, I really cannot work out.
Our no children policy was a mutual indifference to the whole institution of the nuclear family rather than any real decision. Real decisions took place in the real world, which as I have said, was a purely fictional conceit as far as we were concerned. So neither of us believed in real decisions. But we did believe in omens. We believed in the workings of fate, the stars, acts of god in a godless world, and hobgoblins and gremlins that lurked in the ether. This was despite our knowing the full blown theory of special relativity, and having a more than passing insight into the peculiarities of the quantum world. We were rationalists who knew the odds, and saw them constantly working away to produce the storm of our existence.
In Hertford, Herefordshire and Hammersmith, environments in which we habitually shopped, shagged and shat, hurricanes hardly ever happened. So when Jane told me that there was going to be a hurricane, I did not believe her. There is nothing we can do about hurricanes, she told me, so in order not to create alarm, the government has decided not to tell anyone. Either that, or their supreme indifference to our suffering, left it off the map. Either way, Jane knew it was coming, but I did not believe her.
It was thus something of a shock for me to awaken to the sound of falling masonry. Under the influence of the hurricane, the chimneystack crumbled and fell through the roof onto my bed, missing me by inches. My life did not rush before my eyes in a cliché ridden litany of missed opportunities, rather there was an unpleasant sense of waking up dead and of being no more concern to the world than a heap of inconvenient rubble. Cleared away and binned, I reckoned that not so much as a plaque on the wall would recall my passing. Despite my superior knowledge of the encroaching black hole into which all of the universe would eventually be sucked despite all the achievements of humanity, and maybe sooner because of them, this upset me. My next thought was to rescue Jane and on discovering that she was not there and had risen early to watch the wind tear up the garden fencing, and hurl trees onto parked cars, I thought it was about time I killed her. I would fuck her first though.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” I asked, standing naked and covered in cement dust. I thought I looked tribally primitive and just ripe for some symbolic dismembering of body parts, scattering them to the winds to appease the gods of irrational nature.
“You didn’t want to be woken,” she replied, fully dressed, complete with make-up and the red “Marabou mules” that I had purchased from Provocateur, a Soho shop dedicated to dressing the bourgeoisie like prostitutes.
“Why didn’t you insist?” I insisted.
“Because you didn’t believe me.”
“And that’s why you left me to die?”
She thought I was being melodramatic. She did not know that the chimney would fall on me. That was an accident.
There is something very strange about accidents. Things that are quite predictable cause accidents. It was predictable that our ancient chimney was not built to withstand the ravages of hurricane force winds and that the two things, brought together, would cause a crash and I would be beneath it because accidents happen to me. Jane knows it. She uses this law of nature to her own benefit and pleads innocence.
In the catalogue of the films scripts that I intend to write one day, I have the following: Emilie Du Chatelet, mistress of Voltaire; far more brilliant; and the woman who literally put the square in e=mc2; on discovering herself pregnant at forty, wrote her will and prepared for death. In 1749 the odds of surviving were against her and proved as fatal as expected. She was a mean card player as well, regularly fleecing the dimwits at Versailles. For someone so smart though, why did she have so much unprotected sex and think herself immune? The question I ask here is: was this murder, suicide, or just bad luck? A dodgy husband, intellectual rivals, rival lovers, and her own disposition at the time perhaps indicate that we have more than an element of mystery. There’s no need to shoot anyone when you know the odds. Nature can do it all for you.
Jane reads everything that I write. So if I have an idea, one can be certain that she would have it as well. But what is her motivation apart from a warped sense of sadistic humour?
“That chimney,” I told Jane, “Is a lethal weapon!”
“Then why didn’t you decide to do something about it?” she said. “After all, I told you there was going to be a hurricane.”
“But I didn’t believe you!”
“Then it was your own fault.”
For the rest of the day I felt unwell. It is the question of motivation that is so sickening. In a world where the weapons are subtle, the motivation is often subtler. We are all being set upon by subliminal motives. If Freud suggests that a man has married a substitute for his mother, and that he secretly wants to kill his mother, then it is obvious that, despite love, lust and financial requirements, there will be a ticking terrorist lurking in his soul and his wife had better watch her back. One Freudian slip and she could be another household accident, and as everyone knows, ninety percent of accidents are in the home, and most murders are of family members.
So, what did I represent to the psychopathic depths of Jane’s soul? Clearly something needed doing to cure her, or, as the shrinks put it, resolve her conflicts.
Miserably I cleared away the debris, deeply disturbed by the semiotic nature of the image. What, I thought, did the sign signify? Buggered if I knew, frankly. I skipped most of the lectures on Post-Modernism when doing my Film Studies. Editors are far more interested in the abstract movement of flat plains of colour and how they can be made to smoothly flow from one image to the next. We let the directors decide what it all means. If the director is long dead, like my avant-garde film making Grandmother, we have great difficulty in coming to any conclusions because we know how the end product is merely a collection of random choices by individuals with their own very different ideas about everything.
While pondering the meaning of my Grandmother and the strange truth that in my brain was a collection of connections dedicated to her shady memory, the fire service came along. Big boys in blue uniforms wearing the sort of earnest expressions that they had trained themselves to emit in the face of the tragic disruption of the lives of victims. This merely irritated rather than consoled me. I did make the effort to look as distraught as I was supposed, which, considering how depressed I was, was extremely difficult. Earnest misery is not something that comes naturally to me, though misery is normal. My expression of it is often flippant or matter-of-fact because SNAFU truly is the law of nature: system’s normal, all fucked up. Strapping blue-chinned oafs in gumboots and hard hats tramping about my semi-demolished home, being efficient and serious, tapping walls and saying things like, “Well that’ll have to come down,” and expressing horror at the disaster zone of the kitchen, despite that having received no damage whatsoever, only served to bring out the English Spirit in me. I offered cups of tea, which after seeing the state of our cups, they declined, and then recommended that we move out of the house. However, we had nowhere else to go.
That was why we cleared out the upstairs rooms, placed our home’s entire contents into various boxes, and covered them in plastic sheeting. This cannot be happening to me, I kept thinking. It must be happening to someone else. I was even more annoyed that Jane seemed to love it. The more wet and miserable it was, the better. The more wet and miserable I was, the better. Not since the three-day week and petrol rationing had Jane been happier. Everything was collapsing. The New World order would be upon us. Petrol was over. Horse and carts were back with a vengeance. No wars in the Middle East would be necessary, and flash bastards who could afford expensive cars were shafted. However, the three-day week returned to five and I was secretly pleased. Nature, as you might have gathered by now, never struck me as being a friend of mankind, especially this kind of man, and doubly especially when it blew chimneys down upon me. Nuking the whale and all it stood for sounded like good sense.
“Do you think George and Zelda’s house blew down?” I asked hopefully about our friends.
“Our house did not blow down.”
“I didn’t say it did. I asked, did theirs?”
We had these friends who never argued. He was called George and she was called Zelda. Her mother had a Scott Fitzgerald obsession and would read his books with an electric toothbrush inserted into her vagina. Zelda was always keen to pass on these delicate details of her life. And like us, they avoided childbirth. And like us, they became involved in what I call “career hobbies”. These are careers that are undertaken not for the wealth and power that they can give you, but for the immediate satisfaction that, say, something like the weaving of a raffia mat would give the mentally retarded. They start off as fascinating pursuits but there comes a point when you realise that fun is pointless. Ultimately, I personally think that sane people want to change the world rather than enjoy it. What is there to enjoy when there is so much suffering, incompetence, and general dickheadedness bounding about the landscape like demented gazelles scattered by beer swilling rednecks in four-wheelers?
All of which firmly put George and Zelda in the insane class. They presented this solid face to the world at their dinner parties, all of which consisted of cooking up exotic dishes eaten on one of their long treks through central Asia on camel back, then showing the technically incompetent video.
“You really must give us some tips on how to make it better,” Zelda would say when I gave the honest opinion they claimed to seek.
They dreamt of selling these things to some cable channel, on the theory that American Cable was full of such crap that even they could do better. So far, I had to tell them, they had failed.
“And you must properly log and annotate each sequence so that at a later date their true context can be understood,” added Jane, always the archivist.
I never quite worked out why George and Zelda kept up our friendship. Perhaps nobody else would have them. Perhaps we were the last childless couples with U2 in their CD collection that had not adopted a glue-sniffing Colombian street kid. We kept them as friends largely to feel superior. That is one of the main functions of friends. I am sure Oscar Wilde once said that there is little more pleasurable in the world than the failure of one’s friends. If he did not say it then he should have done because it is true. Definitely, one of the signs of greatness is that one has lots of friends and none of them like one. And for reasons, no doubt Freudian, the fact that I looked up to George and Zelda, physically, always irritated me. I am not a short man. And Jane is not a short woman. We are average in height. And I suspect George and Zelda are also very average. Only, they are more average than we are. They have exactly the right height to make me look up when talking to them, without having the pleasure of considering their statures freakish in someway. In my brain, there must be half a brain-cell dedicated to a childhood nightmare, inflicted by height differences. I must have been forced to ask some lanky girl to dance with me at “country dancing” lessons and everyone laughed at the sight. Luckily I have suppressed the memory and recall nothing more than an association with bed-wetting.
In terms of looks I cannot say I have any hang ups other than the height business. I would say I was ruggedly handsome in a tooled up no-nonsense manner where Jane was exotically attractive in a dark terrier like fashion. George and Zelda were the masturbatory fantasies of Nazi Queens: blonde and strapping - that’s George - and leather clad SS Gruppenfuerher - Zelda in the new boots she’d bought in Regent Street that very day - a source of endless mirth and risqué foursome propositions. Jane’s contraceptive frenzy would have quickly dampened the novelty of such a moment, so it was a nonstarter, and maybe that is why George suggested it. Though, I sensed a repressed tension in the proceedings.
“Do you know why they will never do anything important?” said Jane in the car on the way home. She was, disgruntled, I suspect, by George’s suggestion that she be strapped up and whipped by Zelda. “They will never do anything truly creative because they merely reinforce each other’s impotence.”
“Whereas we rip each other’s throats out?”
“Not quite. We bicker. We pick at each other’s open wounds. We nag. We...”
“...we rip each other’s throats out.”
“No. We have a healthy exchange of views that constantly moves us forward in life.”
“Towards what?”
“Towards what has never happened before!”
To Jane, life was a march towards destiny, but for me it was all meandering loops and that was probably why I suspected she would be the one to make things happen, if ever they could be made to happen. I was Voltaire to her Emilie Du Chatelet and perhaps one day I would fuck her to death and get all the kudos from much of her intellectual work.
Antonin Artaud, however, was of a closer frame of mind to Jane - perhaps a French brain cell shot up her nose and lodged itself there. One day, when particularly bored, Antonin decided that he was St Patrick and went to cast-out the snakes of Ireland. This, on thinking about it, really is more Jane’s cup of tea, than Emilie’s pondering the trajectory of cannonballs and their impact. Artaud ended up in a lunatic asylum where he had his teeth fixed and his bowels purged.
I mention Artaud because at that time I was restoring a film of his life. Wearing my white gloves, I carefully nursed the celluloid snake back to life and could not work out why Antonin Artaud believed he was St Patrick. He could just as easily have done a Joan of Arc and set himself alight instead. He had a bit part in a film about Joan of Arc, so why not? Acting was not pretence for Antonin. It was possession. He once gave a lecture about how acting was like the bubonic plague which consisted of him crawling around the floor groaning until the audience left in bewilderment. He would have been given a Turner Prize for that today. Maybe I should have been given a Turner Prize for exhibiting my chimneyless house to the elements for nine months? The time period being merely coincidental and of no significance whatsoever, unless you want to make something out of it? Like I said, abstract plains of colour moving smoothly from one image to that of the next is all we kings of the two-dimensional really care about.
Have you noticed, by the way, how in old movies, time moves differently? People spoke slowly and the camera lingered longer. Beside the obvious technical problems they worked with, those abstract plains of colour on the two-dimensional background move slower than today’s. At the time though, I bet they did not. The expanding Universe has done an awful lot of accelerating since then and two systems at differing speeds, view each other as being slower. If you have not noticed this, then you are in good company. Jane never noticed, no matter how many times I point out that in reruns of 1950’s Road Runners, Wile E. Coyote managed to get blown up only five times compared to the six of the later cartoons.
I have notes on Wile E. Coyote going back to my notes on my first encounter with Tristram Shandy. I am not the only archivist in the family. This thought probably arrived in my mind because when Tristram Shandy was conceived, his mother gave his father an apoplectic fit by asking him at the point of climax whether he had remembered to wind the clock before coming to bed. Since then, if the author of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne, is anything to go by, the boy had a problem with time as well as a problem caused by peeing from an upper floor and letting the sash window drop rather alarmingly. In Sterne’s book there is a whole chapter devoted to descending the stairs while a few sentences whip through several years. Sterne was writing not that long after Emilie had discovered energy increased by the mass multiplied by the square of the velocity. Clocks, in short, were getting better, and people were beginning to notice the strange discrepancies between one’s experience and objective reality. And that reality was weirder by far.
At least that is what I was thinking as the wind whipped through my house and I crept about it in my overcoat and gloves feeling much the same as I imagined Artaud did: disrupted and homeless. You might as well have thrown me off the top of a tall building and told me that I would not be falling any faster than a feather in a vacuum. The consolation was inappropriate and the sequence of events preyed upon my mind.
“It’s not my fault there was a hurricane!” said Jane, but it was. I knew it was. She had called it in with some mystical incantation of hers.
“I sense that you want to tear everything down,” I said to her. “You want to expose everything to the elements and let nature take its course!”
“But only so that you can put it back together again, darling.”
“It’s not me that keeps the lid on things. You’re the one with the boxes in the basement.”
“But you are the one with the murderous grandfather!”
Note this ploy. It is a classic manoeuvre. The victim is blamed for the crime. I was wearing my victimhood far too tight and just asking for it. It was not the foetid workings of my wife’s dismal psychosis, but my own that called forth the wrath of the gods. It was the Grandfather Cell that toppled the chimney, swinging it through an accelerating arc where common sense would have expected a smooth toppling from top to bottom. But no, it wobbled, it crumbled, it crashed, and it crashed on me losing the suspicions like hounds from the Haringey dog track. A murderous grandfather? Could that really have been the effect that brought about my cause? A murderous grandfather whose wife was unfaithful?
I was working on the Artaud project because my Grandmother made the movie. She was a mythical creature who gave birth to my father and then ran away and was never heard of again except as rumour. She had affaires. She posed naked for painters. She made pornographic movies. But when I researched her, all I found was a box of loose clips in the archives of the Bradford School of Photography. I like to imagine a police raid, and my Grandmother running off with the valuable pornography, leaving behind the police, to puzzle over the box containing the ramblings of Antonin. I imagine her in a zoetrope, forever running from a naked rozzer; his truncheon out and helmet on. Jane however, imagined my grandfather beating gran to death and feeding her to his pet rabbits. It was an interesting theory, and dear reader, you know how much I like interesting theories especially if I can prove my wife wrong.
“They’re vegetarians, are rabbits!” I told her. “Eat their own shit, but don’t go a bundle on a Big Mac.”
“He raped her, battered her to death, then ground her up fine and mixed her in with the lettuce.”
“Because rabbits do nothing but breed and he thought that this way, he would have many little children and be able to eat them up in a big pot. Which is why your father is the way he is, and you are the way you are.”
“You have a morbid adolescent obsession with death and destruction and blaming everything on your mum and dad.”
“You have an infantile belief that Santa Claus will one day bring you a present.”
“If I am really good, he will!”
See? I told you that I could never express my anger and irritation in the manner that the people who become firemen and such like learn from Soap Operas. Emotions are purely culturally determined, I have decided. The secret is to spot the code. What we had there, was a blazing row accusing each other of bad blood, evil minds, and rabbitallity.
Artaud was definitely not my kind of Frenchman, though Emilie was my kind of Frenchwoman. His main crime, in my books, was that he thought films were the devil’s work. They robbed the world of magic, whereas grand theatre, of the kind Jane went in for, cut through the crap and got down to the dark and dirty little secrets that haunted us all. He wanted us stunned into seeing the magical incoherence of everything that we limply rationalised and gave scientific explanations to. Emilie thought all was explainable. Artaud wanted us to be spiritually aware in order to save ourselves from putrefaction. Emilie knew it was just the way it was. And, I think, Jane wanted to drive me to murderous insanity. One day, I thought, I would rape and bludgeon her to death, then use her legs to prop up the chimney. After that, Santa would have to make a much more interesting entrance than he, or any of the reindeers, bargained for.
“Isn’t there something Freudian about rooting out the snakes?” asked Jane.
“And wouldn’t Freud have said something about letting chimneys fall upon husbands’ heads?”
“Only if they were industrial chimneys and smoking. Ours was nothing but a stumpy brick stack last used circa nineteen fifty-six before the clean air acts killed coal consumption in city homes and set off the long chain of events that resulted in the confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill.”
“I’ve got his cap in the wardrobe by the way. “
“Everybody’s got his cap. He wore them all half a second, signed them, and sold them in
Exchange and Mart to raise funds for his retirement. There’s an as yet undisclosed government report on it.”
“All the proceeds were supposed to go to a Whippet hospital!”
“Patronising fascist bastard!”
“Psycho-babbling hag from hell!”
We had a bit of sex then. I won’t go into the details. Suffice it to say that it was all very unsatisfactory because I could feel the chill north wind on my back. A hovering police helicopter, ready to snipe at looters, could have made a decent case for taking a pot shot at us. So I waited for Jane to glance over at the bedside clock, now situated in the living room, and the image of pizza formed in my mind. I wondered whether I had kept the voucher that gave me a free Pepsi and corncob with a king size order and hurried to climax before the offer ran out.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked in the hope that she would say “a Big Mac”, and let me in on her dirty little fantasy world. But Jane always kept her secrets to herself.
“You don’t want to know what I’m thinking,” she said, infuriatingly.
“Those secrets that you think make you intriguing,” I needled, “do not!”
“I tell you everything.”
Everything she wants me to know, that is. Other than that, there was a void out there. I still do not know much about her parents. I met them once and they were not that different from my own. But I am sure they were different because everyone is different; even the most incestuous monozygotic products of the Forest of Dean.
We were the products of dull teenage years, and parents we thought were the most boring people on earth and possibly hopelessly immoral for bringing ungrateful brats like us into a sick sad world. We dressed in black a lot and if the English had ever foregone gun control, we would have been the guys up on the school roof mowing down the lunch time staff with automatic weaponry. In a way it was lucky that we discovered each other, in as much as we understood each other.
“You don’t understand a word I’m saying.”
“Have you ever thought of speech therapy?”
“You heard.”
“Repeat. Slowly. Take your time.”
The parents, plump, disgruntled and simultaneously complacent, seemed to have been born with everything determined for them. Their position was set. They lived in such and such a place, worked in such and such a capacity, gave birth, looked after children, and retired to watch television. Little lives, we thought, with tiny horizons and minds full of nonsense. Robo-Parents, we called them.
The future for us was going to be different, and I suppose it was. We did not work in factories, slave over hot irons, or even busy ourselves with jigsaws and knitting patterns. But then nobody did any more. We worked in offices and thought these good jobs until one day we awoke terrified that they were merely the same jobs and the same lives that our parents had, only sanitised. We made a pact to do something outrageous, something extraordinary, something that would change our lives. We craved the great defining moment when we could make a difference. Society would be better for us. The skirt of the old whore would be lifted and the stench would sicken enough people to send us all to the shower pronto.
“We should kill our parents,” she used to say during our idealistic period. We were very moral in those days.
“But where would we go at Christmas time?” I asked.
“Mentally, idiot! We wipe them from our souls. Start from ground zero and construct ourselves without a history!”
“This from the woman whose job it is to look after the nation’s archives?”
“Brecht said, all we have are our contradictions.”
“No he didn’t.”
And so continued our dissatisfaction with everything and each other, coupled with our deep stewing in the juices of Western culture. If we never accepted each other’s idiocy for just one moment, but always attacked it and confronted our deepest and most pathetic failings as human beings, then something would crack. And we would see our way through to the truth, and her destinies. So went the theory. Thus it was our revolutionary duty to be as disturbed as possible.
Before dotcoms, Internet millionaires, and bankruptcies distracted youthful fantasies, Jane fantasised about opening the boxes that inhabited the basement where she worked. They contained proof that British intelligence knew all about Pearl Harbour but were not telling the Americans; that Rudolf Hesse died in a plane crash and the man in Spandau prison was really a retired German schoolteacher keen on fooling Russians for the sake of the Fatherland; and Winston Churchill was certifiably bonkers for at least two terms in office. None of these startling revelations I am sure, would have made the slightest bit of difference.
“Of course they would,” said Jane, “The truth is always useful.”
And this from a woman who I knew to be holding things back from me. Consequently we often argued about the nature of truth. I cannot remember the last time my parents ever argued about that. But we frequently did. She had reality in a box in her basement and I had tantalising glimpses of its passing, recorded upon clips of celluloid that I could reorganise however I wished. Whatever I came up with, was affected by reality, and it was real in itself, but it was not the truth! Artaud and me perhaps agreed on this point. The experience was everything and after that it was all propaganda.
Not that Jane doubted propaganda abounded, but she harboured some faith in the truth being established sometime, someplace, for some purpose. Though why we would fall out about this matter and not about who threw the rubbish out last, like other couples, I do not know - well I do, because neither of us threw it out. Actually, other couples of our age were usually arguing about the children, so perhaps there is an innate need for all couples other than George and Zelda to argue about something and one chooses what lies nearest as a weapon.
“If the truth is always there as a weapon, then how can you say that it does not exist?”
“How else could we argue?”
“Why would I want to argue for no reason?”
At any particular time, either of us could have said those three sentences.
Jane loved maps and wars. She lovingly plotted out the positions of Sadaam Hussein’s forces in Kuwait during the Gulf War. She told me there were boxes being archived right that moment that would say how it was all engineered by the CIA. And when I tut tutted over an eye witness report in the news about Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators. Jane grinned. “That eye witness,” she said, “Is the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States. She was at College while the atrocity was supposedly taking place.”
I became increasingly frightened that one day she would be hauled off for the contravention of the Official Secrets act. Or, worse, she would just disappear like my Grandmother did.
I recall my Grandfather sitting in his chair at one of my family’s ritual Christmas visits, smoking his pipe and reading his Zane Grey novel. I was never sure whether he ever read a different book. They all looked suspiciously the same and he rarely seemed to turn a page. I wished I had asked him now what had happened when Grandma ran off and, for that matter, I wished I had asked him how on earth they got together? He had been a shirking labourer all his life and the juxtaposition of crazy avant-garde filmmaker and this immobile old git seemed problematic to me. It was as if the only interesting thing about him had been her. And she was not around to let us in on their secret. Maybe that is why she disappeared. He was a bit of rough that she shacked up with for fashionable socialistic reasons and then quickly became bored and ran away. Maybe she changed her name so that he could not chase after her with the baby. And that was another mystery to me. How did he bring my father up?
“He wasn’t brought up,” said my mother, “He was dragged up.”
All she meant by this, as far as I could gather, is that he picked his nose in public, belched when guests were present, and never knew in which hand to hold his knife and fork. That was about as far as his rebellious nature went. He was what they called in the labour force, a steady useful worker. He never complained and got on with the job to a satisfactory degree of competence. His father though, seemed to have been a dreamy character who spent his time going for long walks, alone.
“I’m going to see my rabbits!” he used to announce and then disappear for a day, while my father picked up a bag of fish ‘n’ chips from the corner chippy for what he always called his “dinner”. My mother always corrected him, saying, “Lunch”.
“That’ll be where your grandmother is,” said Jane, “She’ll be fed to the rabbits piece by piece. It’s always the quiet ones you know. If you go to his attic you’ll find all her things carefully packed away in a box with a note saying where you can find the rest of her.”
I suspect the truth was something rather more banal. She ran off with someone else and the old git decided never to mention her again. Jane was more excited by the murder scenario, naturally. And I always kept my eye open for a junk shop with a conveniently Jane sized trunk. It is hard to imagine that my father could be responsible for spousal dismemberment, but it is all connected and we are all to blame, and if I ever discovered that Jane was screwing firemen or anyone else I would probably dispose of her somehow. And maybe that was why the chimney had to fall on me.
You see, dear reader, how one thing just leads to another?
“If I was to murder you,” Jane said, “I wouldn’t have you disappear, I’d have you replaced. Then nobody would ever suspect.”
“Then what would be the point in murdering me?”
“How interesting,” she said, “You’re assuming that the murderer wants everyone to know they killed someone.”
“No, just that if you murdered me, what would be the point in replacing me? Surely you would want to get rid of me?”
“Not necessarily. I might simply want to get away with murder!”
Frankly, I already felt as if I was not really me. The distance I had travelled from the person I started as, seemed a long way. I could look back at the me I was and how, through my education, my career, my parents, my friends, and my deeply exhausting partner, Jane, that person had disappeared. They had murdered me and I was the replacement. When Star Trek’s Scotty does the beaming up, he murders the passengers and constructs nothing more than a socially acceptable replica at a different time in a different place. Time and place, see? They might as well be interchangeable. Einstein thought they were and he was pretty smart. Seems that he was right too. From a Cosmic perspective the station leaves the train just as much as the train leaves the station. This is the place that I am in now, and I am the place. Take one quantum of energy out of the mix and I am in a different place and am a different place... I mentioned all this to Jane. I told her about my sense of disconnection from my former self and how it was all the fault of Nils Bor and Einstein, but Jane said “bollocks” and that she could see no difference.
“That’s because I am a replica,” I told her. “The give-away signs were that I can not quite remember everything that happened yesterday and sense that it has nothing to do with me anyway. It’s the kind of fake recollection that makes me feel like the kind of person that chimneys fall on!”
“If you are a replica, how do you know? Have you ever met the person that you claim to replicate?”
I shook my head. I could not see where Jane was going with this but I thought I might as well go along for the ride. It might unleash the secrets that she harboured. Since I obviously was a different person to the one she originally shacked up with, the question of how much loyalty I could command was intriguing.
“Just as well that you never met him because you’re not a replica,” she said. “You are a completely different person from him. But that’s all right because I’m not the person he married either.”
“Were they happy though?”
“I don’t know. I never met them. For that matter, I never met you until now.”
“So you might be the replacement and I might just be feeling a bit odd?”
“True, and you might be lying to me,” she said.
“If neither of us are lying though, who stole them away and substituted us in their place? Was it murder? Are they scrapped? Are they spare parts for repairing obsolete models? Are we the upgrades?”
“You assume that we are better?”
“We are, because we are here and they are not.”
“That’s fate for you,” she said. “It plays tricks on us all.”
“Do we dare become lovers?” I asked, “If we become too attached, will we regret it when whoever disposed of the previous people, disposes of us in the same way?”
“Why should I want you?” she said. “If it is only because she wanted you, then why should I? Don’t I have any say in it? I want to have a choice in this matter.”
Things seemed worse than I expected. Even so, we had a bit of sex then. We had more than a bit of sex. I slapped her face, pushed her on the floor and fucked her. She screamed and I fucked her all the more. She had not screamed before and it might have been to do with my stopping her going through her usual routine, but I thought what the hell, this is what I do now. This is who I am because she has killed the other guy. My parents too. Einstein, Newton, avant-garde frogs, randy lady mathematicians, Zane Grey, psychopathic rabbits, dinner ladies and George and Zelda, had all killed me. I thought, fuck her! I thought here’s one for the starving millions! Here’s one for the pointless entropy of the whole kit and caboodle of existence! Here is one for my encroaching middle age! Fuck her to death and dispose of the bits. Throw them to the winds. Fingers to the east. Toes to the west. Bum to the north. And mouth to the south. To know the thing, you need to destroy it. You shoot the cannonball at the gyroscope to see how all the bits fly off and then conclude that everything is comprised of those bits, which somehow do not exist unless you blow the thing apart. Then, after having my evil way, I decided not to murder her. This gave me a perverse pleasure because I knew that she wanted me to. I knew that she loved me. I knew that she had removed bricks from the chimneystack and waited her opportunity.
“Fuck !” I said, “Didn’t see that wind blowing this way.”
Afterwards I watched her examining her bruises in the bathroom. She did not say anything but dressed and went to work, back in the archives, leaving me to go to my editing suite and to continue piecing together the remnants of Artaud and my grandmother. There were a couple of frames of film in which I could see a vague shadow against the wall. It was someone holding the camera. They could have been anyone and I could have been anyone. I could see the liberation in disappearing and becoming a mystery. I considered walking out of the house and never returning. My old life would have had much more interest this way, except I knew that Jane would blacken the name and declare me insanity incarnate to be hunted down, sedated, and given enema treatments and thrice daily flossings. I would not be St Patrick then, but just batty.
As I pieced together the last segments of the Artaud documentary, I could see the insane husk of what had been Artaud, rather prissily serving tea to his camera-wielding visitor. He looked ill and slightly bemused and I could not hear much of what he said, except it seemed reasonably coherent French. I had it translated and fit the subtitles to his lip movements.
In one bit he said, “The murderer’s anger has accomplished an act, and is released, losing contact with the power that inspired, but will no longer sustain it.”
To paraphrase, he was going on about how the actor was much more murderous than the guy who did it was. At least the murderer did the deed and got it over and done with, whereas the actor had to go through the same emotions in the next performance. Sex, it struck me, would be far better if it was like murder, properly over and done with, rather than like acting.
When Jane returned from work she told me that we should invite George and Zelda over and force them to watch the final edit of Artaud. It would be our reward to them for sharing our lives.
“Be good to catch up on their latest exploits,” I cheerfully said, which was the most punishing way to respond to this.
“That’s right,” said Jane with a smile, punishing me back. “It’s going to be a good evening.”
We cooked an especially banal meal and told George and Zelda how on one of our travels up the A 1 to see my parents, we stopped in this exquisite Little Chef. Of course, we just had to get the recipes and bring them back to civilisation so that they may never be lost in the ever-onward march of Westernisation.
“You may joke about this,” said George.
“Why may we joke about this?” I enquired.
“Just,” continued George, “because this regional culture is so familiar to us, it is no less under threat than the more exotic ones that we like to feel protective towards.”
“That is so right,” said Jane before Zelda got a chance to say it.
We loved to play this game with them. We loved to be more them than they were.
“No,” said Zelda, “It is true!”
“I’m agreeing,” said Jane.
“But in such a way as to imply that it is not true.”
“That’s Jane all right,” I said, “Irony. Sarcasm. Scepticism in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Zelda and George were beginning to twitch by now. They had witnessed a few too many blazing rows, though I often thought that as soon as they had made their excuses and left us to it, they had slipped into the back seat of their car and had a quickie. I imagined obscenities involving matching electric toothbrushes plugged into the cigarette lighter fitting.
“This is more of your sexual bullshit thing, right?” said Zelda. She always said that and after the first glass of Australian Merlot would begin regaling us with the story of her mother and the electric toothbrush that her father had to use. “It always had these curly little blonde hairs in the brush. That was their thing.”
“And Zelda, your thing is?”
“We love each other.”
“Oh yes,” said George, “We just love each other.”
“And how are your teeth George? Are they sound?”
“And your bowels? Regular? Clockwork like? I mean you look a bit puffy round the eyes.”
“I’m not following your line of questioning.”
“And Zelda, your father’s teeth were... false?”
“That was common in his generation.”
“Antonin Artaud’s teeth were quite rotten and the first thing they did in the asylum was replace them with dentures. Do you think there is a relationship between sanity and good dental hygiene?”
“He was also constipated,” chimed in Jane. “But not to worry, what you have just eaten will make you sane!”
There was a pause as the jokes percolated through the layers of grilled fat, wine and intense intellectual one up-manship. Then came hails of hysterical laughter as we all fell apart and rolled out of the kitchen into the living room where we could watch the video and start on the spirits.
“I hope it’s porn,” said George, “And that you’re going to take us up on our offer.”
“I’ll fuck Jane,” said Zelda, “But the last thing I’m going to do is let
you fuck her!”
“You’re much too ugly for me,” said Jane.
“You’re all too ugly for me,” I said. “I’ve given up sex since the chimney fell. The imagery was so horrifying that I’ve felt more like bombing a small underdeveloped nation ever since.”
I showed them my grandmother’s film and they attentively watched and read my subtitles over the flashes of corroded images, coupled with intriguing little vignettes of a long past pretentious art scene that had in the end driven a man mad. As we sipped the Absinthe, just to get into the mood, we listened to Artaud intoning in not so gay Parisian: “The streets are choked with crumbling pyramids of the dead, the vermin gnawing at the edges. The stench rises in the air like tongues of flame. Then the houses are thrown open and raving plague victims disperse through the streets howling, their minds full of horrible visions. The disease gnawing at their vitals, running through their whole anatomy, is discharged in mental outbursts.”
Afterwards George and Zelda forgot sex and analysed the video. They were more interested in that really.
“Why didn’t anyone ask him the obvious question?” asked George.
“What question was that?”
George and Zelda exchanged those telepathically enhanced looks that always insinuated that I was asking stupid questions.
“The question was “Why did he think he was St Patrick?”” said Zelda.
“She never asked,” I said, “Because my grandmother probably knew the answer.”
“Which was?”
“He was fucking crazy! I mean, look at the guy? Having loon tattooed on his forehead would have looked less insane.”
“I thought he merely looked troubled,” said Zelda.
“Well then, there’s your answer. He was troubled! And if he had not gone crazy, he would not have been interviewed. It was who he was. It would have been like asking, why are you called Zelda?”
“Because my mother had a thing about Scott Fitzgerald.”
I do not know why it irritated me that they should take my work seriously enough to want to discuss its deeper motivations, but all I thought was how dare they assume that I did not ask the same questions and try to find the answers? But there were no answers and so this was what it was. It was an historical archive and nothing more. Don’t blame me if history offers no conclusions. History just is and everything is its fault.
The unresolved conflicts of history were playing out in my living room. Emilie du Chatelot was floating through my walls, fondling the nether regions of all warm-blooded creatures and noting the ticking of the clock. One lover too many, one lover who had to nail her good and dead before she would ever be truly his. For a woman who knew so much, she must have known the odds. She made the choice. And Artaud, exponent of madness, could do nothing but choose to enter its realms; for there was the reality he thought was more real than anything else. And I can recall a tedious childhood visit to my grandfather, who ate bread and butter and jam, drank tea from a mug and slept soundly after lunch while the children were meant to “play quietly”. And it was there, bored witless, to the sound of a ticking clock, that I found a book with my grandmother’s name in it, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, beneath a stack of Zane Greys. And that led to my discovery of her film and a half-finished manuscript about Voltaire’s mistress. Somehow these were all my family.
That night I noticed something. And perhaps I had noticed it many times before. There was a moment when George and Jane emerged from the kitchen with another opened bottle of wine, some coffee supposedly brewing in the background, a button half done up, a face a little redder, and the foursome joke becoming increasingly amusing for George.
“It is so good having you two as friends,” said Zelda, as near to paralytically drunk as one can have without a life support machine, “Otherwise we would never know how good we were.”
“Yes,” said George, “We’ve often thought about cultivating normal people as friends, you know, just to see how the world looks from the average perspective, but our heart is not in it.”
“Normal people,” chortled Zelda, “are the living dead.”
“They run on programmes,” said George, “And never break free.”
“Surely,” I butted in, nursing my long empty glass, “If comparative smugness is the goal of friendship, then the normal surely would make the ideal friends? Think how superior you could feel then?”
“But it is all too easy,” said George. “One would end up feeling sorry and trying to educate them by making reading lists and correcting their spelling in an attempt to jolt them out of their stupor.”
“The Literary Project,” added Zelda, “is the making anew of all things so that one feels the sense of novelty and wonder that one once felt, before the dead hand of education and culture and psychotic parental attitudes fucked one up.”
“They fuck you up, do Mum and Dad,” paraphrased George. “How does that poem by Larking go?”
“And we aren’t fucked up?” I asked, glancing towards Jane who was pursing her lips in as close to a pout that she ever got. It was strangely erotic. Why I’m conditioned to respond to that is another mystery, but there you go.
“Oh marvellously fucked up,” said Zelda, “Like some third world tribe confronted by the modern world and doomed to seek solace in basking weaving and alcohol.”
“You’re the one who’s drunk. Your tits hang out when you’re drunk.”
“Put ‘em away Zelda!” said George, yanking at her top to expose them further. “You’ll have him telling us all about the force of gravity.”
“That’s just to let you know,” I said, “That it is late and our time together has reached another excellent climax. And so... Piss Off until we meet again.”
“An excellent moment to leave,” said George, tucking his shirt in and hitching up his trousers, “It has been, as usual, highly suggestive.”
Once they were safely on the ring road - with a buzz up their bum from mutually applied electric toothbrushes probably - Jane blurted out, “Robo-Friends!” and we laughed.
“Did you know that if you put Zelda and Jane together you got Zane?”
“And not Jelda?”
“Not in my universe. Zane you see is the author of the book my grandfather read.”
“Most people would brag about the book that their grandfather wrote, but not you.”
“He read it to compensate for the loss of his wife who ran off to make avant-garde movies that Zelda and George sixty odd years later could pass patronising comments on.”
“That,” declared Jane, as she unzipped my flies and knelt before me, “Is the end of all art!”
It was early the next morning when I began to feel very sick. My stomach churned, my head reeled, and I had to keep running to the toilet until finally I sat there with my head in a bucket being violently sick. After which, I crawled into the shower and lay half in half out with the hot water squirting down on me.
I thought of Artaud’s description of the plague with its subversion of all morality, the breakdown of all psychology, and the sound of one’s lacerated, utterly routed bodily fluids murmuring within, in a giddy wasting away of matter. The plague, said Artaud, is the manifestation of a thinking force in close contact with what we call fate. Does one die in dreams, I thought?
Normally, if that is the right word, after a bout of food poisoning, being sick was the final act and one took to one’s bed weak and pathetic. Over the next twenty-four hours, one would mope about the house listing all the things one ate the day before and wondering why Jane was not also ill. One also thought, how one really should clean that fridge! But this time, I felt no better. I knew that I should drink some water but I also knew that it would come straight up again. Jane, I assumed, was sleeping and I did not know whether to call out to her, knowing she could do nothing, or brave it out.
As I lay in my delirium, I dreamt of George and Zelda gripped by similar agonies and cursing us for poisoning them. It must have reminded them of half the journeys they had taken into the wilds of the world in the name of the travel guides that employed them. They always suffered liver damaging ailments that left them at the mercy of quack doctors and herbal medicines that they assured us were not safer or more effective than Western alternatives. They had a simultaneous love and a profound contempt of the foreign, especially when, in the state of mind in which I found myself; they had to check the local bus time table and get hold of a list of local hotel and hostel rates. It was probably their frequent distress at the inequities of the world’s hygiene that gave them sufficient edge to counter our intellectual terrorism. Maybe that was why we were friends? The world had strengthened them, forged them in our mirror image, the wicked children of our imaginations that mimicked us and made fools of us, that wound us about ourselves all the more, for we thought that we were amongst others. The world, from all its angles, all its arid plains, thin-aired mountains, sultry swamps and stained hotel mattresses, could do no better than make replica upon replica of us. Granted technology and fashions changed, but ever since Ogg and Ugg got together in their nice cave and scratched some tasteful sketches of bison and their evisceration, they had Gog and Bug their best friends around to torment and join with some ritual cackling while pissed out of their brains. All in the hope that they would not end up sad and old like their parents, who seemed to have been born sad and old. Generation upon generation of replicas, all saying nothing to each other than, just you wait, just you wait! All mutually interchangeable. George was me. I was George. What difference should it make?
I lay groaning. Jane was nowhere to be found. I kept thinking why did she not notice me? Why? I imagined that she would scoop me off the bed into a packing case that would be sealed and left in the garage for posterity. She would tell my parents that I ran off with an insane Albanian woman of advanced opinions and had changed my name to Zog. She would then spend the rest of her life watching my grandmother’s film over and over again as a living exhibit in The Tate.
My Grandmother, naked running through flickering light until ground to a condiment to spice rabbit stew, my Grandfather riding the range with a fistful of lettuce, my father slathering over a parcel of fish, and my mother yelling that it is Lunch not Dinner, that we have at midday, provided me with a mental accompaniment to what I assumed was my death. To die with a parade of food and relatives seemed grossly unfair to me. If this was the manifestation of the thinking force we call fate, then I did not think much of it. And so decided not to catch the bus that day.
Two days later I awoke, still in the shower, cold, very unhealthy and crawled back to the bed.
Jane returned, dressed in a pink plastic raincoat and carrying a Boots’ shopping bag full of electrolytic fluids and anti-diarrhoea pills.
“These’ll make you crazy,” she said, flashing the bottle of tablets at me. “They’ll put a stop to all lucid thought.”
“You think I think nothing but a load of crap don’t you?”
“Yes. Of course.”
She then casually informed me that she had telephoned George and Zelda but they were not answering.
“Maybe I’ve killed them.”
“So their lives are vacant?”
“I suppose so.”
“Do you want us to take possession of them? They have a Mercedes.”
“And a home cinema with sensurround sound.”
“Sounds like a golden opportunity to me.”
“Do you want to watch me piss on this?” she asked waving a pregnancy test under my nose.
“You can tell now?”
“Well I can tell
something right now!”
“But not anything positive?”
“That sounds fine by me. Nothing positive is just about right.”
We never did take over George and Zelda’s lives. We imagined that a neighbour found them in a disgusting state after having died from salmonella poisoning. We decided not to complicate the issue by letting anyone know that they last ate at our place. As for the baby, we decided to have it frozen as an embryo and place a hundred pounds in a bank account for it, with the proviso that it was not to be thawed out until the money had increased to a million pounds adjusted for inflation. That seemed the wisest thing to do, considering the state of the roof. As for Artaud, he went back in the box, nicely preserved awaiting the next student of fine arts to get a stamp on their library card and access to the mysteries of, if not life, the remnant of the grandmother that I made. And we, dear reader, lived happily ever after, amongst the archives, preparing the groundwork for our future reabsorption into the fabric of time and space when all archives, recordings and cultures will be reduced to nothingness. The experience is all there is and all there ever was. The rest is propaganda. The truth is all lies. Chimneys just fall. Probably.