Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Footprints in the Snow - Chapter 3 - The Trouble With Expectations...

Chapter 3 - The Trouble With Expectations...

The sky is filled with a beautiful ruby sunset but neither man in twenty-two Wallaby Lane is awake to notice it.

When, finally, they each begin to open their eyes they do so almost simultaneously, as though some soporific gas has lifted and left them bleary eyed, unsure what came over them. Each man opens first one eye, then another, struggling to remember where they are, and why they are there. Langdon’s mind is foggy, merlot raining down hard and fast, thickening his attempts at thought. He wonders why he had that extra bottle of wine in the car and mourns the days when he could drink whatever he wanted without this infernal aftermath lingering around so long.

The memories of the night come to him slowly and he wonders where Tom has gone. For an instant he thinks Tom might have slunk away in the night. But then a floorboard creaks upstairs and he stands up, cramp shooting through his right leg. Standing there, massaging blood through the lifeless limb, he waits, unsure exactly who it is he expects to come down the stairs.

Upstairs in the back bedroom, curled up on the hard wooden floor, Jeremy wakes to a sensation of stability. There are empty murmurs tremoring up from his stomach and bowels, his brain is swollen and puffy, and he has to breathe hard to get air into his lungs. But, as though sleep has taken him back in time, he feels younger than he has in many years. There is a strange note of optimism buzzing in him, he is lighter of heart, and somehow - inexplicably – relaxed. Though his muscles are weak, this weakness manifests itself in a sort of dubious delirium which leaves him light-headed, unencumbered by grander worries.

All around him he sees little hints of Ember: in the crack in the window where she kicked it with her bare foot while they made love; in the stencilled lizard drawn on the wall, in the dimensions of her room which have not shifted even over this length of time. As he looks up at the pale stain on the ceiling he can almost feel her lying beside him, arm draped sleepily across his chest.

He is young again. As though this stranger, this Tom Jefferson is waking up after long years of hibernation. And he is hungry. He gets up and dresses in the same clothes he has worn the past five days. They are stiff with sweat but today feel like combed cotton against his invigorated skin. He walks to the doorway and looks out into the hall.

Bam. He has no idea where it comes from, but as he reaches the top of the stairs he is overcome with excitement. It is as if he is 10 again and this is the first day of spring, the air smells thinner, light feels softer and he is about to venture out without a coat for the first time in months.

Thump, thump, thump, his heart beats forcefully, a quickening pace, shooting adrenalin soaked blood to every extremity, imploring him to shout something – anything! – to share his energy with the world. Every breath he takes only serves to increase his elation. He feels well in his core, healthy even, after the horrors of yesterday. He feels young. How long has it been since he felt like this?

Please look. Can you see him? Can you see him, in this house as big as the heavens? Picture him from above, as if you are flying, in, say, a helicopter, or on the back of a bird. Picture him as his emotions soar and the planet hurtles around the relentless orbit of the sun. Look at him, goddammit, slingshotted from the back side of the moon, greedily cartwheeling toward everything his is owed.

Looking down the stairs he focuses on the door at the bottom, proud of how it has weathered the intervening years. Better than he has, that’s for sure. He has the urge to jump onto the banister and ride the rails, down, down, swooshing down like a ski jumper. And then, to take off. That is it, he wants to fly, to be young and high on life, to join the flock of happy souls and bask in the light of their combined reflective glory.

He kicks his feet and begins to descend the stairs as though on a space walk. And in his mind he is. Oh, the elation of it all! He rises and swoops, carried by the currents of the wind. He wants to shout out that he is home and will never leave this beautiful house again, even if he has to die and become a ghost to do so. And he doesn’t care who hears him because this is how he feels right now and nothing is more powerful than the here and now. He is young and alive and with Ember he can be whoever he wants.

He reaches the foot of the stairs with a thud, expecting another step, and jarring his knee. He breathes in and smiles. But as he turns to his right he sees Langdon, standing there, expectant, waiting. Hands clasped behind his back, big, bushy, silver-laced eyebrows pointing up towards the sky, beaming smile plastered across his face. And then Langdon opens his mouth to speak, and Jeremy’s elation dissipates. Such highs never last long.

“Ah, Good morning, Tom. For what human ill does not dawn seem an alleviation? You look hungry.”

“Good evening,” he replies flatly.

“So, what can I do you for?”

“Thanks, Mr. Langdon. But all I need is a glass of water and if I can make one phone call I’ll be on my way.”

Silence. He is dazed. But it is out now, he cannot take it back. So that will be the end of it. He didn’t expect the words to come out, and now that they have their magnitude takes him by surprise. It is as though a trapdoor has opened beneath him and he is in mid air, falling and with no idea where the ground is. Empty. The way he often used to feel after sex. It is like a leech or some other parasite has tapped into his brain and taken over control of both body and mind. And then, at the very moment of elation, the very moment when the leach gets everything it has ever dreamed of, it disappears, leaving him alone, and disorientated, and with a slight sense of guilt. Guilt for wasting time; guilt for becoming so absurdly controlled by chemicals; guilt at the emptiness of promises unfulfilled. And, looking up now, guilt at having caused the anger which he now sees sweeping Langdon’s face.

“Well, if that’s what you want,” Langdon replies tersely.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to be impolite. I don’t want to inconvenience you, that’s all.”

“Nonsense. You aren’t inconveniencing anybody.”

“So what brings you here?”

“So what brings you here?” they speak in unison, as if mocking each others migratory pattern had made them of one mind. It is Langdon who answers first.

“Well, I’m just here for a few days. House-sitting this old place until the sale goes through next week.”

“You don’t live here?”

“Oh, no! I live in Edinburgh now, have done for the past fifteen years. I can tell you, its nice to see a bit of sun again!”

“That’s nice,” Jeremy offers, distracted. He is shocked, saddened. But through the strain of assimilating this news comes an even more pertinent question. “So what are you doing here then?”

“I’m in the middle of a book tour with Neil Hallsworth, have you heard of him?”

“I spend a fair amount of time in airport bookshops…”

“Yes, okay. Point taken. Anyway, we had a few days off so I thought I would come back here and have a look at the place. I’ve been renting it to students for years, but this seemed like the time to sell it. It could use some renovation and that’s not really practical from the other side of the world.”

“I guess you are right.”

“So, what’s your story?”

Silence. Heat pricks at Jeremy’s skin, his face reddens under its oppressive touch. He shrugs. That question again. It hangs in the air, berating him to find an answer. But what answer can there be? He is no storyteller.

But if the silence is a strain to Jeremy, it is nothing compared with how it affects Langdon. The air is ripe with his expectancy. He is in the middle of a mystery and cannot stop reading and breathe steadily until he uncovers the truth. He turns the pages, one after the other, eyes scanning the text for answers to the mystery. But they are blank, unwritten. And he has never known how to fill in blank pages. The silence drags on a little longer. It is becoming claustrophobic. He cannot wait any longer.

“So,” he thinks to quip, hoping a lighter tone will loosen Tom’s tongue. “Are you going to tell me what led you to sleep on my doorstep or am I to assume you simply intended bloody murder upon myself and my family?”

But as soon as the words leave his mouth he sees the error in his tactics. It is always the same. Whenever only time can unlock a person’s soul, the pressure of that infinite void of waiting forces upon him such a sense of claustrophobia, such uneasiness with the sudden seriousness of the subject that he simply has to escape. Such is the power of silence, as it hangs in the air waiting for the loser to crack. And Langdon has cracked first.

Jeremy had been about to say something, to give in and offer whatever needed saying in order to stay here, even if just for a few more hours. But those words, those belittling, mocking words bring home once more the significance of his presence here. He feels like a stalker. He is solemn in the vicinity of the inexplicable fate which has placed him here at the same time as Mr. Langdon and can think of no answer that will make it all seem as natural as the flowing of the tides. For that is how it is. But every explanation that comes to mind strikes him as contrived. He glances over once more at Mr. Langdon and sees a man he knows nothing of, save a few judgemental assumptions made be someone he once was a long time ago. He sighs and begins a bland explanation.

“There’s not much to tell really. I’ve been travelling around Australia for a few months and found myself in Arumpo. I had a few days spare and felt like stopping by to see if anything remained of this old place. Then I fell asleep on the doorstep where you found me. I think I must have eaten something that didn’t agree with me.”

He wanted to tell the truth, but once more in his life the words were not there when he needed them. The flatness of this response satisfies neither man, it is such a flagrant lie. If only it was a fragrant lie, rich in texture and sight and smell and taste like a great mythological tale. A new Arabian Nights may have satisfied Langdon’s longing for an explanation. But this does not.

“Small world.”

“Tell me about it.”

But Langdon is trying again. “So, Breakfast! Or dinner or whatever it is! You must be starving.”

Jeremy smiles, he is very, very hungry. Slowly, each man lost in his thoughts and insufficiencies, they make their way to the kitchen.

Gastronomic salivation, tension frying on the rind of bacon. Silence. And chewing. The slow chomp, chomp of grinding teeth. Question marks hang in the air like balloons on string. There are not the words to say what needs saying. The two men watch each other from across the table, each hiding from, and interrogating, the other. As the nourishing, greasy fat begins to line their stomachs and the salty, smoked meat and thick buttered bread slowly fills them up, the half unspoken truths begin to fade. But all too soon the plates have been wiped clean and they must look up and face the here and now.

It is Jeremy who finishes first, stands up and takes his plate over to the sink to wash up. The sound of running water and the gentle scratch of bristle on plastic affords him a slim period of protection from those bobbing balloons demanding answers. He is immobile, leaden footed, unsure whether he wants to stay or go. It is all very well revisiting the past, but what worth is there in delaying his inevitable departure? As Langdon said, the house is being sold. Even if he wanted to stay he cannot. There is no returning to the past.

But he looks around and in every nook and cranny of the kitchen he sees something that reminds him of her, that conjures her face more completely than he believed possible. After so many years wondering the earth alone, it is nice to see a familiar face. He thinks back to those afternoons spent together, washing their plates and cups while she wheeled herself around the kitchen, bumping into the counters, infuriated by her inability to help. He is gripped by the urge to remain in this house, to wake up tomorrow and see her face all around him. If honesty is the price then it is cheap at twice the cost. He smiles, in spite of himself, and turns to face Langdon, eyes heavy with foreboding. He takes a deep breath, then another, holds it there, lets it out, and prepares to explain his life more comprehensively than ever before.

“This is the first time I’ve been back…”

“Me too! Good old Australia, hey? Don't worry about the world coming to an end today. It's already tomorrow in Australia!”

“…Well, exactly” Jeremy begins again, resolve receding before his eyes. “After Paris I went to America and spent a couple of years on the road. I needed something after all that had happened.” He pauses, letting the unspoken history say everything that needs saying. Compared to the memories he has of this place, others now seem empty, as though he has only ever read about them in a book and never lived them through his own eyes.

So he recants his story as if speaking about someone else’s life. “America really was a new world, mine to discover. The long roads and empty spaces, the mile upon mile of wilderness where you could stop and camp, without having anyone else within earshot of you. I have always thought that landscape is fundamental in determining the feel of a place. In Australia the landscape is the mythology, so driving through it has an almost fantastical feel. In England the wholesome patchwork fields and well manicured lawns have a sense of order, of dewy history and civilisation that cannot be separated from each other. But America, America is the land where man has consistently failed to tame the wild. It is all around you, in so many different forms. Just driving along some of those roads and looking out at the incorrigible scenery, it is impossible not to heed the call of the wild.

“There was another guy – Jon something – we hooked up and ran the roads together for a while. We each worked some but there was nothing that could hold us down. We just wanted to travel. That was it. If we could cram ten unique experiences into each day, then we would be happy. Or so we thought.

“But everyday I felt a little more alienated from myself. I was living for those experiences, but I did not know why. Living for the next sight, never seeing what was right before me. Then one day I woke up and just sat there, staring out at the dawn. I looked out the window and everything was the same as the last time I saw it. I had no idea where I was. None at all. That morning, before Jon woke up, I walked out the door and hitchhiked away. It turned out we were somewhere near Kansas, but I have no idea how many times we had been back and forth across America. Two days later I arrived in San Francisco and there was no further to go. I sat there on a wooden pier, staring as the sun went down, sensing all the massive life of the country and continent I had crossed. From the patchwork states of the Pacific North West to the cities growing into each other on the East coast, the millions of people baking pies and wearing woollen sweaters, earning money and driving along those long straight roads. My American dream had reached its end. Two choices: either I jump into the Ocean, or stop right there and join the millions silently growing old.

“I got a job in an office and spent six years with an expense account and a secretary. Boring work, boring life. Just alcohol and commuting. But it helped me re-engage with the world, helped me remember all those little things I had stopped noticing like taste and sound and smell.

“Still, six years in an office is a long time. Almost like being in prison. One day I could stand it no more. Walked out at lunchtime and bought a ticket to London. For the last ten years or so I’ve been doing reconnaissance work for the BBC: Michael Palin and David Attenborough type stuff.”

“I guess you could say I’ve been going around in circles. But it’s a good life really.” And he truly means it; he is his own man and proud of it. Until yesterday, he had no notion that anything in his life was missing.

“But you probably want to know how I got here. There’s nothing much to say really. I landed in Adelaide last week to spend a few days checking out the Mungo National Park. But my suitcase got lost on the flight – who knows where in the world it is now. So it was just me and the open road. I spent a couple of days driving about, meeting a couple of people, arranging excursions, taking notes on filming locations, that sort of thing. I had been driving all night without stopping, I was tired and thirsty. I had just filled up the car at a petrol station and started along the Arumpo Road when I panicked and realised my wallet was gone. It wasn’t at the petrol station and no-one seemed to have seen it. The manager offered me a complimentary coffee and a cup of water which I managed to spill and all of a sudden the world seemed to take that last transition from pale colours to black and white and I had no idea what I was doing. I stood there looking out across the endless expanse of brush unsure who I even was.

“So I got in the car and started driving. I cannot remember one thing about the drive from there to here. I just followed the skyline, and watched the landscape slide by. Next thing I know, I’m spluttering into Wallaby Road and the car runs out of petrol right here, outside this old place. Talk about coincidence. It’s strange. It was like being back in San Francisco, I was almost back at the ocean and I just had to sit here and wait, there was nowhere else to go. A solution would float by on the wind, it always has.”

Jeremy ends the soliloquy with a shrug. The story is not a classic, and less dramatic than Langdon hoped. Simple misfortune has driven him here and he will just as certainly drive off again when his problems are solved. So how to react? Sympathy, for sure. And assistance, of course. But that is it. He hoped for more. Something about Jeremy’s bohemian presence has shaken him.

“I’m sorry Tom,” Langdon begins, but only because it is his turn to say something. “Do you just need to get back to Adelaide and collect your things?”

“I guess it is.” Now Jeremy is uneasy. This really is it. His speech has changed nothing. All that talking for nothing. There is no way to stay; no comfy world to slip into. No security.

“If all you need is to reach Adelaide then we can get you there. It is not the next stop, but we get there, I think, a week from today. I will check with Neil after my lunch meeting tomorrow, but he won’t object; he likes to play Good Samaritan.”

“It’s okay, Mr. Langdon. I don’t want to intrude.”

“Nonsense, you won’t be intruding. We’ve been touring for weeks now, it might be fun to have a third person along for a while.”

But Jeremy is not listening.

“So, what do you think?” Langdon asks.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to trouble you. If I can just borrow a few Dollars for a phone call I’m sure I can be on a plane back to Adelaide and out of your hair by tomorrow morning.”

“Oh tish, pish and nonsense. Come now, Tom. You arrive here out of the blue at the only time I have been here in twenty years, you spend almost a whole day dead to the world and then decide to waltz off into the sunset to travel from one hostel to another on your quest for I don’t know what.” He stops and throws his hands in the air. “Go now, if that’s what you want…but here I am going where you are going and it seems such a waste. Maybe we came together for a reason. I don’t know what it is but I would sure like to find out. See what my daughter missed out on all those years ago.”

“Well, okay then. Thanks Mr. Langdon.”

They spend the evening sat at the table, sharing words when they come but otherwise silent, lost in their shared, though private, recollections. The day has passed them by and now, awake and illuminated in the glare of night, they are charged with electrified static energy. It is the quiet, reflective energy of coffee and cigarettes, of red wine late at night in small jazz clubs. The dislocation of a hotel lobby. And come the early hours of the morning, the two men take themselves off to bed, because no matter how dramatic a turn life takes, there comes a point when there is nothing left to but drag oneself back to the bland everyday events of life.

“Goodnight, Tom,” Langdon calls wearily from the doorway to his bedroom.

“Goodnight, Mr. Langdon. And thank you,” Jeremy replies.

Lying on the floor and studying that stain on the ceiling, Jeremy tries to work out what has happened to him. The stain seems like a metaphor for something, but he is not sure exactly what. He is still thinking about those years. Almost twenty. Sure, he has forgotten his last few birthdays, but surely there have not been so many as that. It would be poetic to say he has lived by the stars, or the phases of the moon, or any other mystical reference point for the passing of time and distance. But for ten years now he has lived according to no rules other than his own, no clock other than the unreliable one ticking somewhere about his being.

So now he sits there and calculates it. He arrived in Australia in 1984. Such a long time ago. That year seems particularly susceptible to drama, as though the future of mankind rested upon a pin, swaying precariously every which way. Then the AIDS virus was discovered, Indira Ghandi was assassinated, and Apple released its first Personal Computer. The fulcrum of a new period had begun to tip.

So Ember and he left Australia at the beginning of 1986. Come September, he started again on a flight from Paris to America. Two years of crazed life on the road and then six on Wall Street in a suit and tie, discussing Les Miserables and the latest must have gadget. It’s amazing where an English accent can get you. And then in 1994 he returned to England. Just as Britain rediscovered its swagger.

So for eleven years he has been circumnavigating the world in the pay of the BBC. Such a long time. Captain Cook spent only ten of his forty-nine years traversing the globe and he discovered this lost continent. Amundson and Captain Scott travelled to the South Pole and back within two years. Yuri Gagarin spent less than a day in Space while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s 500,000 mile lunar roundtrip lasted only nine. Maybe Laika the intrepid space dog, soaring through the universe forever and ever, would understand the thoughts that assail him now.

For eleven years – no, ever since he last walked through this front door - he has flown, sailed, walked, driven and hopped from continent to continent, without a thought of this old place. And here he now lies, on a wooden floor in an empty room, closer to the man he was when he left than he has been ever since.

So who is he? He feels two people moving inside of him but is unsure who he wants to be. This person, this Jeremy Blackwell he has been all his life, the name it says on his birth certificate? That’s who he was when he arrived here yesterday and, other than his health improving, nothing else has changed. But then there is this Tom Jefferson, this idea of a man he used to be. The man he is once more expected to be. And he is not sure whether he can still be Tom Jefferson or whether that man ever even existed, except in the deluded minds of a couple of kids in love. Is he really either of them? Or just a figment of someone’s imagination.

But Langdon still knows him as Tom. So Ember never told him. A weird omission. And now he himself has decided against telling it as well. Call it dramatic licence. He sighs, the youth he once tried to be, safely held all this time in her arms. It would be pointless to change that now. And it would sully the twenty year lie, kept, wordlessly, between them. Yes he nods. Tom Jefferson once again. It will be easier that way.

He falls asleep, all the while nestling up to the ghost beside him.

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