He did not intend to stay in Preston for any longer after Christmas. It was indeed the notable dampness in the air that was bothering him all along – a lingering source of annoyance which he never seemed to get accustomed to. The plan of leaving was elaborately arranged and therefore was by no means a decision made on a sudden impulse, for he had organised all the matters in a rather artfully way for the past two weeks. However, just as he spent the very last morning at the station in a sense of pure relief, an incoming call disturbed the tranquility.
“Hello? Is this Mr. Rowsell?”
He could scarcely recognised that voice. “Yes, this is. May I ask who’s talking?” There was no response. He leaned forward in the seat, trying to place the phone closer. To confirm whether the connection had just broken, he repeated the word Hello a few times in a respectfully tentative manner.
“Excuse me for saying this, but could you put Mr. Rowsell himself on the phone, please? Or is he not there?”
“This is him talking to you,” said he in a slightly jesting tone. “What’s the matter?”
“Well, listen – I’m not expecting any joke on this, so whoever you are – –”
The dialogue terminated as he hung up almost without hesitation. He wasn’t in the mood of participating in an absurd debate, which would undoubtedly ruin this graceful beginning of the day and possibly all the rest.
My lack of concern towards the likelihood of the person being someone so significant that could change my status in the blink of an eye had deprived me of all the sensible insights and awarenesses – in other words, losing the perspectives that could as well have developed a means to achieve what was once beyond my reach was a dear price to pay. I sure was in sheer ignorance about the repercussions of an error in judgment.
The light was blinding. Till that moment, there wasn’t a sign of me waking from the peculiar state that was only adopted to distinguish the lines, the words, from the blankness of the surroundings. And as I slowly looked up, she was standing there with a mild smile and a gleam of geniality in her eyes. Yes, Camus, she had got it right. I nodded without saying a word.
She deftly sat down on the seat opposite me, near the aisle. “You’re studying philosophy?”
Apparently I wasn’t. I shook my head, attempting to bring myself back to the reading.
“It’s odd – I see you more clearly than I have ever seen anyone. But I can’t hear you, and it’s hard for me to believe that you really exist.”
I lifted my gaze from the book.
“So you’re the one who’s actually studying it.”
“…On how you define ‘study’?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“To me, that means nothing but a vapid and insincere modesty.”
A brief pause.
“You’ve said you don’t study philosophy. And that’s why – instead of emphasizing how well I know about L'Étranger, I put the existing set of theories aside and try to talk about it with you as a common reader.”
“Well. Have I? All of that is built on the assumption that you and I are defining a word exactly the same way. How’s that even possible?”
“Alright, very unlikely indeed,” she shrugged. “How do you think of solipsism?”
“It’s merely an escape from reality.”
“Is reading not, then?”
I frowned: “You’re taking it out of context. I read to know things, and that’s all. I suppose there are quite a few differences between us on this.” There, I had drawn the lines, as it came to me that every remark she’s made lay subtly between amicability and manipulation. Something was gripping me by the throat – an obscure tension that I had unintentionally picked up throughout the conversation, perhaps.
Awaiting the arrival of a dining car had made me become restless. But I wasn’t hungry; I wanted a cup of coffee only because it would distract me from boredom. The old lady sitting next to me was flicking idly through a newspaper with rhetoric headlines, a tiny pair of reading glasses on the end of her nose – I wondered what was keeping her from falling asleep. A low humming sound was firmly embedded in my head, and I realised that my palms had never stopped sweating for the past two and a half hours in the boiling carriage.
I hadn’t talk to the woman for a while, but she showed no sign of moving away from the seat. I was unsure whether she had come to me just to share a few words about the content of L'Étranger, which, as I recalled, wasn’t in fact particularly meaningful. Too many discomforting asking-in-replies. Unlike the usual chat featuring burdensome family affairs, exaggerated personal experiences and other trivial matters between people who met only briefly on the road, she and I had barely understood each other. Her destination remained a mystery to me, and vice versa. I figured that she wasn’t quite fond of either telling or listening to stories.
As soon as I came out of the service carriage, it became dark all around. I made my way back cautiously with the filled paper cup in one hand. The woman was gone, so were most of the rest. The change had made the place so much quieter that the ticking of every watch clinging to every wrist were clear and distinguishable. And the very few people, including myself, were sitting very far apart from one another. The silence chilled me. The image that popped up in my mind were faces with looks of despair, or, more likely, with no expressions at all, for they had realised that their sorrows were beyond expressions or words, and were therefore lapsing into deeper depression. No one feigning a muffled cough, no one stamping feet lightly, no one willing to tidy up or shift any odds and ends that had been left casually on the table. The scene was in fact the total contrary of that of the service carriage, where everyone was so busy weaving in and out of the crowd and had hardly any time to talk. How unbelievable! Leaving the astonishments aside, I felt as though the oppressiveness, like raindrops falling to the ground during a heavy rainstorm, was suppressing me with an irresistible force. I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I slapped the cup on the table and opened L'Étranger, but what came into view weren’t the words, instead, it was something else – lying between the pages calmly and neatly, as if it had never belonged here, was a brownish-green Gingko leaf.
It was in the split second when I dropped the telephone, that it dawned to me that I had known so little about everything, that they wouldn’t even grant me the rights of looking back into a past of my own. I must admit that they had done it almost flawlessly with misleading lies and despicable tricks, and so far, had got away with all the responsibilities. The distinction between ignorance and disguise was always clear; and it wasn’t merely by instinct, that I knew they were holding it back from me.
As I held L'Étranger open in my hands, the pages began flipping back and forth wildly – I must have had unwittingly left the windows open, which then let the cold breezes and scattered noises of traffic slip in. The leaf now was resting soundlessly on a piece of paper in front of me, for I did not dare to lose it from my sight, and that I was reluctant to divert myself from everything I believed it would lead me to – who the woman was, how I came to know her, and how I came to forget her. The branches and tendrils of time had entangled me. All I did have was nothing else but this tiny, decaying leaf; I had no other choices but to assume its existence allusive, and therefore to start from it, but it was for sure that only after a few days it would fall into insignificant fragments – yet there was nothing I could do to prevent it. Then, how might I start? Night-time was almost upon me – I saw it – that the lights were no brighter but rather grew dimmer and dimmer, as if they were counting down for the absolute darkness that followed. I felt the walls shrinking that I could scarcely breathe! How might I start – in this black and cold void, in the propagating perplexities, in the deformed soul of mine – how might I start!
Awakened by a heavy thud that seemed to come from above, I found myself filled with an unprovoked fervour for a comprehensive retrieval. I yanked open the drawer, and there they were, the photo albums in scarlet coloured leather jackets, stacked neatly in a pile of four. I placed them close to each other in front of me with extreme care as though they were fine porcelain – I couldn’t find the heart to treat them roughly.
I began looking through it at a reasonable speed. There was myself, of course, standing beside a tremendous statue with a look of bewilderment passing over my face, or sitting cross-legged in a tent that seemed to have been set up wrongly. And there were the others, father, Edmund, Clara, friends from the college and the strangers who showed up at the parade of Manchester in impressive ways.
As I turned the page faster and faster without even knowing it, a tide of dizziness overpowered me. I halted. I could see nothing but darkness. I took a deep breath and held it for long, believing that the act would drive away the vertigo that eroded my sight. As ever, it worked. And, just when I started on the last album, an unusual photo caught my eye – half-length, the figure of a woman dressed in black stood out well from the plain background. However, curiously, the upper half of the photo was stained by a piece of blue paint, and it just happened to be big enough to cover her whole face like an opaque veil.
I must had been too naïve to expect any clue from this, from the things that were left behind. This was their way of winning – erase, erase, and erase again. It was not until I came up to the old tree that I found it mutilated by a fire, with the incendiaries turning into the innocents, and the only witness of the truth was now getting hopelessly lost in time. Of course, the little evidence remained wouldn’t allow my further investigation – no one would trust an outsider who was profoundly convinced that he had known a woman who was now a stranger to him, and it was his distant relatives who were also the only ones left in the family, that were attempting to remove her existence from his memory. The paint could never be cleaned and the truth would never be told; the path that lay in front of me was blocked, as it always would be. I had to leave before it burnt me from the inside out.
I put on a long coat and headed towards the station. It wouldn’t take me long to walk, but with all the luggage, taking a taxi seemed a wiser choice. It had been a while since the last time the picture of the town unfolded before my eyes – the compact, bright-coloured buildings on the sides of the street, the silhouette of the cross on top of the church, people jogging along the roads with their long-haired terriers. It would always be in a harmony no matter with or without my presence.
When I reached the platform, the crowd was rolling in all directions. ‘A reckless rush’, the phrase emerged out of nowhere in my mind with an extraordinary clarity. Of course, not all of them were necessarily in such a state, some of them were acting this way solely because something about them needed to be concealed – solitude, weariness, or possibly a regretful past. It seemed that everyone had things worth concealing. Why was I there? Why was I struggling amongst those who suffered from solitude, weariness, or a past they didn’t wish to bring up? Had I been suffering with them and everyone else, I might as well forget a little less.
I saw her at the moment when I thought seeing her again would be the most unlikely thing that ever happened.
And when I did, the voice inside my head grew louder and louder that was almost deafening. I knew her. I knew her. I knew her. That was all I knew – I must had been so foolish to let go of this, to make up my mind running away from everything. I saw it – an oasis on this boundless desert, in the bustling mess, awaiting to be revealed and therefore bring it all back at once. I dared not blink; my heart fluttered violently as I grasped my coat and fought my way through droves of people wandering around pointlessly. Mirages. With a great rumble the tree had been torn into half, and it stung me so vigorously that it then went into my ears and kept vibrating like mad, or it might be earth itself trembling. The waves that stood between us glittered and shuffled, and for an instant it seemed that she and I and everyone else had all been devoured and then thrown into a sea of nothingness. Mirages. I had lost her, or maybe I hadn’t – for she might never have been there at all. Mirages. Mere mirages!
Moonlight poured in through the window when I sat down and opened L'Étranger once again. I couldn’t step aboard, after all – too many things had been pulling me back. But nothing had changed, I was still here, alone and stranded, with a yearn to unravel an obscurity even if I felt it collapsing through time. Was there still a branch of the tree left to be discovered? Was there even a hope of it sprouting into a brand new life?
I went down and it soon became a dull stroll along the lake gravel. Most of the very few walkers I came across were submerged in heavy coats, trotting in smooth and steady paces.
“Do I know you?”
Something flashed across the wrinkled face. Silence only lasted for a second.
“Well,” he smiled, “I don’t think so.”
He was right, and I had always been wrong. Now I had finally understood where it all started, and where it should end.
I opened the book, and there it lay, the ruthless golden creature – surprisingly still intact. This was the end, I thought, if there was no turning back from where I stood, then I must find the way ahead.
Water riffled gently. Not a trace.