The Snowflake Collector – 12: There Was Nothing Now But the Snow

When Yanosh found him, lying in the snow, he was as cold as the earth and as grey as the sky and as still as the heart that stopped beating. For many years, Yanosh had been coming to visit him, up at the end of the valley, even though he had long ceased to live in the hamlet outside the village, an hour or so’s walk from the hut; and for many days The Snowflake Collector had been lying on the ground in the snow, on his back, his eyes facing up to the sky whence the snowflakes kept on descending.

These eyes, these cheeks, now sunken-in, these bristles of his beard, had long been covered by a blanket of white, and no birds were up here, this time of year, to pluck at the eyeballs, no vermin or hungry beast to tear at his flesh: he was already at rest. When Yanosh wiped the snow off his face, he saw that he’d closed his eyes and fallen asleep, there was no stare, there was no anguish in his features, there was nothing now but the snow.

He had long since grown at one with the universe, The Snowflake Collector, and nothing else mattered now. He had his meaning. He had his hut and his priceless collection of snowflakes which grew every day that the sky brought him snow, he had a friend in Yanosh who came to see him every so often when he was in the country, and a friendly face in Yanosh’s mother Yolanda whom he saw at the inn on the few and fewer occasions he went down there for an ale, and he had the occasional visitor who had seen Yanosh’s pictures of his snowflakes online or read about his collection in an article or heard about it from a local or an acquaintance, or learnt of it from a book.

Very rarely, hardly ever, had he accepted an invitation to go down from the valley and undertake a journey, by bus and by train and sometimes by plane, to one of the cities to address a conference or a symposium or a convention and talk about his understanding of snowflakes.

He knew that he could not communicate his understanding of snowflakes to the world by talking about them, and he couldn’t by writing about them—which he never attempted—and he couldn’t by showing them to Yanosh who photographed them and posted his pictures of them online. But he felt he could perhaps give something back to a universe that had, in the end, and on balance, treated him fairly and with care, by humouring these people who now, now that he no longer craved their attention, clamoured for him and professed that they longed to know of his mind.

He knew, The Snowflake Collector, that snowflakes had many dimensions—seven at least he could think of, but probably more—and he could see these dimensions clearly and distinctly in his mind’s eye even though he knew he would never be able to see them with his physical eye, nor represent them visually, nor show them to Yanosh, or anyone else. He would not be able to explain them, nor would he ever be able to convince anyone in the world that these snowflakes had many dimensions, seven at least, but probably more, because he knew enough of the world and its violent rejection of anything it couldn’t see with its eyes and measure with its instruments and comprehend in the context of its current science, to realise that any attempt of his to do so would remain futile; he knew of the world’s irrational fear of anyone and anything it deemed irrational, and he felt not foolish enough, any more, to argue or make a case.

What he could do, and did do, was to collect these snowflakes in their physical three dimensions as one who knows of their further dimensions and as one who knows that what he was able to show Yanosh, and what Yanosh was able to show the world, was not just less than half of what a snowflake was, but only the tiniest fraction, because he also knew, The Snowflake Collector, that each additional dimension does not add to a thing as much as the previous one, but each additional dimension increases the complexity of the thing exponentially.

He would never, he knew, be able to explain this or convince anyone that this was so, but the thought of it alone made The Snowflake Collector extraordinarily happy; and elated by this happiness, he felt, for the rest of his days on this earth, in his valley, in love. He was in love with George, the first snowflake he had successfully collected by his own particular method, and he was in love with Yanosh whose loyal friendship sustained him, and he was in love with the valley and the mountains that made the valley, and with the stream that ran through it, and with the trees that he planted on the plot of land that he kept by the stream, two young trees for each old tree he cut down, and with the old trees he cut down just as much, and he was in love with Yolanda who served him his dependable ale when he went to the inn on few and fewer occasions, and he was in love with the universe, and he sensed, because of this, the universe, in equal measure, love him.

And he knew, then, The Snowflake Collector, that he would be able to communicate to the world his understanding of snowflakes and their dimensions not through words, not through the snowflakes he collected in the glass cubes that he cut, one inch by one inch by one, not through the pictures that Yanosh took of these snowflakes in their glass cubes, floating in the mysterious, but not magical, gel that he had developed, not through drawing, describing or dancing them, but through love.

And if only one other person—be it Yanosh, or be it Yolanda, or be it a random visitor to his hut, or be it someone who came across him or his snowflakes or his story somewhere—were to experience that love and through that love these dimensions and through these dimensions were to know of the soul of the snowflake, then his work, he was certain, was worthwhile and his communion complete.

He was now, he felt, as he took all the glass cubes from the cases he had carefully crafted, which, over the years, had needed their own formidable shed, and broke each one open and allowed the gel to evaporate and the snowflake he had collected in it to escape back into the universe and become what it needed to become next, and, having spent many hours so freeing his snowflakes, lying down on his back in the snow, welcoming down upon him new snowflakes that he no longer now would collect but simply become a part of, he was now, he knew, as he lay there, after another hour or so closing his eyes and holding his hands open to the sky and allowing the blood to drain from his brain and the pulse to ebb from his temples, he was, now that he had been and no longer needed to be The Snowflake Collector, he was now at one with it all.

< 11: He Was, Now More Than Ever, His Own Man


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The Snowflake Collector – 11: He Was, Now More Than Ever, His Own Man

Winter did return to the valley, a little later each year now, it seemed, and with winter returned the snow, and with the snow began in earnest The Snowflake Collector’s work.

He applied his formula and mixed according to it his extraordinary liquid that had just the right qualities, the exact consistency and molecular structure to capture snowflakes as they sank into it, without melting them, without damaging, harming them, but able to, so far as the continued existence of George suggested, preserve them for not only seconds or minutes or hours or days, but for months, maybe years. And he quickly found that the differentials of success over failure were minuscule. It took him many days and every day several attempts just to recreate a small quantity of the solution, and even then the snowflake that sank into it only kept its shape for a moment before it melted and passed.

Not only were the proportions of the ingredients to each other of critical importance, but the stillness of the liquid inside the cube—one inch by one inch by one—and, particularly, the precise temperature at the point of entry made the difference between death and a continuation of life, in some sense, of the snowflake that was being captured. Even how long it took him to seal the cube after capturing a snowflake mattered to how likely the snowflake was to stay intact. His task, he soon realised, was not just immense, it was also extraordinarily difficult and demanding. But he did not mind. And he no longer despaired. He had, on his shelf in his hut, one pristine, perfect specimen of a snowflake, the one he had named George, and George was still there, he still shone like a tiny beacon that whispered of the attainable, and as long as he was there, there was a point, there was a purpose, there was a reason—and if it was one reason only—to persist.

Innumerable may be the failures now—and innumerable, though they weren’t, they felt—before The Snowflake Collector would succeed in capturing even just one snowflake as exquisite as George, but he knew now it was possible, and that was all he needed to know. And as he persevered he was able to, slowly, gradually, attain other, similar miniature triumphs. None, perhaps, felt as glorious as George had felt, that surprising day in the wrong season when George had landed upon his table in his brief absence, but each brought its own little joy, its own advancement, sometimes followed, shortly after, by a setback, a failure, even a minor catastrophe. But none now were in that sense a disaster.

He carefully crafted more sturdy boxes for the glass cubes that he made, and he filled one, then another, with snowflakes that he named, each as he caught it; and regularly Yanosh would come up to his hut, and now they often found they had something to talk about. They still mainly just nodded at each other to signal ‘hello’, and then when they parted they signalled ‘goodbye’ in a similar way, but as The Snowflake Collector himself now spent so little time sitting outside his hut and so much time cutting glass plates, assembling them into cubes, building boxes, mixing liquids, studying the effects these liquids had on the snowflakes and the effects that these snowflakes had on the liquids, and perfecting his practice, Yanosh seldom now simply sat outside The Snowflake Collector’s hut to watch him, or watch the world go by—which didn’t go by here, as both of them knew, even though both of them knew also that it also never stood still—but helping him, if there was some way to help, or, if not, then photographing these snowflakes in their exceptional beauty.

And as The Snowflake Collector honed his technique, he became not only better at what he was doing, he slowly turned into an expert at snowflake collecting, and beyond an expert he became a master at it. He began to understand these snowflakes as they spoke to him in their silent presence, and he learnt to absorb and to internalise their essence. He still wasn’t able to communicate it, but he felt that maybe that wasn’t so necessary now, because as he was becoming a master at snowflake collecting, Yanosh kept taking pictures of them, and he too got better at taking pictures of snowflakes, and although he did not have any desire to become an expert at snowflake photography, or let alone, in these young years of his, a master at anything yet, his pictures were astonishingly compelling; and—as he did with many a picture he took and of which he thought that someone might like it—he posted some of these snowflakes online, and predictably people were struck by their wondrousness.

Without knowing it, The Snowflake Collector acquired a following. Yanosh didn’t make much of the fact that the picture collection he set up on his social network began to spread and attract the attention of admirers all over the world. To him, that was just what happened when you posted pretty pictures online. But there was something about these snowflakes that set them apart from other pictures of snowflakes. Maybe it was the way in which they were kept, in these glass cubes, floating, it seemed, in a gel that lent them their luminous sheen; maybe it was the names that The Snowflake Collector gave them and that Yanosh faithfully transferred when he labelled these pictures; or maybe it was just the unfussy tenderness of Yanosh’s framing, the gentle exposure and understated postproduction that made them look as complex as nature and as simple as geometrical art: it was impossible to tell.

What was certain was that The Snowflake Collector’s snowflake collection grew, and as it grew and grew more captivating, it captured the imagination of more people, and it wasn’t so long before some of these people, either because they happened to be in the relative vicinity of the valley already, or because they felt this was as good a reason as they needed to come to the valley, started to visit him.

The Snowflake Collector was not keen on visitors, by and large, but as they were few only in number, and their appearance in the valley was infrequent enough, he welcomed them and introduced them to some of his snowflakes, individually, selectively, and by name; and the visitors would tell their friends about these encounters in conversations and post their own pictures of the snowflakes and of The Snowflake Collector, recounting their stories; and invariably, as The Snowflake Collector’s reputation spread, ‘the media’ finally cottoned on to him. At first it was just a young journalist who took an interest in these curious tales she’d heard, and who was fascinated by the pictures she ‘discovered’ when doing a quick search online, and she came to the valley and did a sensitive portrait of him that appeared somewhere in a paper that few people read.

This was picked up by another and soon yet another, and without ever wishing it so, The Snowflake Collector found himself famous. He did not understand the reason for this. He was The Snowflake Collector, what he did was collect snowflakes. He was generous with his snowflakes and he would introduce them to anyone who came to him curious to meet them, but he did not think that what he was doing—although as a task immense and demanding—was something that anyone else so disposed as he could not do.

The people who came to visit him, most particularly those who came from ‘the media’, found this quaint and endearing. The Snowflake Collector knew they were patronising him, but he did not mind about that either. He felt no anger towards them, and no contempt. These were the same people—not the same individuals, of course, but broadly speaking representatives of the same culture—that had for decades ignored and belittled him. Even ridiculed him. But those long years he had spent in the big city among them, trying to be taken seriously by them, attempting to create, wishing himself noticed by them, they had washed away with the meltwater that had rushed down the stream by which he kept his small plot of land with the trees that he planted, two for each one that he cut down to use for his modest needs. He had no fear of them now and no regard other than the regard he had, and had kept, always, for all human beings: they were friends in as much as they were certainly not enemies, for to grant someone the status of enemy is to give them power over you, and The Snowflake Collector had long ceased to give anyone power over himself. He was, now more than ever, his own man.

< 10: George

12: There Was Nothing Now But the Snow >


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The Snowflake Collector – 10: George

The moment he woke up the next morning, The Snowflake Collector had only one thought: ‘George.’ That was his name. It would have to be. There was no other possibility. If he were still to be there, if the gel into which he had settled had not crushed him, or dried him out, or obliterated him; if he were still to be a snowflake today, then there was a chance—maybe a slim chance only, but a chance—that he would still be a snowflake tomorrow, and if he were to be a snowflake tomorrow, still, there may be a chance that the method had worked, that this gel was the formula that he would need to—be able to, now—apply. But time only would tell. Certainly, if he were to find him still there, where he had left him, on the kitchen table, then that would be a good sign. But it would be no more than that. And surely his name would have to be George. The Snowflake Collector got up from his narrow hard bed and wandered slowly into the kitchen: a short distance that felt to him this morning eternally long.

He did not want to cast his eyes over the table in the dim light that filtered through the small window, but before he could avert them, George had caught them, was calling them over to him: look at me, I am here! The miracle was complete. Not only was he still there, he seemed to radiate, shine. Now, some fourteen hours after he had come into contact with the peculiar liquid inside the glass cube that had caught him, enveloped him, slowed him and then suspended him just precisely in time before he was able to sink to the bottom or to dissolve, he seemed made of crystal indeed: it was quite extraordinary. The Snowflake Collector lifted the cube from the table and held it up against the pale light in which particles of dust engaged in their strangely courteous dance, and a swell of joy welled up in his heart as he saw: George is alive! He was as alive as any snowflake that wasn’t engaged in its own dance still, through the sky toward earth, could possibly be; he was vivid and compelling; he had as much character as any inanimate thing The Snowflake Collector had ever seen, and he knew now, for certain, The Snowflake Collector, that this was not a thing without soul: this was George, the most exquisite snowflake ever formed in the world, perfectly captured, by him.

The gel, overnight, had solidified into a firm but not hard cast that was still absolutely transparent and that seemed to allow George to breathe. Of course, The Snowflake Collector knew, in reality George did not breathe, and the cube was hermetically sealed, but it was a minimal malleability that seemed to keep George animated, if, certainly, no longer free.

The Snowflake Collector put George down on the kitchen table and stepped outside his hut and wiped the thin layer of snow from the table that stood out there, and he found, as he knew he would, noted down on it the last set of proportions he had used, and he now copied them onto a piece of wood that he picked up from the ground, and took them inside: this was the key, and it was unique. Not in the way he had heard on occasion some people call something ‘unique’ when they meant it was simply ‘special’, or ‘well made’, or ‘quite interesting’. This was a thing that was one of a kind: no-one else had found it before him and maybe nobody else ever would, or would want to, again; and it was far from certain that it would stand the test of time that now loomed before it, but for the time-being this was what he himself had achieved, and so far it was good; and if George were still to be there in October, or in November, or even December, whenever next the valley would be covered in snow, then he would apply this same formula to make the gel in which to preserve other snowflakes, and he would store them in a new sturdy case he would build to accommodate the new dimensions of these cubes, and if the following year, and the year after, all these snowflakes, and George, were still there, then he would be who he had decided to be, who he felt in his heart and knew in his mind he needed to be: he would become The Snowflake Collector, and Yanosh would be able to take pictures of these snowflakes with his macro lens that he had bought for his camera, and everything would be just so.

After this short burst of snow in the middle of June, the valley soon reverted to summer, and The Snowflake Collector put George on his own in the new case that he’d built, and occasionally he would take him out to look at him in awe.

Yanosh spent some time away as sometimes he did this time of year, but when he came back to The Snowflake Collector’s hut late in August, he found him in a hopeful mood, and in good spirits. George was still there and he hadn’t lost any of his intricate beauty. The gel that had nearly hardened, but not quite, was still exactly as clear and still just a little flexible; it hadn’t solidified any further and nor had it softened, it had simply stayed as it was, neither hard nor soft, neither wet nor dry, neither hot nor cold, but all of these all at once and none of these, all at the same time.

The Snowflake Collector was ecstatic—quietly, inwardly so, as was his wont—at having, it seemed, found a way to preserve his snowflakes in their full three dimensions; but of course he was also worried, and gravely concerned: what about their fourth dimension, he wondered, and fifth? Even as I name these snowflakes and know that they each have a soul, how can I do that soul justice? How can I trap a snowflake and pat myself on the back, when I but caught it and barely scraped the surface of any understanding of what a snowflake truly is?

Yanosh was unperturbed by all this. ‘You’ll get to know them,’ he said, in his simple, laconic tone that was never agitated, and never bored, ‘and as you get to know them, they will reveal to you their fourth dimension, and fifth, and even, if they have one, their sixth.’ This rang true with The Snowflake Collector, and he held the arm of Yanosh—the first time possibly he had ever done so—and said, ‘thank you, Yanosh. I hope you are right.’

But what if he weren’t right, what if what Yanosh had said was well intentioned, but simply not true? There was no way of knowing, there was no way of anticipating, there was no way of solving this problem now. All The Snowflake Collector could do now, and for the remaining months of the year, until snow returned to the valley, whenever that should happen to be, was to look after George and prepare himself, for winter would come and with it would come the moment of truth, and only then, come the moment of truth, could he really commence with his task that was quite immense.

< 9: So as Not to Chase Away its Wonder

11: He Was, Now More Than Ever, His Own Man >


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As I sit watching George sip his mojito, slowly, deliberately, the memories of the past and the memories of the future congeal to form a slush into which my brain slowly dissolves. I feel it already trickling out of my ear. The right one, as my head is somewhat rightward inclined.

I was, I was beautiful. I never once thought so then, and I most certainly don’t think me so now, but looking at myself then I cannot escape this devastating realisation: I was really beautiful.

My best friend in London, Michael, once asked, when looking at a picture of me from my teens, ‘how did this’—he points at the picture—‘turn into this’: he gestures at me. Between me and George lie three decades of the unknown.

Must it, though, must it be so unknown. If I’d known then what I know now would I not have avoided so many mistakes? Would these regrets, three or four only, maybe, but two or three of them profound, not simply have turned into gorgeous memories of ever fulfilling wistfully relivable ecstasy? Unaided?

Soon, I want to say to my young self, you’ll meet, quite by chance, a boy who is so roundly adorable, so sunny, so sweet, so entirely lovely, that you’ll feel in a trance for six days around him. He will call you, on your answerphone, and say: ‘Hello, it’s Stefan here, I’m a friend of Soandso who’s a friend of Beatrice. She said I could give you a call and maybe stay with you for a few days in London?’ Once you live in London, George, you will have friends and friends of friends, and of course family and friends of family come to visit: you will not want for guests!

On this particular occasion though you may not be so keen, you may only just have arrived in your first flatshare and not know the others too well, but in particular also your best friend from school, Peggy, may be staying with you, for six weeks as it happens. How you ever got that past your still new flatmates whom you don’t really know yet will be beyond you once you get to the stage where you are me. But be that as it may, you will think—and Peggy will agree—and you both will be pretty much of a mind, that the last thing you need, or even want for that matter, is some strange boy who happens to be the friend of really in all seriousness an ex-girlfriend of yours to come and spoil your quality time together for you. You’ve never been one to say no, though, so you say yes, but you don’t want to change your plans, and your plans for the night he arrives are to go to the theatre with Peggy, and so you say to him, just ring the buzzer, there’ll be somebody around to let you in while we’re out; you can sleep on the sofa, make yourself at home.

So you go out with your best friend from your school days, Peggy, and you have a lovely time, and then you get back home, and on the sofa there is this unbearably cute little face, tucked into a sleeping bag, happy as peaches in lala-land, and you know you’re already a little in love. And you both look at him in unabashed wonder and you decide to let him sleep and when you all wake up in the morning you all feel like you’ve always been friends, and from then on you do practically everything together, you go out together, you drink together, you dance together; and at one point, and you don’t quite know how, probably because Peggy happens to be at school, she is, after all, here to learn English, you find yourselves sitting next to each other on your slim single bed and he’s wearing his funky skintight jeans and no top and you are wearing whatever it is you are wearing at the time, probably black, and you will nearly but not quite put your hand on his thigh or his hand and you bask in his presence and you cannot get over how beautiful is his torso, and how charming his smile and how big his blond hair, and you don’t know how you do it but somehow you let the moment pass and nothing happens at all and you won’t ever quite understand how you let that happen, because soon after he leaves and you write to each other once or twice only and he says something along the lines of he liked you and how wonderful a time you had together and that maybe it was better that nothing happened that day, it would only have spoilt things. This you will never be quite able to believe, you will forever know, deep at heart, that kissing him, holding him, caressing him, touching him, being with him would not have spoilt anything, it would simply have made those six days complete.

There’ll be that, I want to tell my young self: don’t let it happen like that, don’t let that moment pass. Live it, grab it, make a fool of yourself, risk him saying you’re overstepping a mark. It may be embarrassing, it may feel painful and cruel if he rejects you, but so is this, so is knowing you didn’t seize that day, that half day even, so is knowing you lived one afternoon less than you could have, as it turns out should have done. One afternoon? An early lifetime. Precious, precious days, while you are young. I want to extend my arm and put my tan and since late slightly freckled hand upon George’s. When do you stop thinking ‘what will he think?’ At what point will you simply not care? But then, should you not care? Is not the other person as far away from you as you are from them? Could not they make the first move, or say the first word; be first to break the glass that divides you?

And then it hits you, out of the blue: they don’t see the glass! They send all the signals, they make all the moves, they simply wonder why you don’t respond, and you wonder how can they not know that you’re surrounded by a bell made of glass: the sounds are muffled, the scent is dead, the gestures distorted, the temperature inside is always too high. The effort it takes you to break through to them is gargantuan. They just smile and think it strange that you barely smile back; the way that you read them would to them be entirely unintelligible. Suddenly it strikes you: you’re under a bell, George, and you don’t even know it.

I reach out to myself, but not to my hand, I put my hand on my shoulder instead. That seems to be more in tune with the overall situation. Oddly, this doesn’t surprise young me. George looks back at me, half-knowing, half expectant; a look that, as a youth, you might give your grandparent who’s about to say something really obvious, like: you’re an intelligent boy.

Being thus indavertently cast in the role of my dad’s father or my mum’s mother startles me and I withdraw my hand, almost too quickly. I need to think of a reason for having put it on my shoulder in the first place and so I say: ‘If you ever come to London, you must get in touch.’ It sounds like a disingenuous offer, saying this to my younger self, but with anyone else in a comparable case it would be perfectly genuine, and pure of intent, too.

He nods gravely. It hasn’t quite done the trick, I’m convinced, but George here seems to be un-further-perturbed. ‘This is nice,’ he says, in the involuntary generic understatement of the youth who hasn’t yet mastered the language, about his mojito. It’s oddly appropriate. This is nice, I agree without saying it, and instead I ask him if he wants another. Knowing now who I’m with, it doesn’t surprise me that he says ‘sure?’ with an upward inflexion that suggests question where there ought to be assertion. The young. If only I could make it lighter for you, thinner, the bell, more penetrable, the fortress of isolation around you. You will find a way. You will find a way: I have found a way, so will you.

Advice time. I’m about to say something along the lines of: just do what you want to do your way, or, it’s not going to be so easy, you know, but you’ll somehow muddle through, or, deep in your heart you know that no matter what the ups and the downs, you’re on a fairly stable track, like a roller coaster. And then it strikes me how ludicrous that is.

You’re not on a track at all, you’re in free flow. You have no way of knowing what’s right or wrong for you, you have to find out step by perilous step. Sometimes it will feel ridiculously easy and other times it will feel impossible. They will not understand you. Seriously. They will smile, but they will think: what the fuck? You have the right to be whoever, whatever you want to be, everybody else has the right to think what the fuck. At times you will feel: nobody gets me. At all. You will be so alone in the world that you will want to sit in a corner and cry, and you will sit in the corner and cry. You will need to be stronger than you ever thought you could be, because sometimes they will not just think what the fuck, they will hate you and say so. And you will wonder what have I ever done to you that you hate me, I have written some words. I have thought some thoughts. I have put them out there. Ah, I have trodden on your reality by putting them out there. And then you have to say to yourself: I have the right to write words and think thoughts and to put them out there, they have the right to hate me for it. It is not wise nor generous, nor really humane, but sadly it’s only human of them if they do so. Forgive them for being human.

Angular waitress is still nowhere to be seen, so once again I hold my hand up to Ahmed who takes my order for two more mojitos. ‘These are nice,’ I say to Ahmed, unnecessarily, ‘could we have two more, please.’ I wonder should I ask him at the same time if he knows a good place for me to stay, like a hotel he can recommend somewhere nearby, but then I realise what this might sound like to him, so instead I wait until Ahmed has gone, and I ask George here where he is staying. ‘Round the corner, at a hostel.’ To my utter relief George doesn’t ask me where I’m staying: I just realise what a potential trap I’ve set myself, when it occurs to me that I have a discontinuity here. At the time when I’m George, this place most likely doesn’t exist. It’s too now. So, past me is in my world, not I in the world of past me. But my world at this point ought to be Kingston-upon-fucking-Thames. Practical considerations and logic have both been rendered imponderable, by what I know not.

What do you want to be when you grow up? I ask myself and I notice I’m not saying this out loud and so I can’t tell whether this is Now Me asking Young Me or Young Me asking Now Me or Now Me asking Now Me or Young Me asking Young Me or all of Me at the same time.

Sundown. I shall wait until sundown. I shall hold out as long as George here holds out. I will I will just stay with me until sundown.


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10 Secrets, No Lies

Everything can be true, to a greater or lesser extent.

Is what I imagine any less real than what I say before I do it, and when I do it is it then real or could I forget it and make it undone, or could I apologise for my faults, of which there are many, to myself, even, and having done so be forgiven, even by myself, or could I be better or worse than I am and still be the same, or is what’s in my mind any different to what’s on the screen black on white, and should I edit. And prune. And emend.

The bit of me that thinks I have no chance of survival outwith the trappings of civilisation knows that even this is as much true and as much false as I want it to be. Must everything be known, and to whom? Even my deepest inadequacies?

I stood in his bathroom, for no reason other than that I was round his house because he was helping me out by doing a piece of work for me that I couldn’t then do myself. The first time I saw him I was sitting at a desk in a large open room where maybe a dozen or so other people sat at or by desks, and we were all working on a project that was very exciting. It was exciting not because it had any meaning, but because the task was formidable, the challenge demanding, the technology thrilling; and the people assembled were good: they had crest-of-the-wave, or, as one of them liked to put it, ‘bleeding edge’ competencies. (I’m not sure I like the word ‘competencies’, but still; that’s the kind of context we are talking about…) There was no more of a point to any of it than there ever was to any of these corporate projects, beyond making a big brand look like what its executives could be coaxed into thinking was ‘cool’, and apart from one product that this particular project now helped this particular brand launch that was pretty crap on the inside but won hands down on design, the world would not have been any worse a place without any of what we were doing being done, but as I was sitting at my desk, making up inane scenarios of attractive young people using handsets, in walked the most attractive young person I thought I had ever seen. (If you imagine this as a film, here is where the music swells and—depending on genre and era—we may just go into slow motion.)

Since then, and several years of sporadically working together later, we had settled into a comfortable arrangement whereby I adored him and he let me do so. I once drunkenly at a party told him that I would never do anything to jeopardise our friendship, and he, similarly drunkenly, had shrugged his shoulders and said something along the lines of ‘that’s good to know,’ I can’t quite remember. Whenever we went out as a group, which we did now and then before he got married, I completely failed to disguise being smitten, which, after a while, became something of a running gag in said group: I adored him, he let me. There was nothing more to it. Now I’d asked him for a favour and he’d graciously said yes. I went round his house to help him do the work he was helping me out with and I went to the bathroom and there hung two of his shirts.

Maybe not everything needs to be told. Maybe some things are best left unsaid. Imaginations run wild. I stood close to his shirts that hung from a hook or a line on two hangers and guided one to my face and inhaled. Or did I think I would like to but couldn’t? It was as if he were in the room: for a moment I felt, this is you. Two seconds, three seconds, four seconds, five. That’s enough. You don’t cling on to that which undoes you. Or maybe you do, in your mind.

This is and remains my unending flaw (I want to say ‘tragic’ but ‘farcical’ would be more accurate): the realities of my heart are unhinged. I meet somebody, I fall for them, I imagine the world adjusted and changed, and project onto them my idea of perfection and see a settled ideal that requires no more explanation. The other person, more likely than not, is oblivious to any of this, and if I make the mistake to draw their attention to it and make them aware, they annihilate me with bewildered indifference, not unkind but bemused, not intentional, but lethal.

George has been looking at me as if he were studying me, and I still wonder does he know who I am. Not ‘know’ as in possess factual evidence, of which none can exist, but know as in sense, as in experience that profound certainty—inaccurate though it may be—that you have when you are in a reality that compels.

Ahmed arrives with our second mojito, and I think there would be something tremendously entertaining about getting drunk with myself. That would undoubtedly loosen things up, I fancy, if we both simply got plastered. Then again, it’s still only about two, two thirty in the afternoon, I still don’t know why I’m here at the Limonlu Bahçe in Istanbul and I can’t begin to think where I’ll be spending the night, but then there is really no hurry about any of this, and it occurs to me: we could go for a walk, but that would entail leaving this delectable oasis, it would mean dodging traffic and weaving through throngs of people, and it would mean being reminded that there is a world out there that is simply there and cannot, in essence, be argued with, whereas here, in the speckled shade of the trees, and with Ahmed and his angular colleague our waiters, and with the mojitos softening the edges of perception, and with George in clearly no more of a hurry than I am, I feel safe and, more than comfortable, content. Content just to be, and to be for a little while longer.

I look at him and think: you’re going to be just fine. Just don’t make all the mistakes I’ve made and keep making, right to this day. I can be so very inept, sometimes. He looks back at me, and I think he knows what I mean. And I say: ‘I do not understand my heart at all.’ And I don’t.


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9 Dust

Maxl has left and I go over the flat with the Dyson and some degree of resentment, directed not at Maxl, though clearly over the six months or so that he’s been here he never once did the same, and neither did I over the six months or so that he’s been here, because let’s face it: he’s the houseguest, does he expect me to go around and clean up after him? Then again, he’s the houseguest, so do I expect him to go round and clean up after me? Clearly not. And since neither of us found it necessary to go round the flat with the Dyson for the six months or so that we’ve been here together, to clean up after each other or let alone after ourselves, there is now a considerable amount of dust about the place.

I end up cleaning up after him because he leaves with a hug and a, ‘so this I suppose is goodbye,’ which it is only in as much as he’s not staying here any longer, he’s moving across town to North London and we’ll be seeing each other by the end of the week.

And so, no, my resentment is not of Maxl, whom I love and continue to love even though I’m seriously glad he’s moved out now, my resentment is of the dust. Dust in itself to me is objectionable to the point of being offensive. Why make people dusty? Isn’t that just adding insult to injury? I pause and reflect: what injury? The dust twirls around in the Dyson and I look at it this way instead: the good thing about leaving a little dust to accumulate in the flat is that when then you go round it with a Dyson you really notice the difference. Both in the flat, which suddenly seems altogether less, erm, dusty, but also in the little Dyson which visibly fills up, and you think most of this is just dead skin cells: I litter my space with this; how many Dysons have I filled since, well, ever?…

I look at George and I notice we haven’t said anything for a while now and that has not felt strange, it has felt comfortable. As comfortable as it should when you are sitting opposite yourself—even your much younger self—and you are actually quite happy to be there: with you, but not you. That was now, and this is then. I opt not to ask him any more questions for at least another such moment, and he looks at me and seems content. The moment is so comfortable that I try to remember it from his perspective, and it feels like I can, though it’s much more likely that I can’t and that I’m just constructing that memory in my mind even as I reflect on it, like a seven-dimensional puzzle. We’re coming to the end of our mojitos and I catch Ahmed’s eye.


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5 Surrender

There are plenty of reasons to suppose that we should, and should be able to, learn. In every other sphere of life this seems to work just fine: you burn your hand on the hot handle of a saucepan on the hob, you know better next time. Maybe not next time, but the time after. You wobble on your bike a few yards as a boy with your older brother or your friends or your dad holding on to it and they shout ‘go!’ and ‘faster!’ and you go faster and they let go of the bike and you stay upright and you have the hang of it and you can now ride a bike. You may still fall off occasionally, but the principle is down and you can tick that off your list. You practise and practise and practise the piano and if you have a modicum of talent and a bit of a musicality in your ear you will become passably good at playing. If you have a lot of talent and a great deal of musicality and love what you’re doing you may become exceptionally good and turn into a professional musician, a concert pianist; if you are god’s gift to improvisational jazz, you may become Keith Jarrett. Languages. Mathematics. History. Even writing, people even teach writing, which suggests people learn it. Chemistry. Not love though. Not the chemistry of love. Not the mystery of love. Not the vexation of love. Not the love of love.

Lukas (who’s not really called Lukas either, I’m changing his name too, though I doubt he will read this, and if he does, I doubt he will recognise himself) does to me what dozens of men before him have done, never deliberately, hardly ever even aware, most certainly not with any ill intentions: he infatuates me. In him. Is infatuate a transitive verb? In a passive sense? If I am now infatuated, that would suggest I have been infatuated and since I can hardly infatuate myself—unless I sport a substantial streak in narcissism—the person who infatuates should, if logic had anything to do with it, by definition be the infatuator, with the person who’s infatuated the infatuatee. Logic has very little to with it. Lukas is a little taller than me and a little younger. I’ve always wanted to be a little taller than I am (though I am not, by averages, short) and while I spent the whole of my teens wanting to be older, and never really in that sense since have wanted to be substantially younger than I actually am, I relate well to people who are a little younger, partly because part of my brain has not really caught up yet with my actual age, and partly because another part of my brain has always been far ahead. Age doesn’t really matter to me. Or so I like to believe, though the seconds ticking away so implacably, two and a half billion of them, give or take a few: that troubles me.

Lukas (and I like the name Lukas, not least because I now associate it with the man I have off the top of my head given it to), is German, though you wouldn’t immediately think so: his accent makes him sound more like a Dutchman who’s spent a lot of time in the States, or a Europeanised American. He and his girlfriend have joined the choir together, and on the first evening of the new term he sits next to me, and I feel like a schoolboy. I feel like the schoolboy precisely who fell in love with Michael when he joined our class, he aged seven, most of us then aged eight. This is ridiculous. I know it is ridiculous, and my young brain infuriates at the idiocy of my heart, while my old brain manages a smile that sits halfway between condescending and indulgent. Of course you are now infatuated, it says, my old brain, to heart. Worry not. Like all previous infatuations this one shall pass, and you will laugh about it later. Soon, in fact, because I have so much experience now, so much insight—very nearly wisdom—to give you and to ease the imminent transition from infatuation to friendship imbued with love of the friendship kind, a love that is unentangled, appreciative, mutual, but free.

You idiot! says my younger brain, you child, you pubescent teenager: you, at the age of fifty are allowing yourself a crush on somebody who has just introduced you to his girlfriend and who is absolutely certain to fancy you about as much as his grandfather’s drinking pal Ralph. (I like the idea of Lukas having a grandfather with a drinking pal called Ralph, and I feel slightly flattered that I should remind him of him. That’s how absurd I am at this moment…)

There is nothing to be done. When he misses a couple of rehearsals, I miss him. When he returns, my heart leaps. In the break, when he’s standing, chatting to his girlfriend, I join them. I make a point of talking to her as much as to him, so she doesn’t feel left out, but I really only have eyes for him. It is ridiculous, even pathetic, but thoroughly enjoyable too.

Maybe that’s what this is about: maybe the reason the heart won’t learn is not just because it doesn’t really have to, and not so much because it can’t, but simply because it doesn’t actually want to: the pleasure of being a little in love, of being infatuated, of being just a tad drugged by endorphins is just too great to forego forever. And why should it: this kind of love doesn’t cause any harm. It’s not even causing pain, curiously. In the past it did. In the past, I would get over my infatuations through pain. That is no longer the case. Probably because while the heart steadfastly refuses to learn, the head is really quite capable now of putting it all in its place.

Also in the choir is another sweet man who is quite a bit younger and quite a bit shorter and maybe also a little bit rounder than me. And he’s roundly adorable too. I just want to hug him, every time I see him. He reminds me of Paddington Bear. How could you not cuddle Paddington Bear? And until not so long ago there was a young man who was just very beautiful. Or so I thought. I don’t think I ever spoke more than about three and half sentences with him. And of course there was Edward…

George looks at me puzzled. ‘I think you should go with the heart,’ he finally says in a calm measured tone, looking me straight in the eye. I’m momentarily stumped until—dragged out of my reverie—I remember my question: what does he make of the heart?

Really?’ I surprise myself with my surprise. I mean: I agree with him, but isn’t he the one who too often has precisely not done that, and now he’s telling me?… ‘Yes.’ He speaks with a slight accent and a tone that makes him sound a little aloof and a little bemused and a little detached and a little curious, too. I remember being all of these very well, but I don’t remember sounding them. ‘The only times I’ve ever been unhappy was when I did not follow my heart. You know: “you regret the things you haven’t done, never the things you did…”’ Yes, but: you’re telling me? If I knew this then, and he’s probably right, I knew this then, then how come I still make exactly the same mistakes?… hang on. Did I not just say they’re not, maybe, mistakes, at all, they’re maybe just: my modus operandi.

‘Assuming, George, you could find the ideal partner for yourself, who would that be?’

‘Oh I don’t think such a person exists.’ – He doesn’t even have to think about it.

‘Why don’t you think so?’ I’m beginning to feel a little inadequate, talking to myself, aged twenty-one.

‘Well, because there is no ideal person. For anyone. People just accommodate each other and get used to each other’s foibles, and when they find somebody who they can bear more than they can bear being alone, they settle with them, for as long as that’s true, and sometimes quite a bit longer, mainly because they can’t be bothered going through the hassle of separation. Or because they’re comfortable enough. Or because they’re afraid.’

‘And you?’

‘Oh I’m not afraid.’

I thought as much, but I need to be sure: ‘Can you bear being alone?’

‘I love being on my own. I love being with people, and I love being on my own. I need a lot of time and a lot of space for myself. I function exceptionally well on my own.’

That is so true. That was true then, that is true now. Thank you, George: I function exceptionally well, on my own. Thank you. But does that necessarily mean I couldn’t function even better with someone? Ah, here we go again…


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