I look at myself. Not in the mirror, not as a person with a yen for profundity and meaning, but in a picture. I find the picture among my belongings as I clear out my flat because it’s being renovated: for the first time in decades I go through every object I own and therefore am owned by and decide whether to keep it, or whether to part. Keep it or part. Keep? Or part: divest, my mind mostly suggests, and my heart, in most cases, though not quite all, affirms, yes divest!
I am unambitious but consistent in the pursuit of my task, as I progress through each item one by one. I look at every photograph, and every photograph looks at me. I don’t notice me at first, not in an ‘oh, here I am, look at me!’ kind of way. I just know I’m there. In the picture. As anyone ever photographed by necessity is. In this particular stack, I am part of a collection of early black and white ten by eights that I must have had done when I first decided to be an actor. This dates them in the mid to late nineteen-eighties and me at about twenty-two, twenty-three. I don’t notice me, not this time round. I’m simply there.
The second time round I notice myself. I have been away for seven weeks, nearly eight, and I’ve come back into my flat, which is all new and fresh and still so familiar and more home now than ever, and as I unpack the boxes I once again go through almost every thing I own and am therefore owned by, only this time I do so not one by one but in batches, just to make sure. And this time round I jump out at myself: I am beautiful. I wish I’d known that. I wish I’d known then that I was beautiful, but I didn’t. I still don’t. But I was. And I am. Only I can’t feel it now, I can’t even see it. I couldn’t then. But I can now see it then. I can see now that then I am beautiful. I have a gentle face and searching eyes, and an almost translucent skin; I have my life in front of me; not my childhood, not my youth, but my whole adult existence.
I am overcome with compassion. How brave I was, and needed to be. How unencumbered I was. How I looked forward, unafraid. How strong. How fragile. How soft, how resilient; how steadfast. How honest. How vulnerable. How resolute not to hurt, not to fail, or if to hurt then not to cry, not to grumble, and not to succumb; yet to prevail…
I sense the time has come. I trust it now, much more, the sense. All the things I know and all the things I don’t know are the same: they all abide by and reside in me. No words of wisdom, no advice. Let me make my own mistakes. Let sorrow, loss, and lingering despair crush me to tears. I won’t protect me from myself: that would be crueller still.
Across from me, at the Limonlu Bahçe, Istanbul: George. I lean forward a little, my chair creaks, he looks up at me, curious, askance. Unimpressed. Unruffled. Unspoilt. Unused. Undamaged. Unfathomable, even to me. I know how you feel, I’ve been there, believe me, I’ve been you, but no, I don’t know you at all. I know you no more than I know any boy your age. Man! You never liked being a boy much, a youth, maybe, yes; do you like being a man? I hear myself think the question, and in a flicker of recognition—probably imagined, only by me—he says: ‘Do you relish being a man?’ (‘Relish.’ That’s better. ‘Like’ is so lightweight, it’s neither here nor there. He could have said ‘enjoy’ but that, too, has long since been eroded, diminished to some middling marketed meaninglessness.)
‘I do.’ I say: ‘I will. If I haven’t until now, then henceforth I shall.’
‘Henceforth?’ He gives me that smile, that bemused, too knowing, wry play on his lips, a light in his eye.
I don’t want to burden myself with the responsibility of having interfered with my own life. Not here, not now. I used to be troubled. Then charming. Then enigmatic. I’m still working on wise.
‘Be generous, be kind.’ (I thought I was not going to give me advice. Is it that hard to refrain?) ‘Forgive. Live and let live, and trust the universe is on your side.’ He looks at me, unsmiling, unconcerned, frank. He knows all this already, everyone does. ‘Felicity, fortune, and favour all balance out, over time. Take your time. Let not there ever be any hurry. Go you about with a heart that beats warm and a mind that keeps open and a soul that is free, and your path will lead you where you need to be.’ (That’s done it: I’ve lost him.) His eyes linger long and soft, not hard; then, inscrutable now, he nods. ‘Just remember:’ (Stop it! Stop it now! No counsel, no words, no well-intentioned guidance from yonder!) ‘If you want a squirt of milk in your pail, you have to squeeze the odd teat now and then.’
I get up; the temptation to ruffle his hair proves almost too much, but I know I used to hate this, and so I desist.
‘Fare well.’ I say, in two words. He looks up at me and, unsmiling still, but gamely returns: ‘Fare thee well.’
And then I remember and I turn around to him before I leave and I stand at the bottom of the steps that lead up through the house, from the garden, onto the street, and the garden is busy again now, and buzzing, and I see myself sitting there, alone but not lonely, quiet, composed, a little aloof, just the way I was in that photograph, just the way I now feel, and I spread my arms to this Garden of Eden afore me and I demand, at the top of my voice, of it all: ‘BE MAGNIFICENT!’
And, having said what I needed to say now, I leave myself to my self: my adventure, my journey, my love.
And here I was and I will be, but mostly now, here I am.
(The good thing about fiction? I unimagine it, and it’s gone…)
Then always the inherent question to self: am I going to be one who says, I would if I could, or am I going to be one who says, I could and I did. It’s a loaded question, heavy with expectation, anxiety; pressure, even. And it’s also maybe the wrong question. Because if I could and I did, what is remarkable about that? Isn’t that what we do: what we can? If we don’t do what we can, then what do we do?
So is the more pertinent question: am I going to be one who says, I could and I did, or am I going to be one who says, I couldn’t but I did all the same: I found a way. I learnt how to do it. I overcame my reluctance, my objections, my fear. I surmounted the obstacles, of which there were many. I was told what I wanted to do was impossible and I said: I hear you. I don’t believe you. I believe what I have in mind may be difficult, it may be near unattainable, but impossible is nothing. I shall do it anyway. And if that is my way, and my way alone.
There are so many who opine. There are so many voices that make up the din of the world. There are so many who have tried, and tell you so. There are so many who know how it’s done. From experience, from having done it themselves. There are so many who will dispense with advice, with counsel, with rules. These rules that are being laid down by being followed. These patterns we draw on the mindscape of our culture by walking the path that has already been walked, often enough for it to be seen, to be recognised, to be followed, again, and again; to be treaded into the ground, until it appears inescapable: that’s the way, the only way to go. No other way seems possible now, it has been decreed. Not by authority, maybe: by convention.
What if the question is this: am I going to be one who says, I took the path of least resistance, the path that was already mapped out for me, the path that I could follow, conveniently, because it had been taken many times before—so much so, it had become a road, and one much travelled—or am I going to be one who says: I saw the path, I recognised it, of course. It held no appeal to me. I was curious to know. What lies beyond the path. Where does the non-road lead. Whom shall I meet, and what encounter, if I take the unmarked route. So that’s what I did. I got stuck, many times, I took turns that weren’t so much wrong as simply dead ends. I had to double back on myself on occasion, and I cut myself in the thicket. My feet hurt, and my head. My limbs were weary with travel, with toil. I was alone, sometimes lonely. There were nights when I cried for want of shelter, for want of care, for want of some body to hold on to, for some mind to reassure me, for some light to guide me. I persevered, I continued. I had to. It was either that or the abandonment of myself: failure complete. It was either going on, or getting lost entirely, in the wilderness. It was either holding on to the hope, the idea, to the notion that there is something yet to be discovered, something yet to be said, something yet to be thought that is in one sense or other worthwhile, that has not, in every possible manner, been expressed before, that is not fully known — or becoming obsolete.
Am I going to be one who says, I tried, I wish sometimes I’d tried harder, but at least I tried. Or am I going to be one who says, I tried and tried again and I did not give up and whatever the outcome—is there an outcome, ever? and is that the point? or is the point not a point but a wave and that wave is the process, the doing, the thinking, the loving, the giving, the taking, the seeing, the learning, the sending, the receiving, the being?—I put my all into it. Am I going to be one who says, things happened to me and I made it through, or am I going to be one who says, I am the things that I did.
Yet to what end? There is no end. Then to what purpose? Let the purpose be bigger than me, greater, if I dare think it so: nobler. Let the purpose be the ideal, the aspiration. Not for myself, but for my world. The world not as it is now, the world as I know it could be. That ‘better world’ that is forever in our power to create and seems forever out of reach. Because it is, both. But what if that is meaningless, what if we all mean nothing at all and are simple quirks of short-lived accidental matter in a constellation of incomprehensible—because random—energy fluctuations that have no purpose, that have no meaning, that have no end and no beginning, that may or may as well not exist?
What does that concern me now? Who cares if it matters or not? What need do I have for a reason? What I know is I am here, and I have so much time, maybe less, perhaps a bit more.
What matters then, surely, is only that I be, in the end, one who says, that was my time well spent, that was my cards—whatever these cards were—well played; that was my fellow humans loved, my world respected; that was my work well done, my life well lived.
We wander on for a bit, and I breathe it all in: the people, the tourists, the tram and vendors; the noise and the scent and the flavour.
George, I’m beginning to realise, is telling me everything I need to know. He’s hardly said more than a couple of dozen sentences since we met, improbably and unfathomably, a few hours ago, but I know now that seeing him, listening to him, looking at him, being with him—in his presence, in no other than that simple, literal sense—has triggered in me the abundance of memories, connexions and emotions, the thoughts and the synaptic excursions, the diversions, the captions, the mild insurrections of heart, mind and soul, that I need, to move on.
Move on from what? Had I got stuck? Most severely. Had I manoeuvred myself into a dead end? More than of sorts. Was I on the verge of becoming obsolete, not just to myself, but to the universe that has somehow produced me? I fear me I was. Is that now all at an end? Who knows…
I again put my arm around George, instinctively, without thinking, and he doesn’t shirk or pause or look at me, he just lets it be. My George: that’s how I know him. We wander, like father and son, like brothers, like friends, but not lovers—can one constellation embody all these in one, even, ever?—and I feel me an abundant sensation of love. Of loss too, and of forgiveness. Most of all of forgiveness: I forgive you, George, for everything, really. All your inadequacies. Your presumptions, your misunderstandings. Your aloofnesses and your hesitancies. Your delusions and your noble intentions. Your foibles, all of your weaknesses. Your constant quest to connect, your patent inability to do so in so many senses. There are too many things to mention.
Too many things too, for which I do not need to forgive you, for which I can quietly, humbly, respect you: even admire you. Your sense of justice and your faith in humans. Your optimism, your hope. Your openness, your curiosity. It may, ultimately, have killed the cat, but the cat had nine lives and so it continued. It lived. You’re not unlike a cat, George, I’ve known this for centuries, for all the millennia that I’ve known you. And I’m beginning to know you now, George, and I’m glad on’t.
We reach Taksim Square where we take a turn to the right and keep wandering. Not aimlessly so much as non-directionally. We both have no particular place to go, not at the moment. We end up by a steep small street that looks a little familiar and quite attractive, and decide to head up it, rather than down, and before long we recognise a wooden house and a half hidden entrance: we have inadvertently come back to right where we started: the Limonlu Bahçe.
There is, probably, in some way some significance to this: have we actually gone round in a circle? I like to think not, not least because we are not moving in three dimensions. We have, at any rate, walked a spiral, a triangular shaped one, as it turns out, but that is most likely quite by the by. Some things have meaning, others less so. Some things are profound though we but capture the surface, others are really surface. Or maybe I’m being lazy. At some level, most likely, everything has some other layer, some other meaning, some other significance that could or could not be, or become, at some point quite relevant. We can’t take it all in, all at the same time: we do need a filter. And that’s yet another insight I’m having, right there.
We’ve not walked very far, maybe less than an hour, perhaps a bit more; we’ve been ambling really, rather than striding. We’ve not been saying all that much more. Metaphorically, though, we have come a long way. In my mind I have travelled a little light year. Is there a big light year? Or even one of average length? Aren’t all light years the same? It is not, of course, and I realise, a year, and it’s not one of light. Some metaphors don’t stack up. I have percolated, I feel me, through my own conscience and come out enriched. If that makes sense. Does it have to? Make sense? To me, it doesn’t have to, even though somehow it does. I don’t think it matters to George if it does. Does it matter to you?
I realise I have a reader. I realise I need you as my reader, because without you I don’t exist. I realise I am not alone in this, nor only with George: I realise we are, in our own constellation, triangular. Hello, Reader: welcome to my world.
George and I are both creatures of habit, and having walked for an hour or so—maybe a little less, possibly just a bit more—we both fancy another drink, and we readily, easily, without thinking or negotiation, decide to go back to the Limonlu Bahçe: we liked it there, we were comfortable there, why would we not now go back there, seeing we are already here.
I like that about George and about me: we can stay in one place for hours and never get bored. We both never get bored, George and I. That is a realisation I had and passed on to him long before I knew I would be him: if you watch paint dry close enough, it’s entirely riveting. At molecular level, let alone subatomic: there’s a riot of things happening, a mesmerising display of spectacular wonder. How could you ever get bored?
We head down the hidden staircase back into the garden which is now not full and not empty, but at that agreeable mid-to-late afternoon state when luncheon has petered out and dinner hasn’t yet started. The table we had been sitting at has been taken, but we find one as pleasant in the mid-to-late afternoon speckled shade two or three tables removed and sit down, and our angular waitress returns and recognises us and smiles, and we order another couple of mojitos and some chips, just to nibble.
Now, for the first time in maybe a million years, I am here. George, because of the configuration of the table, the bench and the chairs, has naturally sat down next to me, not opposite, so he can survey the garden with me, this paradise of our own making. This Eden. “Look at me now, and here I am,” she had said, and I had understood her, immediately. Joyce, Shakespeare, Stein. Then Shakespeare again, then no particular order.
I can be at home with myself in a paradise of my making that doesn’t know what it is, in a city I’ve never been before, within an instant and find me not tempted by knowledge, in no need of a companion, at ease. Not forever, of course, just for now. The curiosity and the fascination, the alertness and also the need will soon get the better of me, that I know, it has ever been thus.
But now. And here. We are.
I wander to the place I know least and for a while I maybe like best, in a way; as an idea, as a thought, as a concept: the abstract liking of something from which you are distant, the fascination with unfamiliarity, the lure of the other; the stranger, the comfort, the awe.
The steady roll on an invisible plane, the cool electric hue. The very slow seasons. Even the unwitting humour, lame though it is. It is a laconic planet I find here, unruffled, smooth and cyan. The awayness of it all, as at the end of despair. A well-neighboured distance; bookended, escorted by giants: significant in its own right but overlooked, overshadowed and, through no fault of its own, just not taken seriously: why would that be me?
There is no life here, but there is otherness, and that in itself is interesting. It feeds my curiosity: to go a step further, to move beyond. To tumble on a different axis, to fall upwards; float frozen but not still, to sense a different kind of heat on a newly defined horizon. I expect to be alone here, but I’m surrounded by character: here, in the outskirts, in the slow moving cold, there are others like me: how did we all get here? What projected us into this orbit, so far away, it would seem, from the soul, so within?
These layers, these clouds, these rocks and these crystals, these rings, this ice and these moons, this magnetotail. They are not, perhaps, home, but they are a meaning all in themselves, and they are somewhere, beautiful. True.
For quite some time I enjoy this tangentiality and become part of it, willingly, coolly; I relish the arm’s length attention I get. Nobody knows me here, or cares who I am, but my aloofness my look and my languid demeanour are being noted. My hair the peroxide silver of this unbreathable atmosphere and my clothes the black of the all that surrounds me. If you know where I am you can find me, and find me foreign and alien too.
Yet after a while I miss the simplicity of warmth. Not that I know what that means, but it means that I’m out in the cold, and I want to come back now, closer to home, closer to the sun, closer to people who don’t understand me, closer to something I vaguely remember as love. This strangeness leaves me estranged from myself, and enjoying it now seems an effort. Soon, I know, I will have to let go, and I realise now that I’m not living my life in chronological order. That puzzles me for a moment until it occurs to me that time too is down to perception, and there will come a time when it’ll all simply blend into one, as it must.
(Yet still, yet again, only more so, always more…)
Out here I thought I felt a sense of freedom, until that sense became quite oppressive. That, too, was a surprise. And so I let go. Slowly, at first and then readier, more. This is not for me, after all, this agreeable spectacle, this isolation: it could quite easily turn into a habit, a mannerism, a cliche, a role.
The young man at a soirée (it was that more than it was a party, a dinner, or drinks) who’d looked at me and said: ‘are you for real?’ That’s when I knew I was in danger of becoming a caricature of myself, and Uranus could be my place no more.
I like this now, this clarity, this resolution. This immense relief too, not to have to be defined by weirdness forever. Strange, yes, curious, always, different, maybe (then ‘different’ to what?), but not impenetrable and not obscure.
Not even, in that sense, mysterious, really: there are so very few mysteries in the universe, apart from the multiverse of all possible universes itself, and that, too, is only a matter of consciousness and the cumulative number of brain cells firing at it: one day it will be just another reality too. Like blossoms, like spring. Like the awakening, too.
I’m getting better at this, being me. This walk seems to be doing wonders…
I sit on the edge of the solar system, with Neptune, invisible. I’m known to exist, but nobody sees me. I think I see them, from a distance, through a haze. I can’t be sure. Twinkles, here and there, allover really: wondrous…
I have, inadvertently, become a god. This is both puzzling and absurd: those powers they invest in me are merely mythical. I am not even drawn to water, not as other people are. Some see the sea and jump right in. I don’t. I am content to sit there, pondering. Until the time comes. Until I’m ready. Until I feel the need. Until curiosity gets the better of me. Or temptation. Or just the wanting to have been in the water before going home. Not so much the desire to be in the water, as the desire not to have not been in the water at all. For a moment. Or two. With the lover, the dolphins, the mermaids, the waves and the fishes. The other gods. This propensity to ponder. It may be an affliction; but why not. ‘Why not?’ seems to be the overriding question. Is that what it is: a question?
I walk from Neptune towards the sun through the snow – like shooting stars, falling. I love the snow falling on my face as I look up at the sky, at the space, at these planets, the aboveness and the aroundness of it all; the path ahead is white and clear, and there’s no-one about. Of course not: I’m alone. Alone on the edge of the universe.
A pang of love, a moment of pain. Love for whom? Pain of what? A special one now, this time, really? A sense of myself, now, really? Or of the idea of myself. Of the Concept. The Unreality.
I like my reality right now, I can deal with it, I can live up to it, make sense of it, or so I tell myself, knowing this not to be true, not entirely.
I walk, steadily—not fast, not slow—along the path of the planets, thinking myself Neptune. I am not a planet. I am not a god. I am not a myth. I feel millions of miles away from the allness of it all, but I’m about to dissolve into it, and this thrills me.
Is that a lonely path I walk or is it just deserted? Because it’s late. Because it’s out of season. Because it normally is deserted, the path, around now. Is it too late? This turns into a portentous question all of a sudden. Am I too far along the path, do I circle too slowly? But we know, we know, we are not planets, we are not rivers, we are barely human.
We are human. So bare though, so vulnerable, so thoughtful, so cautious, so hesitant, so almost capable. So willing, yet, to survive. So surviving. Thriving, even, against the odds. So gentle. So soft. So curly, the hair. So even the teeth. So tender the lips. So lovely the legs. So quirkily satin the belly button. So elegant the fingers. So delicate the eyelashes. So warm, so warm though the chest.
So fleeting, so insubstantial as I walk under fir trees and the snow they are clothed in, so naked, so wrapped up in my delusion, my reading the signs that aren’t there, my wanting it all to be and to mean something. Wanting it all. To be and to mean. Something.
I take pictures of the snow so I can send them to him, though I don’t even know if he wants to look at the snow through my lens through my eyes through the synapses of my brain that miss him, but I know he has never seen snow for real and I want to show it to him. His mind is not here any more than his body. What of his soul? It sits right in me. He would love the snow, I know, if he saw it for real. If he were with me now. If we were insubstantial now in the snow together, seeping into the ground.
I know these things. I now know them all, and they all make sense, and they will come to pass, and it all just needs time to arrange itself now. I want to be sure.
I missed Uranus on my journey, I realise, as I pass Saturn, wondering why that took so long, and I don’t mind. There’s an irony in this, but it is not a metaphor, not even a pun. Not a sign. It’s a coincidence: sometimes you miss a planet, that’s all.
I’d decided to surrender, to go with the flow, just to be. I’m calm at the thought, now, at ease. I feel a greater certainty than ever before, but I’m not sure about what. Just about. And I know I don’t need to investigate this, I don’t need to probe.
I don’t need to understand, because I already know. I don’t want to be the one any more who longs. I don’t want to be the one any more who pines and freezes. The one made of ice. And rocks. Enveloped in abundant gases. Who errs on the side of reason, out of sight, out of mind, out of being. I want to thaw and to melt and to meld with the one and to bloom and to lose myself in the all and to be.
And so I walk on, sunward.
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.
Up at the end of the valley, the far end, before it yields to the glacier which reaches down from the mountain pass, slowly receding now with growing temperatures, lives an old man who looks at the world still with wonder.
He is not as old as he seems at first glance, and much older than his years all the same, for he knows. He knows, deep inside, what holds the universe together and what tears it apart, and what being these molecules, what being that energy means. He knows it but he can’t express it, and so he won’t.
He won’t talk about it, he won’t, in fact, talk about anything much, he appreciates silence.
When he was young he used to meet up with friends for a drink and a chinwag, and then it began to dawn on him that much of what he was being told, and even more of what he heard himself speak, was an array of variations on themes: things he’d heard said and had spoken before, in this way, or that, or another. Self-perpetuating reiterations of what everybody already knew and keenly agreed on, or hotly disputed, as was their whim.
And so he let go, he let go of his friends whom he loved but could no longer bring himself to like, and let go of the circuitous conversations that did nothing but remind everybody that they were still who they thought they needed to want to be.
He was tired. And being tired he got old, older than his years, older than his looks, older than the oak tree in the oldest garden. And he moved, once or twice first, then twice or thrice more; and each move took him further away from those whom he had been, had made himself feel, acquainted with. First to the country, then to the coast, then the foreign lands, then the mountains, then the valley, and then the end of the valley, in the mountains again: the remotest place he could find.
It was not that he was happy here, it was just that he was content. Content not to need to desire happiness any more. And here he sat and walked. Sat by the house he’d bought for very little, and walked over the fields and the meadows and up to the vantage points from which he could see the peaks and the woods and the villages, in the very great distance. He liked that distance: distance was space, distance was calm, distance was perspective. Unencumberedness. Distance was good.
Winter came to the valley, and it was barely the end of October, but going for walks was harder now because everything was covered in snow. And this being the far end of the remotest valley he could find, nobody came to clear the snow or pave the paths or even the lane that led up to his hut. So he was stuck, in a way, and he liked being stuck, it meant, in a way, being safe. Safe from visitors, safe from the desire to go out, safe from choices. The persistent demand of decisions, abjured. Simplicity. He’d craved that. And now, he had it.
What he was able to do still was to sit on the bench in front of his hut and watch the world go by. Except the world didn’t go by here, it stood pretty much still. Or so it would seem. And he knew, of course, that this wasn’t true, that nothing stood still, that everything was in motion, always. He found it comforting. Disconcerting too, but comforting; and he had said so. He’d said so and had been quoted as saying so too.
With each day that passed, winter became more present and more unreal: the snowflakes tumbling from the skies like clumsy, half-frozen bumble bees out of a freezer up in the cloud. There was something in him still that reminded him of the kindness of people, and he let one or two of these snowflakes alight on his hand, and they melted and ceased to exist. How sad, he thought to himself, how just and, yes, how poetic. And he recalled once upon a time being a poet, and that’s when he decided to capture and keep them. Not all of them, obviously, only some. And to collect them. To preserve them.
He knew this was futile and went against nature, but therein exactly lay the exquisite sensation of thrill and deep satisfaction. To do something that was futile and that went against nature, but that would be indescribably beautiful.
That was more than existing, that went beyond breathing and eating and sleeping and defecating and shaking in anger and dreaming and imagining and sitting and thinking: that was living. That was imbuing the accidental presence of clusters of mass-manifest energy in this constellation with something that surpassed everything, something divine, something purposeful and profound, something quintessentially and incomparably human: meaning.
Today is unusual in that it passes slowly. This is unheard of, more or less. For the third time in a row I look at the clock or the watch or the phone and I think, ‘ah, it’s not gone eleven; oh, it’s only just coming up one; hn, it’s not even three.’ Normally it’s, ‘what? six o’clock in the afternoon already, I need to get in the shower otherwise I’ll be late for the theatre the cinema the drinks or the dinner or sometimes the gig.’
But today I’m running early and that’s unusual and I’m wholly unrushed and wholly unpressured and really quite happy; the sun is out, it’s as hot as summer though it’s only April, and the time is barely two thirty in the afternoon. All of which is new.
The reason today passes more slowly than usual is probably because I’ve been up and functional since about ten, and the reason I’ve been up and functional since about ten is that I woke up about eight, and the reason I woke up about eight is that I went to bed about one, which for me is early, and the reason I went to bed about one is that in bed also was JoJo and I wanted to be with him, and that’s unusual too. (I’m changing his name here as well, by the way. Not that not doing so would land him in trouble, or me, for that matter, I don’t think, but I don’t know whether he’d want to be named and I don’t want to ask him because that would seem like making a big deal of things, and I’m not of a disposition to make a big deal of things generally, really.)
Everything’s a little different since JoJo’s arrived, three days ago. By coincidence, he arrived on the day Maxl departed, and within hours everything changed. Gone is the stuff and the friendly but heavy presence of a man who doesn’t really want to be here but doesn’t not want to be here either, who seems to lack all sense of humour but still retains a modest charm, who has brilliance concealed by sluggish thinking and earthy inaction.
Gone is the farmer who somehow found himself in a city, who almost by fluke made it to London and into my life where for a while I thought he ought to stay, but from where to know him departed I thank my angels, god, the universe and all that is in and around it, because after I previously had asked all of them for him, they have shown themselves wise and forgiving, by putting him there for me just long enough to see what that would be like, and then, without fuss or damage, taking him away again, no questions asked. Thank you angels, thank you god; universe and all that is in and around you: thank you.
JoJo is more than a breath of fresh air, he’s a tonic, a breeze to keep you alive and awake; and he’s done what I couldn’t expect he would do but still knew he would, he’s come back, if only for a few days, and so while we’re not sleeping together as in ‘sleeping together’ now, we’re sleeping together as in sleeping together, and I like him next to me in my bed and sometimes it happens that I snuggle up to him, and when he gets up at an unfeasible hour in the morning to go to work, I briefly stir, sensing him unclasp himself from my probably too firm embrace, and because the sun is already shining and I had a good dinner with him the night before, which he cooked, and because he’s the only person I’ve ever known to come and go like a cat, unperturbed, unencumbered, loyal but free, dictated by his external needs maybe more than by his internal wants but nonetheless appreciative of the shelter, attention and strokes for his warm body and reciprocal appreciation of his comforting presence I can offer, he wandered back into my existence, and I have no idea how long he’s going to be here for, but while he’s here I am happy, and because I am happy I like to be near him, and so when he’s home I go to bed early so I can go to bed with him, and because I go to bed early I wake up calm and rested even though I don’t sleep anywhere near as soundly as I do on my own; and the day passes more slowly than it normally does, and I think maybe the day passes more slowly because without knowing it or being aware of it or consciously acknowledging it, I am waiting for him to come back, and part of me wonders if that has a meaning, and an even more reticent part of me wonders if, should it indeed have a meaning, that meaning is that I am slowly changing, at last, and if that is the case then what, exactly, in turn, does that mean?
We’re into weird territory now, and I’m a little excited. My hold on reality—loose as it’s been (so as not to say non-existent) since early this morning—has just undergone one more lateral nudge. Whatever I’m clasping at now is clearly not what I’m used to. I can’t blame the Bloody Mary: it may have been perfect, but it was not nearly so strong as to give me hallucinations. Do Bloody Marys ever? Is seeing yourself as a youthful rendering in your current day environment a hallucination? Then again, is a somewhat trendy garden bar cafe restaurant in the currently fashionable part of Istanbul ‘my environment’? And what are they thinking of me in Kingston, Surrey, right now? Should I care?
I resolve, for the first time really today, to ‘deal’ with the situation. Right up until now, I have been essentially bewildered and in no small measure bemused by my overall predicament, but now it transpires there’s something I must do. This fills me with gloom quite as much as it stirs me. Ideally, I would do nothing. I would sit here and wait for it all—whatever ‘it’ is—to just go away. But conditions are no longer ideal. Whereas until a few minutes ago I was maybe disorientated but principally happy to just exist in a reality that didn’t quite make sense but that would probably, I surmised, explain itself to me in one way or another sooner or later, I am now deeply discomfited. And as the extraordinariness of my state begins to dawn on me, it also begins to impose itself on me with a meaning, a forceful declamation of purpose: it seems to be saying you are here precisely to confront your own younger self. And that is plainly absurd.
The angular waitress is nowhere to be seen and so I halfheartedly wave at a sweet looking colleague of hers who is and has been all smiles. He looks about twenty-seven-and-three-and-a-half-months and wears one discreet earring and a handsome tattoo that encircles his arm below a deliberately high-rolled shirt sleeve. He likes me, I think, but then at the moment I am quite likeable, and quite helpless, as I glance up at him and ask him what it was that the young man over there had eaten, offering him an innocent smile: before you interfere with your reality, check it.
He peers halfway over his shoulder and furrows his brow for an instant or two, and my heart sinks. There’s nobody there. I’m imagining him, I am losing control. Hah, losing control, I’ve lost it several hours ago, possibly several decades…
He slowly turns back to me and declares: ‘Kebab. Mixed kebab and salad. Are you still hungry?’ – ‘No,’ I reply, only now aware of how odd a question that must have seemed, ‘no, not at all, I was just wondering; it looked nice.’ This satisfies him, and from his expectant look I deduce that he thinks I will want to order something anyway, maybe another coffee? I pause for a moment and then say, as if that was the most natural thing in the world: ‘do you think he would mind if I asked him a question?’
Ahmed—I later find out is his name—cocks his head a bit as if to say ‘are you serious?’ but instead, with a still growing smile says: ‘There is no harm in asking a question.’ I am relieved, but not sure that he’s right, necessarily. Would that not depend on the question?
I feel I have caught myself on the hop and I order, somewhat on a whim, a mojito this time round and—sensing my window of opportunity close and the boldness in my adrenalin-fuelled heart wane—ask Ahmed to ask young me (without referring to him as young me, for obvious reasons) if he would join me for one, as I would like to, there being no harm in asking a question, ask him a question.
Ahmed seems to enjoy this task, one he has never, I fancy, been given before, and brazenly marches up to young me and asks me if I would care to join the gentleman over there for a mojito. To my unending surprise I say yes. But then I have always been good for a new conversation, even back then, when I was, or believe to remember being, naturally disposed towards caution.
As I sit there watching myself saunter over to me, I sense an overpowering surge of affection and care. God, I think to myself, if only I knew…