3 Chaos

This makes me wonder what, in a multiverse of all possible universes, my life is like right now in the world where Benjamin and I are together.

So often have I tried to find him in others—repeatedly have I attempted to find him himself—that I’ve lost all concept of what the reality would be of us actually having done what other people do. Do other people do this? It’s certainly the impression I get: other people I know meet someone, fall in love, have some ups and downs, decide to give it a go, give it a go, stick together, or sometimes not, and if they don’t then most likely they have a break and then either give it another go, or do so with somebody else. I have good examples at close range of things working out well between people, all around me. My family, especially, are exemplary. So it shouldn’t be difficult.

Still, it mystifies me.

Benjamin has fallen out with his father, this much I know. I know this much because the last number I find in my old address book for him is his old home number, and at one point, while I’m in the country, I phone that number and I get his dad on the phone who tells me that he doesn’t know where his son is. Nor how to contact him. He says this quite categorically, and I’m surprised, of course, and a bit stunned, and about to end the conversation, but before I do I ask whether anybody else might know how to contact him, and he says, yes, his mother might know. Ah, I say, and would he happen to still have a number for his mother. I sense I need to tread carefully as I don’t want to upset or offend him, and I feel sorry that they’re no longer together, but at least that offers a plausible explanation as to why his father does not know where he is or how to contact him: his parents must have separated many years ago, maybe on bad terms. But: ‘this number here,’ he says; ‘she’ll be back later, she’s at work now.’

This now saddens more than it puzzles me, and it puzzles me a lot: clearly Benjamin’s mother and father are still together, still living in the same house where I once or twice came to see him, where I met both of them, once or twice; where in fact I interviewed his dad for my final school project, which I wrote on racism; but while his mother ‘may know’ how to get in touch with him, the father not only doesn’t know, he obviously doesn’t want to know either. His son is dead to him. A wave of abject sadness washes over me. He is, has always been, so alive to me.

Should it surprise that your first love is your strongest, your most intensely felt, most devastating and also most exulted? To this day I remember getting drunk on coffee with him on the sofa. That seems surreal now, but we drank so much coffee over so many hours all through the night until it was getting light outside, I started feeling high. Caffeine and adrenaline and serotonin. And that other thing. Is there that other thing, that indescribable thing, that thing we sing songs about and write poems over and feel we could die for?

I phoned up again a day or two later (or maybe it was later that day) and spoke to the mother who remembered me and may have remembered me fondly, she certainly sounded warm and kind, and she said, yes, if I were to write him a letter she would forward it onto him, that might work.

I wrote him a letter, and she forwarded it onto him and nothing happened for a very long time; and I remembered—as I spoke to his mother and before I wrote the letter—the birthday for which I had sent him a flower. He lived outside Zürich then, I outside Basel; his birthday was and still is six days before mine, and because I couldn’t see him on his birthday, I went out and bought him a flower—I can’t be sure now what kind of flower it was, but I like to think and am fairly certain it was a yellow rose—and I asked the florist for one of these small vials that would keep the flower fresh for a while, and I sealed this around the stem of the flower and wrapped it in tissues in case it should leak and sealed that in foil, I believe, and then put the flower into a long box, and I must have used some padding, and then I posted it to him, with my birthday wishes. I didn’t wonder then but I wondered now what his mother made of this at the time.

I wrote him a letter and sent it to his mother, and she forwarded it to him and nothing happened for a very long time until one Sunday the phone rang and it was Benjamin. Out of the blue, except for the letter of course. He’d received it and now he was living in Guggisberg. He’d moved to Guggisberg because of the song, did I know it? I didn’t, but I know it now.

We talked for maybe four or five hours. I don’t remember what we talked about, but then that was that kind of connection: where you can talk for four or five hours and not remember what you talked about, nor really care. For those four or five hours it was as if he were there. 

And all of a sudden I can feel it ease, the pain of not knowing what had become of Benjamin. He’s not had an easy ride. ‘I have a son,’ he says. ‘I have a tooth missing.’ He’s been through addiction and rehab and back, and other things. He lives with his partner, who isn’t the mother of his son.

‘You’ve done a good thing here,’ he said, meaning my writing to him, and after the afternoon had passed with us talking, he said, ‘and now I’m going to get drunk.’ We were a bit drunk already, again, both of us, this time on the beers we each started to open, he in Guggisberg, I in Earl’s Court. ‘And I’m going to hear Jane Birkin in concert,’ I said, and it was true. He wasn’t online but he would write back to me now, he said; but I didn’t think he would, and he didn’t.

After a few months or so, maybe a year, I thought I’d just write to him one more time, although I was myself no longer sure of the wisdom of doing so, and I sent another letter, this time directly to him, at the address he’d given me, on the Guggisberg. It came back as not delivered: the addressee has moved away. But now I don’t mind. My heart is light and free. I hope before either of us dies I’ll see him again, maybe when we’re quite old. Maybe when we’re quite old we can sit together on a bench or in a lakeside cafe and spend a whole day talking, maybe getting drunk a little. On whatever.

I look at George looking at me, and I remember I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone, I’ve always had George, but George has been very much on his own at times; he has chosen a lone path, and I can’t blame him for that. ‘Tell me about Benjamin,’ I want to say, but I now know everything I need to know about him, and I know that George knows much less now than I.

I walk into a room full of people. It’s the Christmas Bazar at the Steiner School in Zürich. I’ve gone there with a friend from Basel, to visit a couple of people we’d met at a Whitsun Camp earlier in the year and stayed in touch with. I don’t remember anything else about the day, not how we arranged to meet, or who else was there. Most likely we’d just arrived, and most likely we’d said: in the cafe, around then. The cafe is just a class room, converted for the day; or maybe it’s a small hall. I remember the feel of a converted class room. The room is full, there is a table with five or six people at it, in conversation. Two or three of them we already know. To the others, we introduce ourselves. One of them turns around: ‘Ich bi dr Benjamin.’ My world has never been the same again.

‘Tell me, George,’ I finally say, the mojito giving me licence to talk: ‘what do you make of the heart?’

The Snowflake Collector – 9: So as Not to Chase Away its Wonder

It was a miserable Easter that The Snowflake Collector encountered, and Whitsun was worse. Day after day the sun rose, but not he, not for hours. Most days, he barely made it onto the bench outside his hut, and since he had no appetite, he didn’t eat, and as he didn’t eat he grew gaunt, and the listlessness in his heart turned the skin that hung off his bones grey and painted his spirit all bleak.

There would have been butterflies to colour his mind; there would have been cute little crocuses. The meadows turned yellow with dandelions and green with fresh, rich grass and there were the multitude of insects with their implacable buzz and their hum; and the cows returned with their picture book bells that lent the valley its melodic chime in the distance.

The Snowflake Collector cared aught. He went not on his walks and he neglected his wood by the stream. He missed Yanosh, whose visits had become sparse, but he could not bring himself to wander down the path to the inn, an hour or so from his hut, to nod his silent ‘hello’ to him there and ask for an ale from his mother Yolanda. There was no point now to any of it, the pointlessness of it all was complete.

It was an unusually sullen day in June – after a month of May full of sunny disposition, bordering on the obnoxious – that The Snowflake Collector was sitting on his bench outside his hut when he saw Yanosh climb up the path at a pace. He was in no hurry, Yanosh, since he, much as The Snowflake Collector, had eschewed the notion of ‘hurry’, or rather had never embraced it, but he was a good and energetic walker, and he was young and so wherever he went, he went with a stride.

Yanosh sat down next to The Snowflake Collector on his bench, but today he didn’t even nod a ‘hello’, nor did he say anything, he just sat there, apparently more than a little perturbed. The Snowflake Collector did not speak either, but he looked over at him, to find his friend staring ahead of himself, at the ground. Something, The Snowflake Collector surmised, must have happened, most likely something to upset him, perhaps something that his mother Yolanda had said, though more likely something a teacher at school had remarked or something his inadequate peers had done; but to ask, The Snowflake Collector felt, was to pry, and it was not in his nature to pry, nor was it in Yanosh’s nature to expect him to.

Thus the young lad who wasn’t quite as young as sometimes he seemed and the old man who was nowhere near as old as he felt sat there in silence for an hour or two, until something occurred that took them both by surprise. It started to snow. They were in the mountains, at the end of the valley, near the glacier now slowly receding, just above the tree line, so snow in June was not unheard of for Yanosh and The Snowflake Collector, but although this had been an ill favoured month, they weren’t expecting it now.

When Yanosh and The Snowflake Collector now looked at each other, they both burst out laughing. They had no good reason, it was just that they cut surreal figures in a picturesque setting at the onset of summer when it had started to snow, and at this precise moment, for the first time, they realised this. The Snowflake Collector got up and with a few moves cleared the wooden table outside his hut, then he went into his kitchen and brought out a box that had in it the glass cubes he’d made. He brought out the bottles of liquids that he had bought and mixed and experimented with throughout the winter, and he stood at the table outside his hut, Yanosh watching him in fascination, and, noting down ratios and combinations with a heavy pencil directly onto the heavy table, he began developing new solutions, one emerging from the other, building on any progress he was making and discarding any failures without grief.

Three hours and forty-odd minutes went by in this manner before he needed a short break for comfort, and he disappeared momentarily, leaving on his table three cubes, each with a marginally different solution in it, and maybe he forgot or maybe his subconscious willed him to omit laying any kind of cover on them, but Yanosh sat and watched in an astonishment that unclenched his own heart how a gorgeous snowflake eased itself directly into the cube in the middle, and stayed.

Yanosh got up from his bench, slowly. Carefully he advanced on the miracle he was sole witness to and hesitantly, reluctantly lest he should undo it, lest a shake or a wobble or the hot breath from his nostrils should disturb it, he, holding on to the weighty wooden table, squatted down and watched, and watched. He didn’t notice that The Snowflake Collector had long since appeared behind him and in turn observed the scene, from just a little distance, also so as not to chase away its wonder. Then The Snowflake Collector became aware of another fat snowflake making its way just about straight into the same cube and he darted forward and caught that one with his hand, while with his other hand supporting himself on Yanosh to avoid knocking the table. Softly now he covered the cube with its purpose-cut lid and squatted down beside Yanosh to examine its beauty.

It was perfect. The liquid, in which the snowflake now floated was completely clear and the snowflake was still intact: minutes after immersing itself, it retained its shape, its intricate structure, its delicacy. It was miraculous. But could it last? The temperature outside on this day was just a few degrees above freezing. Would the snowflake, once brought inside, now melt and dissipate into its ether? The Snowflake Collector barely dared touch it, but he fixed the lid to its cube now with a permanent seal of glue and left it standing there. Time would tell. Snowfall in June doesn’t tend to last very long: soon the sun would appear and subject his experiment to the most unforgiving of tests.

Yanosh went home as he usually did around this time when he had come to visit during the day, and The Snowflake Collector went inside his hut to lie down. He was exhausted. And although he had no certainty yet and certainly no evidence that this latest effort of his would bear fruit, that it worked, that his snowflake would still be there in the morning, he already sensed the unbearable burden of sorrow ease off his chest. Each breath of air he took in filled him deeper with reconciliation and for a moment he remembered that he hadn’t named this snowflake! No matter, he thought, as his eyelids grew heavy and he slowly surrendered to sleep: it can wait. If the snowflake is still a snowflake next time I wake, it shall have a name.


< 8: It Was, in Every Imaginable Sense, a Disaster

10: George >

 


3 Chaos

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