(design/edited Leo Edelstein and Yanni Florence, associate editor Judith Elliston)
BY RANALD WHITE
I was curious about a phone message recently. Wait, wait, wait but there was nothing. As it turned out there was a knock at the door this morning - my past. No-one knows it. The name's the thing that's been with me the whole journey. Ranald White. Born 33 years ago today. Respect has always been of importance in the direction my life has taken. In that sense you could say I'm of a different world.
As I see it, my life began not on the day I was born but at the age of eight. My memory is exceptional, and I recall my early years, in particular the coldness of the mouldy Dulwich house where I grew up. Dulwich was the perfect place for anti-social behavior, and my mother and I were in sync. Years later, I thought there were few better places than Dulwich to behave in such a way. Dad was a sculptor and not as anti-socially attuned. His work would take him elsewhere frequently. As for the chilled little house where we lived, each room reeked not only of the encroaching mould, but of the cloying buzz of our continual presence. There were never any laws to prevent solitude, so that became my reality. Then something changed.
In grade three my mother became very sick with an unknown illness. She hardly spoke a word during those weeks. I'd sit on the bed and look at her then turn away and stare out the window at the falling snow. 'Refill the hot water bottle, Ranald, could you?' she'd ask over and over. My father organized a nurse to help her. When I came home from school I'd wrap myself in a blanket and watch TV. I'd watch as much as I wanted since the nurse, unlike my mother, was also a TV addict. She'd comment on something every half-hour or so as we both gazed into its black and white spaces. She must've thought I was younger than I was because every night she'd serve up a bowl of pureed vegetables that I hated and never touched. Instead, I chewed on the wooden table that the TV sat on - I even started to like the nutty taste of it. The nurse was too busy looking at the TV to notice.
One day toward the end of my mother's illness I was watching TV on my own. It was before my so-called dinnertime and as I recall the nurse had gone to the grocer, which usually meant the off-license. From out of nowhere came this advertisement that I'd never seen before. It was for a new horror movie, and all I remember about it was that it had a man and woman arguing, and a staircase. I looked at the screen, engrossed and terrified. I never knew what it was, but the scene communicated perfectly to my still forming mind, radiating some kind of wildly enjoyable panic through my nerves. I ran out to the hallway and into my mother's room. I buried my head in her and hugged tightly. Thinking I was upset she began to comfort me. 'It's just make believe for grown-ups,' she said. At that moment I decided that the world I wanted was one of TV and sickness. Contemplating my future I felt a warmness and a glow, and I resolved to make it come true. I tried to get sick, sick enough to go to hospital where, according to the nurse, there were color TVs. I managed to get a bad flu by sneaking out and rolling around in the snow in the middle of the night, but it didn't seem as though it was enough to get me into hospital so I had to enhance it by acting much sicker than I was. My acting skills improved daily, and the time came for the doctor to recommend hospital and specialists because he'd never seen anything like my sickness before. Perfect. Despite her usual distracted state, my mother was also deeply pragmatic, so I was taken to the nearby hospital in Camberwell. The sickness that I'd willed up was incredible - I actually felt quite sick even though I knew I wasn't. I congratulated myself on my abilities to convince.
On my first day in hospital as I looked at the miniature color TV I knew I'd made the right decision. I wondered whether my excitement was apparent to the seemingly astute doctors. I just had to make sure that I was never caught off guard - not the hardest thing to do considering I wasn't the healthiest looking kid to begin with. The doctors continued to be baffled and I soaked it all up. It was the best holiday I'd ever had. It was also a time when my mind changed through seeing something very special.
I'd been at the hospital two weeks when I saw it. It was a Saturday afternoon and I noticed that a film was being played with a title that interested me. It was - and I do shiver slightly when I think of it - THE WIZARD OF OZ. After such an event you might think it would've been hard to keep my little sickness on the boil, but I managed to stay there for another month. In a sense, that time was a genuine recuperation from the inoculation I'd received in seeing OZ. I needed time to digest and comprehend the extraordinary conclusions that I'd made. It was, I remember, an alert Chinese doctor who brought on my miraculous recovery. He whispered the word 'terminal' to my father just loud enough for me to hear. I knew a little of the meaning of that word and I made an agreement with myself then to quit while I was ahead. I could tell that this doctor knew exactly what was going on, and the implications of remaining 'sick' were too much to tolerate.
After leaving hospital I became somewhat of a novelty. Things changed at school. When I returned I found that my 'loner' status no longer applied. Prior to my hospital sojourn most of the kids would've barely known of my existence. Now they'd pay close attention to every word I spoke. I'd describe in minute detail the symptoms of my mysterious illness - my eyes swelling to twice their size, my tongue turning green, my fingernails dropping off - and they'd keep coming back for more. It seemed as though my sickness could continue in the form of words...
As a sculptor my father had become well known in the '60s. I'd only been taken to his studio a few times, but I remember liking the materials he used more than his sculptures. All the offcut pieces of wood and metal were far more interesting to me. His sculptures looked like filing cabinets that had been eaten by thousands of borers. I used to wonder how he had become famous. It took me years to realize that he'd built his career on his indefinable but magnetic personality. When I was in my early twenties I watched a film of him being interviewed and it was clear to me then - there was an intensity in his manner that held people's attention. I wouldn't say this was the reason for his success - many critics have written of his importance as an artist - but I have no doubt it was a contributing factor. As for myself, the residue of my fake sickness persisted throughout my days at primary school. Sometimes I was tempted to spill the beans, but I never did. What they don't know won't hurt them.
That's why I said when I began that I was really born when I was eight. I discovered then that an elaborate trick could form the basis of my reality. My life was no longer an innocent universe, but rather a compendium of effects. This might sound negative to some people, but if nothing else, I hope my life illustrates the optimism of my outlook.
In the '60s people's egos became far too big because they still believed in something that was there somewhere. Then twenty years later the same thing. But none of that matters anymore. The lessons of OZ taught me to reduce things to their essences then reap the rewards - ego, as far as I was concerned, had nothing to do with it. In this regard, I consider TV to be one of the better things that's ever happened. TV wasn't particularly influential on my parents' generation. Color TV intercepted our lives with a brilliant intensity and it was a wonderful experience. I count the TV as being responsible for loosening our egos. TV has helped our generation defer states that are unacceptable. It's taught them to make choices. The existence need is exposed through TV. I'm sure that's what my parents disliked - it revealed too much about things they'd prefer to sweep under the carpet. I've certainly melded with MY generation. The idea of being an outsider definitely has its appeal, but to be at one with everything is the true challenge. You have to orient yourself as if the natural world was your body. That's where the emotions give way. You let go of your emotions when you're enveloped within your real experience. And what better way to do that than by traveling! My mother and I traveling across the oceans for some vague yearning that, to be perfectly honest, we understood little about. I was awkward looking, but most likely motivated to do whatever I'd planned. Sometimes I'd see through people's eyes to other people and their eyes, and on and on, and I'd pin them all in a single glance...
I'd never be able to return to any school - I knew that was over. I'd done well in most of my subjects and had perfect grades in chemistry. I had most of our group's addresses with the intention of writing to them. So twelve years of pulling up your socks was coming to an end. In those days kids believed in the hypocrisy of school. Most of the respect was feigned. And my friends would tell me of their dreams without reservation. I've noticed that's something most of the younger kids today don't do. I used to like interpreting my friends' dreams. I'd always consider the person when I was telling them, and steer clear of something they might find disturbing. This was a pragmatic decision, you know. It was more a case of leaving things out rather than bending the truth. If you explain something to kids, or anyone for that matter, you've got to be very careful of the words you use. Something out of the ordinary can cause a lot of unnecessary worry.
Some of the teachers were concerned about my leaving England - I remember the worry that overtook my history teacher's face when I told him about it. The young chemistry teacher was more philosophical - she wished me the best of luck. She'd spoken with me regarding my perfect grades, suggesting that I study to become a chemist. But I knew I was never going back to any kind of school. And where were we going? Los Angeles...
My mother, it seemed, had always had a secret interest in Los Angeles. It wasn't difficult for me to latch onto her increasing obsession with leaving. The need to leave escalated into a kind of frenzy - it would monopolize every conversation I had with her. She thought she'd 'get well' by being there. By which she'd hoped there would be more of a fabric for her. Or maybe she just needed to leave Dulwich. My father's first exhibition in Los Angeles was the perfect opportunity for her to get herself there. The plan was he'd meet us there after visiting Venice. After the trip was confirmed all I got from my mother was Los Angeles this, Los Angeles that. My mother's chant was: I'VE HAD IT UP TO HERE WITH LONDON! Strangely, she was still slightly tentative. She wanted to be ABSOLUTELY sure it was the right thing to do, and she respected my views on the subject as though they were unbiased. To me, it sounded like a funny name for a place. Rushing out the front door one day my father putting on an unusual accent said, 'Los Angeles is "sellin a soul" backwards.'
Packing away all my things was the biggest problem. My dark room had gone through all the stages - absolute neatness to a total mess. Whenever it was in different states I thought it was superficial. My room was never me, and I had for some time been thinking about my own place. But boring tales of childhood tend to make people feel they're on a low-protein diet. My experience of school had attuned me to what kids (and therefore future adults) wanted to hear. They wanted things that made them think the world they were finding out about was their world, and they wanted that world to be mystifying. They wanted something that could exceed the limitations of words. All of us had found that in OZ, even without being fully aware of it. We knew it was a story we could tell over and over, and that everything was there. When I left school it was like handing the kids - my peers - over. I'd taught them so much and, above all, we'd had the time of our lives. But it was finishing. When I think of my birthday today and those other thirty-two or -three-year-olds - I lost contact with them all eventually. When you're fifteen you think you'll stay in touch with the kids you know for the rest of your life. Then you grow up and you start to relate to people in a different way - you have to. I feel more or less the same as I did then, but I'm so much more familiar with myself now. Back then there were foggy areas. Once you're in the garden you can never get lost so there's no reason to be fearful. Above all you have to keep things simple and clear.
One thing that happened to some of our group was that they got upset, even angry. They had an extreme reaction to being cut off. All those years we never talked about my ROLE, and perhaps that was a mistake. I wouldn't want to be considered dishonest - I'd been completely frank and open - but we just hadn't found it necessary to talk of my involvement as being different from everyone else's. For all intensive purposes, it wasn't. I started off being the enthusiastic one, but eventually most of those kids seemed to feel like we were all in it together. But the futures we'd discussed didn't tie into the futures they now aimed at. To be perfectly honest, I never really saw those kids - my friends - as candidates for travel to the end of the funnel i.e. each choice they made at school began to have more and more serious implications, and it seemed to me they weren't going to be the bunch to continue on with our meetings in the outside world. There was, of course, a side to me that cherished all this. I thought of their future lives without me, and I invented their faces as they tumbled into a new decade. Back then, I found there was a kind of awesome beauty in watching the meaning of OZ (and they had all been captivated) collide into this lamppost of their parents' hopes. It wasn't unamusing to observe what they had thought were 'realizations' sinking into the quicksand of enforced suburbia as they prepared for their worldly duties. Everything they'd learnt had come to be tested, and I had faith in all of them. I was also in the midst of the unknown, but my early years had taught me the importance of patience. If you wait long enough, what you need eventually turns up.
The Mexican scratched his back with a long knife then he served me. It was our first night in Los Angeles, and my mother had sent me out to pick up some beers. Accidentally he charged for two instead of four. 'A discount?' I asked, and he laughed. He put the knife down and added on the extra. That was my first encounter in America. The general public aren't exactly understanding - they'll never be one of us. I remembered my father describing Dorothy as being happy and pure. According to him, a fully-grown Dorothy would've been his ideal companion. That seemed egotistical in the extreme. The way I saw it, Dorothy ALWAYS lived in HER world. You don't just start changing her for your own benefit. She will always slip through the fingers of such people.
It was late spring and my mother and I were shacked up at the Hollywood Motel. We had two TVs. And we both had a beer. We were watching different programs. The night was as fragrant as a new land ought to be. I heard cars and music. My mother asked again if I thought it was the right choice to come here.
'Well we can always go back to Dulwich,' I said.
'Forget about bloody Dulwich,' she said. 'Just tell me if you think it was the right choice coming here!' I raised the beer can and smiled and looked at the TV screen.
Two beers each weren't enough for this tropical night. She sent me out again. The road was clear, but I looked right just to be safe. Nothing coming so out I went. So confidently. Nothing coming but a silver Studebaker from the left. LOOK LEFT, NOT RIGHT, flashed through my head - then I heard my mother saying it. But it was too late. I saw their faces see me. And there was heat on my hip, and something like nails hammered into my ribs, then crushing sounds near my head. Then there was nothing.
Or so it seemed. All I saw was nothing. Everything that I was going to see was converted to nothing - instantaneously. But harsh metallic sounds continued. They were muffled and incomplete, and sounded like some huge, screaming automobile changing direction.
When images started to emerge in my eyes again, my body felt different. I was bigger. I had no idea where I was. The weather flashed by, changing from windy to rain to pure sun. It created a feeling of excitement. Lucky there were what seemed like blurry (my eyes were slowly coming into focus) gingerbread-like houses to shelter in. I knocked on a wooden door and it was opened by a Japanese girl who greeted me and invited me in. The smooth stone floor felt good on my feet. There were places to sit or lie down and it was pleasantly warm. Aromatic smoke drifted through the spaces. I chose a place in a comfortable corner.
I noticed a skinny boy with dark curly hair and a wispy beard sitting directly across from me. He seemed somewhere around twenty. His eyes caught mine and he smiled. I raised my eyebrows and smiled back. His clothes were old and rumpled like most of the other people's. Mine had also become that way. He had a small stereo with miniature speakers. The music was at a low volume, and ranged from Satie to Death Metal (his favorite band, he would later tell me, was Napalm Death). The low volume made all this music sound appealingly similar. He offered me a piece of banana cake and a large glass of orange cordial. I was parched and still a little weak and these very sweet snacks were perfect. He then handed me a small pale green card on which was typed the following:
IF YOU DO NOT BELIEVE IN CELEBRITY YOU WILL BE SUBMITTED TO THE CELEBRITY POLICE. YOU WILL THEN NEVER NOT LOVE CELEBRITY. CELEBRITY WILL WIRE YOUR ACTIONS AND NEEDS. THEY WILL BE INFINITELY FAR BUT INFINITELY CLOSE. THEIR GOD-LIKE NEEDS WILL JUSTIFY YOUR MORTALITY. YOUR BALSA-WOOD LEGS AND WIRE HANDS CLUTCHING PRESS RELEASES - UNSEEN PATTERNS, CRYSTAL-LIKE, PERFORMING CONVINCING ACTS, IN ORDER FOR YOU TO BE FOREVER BEHIND-THE-SCENES, WORSHIPPING THEIR ABSOLUTE PRESENCE AND YOUR COMPLETE HALLUCINATIONS - NOTHING OTHER THAN THEIR SKILLFUL NAVIGATIONS AROUND THE PERIPHERY OF YOUR SMOKE-LIKE THOUGHTS.
The words disoriented me. I looked up and he and some others looked at me. They all smiled and the bearded boy started to chuckle
'Who's hungry?' he asked. 'Let's cook.' I noticed his accent - somewhere between Dutch and German. Several of us followed him into the back kitchen. Everything was ready and everyone seemed to know what to do. 'You can watch, Ranald. Please, be our guest,' the boy said. I was surprised he knew my name.
'How do you know my name?' I asked. He pointed to my T-shirt and I looked down. A sticker with my full name was there.
'You look baffled,' he said, 'Is that your look? And hey, don't worry about the card!'
'Is the writing on the card yours?' I asked him.
'Kind of,' he replied distractedly. 'But now watch me cook!' What followed I could only describe as some type of divine showmanship. With all the dishes he would subsequently make, his hands seemed to be FOLDING THEIR WAY IN AND OUT OF EXISTENCE AT HIS WHIM. The names he had for his concoctions were unfamiliar to me. Banana cake and orange cordial had different names for him. His hands moved slowly then quickly, then normally then quickly then slowly. Like he was being mucked with on video. But the dishes were always delightful and superbly unknowable. The atmosphere was so relaxed that I remained in my corner for several days. I became one of the others, following and helping the boy. His thin legs and arms didn't seem to want to walk, but he limped around regardless. On occasion he'd turn the volume on his stereo up full and play Napalm Death. Sometimes he'd look strangely at me, his eyes all pupil. But watching him prepare his macrobiotic food made me aware of his true magic in interfolding ingredients. As if they could think for themselves, his hands performed their bizarre secret choreography. And me being me, I learnt every one of his tricks.
One day I noticed his cloth-bound diary on his futon. He'd gone outside with the others to collect firewood and there were only a few people sitting around in the corner of the back room. Normally it was locked and he'd always have it near him, but he'd forgotten to take the key and it lay near the side of the book. I couldn't resist opening it, its worn edges promising some kind of unknown information on the boy's psyche. I put the key in the lock and turned it, then opened the book. It was empty. Just dog-eared blank pages. Then I noticed one line scribbled on the third page: YOU ARE TOO POLITE. I DO NOT NEED YOU ANYMORE IN MY HEALTH FARM. When I read them I knew these words were meant for me. I've overstayed, I thought. I wanted to shout out, Christ, it isn't my fault the British tend toward politeness! He looked at me intently when he returned.
'I'd best be off,' I said to him.
'So I see,' he replied. 'You must keep walking along this street and you will find a place where you can work and stay.' He walked me to the door. Outside harsh winds were quickly clearing into balmy sunlight.
'Do you know my age?' he asked as he shook my hand.
'No,' I replied, letting go of his hand. 'No-one ever mentioned it. Eighteen, nineteen - twenty maybe.'
'No, I'm not,' he said, looking to the ground then swiftly staring back at me. 'I am the precise age you were when you died.'
But it didn't feel that way. I felt more alive than ever. I'd seen Christ-figures like this bearded kid before, plying their trade. (They'd be on the street or in stations, uttering blessings and so-called Godliness, then, with a surreptitious violence, they'd mumble curses under their breath.) This one staggered and smoked joints and listened to Napalm Death. And then, just as I'm leaving, inferring I'd died. He was, however, an enormously sophisticated chef. Everyone had ignored my inquiries as to what his name was, so I called him the kitchen whiz. I just had no idea how I'd got to be there. What I learnt though was to forget worrying about that and just pick up as much as I could along the way. As a master illusionist, the speed and precision of his hands was fascinating. It was very difficult to see how he was managing what were almost 'beyond-human' movements of the wrists and fingers. After many hours of observation I noticed how he activated a series of nerve reactions in his hands by jerking his neck with subliminal speed. I only became fully aware of this after slowing down and pausing a videotape of one of his cooking sessions. The expression on his face would also change momentarily in these split seconds - it was like a brief fever of contempt. Then his normal face would instantly snap back as if nothing had happened. I could never see this change when watching him in person. It was as if any clue regarding the secrets of his personality could only be given to me via the freeze frame of the Betamax. Despite the complexity of his maneuvers and disheveled appearance, the taped presentation seemed like a TV cooking show - he ambled through the recipes with a feral-professionalism. Maybe it was vanity that led him to tape his cooking, but I'm sure he had no idea of the details of my observation. Most of the (mainly young) people who surrounded him were in a haze and just did as they were told, so he was able to do all kinds of things without them being aware of it. It was always strange to see such a vague, loose-limbed individual transform himself at will into a figure who occupied space with a sneering electrical intensity.
A small, thin and large-eyed Ethiopian man, who'd introduced himself as Frank, was trembling. Smoking his hand-rolled cigarettes 'keeps me warm' he told me. But despite the frequent trembling and the smoking he seemed calm enough. He looked at me then bowed his head. It was a tiny glimpse, but it conveyed some kind of deep humor. His emerald pants and pale blue T-shirt were perfectly ironed. By this stage I was starting to look like a neat caveman, with a beard and wearing clothes that were fully battered. I'd left the whiz about a week ago and was now part of a group of strangers given a place to stay in exchange for tending to every whim of about ten people. Several times a day they would gather everyone together in a large pine-walled room. We would be asked to remove our shoes and sit on the timber-look vinyl floor. One of them would water the potted palms scattered about the room, then the session would begin. Whilst meditating, they would focus their attention on the kitchen whiz. This was the reason Frank bowed his head. There were several plastic gilt-framed photos of the whiz hanging on the walls. Being in a room criss-crossed by his blank gaze made me uneasy, but for them it seemed to provide a charged atmosphere. In this funeral home serenity their chants and word repetitions were like seances for a deceptive king. I partook without knowing what I was doing, aside from taking part in an organized collective insanity. These sessions would happen with delirious regularity as they hoped and prayed for us to give ourselves over to their obsessive beliefs. All this, just for a roof.
The day I arrived they gave me a brief summary of their headquarters. A short gray-haired man with a mustache and framed glasses took me on a guided tour. Full of stupid facts, he was like a walking tourist information center. He spoke of their faulty surveillance system: 'The aim was to stop violence but it only works sometimes now.' His worn out eyes continuously bet-rayed his mouth's enthusiasm. I tuned out when he mentioned the place had once been a school. (School interrupted me, I felt like telling him. The countless secret discussions broken by the hideous end-of-lunch bell). He led me to their upstairs common room/dining area and started playing his electric recorder.
'Do you read music?' I asked him
'No, but I can play, just from my ear, I can play,' he replied, his voice mellow and confident, but also defensive. He peered down to the large internal courtyard then looked back at me. 'Just from the sound. Whatever sound I hear I can play. Listen to this.' He played a simple tune then said, 'I can play. I can PLAY! I can PRAY. See it's easy.' He replayed the tune. 'I can pray - ah-huh? You can pray. YOU can pray.'
From that point on I understood these people as being a kind of spiritual army, colonizing my existence with their exaggerated thoughts. The mysterious but selfish character they worshipped, was, in my experience, a con of the first order, and deeply manipulative. And he'd given me lessons I'd never forget.
Frank also seemed indifferent to these people, but he went along with them. He accepted the average food they served up and always joined them in their worship. I thought it incredible that the whiz's food was always without fault but his followers produced some of the worst stuff I'd ever tasted. Almost rancid sliced meats and ancient tinned fruit, with little variation. The whiz's organic macrobiotic creations seemed galaxies away. I mentioned this to Frank and he told me not to bother with it.
'You ave to bell-if me won I tell you dis. Because dare food's got bedder. An dey won't listen to you if you talk about dat. Dey tink dare doin it WELL!' The only time I'd see them all together was at mealtimes and they were an uneasy group with their shifty eyes and bad haircuts.
Helping them with the food preparation one day I noticed how sluggish their hands were - they'd not learnt any of the whiz's nerve tricks. Their inane fingers would drag through the various groupings of sludgy mush, their eyes elsewhere as they coughed and spluttered. I wondered how they'd managed to organize themselves to have power over people like Frank and myself, telling us what to do for them in exchange for minimal food and board. But there seemed no other options in this gingerbread-housed land.
We'd have three hours recreation a day, plus the late evenings. Frank would often strike up conversations with new arrivals. Some would only stay a few days. Some were American kids, buffed and ready to take on the world.
'So, what you do or what you done for a livin man?' one of them asked Frank late one night.
'Well,' he replied, 'I done much work. I stacked boxes and -'
'In fact-gories, right?'
'Those places, yah, but you know you talk too much of makin so much money. Money's juz heat an dats not goin to save you man. No way. Dats not goin to save you, you'll see.'
'I'd sure reckon it's better to have it than to not have it!' the American replied, adjusting his baseball cap. Frank let out a majestic laugh, pointing his finger and shaking it wildly at the smug kid.
'The thing I really hate is dropouts,' the kid continued. 'Fuckers who just do nothin. Punks who play in bands, real fuck-ups. JESUS I fuckin hate them!'
'But you live in a democracy in your country, surely?' asked Frank.
'Yeah, right, sure - a demo-crassy,' said the kid looking to the floor as he fumbled through his mental rulebook.
'So dah wool allow for deese people, wool nit?'
'YOU are right, man. YOU are right,' and the kid made a pistol out of two fingers (as seen on TV) and fired it just above Frank's left shoulder, then blew the top - a defunct John Wayne. It was a gesture that acknowledged Frank's small victory. For an hour after this they cracked jokes to and fro.
The next day, as he whistled and made beds mechanically, Frank, like an amateur magician, handed me a green card identical to the one the kitchen whiz had given me. He kept working after handing it to me. On it was typed the following:
SEEPING THROUGH THE HAIRLINE CRACKS IN THE BLINDING ADVERTISEMENTS, THE TERRORISTS FOUND THEIR PATHWAY. MORE WHITENESS, BLEACH WITH LIGHT TRAVELING BEYOND TERROR AND GOD. AND WHEN ALL IS WHITE WE SEE BEHIND THE SCENES: THE YOUNG CHEF, WORKING HIS PINHOLE CAMERA. HE'S WHAT THE TERRORISTS SAW AS THEY MOVED WHITENESS ON THE EYES OF THE POPULATION. ALL WE HAD WERE THE TERRORISTS AND THE BOY. THE BOY SPOKE FREELY: 'YOU HAVE GIVEN EVERYONE MY LIFE!' HE SMILED AND RELIEF HIT HIS TIRED EYES. THEY'D ALL BEEN WAITING FOR THE ANTHRAX AND THE MILLIONS OF WINGS AND THROATS AND WE BUILT ON ROCK.
I looked up and saw Frank diligently making the bunks. As if feeling my sight on the back of his head, he turned around. With a half-smile he began speaking: 'Naw you understand a little more maybe - of who r really am.'
But I understood very little, either about who Frank was or where I was. I continued to be baffled as to what had brought me to this place and why I had got bigger. Frank was the one person I'd encountered who, it seemed to me, could provide some clues. But Frank being Frank, there was never the right time to introduce the subject. There's a right time and a wrong time to raise such potentially embarrassing questions (or so I thought then). The one time I did manage to ask him (after a long joke-cracking session with a red-faced safari-suited South African) the response left me more baffled than ever. From memory it was something like:
'This might sound stupid Frank, but can I ask you a little bit of an odd question?'
'Sure man, what you wanna ask?'
'Well, do you know where we - well, where we are?'
'Where WE are, man!' he said, bursting into laughter and waving his hands toward me in mock-disbelief. 'Jeez, r ben here too long!' he said, then pretended to whisper: 'Deese people, dey know your every move. But one ting's for sure: ain't no place like dis place. NOWHERE, man!'
The violent weather changes continued. There would be miniature tornadoes and from time to time, large ones. The little ones would sometimes just pick you up and transport you a few meters down the road. Everything in this gingerbread land looked similar, as if there were only ten houses and I was in a hall of mirrors. Having to get on with things made me purposefully temporarily forget about my past, but if I dared think about it, the sharp terror of leaving a motel for some beers and ending up where I was would grind from my head through my skeleton to my toes. So I kept my mind on the job at hand.
The same day Frank had given me his card, one of these tiny tornadoes dropped me at the door of what appeared like a museum. I walked in and noticed many Arabic men in camouflage uniform standing around on plush red carpet. As I approached, they welcomed me with smiles and directed me toward two open, three-meter high brass doors. As I walked through, a huge cavernous space appeared. Horns blew, sirens wailed (these sounds, I noticed later, came from several sets of Bose speakers mounted high above). When my eyes adjusted, I noticed many yellow cars. Walking along the large-scale designer-bleak streets were groups of young men and women. They were all pulling agonized faces when I saw them. They were having their strings pulled - this was some kind of puppet show. (Or even a film set. But there were no noticeable cameras.) It was hard to know how real their supposed upset was. I began to expect Punch and Judy, but these people never related to one another. There was no plot and some of them said nothing - all they did was pull faces - but they appeared to have no larger role than those that spoke. The men and women would dust lint off their outfits and it was only then that I saw something that revealed a true expression. A young woman asked a man for the time. He didn't have it and he asked another man for the time but he didn't have it either. He asked a nearby woman. She didn't have it. A domino effect started but none could give the time. What had seemed fake now presented itself as another world as believable as the gingerbread land. But the people were distracted.
As I continued walking, I realized the only similarity this place had with gingerbread land was the weather - it varied at high-speed. It would also look cold (i.e. snow), but the temperature stayed pleasingly warm. Night and day were equally acceptable. The night shop windows seemed like they'd be an ideal location from which to observe everything, but they only contained mannequins. They looked as real as me and I wondered if they were in fact people pretending to be super-real mannequins in order to have shelter. I stared at them, trying to detect movement, then I looked at one in the eye to see if she blinked, but I couldn't hold her unmoving glare. But shelter seemed unnecessary in this mild climate, so, as I'd done for many days, I simply lay down on a comfortable piece of ground. There was warm concrete on either side of me and the sound of talking and footsteps, but beyond those sounds somewhere there was a silence.
When I woke up I noticed everything had been drained of color, giving it a dirty sepia quality. The endless moderate temperature had changed also and my body felt half frozen. It felt that way even though I could no longer see it. I felt it more than ever in fact, but nowhere could I see it. I got to my feet to try and look at myself in a window but there was still nothing. About a hundred meters up ahead I noticed the sepia changed to full color. It was a change so sharp that it appeared as though the color atmosphere was contained by a sky-high glass panel. Or was it some kind of lighting effect? It was like being on some outer zone looking in. People bustled round in the colored area. In the sepia zone there was just a muddy dullness and the odd camouflaged person pushing a filled trolley. These people would sometimes stare at me, their eyes wide open in a kind of mix of terror and sarcasm. I heard a woman's voice from behind me and something poking my arm. As I turned around she put her walking stick back down.
'I want off the planet!' she said, smiling. She was huge, wearing many layers of worn dark clothing and gold bracelets. She clutched a bulging garbage bag. 'Here's how I'm gonna do it! I'm gonna go to Vegas. And I'm gonna make enough to make my own paradise.'
'Are we anywhere near Vegas?' I asked.
'Whatta YOU care?' she replied. 'Look at you! Down-an-out, you don't know what you're doing! You wanna move round like you, you can't do it like that anymore! Forget about it!' At this point I felt very little. I was anaesthetized by the cold and could no longer see myself. But this bossy woman could. She annoyed me and talked so quickly I couldn't get a word in.
'Go get the qualification to teach English as a foreign language. Intensive course. Do it, then you can live wherever you want and support yourself. Easy. You better do that. If you're a free spirit like me you've got to do it!'
'But I'm not like you!' I shouted at her, beginning to walk away toward the colored world.
'Oh, but you are, Ranald, you are,' she whispered, grabbing my arm. I turned my head toward her. 'Take a good look at me now, Ranald. Yes, you see it now, don't you? Mama's changed a bit but it's me. My boy, look at you, so thin!'
The discovery of my mother in such a state was shocking. Where had she been? How had she managed to find me? She started walking with me down the street toward the color. I began to get used to her and found her less irritating. As we brushed past some stooped, dirt-colored figures pushing trolleys, my mother began questioning me.
'You don't do an awful lotta talkin! Guess you never were a big talker. So, where you stayin?' I noticed for the first time her American accent - Brooklyn maybe. But it still sounded like her. I shrugged my shoulders, not knowing what to say. 'Hell, well walk with me, baby!' she shouted, slightly more mocking than compassionate. 'It's a long way, an I'm gonna have to leave you there, coz a Vegas an all. But you can stay there long as you like. All kinds a stuff down there in the basement. Lots a screens n videos - originally departmental. An there's a place to sleep. You gotta key an plenty a food there, all the way you like it. What you eat these days? But we gotta walk through the color to the other side where it's just like this, where the buildings are also similar to here, but if you keep goin, as we will, you find maybe five miles further along, empty hills with odd shaped forests and nothin but The Place.'
'Where I been livin! The basement. Government offices, three towers, all connected by walkways, early '70s. Well, they was government, but they was abandoned - never demolished. The government offices only functioned for six odd months, but people believed it left its mark on the corridors and rooms. Walls cracked like you wouldn't believe! Problem with the ley lines is what I heard. Warped, no-good partitions everywhere! I got rid of them where I am - it's like a basketball court now. But you know what the gardener said to me one day? He's been there since day one. He told me the public servants just left one day, no explanation. Said he thought of leavin also, but The Place needed tendin to whether it had people or not. He called The Place a vast, wastin machine for a failed dream of interconnected efficiency. Somethin like that any-way. An he mows the lawns! I'll take you to the front gate then I'm off. Gotta get to Vegas, y'know. But first it's the colored world, full steam ahead!'
copyright 2003 THE ESTATE OF RANALD WHITE