At the age of twenty-four I met an old man whose eyes were burdened with woe. I was walking along a winding lane which was bordered by a high hedge and he was stood beside a gateway in the hedge. Both the hedge and the man were of little interest to me until I heard his voice which seemed to connect with a point of unease deep within me, as when a forgotten nightmare is suddenly recalled.
He said, “Whatever you do, don’t go in there,” nodding towards the gateway.
I continued along the lane, only glancing back to check the man was now out of sight, when I pushed my way through the hedge and emerged into a peculiar garden. I found an employer looking sternly at me. There was a desk beside him and the area around it was dark and indistinct. Yet I could make out every detail of the desk, the stack of pens, the anglepoise lamp, even the grain of its wooden surface, which seemed polished from years of use.
The employer told me to sit and do some work, which I attempted to do, but I could not see what was expected of me. He then placed a stack of forms in front of me and walked away. I began to sweat; I had not been so suddenly moist since my primary school teacher had unexpectedly placed an exam form on my desk and walked away with no explanation. I looked around and all the other children began feverishly writing. Had I missed something?—I wondered.
At the start of my first job in the garden I felt just as mystified. I wrestled with each form, making random entries before guiltily sliding them into my “out box” and hoping no-one would discover the part I had played in the company’s downfall. But five years later the company was not only still functioning but their apparent appetite for my random form-entries was only increasing. I could see no escape. I had even been promoted to a larger desk with a panoramic view of a puzzlingly shaped shrubbery, out of which, cardboard cut-outs of famous persons would periodically pop up like ducks in a shooting gallery. This spectacle, though, only momentarily distracted me from my main concern, which was the company’s imminent downfall. However, six months after my promotion I had forgotten all such concerns, by which time the pop-up celebrities had become an accepted part of my immediate landscape, as had the enticing maze that lay beyond the shrubbery, which people could often be seen entering but never returning from.
After a further six years of randomly completing mysterious forms under the occasional gaze of cardboard cut-out celebrities, I looked up and noticed that the woman who sat at an adjoining desk was winking at me. She was not unattractive, so I was tempted to bestow upon her wink the most optimistic interpretation, which involved us performing bedroom gymnastics but without having to first endure some lengthy and perplexing dating ritual.
“Can I help you?” she said.
An answer sprang to my mind but instead I simply told her I was managing perfectly well.
“Are you sure?” she said and she winked again, but this time even more suggestively. At least, that was how it seemed to me. But it was my primary school exam all over again. What answer was I suppose to give?—everyone else seemed fluent in this ritual which I had never been coached in. Had I missed something?
I soon found myself sitting in a small rowboat with the woman in the middle of a dark lake when she asked, “Do you find me attractive?”
I was taken aback, since no-one had ever delved so deeply into my mind, which had previously always been a private place. I was not sure what was expected of me but her question seemed to demand a reply. Not wanting to mention anything I should not—things, for instance, that perhaps my primary school teacher might frown upon—I told her she had a pleasing personality, at which point her personality transformed. She took the oar from me and tossed it into the lake, saying, “So, that’s what you think of me, is it!”
When the oar hit the surface of the lake I thought it threw up, what seemed like, congealed lumps of black water which landed in the boat, but when I looked more closely I noticed the lumps were alive and thrashing about. I lifted my feet clear of them and told her, “Well, it’s true; and also, you’ve always seemed most considerate.”
She took the other oar and tossed it over the side, sending more of those black lumps of living matter flying into the boat as she told me, “If only I’d known! I suspected something was wrong.”
The boat drifted on the barely perceptible current for a full eight years, all the time my body becoming ever more infested with those black fish-things which kept leaping from the water, landing in the boat and somehow finding shelter beneath my skin. I found I could not move without three or four of them stirring into action and testing the integrity of my skin as they did so, as a repeatedly opened wound is tested by the probing of a surgeon’s knife. Finally, it seemed my skin was no longer able to protect me from the world’s scrutiny, and yet still the woman kept beating me with my own words. I learnt to say nothing, which silence then became the club she would use to probe my wounds even more deeply with.
One day the boat came to rest on the shore and I ran for cover. I did not look behind me for two whole days, in which time the garden became a desert. My mouth was dry and as I continued to run—and my run gradually became a walk—I could feel those fish-things drying and falling from my skin, which, as the days and weeks went by, healed under the warm glow of the sun.
At the age of forty-two, I came upon a train carriage in the desert and I stumbled into it. It soon began to move. There was a feeling of inevitability about its motion, as though its passengers had no opinions of any value and would travel in whatever direction the train took them in. I noticed a group of people gathered around a table, watching the lighted candles on a birthday cake.
“Is this for me?” I found myself saying, amazed. I could not help it—the sight of that cake transported me to a period prior to when that first exam paper was placed on my primary school desk. Strange though it seems, I felt like skipping with glee. I watched a young child blow out the candles and then, as he looked up to me and said, “Thank you, daddy,” my heart sank.
I sat on a seat and watched the world pass by. I had no idea where the train was taking me. At the next stop, I got off and found myself in the garden again. I wandered its paths, looking for a haven for my troubled mind. A sign above a potting shed read “Place of Peace”. I, of course, entered. I sat in a deck chair, for I was tired after my journey.
In the first two minutes of my occupancy, I listened to the sounds from outside diminishing, as though they were retreating from me. All that was then left was silence, which I listened to like I had listened to no other sound in my life. The silence seemed to engulf me—as the darkness of a moonless night in the wilderness might. And out of that wilderness I then heard approaching footsteps. They entered the potting shed and a man’s voice asked, “Are you sitting comfortably?”
I describe him as a voice only, because I could not make out his features, or perhaps I was simply not interested in his features. His voice, though, did interest me; I had never heard a voice that seemed more kind.
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”
He asked, “Is there anything I can get you?”
“No,” I said; “I am perfectly comfortable.”
“Good,” he said, and he looked down to the wide pail that my feet were resting in (I had found it at the foot of the deck chair, so it seemed perfectly natural to rest my feet in this pail while I sat in the chair) and he reached behind him for a bucket of freshly mixed concrete and poured it over my feet. He repeated the process until the concrete had reached halfway up my shins. I watched his performance without comment, for it somehow seemed a perfectly natural thing to do. He left, also without comment. The next day, the concrete had set. He returned to ask if I was comfortable.
“Yes,” I told him, for I had no complaints about my treatment. “But,” I added, “I am starting to get thirsty.”
“We have thought about that,” he told me, and he produced a glass of water.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Is there anything else?” he asked, in his kind voice.
I was now feeling bold, so I told him, “And I am starting to get hungry.”
“Yes,” he said; “we thought you might have been,” and he produced a meal, which I ate with relish. He then gave me some work to do, which I did not find puzzling; it seemed to make perfect sense and I worked contentedly.
In this manner, seven further years passed, by which time the potting shed had been extended to accommodate about twenty more workers. I, naturally, had been placed in a position of authority and my concreted pail had been slid across the floor so that it rested beside a large window, which gave me a privileged view of the garden.
Behind my back, the other workers then seemed to begin conspiring against me. And the effect of their campaign was to poison the sight of that garden for me. I had begun to enjoy the sight far more than I had any other experience in my life, but each time I spoke to my workers (which had then become the extent of my own work, for I was now merely supervising the labour of others), they would take my words and expertly fashion them into clubs with which to beat me, in the same manner that the woman in the boat had done, and I was no match for such expertise. I had managed to endure this from the woman for eight years, but now there was an army of twenty such torturers, and those earlier wounds opened again and the workers tested them at every opportunity. And after four further years of sitting in that chair, and once the sight of every flower or bird or dancing butterfly in the garden had been robbed of its beauty and it seemed my embattled skin could no longer offer protection against the outside world’s scrutinies, my distress, one day, erupted—as the dying dash of a cornered animal erupts, being faced with the certain sight of death and, with one final effort, finding the strength to instead flee—and my distress ruptured the concrete around my feet and I found myself running through the garden.
This pattern seemed to repeat itself through two further bouts of employment, and after a further twelve years of such trials had passed, I yet again found myself fleeing through the garden, but this time with less virility. I no longer had the stomach for combat. Even after periods of rest, and of being fed and watered by an occasional kind voice, I found I could no longer do this. But as luck would have it, just as I realized this, I noticed that same hedge I had entered the garden through. I followed it for a while and then came to that same gateway that had been guarded from the outside by that old man. The gateway was open, as it had been before, and there seemed to be nothing stopping me from passing back out through it, which I did. On the outside, I noticed the old man was no longer standing there; there was no-one guarding the gateway.
I stood beside the gateway and whenever anyone passed, particularly if they were young, I felt the need to say to them:
“Whatever you do, don’t go in there,” and I would nod towards the gateway.
Of course, each person would walk on down that winding lane and when they were out of sight, I knew exactly what they would do. I knew this so well, for I had been there myself.
2 February 2010
21 October 2010, edited
See readers' comments on this work here