By the author of "Enigma of the Second Coming" and "The Avatar Syndrome". Around the World was shortlisted in the CBC Literary Competition.
Ann's away. With the twins?
Even as I wake up, I sense there's something wrong. Slightly. The reality is the one I thought of last night. Am I still dreaming? Is reality a dream? I must be very careful of what I think about in the evening. I don't get up. I lie there and consider the options. After a while, I lose myself in the various possibilities. I start the painful process of redefining what the devil I am. Or where I am. Or just exactly – why.
For the last four days, each day I wake up in different surroundings. To start with, there are little things. We seem to have new curtains. Where did they come from? Then, there is the extra dining room. I always wanted to build it on the west side. Well, maybe I need to see a doctor, but I don't remember. When we did build it...? Ann always wanted one: facing the garden, she said. I always promised it. Now, it is there. When is now, anyway?
The rest of the room looks the same.
We’ve lived in the same house for, let's see, forty-seven years. Suburban, medium size living-dining, a large, old-fashioned kitchen, four bedrooms. Until recently the garden had been my, and Ann's, pride and glory. We grew our own vegetables. At least I did. Ann prefers to grow flowers. She's so good at it. How well I remember Mimi's wedding. Just twenty-three years ago, last June. Mimi asked for the reception to be held in the garden, among the rich, proud, aristocratic roses, rows of begonias, delicately violet irises, the humble multihued velvety pansies, the tall, slender lilies with their white, innocent, elegant trumpets – all bathed in the exuberant aroma of lilacs in full bloom. Ann always said that the beginning of June is the best part of the year. She ought to know. No mother had more flowers at her daughter's wedding. Ever.
The bedrooms are empty now, of course. Paul, our eldest, got married three years after Mimi. His children are almost independent. Johnny Junior, nineteen; Betsy, five years behind him. Their bedrooms stay empty, hoping for a quick visit. It's always quick, short. They have their own lives. As it should be. Ann and I changed to twin beds last year, but stayed in the same bedroom. We talk, sometimes into the early hours. We talk dreams. A Lotto – a tour around the world?
The twin beds! That's what's wrong! There are no twin beds. I am about to get up from my old, favourite king-size mattress. What's going on? My memory? Alzheimer's? Suddenly, I'm nervous, scared.
I get up with a distinct pep in my gait. The aches and pains are gone. Maybe I died in my sleep. I stroll to the bathroom without a care in the world. I look in the mirror. Sixty-eight? More like a young fifty. Perhaps a well-worn forty-five.
I must be nuts!
George called. I hadn't seen George in over twenty years. He talks as though we spoke only yesterday. Would I play a round of golf?
"Sure, George. Ann's away with the children, why not? I still have two days left of my holidays." My holidays? I retired three years ago. And it wasn't from Baker & Baker, either.
We meet at the clubhouse. George looks about my age. This is crazy. The guy died last year. Died, as in dead and buried. I couldn't tell him that, could I? I scored four birdies. Three double-bogies but four birdies. This only happened once in my life. A week after my forty-fifth birthday. Until that day my best score had been in the upper eighties. Today I shoot seventy-nine. This never happened to me, before or since. I'll never forget that day: Ann was away with the children when Mimi got sick. Ann offered to look after Mimi's twins. My daughter married an aspiring writer. They couldn't afford a regular nanny. So what else is new? Too bad about my holidays. Spending them alone, like this.
Only that was twenty-three years ago.
When I wake up, it will all be over. Tomorrow. In the morning.
Ann called last night. She's worried about how I am coping on my own.
"I am just fine. You wouldn't believe it!" I couldn't tell her about my golf. She would think I was crazy. Probably be right, at that. "How are the twins?" I ask.
"I'll be back in a day or two. Mimi's a lot better. Her fever's down."
"Don't do anything foolish!"
Ann always thinks that if she leaves me alone for a day or two, I am bound to get into some sort of trouble. She thinks I need a nanny more than our grandchildren. Well, all I got was some twenty years younger. It's either that, or I just sleep a lot. Funny though, Ann's voice sounded, sort of, younger too.
On the seventh day I get a call from the office.
"How come you're not here, Mr. Brown? You took only one week off, remember. Mr. Fitzpatrick's been asking about you. You'd better hurry!"
What do you mean not there? I haven't been there for over twenty years. I never could stand that snooty Fitzpatrick anyway. Let him wait. The son of a bitch only needs me when I am not there. Let him wait.
The son of a bitch didn't wait long. A week after I hung up, I remember, Fitzpatrick fired me. That had been in the middle of a deep recession. I never did get another job. Real job. That was when I took up writing. That is why Mimi married a writer. That is why we were always broke – we never took that trip around the world. How come I remember all this so well?
I know! When you die, your whole life flushes in front of your eyes. Kind of slowly. I am dying and Ann's away. She'll kill me when she gets back. What if, when she gets back, I'm still alive? I remember. Bloody annoyed at Fitzpatrick, but alive. Sort of. Or did I die then? Where did the rest of my memories come from?
I made an appointment for nine-thirty.
"You're in perfect shape, Mr. Brown. For a man of your age. Ha, ha!"
Ha, ha, to you too, doctor funny Jones. "My age, doctor Jones?"
"Believe me, Mr. Brown, I know of no man who looks better in his middle forties! Must be your golf. Play often?"
Middle forties. So I am still dreaming. Or I am dead. Or dying. Or nuts!
I get back home as the telephone rings.
"Dad! Can we drop off Johnny with you tomorrow? Just for a day. We know Ma's away, but we have a chance for a sail on Lake Champlain. Johnny's too small. Anyway, he wants to see grandpa."
"Good morning Paul. How are you?"
"Oh, common Dad... If you don't help us out we'll miss our chance. Be a sport?"
"How old is Johnny?"
"You're stalling, dad. You know he's only four, but, hold on..." There are muffled voices on the end of the line. Johnny Brown Junior, my eldest grandson comes on the line. "Can I come and see you, Grandpa? Please, Grandpa?"
This sounds like blackmail.
"Of course you can, Junior."
Last time I saw Johnny, he was twenty-seven. He was a fine, upright, young man. Confident. Successful. Junior is four now. When he turned, when he turns, five, he will break my favourite crystal vase. It was the only prize I had ever won playing golf. The only prize I’d won – ever. For anything. Until Johnny broke it, it stood on my mantelpiece. I have a queasy feeling. I hate to do this, but I have no choice. Slowly, nervously, I turn round. In the middle of the wide stone mantel stands my proud possession. The sun strikes the polished, angular surfaces. Beautiful cut crystal. I walk up to it and read my name engraved in the brass plate inserted into the marble base. My name and the date. I won it last year, or twenty-nine year ago. Take your pick. That vase had been broken for the last twenty-six years. Only it wasn't. I am beginning to feel really sick. It's in the pit of my stomach.
If Johnny is four, then I must have regressed to forty-one since seeing Doctor Jones, this morning. But if Junior is coming tomorrow how come Ann's still away? At this rate, never mind Johnny... I'll need a baby sitter myself – any moment now.
I have until tomorrow to wake up.
Something must have started this chain. I am either dead, or, by some means unknown to me, I must be peeking into the future. My future? If today is today, then tomorrows are still to come. Will they happen the way I remember them? Will they happen at all. Is future irreversible?
"Ann, where are you?"
I shall wake up from this hell any minute now. If Johnny is coming tomorrow, then the day after I will break my leg. It will go septic. It will smell of iodine and putrid meat. Red, swollen from ankle to my knee. The knee will be more blue than red, itching, throbbing. God, it will hurt. I'll lose it. I'll lose my leg. Escape.
My head is throbbing. I spread a blank sheet of paper inside my tired mind and draw up a list of all the lousy cards which fate has dealt... will deal me in my future, if you like. At forty-one, I had the leg problem. I nearly lost it. It was hell. Back, back... Paul's sick. His fever runs off the thermometer. We're scared. I'm so scared. I'm helpless. We take turns at his bed. Paul doesn't complain, doesn't cry, whimpers. Can't recognize me. Calls me mama. We don't sleep for two weeks. Escape. Back. Mimi gets lost in the shopping mall. Police, ugly stories from neighbours. Who needs them? Mimi's only three. My God, where is she? Hell. Escape. Anywhere. My forty-sixth birthday present: I lose my job with Baker & Baker. The worse economic depression ever and I am jobless. I'm depressed through and through. Doctor Jones gives me pills. Pink to relax, green to wake up. I don't need booze to get low. Can't afford it – pills are free. Many, many pills. They bring me back from the other side. Why bother? I nearly made it. The next year Ann has her knee operations. The medical expenses set us back $11,000. No trip around the world. Ann takes a full year to get her knee back to normal. Then she works. She has to. I can't meet payments on my own. We learn to live on credit. Scary. With two kids – very scary. I run out of my unemployment insurance. I wash dishes. I smell dirty socks on people who can’t afford new shoes. Can't take it. I sell tickets on the railway. I do what I have to do. God, how I hate being poor. Must escape. Pills? I start writing. By magic, after only six years, I sell my first story. I am fifty-two. Hope? My first novel is practically a best seller. We pay off the house. I discover, I only have one novel in me. A writer's block, they call it. Scared. Escape. I continue smelling dirty socks until my old age pension. Finally. Escape?
What am I? I am sixty-eight. I had been, until seven days ago.
I am probably dead. I must be. In purgatory, or somewhere.
"Ann, won’t you come back?"
My head hurts. I reach in for the sheet of paper. I wrench it out of my mind and tear it up. Again. It hurts to remember.
I hate paper.
I do not want to live through those years again. Not ever. I did what I had to, but, can one escape from one's own future? There had been some good years. So long ago. Tests. Always tests. Why? It's all right now, isn't it? On pension? Half-dead but no dirty socks. The years in-between I can do without. What is it all about? For ten years we lived on next to nothing. Ann never complained, but I knew. I'd always known. I know she knows also, though she had never said so, that I should have kept writing. There is no such thing as a writer's block. It's a thing in your head. Your escape. It does not have an independent existence. You just create your own reality and then you're stuck with it.
And then you're stuck with it.
Can one change the future? The past? Present?
One can change the present. Ann deserves better.
"Ann, please help me."
It is my darkest hour. Seven nights ago, I dreamt of changing my past. By whatever tricks my mind conjured up, I can see my past, live it, or whatever I had been permitted to see by my inner vision. I have no idea what is or was real, what is, was, projection of my convoluted imagination. I don't care.
My back is aching, my eyes itching from lack of sleep, from staring at the blank sheet of paper. A single sheet of paper screaming with excruciating silence from its blinding whiteness. The single sheet I had been staring at for God knows how many years.
My fingers are stiff, knotted like rebellious tentacles caught in a vise of despair, agony of rejection. My breathing is slowly becoming normal. The good old days. Who needs them? Today – I am. Ann deserves better. A trip around the world. She's so young. Young enough to enjoy it. I raise my hands. I study them as though they belonged to a stranger. Gradually the shaking eases. I lower them to the forgotten keys.
The white sheet is no longer blank. It is alive. So am I.
"Thank you, Ann. I love you."
I feel young. I am sixty-eight. Again.
Site: Stan I.S. Law, writer (a.k.a. Stanislaw Kapuscinski)