Groggy-eyed and semi-conscious he pulled his heavy body up in the bed and laid his back against the pillow. His wife saw he was awake and brought him in some coffee and the newspaper. He often found that the celebrity gossip section had the most meat. He put the newspaper down and picked up his mini voice recorder. He prepared himself mentally to listen to how his speech was sounding. He listened for 30 seconds and then pressed pause. He tried again. This time he listened to the whole 45 minutes. He felt unexpectedly disheartened. He told himself it would all be fine.
He slid his feet into his slippers and went to turn on the power-shower. He stepped in carefully and lathered himself with an organic bio-gel made by some hippy. The bathroom steamed up and smelled like shrubs and tea tree oil. He got out of the shower and carefully shaved his face and trimmed his goatee. He then put on his thick-rimmed glasses and gave himself a little wink in the mirror. In the bedroom, he selected his favourite shirt and trousers. He then slipped on his super eco-friendly shoes which for some reason he always thought you could eat once their primary function was no longer feasible. Perhaps he was right.
When he got to the kitchen his wife was listening to relaxation music and crying over the smoothie-maker. The fucker jammed every time she tried to put seeds in it. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and poured himself a fresh coffee. He drank it on the patio with an herbal cigarette. The morning was crisp and bright and the birds were singing. He secretly added sugar to his coffee while his wife wasn’t looking.
He called a taxi to leave him approximately five minutes by bicycle from the university. Before the taxi arrived, he ran his hands through his hair, dragged at his face, muttered to himself, grabbed his shoulder bag from the kitchen and said goodbye to his wife, who was apparently in the midst of a bitter argument with herself or several people. She seemed to be winning, it was a good day. He’d grown accustomed to her somewhat neurotic behaviour, it never went beyond that. She was remarkably calm and constant, despite her sensitivity, which, he had never learned, was caused by pain-induced wisdom and sincerity. They were very different. His wife played with all her cards on the table. And for that people laughed at her. People.
He locked up his bike in the garden area which separated the faculty buildings from the expansive “innovation cluster” that had rapidly developed over the last five years. The faculty buildings were also new, the historic university far away. Although the cluster and the university were separated by the gardens, there was another ring-type garden which was of little use except that it served as a symbolic and physical barrier between these two institutions and the dilapidated housing of this once industrial zone. The ring-garden had no benches, no playground, only abstract patches of grass and post-everything sculptures. It was a becoming garden of intangible use to those who inhabited the surroundings.
There was something in it that pleased him. Perhaps it was how clean it all was, how sanitised, how wonderfully contemporary. The whole development stood for progress, a beautiful notion that made one think lofty thoughts and feel identified with a greater good, epitomised in the simple ordering of urban space. He loved it and the sense of control it bestowed upon his thinking. He also loved the buzzwords that surrounded talk on this kind of urban intervention. They made it all seem so neat and unquestionable. In the past he would have attacked their vacuous character, their vague meanings, and their overuse. But not anymore. He’d become a little complacent.
He managed to get to his office without any interactions except the odd nod and wave. Once he got inside he turned on the computer and prepared himself to read the written speech. It was the same as always, his arguments never really changed, and his pseudo fame somehow forced him to stick to the same stuff eternally. But he knew things had changed, he knew he had changed, though he didn’t fully accept it.
Now he had some time to kill and he had become fond of procrastination, which was so easily satisfied by the invention of the internet and its bottomless, side-less array of information in varying degrees of usefulness and veracity. First he looked at his favourite newspaper online. He skimmed the headlines but only opened one article in the lifestyle section on what women want, where a writer he didn’t know was mentioned, which led him to Wikipedia, which led him to various other Wikipedia pages and on and on until he ended up watching videos of cats falling off tables on YouTube. When he realised what time it was, he finally looked away from the screen and had this strange feeling of nervousness: a thousand things running round his head without anything concrete standing out. Internet. He had not managed to find out what women want, nor did he remember the name of that writer. But the cats were funny.
It was time to go. He organised his papers, grabbed his water and took a couple of deep breaths. Then off he went to give the speech, holding his head as high as he could. When he began to get close to the auditorium, he saw the long line of young students awaiting his arrival, even though once he arrived none of them actually spoke to him, but whispered and stared and created a general sensation of hushed awe. He always found that funny.
There they were, with copies of his book in one hand and their iPhones in the other, eager and excited. Their eagerness revolted him, and he hated them intensely for a moment. They chatted and laughed in the line and looked at each other wide-eyed, each serving as a mirror for the other, where they could find reflected their own coolness, their superiority, because they knew what was going on. They knew how the world worked. They would not be hoodwinked by the authorities, the media. They were not the masses.
He chuckled to himself, thinking about what these kids were in for. How now everything seemed so easy to them and how that feeling would later fall apart. They really were kids after all, with their 20-something years. He scoffed at how old and wise they thought they were, how superior even. Superior to the masses, to those who didn’t get it, with their blissful ignorance, their false consciousness. Little did they know that with all their education and pseudo-ethics, they too were blind in their own way. They still didn’t get what really mattered, and they wouldn’t get it until life scared the shit out of them. Then they’d have to take a long look in the proverbial mirror and accept that they didn’t know dick, and that now they needed to recycle parts of their lives and thoughts and feelings in order to build a new way of being in a world which was far scarier than they had imagined. For now they were still smug in their mere knowingness, which itself was still half-formed.
As he looked at them, he travelled back in time. The present was put on hold for a while as he retraced moments from his own youth. He found himself in a different university, in a different city, at a different point in time. He remembered his confidence so tangibly, when once he knew what was what. When his mouth was full of recycled words that he used with great zeal and ability to make sense of the world around him. He had little boxes. They were great. So intact. And he placed things in them, people, ideas, words, periods in history. And it all seemed so simple and ordered. He truly believed that by knowing and categorising he could somehow control. Now he knew there was no controlling anything. And he knew that his past self’s petty fascism and dogma would later crumble. He was filled with melancholy, seeing himself then, when he had no idea of the chaos that was coming, in himself and everywhere else. When he didn’t know that one day he actually wouldn’t understand a fucking thing, and that his precious boxes and all they contained (his whole world up until then) would need to be disposed of and replaced with something a lot less neat, but with which he would have to live.
He was now slightly nauseous as he entered the auditorium and descended the stairs with his minions following close behind. He began to feel anxious, and this was accompanied by one of those strange out-of-body experiences. His mind was torn away as his heavy body descended the stairs. He started to feel panicky, he wasn’t all there. It came upon him so fast that he couldn’t figure out what was happening. He’d experienced anxiety before, obviously. But usually it accumulated over time. This had just come out of nowhere. And it wasn’t exactly good timing. When he reached the podium, it hit him.
He realised he didn’t care, he just didn’t fucking care anymore. He didn’t care about the people in the room, he didn’t care about what he was saying, he didn’t care about politics or geography or what the fuck happened to the people that lived beyond the ring-garden or anywhere else the whole fucking world. And in that there was a sense of freedom, an immense sense of relief. He thought that maybe he’d hit on the secret of life. But a split second later he felt desperately saddened by this feeling. How could this be the secret of life? That made no sense. How could the secret be that nothing fucking mattered? No, he couldn’t accept that. Not as a general rule. But he could see and feel clearly, that in his case, there was no going back.
He knew then and there that he’d never care again. That words had been hollowed out, and words were all he had. The concepts behind them faded away. He cleared his throat and began. There was no going back at this stage. He could have done something else. He could have told them how he saw them, and how he felt right now, and how fucking scared he was of his own indifference. How bit by bit the stuff of life, from the tangible sorrows to the simply and quietly tragic day-to-day, had broken him. He could have been sincere with them. Perhaps that would have been the most radical thing of all. But that was just too scary. Let them find out for themselves, like the rest of us have.
Jean Byrne is from Dublin and has been living in Barcelona for the past three years. She studied Sociology and Spanish in Trinity College Dublin. After working for two years as a researcher she decided on a change and is now working as a translator and English teacher. She will be starting a Masters in Translation this year. Jean has been writing for some time but has only recently started to take it more seriously. She has published pieces in Misfits’ Miscellany, Word Riot and Pif Magazine. At present she is translating several of her poems into Spanish and working on a small illustrated publication with a close friend.