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Chiral

I cough while the technician tinkers with the projector, although the two are not related, and I wonder why my throat is sore but I quickly decide that it was the airplane, those things are a wonderland for bacteria, and at least the snafu with the projector gives me time to take a sip from the glass of water in front of me, a glass that I’ve already topped up with a little whisky, which is a crime against single malt, I know, believe me I know, but it’s become a ritual now, every time I give one of these keynotes I find myself reaching for the hip flask, and it doesn’t hurt anybody in the end, and I don’t think anybody would blame me for needing to steady my nerves (even though my nerves never need steadying, I’ve often felt that they’re not so much made of organic material as they are built from some sort of steel or copper, pinging under my skin like telephone cable) given the size of the audience and the importance of this speech, which is not to say that I’m bragging about it, because somebody has to be on the podium and it might as well be me, and the years I put in at the coal face mean that I have a certain amount of experience to share, and my natural gravitas (again, I’m really not bragging, this is just a statement of fact based on my appearance – a full head of silver hair, a certain sharpness around the eyes – and voice – which isn’t as deep as you might expect, but there’s gravel on the riverbed) means that people tend to listen to that experience; you can see them now if you look around the hall, backs still straight in their seats and eyes still clear from coffee, hungry for somebody to explain to them why they bothered to register for this conference, hungry for somebody to bring some life to what would otherwise be a dry and dirty topic (I won’t bore you with the details, but think about public utilities, specifically water and waste management in post-flood scenarios, and you’re on the right track), and that somebody is me, and the technician gives me a thumbs up as he shunts away like a hunchback, his passage to the far end of the conference hall like a truck in your street at midnight, trying not to steal the limelight, which is now fully focused on me as I clear my throat one more time and launch into a speech that I have barely practiced but could deliver in my sleep, accompanied by a slide show which is strictly because they asked for a slide show and not because my talk requires a slide show, which is the state of conferences these days, more attention to the contents of your thumb drive than to the quality of your presentation, but as long as the expenses are paid then I won’t complain, I will stand up here all day and explain the whats and the whys and the whos in this professional community of ours, and the topic will be brought to life (like some Frankenstein monster, ha, given life by my electricity) and the people will remember why they registered for the conference and afterwards they will come up and shake my hand and compliment me on my speech even if they’ve heard me speak before, because they need my support or my opinion or my presence or my absence in order to further their own ambition, and to do that requires that I yoke my own ambition to theirs, so I can never let them know, not a one of them, that my own ambition is a well that ran dry a long time back, and what replaced the water in the well is not something that they would be interested in; in fact, it is something that they would dearly wish to be far, far away from, if they knew, although it is also something that would draw them near, as near to me as they are now, as they place their hands on my shoulder, as they shake my hand firmly yet swiftly, as they introduce me to their colleagues, as they steer me towards the reception area and sleight a drink into my hand like magicians, a drink I’m not familiar with but is apparently very popular with the locals, although none of the locals are drinking it, but I taste it (mainly in order to take a break from the ongoing conversation, which is exhausting after a 45-minute presentation, even if that presentation slipped down even more quickly than this pear-scented liqueur that is apparently very popular with the locals, so that I can barely recall what I said and must rely on the reports that are being given to me now by this crowd of barely-familiar people around me, reports that are without exception glowing even if the glow may turn out to be the headlight of a train in a tunnel that is fast approaching, a train that might be: a presentation to a rival conference; or a letter to the editor of the journal; or a tweet circulating a research paper that decisively debunks my central point, or whatever form it takes, whatever form it takes is obscured by the glow that my peers are emitting at this moment, as we spin like dancers through the reception, striplighting examining us scientifically from above, visible from the quickly-dusking street outside, where straggling commuters stop for a moment to look at our tableau – to try and guess who we are and why we are here, the same questions we are asking ourselves, before deciding that the whole exercise is not worth it, and they would be better off in front of the television or playing with the children or beating their wife, and leaving us behind – while at the same time some of us look out of the same windows, and wonder what lies beyond the light of the hall, light that seems unbearably strong inside the room but is so weak that it crawls only a few metres outside before giving in, the light that provides a stage for the conference organisers to play one final trick on us, to persuade us that this circulation about the room, this matter of the laws of physics, really, to persuade us that this is the part of the conference that will be the most valuable to us, offering a glimpse of a professional network that might carry us far and away from our quotidien careers to far better-paid but equally wearing work in organigrams that bear a remarkable resemblance to the organigrams that we currently occupy, that look more like a puppet show than a public organisation, and the job of the people above us is merely to obscure the strings while keeping us dancing; and I thank my lucky stars that I have snipped those strings and taken my life into my own hands, for personal reasons that quickly become clear to anybody who asks, because I am not shy about sharing those reasons, even though they are remarkably personal, rather than a political statement based on my view about the soul-destroying nature of modern capitalism, a view that I personally don’t hold but which everybody assumes that I must, because like my employers I am something of a magician, and the strings I show to people are not the strings that really connect us, and I am a far better escapologist than I am a magician, slipping away in the direction of the toilets while circling around the outside of the reception hall towards the whispering doors at the front entrance then into the evening as if the doors sliced the world into two as they slide shut behind me, and inside is the warm glow and outside is the cold air and in the middle is me, and I have to decide which side of the doors I want to find myself on – at the same time I know that this is not a decision at all, I know exactly which side I will find myself on whether I want to or not – because one side leads to an evening spent in the company of my peers, which as you may have guessed by now is not really something I seek, an evening in a fine restaurant with the conference organisers, where the wine will flow freely and costly, and the conversation will never be less than stimulating, and I will feel as if my dinner conversation is accompanied by a powerpoint presentation – while the other side leads to the real reason why I accepted the invitation to speak, which has nothing to do with the limelight that they offer, but is simply the side of freedom, of my flat shoes slapping on cement down towards the lake, the lake which I have wanted to see for so long and now finally have the chance, as black as an oil slick in my mind – but before I reach the lake I need to eat something, it’s true, I need to eat something but not with my colleagues, who will want to burn the pan with words, who will want to drown out the flavours with conversation, who will do the same thing tonight as they have done every night, but tonight I just want to sit by myself in a place where nobody knows me, and savour a dish that I have never tried before in a city that I have never visited before, and it’s almost as if I was praying as I walked and my prayers have been answered, because the perfect place appears on the right of the street, the most humble hole in the wall I could have imagined, and my feet steer me in silence towards it.

The restaurant is authentically Ethiopian, which means harsh strip lighting, uncomfortable chairs and amazing food which appears approximately 60 seconds after you order it, while a French football match plays on the television – Nantes vs somebody that nobody cares about, except people who follow French football, which is to say, the French – but no, the tall Ethiopian guy hanging around the bar is watching it, who I greeted when I walked in, assuming that he was staff, but now I’m not so sure, he hovers uncertainly between staff and customer, watching the television, occasionally looking towards the door, never doing anything remotely staff-like, unless you count polishing the bar with his elbows and greeting customers when they come in; and there are two types of customer – white and black – and the white customers are all seated at tables, in pairs or trios, talking with great animation, the only punctuation in their sentences those moments when they must awkwardly fold full pockets of injera into their mouths, then wipe their hands on the tablecloth, or check their phones for messages, caught between the friends they must share the table with and the friends they must share everything with, the seeping portion of doro wat in front of them becoming just another online exhibit in the ongoing forensic examination of what we are eating this evening, before they return to the matter at hand, namely, whether their jobs are as interesting as they think they are – and the black customers arrive one at a time, and take their place at a small table next to the bar, a table which seems to have been place exactly where it is exclusively for them, so that they may move from the door to the table as quickly as possible, pausing only to grasp the hand of the tall guy who polishes the bar with his elbows, to pull him in for a shoulder hug and some brief words of greeting, all the while ignoring the actual waitress, the woman who spends more of her time behind the bar, ignoring her completely as far as I can tell, which forces me to acknowledge her with even more friendliness – possibly too much friendliness, as when I thank her for the refill of my glass of water, and I smile a bit too much as I thank her, and she smiles back, but she seems to be expecting me to want something more from her, when all I really want is to acknowledge that she exists, but she already knows that she exists, and she doesn’t need acknowledgement, not from me and not from the single men coming at the door one at a time, who don’t appear to be Ethiopian, but more generically sub-Saharan, and talk to the tall guy not in Ethiopian but in French, and quickly sit at the small table by the bar to watch the football on television – Nantes, and who gives a fuck who they’re playing – and then and only then the tall guy seems to be staff, because he brings them a drink that they haven’t even ordered, a beer with a name I don’t recognise, and a bowl of bar snacks that I don’t recognise, and then both he and his customer watch the football for a while, and once the beer is finished, the single black customer gets up from his seat at the small table by the bar and waves goodbye over his shoulder as he pushes back onto the street; the tall guy clears his glass and watches the football for a while, and then the next black customer walks in and the ritual is repeated, and I thank the waitress more forcefully than I intended as she brings me another plate of injera, so that immediately after that, she goes behind the bar and puts on a cropped leather jacket and an inexpensive staff and leaves the restaurant entirely without saying anything to the tall guy standing by the bar, and I wonder who I will pay for my meal, because the tall guy clearly isn’t that interested, and none of the white customers seem to pay, they just get up and put on their expensive coats and wander out into the night, still chatting because their phones have slipped into their pockets and handbags, but I assume that they did pay, because otherwise somebody would notice, wouldn’t they, unless they were so busy watching the football that they forgot that they were working in a restaurant, and all the white customers except me are getting up and leaving, as if the waitress sent a signal when she left and now everybody else is going to rendez-vous at another restaurant, like it was some great game, a flash mob that moves from restaurant to restaurant, their pictures of food interrupted by an instant message that summons them to the next place, where they will take more pictures of different food, as if going to a restaurant was really a kind of divination, throwing the bones of the chicken that you picked from the doro wat, and examining the ways in which they fell on the table, trying to see what the future will bring (when generally the future will bring more evenings like this, evenings in restaurants trying to decide whether your job is as interesting as you think it is) and generally not seeing anything, and so when the instant message arrives telling them to go to the next place, they quickly move, hoping that the bones in their balti curry, or their calzone, or their rendang will yield more constructive results, instead of just a heated discussion with the manager about why there are bones at all, and so they go and I realise that I should go as well, although I haven’t taken any pictures of my food, or received an instant message summoning me to the next restaurant, but I should go anyway, slipping the beer bottle from the table into my jacket pocket, putting on my coat with great obviousness and visibly strolling up to the bar, wondering who I should pay now that my waitress has moved on, making eye contact with the tall guy, who realises that he needs to do something, and the thing that he does is go behind the bar and try and operate the register and finger a few buttons ineffectively and stare at the register as if he’s never seen anything like it before and check what my order was, as a way of covering up the fact that he’s not sure how to use the register, and eventually get it right and swiftly present me with the bill, which I don’t notice at first because I’m looking over his shoulder into a small room behind the bar – not the kitchen, the kitchen is around the corner, filled with unseen activity that spills out into the dining area in the form of the clashing of saucepans, the smell of day-old oil burning and the plates of amazing food that appears roughly one minute after you order it – but another room which contains only a large table and a young man wearing headphones and staring at a screen (which is out of sight, but casts the only light in the room), and for some reason when I see him I think that he’s an operator at a call centre, that the restaurant has another income stream dealing with irate customers from Lausanne whose cable television has vanished without warning or whose electricity bill this month is twice what it should be, but that’s ridiculous because he doesn’t have a microphone and his mouth just slacks in his face as he stares at the screen because he’s probably watching a movie – perhaps an Ethiopian movie, a film that I will never see, a film that I will never have any chance to see, a film that I would barely understand even if I did see it, and the only reason I could see it is if I actively tracked it down as part of a project of teaching myself about Ethiopian movies, rather than actively enjoying them, and the only reason I would embark on such a project is so that I could talk about it with my friends when we visit an Ethiopian restaurant exactly like this one, no, when we visit this very Ethiopian restaurant, and I could talk about something other than whether my job is as interesting as I think it is, and even then I wouldn’t really enjoy the movie, I would appreciate it – and this guy doesn’t appreciate the movie, he’s just enjoying it, because he doesn’t care who Nantes is playing tonight, he is sitting in the back room of a restaurant watching a movie on a laptop while his cousin hands me the bill, and I pay with a currency that I’m very familiar with but which always looks like cartoon money to me, but before I leave I need to wash my hands, and on the way to the basin I decide I need to use the toilet, and once I’m in the toilet I realise I should have washed my hands before I used the toilet, so the whole experience is awkward even though I’m the only person there; when I leave the toilet there is a single black customer standing at the basin, looking at himself in the mirror as he runs his wet hands through his tight hair, saying a single word as he leaves, a word in a language that I don’t understand, and I wonder if he’s talking to himself or just talking to me, whether I was supposed to reply, to say hello or thank you or fuck off; I wash my hands finally, and then button up my expensive coat and lift my camera bag and go out onto the streets, into the night, to find somebody.

The streets down to the lake are not empty, but the wind is cold and quick and the prostitutes have sought shelter in their apartments or the back seat of a VW Golf parked on a side road by a farm just outside the city, and they are not looking forward to going back out into this, and who can blame them, because although the lake looks beautiful tonight, they have no time to enjoy it as I am enjoying it, throwing my camera around like Kubrick, catching the lights as they swim, catching the bricks as they climb, catching the trees as they breathe deeply the clarity that comes out of the darkness from the other side of the lake, where somebody like me is probably doing exactly the same tonight, even if his escape was not as urgent as mine, even if his backstory is not as moving as mine, even if he doesn’t share my tendency to dramatize my own life, a tendency that makes me smile even as I continue to take photos, so preoccupied that I nearly walk into a woman who is for some reason emerging from the shadows beside a boathouse on this causeway that I am exploring; I sidestep in time, and we don’t actually touch each other but somehow the collision is implied, somehow there is an element of violence in how we fail to collide, and I don’t smile as I normally would when trying to reassure somebody late at night in a strange city, but then I recognise her as a kindred spirit; another conference delegate, conspicuously still wearing her conference ID, another escapee with her own story, and we exchange cautious greetings, because of course she recognises me, she heard my keynote speech but she has refreshingly little to say about it because she too is preoccupied with whatever ghosts made her flee the reception and the restaurants and the rest of it, whatever made her walk through the wind at midnight to the lake, and we start a slow conversation built on the recognition that whatever did this to her might have done it to me as well, and she explains a little about herself, and then takes it back, swallows it like medicine and asks about me instead, about why I am taking so many photos, even now, while we’re talking, which gives me the opportunity to tell my story: how my wife was diagnosed with a deterioration, a slow spiral into a prison built from her own body, the lights going off one by one under her skin, the gray evening shadows lengthening and taking the place of the luminosity I saw in her the night we first made love, until finally she was behind bars made of bone and the door to the world was locked and the key crumbled in my hands; how she lies in a bed in our home, far away, cared for by nurses whose diligence is matched only by their salary, whose warm hands work around her like a sculptor, shaping the pain of her life into comfort, their artistry impossible for me to achieve; how she saw how much it robbed me of myself, this fact that I could not help her in any way, shape or form, that I could not be her nurse because I am no artist, that I had nothing to offer her at this time, at the time when she most needed an offering from me; how I told her that I would stop working, stop travelling so much, and she told me not to be an idiot, and proposed an alternative, something I could do for her that nobody else could do; how I listened to her proposal and agreed without even thinking on it, and the very next day boarded a plane for the Americas, where I was due to address the board of a company so close to sinking that all the rats had deserted and only the honest sailors were left on the deck, committed to the vessel but without a captain, and I started on my new course, the course set by my wife to see us to safer waters, and that is how I come to be standing by the lake holding a digital SLR with far too many megapixels, explaining why I am standing by the lake to a woman that I have only just met; because my wife never had the chance to travel as far as she dreamed when she was a girl, and so she has commissioned me to travel for her, to take every opportunity I am offered, but to come back, always to come back to her, to bring her as much as I can manage in my arms, to take all the pictures I can manage, to take as many videos as I can (banal videos, showing the everyday not the extraordinary), to gather as many brochures as I can, to buy as many souvenirs as I can, to press myself thin under the millstones of the tourist office; and when I come back to her, to make my experience her experience, make her take those steps with me as I describe them to her, so that she faces the sun as it rises and as it sets, that she takes wine on the corso and sex on the beach and communion in the cathedral – and then I stop in mid-sentence because of the look on my new friends face, astonished by the truth, astonished that somebody would even tell the truth here, to a near-stranger on an isolated causeway away from the city centre, with nobody around to question or confirm what I say, with nobody around at all as far as I can see, and I can see very far indeed with this telephoto lens, I can see clear across the lake to where my counterpart is looking back through his lens, but even he is not prepared for what will happen, for the look on her face when I take the beer bottle from my jacket pocket with one hand and grip the collar of her coat with the other; I bring the two hands together just as I’ve done so many times before, the well-rehearsed movement of an actor, which is how I’ve come to think of myself, because it absorbs the shudder of that first impact, the worst impact, the moment that tells me I have gone too far to come back, the moment that I am committed to the act, that I am the act itself, I am the act of cracking her cheekbone with the solid glass of the bottle; one movement and then I let go of her collar and she staggers back, unable to scream because the pain swallows the scream itself, then unable to scream because I hit her again and she floats backwards with a sharp sigh, losing her footing on the steps behind her and falling hard on the stone, falling out of sight of anybody who is watching, but I know that nobody is watching as I carefully follow her down and hit her again, and again, and hit her again, until her face is a fascinating pulp beneath the bottle, until the bottle shatters and I stop beating and start slicing, until the blood starts to swim across my vision, swimming down the steps towards the lake, so that if you follow its path you see the blood spread across the water like oil, slow to mix in its new element, reaching out across the surface of the lake towards the boats, which knock against each other like friendly drunks, the way that I feel, friendly, drunk, as if her blood was wine and tipping down my throat to go with the meal, but you don’t want too much of that feeling, even though it makes you feel as if all the pain of life has taken a holiday, and left you alone in the house to run riot, your blood pounding in your ears as if you had just run a marathon, a pounding that simply will not stop, partly because you do not want it to stop, because it reminds you that you are not just alive but you are living – and the difference is crucial now, the difference is the only thing that matters now, this is what I remind myself as I step back carefully, backing up the stone steps, looking around casually, a tourist who just wanted a closer look at one of those lovely little boats, nobody to see me act the part but I act the part anyway – and with this the only thought in my mind I take out my camera again; then and only then do I take a picture, the only picture I will take on this trip, not a picture of my colleagues sharing a joke at the reception, not a picture of the amazing food I ate in the Ethiopian restaurant, not a picture of the boats bobbing on the lake at night, but this, a picture of a woman that I met for the first time this evening, and I will show it to my wife, and she will sigh and she will turn her head and she will smile, at least, I think it’s a smile, because sometimes her muscles belong to somebody else, and I will take picture and put it in an album by the bed so that – on the evenings when I am at home and not in a hotel, I can tell the nurses to take the evening off, and we can sit together and share the one thing that holds us together now, and we can forget about the people we were in the dismal past, and be the people we are now: the living, just the living; but so close to the dead.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a writer based in London. 



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