A Lesson in Trickery
By Gary J. Shipley.
I had never asked myself whether if I awoke one morning and nobody recognised me, my wife jumping from the bed in horror at this stranger lying beside her, I would doubt myself or the world, and so when faced with it I was woefully unprepared.
The questions mount fast: Has something changed about the world or has something changed about me? Do I have a strong enough sense of self to point a finger at the world when everybody I recognise and have memories of being acquainted with suddenly deny ever having laid eyes on me? Will I eventually be forced to ignore my memories and start again? Will the world succeed in destroying me, or has it already done so?
Let me fill you in. My name is Mr J.C. Blake (and no, I don’t know what the J and the C stand for). I am 48 years old and have been married to Mrs Blake for 16 years. I have two children, Claire (13) and Rebecca (8). I have not lived a particularly interesting life, but then who does? Nobody I know – which isn’t saying much apparently. My life was fine: it suited me; I had designed it to fit, and of all the things it wasn’t, it was at least mine, but now it is not even that. My life doesn’t seem to recognise me anymore; it no longer has a place for me; I’ve been written out of my own life and nobody left within it seems to have noticed. Am I really so insignificant to my life that it can breezily continue in my absence? It would seem so when my wife wakes me with a downpour of digging punches from her jagged, alpine knuckles as she scrambles to her feet and flees backwards, her hands grappling behind her in search of the edge of the bedroom door, her eyes stuck to me in dismay. One mad wife does not a permanent exclusion from one’s life make, but then my girls are in the doorway of their bedroom on the brink of bawling, face to face with the fucking bogeyman, a mad hatchet man bent on their slaughter, and they couldn’t have faked that shit, those bubbles of snot popping from their nostrils, the way they held hands and looked up at their mother, desperately searching for some clue as to how things were going to turn out. I was the fucking enemy, and what’s more I was an unknown quantity; I was not an abusive father figure that could be remonstrated with, or thrown a sacrifice while the other two made a run for it; no, I was an intruder in their lives. I got no sense that their fear of me had any history whatsoever: it was abject, missing the comfort even of bad expectations.
“Stop this!” I shouted as a last resort.
“Get out! Get out! Get out!” She screamed at a pitch that made my teeth quail.
“I mean it – this has gone too far. The children are getting scared.”
“Please go. Just leave now. I won’t tell a soul if you just go now. Please just go. Please…”
“What the…What the fuck are you talking about? What’s going on here? Have you lost your mind?”
“What is it you want? Who are you? What dyu want?”
It was at this point that I first checked my reflection in the mirror. I ran to the en suite bathroom and saw the same old face, my face, the thing I was maybe least attached to in my life, still present. But its sameness made everything else even stranger, even harder to fathom than before. If I had been grossly disfigured in some way, had some horrific mask grafted onto my face then, relatively speaking, things would have made sense.
My wife and daughters had fled the house the moment I’d left them on the landing. I’d heard them belting down the stairs as I made my way to the mirror. I sat on the bed thinking of all the questions I should have asked them, and things I should have told them, but there was no use in it; their reactions had been too emphatic to make a question and answer session at all plausible.
I left the house, half in search of my newly estranged family, and half out of fear of what would happen if I remained there. The front door was open, as was the cast-iron gate, its two kissing doves diseased with rust. The street was quiet; not at all surprising given that it couldn’t have been much later than about 7:30 on a Sunday morning. I could hear sirens in the distance, but it took until they were only a couple of streets away for me to realise that, in all likelihood, they were for me: a man who had crept into a woman’s house, slipped into bed beside her and passed the night with her while her children slept, unaware of his presence, in the next room. What might such a man be capable of? I walked off up the road at a fairly brisk pace, still not entirely convinced that the police had me as their quarry. At the corner of the street I paused just long enough to see three squad cars screech to a halt outside my house.
I didn’t run far, less than a mile. I slowed down so as not to draw too much attention to myself, more attention, that is, than walking about the streets in bare feet, a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a vest had already caused all on its own. I was heading for my parents’ house, but wasn’t at all sure what I’d find there. More familiar strangers? The more I thought about it the less I believed that this thing, this attempt at ownerless life, spread any further than the collective fugue of my wife and children. I would relay what had happened to my parents and then ask them to accompany me back to the house, where I would attempt to make my family aware of who I was and get to the bottom of what had happened to them.
As I neared my destination I was conscious of how slow and short my paces had become. They were no more vigorous than the catatonic shuffles of a mental patient, which is not something I’d recommend doing on a pavement with bare feet. I had more doubts than I had initially allowed myself. They had been invited in without my permission and, like the worst of guests, were to outstay their welcome, oblivious to their discombobulating effects.
My mum will be up, will have been up for a couple of hours now, I thought. She had always gone to bed early, never any later than 9:00 P.M., and so saw nothing peculiar in her habit of rising by 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning. She was attached to her ‘quiet times’ as she called them, her morning peace and quiet that was really nothing of the sort, for after dreamily drinking her cup of Earl Grey and preparing and eating her porridge, made with water and salt – the only way, according to her and her mother before her, that porridge should be eaten – she would turn the washing machine on, and then wash the previous nights dishes, her eyes glued to the ten-inch kitchen portable replaying the news over and over again. This was peace for her, because she got to get on with things without interruptions; she got things done and this pleased her. She liked that she was up while the rest of the street slept.
When finally confronted with their front door I wasted no time in cracking the knocker. I remember it being louder than I’d expected and taking me by surprise. The hallway light was on and I could see my mother’s silhouette, somewhat taken aback, arranging itself for an unexpected visitor. If all had been right with the world I would have crouched down, opened the letterbox and told her it was only me, so preventing her going to too much effort correcting her appearance when it wasn’t necessary. But I didn’t. Instead I just watched as she removed her rubber gloves, toyed with her hair in the mirror, and tidied the hang of her clothes as she made her way towards the door and the anonymous outline beyond it. I heard the chain go on before the door opened: she had not made me out through the obscured glass, but then she wouldn’t have been expecting me to call on her at this hour.
When I saw her face peek around the edge of the door I smiled and to my great relief she smiled straight back.
“Can I help you?” she said, still grinning good-naturedly without making any effort to unhook the security chain.
I experienced emotions that human kind are not made to experience; this was the point in bad dreams when your body woke you up, somehow knowing how far to take you without scarring your waking hours indelibly. I wished that my mother had been a joker, a trickster of the first-order, a card who never missed an opportunity to spawn a sucker but, as no one wishes for what they already have, she was not the least inclined to play practical jokes. And my Dad, fast asleep in his bed, dreaming of pre-bating the chalk pit with fluorescent maggots, could not be called upon to provide a second opinion on whether or not this was their son standing on their doorstep in his blistered bare feet first thing on a Sunday morning.
Her agreeable old face, jammed between door and door frame, waited patiently for an answer, while her eyes glanced at my feet and then a little worriedly back at my face, whose features had rung no bells for her, not even the slightest peal. I was so full of questions, and yet all of them perished before reaching my lips. My silence was scaring her and I wanted to hug her and tell her who I was and for some spell to be broken, for us both to cry tears for how things might have remained.
“Sorry, I must have the wrong house.” I turned round and started to walk away.
“Who was it you were looking for, dear?”
Those words were an exercise in cruelty too far. I kept on walking. I knew her head would remain where it was, would creep farther round the door edge as she began to lose sight of me. I was the walking dead, although not quite dead – but isn’t that the point? – like the seagull with its body flat to the tarmac, bearing the tyre tracks of a succession of cars, head still moving, beak still omitting flat-lung screeches as it tries to peel itself up from the grit, the seagull that nobody can muster the pity to swerve to kill.
I retraced my steps and saw my mum’s front door close seconds after it had come back into view. She must have remained at the door long after I’d gone, and I kidded myself at the time that she had been sensitive to some deep familial connection between the two of us, despite not having a clue who I was. (But it wasn’t long before the fact of her inherent nosiness came to disillusion me.) Through the thick, scalloped slump glass I could make her out as she made her way back down the hallway to the kitchen. I rapped a single knuckle on the door three times and called out that it was only me again, and that I had a favour to ask of her.
She opened the door.
The chain stayed on.
“Are you lost?”
“Not exactly… I have a question or two if you don’t mind; it won’t take a minute – it’s just that…well…I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before, and I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out where and when, and I thought I may as well just come back and ask you.”
“I can’t think, dear: I don’t get out much these days.”
“Maybe it’s your son I know, or daughter even, something is familiar.” But before I’d finished the sentence, watching her head with its sad smile shake emphatically from side to side, I knew I’d made a mistake going back there.
“George and I never had any kids. I would have liked to, mind, but George was never keen and so we decided against it. We’ve had a good life, all the same, and we’ve never wanted for much.”
It’s one thing to wish you’d never been born, but to be informed of the fact by your mother was something else entirely. What happened next is, thankfully, rather unclear to me now, and the only way I can come close to describing it is to say that I was incarcerated in an absurdly prolonged state of indecision, and the more I made efforts to master my floundering will the more fractured those efforts at mastery became. I kept hearing my mum saying, “Are you alright, dear?” over and over, but when I attempted to reply I was unable to utter a sound. I don’t know if she was aware of the internal struggle that was raging beneath my skin, or merely thought I had gone oddly quiet for a man who had turned up on her doorstep for a second time with the express intention of asking questions of her. Eventually I managed to mumble that I was sorry, and walked off, confused and lachrymose, back in the direction of my house.
Before long I found myself waiting for my wife and children to leave the house, so that I could go in and get my wallet and some clothes. (That was the plan, but I couldn’t really have said what would happen when I saw her, the woman who had given birth to my two children, who I had known for in excess of twenty years and had been married to for sixteen, the woman I still loved in spite of the damage that years of cohabitation had wreaked upon us, and my girls…) I couldn’t see any sign of movement in the house, and so wasn’t even sure that there was anyone in there to leave, but I couldn’t be sure, so I waited.
“Excuse me, sir. Can we help you?” Two police officers were standing behind me; I hadn’t heard them approach, and so was taken completely by surprise. I was crouched down behind a wall. They stood over me, tight grins cut deep into their idiotic faces, sardonically awaiting the litany of transparent lies that they predicted would issue forth from my mouth.
Almost to order, I began with the first plausible excuse that came to mind as to why I might be skulking behind a wall in my bed clothes. “I’m looking for my watch. I lost it last night. I only realised when I woke up this morning and went to put it on. I dashed out immediately to see if I could find it.”
“Any luck so far, sir?”
“No, not yet.”
“Do you live around here, sir?”
“Do you mind if we accompany you back to your house, once you have finished looking for your lost watch?”
“We’ve been having reports of some rather strange goings-on in this area, and would like to confirm your story. I’m sure you can appreciate that we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t follow up on what you’ve just told us.” They both looked at me in earnest, almost daring me not to succumb to their pre-recorded procedural pedagogy. I could see two other men – in plain clothes – get out of a silver car over the road from my house and start walking towards where we were standing. A police car pulled up along side us with three more men in it, and I gave up thinking of which house I was going to lead them to.
I made the decision not to say anything until I could come up with an identity for myself that wasn’t going to land me in the nuthouse.
They kept asking me questions until they gave up and started telling me things instead, like what a man fitting exactly my description was doing in the early hours of that morning, and the severity of the crime they suspected him of, and so the details went on, and I just continued to keep my words inside my head, out of harms way. I waited for night to come, to be presented with a cell and to be relieved of my struggle for silence.
My wife was called in and, after seeing me through a two-way mirror, apparently testified that I was indeed the man she’d found in her bed that morning, a man on whom, prior to waking up beside him that morning, she had never before laid eyes. They tried to elicit a response from me by explaining how her children no longer felt safe in their own home and that the youngest of the two – he was talking about Rebecca, she has a name – had been unable to control her emotions or her bladder ever since the incident. They told me that they didn’t take kindly to men who scared the piss out of little girls, and I believed them – I mean, why would they? But I didn’t let on. I gave them nothing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary J. Shipley is a writer/philosopher. He has published philosophy papers/reviews in international, peer-reviewed philosophy journals, including Analysis, Mind, and Anthropology and Philosophy. He has also published in Word Riot and The Dream People, and collaborated on an album with Kenji Siratori called Meat Fossils. “A Lesson in Trickery” is an excerpt from his novel, C^0, which has recently been described by N. Frank Daniels (author of Futureproof) as “a fucking great piece of writing.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 14th, 2009.