:: Article

Detachment

By Hugh Fulham-McQuillan.

This extract derives from “Detachment,” a story in the author’s forthcoming collection, Notes on Jackson and His Dead (Dalkey Archive Press).

 

I also am other than what I imagine myself to be.

                                                 – Simone Weil

1.

By the left wall a red camping stove balances on what might be a small fridge; from this wall a short line of clothes strings above a bed on which the man sits with his hands on his knees. His head is bowed, as if in prayer, the chin almost resting on the chest. Photos, or postcards, are pinned to the wall behind him; from this distance they are blotches of colour: beige, green, blue on the bare wall. He wears a T-shirt that might once have been white. If he were to stand he may hit his head on the bulb, or catch a damp black sock with his forehead.

Outside, on the path, the voyeur was woken from this scene by the sudden presence of another, a man who grabbed his arm. This was always embarrassing. Returning to himself he would strain his thoughts for an activity: solving a problem, examining something; to do nothing felt wrong, childish, somehow. To do nothing is to hint at a secrecy. And it is worse when one is standing: to stand and do nothing is very sinister (unless one queues, that is). He experienced this initial embarrassment when he felt that hand on his arm, but the nature of the hold, the strength that clamped, made him fearful. It startled him. Give me your wallet, perv, the man said (almost casually). He did as asked, his fingers thick and fumbling. The man shoved an elbow in his stomach. He stumbled, tripped on the curb, and fell backward, his body collapsing against the concrete.

That ignorant thug should not have called him that, that thug obviously did not have the refinement necessary to understand the pleasure of watching, that . . . thug! What he did was voyeuristic, yes, but that word does not deserve the connotations that have sunk it to the depth of the insult. Supposedly, to be a voyeur is to be a pervert, but he was not that: it was not genitals or infidelities that excited him—primarily, it should be said, because of course they did, too—it was the chance to see someone as they are, that was all.

He would not have remembered the aftermath of his being robbed—the strange shape of his body as he fell—if this had not been shown to him by the police in a large and poorly lit room in a nearby station. The room had smelt of sweat and lemons. He didn’t remember how he got there. They said he was unconscious when they arrived at the scene, but they did not mention his being brought to a hospital, nor having seen a doctor. They were suspicious, so much so that he felt his own suspicions were not allowed to surface; there was not enough room for his trite fears and imaginings among these tired men in their uniforms inside their place of work. They were busy, and just trying to do their job, they said when he asked about his injury. They kept asking—varying their words as if the right combination might unlock his truth—why he had stood outside that house. At first he had said he was checking his phone for the time. They proved this wrong by showing him CCTV footage on a large screen. Standing there on the empty path, he seemed to shed his self of life until he was a lengthening shadow among many others on that quiet road. The time rolled on to three minutes as he stared through the window on the screen and he could feel the heat gathering in his cheeks as the police watched him watch his self; luckily the thug soon darted into the frame from the right and, within less than half a minute, having grabbed him, accepted his wallet, shoved him, crouched beside him, dipped inside his trouser pockets, disappeared out of the frame on the left—drawing his and their attention into the screen’s dark side.

He ignored the fact of his stillness, his staring, and asked if the police knew where this thug had gone. He called the man that, and they did not correct him, so he continued to use this word. He enjoyed the abrupt feel of it, how it felt almost like spitting. The officer opened a new window on the screen and together they watched the thug pause two streets away to inspect the wallet and a phone that he recognised as missing from his pocket. The thug walked free of the frame. The footage stuttered, and there was a new street: the thug emerged from the darkness at the top of the screen, sauntering behind, then past, a boy and girl who held hands and walked very slowly. He continued out of frame. Had he been about to rob them, too? Or did their presence, the presence of their affection, inspire feelings other than hatred, greed, or whatever it was that motivated the thug to rob him? He noticed the thug’s shabby jacket, the way he limped with his left leg. He remembered that face, blunt and hardened. A face worn down to its base features. Like a cliff, he thought, and him, the broken ship beneath it. Another street, with more shops, busier; it took a while to spot the thug in the crowd. A succession of cameras captured and released him as he walked through the city until no camera could find him. The police suspected he had disappeared down an alley. They said it led inside a complex of flats, with at least five other exits. They hadn’t managed to pick the man up on any camera. There are cameras everywhere in the city, they said, when he asked how they could follow the thug so easily. On his walk home he saw these cameras, and they saw him, but who it was at the end of that process, they could not be seen, they who sat behind the lens watching the windows to the city on their screens.

 

2.

There was a necessary risk in his voyeurism: he did not hide. He stood in the dark as the other was in the light; sharing in their vulnerability, open to their seeing him. If he had purposefully made himself indistinguishable from the scene outside lighted windows and open doorways, camouflaged himself in some way, temporarily or more permanently, it would not have been fair on the person he watched. There was a contract between them, one he had effectively signed and had always held out to the other so that they would see it if they were to look up from themselves. To hide would have been akin to bustling them along the contract like a pushy salesman: no need to read all this legalese, leave that to the lawyers, eh? Just sign here, and here, and just there, and you’ll be driving away in your new car in no time! The presence of those cameras on every street in the city, in every public building—the thought made him dizzy, fragile with anxiety (and those jitters, that unsteadiness of body and purpose became increasingly frequent visitors). There was no fairness in that indiscriminate recording.

A front door opens, waking a house from a row of sleeping buildings. A man (white shirt, black tie untied), exits, carrying something large and dark in his arms; he walks to the side of the house, out of view. The hall is framed by the open doorway. Green walls. A short brown lamp on a side table. Dark wood stairs of which can be seen the last few steps. A foot appears, then another, and again, and again, until there is a woman wearing a pale robe—loosely tied. Pulling a protective arm around her waist, she sits on the fourth step. She rests a phone on her knees, which are pressed together. She looks at the screen, then out toward the night. She slams the phone against the wall beside her. Again, and again, and the expression on her face is difficult to see from this distance, but the thuds—they thud. The man reappears, jogging, his arms now empty. He stares across the street, glances at the neighbouring houses, and returns inside. The door closes.

He watched only to see the person as they really are, to see them unfolded, human, alone: a perspective neither their friends nor their family, not even the seemingly intimate reflection of the mirror, would ever witness. Something not meant to be seen, but not hidden. Mundane activities became streets in a labyrinthine city he had only just entered: this person may be sitting on an armchair reading their phone or watching television, but not knowing this person, anything might happen. They might swerve at any moment. But those cameras, they did not care about who they watched, they cared only for behaviours, actions, evidence; that there was a person behind this externality was not important. They demolished labyrinths, killed mystery. They reduced him. These were not the benevolent eyes of statues, or voyeurs, but eyes that report things deemed suspicious, nosy eyes that seek difference.

He had read an essay about the use of quarantine when plague was suspected of having entered a town, of having parked its mouldering black carriage in someone’s home. A militia, made up of “good officers and men of substance,” are positioned at the town’s gates, by the town hall, and at the end of every street in every quarter, so as to observe the residents who cannot leave the town. If the residents try to leave they will be killed. At the initial suspicions of a plague having entered this small section of society, a list of residents is compiled, with their sex, age, weight, illnesses, and anything “of note” recorded.

On certain days, they cannot even leave their homes, if they do they will be killed. Inspections are made: each resident having been previously assigned a window in their home. At a certain time each day a representative of this newly formed law stops before each home and calls out the names of the inhabitants. At each call, the inhabitant must appear in their prescribed window to reveal their continuing health: he found this both comical and depressing, the reduction of the human to a jack-in-the-box: Pop! goes the weasel. This search for the plague is not too different from the history of the jack-in-the-box, which is said to have begun when a prelate cast the devil inside a boot to protect his village (in England, naturally). These men of substance were looking for the devil in those windows, regardless of whether it lived inside a neighbour or friend. And this particular devil must be cast out because the plague, of course, cannot be banished inside a boot.

If the resident who stands in their prescribed window does not answer the representative’s questions truthfully, they will be killed. If they do not appear at the window when called, the men will enter the house and remove that person and every other person from the house. What is done with these, the most unfortunate of the unfortunate, he wasn’t sure. But now, a sentence is remembered as if it were wholly new. It will now become new as it appears in the context of these memories: “Each individual is continually assessed in order to determine whether he conforms to the rule, to the defined norm of health.”

There was no difference between this militia made of men of substance and those cameras. In fact, the author made a similar point about surveillance, though that author could not have foreseen cities overgrown with cameras, cameras that sprout like weeds from the sides of buildings, from ceilings, strangling their carefully composed features. A few years before his mugging, he saw a young girl walk through the exit of a shop. Seconds later, two burly men raced after the girl, one jumping in front of her, the other to the side, ready to apprehend. He couldn’t hear what was said, but they jostled her back inside the shop and through a door he had never noticed. He had felt ill at the speed of the events and, at the same time, slightly superior to her. The officiousness and righteousness of the men’s movements led him—while they led the girl—to take her guilt as a certainty. At the time he forgot the scene immediately, though it often came to him when he was about to exit a shop: a brief fear that seconds later he would be apprehended and taken back inside despite his being sure of his innocence. This was perhaps the first of those moments he can remember when he was unsure who he was, unsure about what exactly he knew about himself. His earliest memory of self-questioning.

Those bouncers probably replayed footage, of what looked like the girl stealing some item, in that hidden room. And by making her—the girl, the quivering innocent who has stolen—watch this, she is forced to pass judgement on herself. That girl there, on the screen there, she is guilty of having stolen: she is a criminal, lock her up, the girl finds herself saying, unable to say anything other, having witnessed this scene so often in films, and reality television, that she is almost conditioned to apportion blame. The video ends, and she finds herself an innocent again, wakened from the dream of the television, and yet the police are being called now because the bouncers have changed the rules again: she is no longer playing judge, but criminal—the individual must play all of these roles. They must be cleaved in pieces in atonement for the crime of having lived. The word individual must be smashed so that the person is finally—divisible—no longer a person. Irretrievable.

How many nature documentaries could be made with the patched-together footage of foxes scraping across city roads at night, crows crowding the tiles of an abandoned house, so that against the evening sky it seemed medieval, seagulls’ desperate cries at being so far from the sea they can no longer smell it? How many crime shows are made from the recordings of what were once innocent people?

Through a window a girl slowly dances, and though the window is partially open, no music can be heard. Her eyes are closed, as if she were sleeping. She wears dark jeans, a loose-fitting gray T-shirt, a collection of bangles on her right arm. There are open books, and the pad of a laptop, just visible, on a white desk by the wall on the right. The back wall, that is, the one directly facing the window, is occupied by shelves, filled with books organised by colour (yellow, black, red, blue) and three figurines of swans in three stages from water to flight, placed in a row on the top shelf. The left side of the room cannot be seen, and now she has stopped dancing and is gazing in that direction.

Often, he saw himself cold and pale and placed alongside the object of his gaze, as if he and they were together behind that warm window. It is unfortunate that he lived for these moments when he could lose himself, when he was so close to not existing, when he may as well not have existed for this person who was living, and dreaming, suffering. People are raw then, and that, he thought, was why their shock was so visceral when they spotted him. The frantic movement, the rush for the curtains, the stopped scream; the scream. Breaking glass. As if he had violated them just by his seeing who they are when alone. Is life really so violent that people react like this? Or was it that they, in their silence—when they had reduced themselves “to the point they occupy in time and space,” which, as Simone Weil writes, is to reduce one’s self to nothing, was it that they, in this moment, had unknowingly accepted death, and he, by his watching, woke them from this, unleashed the world and its fullness back inside them where it could never fit—life never really fits inside the body, not comfortably, how could it? Or was it that in seeing them he saw their secrets, which rise up to the skin when people are fully alone; perhaps it is this that they were afraid of, that he had seen what they really feel, what they think when not even they are present enough to curtail their hidden truths. When they saw him, that still figure, their secrets burrowed back down inside the interior, afraid to emerge again until the curtains were closed, the blinds shut, the light turned off. Perhaps this is why dreams are so full of secrecy. Memories, too.

 

3.

In the museum he watched the statues and they did not care. He stood very close and observed the fine veins of their hands, the blank gaze of their eyes—pinholes for pupils. He walked around them and they did not move. They dismissed his gaze because past their surface is solidity and rock as hard as when the sculptor first bought a slab that had been taken from deep inside the earth. The eyes of a marble statue gaze out from the darkness of the earth. Their secrets cannot burrow past their surface. Their presence is their secret. Whose bodies were used to model these heroes and gods? Labourers, lovers, models, fellow sculptors—did they, for the time they accepted stillness into their bodies, cease to exist, or did they ruminate on the things of their lives? Their bodies are seen just as they were by the sculptor, however many centuries ago, and through the sculptor’s gaze it is not the model that is seen but the projection of the artist’s vision that rests over that mortal frame.

Almost daily he would watch the woman who also visited the Hall of Sculpture. He watched how she watched the statues, how she touched the ends of the broken arms when she thought nobody was looking, or when she knew it was only he who saw. (They were mostly alone in their devotion.) She was always well dressed, mid-thirties, he thought. Composed. It was usually past midday, lunchtime, when they met like this and they recognised in each other this need to observe. There were no words between them, only this understanding; their flesh among the stone. There was a risk in their not speaking, and an acceptance of this risk. A play between them. Some days she followed him through the room, her heels on the wooden floor clacking, or her soft soles whispering, and she would stand so close he felt the heat of her body against his, a projection, a promise, while he stood before some cold white figure. Relishing the sensation, he would pause before turning. She was always walking away though her perfume lingered—which sometimes made him sneeze, though he did his best to stifle this impulse. On other days it was he who followed her. Their breathing quickening together. Their heat. Sometimes he wondered if she followed him home, if she continued to watch through his window as he—he, what was it he did when he was alone in those days? (This has already been forgotten it seems, or rather it is not the time to remember just now.) He never allowed himself to follow her home, though he desperately wanted to. Often, he would follow her as far as the cafe by the entrance, watching as she left the museum, debating whether he should just go, find where she worked, and from there . . .

And the statues, he believed they gazed through him searching for the hands that held the chisel, the hands that first stroked their faces. Those eyes gaze back through the centuries to the moment of their creation, everything else—like him and this woman, the corniced walls of the gallery—were shadows falling from their vision. What is it they expect to see? They cannot shift position. They cannot see anyone. How many scenes have passed by the blind eyes of those old statues? How much of man’s nature has stumbled before their unseeing gaze? There must be a reason so many look upward.

 

4.

Three severed heads lying on the floor of his bedroom, for however long he would wake in the early morning believing this is what he would see if he were to turn on the light. The reasoning behind the unnatural distancing of these heads from their bodies rarely stayed the same; each night’s dream produced a different story, but all ended in this same way: three severed heads lying on the floor beside his bed. In dreams . . .

IN DREAMS . . .

 

5.

He could no longer face lighted windows on his long walks through the city nights with the cameras always seeming to be perched a few feet above him wherever he found a promising opening of curtains. There was no hiding one’s nature from them, not when one was still living. They had seen him walk to the shop to buy milk in the evenings, go to the cinema, the museum, had watched as he glanced at shop windows, at the faces of those who passed him, at the bodies of those in front of him. There was so little of him that wasn’t recorded. Did it matter that they were not in his home? He lived so little there. The hours spent in his apartment were short gaps in the greater pattern of his archive, easily filled with a little imagination.

And the thought of some city personnel watching him from a desk, flitting from his still form to the countless other scenes sprawling across his or her monitor—like a distant parent. He questioned himself, or he questioned his motives, whether his actions were those of a person he would admit to being while under oath, before a jury of his peers (what peers? his peers are the dead). And even when that false parent was at home, sleeping, those blank eyes continued to watch as those statues do, with the difference that their unseeing gaze was recorded, and could be watched by human eyes, eyes that sought. He was constrained by all of these eyes, pinned down by their ubiquity. If the stars could see they would own the earth. The city is not a place for living but a box in which people barely survive, the walls of the box barely walls, so full are they of these fixed eyes. The city is a place of observation. An experiment in existence.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hugh Fulham-McQuillan is an Irish writer from Dublin. His short story collection Notes On Jackson and His Dead is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press. His fiction and essays have been published in Ambit, gorse, and The Stinging Fly, among other places. He is a doctoral candidate in psychology in Trinity College Dublin, and is currently working on a book about writing and mental health. Twitter: @HughFMcQ

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 1st, 2019.