I arrive just after 6pm, wheeling my suitcase up the long gravel drive from where the taxi dropped me off. The drive curves, so the house only comes into view gradually – a Georgian mansion with tall, many-paned windows and squat chimneys. Steps lead up to a portico with Doric columns that looks like it belongs to a Greek temple rather than a house in the Berkshire countryside.
The house is flanked by gigantic mature elms that have somehow escaped the ravages of Dutch elm disease. From here I can see the beginning of the gardens, which look to be extensive and immaculately cared for. In a word: ostentatious.
Out of nowhere, two women have appeared on either side of the door, each wearing a tunic in angelic white that reminds me rather too much of an altar server’s surplice. They are here to welcome me with smiles that are not quite real. My anger bursts to the surface, like bubbles in swamp water. This is all bullshit.
But if that’s how I feel, why am I here?
And that’s my life in a nutshell – a mind at war, never knowing what to do, regretting every decision, constantly second-guessing everything. I’m so tired of it. I should have conquered this crippling doubt back in adolescence. And yet here I am, fifty years old, and it’s still hammering away at me on a daily basis.
So what am I going to do? Sit at home in my pyjamas, eating cereal out of a mixing bowl while I wait for the bailiffs to turn up? Been there; done that.
Zoe’s words echo in my head: ‘You’ve got to approach it with an open mind. If you’re going to do it at all, do it properly.’
She had held my hand as she said it, the same way she had in the hospital after I’d had my stomach pumped. I remembered thinking, not for the first time, that I wished I felt something more than friendship for her. How different my life would have been if I’d married her instead of Gretchen.
‘What have you got to lose?’ Zoe said. And, really, I had no answer to that.
‘You’re giving me hope again,’ I replied.
‘The trouble is,’ I said, ‘I’ve learned through long experience that a hope is just a regret that hasn’t yet come to pass.’
She smiled and shook her head with the mildest exasperation. ‘You’ll see.’
It was easy to forget sometimes that this was a woman who believed in crystal healing and ley lines, the same sort of twaddle I had left behind in my teens when I renounced Catholicism. Zoe’s beliefs and values could hardly have been more different to my own. But if there’s one thing life has managed to drill into my obstinate skull, it’s that you should pay attention to the people who genuinely care for you. They’re too rare to squander.
And so here I am. I deliver myself into the care of the bleached and smiling staff, committing myself, for Zoe’s sake, not to sabotage this whole thing before I’ve even started.
There are twelve of us on the course. We are shown to our rooms, which are comfortable, high-ceilinged and decorated with furniture that, if not antique, looks very much like it. After half an hour to get unpacked and settle in, I’m invited down to dinner. It’s an opulent five-course affair, featuring consommé and lobster and tarte Tatin. We eat at a long table and chat to each other. Prime topics of conversation include rumours concerning our mysterious host, speculation about what exactly we’ll be required to do and why the course costs nothing when the expense is clearly not insignificant.
I meet Hayden, an accountant who is ‘sick to death of numbers, numbers, numbers’ and feels that they have blinded him to other, more important, aspects of life. I talk with Veena, who wears a blue sari and works as a nurse at an inner-city hospital. She is unfailingly polite, but I sense a nervousness behind her words that epitomises how we all feel, our reticence to talk about our real reasons for being here. To Veena, at this point, I am ‘an English teacher and occasional journalist’, not ‘a depressive knot of self-loathing who can barely keep control of a bunch of kids’, not ‘a man so abused by his wife that he ended their marriage not just with divorce papers, but a restraining order.’
There will be time enough later to reveal our failures, our disappointments, our shame. No need to rush into it.
We see nothing of our host until the next day, when we gather in the drawing room, anticipation like static electricity in the air. Fifteen minutes later than scheduled, he appears, without fanfare, through a side door.
The man who chooses to call himself Eklégon stands in front of the fireplace and all chatter ceases. He has long hair and a huge beard – of course he does – and wears sunglasses even though the room is hardly suffused with light. His trousers are loose-fitting, his shirt an ambiguous grey. He appears half Indian guru, half Jeff Bridges’s character from The Big Lebowski. He should be comic, yet he commands the room with nothing more than his presence, like a veteran stage actor.
His first words are slow and emphatic, not the expected welcome but a question: ‘What is choice?’
There is a pause of maybe ten seconds, until a woman with purple hair puts up a tentative hand. He ignores her, instead sweeping his dark gaze across us, left to right, right to left. Her hand wilts.
‘How do we make a choice?’ he says.
This time no one attempts to answer.
‘How do we make the best choice?’
The tocking of the grandfather clock in the corner is the room’s only sound.
‘We choose based on information,’ he says, ‘and we make bad choices because our information is incomplete. An example: if I have the opportunity to work for another company, should I change jobs? I can make an educated guess, based on an interview, on the company’s reputation, perhaps on the testimony of a person who already works there. But how can I know for certain? Applying the ruthless rigour of logic, the answer is obvious: I take the new job, and if it doesn’t work out, I go back to the point where I made my decision and change it.’
I blink a couple of times. Did he just say what I think he said?
He pauses, then drops his bombshell: ‘You are here to learn how to do this.’
There is no muttering in the room – he has already silenced us too effectively for that – but there might as well be. We glance at each other and our frowns are all we need to communicate our collective disbelief. When I first heard about the course I expected something therapeutic, something maybe a bit too New Age for me. There was no mention of sorcery.
‘I require you to listen,’ he intones. ‘I require you to understand. This will not be easy.’
He doesn’t want anyone answering, I realise, because he wants no interruptions. He loves the sound of his own voice. He is the sage, the Keeper of the Great Mysteries. He’s clearly nuts.
I should go. I should stand up and walk out. For some reason I don’t. Curiosity? Yes. My solemn commitment to Zoe? That too.
And, really, what’s the worst that can happen? I know my way back to the last village the taxi passed. It can only be a mile at the most. I’ve already verified that I can get phone reception from the garden. I might even be able to get an article for The Guardian out of this, assuming I re-frame my own involvement as a matter of curiosity rather than grasping desperation.
In the silence that follows, Eklégon embarks on the first of many sermons.
He starts with a lecture on quantum physics, specifically the concept of wave-particle duality – the idea that light behaves as both a wave and a particle, even though it clearly can’t be both. Anticipating our objections, he invites us to confirm it – or indeed any of the claims he makes – using the house’s extensive library or by doing our own research on the Internet. No matter how bizarre wave-particle duality might seem, it is, he says, a simple fact of the universe, verified through countless scientific experiments.
After lunch he switches topics to the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, which is even harder to understand, and just as difficult to accept.
When he said this wouldn’t be easy, he wasn’t joking.
During an explanation of Kant’s notion of transcendental idealism – which holds that there is no such thing as reality independent of our perceptions – our friendly accountant Hayden cracks. His hand shoots up like an overeager schoolboy’s, and when there is no sign that Eklégon will stop speaking he interrupts.
‘That’s nonsense. That’s clearly not true.’
Eklégon’s dark lenses swivel towards him. ‘You have proof against it?’
‘You’re saying that physical objects don’t really exist. In that case, what is this?’ He grabs hold of the arm of the sofa.
‘That… is your perception of a sofa.’
‘It has no meaning if it is not perceived.’
‘So you’re saying that all this –’ he waves his arms ‘– is some kind of collective delusion, that once we all leave this room the sofa will just disappear?’
‘How can something disappear if there is no one to see it’s not there?’
Hayden shakes his head in wordless confusion.
‘I will challenge you further,’ Eklégon says. ‘Time itself has no concrete existence outside our perception. It appears to be divided into past, present and future, but that is merely a function of our mind’s ability to apprehend it. In reality, the whole of time already exists, stretched out end-to-end.’
‘Yes, that’s an excellent choice of adjective. Reality is crazy.’
Hayden falls back into the sofa, or at least his perception of it. I know how he feels, because it could easily have been me that spoke up instead.
‘The universe has no duty to make sense to you,’ Eklégon says. ‘It has no duty to reveal itself to you or simplify itself for your convenience. However, if you make the effort to understand the universe and embrace the strange truth of it, you can make it work in your interest.’
The evening consists of a meditation, followed by an exercise in which each of us tries to think of the crucial times in our lives where we might have made a better decision. He calls this ‘identifying the counterfactual’, a process that will be continued with ‘visualising the counterfactual’ and ‘experiencing the counterfactual’. At the culmination of all this, apparently each of us will disappear in a puff of smoke because the laws of the universe ‘won’t allow two active consciousnesses to exist in the same timeline’.
Well, I can’t wait to see that.
In the meantime we have to concentrate on the very worst experiences of our lives. I can tell from the mood of the room that I’m not the only one who finds this exercise in masochism deeply uncomfortable. Revisiting some of Gretchen’s more insane episodes is something I’ve consciously tried to avoid. Of course, the wildness that made her so destructive (sometimes literally, in the case of my acoustic guitar, or the crockery I’d inherited from my grandmother) is also what had made her seem so exciting in the first place. This is one of the reasons my life is such a mess – I have terrible trouble distinguishing what’s good for me from what’s bad.
And this is how he gets into our heads. My suspicions about Eklégon are in no way diminished, but I cannot deny the tantalising power of the thought experiments he dangles in front of us, like carrots before a donkey. Who would I be if I had never met Gretchen?
I want to see how he’s going to claim to have done it. Some of the people here are pretty flaky, and might be convinced by a stooge who suddenly claims that their past has been changed for the better, but that’s not going to wash with me, or with Hayden for that matter. What proof can he possibly offer to us?
Perhaps he’s being metaphorical, and we’ll simply feel better about our pasts by the end of it. There would be some value in that, I suppose, but it would hardly justify the claims he’s making. And, I confess, if the whole thing crashes and burns, I want to be here to see it. I want to see how he placates a dozen angry people who have been given a pat on the back when they were promised nirvana.
It’s no surprise that the evening meal is more subdued than yesterdays. Each of us is sodden with theories and facts, and sobered by having to recall our most private shames and regrets.
I try to sleep, but it’s no use. After an hour I get up and go downstairs in search of something to eat. For all his self-importance and emotional distance, no one could accuse our host of being ungenerous when it comes to snacks and drinks.
To get to the kitchen I have to go through the sitting room, which I assume is empty until I hear a sniff from the far corner. On one of the sofas is a woman, leaning forwards, elbows on knees. She notices me and looks up. Though the room is dark, a light from the hallway reflects off both cheeks, where a half-hearted attempt has been made to wipe away tears. It’s Veena.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I didn’t mean to intrude on…’
She shakes her head. ‘It’s all right.’
What does that mean? That I should carry on through to the kitchen, or that she wants some company? I take a couple of steps towards her and she doesn’t show any signs of protest, so I sit in the nearest chair.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Not entirely, no.’ She wipes at her cheek with a sleeve and sighs. ‘Do you really believe he can…?’ She doesn’t need to complete the sentence.
‘Honestly? No. But since I’m here, I intend to give it my best shot.’
‘That’s pretty much what I thought. But I’m struggling to understand everything he’s saying. I find it all so… obscure.’
‘You’re not alone.’
She swings her legs off the floor and tucks them underneath her. ‘I’m worried that I’ll be the one who doesn’t get it, that I’ll be left behind.’
‘You’re already way ahead of Hayden. For that guy, none of this adds up.’
‘Huh. “Adds up,”’ she repeats, with a hint of a smile. ‘He’s the accountant, right?’
And I remember the time, too long ago now, when at least one of the kids in my class would be paying enough attention to get a joke like that.
‘This… looking back to the worst times,’ she says. ‘That’s the hardest part.’
I nod, but don’t say anything, leaving a gap long enough for her to fill, if she chooses to. She does.
She tells me about her arranged marriage, about how it seemed so good to start with. The downward slide was so gradual she didn’t even know when it started. She doesn’t use the words I’m expecting her to use. She skirts the real issue. In spite of Eklégon’s training, she is still loath to confront it. I’m tempted to relate my own experiences with Gretchen, to show solidarity, but that would be to take something away from her.
She describes her careful pushing at the boundaries, trying to claim some kind of life for herself without straying into the territory that would set her husband off.
‘I went to my mother for help,’ she says, ‘and you know what? She told me I was an undutiful daughter; she took his side.’
She says it with the ghost of a chuckle, as if it’s everything around it that hurts, not this unthinkable betrayal at the centre. I squeeze her hand and that’s all it takes. The centre collapses, and everything rushes into it, and she is crying again.
Her hand grips mine with a pure, animal need for solace. I cannot understand how anyone could do this to someone so… I want to say something, about it not being her fault, about it being understandable that she should feel this way, but it all seems so crass, so empty. And so I keep my mouth shut and give her the only things that make any sense – my empathy, my fingers holding hers.
I don’t know what makes me look up – I don’t see or hear anything that prompts me – but when I do, Eklégon is standing there in the doorway, framed by the light from the hall. He stares straight at us from behind those absurd sunglasses.
We wait for him to speak, and it occurs to me that after only one day he has us well trained. The moment stretches. He is so still he could be a statue or a cardboard cut-out.
I’ve probably been unfair about Eklégon, if not to his face, then at least in my mind. It’s because I’m uncomfortable in places like this, doing things like this. That, coupled with my habitual world-weariness. This is where Eklégon shows sympathy with Veena’s pain and apologises for intruding.
But no. He snorts – I don’t imagine it, he actually blows air out of his nostrils – then turns and walks back down the corridor.
Unbelievable. In an instant, all my least charitable assumptions about him are proved correct. This whole charade is nothing more than a temple to his ego. I feel the urge to go after him, to ask him what the fuck he thinks he’s doing here; how he thinks he can behave like this and still have any valid claim to be doing us any good.
But Veena is still here, still in need. My hand is gripping hers too tight. I loosen it.
‘Ignore him,’ I say. ‘He’s…’ but I cannot find the words to adequately express my anger.
‘It’s okay; it’s fine. He’s got his own worries to deal with. You know: running this whole thing.’
I could hardly disagree more, but an argument is the last thing she needs at the moment. Instead I cram my anger back in its box and continue to offer her the one thing the almighty Eklégon is incapable of providing – a listening ear.
My outrage at our host’s behaviour wanes, unsustainable in the shadow of Veena’s suffering. And after an hour she is calmer, as if a heavy load has been shared. She knows it will be piled up on her back again, but for now, at least, things are a little lighter. It makes me wonder why I haven’t spent more of my life trying to help other people. It feels good; it feels like an accomplishment.
Catharsis makes us hungry. We get cups of tea and flapjacks from the kitchen, return to the sofa and talk long into the night.
Theories pile on theories: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the so-called hard problem of consciousness, Schopenhauer’s fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason. A man can be tortured physically or psychologically, but is there such a thing as intellectual torture? I’m beginning to think so.
And lo, on the fourth day Eklégon actually stops talking.
‘To summarise,’ he says, ‘time is an illusion. It is already laid out in its entirety, from the Big Bang to the heat death of the universe. But it contains all branches, every possible pathway from every possible decision – a tree of near-infinite complexity. You currently occupy one of these branches, but there is no reason why you cannot choose another. By pushing hard enough at the quantum uncertainty inherent in the human mind, using my meditation techniques, you can cause a resonance cascade in which your consciousness will switch branches. This can be done more than once if necessary, not because I have taught you how, but because you already know it, and always have done, which is one of the reasons you are here in the first place. And here I must reiterate my one warning. The immature mind is not capable of understanding the process. If you travel too far back, into childhood, you will lose the ability, damning yourself to a future without choice; your life will become a simple, deterministic process.’
This is easily the single battiest minute of speech I’ve heard in my life – and I once listened to a lecture by an audiophile – but, like everyone else in the room I remain quiet. How can he possibly back down from such a claim? I have no doubt that he thinks he’s right, and his sheer conviction makes me wonder if he really is. This is how cults begin.
From here it is all meditation and one-to-one sessions with our guru, our goal being to prompt the resonance cascade that will cause us to leap back to our former self and correct the god-awful choices we’ve been stupid enough to make.
I try. Really, I do.
It’s hard enough just to empty your head of thoughts; harder still to focus on the most horrible experiences of your past to the exclusion of all else. Yet this is what I try to do, hour after hour, in our private sessions, while Eklégon the Insufferable looks on and judges me. I like to think I’m a patient man, but there are limits. I reach mine when Eklégon, probing the still tender wound that is my relationship with Gretchen, says, ‘Was it weakness on your part, do you think, not to have broken things off after the bottle incident?’
‘Oh, for God’s sake. How much more of this do we have to go through?’ I start to unbend from my cross-legged position.
‘Until it works. Stay seated.’
‘No.’ I stand, stretching my aching leg muscles, and walk the couple of paces to the window of my room. Outside, the trees are silhouetted against the lavender of twilight. I hear blackbirds chink-chinking in the foliage.
‘Patience is not innate to us,’ Eklégon says from behind me. ‘It must be learned.’
He thinks I’m a child, a gullible child.
I turn to face him and say what I’ve prevented myself from saying for the past week and a half. ‘When this all fails, what are you going to do? Blame all of us for not being true believers? For not trying hard enough?’
‘This is the crux of your problem: you think you lack belief.’
‘No, I do lack belief.’
He shakes his head. ‘The belief is already there. You just need to find it.’
‘I’ll take a look down the back of the sofa.’
‘You’re afraid you’ll be the only one not to succeed. Your flippancy is a manifestation of this fear, which is both deep-seated and common among the people who choose to come here. Veena expressed similar doubts.’ He smiles in that irritating, superior way of his. ‘Ah, but you don’t remember her.’
‘Veena? Who the fuck is Veena?’
‘I explained this to you in the lecture on quantum entanglement. Veena was here but she is now gone, and because your memories of her are entangled, they are gone too.’
‘So how come you remember her?’
‘I don’t, entirely. There is only a whisper left now, and that too will soon be gone. But there is a room full of the things she left behind. I can infer her presence from the evidence. I can show it to you if you’d like.’
Oh, he’s a clever bastard, all right. He gets his staff to fill up a couple of spare rooms with a few bits and bobs, and there you are: the relics of those who have achieved enlightenment.
‘The branch withers and dies,’ he says.
‘Give it a fucking rest. Have you ever considered talking in actual sentences rather than this pseudo-intellectual bullshit? You’re not fooling anyone.’
When I’m like this with people, I can guarantee it has some kind of effect – they either retreat, shocked and defensive, or they dig in their heels and prepare to give as good as they got. Eklégon does neither. Quite how he manages to retain this supreme indifference is a mystery. I have no precedent for it; I don’t know what to do.
‘I’ll give you half an hour,’ Eklégon says, ‘then we can start again.’
He leaves me with my cooling anger. I won’t apologise, that’s for damned sure, but it also seems pointless to keep insulting him when it has no discernible effect. There’s only one other option: to listen patiently and do what he bloody well says. That’s what I came here for, and it seems clear that everything else – the cynicism, the disdain, the stubbornness – is just a way of trying to avoid it.
Zoe, what the hell did you get me into?
‘So, was I right or was I right?’ Gary says from the depths of the armchair, his feet up on the table, a beer bottle in one hand.
At this distance, the music is reduced to a rhythmic thumping that seems to emanate from the walls. We only have to raise our voices a little to hold a conversation.
‘Okay, I admit it,’ I say, ‘it’s actually pretty good.’
‘Ye of little faith,’ he says, and takes a swig.
I had been dubious when Gary said we were all going clubbing for his thirtieth birthday (‘One last gasp before old age overtakes us,’ is how he put it) but The Cotton Mill is much classier than the dives I’d frequented as a student. The main room is high-ceilinged, with a spacious dance floor and a bar almost as wide as the building itself. There are also plenty of these smaller rooms, strewn with tables and comfy chairs, that give you the chance to retreat and recharge.
Gary turns his bottle, as if examining the label. ‘So, this new girlfriend of yours – German, is she? I didn’t pick up an accent.’
‘No, Gretchen’s from Wolverhampton.’
‘She seems a lot more lively than, er… whatsername? The last one. So grey, so forgettable.’
‘Rachel, as you well know.’
‘Rachel,’ he repeats and nods sagely, eliciting a chuckle from Rob and Ki-Joon. None of us are exactly sober.
‘Come on,’ I say, ‘she wasn’t that bad.’
‘It’s okay – you don’t need to defend her any more, now that you’re—’
‘You think I’m defending her?’
Gary shrugs elaborately – a picture of inebriated evasion.
‘All I’m saying is that she had her good points,’ I say. ‘C’mon, credit me with some taste.’
‘Oh, you’re a man of taste, all right. I was just wondering,’ he points the neck of his bottle at me and squints, ‘if you’re absolutely sure you’re over her?’
‘Of course I am, you dickhead. I’m just saying: she wasn’t so bad.’
‘Who wasn’t so bad?’ Gretchen is standing right behind us.
I crane my neck round, ‘Oh, hi. I thought you said the queue for the toilets was endless.’
‘Who wasn’t so bad?’ she repeats.
‘We were… just talking about my ex.’
Gary adds, ‘And how she wasn’t that exciting.’
We all look at Gretchen, waiting for her response. And what a response it is. She steps forwards and grabs one of our empty beer bottles. Holding it by the neck, she smashes the base off on the table and holds the jagged end out towards me.
‘Well,’ she says, ‘we’re done talking about her, aren’t we?’
No one around the table says anything. Does the music stop? It seems to. There is no nightclub, there is no outside world at all. There is only what is happening in this room. We seem to have come to a sudden, instant understanding: that if one of us takes action – any action, however small – it might prompt her to act too, and that’s something none of us are willing to risk. In some cavern at the back of my mind I can just make out the echo of a thought: I should probably say something. The problem is, what?
Gretchen lowers the bottle and bends double under the weight of her laughter. ‘Your faces! Fucking priceless. I’ve always wanted to do that.’
She puts the bottle down on the table. The music restarts.
‘Hey, relax,’ she says, and punches me on the arm. ‘It was a joke! I’ll go and find a dustpan and brush.’
She leaves the room, giving our heart rates a chance to begin the slow deceleration to something approaching normal.
‘You see,’ Gary says weakly, ‘much more exciting.’ Then he adds, in a doomed attempt to lighten the mood, ‘I think I just did a bit of a wee.’
In the days that follow, I spend a lot of my time trying to rationalise it. It was a one-off; she was drunk; no harm was done. I almost manage to convince myself. But I see a future, murky yet convincing, in which this single event is the catalyst for things to develop in a very ugly direction. She is emboldened to further acts of madness, she exerts an insidious control over me, she alienates me from friends and ultimately dictates the course of my life. And because there have been good times in the past, I let her.
It’s weird. This is all just conjecture, but the vision is so strong that it seems more like the past than a possible future. It’s like a prophecy, as if some great booming voice is saying: ‘This will come to pass.’
I sit by the telephone and ask myself yet again: is this the right thing to do? Rolling up my sleeve, I examine the small aubergine blush on my bicep where her knuckles made contact. That’s what does it. A switch flicks in my head. I pick up the handset and prod at the buttons in a pattern that’s become very familiar over the last couple of weeks.
‘Hey,’ she says.
‘Look, Gretchen, I’ve been thinking about things and I reckon it would be best if we…’
Within seconds she is screaming at me. And there’s my answer.
Even with evidence as persuasive as this, the doubts remain. That’s just the sort of person I am. Perhaps if I’d insisted on knowing more about her childhood – which she described as ‘difficult’ and ‘not something anyone wants to hear about’ – I could have helped her come to terms with… I don’t know, whatever it was that made her think it was okay to threaten me with a broken bottle. I discuss this with Gary, who approaches things with the certainty of a mathematician: it’s obvious neither Rachel nor Gretchen have been good for me, but ‘if you could add them together and divide by two you’d be sorted, mate.’
And then, eighteen months later, I hear it from a friend of a friend: Gretchen has been arrested. Her new boyfriend is in hospital with a knife wound to the elbow and a fractured skull. She is charged with grievous bodily harm and sentenced to three years in prison.
The last remaining doubts fall away. It’s like that feeling of sudden lightness when you shed a heavy rucksack after a long hike. For once, I really did make the right decision. I decide to pay more attention to my intuition in future.
But life is not, as Forrest Gump says, like a box of chocolates. More like a hail of bullets – if you dodge one, you just walk into another.
School gets worse every year. The government tweak and toy with the education system, displaying all the finesse of an idiot in charge of a wrecking ball. Money evaporates from the budget. There are kids who come into school with the cocksure swagger of a rapper about to pull a pair of handguns.
I’ve always viewed education as such a fundamental and obvious good that I didn’t even think of questioning society’s need for it. Clearly a lot of other people have been doing just that. At open evenings, parents blame me for not turning their little darlings into geniuses, or for not instilling a sense of morality into them, or for not staying behind after school as a kind of day care while they’re off scoring coke, or whatever it is they do.
There are good kids too, it’s true. They’re the only thing that keeps me going. But there aren’t enough of them. Not nearly enough. If I lose eighty percent of my classes to dead-end jobs and drudgery – or worse, drugs and crime – I can’t honestly claim any kind of success.
Things come to a head, as I know they must, but it doesn’t happen the way I think. It’s not that Brent Lockhart brings a knife into class again and tries to gut me. It’s not that I finally lose my rag with one of the O’Leary twins and belt him round the head, resulting in my immediate dismissal. It’s a much gentler death.
It happens after a particularly difficult lesson trying to teach Romeo and Juliet, and making the fatal error of trying to draw a parallel with modern gang culture. Perhaps I shouldn’t have described Tybalt as ‘wanting to pop a cap in Romeo’s ass’, but there you go.
Sabrina Pritchard, one of the few genuinely interested kids I have, stays behind as I’m packing up. She’s bookish, bucktoothed, and wears her hair in deeply unfashionable pigtails. Just looking at her, I think, life is going to be hard for you.
‘I already read the whole book, sir,’ she says. ‘Why do they have to die? Couldn’t they just stay married and… well, alive? Then they could have brought the two families together and put an end to all the violence.’
This is one thing I’ve learned: at this age they’re still looking for happy endings. I’m feeling particularly sour after the outright laughter that greeted my lesson, so I don’t sugar-coat my answer.
‘Maybe Shakespeare is saying that tragedy is inevitable. After all, none of us gets out of here alive.’
She cocks her head. Her next words seem to have no connection to what she said previously, but she’s often like that, branching off in directions I can only guess at.
‘If you hadn’t become a teacher, sir, what would you have done instead?’
It’s innocently meant, like everything Sabrina says, but it has an effect on me I could never have anticipated. My hands start trembling and I realise I can’t stop them. I feel like Julius Caesar at the moment of realisation, Sabrina my Brutus. I look at my watch and make a feeble excuse about having to be somewhere else. I shut myself in a cubicle in the staff toilets and wonder what the hell is happening to me – a panic attack, a breakdown?
It’s twenty minutes before I manage to get the shaking under control. I make an excuse about feeling ill – something none of my colleagues have any problem believing – and take the rest of the day off.
Sabrina’s sentence stays with me, like an itch deep in my brain. Perhaps a knife would have been preferable. That night I sit up late, unable to think about anything else. I was academically gifted as a youngster. I had the chance, when I was choosing subjects at A-Level, to go any direction I wanted. And yet I followed my mother into teaching. Why did I do that? Why, when I could have chosen something that would give me a greater insight into this collection of absurdities we call life?
Somewhere, in a parallel universe, I chose to study psychology instead of English. I imagine this other past in luxurious detail. I remember that evening when I sat down with Mum for our first serious talk about the subjects I would study at college. For once, she wasn’t pushy or persuasive; she was making every effort to give me free reign over my future.
It would have been easy – so easy – to make a different decision.
I’ve read horror novels, I’ve read accounts of the holocaust, but nothing prepares me for chapter fourteen of Sabinsky and Fowler’s Principles of Abnormal Psychology.
I’m lying on my front, on my single narrow bed on the second floor of Mandela Court. Someone across the way is playing Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car for the umpteenth time. Hot sun is streaming through the window, which I have opened as far as it goes, but my arms are goose-bumped.
As Professor Turner instructed us at the end of his lecture, I’m reading around the topics of dissociative amnesia and repressed memory, and I’m beginning to feel a kind of nausea that is far more profound than a hangover after a long night at the Union bar.
It’s a controversial subject, the book says. There is a danger that false memories can be implanted by a therapist, the book says. But I’m not in therapy. No one is involved with this but me. Me and my tricksy, malfunctioning memory.
The more I think about it, the more I know it’s true. I have edited my past, like taping over a film on a VHS cassette. No – more accurately I have taped over the beginning of the film, because the rest is still there, nonsensical now, but influenced by what came before. I know this with a horrible certainty, because all the evidence is there to see – my difficulty forming relationships with women at university while everyone else is shagging themselves stupid; my reticence with teachers; my explosive disdain for religion in that conversation with Felipe, something that had shocked even me. A shadow has been cast over my life, and until today I didn’t even know it.
I was twelve. This is not the sort of thing that should happen to a twelve-year-old boy.
I’m like a zombie for the rest of the day. When night comes, I can’t sleep. I stay up until three or four o’clock in the morning, obsessing about it, trying to wish this horror in my past away, trying to edit the videotape of my life into something that makes sense.
I’m always the last one to finish devesting. By the time I’ve got round to taking off my surplice and cassock, all the other altar boys have gone. Partly it’s because they just chuck their vestments back on the hangars without much care. Partly it’s because Father Hockenhall always seems to have some additional duty for me to perform before I can get to the sacristy.
I want to get a move on because I’m going round Rav’s straight afterwards. He’s got one of those Rubik’s Cubes and reckons he knows how to solve it, no matter how mixed up it is. I don’t believe him.
As he did last week, Father Hockenhall puts his hands on my shoulders just after I’ve taken off my cassock. I don’t like it when he does that. I’m facing away from him, and I don’t feel like I can turn round or shrug his hands off without being rude. Mum said I should never, ever be rude to Father Hockenhall.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘that Paul and his family will be moving to Leeds soon. So, I’ll be needing a new server to be crucifer. To let you into a little secret, I’ve decided it’s either going to be you or Wayne.’
I imagine it, being at the front of the procession, being the one to carry the cross down the aisle, while the whole of the congregation waits for us. I imagine looking to one side and catching the look of pride on Mum’s face.
I’m still holding the cassock, black cloth folded over one forearm. I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck move under Father Hockenhall’s breath.
‘I’ve decided that I should interview you both,’ he says, ‘and then I can make my decision. Could you come round to my house on Friday, at seven o’clock? No need to bring your mum. Just pop round to the house and we’ll have a little chat. You’ve been to my house before, haven’t you?’
I have. Mum was as happy as I can remember her being. There was chocolate cake, and when Father Hockenhall offered me a second slice, Mum encouraged me to have it.
From outside the church I can hear a kid in the street yelling. It’s not the usual shouting you hear when your mates are playing, and it’s not the sound of someone who’s fallen and scraped a knee. It’s something that hurts in a different way – something unfair, like a friendship breaking up.
‘So, what do you think about that? Is Friday at seven convenient for you? You might want to check with your mum.’
There’s a tiny increase in pressure from his hands. The muscles round my ribs and back tighten, ready to shrug, to twist, but still, I remain frozen.
I don’t want to go to his house. Something about it feels wrong. I can’t really work out what or why, but I know it as surely as I know that Mum can’t afford to buy me that bike for Christmas, as surely as I know that Dad isn’t coming back.
I need to make an excuse.
It’s a sin to tell a lie.
I’d go if Mum came too. But all Father Hockenhall has to do is tell her it’s best for me to go alone, and that’ll be that. She’ll agree to anything he suggests.
‘What do you think?’ he says. ‘It’ll be nice, won’t it? Just the two of us, discussing your… future here at the church.’
It’s a sin to tell a lie.
I tell him I can’t. I tell him my aunt is ill and we’re going to visit her straight after school on Friday. It’s a feeble excuse, and will be easy to disprove, but it’s the best I can come up with at short notice.
He removes his hands from my shoulders, though his fingers skim the outline of my upper arms before he completely lets go. I carry on hanging my vestments carefully – very carefully – on the rack.
‘Oh, that’s a shame,’ he says. ‘I’ll find another time, then. I’ll have to look in my diary.’
I nod, but I know I won’t be going – not now, not ever. I’ve already lied once; what difference will it make if I lie again? I’ll make excuses every time he asks. I’ll prepare a few so I can use them whenever they’re needed.
‘I’ll see you next Sunday, then,’ he says.
I nod again and leave the sacristy. I walk up the aisle, past the rows of dark wooden pews, my footsteps echoing on the tiled floor. We’ve been coming to this church for years. And even though I know we’ll be here next Sunday, and every Sunday, it feels like I’m leaving for the last time.
I look up, towards the vaulted ceiling. All that empty space.
‘Everything all right, love?’ Mum says when she meets me at the entrance.
I nod, and we step through the doorway together. I didn’t think it was that dark inside the church, but the outside is blinding, the sunlight actually painful.
When she finds out she’s going to be so disappointed.
It takes me years to figure it out. These premonitions are not just best-guess estimates of how the future might turn out – they are actual experiences of it, experiences I’ve been through and then rejected. No – they are experiences I will go through unless I reject them.
Where has it come from, this ultimate power of choice, whose only requirement is a sensitivity to the mist-shrouded paths that lead into the future? If this is not omnipotence, then it is something very close to it. If this is not a gift from God, then it is indistinguishable from it.
But this is not the God of Christ, of sin and suffering, of hope in an eventual salvation. What use is hope when I can have certainty?
In holy texts I find hints.
It is there in the Tao Te Ching: ‘To return to the root is to find peace. To find peace is to fulfil one’s destiny.’
It is there in the Bhagavad Gita: ‘I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness.’
It is there in the Book of Isaiah: ‘Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.’
They grasp at the truth but fail to catch it. They are distracted from this most important principle by teachings of infinitely less utility. I find it also in the works of philosophers and physicists, but they too let it slip from their minds in pursuit of other things.
I have to make my own faith, my own physics.
With practice, things become easier. I get better at recognising the bad decisions, and going back on them sooner, rather than years after the event. It seems obvious to the point of cliché that I should invest in the stock market, and within a matter of years I have reached a level of wealth beyond which there is no reason to aspire.
Some tragedies are unavoidable. There is no conceivable choice I can make that will stop my mother’s death from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease at the age of fifty-two. But I can distance myself from her to lessen the pain, and by doing so, I also relieve myself of a multitude of other difficulties: her stubbornness, her religiosity.
I take it further. Much further. Given the choice, who would choose to suffer, even a little? Why have I been given this power if not to make use of it?
Difficult people are avoided, so-called ‘friends’ are pruned. Why persevere with Damian, whose talent for telling hilarious stories is offset by an equally serious drink problem; or Zoe, the new-age flake who persists in trying to get me into yoga? I keep around me only those who are useful, loyal and unquestioning.
I have perfected the art of living.
So: money is no longer an issue. Nor self-doubt, nor suffering, nor the myriad complications and compromises that arise from dealings with other people. There is only one thing left to do – the ultimate destination of any man with a valid claim to greatness: altruism.
It will be a strange kind of greatness, given that no one will ever know what I have done, but in this there is a kind of purity. The praise of others holds little value for me now. I will praise myself instead, if – and only if – I meet my own stringent standards.
And so, from my mansion in the Berkshire countryside, I begin to teach my theories and techniques. I am selective, taking people who have endured significant suffering, but not those so far gone that they might be a danger to me. I assume a new and theatrical name – the Greek for ‘he who chooses’.
I like to think that in the instant of their vanishing they realise what a gift I have given them. I like to think that in the moment when all doubts vanish, they are replaced by the pure, blinding light of belief.
In a leather-bound book I keep a list of those I have helped. Hundreds of names now. They might as well have been plucked from a telephone directory for all the meaning they hold.
I consign the possessions they leave behind to the flames, while they rise, phoenix-like, somewhere else. Somewhen else. Each of them lingers in my memory for a few days, then fades. I am left only with a meta-memory, akin to the experience of knowing that you know something, but being unable to recall it.
Occasionally I experience an echo, a shadow, an episode of déjà vu. Hints of futures unlived, of roads less travelled.
This house is full of ghosts.
I’m firmly of the belief that nothing will ever perturb the calm waters of my existence again. Increasingly I retreat from the world outside, which is entirely reasonable, given the state it’s in. Here, I am far from the cities and the rioting. Here, the increasingly disastrous war abroad is just a distant rumble. Nothing less than a full-scale invasion could disturb my peace. I have found my oasis.
And then he applies.
It could be coincidence, of course – the surname and forename just happening to coincide. But even before I see him in the flesh, I know the truth.
When he arrives, there is no indication that he recognises me. And why would he? Even if I were to take off my sunglasses and shave my thick beard, there would still be significant differences. Life has written him a very different face.
But how is he here? This is the question that troubles me. How can our lives recross? How can two branches of the tree, having divided, merge again into a single limb? It contradicts some of the most fundamental beliefs about the reality of time I have held for over a quarter of a century.
The answer is obvious, though it offers me no comfort. Because, like wave-particle duality, two things can be true at the same time, even though they contradict each other. Because the universe has no duty to make sense to me. For the first time in years I feel the not-quite-nausea of uncertainty.
However, this nasty development does come with a consolation prize: the perverse comfort in seeing how things might have turned out. He is sour, cynical, angry – in every way a vindication of the choices I have made to distance myself from him. Though he shares my name and my DNA, we are in a very real sense two entirely different people. Perhaps this is why he has been sent – to show me how far I have come.
I shall be glad to rid myself of him.
One night, unable to sleep for pondering these imponderables, I rise and head for the kitchen to make myself a cup of camomile tea. Two people are talking quietly in the semi-darkness of the drawing room – him and the Indian girl, Veena. She is in distress; he is engaged in an attempt to comfort her.
I am too close now for them not to notice me. They look up. Her face is wet with tears; his brow is knotted with… is it concern? Anger? What does it matter?
They wait, as if expecting something from me.
I snort. I am already giving them the greatest gift they can possibly imagine. He seems annoyed, as if this isn’t enough. Perhaps once, in my immaturity, his anger or her tears might have had some kind of effect on me, but I have long since cured myself of such irrelevances.
I turn away, because there is nothing to be said. There is only the process. Soon they will begin their journey towards calm. Soon they will begin to heal themselves.
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