The Free Market (Part 2)
The way the sand felt under Christian’s feet, fine and warm and clean; the way it moulded to the impact of his heels, the balls of his feet, the lesser domes of his toes; the way it stored these imprints in its granular clay for him to rewind when he sprinted back along the beach, his children screeching as they chased behind him; the way, when he finally stopped amid triumphant kids and caught his breath and brushed himself off, the grains fell from his skin in soft cascades, leaving nothing behind.
How long had he and his kids played in the shade while his wife lay beside them in a hammock? Beneath the palm trees, in the derelict cool of that corner of the beach, they had built sand cities and bounced a beach ball that was a crinkly, carefree globe. They had no time for time. The white scream of the open sand, piercing his sunglasses when he glanced between the trees, had faded to a golden hum. The sun was close to setting when his wife put aside the novel that had for so long made a gable roof above her face and told the palm fronds it might be time to play on the beach.
His three kids, girl, boy, girl, lined up in a glockenspiel of ascending size. In the magic light every freckle was clear, every sapphire iris, every wheat-to-honey tanline fade, every tuft of sunbleached hair. Everyone was quiet for a grinning moment, just the loud hush of surf, just his wife’s bare leg (gleaming, copper plated) reaching down to the sand, creaking the hammock from side to side. Then he rushed out of the trees and the chase began.
Now they waited on the shore, husband and wife with their brood between them. The beach was empty, the bay belonged to them. The sunset colours and the drybrushed clouds. The rowboat wagging on the swell, lifting and dropping its tether to the dock. The silhouetted ridge that reached across the bay, the possibilities hiding in its subtracted trees. When he looked at his wife, her lapidary profile washed in sunset, he wondered if he had lived his whole life for this moment, if all the work he had done, the love and health and happiness he had earned, was being repaid here and now.
“Get set,” she said, and a sprinters crouch spread like laughter among the kids.
“Go!” They ran with high feet into sliding shelves of ocean, splashing and shrieking. The sand deepened, they charged through ecstatic treacle as the line of bath-warm water sloshed up their shins. When the first wave hit his knees he pitched himself forwards in a shallow dive.
Underwater Christian felt things change, felt the sand disappear beneath him, understood that he could, and should, dive deep. Dive until pressure squeezed his head and that airline panic stabbed his ears. Descending was easy: it was not sea-water, buoyant with salt, that permeated his breath-sealed mouth. It had the flat green taste of lake. When he was as deep as he dared to go he opened his eyes, braving the water’s weird touch against them. He looked down and saw the ghosted legs of a ten year old boy vanish in green murk. He looked up, saw the chopped round shadows of lily pads on the surface, their long stems trailing below. Finding himself in that floating cathedral, sunbeams reaching through the fractured roof, he felt an explorer’s confusion of hubris and awe. Now his breath was tightening, he was kicking and flapping up. He broke through with plant life plastered to his shoulders, his eyes blinking free of the lake. He breast-stroked back to the rowboat, his mother, father and little sister watching his approach.
“You’re like a frog!” his sister said, as his parents helped him clamber back onto the boat, “Jumping onto lily pads. Frogs do that.”
“Frogs become princes,” said his mother, kissing him on the forehead.
Shivering in the sun, wrapped in one of the huge towels they had brought from the house, he sat in the prow as his father rowed them back across the lake. Water lilies parted around the boat’s nose, it seemed more likely that he was inhabiting a dream than that they had come to live here for a week. When he and his sister came down to breakfast that morning, to their favourite cereals in wide yellow bowls, the view from the bay windows that curved around the breakfast table made them both stop dead. Made them both say — Wow! And when they chased each other around the house, up the spiral stairs that rose like a fossil in glass and steel and white-painted wood from the open-plan living area, into the luminous upper floor, he knew this day would live forever.
That night, after the kids had brushed their teeth and put on their pyjamas, their parents swaddled them in child-sized bathrobes, switched off all the lights and led them onto the balcony from the master bedroom. Lights from other lakeside properties threw broken streaks across the black water. The rim of surrounding mountains had been cut away completely, a christmas cracker hat of darkness between lake and sky. But it was the stars that enchanted them. To these suburban kids the night sky was a soup of light pollution and traffic noise. Aeroplanes were shooting stars. Nothing had prepared them for the dizzying resolution of dots within dots within dots, for clouds and clusters made of stars; nor for the constellations traced by their parents, beasts and heroes and ancient tools nailed to the sky.
As his parents tucked him into bed and kissed him goodnight, the boy decided that his future would be a series of adventures, a string of time onto which he would thread pearl after pearl of rich experience.
When he awoke, eighty years later, he knew before his consciousness had fully arrived in the airy room that he had lived exactly as he intended to. He had made mistakes — plenty of them. He had at times lived scandalously, even immorally. But he had never lost sight of that basic precept he had absorbed as a boy: that life demanded to be lived moment to moment, pursued to the limits of its own expression, whatever that may be. And it was because he had lived so intensely, with so much passionate warmth, that he was able to savour every circumstance he found himself in, no matter how dreary it appeared.
That was why he felt so content now, as he sat up in his adjustable bed, gazing through the cable-restricted windows at the pasture below. The odd dynamics of the bullock herd, with its grazings, mountings, defecations, its sudden thunderings of congregation, and equally abrupt dispersals, began to seem like a play staged just for him. After few weeks of happy engrossment, the play was not only performed but written for him. The cattle, he realised one afternoon, were lumbering mimes, using their bodies to reinterpret the texture of his days! He marvelled at the way they captured it all. The aeons of peaceful rumination. The sudden intimacies — feedings, cleanings, changes of clothes, pills pressed onto his tongue morning noon and night. The guests bursting into his room, talking, pacing, watering flowers, stroking his hand; then leaving as fast as they arrived. The privilege of excreting without moving. Eventually the movements of the animals became an inner as well as an outer portrait: in their endlessly shifting configuration, he recognised the meanderings of his ageing mind, with its adorable digressions, its cute substitutions; in their polyphonic bleats, from foghorn baas to tremolo wails (when did those bullocks turn into sheep?) he heard the organ notes of his emotions: happy (high, quavery), peaceful (medium, flat), happy, peaceful, loving, glad.
He pressed the up button on his bed, engaging and disengaging the motor with the tremor in his hand. The mattress rose sporadically, folding him into a more decisive position. Too high, back down a bit. Up again. He reached for the remote control fixed to the side of his bed, managed after a few attempts to ignite the television mounted on the wall. As he was laughing along with the studio audience at his favourite talk show, his favourite nurse walked in.
“How are you today, Mr. Weaver?”
“Wonderful, Christian, I feel wonderful.”
Christian smiled while he prepared the old man’s gruel on the overbed table. As he began to feed his patient an artery of kindness coursed through his arm, into the spoon that he gently slid into the old man’s mouth; it pooled like monochrome fire in the grey mouthful before spreading itself, nourishing and warm, through the old man’s body. Patients weren’t treated here; they were cared for. That was why Christian loved his work. Why he would have done it for free, had the management of the chain not been so generous with their wages.
Christian opened the door to the old man’s room and heard the throb of music, laughter and conversation, suddenly present in the empty corridor, though muted by a second door. He forgot about the trolley he had been wheeling, the old man he had just fed, his job. His scrubs unravelled as he walked towards the battered wooden door at the end of the corridor, leaving him in his best dark jeans, a red-and-blue checked shirt he had bought the day before, a pair of white converse. He worried that traces of his fingers would be visible in his hair, evidence of fretful preening in the bathroom mirror. Then he tingled at the thought of other fingers leaving traces too.
He opened the wooden door, returned to the warm uproar of the pub. Still no sign of her. As he crossed to a vacant table by the old-fashioned casement windows he checked the app for messages.
Train delayed :-( Be there in 10 x
The words could have been typed by anyone, could have been generated by some algorithm in the galaxy of communications between her phone and his. But he could feel her presence behind them. Its crackle was unmistakable, had been from their first tentative exchanges, no matter how generic the language: Hey Stella. Hey Christian, what’s up?
Still, he was nervous about finally meeting her. What if everything he had responded to turned out to be false advertising (it amazed him how unassumingly plausible people’s photos could seem, how untruthful they could turn out to be). Worse, what if she greeted him with that polite freeze of disappointment, that fractional pause in which her expectations were recalibrated, perhaps abandoned altogether. Then their conversation would be a tightening band, a tourniquet of repressed despair that he would long to tear off in the solitude of his room.
He sat and waited at the round table. One of the windows was notched open by a black iron stay, cool air and traffic sounds were blowing in. Maybe it was the breeze, or maybe the awareness of other lives passing by, but he felt a jarring wakefulness, a vision of himself from outside. What the hell was he doing? How many times had he been round this carousel, creating a fantasy out of a few pictures and snippets of text, watching it collapse at the first touch of reality? Fixing his hair, choosing his shirt… how could he keep pretending that it mattered? That anything he could do would close the gulf between himself and the rest of the world? He had to leave, get rid of everything, change his life — he didn’t know how. But he had to leave now, before she arrived.
“You look like you’re running away,” said the pink-haired woman who appeared by the table just as he was pocketing his phone.
She was even prettier than she appeared in her profile, her features attractively mobile when she spoke, her skin flushed from hurrying. Ridiculous excuses flashed through his mind; then some ghastly attempt at comedy (You said 10 minutes and 10 minutes and 30 seconds have elapsed); then he realised he had to blurt it all out.
“I’m sorry I just realised how fucking pointless the whole thing is. How we don’t know each other and will never know each other and the whole idea of finding love is just bullshit, just a horrible fucking lie we’re told to get us to pay for apps and clothes and other shit we don’t need. Just another thing for us to spend our whole lives feeling bad about because we never manage to find it, even though everyone else does, or at least pretends to, I mean just look at how happy everyone acts, it’s not just the ads and the TV it’s everyone. It’s everything. The whole thing is a fucking lie.”
When he was done he felt starry and weak, as though he’d just thrown up. He started to edge around her, hoping to get away before he burst into tears.
“Oh my god,” she said. “I feel exactly the same. I wasn’t really late because of the train. I was about to ditch the whole thing and delete the app and become, like, a Sufi or something.”
They stared at each other beside the table, the bustle of movement and conversation softened to a kind of real life bokeh, a daydream of a busy pub around the magnified clarity of their faces. Their expressions moved in strata, approaching certain boundaries, fault lines where they would be obliged to speak, then abruptly changing tack, whether in response to one another or to the thoughts whirring around inside them. A passing barmaid smiled to herself at their silent choreography. Christian felt the tears he had suppressed prickle at his eyes.
“Let’s go outside,” said Stella, placing her hand on his shoulder.
They stepped into the street: groups of young people headed to pubs, a white cloud of scented vape. Stella took his hand as they walked. Neither of them said anything. Was it really possible? Could this woman share his life, enter the crystal of his perceptions (vivid, shattered, hazardous — an introvert’s jewel), see with the same rays of apprehension the night market being set up across the street, the crates of fruit and veg unloaded from the back of a van? More miraculous still, would he be able to see her seeing, hear her hearing? Would the barked instructions of the market owner reach him tinted and sweetened and curved by her awareness?
A car throbbing with music rounded the corner and drove towards them. The music was so loud, the bass so penetrating, that the vehicle took possession of everything it passed, halted all conversation, turned all heads towards its blacked-out glass. A lion patrolling. He looked at Stella and saw everything in her face, the childlike fascination of danger and noise, the comedy of masculine posturing, the surreal zoology of the streets, the memory of and longing for stranger, more dangerous streets, the awareness of being read, of reading him in turn, the delight she took in it all, the beautiful, intoxicated, clear-eyed delight. They smiled and almost spoke and turned back towards the car. It had some complex sigil of headlights, strips and squares of pure white light. The car drew closer, the lights were so bright, so dazzling, Christian took his sunglasses off his head and slipped them on. He heard the surf and the splash of his children running behind him, felt the sun slide off his gym-fit body, the sand firm and clean beneath his feet, and he ran and ran and ran…