Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Pass Me Some Eyes, Please -- Mark Ludgate

"It’s like um…"

His conversation is heard from everywhere in the café. Outside, the pebble beach is wet. The bench he sits on is wet. He takes something from the bag on the table and bites it from his palm.
"…it might have been around October, probably October time. No, that’s all wrong. Ha, how silly of me to forget. No, it was November, definitely, yeah because the point is that the weather was cold, so cold. Ha, everyone always says that, like they weren’t expecting winter to come back around again, "Oh it’s so cold isn’t it." So… it was November, maybe the fourth or something like that… lets not dwell on that: not important… But the beginning of November, and cold like, shit. I dunno’, it was cold enough that we could be sure the earth must have been getting her final laugh, really shaking us up for global warming. ‘Cos, she knows that we’re fibbing, soothing our conscience, when we say we care about her. It was killer cold."

He pauses to chew and puts another past wet lips. It’s a hard candy, maybe the end of a piece of rock. It scrapes against white teeth and is knocked about his cheeks via his tongue. He starts talking again but there’s no clarity to the words. The candy bulges from his cheek. He stops. He swallows any loose saliva and starts again.

"Yeah, achem, um… there was this guy, ha, there’s always a guy, right? Well this one would stoop around on shop corners at night, or on the walls…they were constantly stained with piss, ‘cos you know, it was a lively city most of the time, people got pissed constantly. Kind of funny, kind of not, but definitely just sweating irony. I don’t know… I knew people to blow eighty quid in one night, easy on a Saturday, it’s just the prerogative of the drunk: drink more, don’t stop for anything. Certainly don’t stop for the poor, a beggar. The irony? Yeah, well that lay in these people pissing away all this money on booze and probably drugs, though I wouldn’t want to wrongly accuse a town of that. They trot about the city, these people; flashing money here, there. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of people who… thousands would walk by this guy in one night, they’d barely look at him. Well, he practically blended into the step he would be slothing on. They’d walk by and he’d be leant against a piss stained wall one of them had marked for him. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning a city here. Let me point out that I am one of those very people. I must have walked by the guy a hundred times, sometimes two or three in one night, probably even pissed on that wall. I just left him be, pitied him and thought it was enough. Mmm, god these are good. Are these yours? Who cares right?"

He picks another sweet from the bag and tosses it into the back of his mouth. It bounces off one back-of-the-mouth molar in the lower jaw with a hollow clunk.

"I mean…"

He pauses to move the sweet around his mouth, finally resting it in his right cheek. The cheek stretches to compensate.

"…this guy was it, in terms of the lowest, ‘cos you know, you see some people on the street asking for money and they’re wearing decent clothing or have a mobile phone, and you’re suspicious about whether they’re actually homeless - ruining it for the real homeless. I don’t think this guy actually…didn’t um…he didn’t actually ask for money, I don’t think. He just sat there, dirty and unshaven. I saw him smile once for a dog that hopped up and licked his face. Yeah he smiled, before the owner of the dog pulled sharp on the lead and that was that. But the guys smile: horrible teeth, black, wood, you know, a wooden colour; teeth from the dark ages. I feel bad ‘cos I was disgusted by him, by his appearance. I didn’t want to have to look at him, didn’t want him to be there all the time, ruining my evening. No one hassled him, he just looked so timid. Huge eyes that sort of stood out under all this fur. Well, hair, beard, eyebrows, mustache, all big, animated. Beautiful eyes, oh yeah, wonderful, huge eyelashes. I bet he was one of the most beautiful men, with eyes like that, but who would know?"

He starts to draw on an envelope from his pocket. He turns the envelope over quickly and then back, checking it to be nothing important.

"Before I get to the point with this, I need to tell you a quick thing about my father and my, um, sister."

He doodles some more, biting his lip, perhaps buying time. He stops biting his lip and the lip begins to quiver.

"…achem, um, my father…had…taken my sister to London. I don’t know if you’ve ever been…you’ve probably been, but the underground is incredibly complex, you know. My sister, she was five at the time, achem, sorry it’s just…"

He keeps looking down while talking. Rejecting eye contact his eyes focus on his doodles.

"…um, well, my father had been running with my sister…a game…Fran…that’s her name. I think they were having a good time, running to catch the tube. It was rush hour, you know, a lot of people, my sister she would… she was small…achem. She was running a little ahead of my father, slipping easily past the… she got to the train before my father and was pushed into the train by crowds of people…my…father couldn’t get on. Sorry I just need…"

He takes a sip, then a large gulp of liquid, from a mug on the table next to him. He places the mug down, on the doodles, on the envelope, on the table.

"…my father saw my sister through the window of the train, signaled for her to stay at the next stop. She understood...from what he said. Erm, he caught the next train, got to the next station, she wasn’t on the platform, or the one the other side. Both sides had only a few people. "She wasn’t there" he said, "she wasn’t there."

He raises his eyebrows, but sadly. He takes a deep breath looking straight up, and then regains eye contact.

"Well, he searched, searched all night, before finally telling the authorities. Shock or something, blown gasket in the mind, a damaged something; he was shot. They wanted to know why he hadn’t gone to them sooner. There was a search then, went on for, god, I don’t know, but I don’t want to get into that. I’m sure you’ve heard about it because… she was never actually found, still not found. The thing that struck me was my father, one night, recounting the story to me, in a great amount of detail, and I was sure that it was only to try and beg my forgiveness, that he'd done all he could of, though I forgave him anyway… I knew him… I’m his blood. I knew it wasn’t his fault."

He stops and stares at the envelope in front of him where water from the bottom of the mug draws the ink from where he marked it and blurs it into the surrounding paper.

"My father said to me that he’d been calling her name: "Fran! Fran!" His voice was inaudible the next day, he must have been calling her name non-stop for twelve hours. He didn’t ask people to help him, which doesn't seem like him and I think it’s likely to be down to the shock; shell shock, for the dramatic event. But in these twelve hours of calling her name - if you heard someone, a middle aged man, shouting a girls name, looking distressed, wouldn’t you think he’d lost someone?"

"None of the people offered to help him, no one asked him what was wrong. It’s strange don’t you think? At first, it seemed to me to just say: damn, the world is cruel and people don’t feel for other people. Thinking about it more - oh actually, I remember why my thoughts have led the way they have: my father asked, no, he said to me that he wished that I’d been there or -- no that’s not right. It’s important, the correct words he used because this explains my point. He said he wished that in those unknown strangers, there had been a person like me, someone just like me because I would have stopped and asked him what was wrong."

He begins to huff and quickly pulls his hand to his face to wipe his eyes. It doesn’t last long but his eyes are puffy and red.

"When I think about this – well, obviously, I said to him I would have helped... but thinking about it… I know, I know. I wouldn’t have stopped. I’m sure I’d have realized he’d probably lost someone, you know, and it’s not like I’d have just walked past not caring, because I do care, it makes me sad, it makes me sad about the… people have this idea that people don’t care for strangers, as though they don’t feel anything for them, but they do; they empathize and feel sorrow, they cry for people they don’t know. But that doesn’t mean that they will help them."

"There’s a barrier there, like… it’s like a social thing, maybe mainly in England. People, keeping to themselves, the reserved character, the stiff upper lip. It’s possible that… I don’t know…we’re... worried of embarrassing a stranger, if we offer them help. How ridiculous is that? But, I mean, it makes sense. People want pride, they want to be seen as strong, they want a will that has control. If a stranger helps another out of pity, then the one helped loses that control. It’s almost a courtesy of the one-that-could-help to show respect by leaving the other to it. Of course, this isn’t how the one-in-need feels, they want help in a situation where they’ve lost someone. But the one-that-could-help feels a detachment to the one-in-need; for them it’s just like watching it happen at the cinema. And... and if these people who could help aren’t engaged in the event immediately, they forget, because they are programmed to. It makes sense to have evolved so that a person will direct their worries at their problems, not someone else’s."

He pauses and takes a breath. He looks up, smiles and shakes his head with a tired tutting.

"That’s enough of that, the ‘why’. Shortly after, maybe six months later, my father came up to visit me. He was wearing this huge parka jacket, you know, like it was built for snowstorms and walking through walls. He also had these thick boots because, like I was saying, it was November, and cold. Erm…we were walking, milling about, not talking or anything but just trying to savor each others company… we came by the man, you know, the beggar on his piss step."

"My father stopped in front of him and looked at…no… it was more like, he was concentrating on him, concentrating at him; a dead stare. Then for no reason - well, not for no reason - my father took off his jacket and gave it to the man, who - without saying anything - put it on immediately, sort of, chewing nothing while he was doing it, as though that as how he expressed excitement. My father watched him put the jacket on and then, when he had, he slowly untied his shoes, slipped them off and gave them also to the man."

"Immediately I thought: what is this? What have I witnessed here? What is the significance? I slowly understood my fathers need to give this man - who he didn’t know and had no relationship with – why he’d give up his clothes. It was for the very reason…um, the idea that I’ve just spoken of and had realized a few months earlier. He was rebelling against this idea of passing by those you don’t know; to help someone for no reason, like the Samaritan. My father was happy with what he’d accomplished; the beggar warm, and content. It was like he’d freed Fran’s spirit or something."

"My father left that day, went home, and after I shut the door behind him I was knocked down with a terrible sadness. It was my father’s happiness; this idea he had in his head that he was doing something completely selfless, assuring himself he wasn’t like the people on the tube. My sadness was because I knew it not to be true. He was a good man, but not a… he was the same as the ones on the tube. If the event hadn’t happened, that is, I mean…um, loosing my sister, he would have just walked by this guy, the beggar. Really he’d created an investment in the beggar. The beggar was a means of alleviating his conscience. It couldn’t be a selfless act; it rejected its sentiment and could only ever be self-invalidating. A... tactful rebellion. An attempt to be in control of who he is. My only wish is that he never realizes."

Photo Courtesy of Diego Cupola

Mark Ludgate was born in a hospital that no longer exists in Southern England. He now lives out his days in Brighton, England. Above else he is a coward; but he is also proud, perhaps too proud. This allows him to sustain a certain dignity, to mask the constant overload of anxiety; which would otherwise make itself apparent. He spends every waking hour (other than those hours he is working) writing, and on occasion praises his anxiety which is one of his primary motivators. He is twenty three years old. He is neither married nor with children. He hopes that one day he may get out of working in the restaurant industry; it crushes his already overworked soul.