My friend Bartholomew recently visited Melbourne. He is a writer and has been published in Voiceworks and Lateral Magazine and has his own blog “Rationally Curious.” When he asked if he could write a short story for setinmelbourne.com I couldn’t possibly refuse. Here it is…
The Wanderer – Bartholomew Pawlik
Often the solitary one
Finds grace for himself
The mercy of the Lord.
Although he, sorry-hearted
Must for a long time
Move by hand, row
Along the waterways
Along the ice-cold sea
Tread the paths of exile,
Events always go as they must!
Anglo-Saxon poem, author unknown
It always struck Tim as odd that cold could be described as ‘biting’, a clear remnant – or so he thought – of the human tendency to ascribe agency to natural forces. Yet as he thought about it, he truly did feel as though his very bones were being gnawed. He shivered viscerally and shoved his hands further into his pockets, hunching his shoulders together as if the position would protect him from the myriad chills.
“I can’t believe she would do that” Melony said, in her exuberant-yet-exasperated way.
“You just don’t know her that well. If you did, it would make perfect sense, trust me. She couldn’t take it anymore,” Fiona replied.
The three of them walked together away from the Melbourne Convention Centre, travelling parallel to the Yarra River, with the sky above them threatening to rain. Tim had no clue who it was that they were talking about. He found it difficult to follow the conversation and his mind kept drifting, drifting like the exile over the sea, like an exhale on the wind.
“What do you think Tim?”
Fiona and Melony both looked at him.
“I uh don’t know,” evidently he had missed that part of the conversation.
“Oh you’re such a fence-sitter Tim!”
“Fence-sitter? You’re one to talk. It took you half an hour to decide what to choose for lunch.”
“It all just looked so good, okay?”
“But seriously,” Melony said, “What do you think?”
“What was the question?”
“Tim you’re such an absent-minded professor. If two people are perfectly happy together, but like their parents and communities don’t approve, what should they do?”
“I hate that,” said Tim, “it makes no sense to me”
“It’s hard enough to find happiness. When such trivial things get in the way, it’s, it’s just stupid.” If only Grace had been left alone, Tim thought, if people only cared more about her than themselves and their bigoted ideas, maybe she would still be here with us today.
“On another note: where on earth are we going to eat?” asked Fiona.
Tim shrugged and he noticed Melony doing the same.
Fiona groaned. “If I wait for you to decide Hell will, well, you know,” she gestured at their cold surroundings, “but I think it already has.”
The early realm is fraught
Fate changes everything under the sun.
Here wealth is brief, friendship brief
Man brief, kinship brief
All human foundation falls to naught
The settled on the Arbory Bar. Their criteria for an appropriate venue had been shrinking as time progressed and the temperature fell. The Arbory stretched out along the river, all wooden planks and wooden chairs and wooden tables, reminiscent of an ancient trireme. Heaters lined the deck like torches in the night, as if erected by an army to show the enemy that even in darkness, they were there.
“Tim you said that happiness can be hard to find, but is the point of life really happiness?” said Melony, the conference proceedings still clearly on her mind.
“What else would it be?” asked Tim.
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.”
“Well the Dalai Llama sees that as self-evident. If someone is happy, then they don’t need anything else. But someone could have lots other things, but it’s never enough if we’re not happy. That’s basically what Aristotle was getting at too I think, in a very convoluted way”
“You guys… this conversation is just too much. I’ve done enough thinking for the day,” said Fiona.
Tim closed his eyes and exhaled. What else could he talk about? Grace? The one thing that had been on his mind, incessantly, like a greyhound chasing a rabbit lure, round-and-round-and –
“Is everyone up to date with Game of Thrones?”
He was saved. The next chain of conversation presented itself, leaving the rest to simmer underneath, begging, hoping for catharsis, that great spilling forth like water unleashed upon the collapsing of a dam, yet being held there, stagnant. He was okay with that.
“Hey, no spoilers, I’m not up to date”
“Tim are you okay? You’ve looked distant all day.” Melony looked at him with concern.
Tim paused. Would he say what was really on his mind? “It’s just that I can’t stop thinking of what I’ll do when I get home. I really don’t know if I can bring myself finish my philosophy degree.”
“But you’re so close!” said Melony.
“And you’ve came all this way for the conference” Fiona chimed.
“I just feel like it does so little to prepare you for life, y’know?” No antidote for grief, no structure to replace religion. “If philosophy can help us with that, what can? It’s all about training us to publish papers in obscure journals that no one will read. And then if we don’t follow that path, there’s no work for us in the real world.”
Melony glanced at her feet and played with her hair. “It will work out. You’re still young.”
“She’s right,” Fiona said, “We’re all still young. If it’s not for you there’s still plenty of time find what is.”
Tim looked up at the heater standing guard at their table. It was a tall, cylindrical contraption, heavy at the top and bottom. The flames beared down on them from the top, like a little sun, but it left his feet feeling leaden and icy. The fire did little to fight back against the cold; the warm breeze it spouted was quickly strangled. This is how it must have been for the ancestors, Tim thought, recollecting an Anglo-Saxon poem he stumbled across, tangential to his lecture readings. The Saxons must have huddled together in vast winters against an overbearing and omnipresent force. The fire would have been symbolic. The circle too: offering protection and unity.
One’s group was one’s lifeline. An individual, bereft of technology, couldn’t stand up to Mother Nature. The feel of rejection must have been like the cold: strangling, ever-present. The social contact provided warmth too, psychological as well as physical. Melbourne was no different.
Did anyone, sitting at the campfire, feel alone?
And I, wretched, from there
Travelled most sorrowfully
Over the frozen waves,
Sought, sad at the lack of a hall
A giver of treasure,
Where I, far or near
One in the Meadhall who
Knew my people,
Or wished to console
The friendless one, me
The search for a warm bar was more difficult that Tim had imagined. It was hard to find a meadhall to lay claim to, one that balanced the wishes of the group. Too loud, too plain, too rough. The journey down streets and alleyways wasn’t unlike the rower trying to find a place to call his own.
Yet again Tim thought back to Grace, how lively she had been, so spirited. Alas, poor Grace! I knew her: a lass of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy… where be your jibes now? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment?
He remembered that her ostensible friends had flooded to Facebook, posting that one singular picture they had with her, to ‘celebrate’ her life. While he felt that their intentions may have been noble it was decidedly vulgar – taking that moment of tragedy to buttress their own ego. There was no silver lining for her family, for her real friends. God didn’t ‘need another angel’. The world is worse off without her, in every way, without her laugh, her smile. It didn’t make Tim stronger – Nietzsche was wrong.
“Tim?” said Melony.
He came back to the world: the real world, tangible, with things you can hear and feel and touch.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Where should we go?”
“I don’t really care at this point. Somewhere warm with where we can get a drink, let’s not be too picky.”
He looked up at the night sky. The stars were hidden by the light pollution from the city. People kept seemed to keep asking him if he was okay – was he really that transparent? Why didn’t he say something?
He forced a smile and pointed a finger. “Hey – that place looks alright!”
Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!
Tim sat at terminal 42 at Melbourne Airport, coffee in hand, warm, computer on lap, warm. He was tired and looking forward to putting his anchor down back home. He looked to his right and saw a lady with her daughter. The lady had taken of her large jacket and given it to her kin, leaving her self bereft of warmer clothing, a nice gesture that Tim refused to reason away with crude Darwinian arguments. The lady was reading a book: it was on gratitude. Tim looked down at his Kindle, seeing words about gratitude flowing across his screen.
To his left, a man was reading a book on history, it looked interesting – he wondered about the man, what did he do for a day job?
Straight ahead, a group of young friends, boisterous and funny, reminding him of friends waiting for him back home.
For a brief moment – a single stroke of the hummingbird’s wings – he met the first ladies’ eyes. In them he could see happiness, fear, sadness, anger, peace, compassion, awe, anomie, tenderness: every single emotion that he himself felt lay there. And he realised, every single living, breathing entity beside him was the same. They all would face sickness and opportunities and setbacks and love and loss and ultimately, death. It was true of every human that has ever lived. The Saxons with their love of gold and glory, the Bard with his genius and pen – in every era and epoch, aeon and age, span and stage.
He wasn’t alone.
He was never alone.
And Grace hadn’t been alone. Not even when she swallowed the tablets. Not during the moment she cut her wrists. Not when the paramedics fed her artificial breath and pounded her chest. Not when the very last glimmer faded, nor later when, like Alexander and Yorick both, she was buried and returned to dust.
Ever the long clock-hand moves step-by-step round a circle, pulled forward by time, yet in each small jump there was someone there – they were all there. All of them together.
Tim checked his phone. There was a single text waiting for him there, unread. He put the phone in his pocket. The moment was enough.
Often the solitary one,
Must move along the ice-cold seas,
Tread the paths of exile.
Events always go as they must.
– THE END –
For more of Bart’s work please see:
Image c0urtesy of Arbory Bar