Paper

The answers to the questions were within and scattered around him. They hid on scraps of paper, in notebooks and pads. He scribbled them down in earnest, never to be read again. Or worse to be read again through the tired eyes of one who had forgotten. One who no longer recognised them.

He wrote his name down on a piece of paper each day and hid it within saffron pages. The answer would always be in the books. He had only to select an edition to find himself again. But soon it was not only his name, but places, people, poems, verse, prose. Scraps became sheets, essays, novellas. Folded pieces of paper within pages, a vellum city, which he tiptoed around at night, as the towers swayed in his presence.

In autumn light, he would shuffle from room to room, his hands filled with lined sheets, folded notes, envelopes stuffed with precious words that he struggled up foot stools and ladders to preserve. Sometimes he unwittingly returned quotes to the very books they originated from. He nestled his thoughts and rumination between the very pages that had inspired them almost instinctively. Inside them he preserved the part of himself he wished to keep immortal.

There had been a time when their wisdom had been entrusted to his memory. The wisdom of his books would be effortlessly shared over wine. He would amaze friends and guests with his ability to orienteer himself around the dizzying collection that enshrined them, even in a haze of alcohol. He knew where each word lay.

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Lovers teased him for living like an old man before his time. Friends patiently navigated tomes and limited editions like weary parents who had asked a child to clear away his play things for the last time. Family urged him to assemble shelves, offered Swedish names and their able hands to help contain the chaos he was constructing. He would laugh and refuse. It would not be the same, neatly filed onto shelves. He took comfort in the rustling of loose leaves, felt at peace in the nest of knowledge he had constructed for himself.

As time passed the laughter, visits faded like pencil on paper. He struggled to remember the words he treasured so much, tracing sentences with his fingers, mouthing words like desperate prayers to his mind. The edges of his memory yellowed and became brittle. Fragile. The comfort once offered by the origami city he had constructed turned into a torment. A monument to a fading glory.  He gave up the spoken word for written ones hoping to seal them what remained inside him and preserve what remained in the books that he loved.

His mind was treacherous. It tottered and wobbled, escaped him when he most needed it. Made him look like a fool. Books wouldn’t betray him. But even after each memory had been filed away and his untrustworthy synapses had been replaced with rice paper, he would waver like the towers around him.  His handwriting became unfamiliar. The words foreign in his mouth. He became lost for them and in the ensuing panic would scribble and squirrel away prose within the pages of once majestic pine. Then he would pine for the thoughts he had misplaced.

His mind housed ghostly voices that drowned his own, too scared and unsure of himself to decide whether to believe one or the other. His faith in himself was unshakeable, until shaken. His mind an Oak, admired for its strength and presence, now it trembled with a breeze, falling memories pooled around him, leaving him feeling old and bare. Which book now housed his childhood? What edition had he selected for his lost love stories? 

His name was on the tip of his tongue, but never to leave his lips and he looked around in a panic, at the silent books that towered around him. Bullies keeping his most precious possessions from him. Playing keep away with memories he had treasured. Or at least this was the story he had told himself, feverishly written down and drunkenly espoused to strangers, who politely nodded before helping him home to sit in the shadow of his fading thoughts.

One morning he awoke and nothing was left inside. Empty of words, empty of thoughts, He fell to the ground like a useless draft, balled up and carelessly tossed across a room. The books towered over him. Solemn. Pitying. His sobs shook the room. A collection by Rumi was the first to fall, tumbling carelessly between wavering stacks. They rocked and swayed nudging each other until like dominoes they toppled. His anguished moan was greeted with a confetti of quotes, poems and nostalgia.  As they thundered down he remained prostrated at the feet of his once immense knowledge. His name was restored to the world, blanketed in books. His last breath raised the first quote that he’d ever memorised before it came to rest on his lips.

” Life is a balance between holding on and letting go.”

 

Main image by
Aaron Burden

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Waking Sleep

I’ve started sleeping where and when I can.
I sleep with my keys between my knuckles, jaw clenched. My dentist says I’m grinding my teeth. He gave me a retainer. Putting in a retainer on public transport and passing out like a narcoleptic is not a wise move at the best of times. It’s not going to end well where I live. Gurning, on the other hand, implies instability. It wards off potential perverts, thieves and weirdos. But it concerns my dentist.
You can’t keep everyone happy.
I’ve started sleeping on TfL. Unreliable, but I’m an insomniac so I’m used to unreliable. I plan my journeys as I lie awake in bed. Acton to Clapham. Willesden to Camden. Ealing to Mile End. Leave an hour earlier. Find a seat in the middle so I don’t feel bad when I open my eyes to a pregnant lady being ignored by the entire carriage. Clutch my bag, take my keys out, and breathe deeply. Metal groans and gasps lure me to sleep. I can the feel eyes every time the doors kiss their teeth at me. I rest my head on a stranger. They recoil and I jerk awake to see a Greek chorus of sombre faces floating in front of me like defective holograms, flickering in and out of the light.
I’m staring with my mouth open.
I let the creaks and whines pull me back to sleep as we go underground.

Light hits my face and I immediately wake, check my phone. I’ve got 20 minutes to kill. There’s a park near the next stop. Sleeping in public places provokes the unnecessary concern of mums, fearful pensioners and the unwanted attention of the police. I think I was once moved along by an officer on horseback. But it may have been a dream. I can still hear the hoof beats trailing me as I walked away.

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Shit. I zoned out and missed my stop.

I check my watch: five minutes. I get off at the next stop and cross the platform to get the next train back. ‘Parallel Jalebi’ plays in my head as brightly coloured saris, excited children and annoyed commuters move along in synch with the music. An impromptu MTV moment brought to me by chance. I move through the crowd like water, slowly, clumsily, eager to get out.

I’m late. They haven’t arrived yet. I watch couples wander off hand in hand down Roman Road. Tourists stand in front of me like I was a lamppost and work out how to walk to Shorditch. Uni students marvel at the man in Hammer pants and a gold flat cap pushing a scooter past the pub where they are drinking. A hand rests on my shoulder.

I talk too much. It has been a while since I had a face-to-face conversation with someone. A real conversation, not an argument, or a sales call. I remind myself to shut up. Silence often scares me. I enjoy moments of quiet, but then I feel afloat in space and I worry I’ll disconnect from reality completely. Tom blames social media.

I blame social awkwardness.

Easier to work out what Disney character I am than contemplate the fact that I’ve been alone for over 5 days, and haven’t spoken to a person IRL for weeks. A huge chunk of my life is virtual.

I’m seeing friends, something that’s become harder and harder to want to do. Being around people. Seeing people, physically seeing people, messes with the illusion I’m asleep. I can trick myself into thinking it’s all a dream. Just bursts of noise, or colour, weaving in and out of silence that I can watch like a painting or ‘Gogglebox.’ But right now I’m confused. I don’t know if it’s real or not real. I zone out, smile, look vacant. I drift in and out of conversations that I’m certain I’ve already had with people who felt the same but dressed differently. Indifferent. I’m bored. It feels like I’m trapped inside my body and someone is punching me repeatedly. I excuse myself to hyperventilate in the bathroom. I fall asleep.
I sleep soundly on the tube. I think in part it’s because I’m surrounded by people. I’ve never liked sleeping alone.
The banging wakes me up. I exit the bathroom ignoring the pissed, pissed off overweight woman dying for a slash. Everyone’s left. The tightness in my chest disappears.

Adrenaline stops me from sleeping on the journey home. I feel awake. Everyone on the tube has a greenish hue. The lighting on the tube does that. I catch the person in front of me staring and I stare back. Embarrassed, he plays with his phone. He glances to see if I’ve stopped looking. I’m still staring. He gets off at the next stop.

I like watching people. Looking at their faces as they read the paper, hold their children, hold hands, doze off drunkenly. The sun is setting. As we leave the tunnel, faces go from green to gold. Eyes squint. The train feels silent as I get off at my stop.

When I get home I lie on the wooden floor in the living room and stare at the strange shapes on the ceiling. The wallpaper is peeling. I drift off to a conversation I’d had with a man I’d loved, in a place I’d seen in a painting once. The intimacy makes me sob myself awake.

It’s 4.06.

I plan my journey into work.