Helen Weir
With apologies to Jack alone (Chapter Two)
By Helen Weir
April 13, 2017

"If you're just going to stand there, let someone else sit down."

Did this abrupt interloper with the saggy jowls, heavy brows, and New-Yorked-over Irish brogue really have any more right than I had to situate oneself advantageously in anticipation of the Talk? Slightly less, one would have thought. I was there first.

And as I turned to say so, the vision of Caerleon (if vision it was) got absorbed into the undistinguished palette all around us – into the tedious lack of variation not just of the Fletcher Center or even of the Grey Town itself, but of this entire place far, far beyond them as well, where even greater and more impressive structures are ever being erected with sufficient imperialism to leave no little stretch of horizon uncluttered anywhere; structures which, though meeting their makers' specifications perfectly in every last particular, invariably fail with the most final of all failures to impede the deathdash of even a single raindrop. And the ubiquitous drizzle which those innumerable drops comprised showed no sign of letting up anywhere.

Now, I wouldn't swear to this next bit in a court of law. But I, for my part, remain immutably convinced that I simultaneously caught, out of the corner of my eye, on the back of the curiously upholstered chair upon the seat cushion of which I should have had the presence of mind to put my Program on in the first place, an inscription which both appeared and disappeared next to instantaneously, yet which seemed as though etched there forever during the moment in which it lasted. If the phenomenon was a figment of my imagination, it singularly failed to conform to my expectations, for the writing I glimpsed could hardly be called illuminated in the way that I would have thought that, say, Launcelot du Lac should have been. Imploded might be a better descriptor, for that lettering seemed to suck in what little light there was, dulling our immediate surroundings just as shining would have brightened them.

I didn't understand what had been so arrestingly spelled out. The vanishing script must have belonged to a foreign alphabet, I thought, or could have been inverted, like a reflection. But I had no opportunity to debate such matters internally, because the person who evidently wanted the Celtic-knotted chair for himself was still standing there. If he had noticed anything out of the ordinary, he offered no change of scowl.

I drew in breath to open the dispute, but found myself about to burst out, Slave Driver! Is that you? By god, it's good to see you again! instead. Thankfully I caught myself in time this time, letting the foolish words wither on my tongue. What did it matter how much I was reminded of my old companion-in-arms during the Ampersand & Co. decades, Mr. Charles "Ned" MacDowell? That was the trick of this Town, you see, and I, for one, was tired of having it played on me.

Ever since the hour I had first arrived – and was that yesterday, or a thousand years since? – practically everyone I met either appeared, or sounded, or acted like someone I had known Before, only they never turned out to be that person in the end. And this same thing kept on happening over and over again: the warm rush of recognition; the heart-clenching realization that there must be some mistake; the melting of friendly features into a foreign, misshapen mask – no. I knew the drill, and I wasn't going to be put through it any more.

Not me; no more.

Having one's hopes dashed repeatedly, relentlessly, only made everything a bit less bearable by the instant; the Dusk that hovered in the hazy distance, a shuddering shade deeper still. Best not to fight it, I thought to myself for something like the ten thousandth time; best to take it stoically, or even poetically, if one could. Wasn't it Hopkins who had penned something about leading a "life among strangers"?

And anyway, I had already tried everything else.

At first, I found myself hoping it might just be a matter of getting acclimated to the new conditions, as one would have done upon, say, relocating to a different altitude back on Earth. Eventually these kinds of interactions – jarring, perhaps, but of no ultimate existential significance, surely – would taper off, or one would get used to them and take no further notice. But incontrovertible experience had disproven this hypothesis both sadly and repeatedly.

I also did some asking around. After all, I couldn't be the only one ever to have felt momentarily disconcerted in this way. But if others had been through similar encounters, they weren't willing to admit it; the people I took into my confidence on the point either shook their heads and departed without another word, or else issued loud, mocking pronouncements to the effect that I was manifestly off my rocker. That was when I grudgingly began to comprehend that there wasn't going to be anything to rely on but observation, and no one to consult with save myself.

There was only the individual who may or may not have been Ned, refusing to take a hint and shove off himself.

Maybe a month before tonight's Talk, give or take, I had reached the firm conclusion that other people knew people; it had to be so. I mean, they clearly knew people from Before, and not just the ones they had met after arriving here in the Grey Town, like I did. I was definitely in some kind of stew.

Take that insipid Mrs. Goodbody (or Whatever) and her toady of an offspring, now. Their problem is precisely that they know one another too well – which is, as Sartre so eloquently put it, exactly what it takes to turn simple existence into a living hell.

And another thing. When Pamela got back, she kept banging on about "running into my brother Reginald, instead of Michael," like it was the worst luck ever (and like anybody cared). For god's sake, if your son is as worthless as you say, why were you trying so hard to reconnect with him in the first place? I was left wanting to scream – and feeling, truth be told, just a little bit stiffed.

I mean, at least Pam had been allowed to see someone she knew! Naturally, the selfish so-and-so never stopped to appreciate the fact; but what had she ever done to deserve an opportunity like that? How was she any better than me? Heaven knows I have my faults, but can you honestly name someone – anyone? – who hasn't?

Fair is fair, after all. The problem isn't in me, but in what I have found all around me. Or rather, in what I have failed to find. Because I ask you: where is he? Where is He? Can anybody tell me that?

I didn't think so.

Moments later, we were nicely settled in. Yes; the gruff individual who strongly resembled my former co-worker proved successful in his appropriation of what should have been my place, while I was relegated to his. And what is so bad about that? One should extend charity to others – particularly, to menacing others – from time to time, if one hopes also to receive it. That infernal woman with the thick spectacles, thin wrists, and light shawl who had situated herself on my other side was apologizing for elbowing me in the ribs again (this time, during the course of extracting something entirely unnecessary from the bowels of her oversized handbag), when the lights flicked on and off. Chair legs clattered; backpacks got shoved in the way of somebody else's feet. The neighbor I might as well start calling Ned made a production of pointing out the two Well-Tailored Ones somberly approaching the Stage at long last, as though convinced I would have proven incapable of detecting them on my own.

© Helen Weir


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