“I say I would relive what was.”
I found the message on the pavement outside my house as I was leaving for work. It was written in white chalk and faced the door as if it had intentionally been written for me to read as I walked down the steps. The letters were quite large and very readable, and the message was centred neatly on the square of pavement directly in front of the steps. A decorative border surrounded the message. The obvious care with which it had been written brought me to a halt. It felt curiously inappropriate to tread on the letters. I moved to the side and put my foot down just to the right of the message.
The message hadn’t been there when I returned the previous night. I was sure of that. I would have seen it. That meant it had been written after 10:30 pm, when I got back. I drew back the sleeve of my coat and consulted my watch. It was 7:30. That left a period of nine hours in which it could have been written. The sun was rising around 6:00, and I thought it unlikely that someone would have chalked the message on the pavement in daylight. It somehow seemed an activity suited more to the night. And where had the person stood or knelt? The last words were so close to my steps. He—or she, it could have been a woman—the lettering betrayed nothing about the writer. As often happens when I confront a mystery, the lawyer in me takes over. I find it useful in working through a problem to imagine myself questioning a witness. “Let’s call the writer the ‘anonymous scribe,’ ” that self intoned. “Where did the anonymous scribe sit?” And the witness answered, “The anonymous scribe must have sat on your steps, at least to write the last words.”
Then, too, the phrasing was so odd. Why “I say”? “I would relive what was” was a simple statement of a desire. Surely that would be what most people would write. One wanted to relive an incident in one’s past—a happy time or something that one got wrong the first time and wanted to redo perhaps. But what was one to make of the “I say”? The old-fashioned exclamation “I say!” was unlikely. Was it “I say I would relive what was”? I as opposed to someone else. Or was it “I say I would relive the past”? Meaning, this is something I say I would like to do but not something I would actually do. Of course, it wasn’t possible to relive the past. So one could only claim to want to do it. But it seemed so unnecessary to emphasize that point. It was an ambiguous message at best, and one that seemed to mean less and less the more one thought about it.
“I see the hooligans have been at work. One would think the police would protect us against such filth in this neighbourhood. Our rates are certainly high enough.”
My head jerked up in surprise at the interruption. I had been so engrossed in speculating about the inscription that I hadn’t noticed the other man come up. I didn’t recognise him even though, to judge from his comments, he lived in the neighbourhood. My mind was still on the nature of the message. “Interesting phrasing, though.”
The other man harrumphed and eyed me with disdain. “I would write the council and complain, but those ninnies would just protect the criminal’s right to free expression. Useless.” His jowls shook with his indignation. He scuffed the message with the sole of one of his shoes in an attempt to efface it. All he accomplished was to smear the chalk.
“Probably just some child amusing himself,” I said in an attempt to downplay any malicious intent behind the graffiti.
“Then his parents should spank him and make him scrub it off and apologise. Teach him a lesson.” The man strode off shaking his head.
The man’s excessive irritation left me slightly bemused. I shrugged and headed for train station. In the press of work, I soon forgot about the message. It was dark when I returned home that evening, and a day’s worth of traffic had all but erased the chalk marks from the pavement and my mind. In fact, I would probably never have thought of the message again if it hadn’t been for the book.
The book was sitting on the hallway table along with my mail and a note from the cleaning woman explaining that she had found the book on the front steps and thought I might have dropped it. It was a paperback book, but the cover and the title page and other front matter pages were missing. Oddly, despite the missing elements, it appeared to be a new book. The corners of the pages were still square, and there was no sign that it had been read. The book block started with page 1. I turned it over. The last page was numbered 316 and ended midway down the page. I fanned the pages, looking for some clue to the mystery. There were no running heads indicating the title or the author’s name, but the frequent appearance of conversations among descriptive passages made it clear that it was a novel. I put it back on the table and picked up my mail. If anything, I thought of it as no more than a free book that might provide a few hours of distraction.
A few nights later, I found nothing to interest me on the telly. It was drizzling outside, and I had no inclination to go out. It seemed a good night to turn in early and read in bed until I became tired enough to sleep. As I checked to make sure that the front door was locked and bolted, I saw the book lying on the table in the hallway and carried it upstairs.
I don’t know what I expected to find when I started reading it. I assumed that it would be some sort of mass-market paperback, the sort of thing one reads while riding the train or waiting in an airport, where half the prose is boilerplate cobbled together from the preceding dozen novels in the series and the characters are the stock figures of television serials. The book was a mystery/thriller, and in that it fulfilled my expectations. It was, however, extremely well written, and the characters were drawn with great psychological insight. The plot was not all that original but the skill of the storytelling held my attention and kept me up far later than I had intended.
Early in the year, a man—in the book he is called only Benjamin, no surname is ever given—sets off for a week’s holiday at his seaside cottage in Cornwall. The novel opens with a description of his busy life—he is some sort of important businessman—and the hectic nature of his days and the tension surrounding him contrasts strongly with the quiet and solitude he expects to find on the Cornish coast. At this time of year, he reasons, he will be alone.
The final stage of his journey is a road along the coast. Late in the day, at a time of year when the weather makes the area unattractive, his is at first the only car. About halfway to the cottage, another car, a red car, comes up behind him, follows him for a quarter-mile or so, and then speeds past him. The coastal road has many curves, and he thinks the other car’s speed dangerous. That keeps the car present in his mind. Every time he comes around a curve, he expects to find the red car overturned, its front end crumbled. But when he sees no further sign of the car, he supposes that it turned off and that he didn’t notice it parked beside one of the many holiday homes lining the coast.
When he arrives, he finds signs that someone has entered his cottage. Nothing is missing, and nothing is damaged, but there is a sheet of blank paper in the centre of the table in the kitchen. Most disturbingly he finds an attaché case on the floor of the wardrobe in the bedroom. The sheet of paper might be something he failed to discard on his last visit and subsequently forgot, but he knows that he has never seen the attaché case before.
When he opens the case, he finds it filled with money, several thousand pounds he estimates. He searches the pockets of the case and finds the usual paraphernalia—a small pad of paper (not the same size as the sheet of paper on the kitchen table), a pen. He is intrigued, but he begins to worry when he finds one of his business cards tucked deep into one of the pockets. It was no accident that the case has been left in his cottage.
The case also holds a slim mobile phone. He flips the phone open and discovers that it is fully charged. At that point the phone rings. He responds automatically—the phone is in his hand and open. Without thinking, he answers it. But his ‘hello’ is met with silence. Frightened, he terminates the call. He realises that he made a mistake in answering the call. Whoever left the money now knows that he has discovered the case. He becomes hypersensitive to sounds and begins to imagine that he can hear someone outside the cottage. He rushes downstairs and locks the door. He is still carrying the phone. He checks it, but there are no messages, no record of other calls, no stored phone numbers. Nothing. It is as if the phone has never been used apart from the one call.
He is conflicted about the money. He wants it, but he reasons that the money has to be illegal—loot from a robbery, or drug money—and he doesn’t want it found in his cottage. But whoever left the case in his cottage knows who he is. The presence of his business card proves that. He worries that if he takes the money, the person will seek him out and demand the money. He decides that he has to get rid of the case so that it can’t be associated with himself. He rechecks all the pockets in the case to make sure that there is nothing that ties it to him and tries to wipe every surface that he remembers touching. Then, using gloves, he carries the case outside looking for a place to hide it. He finds objections to every place he considers. At one point, he feels that he is being watched, but then chides himself that he is becoming paranoiac. In the end, he takes the case back into his cottage and puts it back in the wardrobe.
By now it is late evening. He has worked himself into a panic and decides to flee. On his way back to London, he notices a red car keeping a steady distance behind him. He thinks it is the same car that he saw earlier. Every time he looks in the mirror, the car is there. He can’t decide if he is intentionally being followed or if the car just happens to be on the same road as he. He begins checking the mirror so obsessively that he almost has an accident. He realises that he should not be on the road and decides to stop at a motel. With great relief he sees the red car continue on the highway as he pulls off on the slip road.
His relief is short lived. His life becomes filled with messages without content. He receives an envelope in the mail that contains only an empty sheet of paper. His phone rings but no one is on the line. He thinks he is being watched. A blank sign appears in the window of a shop near his house. He overhears conversations in languages he cannot understand. Most of the time, his television set produces only static, white noise with hints of voices in the background and ghosts of pictures slowly scrolling down the screen. When he does get a good signal, the sound does not match the picture. It is as if the spoken words and the visual images came from different programmes. He finds a file folder on his desk at work when he arrives one morning filled with pages of nonsense. None of his co-workers knows anything about it. He meets a woman. They become close, but there are hints that she is not what she seems.
The plot was basic thriller—an innocent drawn into a mystery and implicated in it. However, something about the writing made reading the book an intense experience for me. I had very clear mental pictures of the man and those he encountered. It was almost as if I was hallucinating the narrative rather than reading it. As the man disintegrated further into paranoia and madness, I felt myself being carried along. The man’s thoughts became my thoughts, his actions became my actions. I became the man as he tried to convince others of the reality of what was happening around him and as he began to doubt his own sanity in the face of others’ disbelief.
The man’s collapse (I almost wrote “our” collapse) was mirrored by the physical disintegration of the copy of the book I was reading. Without a cover to hold it together, the book began to come apart after I read the first half. First sections of pages began to come off in my hands, and then individual pages. Towards the end, the pages of the book were scattered over my bed.
In the end, the man decides to return to the cottage and turn the money over to the police. And there my copy of the book ended. In mid-stream. What I had thought was the end of the book was simply the end of a chapter. I searched through the sheets of paper on my bed, looking for the next pages in the sequence. Finally, I methodically arranged them in order. There were none I hadn’t read.
I felt bereft. It was as if someone I cared for deeply had vanished without trace. One minute we were intimate friends, privy to all details of each other’s life. The next minute he was gone, possibly in danger, his life threatened by the meaningless chaos threatening to engulf him. I had to find the end of the narrative.
My search led me to bookstores and libraries. Most of the clerks I spoke with had no knowledge of the book. Their lack of interest in my plight was apparent. At best, I received half-hearted apologies for their ignorance. The few who thought my description sounded familiar were even worse. They tried to help, offering me this or that title. I never had to read past the first sentence to know that none of them was the narrative I sought. My hopes were raised only to be dashed. It grew difficult to thank them for their well-intentioned suggestions. In my desperation, I even snapped at one persistent helper who kept pulling new titles from the shelves and stacking them in front of me on the counter.
I combed the fragments of my copy of the book looking for a significant phrase that might have served the author as the title and then searched the internet for a book with that title. I Googled unique phrases in the hope that I would find an online version of the book. I pestered the frequent readers among my acquaintances. All to no avail.
In retrospect, my frenzy, for want of a better term, is inexplicable. It was after all only a book, a work of fiction. It was not the key to the meaning of life, it did not hold the answers to humanity’s problems. But the truncated narrative was suspended between meaninglessness and meaning. I think that more than anything else was what drove me. The break in the text abandoned the main character, and unless I could find the complete book, he would be left dangling in an unfinished story, a story made worse by its multiplication of signs without apparent meaning. For some reason, perhaps because of something in my own life, that struck home. In the end, it wasn’t the fate of the character in the book but my own future that concerned me.
It became more and more difficult for me to hide my frustration. To judge from one of my colleague’s comments, others had noticed my lack of attention to my work and my growing distance from what previously had been the everyday routine of my life.
I began reading the book obsessively, searching for clues that foreshadowed the resolution of the story. During one of these rereadings, it occurred to me that the description of Benjamin’s trip to Cornwall was meticulous enough to be traceable on a map. Even the local roads that lead to his seaside cottage were shown on the detailed map of the area available on the internet. And when I switched to the satellite image, I could see the group of cottages at the end of the road. I could even identify the one in which Benjamin found the case with the money.
The moment I discovered that the narrative was anchored in a real place, I knew that I would have to visit it. It was around 11:00 pm by that point, and I should have gone to bed, but I was too excited to sleep. I called my office and left a message telling my clerk to cancel all my appointments for the remainder of the week. I hastily packed a bag and set off.
The trip was uneventful, although I did notice what seemed an unusual number of red cars on the road. I knew that that was only a coincidence and that, because of the book, I was more aware of them, but I considered them confirmation that I was on the right track at last. Each time I saw a red car, my faith grew that I would find the answer when I reached Benjamin’s cottage.
It was still dark as I drove along the coast. After I left the main road, I saw no other cars and the countryside seemed deserted. There were no houses, no lights. I knew from the map that the ocean was off to the left, not far from the road, but I could not see it. If there were waves breaking on the beach, I could not hear them. Oddly even the smell of the ocean was missing. It was as if the countryside had been sanitised of anything that might register on the senses.
I almost missed the turning to the cottages. The book mentioned a fingerpost at the entrance to the road, with signs blazoned with the fanciful names of the holiday cottages. A storm must have blown it down, or perhaps someone had uprooted it and carried it off, because no evidence of its existence remained. It was only luck that I happened to see the gravelled path leading off to the right. As it was, I was going too fast to slow in time. By the time I braked and stopped, I had passed the road and had to back up.
The gravel ended after twenty feet. Thereafter the road deteriorated into two parallel ruts with a grassy hummock between them. It was beginning to get light, and I could make out the cottages a mile or so ahead, at the end of the headland. Reluctant to risk damage to the undercarriage of my car, I decided to walk the rest of the way. I backed up to the main road and pulled over onto the narrow verge. There was no one about, and in any case there was no traffic on the road. I was certain that the car would be safe. I took my copy of the book from the car but left everything else.
My decision to walk was wise. The road to the cottages was almost impassable, even on foot. All the low spots will filled with water, and a car would most likely have become mired in the mud. Clearly the road was not used much. It was a mystery how anyone living in the cottages would bring in supplies or where they would park.
The solution to the mystery became clear as I neared the cottages. They were long abandoned. Vandals had left marks of their passage through the area, however. Doors were kicked in or missing, all the glass had been knocked out of the windows. Scorch marks on the walls attested to fires. Furniture and crockery had been dragged from the cottages and demolished. Spray-painted graffiti offered the usual selection of sexual terms and insults or assertions of the presence of this or that person. The joy of destruction was much in evidence.
It was apparent that I would find no answers to my questions here. Having come that far, I was loathe to leave without at least visiting Benjamin’s cottage. It was in no better shape than the others. The floor was littered with refuse. Someone appeared to have used it as a squat for a time. Food boxes and old newspapers mouldered on the floor, their lettering long since faded by rain and damp. The smell combined mildew, rot, and piss.
The staircase appeared to be solid, and I risked a visit to the upper floor to see the site of the wardrobe in which Benjamin had found the case with the money. There was only the one room—a bedroom under the steeply sloping roof. The vandals had destroyed all the furniture. Someone had taken an axe to the bed frame. The doors of the wardrobe had been torn off, and the wardrobe lay on its side. There was nothing in it.
Here, too, the graffiti writers had been at work, but the fact that this had been a bedroom had evidently spurred them to even greater sexual assaults on the walls. The claims were predictable. “Sheilagh is a slag”, “Jeremy sucks Dick”. The pictures were grotesque exaggerations of cartoonish breasts and genitals. The graffiti did serve one unintended purpose, however. They cleansed me of any lingering interest in the cottages.
I turned and walked quickly down the stairs. In my haste, I almost overlooked the message painted on the inside wall above the door. The rising sun shone through a back window and illuminated the area around the door, lending a rosy patina to the scarred walls. “I say I would relive what was.”
Like the message left months before on the pavement in front of my house, the message was neatly lettered and surrounded by a decorative border. I once stayed in a rustic hotel in Norway. Many of the doorways similarly had sayings painted over them, trivial wishes and trite sentiments such as “May wisdom guide our steps” or “Storms are followed by sunshine,” presented as if they were the perceptions of the ages. The lettering was an ornate Gothic-style script, and the mottoes were surrounded by elaborate and colourful floral borders.
The message over the door in the cottage was less elaborate, but it had one feature the Norwegian decorations did not. Over the top of it was spray painted a picture. The final message of Benjamin’s cottage was an obscenity. There was no resolution to his story, only a rotten structure and wanton defacement mocking me and my search.
I hurried back to my car. I felt much as I feel when I leave a doctor’s office—relief, no matter what the outcome, to be rid of that oppressive atmosphere. No matter how large the examination room, it feels small and the walls crowd in. No matter how careful and kind the doctors and nurses, they invade my space both physically and psychically. And overall lies the fear of the diagnosis. For now I am free. At the same time, a sense of dread clouds my thoughts and diminishes my relief. I will have to return in a few days.
Weeks before, someone had left a message outside my house. The same person had probably left the book, a book that led to a cottage on the coast with the same message. I could escape Benjamin’s cottage but not its message. I had no choice about that. I had to relive that. “A bait on purpose laid to make the taker mad.”
Did anyone ask Lazarus if he wanted to be brought back to life? Did he afterwards long for the cool certainty of the tomb? When faced with the ambiguous message, did he regret resurrection? Did Lazarus laugh?
Thanks to TracyN for proofing this work.