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Wednesday, 18 February 2015 19:29

Presupposing I

Our ill-fated character dozes in the afternoon sun, his hand across his groin, poised over a rabid rash. He is nothing if not efficient; in other words, he is a lazy sonofagun. To call him ‘ill-fated’ and ‘lazy’, and not ‘heroic’ and ‘tragic’, is an act of charity. But since audiences expect heroism from a story, let us agree to call our sonofagun a ‘tragic hero’ and this story a ‘heroic tragedy’.

At this moment, our Hamlet is thinking his grandest thoughts. ‘It is hot,’ he muses. It is always hot. ‘I am hungry.’ He is always hungry. His skin rises gleaming red from the waistband of his jeans. His lips are feathered with flaking skin. They sting when he licks them but still he licks them.

As he roasts on this beach of colourless sand and broken shells, he muses that his daily life feels like an eternity spent in a lukewarm bath, the skin of his fingers and toes corrugated like melted plastic. This is an uncommonly poetic vision for him, probably brought on by the heat and his terrible diet.

Then he has a second, less poetic idea: She Did This. He clenches the fingers of his free hand into a claw. In his mind, she is guilty by proximity – her presence in his life directly precedes this lukewarm bath. Aha. Every hero needs a tragic flaw, like Hamlet and his lily liver. Rummage through these paragraphs and clutch at his best-dressed liver, but know the most compelling of this man’s flaws threads through this story as a needle without thread.

Late morning, an elderly man picks his way barefoot across the beach, grimacing every few steps. When he is close enough, Hamlet spews forth his vision, beginning with “This is all her fault.

“I am the victor,” he says through clenched teeth. “The last one standing, the battle-weary,” or something similar.

He loved her the way one would love an animal they had tamed, or so he imagines, having never tamed an animal. Admittedly, someone else had done the tough work for him; her heart was already broken and all he had to do was pick among the spoils. He had just been the first dog to sniff out her hiding place.

“While we are talking about it,” he continues, “she didn’t love me.” He was just a stray she had picked up on the side of a road. She had meant to nurse him back to health and heal herself. He had known her kind before.

Any word from the other man would kill this monologue. Instead he stands with his hand above his eyes. A speck had scuttled through the froth and disappeared in its haze.

An itch tiptoes around the moonscape of Hamlet’s upper thigh like a jellyfish washed up with the tide. He flexes his fingers and probes the spot through his sodden jeans. The itch dulls until it disappears. Efficiency. He has had time to master the balance between effort and result.

To remember before this time is to soak in a lukewarm bath; the skin of his fingers and toes warp from the tips first, unfolding above the line of the first digit. The skin of his legs, stomach and arms reddens, fooled into thinking that the bath is warmer than the air, even as the water cools. Hunched down, up to his neck, he waits until the water is cold, trapped in this tepid illusion.

He had literally skipped (or tripped) down the steps, his head to the side to catch any last glimpses of her. At the bottom of the porch stairs, he swivelled to assess how final she considered this ‘final’ eviction. Her expression reminded him of a teacher he had once had. She had looked at him through the pinched skin around her eyes and spoke to him through the pinched skin around her lips. She expected him to disappoint her, as classrooms-full of children before him had. (This was a conundrum because by disappointing her, he would be living up to her expectations.)

What was her name? He spends hours now trying to remember her name, always swerving around to look at Vi’s face. He revises those lessons in disappointment: I am disappointed; I was disappointed; I am disappointing; I was disappointing.

When he isn’t revisiting boyhood lessons, he sleeps, stretched out on the sand like a piece of meat. As meat left in the sun does, patches of green have started to swell and stretch, noticeable even under the red sheen. He doesn’t move, except to scratch himself and lick his lips. His shirt simply fell apart. His jeans are tattered, the threads glued together with dried salt. He looks like what he is: a survivor (driftwood). A tragic hero (a lazy sonofagun).

When the shadows of the trees draw him from his bath, he sits and then stands, but does not bother to brush the sand from his body. He stomps towards the trees, muttering. He swears as he stands on something sharp. Various types of fruit tree line the beach, brought by sailors or waves or something more tragic. Most of the fruit is unripe, although it was also unripe when he settled here. There are few animals, most small and most nocturnal. This includes galley-loads of rats, but the first (and only) one he tried to hunt bit him.

“What are we going to eat tonight?” he asks the other man.

The man does not reply.

“You are really pissing me off,” he spits.

“I know.”

The woman behind the airline check-in counter had snuck a peak at him as she pretended to double-check his details. Normally he would have given her a rueful smile (which he imagined was coy) and cocked his chin. This time he stared at the ticket she waved between her fingers. The branding looked like a blue plane flying straight into a yellow sea. He liked that. She pushed his ticket across the counter and stared at the console, embarrassed now.

As he had left, he grabbed a book from the bookshelf, ready to argue that it was his. Instead of shoving it into his bag, he kept it in one hand, clutched to his chest. It was only while waiting for his flight to board did he notice what he had taken: An introduction to... Heidegger. Oh well, he had not taken it to read.

He stepped on to the shuttle, still clutching the book, pushing and shoving past other commuters to the last open seat. Two elderly people stood clutching one of the poles – they were both too bowed over to reach up to the ropes. He rested the book on his lap, one hand held over its front cover. A third hand reached from his right and tapped the top of the book, then clutched his arm as the shuttle swung around a yellow cone. The hand was collared by a rolled-up sky-blue sleeve.

“I studied a bit of philosophy, when I was still eager and sprightly,” the arm said. Its voice creaked over the sounds ‘s’ and ‘t’ like the shuttle’s brakes.

“I’ve always wondered... Is it possible to say ‘I think’ without the ‘I’?” He pauses a moment but doesn’t seem to expect an answer. “I suppose it might be. Maybe.

“But can you see the larger problem? Can you? There needs to be an ‘I’ to be thinking. Even if you just commanded “Think!” you would be addressing someone. The ‘I’ would still be implied. I mean, how can you say that you think without referring to the idea of you?

“A labyrinth that always leads to a centre!”

The man paused for a moment. He took his hand back and Hamlet heard the sound sandpaper makes on wood, which was finger against stubble. That meant he was going to carry on.

“We assume a labyrinth has an entrance, if not an exit. We assume it, presume it. When we say ‘labyrinth’, we presuppose an entrance. So am ‘I’ presupposed? What about ‘you’ and ‘we’ and ‘them’? You think, therefore you are. Are you?

“I’ve always wondered,” he repeated, his mind drifting as the shuttle pulled up to the plane and the doors opened.

Our hero had seen that hand again, as he bobbed in the water in his life jacket. At least, the man’s wrists were collared by a sky-blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Then someone screamed and he saw a puff of twirling black smoke on the other side of the plane. He closed his eyes, uselessly tried to wipe the salt from them and opened them again. The plane was sinking, slowly, slowly. He had rolled on his back, and began kicking away from the plane and, he had hoped, toward something.

“Am I presupposed?” he wondered every few kicks, without knowing what the question meant, trying to recall the very last moment that felt real.

At first, he had paced the beach waiting for a search party to find him. He was so sure that he would be rescued, he did not count the days or venture inland or look for food. He had slept in a nook made by trampling undergrowth near the beach. He walked, then stood, then sat, then lay on the beach every day, until his shirt had frayed into strips and fell off without him noticing. His sunburn had peeled, browned and reddened into wrinkled leather without him seeing a single plane or ship. Soon, he will sleep where he lies.

The only person who had known he was on that plane was the woman behind the airline counter. Half of the bodies were never recovered and they found no survivors. No one is looking for him; he is not tragic nor a hero, just life’s chump. There is not even a story.

Between kicks and one revolving philosophical question, our hero had decided he was a hero. A merchant ship would stop and collect him on its way back from Japan. He would play cards and learn basic Japanese, while she cried into cupped hands. When he walked back up those porch steps, he would be like a returning soldier. It would be early evening, just after she had come home from work. She would be untying her hair when she felt rather than heard his steps. He wouldn’t knock – she would stand still fiddling with her hair for a moment. Then she would run, stand on her toes, wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him. The book would be in his back pocket.

“Am I presupposed?” he wondered each morning. His voice creaked in the same way that man’s had. A pink-tipped rat an arm’s reach from him stands on its hind-legs and sniffed the air. He doesn’t notice.

‘Supposed’ to him means something you are meant to have done and haven’t. The question is actually an accusation. He spends some time thinking about what he might have been meant to do, what might have kept him safely on land. He remembers how he could have prevented her tears and fists and stuttered swearing. He circles the moment in the swaying of a shuttle, that man’s hand squeezing his arm and his irritation.

When he slept – and when he still had the energy to dream – he tripped down the steps, turned to Lana and saw another expression. He saw that she had wanted exactly what he had wanted from her.

The oxygen masks had popped out pre-emptively, before the turbulence threw the passengers around like Lego in a box. The book had slipped from his hands to the front of the plane just before he had hit his head on the seat in front of him. He had bought the book for Vi. She had considered buying the book one day as they whiled the time away. She didn’t. It took him two months to track down another second-hand copy, because she mistrusted the smell of new books. Once, he considered dunking a new copy in water and dowsing it in coffee. She read it cover to cover and then displayed it on the bookshelf.

He is dozing again, his hand moved to his chest, where the skin has begun to bubble. Soon it will flake and writhe with life, leaving bones like bleached seaweed on the beach. It looks like it will storm tonight. The beach will writhe with waves, dismantling the skeleton that had seemed so sturdy when encased in flesh. The sea will pore over his bones, caress them and discard them like trifles in a lucky packet.
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Camilla Lloyd

Camilla is a writer and editor, born and bred in Joburg, and living in Cape Town. A reclusive creature, she can be drawn into conversation about popular science, ECD education and the arts, and heated debates about feminism, science fiction and parking spots. Above all, however, she is a reader of literature.

Website: in-search-of-something.blogspot.com/
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