Last Known Surroundings

That morning, after a rather detailed dream in which he lived in a world where people were segregated based on the type of bowed string instruments they owned, Cyril woke up and at once knew that he was going to die that evening, and that in exactly thirty days – not more, nor less – everybody else would die too.

How would that happen? In a vague mixture of dream and reality, he speculated that an asteroid had gone astray, and was making its way towards earth with all the anticipated ferocity. He could almost picture it turning red as it entered earth’s atmosphere, gathering momentum before it performed the final act of plunging humanity into oblivion.

It was a cloudy morning and the sky threatened to resume its merciless downpour anytime. Cyril stared deep into the ceiling without shifting positions, trying hard to determine what exactly had let him know of this. He could come up with nothing, though. Like the dream itself that his mind had conjured up and entertained him during his hours of limbo, any precursor of this thought had vanished from his consciousness. However, the fact remained: he had only a day to live.

Brushing off any futile efforts to think back, he quickly got out of bed and walked to the bathroom. After a few splashes of water on his face, thoughts cleared, and formed into little strings of describable images. As he got dressed, he tried making a list of things to do. The shabby bed that he faced as he buttoned his shirt faced him back with the most familiar of questions: What was death like?

Cyril had graduated from the University only a few months ago and had secured a job at the construction site of the city’s new suspension bridge. It had been over a year since the project itself had started and work on building piers had just begun. Often he felt guilty about heading the assigned section of the project, as he looked at people often falling unconscious on warmer days, as well as struggling to move a finger in winter. It was only a week before that one of the men had died in an accident as he slipped off the ladder to a crane and fell near the bank. His family had been compensated and the labourers mourned for him the following morning before they returned to work, staring in the eye, at a fate not too different.

Cyril tried to capture images in time as they blurred past him outside the window standing inside a fast moving train. As the suburbs cleared and the train moved into busier parts of the city, he saw more and more slum dwellers stepping out onto the tracks to carry out their morning ablutions. Mothers bathed their kids near the cracks in the wall that separated the tracks from inhabitation, other people defecated a ways. Every now and then he saw little dogs scampering across the tracks upon hearing the sound of an approaching train. He looked up to see billboards advertising insurance policies that took care of everything that you worked hard for after you died.

In the midst of stinking humanity struggling to get dry footing near the door of the carriage, Cyril tried hard to dispel any thoughts. But they did not budge. There is so much suffering in this world. It gave him a newfound moment of glee upon acknowledging its fleeting nature. This time he was sure it wouldn’t last long. Thirty days. He thought, as well as refused to think. People will die soon. A quick death. Painless. As the train pulled into the terminal, he found himself quietly approving of this euthanasia.

But there were also people whom he wished well for – his family, for instance. His father had passed away a few years ago and his mother stayed back in the country with her elder son, who worked in the farms. His thoughts strayed to memories of his father. Had he really died? Cyril asked himself. Sure, his father was no more in this world, and his body no longer existed in the same form as it did once. But he had still lived for the years that followed – in the memories of his family and friends. For the life that his father had lived, he continued to stay in people’s minds for as long as they were alive themselves. Cyril would often have dreams himself, of his father taking him for fishing, or the two of them building a winter house for their dog. Is this what afterlife is?

The more he thought about it, the more he wished for a similar life after death. He wanted to be remembered for all that he had done. This is what people work for during their lifetime. Cyril looked around the terminal, and stood frozen for a few seconds, taking in the hustle. Everyone wanted to be recognized for their work, and eventually remembered for it. It was the root of all competition and all evil, but at the same time, it was the real human reason: to live beyond the boundaries of existence.

With the limitation of time pressing down on him, he felt the urge to be in so many places at the same time. He wanted to see his mother at the country, but also get to work. He hadn’t seen his fiancé in a week and they had had a date planned for the weekend. Now he knew that would never materialize. Should he call her and cancel it? He had never cancelled one before. He felt some pride at that thought. Maybe he would let it pass and she would come to know about it the following morning anyway. And she would remember him as the man who loved her until the very end. Most importantly she would remember him. But only for thirty days.

He made his way out of the railway station into the streets and towards the construction site, which was a few minutes on foot. The sky was a little overcast, but not as gloomy as it was in the suburbs. The emission from all the automobiles and factories added to the warmth and suffocation in the cities, not to mention the tall buildings that tried to bully insignificant human beings with their lifetime.

As he walked, Cyril realized that he had unconsciously made his way through the shortest route to the site. He stopped short and changed course almost instinctively, choosing to take the longest route. He wanted to experience every bit of his journey, to the workplace. He tried hard not to think of what he would do once he got there, which was not too difficult as he began observing these new streets that he was taking for the only time in his life.

*

“Good weather isn’t it?” a co-worker remarked, as Cyril stepped into the site with a helmet over his head.

“Yeah, I guess. It’s raining where I live, though” he replied, studying the half constructed pier. “How much have the columns cured?”

“Well, the rain has been doing us a favour for the time being, but soon it will be a menace as we proceed. For now we are focusing on getting work on the land done. The anchorage is far more important.”

The next few hours, Cyril spent conducting the bunch of workers under him as well as monitored their activities – the kind of mixture that they set the machines for, directing incoming materials, safe storage of cast concrete pieces and such. The day got brighter as it progressed and at lunchtime, he felt like he had returned from another world.

“So tell me,” he said to the co-worker as they stood smoking by the bank after lunch, “if humanity were to be erased soon, how much meaning would you attach to all the work you do?”

“Well,” the co-worker replied, “it really depends. How soon are you talking about here? I mean, we’re all going to die, and I’m sure humans would be extinct at some point. Do you think that’s a problem? I’m sure we’d all be dead long before that. It shouldn’t really matter to us should it? I mean, how much control do we have over such things?”

“How about thirty days?”

The co-worker laughed, coughing some smoke, “Where do you get these numbers from, eh? Let’s see. Thirty days eh? Well it is a sad thing. I mean, my family would die, a lot of people I care about would die. Not just that, a lot of people, whose existence is important to me, will cease.”

“All that’s going to happen anyway, isn’t it? Kurt Cobain. He died one fine morning. A horrific death, I agree. But, what could you do about that?”

The co-worker stayed silent for a while, staring into the river and taking in the bright sun. Across the river, the skyline was abuzz with activity. Far away, smoke rose from a number of chimneys into the horizon, allowing themselves to become a part of the thick clouds that loomed over. He finished his cigarette and tossed the butt into the river. It disappeared as soon as it touched the water, sinking to its depth, where a variety of abandoned and discarded material awaited.

“Have you seen this movie…um, the Woody Allen one…Annie Hall?” he finally spoke to Cyril.

“Yes. It’s a fine movie. Certainly not my favourite, though, I must say.”

“Ah, which one then?”

“I don’t like Woody Allen much.” Cyril said, tossing his cigarette butt into the river.

“That’s a shame. Anyway, the protagonist of Annie Hall…he had very similar opinions as you do. Remember the early scene, where he’s caught for not doing homework? What does he say? The world’s going to end someday, and people are going to die, and that his homework holds no meaning to him.”

“Strange.”

“If you say so. So this kid is then taken to a doctor, who suggests that whatever is going to happen will happen only a billion years later, and there’s nothing to worry about. And that he should do his homework.”

“Like they say, what is out of sight is out of mind.”

“So to speak. So if everyone I knew were to die in like a month, as you like to imagine, it would be a sad story. What about all the children? What about the ones that would be born on the twenty ninth day huh?”

Over the afternoon, both men worked on drawings to realize when the curing period was over. Cyril found a sudden lack of enthusiasm in what he was working on. It would be days before the piers were cured, and he wouldn’t be there to see it. Under normal circumstances, as he often had on days before his absence in school, he would work until the end so that things would go on when he wasn’t around. The bridge is not going to be built in thirty days. And even if it was, for what? Who would use them?

“What would you do if you knew you were going to die today?”

“I’d take the day off and spend with my family, tell them how much I love each one of them. Do everything to make sure they had nothing to worry about.”

“Why would you do that? What would you get?”

“Nothing at all. But it would be satisfying to let them know how much they mean to me.”

“Would you tell them that you’re dying?”

He paused, and then spoke, “No. Of course not.”

“I get it. No one would believe you anyway. A healthy man stepping into his living room one evening and declaring that he’ll be dead at the stroke of midnight. Makes for an inappropriate joke in the presence of children.”

“Not that. I don’t want to be remembered as a dying man.”

Unable to work any further, Cyril clocked out earlier than usual that evening, claiming to be sick, and quickly walked to the railway station. He did not want to go home, he was sure of that. So he bought a ticket to a neighbouring city that was a few hours away. Before he boarded the train, he emptied his suitcase into a trash can, including his laptop. He retained his mobile phone, with intentions to listen to music. He still had a few minutes before the train started.

It had begun drizzling slightly. Sitting by the edge of the entrance to the station, and smoking, he stared at people going about their life, having no idea what was coming. All the money that they would save, all the test scores and the countless photographs of loved ones. Nothing mattered anymore. Almost by instinct, Cyril took his phone out and deleted all the pictures, refusing to look at them. His new phone now stared back at him with a blank background and defunct applications. It was pretty much a derelict well before its time. But who isn’t?

*

After a while of staring at the fading images through a window, Cyril sat back and let himself collapse in the plush seats of the air-conditioned carriage. Taking his mobile out, he spent some time trying to choose music to listen to, eventually settling on Pygmalion by Slowdive. The round guitar notes formed an envelope and he shut his eyes, trying to take in every detail. As he got caught in its warping tune, he found himself asking what one would do with all the music. Who would listen to it? Why would music even matter anymore?

He pictured his days at college where he was part of a band. They had refused to record any of their music and never allowed people to film performances. Music was about living in the moment. Cyril found some elation at as he noted what a thoughtful decision that had been. But how important is living in the moment? When you knew that there are so few moments, how can you spend one without thinking about the next? He found himself at the edge of land, being pushed by an unseen force towards the infinite ocean. The water was tranquil at the horizon, but showed its ferocity near him, where it interacted with land.

There were no ship in the sea. No seagulls. No fish. No sign of life. He looked down and saw his own reflection out of control. It seemed to try to talk to him. You liked doing things because you thought life goes on, or more generally that you are a part of an on-going chain of lives and generations that will enable the sustenance of everything that you desired in this world. And now you see the world is cut short.

You see the end in sight. You see the horizon is nearer than you thought – the tranquil surface is nearer than it looked like. And yet you wish for the chaos you find by your feet. You wish for the tough land that keeps you stuck to it. The end disturbs you so much that you no longer see things as worth doing, because all the splashing that you would do by the shore is lost in the sea, but for little droplets that would remain on land, lasting only until the next big wave washes them all away in a single sweep. And the giant tide is already in sight, initially not discernable from the calm horizon, but swelling as it steadily travels ashore. Soon everything behind you would be little different from everything that you see ahead. It is only a matter of time. Over the course that you took to discover the fact of life, last night turned into today. You were one mile high and rising. My mind is swimming, the bells are ringing in my ears. The sun’s peeking through the curtains, seeing you all too clear.

Cyril woke up with a start, unable to bear the hypnotic vocal melody issuing from his earphones. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. A woman sat opposite him, looking mildly concerned as he frantically dabbed his handkerchief all over his face.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“I’m fine. I dozed off.”

“And the music woke you up, huh? What were you listening to?”

“You could say that. I was um, listening to Slowdive. Not heavy or anything.”

“I see. Not heard of them.” She went back to reading the book she had open in her hands.

After gathering his composition and sitting up straight, Cyril surveyed his surroundings. The seats next to him were empty. The ones beside the woman opposite him were full with a number of little boards and placards. One of them was placed facing upwards, and read “The Future of Green is Yellow. Let’s keep it Green.” Under it were many more that he could not read. He looked outside the window. It was almost dark and the reflection of the interior on the window obstructed his vision.

“So you’re an activist.” He said, finding nothing else to do.

“What?” she looked up, “Yes, I am. A part of the National Green Corps”

“So you brought all these by yourself? Looks like too many for one person.”

“No we were a group. A lot of them live nearer to the city, so they took the other train. They left their stuff with me though.”

“So what was your protest today on?”

She looked displeased with the question, but still answered, “It’s mostly against the automobile industries. The Government has allowed three more to set up their plants near the city. This is only going to make things worse – and think of all the cars that come rolling out. I don’t see any good done in this prospect.”

Not waiting for him to respond, she continued, “And think of all the resources used. So much metal. After an automobile is made, it is forever going to suck on fossil fuels, and we don’t have much left. What about the generations to come?”

Yes, what about them? They are going to be as miserable as us in their own way. He thought. “I understand. It’s important that we need a generation to follow us and live on.”

“And lead a life as good as we do, if not better. And for that, it is important that we exercise some constraints. And it’s not exactly a compromise either. These little things are only going to make our own lives better in the process. There will be reduction in pollution. All that area occupied by industries will remain as forests.”

“Sounds like utopia to me. Not going to happen.”

“It can happen. It’s not too difficult. I’ve done it.”

“Well, I respect you then.”

“It’s all a matter of proper education and right choices. I was lucky in that respect. My teacher back in school had insisted that we go through an entire day without using anything that’s not biodegradable. No metal. No plastic. No glass. That night, I was amazed at how much harm I had saved in just a day. And to think that so much happened everyday was almost shocking to me.”

“That’s a great way of cautioning about an imminent lifestyle of the future.”

“One that can be avoided, none the less. Have you heard about Food Mile?”

Cyril shook his head. He took a cigarette out and then put it back, realizing that he was in an air-conditioned carriage.

“Food Mile is the distance your food travels before you consume it. The farther away it is from, the more energy you waste. In short, one conserves energy by eating local produce.”

“Hang on for a minute,” Cyril said. “Everything you say seems to point at one particular fact: We owe to these powerless and vulnerable future generations. That it is our responsibility to set things up for them, leave behind resources and an inhabitable world for them to live in, and that they have no choice in this matter, but to accept what we provide.”

“Of course! You don’t think so?”

“Let’s say the future generation ceases to exist. Does this hold any meaning to you?”

“Are you saying that you would like to live a pompous life just so that there are no left-overs on the off chance that there is no future generation?”

Cyril almost laughed. “Not at all.” He sat up. “I’m just asking if you would be as driven to work towards something that so much depends on a bunch of non-existent people if their coming into this material world is put to question. In that case, who would you save all the fuel for? Who would you keep the air clean for?”

“That’s no excuse.”

“The way I see it, as much as the future generation depends on us, we depend on them too. In most cases, they’re the only reason we even work.” He paused and collected his thoughts, “If not completely, without an on-going chain of human life, the value of things we do, the value of our own life reduces by a large portion. It’s almost a non-causal relation. But it’s true.”

“Agreed. But I think your point isn’t too different from mine. Essentially, the both of us are looking to do the same thing: ensure that man goes on – to the extent possible. I mean, yes, there will be an end sometime, but I think human reason will be fulfilled by then.”

“But what if there is an external interference? What if we die trying way ahead than we should? I mean all of us who live now. What if, say, the sea swells up and there’s no big fish to warn us? No one to build an ark? What if a giant asteroid hits earth and wipes humanity out?”

“You think strange. Any external interference of that sort, I’m sure, is part of the plan.”

“So you do believe in a plan. I’m sure that feels good.”

“You don’t?”

“Not today.”

“Well there is always a plan. If it happens tomorrow, it probably should that way. If it happens in a year, it probably should then. Maybe that’s only way man can step aside to give way to some other form of being.”

It is time to step out of wet sand and into the water, and let waves crash at your feet. Soon there will be water all around you and it will be the land that you will begin to dread. And maybe then you will be forcibly washed ashore, to begin all over again.

The train pulled over at the station by the sea. Cyril could see the distant blankness beyond all the buildings in the neighbourhood. The air felt thick as the doors opened. It was dark and the platform was busy with people struggling with their luggage. The sky was clear with no trace of clouds. Cyril had read that the storm had passed this way a fortnight ago and now resided for the time being, over the city he had just left. The woman packed the book into her bag and was now gathering all the boards and cards. Cyril assisted by carrying some of the boards outside the train and laid them on a bench at the platform.

He then turned to her and said, “I’m going first. Whatever happens in thirty days from now, I hope to God that it is a part of the plan because it’s the most dreadful thing I’ve ever imagined. But I have a favour to ask of you.”

“Sure, what is it?”

“Remember me when it happens. I shall not be around anyone, and hopefully not watching any of this. But when it happens, I need you to remember me as the paranoid sceptic who turned out to be right.”

“Also as the one who refused to make sense towards the end. Sure.”

Cyril turned around inconclusively and began walking. He took the phone out of his pocket and dropped it on the floor, not caring to give it another look. He looked at his watch. Two more hours.

Walking to the nearest telephone booth, he made a call to his country home and had a brief talk with his mother. But mostly, he patiently listened to her quips about the small world she had found herself trapped in. It did not last long, though. He then made a call to his fiancé, who did not pick up the phone. So he left a generic message, saying that he hoped to see her on the other side. Soon he was out and he dropped his wallet into a bin nearby, making sure to keep a bare minimum of money as he walked into a seaside bar.

He spent the next hour drinking and listening to music that was playing. It seemed to be a silent evening since only three other people were in the bar. The owner had put some subtle 90s music with lots of soul and funk and pieces from old spy film soundtracks. Cyril identified a couple of them, but could not enjoy them as much as he normally did. He had gone numb to the moments passing by as he merely waited for his time to come.

Soon he was the only person in the bar and decided to step out. Skipping the pathway that led to the shore, he strayed off the public area and worked his way down over a terrain of rocks, taking his time. He carefully took his shoes and socks off and placed them over a flat rock at the top before starting. The invisible force does not push anymore.

As he set foot over the sand at the bottom, he looked around for sounds, and heard no ship horns, no sound of wings and no cries. None – but for the crashing of waves. There is no need for force anymore. His shadow cast by the dim moonlight spoke. The force is within you, guiding you to your own end, and the beginning of someone else that is still you, but not you.

Cyril pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it with great difficulty, without any tire. He spent a few minutes looking at stars, and trying to figure patterns in them. He had read that there were always patterns, and that they affected human lives. He had also read that it was the moon that caused all the little waves in the sea, and that the great ones were caused by great earthquakes, which destroyed houses and bridges in places where there was no sea. The giant waves got ferocious only when they approached land, and travelled silently under the soft and flawless fabric of the oceans, even great distances. Cyril suddenly felt drawn to the sea – its unvaried nature and tranquillity. He looked back at the rocks, their jagged structure sending shudders through his body.

Cyril dropped the cigarette butt onto the wet sand, where it extinguished and lay for about a minute, after which a wave came crashing over it. It was too weak, for only the sand around the butt got eroded. Few minutes later a bigger wave came and dragged it closer to the sea, giving up eventually. Subsequent waves came and went, doing their little. The half burnt remains put up no resistance as it inched closer in the midst of chaos, to a new form, as well as the end of its being.

Author’s Note:

This story was written pretty much overnight as a challenge posed by a friend who also inspired the character of the woman in the train. It also draws inspiration from a variety of sources besides a few real-life experiences, primary ones being the song Afterlife by Arcade Fire, and the novel Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.

– Sumanth

Photo Courtesy: miriadna.com

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s