Beware of the … by Chris Green
‘Isn’t this the same CheapCall bill I received the day before yesterday?’ I thought, as I went through the mail. And the same BestPower statement? The circular from PayLess Insurance looked more than a little familiar too. I dismissed any concerns as I did get a lot of unsolicited cheaper car insurance mail, CheapCall did send me a lot of unexpected bills and I wasn’t with BestPower.
At fifty six, it had to be said, my memory for detail was sketchier than it had once been.When set against the political corruption, the floods and the threat of war in the Middle east, a duplication of paperwork was not a momentous problem. I did have a large green recycling bin. More importantly, I was late. It was 8.15 already and the traffic on Tambourine Way would be horrific if I didn’t hurry. I scraped the ice off the Skoda’s windscreen and gave it a few squirts of de-icer. I put a Johnny Cash CD into the player while the windows started to de-mist, and moved off into the February frost.
I had a sense of déjà vu as I flashed the headlights at Pedro, in his pickup on Princes Street, and again when I found myself behind a learner bus driver keeping to 30 where you could easily be doing 50 or 60, along Albion Avenue. My progress was further impeded by an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. As I edged through the flashing blue chicane of parked police vehicles, I noticed that the two battered cars seemed to be the same two cars as in the accident two days previously, a white Fiat Stilo and a red Fiat Stilo. The impact of the collision had buckled both cars irreparably, as it had in the previous accident. I shuddered. The coincidence was way beyond that presented by chance.
I arrived at ‘The Sanctuary Inanimate Pet Crèche and Counselling Service’ where I worked and greeted Boris and Gerhard. I noticed that the cyber dog that had been collected by its owner the day before yesterday was already back. There was also, I felt, a familiarity about the headline ‘War Dims Hope for Peace’ in Boris’s tabloid. And Gerhard seemed to be having the same telephone conversation that he was having a couple of days ago. Admittedly inanimate pet care was a repetitive line of work but the conversation with Major Gove about his pet rock seemed identical to the one earlier in the week. After Gerhard had put down the phone I tackled him about this.
He looked at me challengingly and said, ‘what are you taking about? I have never spoken to Major Gove before. And this may be just a job to you but the Major’s pet rock does seem to be pretty sick.’
I did think of taking up the point. Yes, it was just a job to me. Unlike Gerhard who saw a visit to the dentists as a bit of an outing, I had seen a bit of the world. But I kept quiet instead, what was the point? One pearl of wisdom that seemed to present itself with age was that past glories counted for nothing. I was here, and it was now.
My life had taken a bit of a nosedive. Like Orson Welles, I seemed to have lived my life backwards, if not quite in the sense I was about to.
Over the days that followed I had a permanent sense of déjà vu. Everything in my every day had happened previously. I had the same conversation with Spiro about West Ham’s problems in defence, spent the same hour chatting to my daughter, Promise on the phone about the dangers of putting too many personal details on Facebook, watched ‘Groundhog Day’ again on DVD, bought another aspidistra from Marks and Spencers, another new metal detector from The Army and Navy Surplus Stores and another Corby trouser press from the charity shop by the library. The presidential election came round again and they brought the old president back, and Rolf Harris was prosecuted again for entertaining children in the wrong way. The hours on my watch were still going forward but the date was going backward.
At first I imagined that it must be a huge practical joke. Admittedly one with a formidable amount of complicity. Whilst I did not exactly advertise my predicament in case people thought I was a basket case, absolutely no one I spoke to displayed any sense that anything was wrong with their own temporal world. There was nothing in the papers or on the news to suggest anything irregular in the cosmos. Just the usual reports on war, politics and celebrity indiscretions. It appeared that I was alone in my renegade perception of time, although there was a short item in ‘The Morning Lite’ calling for a twenty five hour day. NASA scientists had apparently researched this and found that participants in the experiment benefited by the increased levels of melatonin. The findings it said would come in handy if astronauts went to Mars. A Martian day it pointed out lasts for 24.65 earthly hours.
There were a number of contradictions of logic involved in whatever it was that I was experiencing. My days were still moving forwards in a linear fashion. I went to work, came home, went to the pub, walked the dog, watched the rerun episode of Spender on ITV3, and went to bed as normal, but when I woke up the next day, it was the day before yesterday. Each day, I became a day younger. This aspect of my ‘condition’ was of course something that at my age I might have been encouraged to feel pleased about; instead of a creeping decay, there would be a gradual rejuvenation. In a world that placed excessive emphasis on artifice, this was what millions of people dreamed of. Zillions of pounds every week were spent by slavish consumers on a staggering array of products promising the reversal of the inevitable. The consentient sorcery of keeping flowers in full bloom was the central tenet of our belief system.
If I was reliving the past there was plenty for me to look forward or backward to. I had on the balance enjoyed my life. There were all of the special places I had been with lovers or friends that I had felt I wanted to go back to sometime. All of the times I had said or thought, ‘I’ll always remember this.’ Things that just could not be captured on film. I reasoned I would also know when to expect the difficult moments, like the divorce from Monique, Sebastian’s fatal illness, or the bankruptcy hearing. Painful though it would be, I could be ready for these episodes. And I could go on to experience youth with a wise head. What was it Oscar Wilde had said? Youth is wasted on the young?
Despite these deliberations, the sequential upheaval continued to be both disconcerting and disorientating. After a week or so of going over the same ground, I decided to seek professional help. I found myself limited by the need to have an appointment on the same day. The medical profession did not operate this way. There was no point in my making an arrangement for the any time in future, and clearly I could not make an appointment for last week or last month. Similarly I was unable to arrange to see a priest, a mystic, a philosopher, or even a time traveller at a few hours notice. The Auric Ki practitioner that I did manage to see at the community centre at short notice talked about meridians and explained that there might be blockages on the layers of my energy field. Over a dozen or so sessions she said she could balance my chakras and time would move forward again. I tried to explain that she might need to do this in one session and she suggested if this was my attitude, then I should go elsewhere.
I began to wonder what would happen if I did not actually go to bed. Would the day progress normally to the next, or would I at a certain point be flung back to the day before. It seemed that despite my predicament, there was still an element of free will about my actions so I bought a wrap of ‘speed’, from Sailor, a friend of a friend in the Dancing Monk public house. ‘This is wicked gear,’ said Sailor, so named I assumed because of his abundance of tattoos. ‘It will keep you busy for fucking days.’
‘Good,’ I remarked. ‘I may need it to.’
I saw the exercise as a demonstration of free will, and not therefore merely a duplication of what happened on the corresponding day a couple of weeks previously. At my age I wasn’t really a late night person, and had not taken drugs since my youth, so I was not sure what to expect.
Despite taking the whole wrap of ‘wicked gear’ with four cans of Red Bull and playing some ‘kicking’ music, I must have drifted off at around 5 or 6, anyway before daylight.
When I woke up I found myself on the balcony of one of the upper floors of an apartment block in north-eastern China. My associate, Song, and I were filming the spectacular estuary of the Songhua Jiang below for a travelogue for Sky TV. The Chinese authorities it seemed were keen to promote tourism in the area. It was a Sunday morning and from our high vantage point, Song and I could see for miles. It was late August, near the end of the rainy season, and while the rainfall this year had been concentrated mainly in July, much of the flood plain was still underwater. Around the swollen river basin acres of lush green landscape luxuriated. Song pointed toward a flooded football field to our right, saying that despite the pitch being waterlogged the locals were about to turn out to play.
‘We are used to a bit of water. We have long tradition. Chinese invent football in the Han period over two thousand years ago. ‘Cuju,’ he said. ‘Means ‘to kick a ball.’
I showed no surprise. Through classes in Tai Chi, I had developed an interest in Sino culture, and had come to understand that the Chinese invented practically everything from paper and printing to gunpowder and aerial flight, and most advances in science and medicine could be attributed to the Chinese.
Song went a little deeper into the history of ‘cuju’ in the region and said that he felt the water football game would look great on film, with a commentary about the history of the game from its Han dynasty roots. I nodded my agreement, but in reality I felt distracted.
A conversation that must have been puzzling to Song established that it was 1988 – the year before Tianamen Square. I had gone back seventeen years. While I was conscious of my vitality, I had the strange sensation that I was also an observer of my life. That is my yesterday, which apart from the small hours I could remember quite clearly, quite literally as if it were yesterday was seventeen years forward.
I was aware of this as I resumed the dialogue with Song. A boat carrying a team decked out in carnival colours chanting something patriotic was coming up the river. It was hot and humid and a dank haze hung suspended above the water as if it were waiting for an impressionist painter. The regressing part of me was trying frantically to try and get a handle on what was happening.
According to the log I was keeping to help with later editing of the film, I had been in the Peoples’ Republic for ten days and was scheduled to be there for another ten. I was missing Monique, Sebastian and Promise, but Song had assured me the phone lines would not be down for much longer.
Sebastian was six and Promise was five. It would be Promise’s birthday in two weeks. Then she would be four. Soon she would stop going to school. I would be reading her bedtime stories and taking her to nursery. It was curious to comprehend that my life going backwards meant to all intents and purposes that everyone’s life around me was also doing so. I could only experience their past.
Filming in China went back day-by-day as the day approached that I arrived on a flight from Heathrow to Beijing. During this time I pondered my situation continually. When Song said, ‘see you tomorrow’, I knew I had already seen him tomorrow but I would see him again yesterday. I also knew that the phone lines would be down until my arrival, so I was unable to phone home.
I contemplated the age-old question as to whether we control our destiny or follow a preordained path. This seemed all the more pertinent to my circumstances. Was I just reliving events in a life that I had already experienced or could my new actions or thoughts as a person coming from the future have any effect. And how would I know whether they did? More immediately I was concerned as to why time had gone back seventeen years rather than the more conservative day at a time that I had almost come to accept. I was anxious to avoid such a dramatic leap happening again.
The only clue I had was that I’d tried to stay awake at night to find out why time was going backwards.
I began to become anxious about sleeping, and visited one of the four thousand acupuncturists in Harbin. I also bought various traditional Chinese remedies from a 114 year-old herbalist named Ho Noh at the local market. Not that Ho instilled any confidence. He did not look as if he had ever slept. But I was particularly concerned that the flight on which I was to arrive at Beijing came in at 5am local time. There seemed to be no way of rescheduling the flight and reducing the risk of more temporal upheaval.
And indeed there wasn’t…. When I became aware of consciousness again I found myself on stage at a Pink Floyd concert. I had some difficulty at first working out the time and place, but concluded that it was ‘The Wall’ tour around February 1981 and this was one of several concerts at Wesfallenhalle, Dortmund in what was then West Germany. I was a sound engineer, and it appeared that the tape loops for The Wall had been mixed up with those from Dark Side of the Moon. I suspected I had programmed something incorrectly into the console. Roger Waters was storming around the stage set with a face like thunder and some of the band stopped playing.
Back at the hotel, I had a call from Astrid from the house in Rheims.
‘You seem upset baby,’ she said. ‘Is something not good with you.’
I told her that I had just been sacked by Pink Floyd management. It seemed better than saying I had just been jettisoned through space and time from The People’s Republic of China.
‘Why?’ she asked. ‘They seemed so nice at the party in Paris.’
‘A long story,’ I replied, intensely aware of two different life forces, the present, and the future in reverse. There seemed to be more than one could reasonably explain in an international phonecall to someone, whose first language was not English.
‘You could come down, if you want,’ said Astrid. ‘I have missed you, you know. The only thing is I’ve got Monique staying. Have I ever mentioned my friend, Monique? I’m sure you would like her. She came yesterday.’
It occurred to me that unless I travelled the 400 odd kilometres between Dortmund and Rheims by yesterday I would never even meet Monique. It also occurred that I couldn’t anyway because I had spent yesterday, or was to spend yesterday, in Dortmund with Pink Floyd. In a devastating flash, having travelled back to before they were even contemplated, I realised I would never see my children again, or for that matter, Monique.
Before ‘The Wall’ tour started, or after ‘The Wall’ tour started, I spent a month seeing the new year out and the old year in, with Astrid at the house in Rheims. Astrid was a freelance photographer who specialised in quirky subjects like Sumo wrestlers, dwarfs and circus performers. Last summer just before we met, or just after we would meet, she had an exhibition in a Left Bank gallery of photographs of Siamese twins. She also did shoots for ‘Paris Match’ and ‘Marie Claire’. She was successful and worked more or less when she chose to. We made love, morning, afternoon and night, painted, walked along the Vesle, went to galleries, concerts, and French films without subtitles. We went to see Jean Michel Jarre play in Paris and at the party afterwards met Pink Floyd.
During this time I went to see a hypnotherapist and gave up not smoking. Almost immediately I found myself getting through a pack of Gitanes a day. It was a revelation to me to discover that one session could change the habits of a lifetime.
With Astrid in Rheims I went with the flow, seized the moment, and tried not to think about the disappearing future, about the first time Monique and I saw the Grand Canyon a morning in May, or looking down at The Great Barrier Reef through a glass bottomed boat, walking amongst the mystical stonework of the sun temple of Machu Picchu or watching the spectacular patterns form in the Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia, the sun’s refection on the water in the Halong Bay in Vietnam, about Promise’s wedding, or Sebastian getting in to Oxford, sadly just a month before his fatal illness took hold. I did not think of the excitement of my novel being published or the acclaim I received for the first feature film I directed. I certainly did not think of the months in The Jackson Pollock Recovery Home, the job at Don Quixote or about anything else that happened after my breakdown. The future was history. And the future from a ‘normal’ chronology of events would now never be. I would not have to endure that period of time later in life when those around you were slowly dying off. Those senior years when if you saw a friend you hadn’t seen for a while, their news would be that someone else had died. At fifty four I recalled that this had already begun to happen. My parents had died and of course Sebastian had died. Also, in a few short months, my friend Giorgio had died from liver cancer, Jacques had died from a heart attack, and Marianne had died from complications during surgery. In other exchanges we would get each other up to speed on our respective ailments, a kind of free-floating decrepitude.
I felt I could live with going back a day at a time, and being aware of what would happen next was not a huge problem. With Astrid, life seemed easy. I was twenty six years old and it seemed that this was a time for pleasure. Each day the mystery of our attraction unfolded as we knew less about each other. An affair lived backwards is very exciting. The fascination increases day by day, the first time you get a mutual invitation, the first time you go away together, the first time you get or buy a present, the first time you have breakfast together, the first time you undress one another, working toward that glorious, breathtaking moment when your eyes first meet, when intuition and desire form an immaculate, unstoppable, mystical union, that split second when love is heaven-sent.
Astrid became Francesca in Barcelona, then Isabella in Rome. In between there was Natalie in New York, and before I knew it I was twenty three. These years were wild and exciting but I began to feel like Dorian Gray, without the immortality. I went to parties with painters and dined with divas. I worked on a film with Antonioni and played with Led Zeppelin. Keith Moon crashed my car and Marc Bolan threw up in my jacuzzi. In a wave of hedonism I just soaked up all the pleasure that was available, and could not recall when I had last tried to exercise free will. I had gone with the flow, allowing my youth and libido free rein.
Time going backwards was by now the most normal thing in the world to me. Déjà vu had long since become so commonplace that it was now unnoticeable. And that the plot of soap operas and news items if I could be bothered with them unfolded backwards was completely coherent to my consciousness. But I was frequently made aware of echoes of a ‘future’ life. A persistent voice in my head seemed to narrate stories concerning an older person, in fact a much older person, someone perhaps in his fifties. The voice was familiar, and came from within, but while it seemed it belonged to me and had some sense of self, at the same time I felt a sense of detachment. I had recollections of having lived through many of the episodes, but they exhibited themselves like false memory. This older person seemed to have experienced considerable misfortune, found his crock of gold early and bit-by-bit, saw it disappear. As a result of the dispossession he suffered some kind of nervous collapse. He lived a lonely life, worked in inanimate pet care, drove a brown Skoda and listened to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Even if this were my own future, it was neither tangible nor attractive. It seemed to me that as my life was moving irrevocably in reverse, nothing was to be gained by taking possession of a character surrounded with so much sadness, so the more that it happened, the more I tried to block out the voice.
It is often said that when you are young life is a timeless flight, but as you get older time seems to fly by like it had been turned to fast forward. I found that as I grew younger a similar thing was happening. Months flew by; one moment it was August and the next it was April and another summer was gone. Christmases and birthdays were closer together. No sooner was I twenty three than I was twenty two, and then in what seemed the blink of an eye, twenty one.
After, or before, an especially profligate drinking session, with a group of Dutch football supporters, in a bar in the red light district of Amsterdam during the 1974 World Cup, I made the decision I was going to fundamentally change the way I lived. We had consumed bottle after bottle of genever as Holland lost to Germany. We continued our drinking into the night, inconsolable that Johann Cruyff, despite being the finest footballer in the world, would never lift the trophy.
The binge was just the last in a long line of testimonies to guileless self-deprecation. I was unhappy with myself. I had begun to feel that my youthful comportment was frivolous and empty. My behaviour was inconsiderate and hurtful, and I despised the person I was becoming – or had been. I frequently caught myself saying really immature things, and acting badly towards those around me.
What brought matters to a head was a chance meeting at Amsterdam bus station with Faith, a friend of my mother’s. Faith was dressed in a miscellany of chiffon wraps, scarves, bead chokers and jangly jewellery. She carried a tote bag with a yantric design on it, and had rainbow coloured braids in her hair.
‘What are you doing here? Where are you going?’ Faith asked after she had greeted me with a warm hug, which brought with it an assault of patchouli.
‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘It seems to be more a case of where have I been.’
In that moment I had a profound sensation of being disengaged from time.
In the 1960s both Faith and my mother will live on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle. My father, a man ensconsed in the decorum of the professions, will not. He will go to the races and Rotary Club dinners, while my mother and Faith will burn their bras and go on demonstrations. It is not hard to see how they will grow apart and the disagreements and separation that will be the backdrop to my early life will arise.
‘I expect you will know where you are going when you arrive at where you have been,’ Faith continued. ‘Time present and time past are perhaps present in time future. And time future is contained in time past. If all time is eternally present all time is unredeemable.’
This seemed a tad philosophical for early Tueday morning. ‘Where does that come from?’ I asked.
‘Those are the opening lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,’ she replied, looking me in the eye. It was an English teacher kind of look. I looked away.
When I am younger my mother will try to educate me in poetry, but I will prefer The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. I will get an appallingly bad grade in English by reading none of the books. My father will not notice because I am too unimportant to be of any significance.
‘If you do not know where you are going, you should not be at the bus station. Why don’t you come and have some lunch with me?’ said Faith. ‘I live in Haarlem.’
The bus arrived and we took it. Haarlem was just a few miles. I opened up to Faith. I explained I hadn’t seen mother since I was twenty six and then only briefly. She looked puzzled so I tried to explain a little of my predicament.
She quoted T. S. Eliot at me once again.
‘We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.’
I began to wonder if T. S. Eliot might have shared my experience of sequential dysfunction.
On the journey, Faith told me about the ‘community’ in which she lived, all the time emphasising how happy she was. The community, she said, supported one another, shared everything, and worked together towards a common aim. It seemed idealistic, naive even, but I could see that Faith appeared to be happy and felt she had found what she was looking for. Her view of life seemed to be in marked contrast with my own.
We arrived at Haarlem. A lengthy explanation about eastern philosophy, and ‘the middle way’ saw us outside Faith’s house.
‘Beware of the God,’ said the sign on the front gate.
‘Which God?’ I asked.
‘It does not matter,’ she replied. ‘How about a retriever?’
I did not go in. I said my goodbyes. I knew what I had to do.
If I could do nothing about life in reverse, it was time to take a step back and try to get in touch with my spirituality. I took a bus to Athens and from there a boat to Santorini, a small Greek island, where there was a meditation centre. I hoped, I suppose, to discover the meaning of life.
I came to in the playground of The Frank Portrait Primary School. I was wearing short grey trousers, grey flannel shirt and a blue blazer. I was fighting with a boy called Jon Keating. No, wrong tense, I AM fighting with a boy called Jon Keating. No, wait, I AM Jon Keating. ‘Keating needs a beating,’ they are chanting, this swathe of little grey monsters. ’Keating needs a beating.’ Oh shit!
I am going to ask Dr Self to take me off Paradoxin. Before he went on holiday, he did stress it was an experimental drug and there was the possibility that there might be undocumented side effects.
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved