Retriever by Chris Green
Einstein posits that the distinction between past, present and future is no more than a stubbornly persistent illusion. I can see where he was coming from this morning as I go through the mail. This certainly seems like the same CheapCall bill I received the day before yesterday. And the same BestPower statement? The circular from PayLess Insurance looks more than a little familiar too.
At fifty nine, it has to be said, my memory for detail is sketchier than it once was. When set against the political corruption, the floods and the threat of war in the Middle east, a duplication of paperwork is not a momentous problem. I have a large green recycling bin. More importantly, I am now late. It is 8.15 already and the traffic on Tambourine Way will be horrific if I don’t hurry. I scrape the ice off the Skoda’s windscreen and give it a few squirts of de-icer. I put a Johnny Cash CD into the player while the windows start to de-mist, and move off into the February frost.
I have a sense of déjà vu as I flash the headlights at Pedro, in his pickup on Princes Street, and again when I find myself behind a learner bus driver keeping to 30 where you could easily be doing 50 or 60, along Albion Avenue. My progress is further impeded by an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. As I edge through the flashing blue chicane of parked police vehicles, I notice that the two battered cars seem to be the same two cars as in the accident two days ago, a white Fiat and a red Fiat. The impact of the collision has buckled both cars irreparably, as it had in the previous accident. I shudder. The coincidence is way beyond that presented by chance.
I arrive at Sanctuary Inanimate Pet Crèche and Counselling Service where I work. I greet Boris and Gerhard. I notice that the cyber dog that was collected by its owner the day before yesterday is already back. There is also, I feel, a familiarity about the headline War Dims Hope for Peace in Boris’s tabloid. And Gerhard seems to be having the same telephone conversation that he had a couple of days ago. Admittedly inanimate pet care is a repetitive line of work but the conversation with Major Churchill about his pet rock seems identical to the one earlier in the week. After Gerhard puts down the phone I tackle him about this.
He looks at me challengingly and says, ‘what are you taking about? I have never spoken to Major Churchill before. And this may be just a job to you but the Major’s pet rock does seem to be pretty sick.’
I think of taking up the point. Yes, it is just a job to me. Unlike Gerhard who sees a visit to the dentists as a bit of an outing, I have seen a bit of the world. But I keep quiet instead. What is the point? One pearl of wisdom that comes with age is that past glories count for nothing. I am here, and it is now. My life has taken a bit of a nosedive. Like Orson Welles, I seem to have lived my life backwards, if not quite in the sense I am about to.
Over the days that follow I have a permanent sense of déjà vu. Everything in my every day has happened previously. I have the same conversation with Spiro about West Ham’s problems in defence, spend the same hour chatting to my daughter, Promise on the phone about the dangers of putting too many personal details on Facebook, watch Groundhog Day again on DVD, buy another aspidistra from Marks and Spencer, 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 comes round again and they bring the old president back, and entertainer Rolf Harris is prosecuted again for entertaining children in in an inappropriate way. The hours on my watch are still going forward but the date is going backward.
At first I imagine that it must be a huge practical joke, admittedly one with a formidable amount of complicity. Whilst I do not exactly advertise my predicament in case people thought I am a basket case, no one I speak to displays any sense that anything is wrong with their own temporal world. There is 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 appears that I am alone in my renegade perception of time, although there is a short item in The Morning Lite calling for a twenty five hour day. NASA scientists have apparently researched this and found that participants in the experiment benefited by the increased levels of melatonin. The findings it says would come in handy if astronauts go to Mars. A Martian day it points out lasts for 24.65 earthly hours.
There are a number of contradictions of logic involved in whatever it is I am experiencing. My days are still moving forwards in a linear fashion. I go to work, come home, go to the pub, walk the dog, watch the rerun episode of Spender on ITV3, and go to bed as normal, but when I wake up the next day, it is the day before yesterday. Each day, I become a day younger. This aspect of my condition is of course something that at my age I should be pleased about; instead of a creeping decay, there will be a gradual rejuvenation. In a world that places excessive emphasis on artifice, this is what millions of people dream of. Zillions of pounds every week are 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 is the central tenet of our belief system.
If I am reliving the past there is plenty for me to look forward, or backward to. I have on balance enjoyed my life. There are all of the special places I have been with lovers or friends that I have felt I wanted to go back to sometime. All of the times I have said or thought, ‘I’ll always remember this.’ Things that just could not be captured on film. I reason I will also know when to expect the difficult times, like the divorce from Monique, Sebastian’s fatal illness, and the bankruptcy hearing. Painful though it will be, I can be ready for these episodes. And I can go on to experience youth with a wise head. What was it Oscar Wilde said? Youth is wasted on the young?
Despite these deliberations, the sequential upheaval continues to be both disconcerting and disorientating. After a week or so of going over the same ground, I decide to seek professional help. I find myself limited by the need to have an appointment on the same day. The medical profession does not operate this way. There is no point in my making an arrangement for the any time in future, and clearly I cannot make an appointment for last week or last month. Similarly I am 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 do manage to see at the community centre at short notice talks about meridians and explains that there might be blockages on the layers of my energy field. Over a dozen or so sessions she says she can balance my chakras and time will move forward again. I try to explain that she might need to do this in one session and she suggests if this is my attitude, then I should go elsewhere.
I begin to wonder what would happen if I do not actually go to bed. Will the day progress normally to the next, or will I at a certain point be flung back to the day before. It seems that despite my predicament, there is still an element of free will about my actions so I buy a wrap of speed, from Sailor, a friend of a friend in the Dancing Monk public house.
‘This is wicked gear,’ says Sailor, so named I assume because of his abundance of tattoos. ‘It will keep you busy for fucking days.’
‘Good,’ I remark. ‘I may need it to.’
I see 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 am not really a late night person, and have not taken drugs since my youth, so I am 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 drift off at around 5 or 6, anyway before daylight.
When I wake up I find myself on the balcony of one of the upper floors of an apartment block in north-eastern China. My associate, Song, and I are filming the spectacular estuary of the Songhua Jiang below for a travelogue for Sky TV. It seems the Chinese authorities are keen to promote tourism in the area. It is a Sunday morning and from our high vantage point, Song and I can see for miles. It is late August, near the end of the rainy season, and while the rainfall this year has been concentrated mainly in July, much of the flood plain is still underwater. Around the swollen river basin acres of lush green landscape luxuriate. Song points toward a flooded football field to our right, saying that despite the pitch being waterlogged the locals are 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,’ he says. Is called Cuju. Means to kick a ball.’
I show no surprise. Through classes in Tai Chi, I have developed an interest in Sino culture, and have 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 can be attributed to the Chinese.
Song goes a little deeper into the history of cuju in the region and says that he feels the water football game would look great on film, with a commentary about the history of the game from its Han dynasty roots. I nod my agreement, but in reality I feel distracted.
In a conversation that must be puzzling to Song I establish that it is 1988 – the year before Tianamen Square. I have gone back seventeen years. While I am conscious of my vitality, I have the strange sensation that I am also an observer of my life. I can remember my yesterday quite literally as if it were yesterday but this is seventeen years forward. I am aware of this as I resume the dialogue with Song.
A boat carrying a team decked out in carnival colours chanting something patriotic is coming up the river. It is hot and humid and a dank haze hangs suspended above the water as if waiting for an impressionist painter. The regressing part of me is trying frantically to get a handle on what is happening. According to the log I am keeping to help with later editing of the film, I have been in the Peoples’ Republic for ten days and am scheduled to be there for another ten. I am missing Monique, Sebastian and Promise. Song says that the phone lines will not be down for much longer but I know they will be down until my arrival, so I will be unable to phone home.
Sebastian is six and Promise is five. It will be Promise’s birthday soon. Then she will be four. She will stop going to school. Before long, I will be reading her bedtime stories and taking her to nursery. It is curious to comprehend that my life going backwards means to all intents and purposes that everyone’s life around me is also doing so. I can only experience their past.
Filming in China goes back day-by-day as the day approaches that I arrive on a flight from Heathrow to Beijing. During this time I ponder my situation continually. When Song says, ‘see you tomorrow’, I know I had already seen him tomorrow but I will see him again yesterday.
I contemplate the age-old question as to whether we control our destiny or follow a preordained path. This seems all the more pertinent to my circumstances. Am I just reliving events in a life that I have already experienced or could my new actions or thoughts as a person coming from the future have any effect. And how will I know whether they do?
More immediately I am concerned as to why time for me has gone back seventeen years rather than the more conservative day at a time that I came to accept. I am anxious to avoid such a dramatic leap happening again. The only clue I have is that I’d tried to stay awake at night to find out why time was going backwards.
I begin to become anxious about sleeping, and visit one of the four thousand acupuncturists in Harbin. I also buy various traditional Chinese remedies from a 114 year-old herbalist named Ho Noh at the local market. Not that Ho instills any confidence. He does not look as if he had ever slept. But I am particularly concerned that the flight on which I was to arrive at Beijing comes in at 5am local time. There seems to be no way of rescheduling the flight and reducing the risk of more temporal upheaval.
And indeed there isn’t…. When I become aware of consciousness again I find myself on stage at a Pink Floyd concert. I have some difficulty at first working out the time and place, but conclude that it is The Wall tour around February 1981 and this is one of several concerts at Wesfallenhalle, Dortmund in what was then West Germany. I am a sound engineer, and it appears that the tape loops for The Wall have been mixed up with those from Dark Side of the Moon. I suspect I have programmed something incorrectly into the console. Roger Waters is storming around the stage set with a face like thunder and some of the band stop playing.
Back at the hotel, I have a call from Astrid from the house in Rheims.
‘You seem upset baby,’ she says. ‘Is something not good with you?’
I tell her that I have just been sacked by Pink Floyd management. It seems better than saying I have just been jettisoned through space and time from The People’s Republic of China.
‘Why?’ she asks. ‘They seemed so nice at the party in Paris.’
‘A long story,’ I reply, intensely aware of two different life forces, the present, and the future in reverse. You cnnot expect to have much of a conversation about space-time continuums in an international phonecall to someone, whose first language is 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 occurs to me that unless I travel the 400 odd kilometres between Dortmund and Rheims by yesterday I will never even meet Monique. It also occurs that I can’t anyway because I have spent yesterday in Dortmund with Pink Floyd. In a devastating flash, having travelled back to before they were even contemplated, I realise I would never see my children again, or for that matter, Monique.
Before The Wall tour starts, or after The Wall tour starts, I spend a month seeing the new year out and the old year in, with Astrid at the house in Rheims. Astrid is a freelance photographer who does shoots for Paris Match and Marie Claire, specialising in quirky subjects like Sumo wrestlers, dwarfs and circus performers. She is successful and works more or less when she chooses to. We make love, morning, afternoon and night, paint, walk along the Vesle, go to galleries, concerts, and French films without subtitles.
During this time I go to see a hypnotherapist and give up not smoking. Almost immediately I find myself getting through a pack of Gitanes a day. It is a revelation to me to discover that one session can change the habits of a lifetime.
With Astrid in Rheims I go with the flow, seize the moment, and try 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 do not think of the excitement of my novel being published or the acclaim I received for the first feature film I directed. I certainly do 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 is history. And the future from a normal chronology of events will now never be. I will not have to endure that period of time later in life when those around you are slowly dying off. Those senior years when if you see a friend you haven’t seen for a while, their news will be that someone else had died. Back in the future when I was fifty nine I recall 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.
I feel I can live with going back a day at a time, and being aware of what will happen next is not a huge problem. With Astrid, life seems easy. I was twenty six years old and it seems that this is a time for pleasure. Each day the mystery of our attraction unfolds as we know less about each other. An affair lived backwards is very exciting. The fascination increases day by day, the first time you will get a mutual invitation, the first time you will go away together, the first time you will get or buy a present, the first time you will have breakfast together, the first time you will undress one another, working toward that glorious, breathtaking moment when your eyes will first meet, when intuition and desire will form an immaculate, unstoppable, mystical union, that split second when love is heaven-sent.
Astrid becomes Francesca in Barcelona, then Isabella in Rome. In between there is Natalie in New York, and before I know it I am twenty three. These years are wild and exciting but I begin to feel like Dorian Gray, without the immortality. I go to parties with painters and dine with divas. I work on a film with Antonioni and play with Led Zeppelin. Keith Moon crashes my car and Marc Bolan throws up in my jacuzzi. In a wave of hedonism I just soak up all the pleasure that is available, and cannot recall when I last tried to exercise free will. I have gone with the flow, allowing my youth and libido free rein.
Time going backwards is by now the most normal thing in the world to me. Déjà vu has long since become so commonplace that it is now unnoticeable. And that the plot of soap operas and news items if I can be bothered with them unfolds backwards is completely normal. But I am frequently made aware of echoes of a future life. A persistent voice in my head seems to narrate stories concerning an older person, in fact a much older person, someone perhaps in his fifties. The voice is familiar, and comes from within, but while it seems it belongs to me and has some sense of self, at the same time I feels a sense of detachment. I have recollections of having lived through many of the episodes, but they exhibit themselves like false memory. This older person seems to have experienced considerable misfortune, have found his crock of gold early and bit-by-bit, have seen it disappear. As a result of the dispossession he has suffered some kind of nervous collapse. He lives a lonely life, works in inanimate pet care, drives a brown Skoda and listens to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Even if this were to be my own future, it is neither tangible nor attractive. It seems to me that as my life is moving irrevocably in reverse, nothing is to be gained by taking possession of a character surrounded with so much sadness, so the more that it happens, the more I try 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 find that as I grow younger a similar thing is happening. Months fly by; one moment it is August and the next it is April and another summer is gone. Christmases and birthdays are closer together. No sooner am I twenty three than I am twenty two, and then in what seems 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 World Cup, I make the decision I am going to fundamentally change the way I live. We have consumed bottle after bottle of genever as Holland lose to West Germany. We continue our drinking into the night, inconsolable that Johann Cruyff, despite being the finest footballer in the world, will never lift the trophy.
The binge is just the last in a long line of testimonies to guileless self-deprecation. I am unhappy with myself. I have begun to feel that my youthful comportment is frivolous and empty. My behaviour is inconsiderate and hurtful, and I despise the person I am becoming – or have been. I frequently catch myself saying really immature things, and acting badly towards those around me.
What brings matters to a head is a chance meeting at Amsterdam bus station with Faith, a friend of my mother’s. Faith is dressed in a miscellany of chiffon wraps, scarves, bead chokers and jangly jewellery. She carries a tote bag with a yantric design on it, and has rainbow coloured braids in her hair. Faith greets me with a warm hug, which brings with it an assault of patchouli.
‘What are you doing here?’ she says. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m not sure where I’m going,’ I say. ‘Because it seems to be more a case of where have I been.’
In that moment I have 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 ensconced in the decorum of the professions, will not. He will go to the races and Rotary Club dinners, while my mother and Faith will metaphorically 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.
‘Time present and time past are perhaps present in time future,’ Faith continues. ‘And time future is contained in time past. If all time is eternally present all time is unredeemable.’
‘Where does that come from?’ I ask.
‘Those are the opening lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,’ she replies, looking me in the eye. It is an English teacher kind of look. I look 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.
‘But, 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?’ says Faith. ‘I live in Haarlem.’
The bus arrives and we take it. Haarlem is just a few miles. I open up to Faith. I explain I haven’t seen mother since I was twenty six and then only briefly. She looks puzzled so I tried to explain a little of my predicament.
She quotes 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 sequential dysfunction.
On the journey, Faith tells me about the community in which she lives, all the time emphasising how happy she is. The community, she says, support one another, share everything, and work together towards a common aim. It seems idealistic, naive even, but I can see that Faith appears to be happy and feels she has found what she is looking for. Her view of life seems to be in marked contrast with my own.
We arrive at Haarlem. A lengthy explanation about eastern philosophy, and the middle way sees us outside Faith’s house.
‘BEWARE OF THE GOD,’ says the sign on the front gate.
‘Which God?’ I ask.
‘It does not matter,’ she replies. ‘How about a retriever?’
I do not go in. I say my goodbyes. I know what I have to do.
If I can do nothing about life in reverse, it is time to take a step back and try to get in touch with my spirituality. I take a bus to Athens and from there a boat to Santorini, a small Greek island, where there is a meditation centre. I suppose I hope to discover the meaning of life.
I come round in the playground of The Frank Portrait Primary School. I am wearing short grey trousers, grey flannel shirt and a blue blazer. 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 2015: All rights reserved