“I don’t know what’s going on, it’s the strangest thing.”
Ollie sat up more than straight, his arms hugging his knees, ready to spring into the air and start pacing back and forth. It was only his arms that held his legs back. He was doing his best to reign himself in, for my girlfriend’s sake I suppose. He had a habit of scaring people who didn’t know him, when he spoke he tended to get highly animated, springing about and waving his hands in the air, to those who didn’t know he could seem like a whirlwind of chaos, or just a plain old loony. I knew him better however, he overflowed with energy and its seemed always to be escaping from him, people often turned away from him, like he burned too hot and they needed some shade.
But now he was disordered, that much is clear. For many years he’d been my best friend though I’d hardly seen him for anything longer than a couple of weeks these last few years, it might seem strange for me to say we were still best friends but we were: it made no difference how long he disappeared for, or where he went. He told me stories, incredible stories that I promised him I would never repeat so don’t ask me to do so here and now. I’m only going to tell you what I know about this case.
For months that became years he would drop out of all knowledge, we’d known where he’d gone, but that by then was the remote past, the phone numbers and addresses he had given us soon became worn out coordinates, a snapshot. That’s how I would describe my feelings now for Ollie, my thoughts of him are like snapshots, I don’t see him as something fluid, but as a series of static images and ideas of the man who was my best friend.
The last adventure of his, where had he gone to? Jordan. I’d had one e-mail from him a couple of months after he’d left wishing me happy birthday, I answered him back telling him how great it was to hear from him and asking him if he’d had any chicks drop their Hijabs for him, the usual silly lad banter, we meant no disrespect of course. He told me he was working on it but that it was proving harder to get into than a tin of sardines using only a banana. He was happy though, make no mistake about that, always was a happy person, like a blessed snail he took paradise with him where ever he went: he didn’t have to look for it. And so for six months I heard nothing, for the first time ever he didn’t return at Christmas, nor did he return in the summer, then the year became two years, and I thought in all seriousness that I would never see him again. Then a knock on my window while I was eating my sugary cornflakes, it was Ol! I almost couldn’t believe it, at that weird morning time of day when no one ever comes to see you, before going to work! He told me he’d just flown back and was really jet lagged and strung out, he said.
“Sorry about the crazy time of day, it doesn’t mean much to me anymore though but I really need someone to look to and talk at. I mean look at and talk to. That came out the wrong way didn’t it? or did it? it works either way I suppose, I can’t think now which is more appropriate.”
And I let him in, and felt a little uncomfortable, for about five seconds until we started talking and it was as if a million years of silence could have passed between us and all we would need would be those five seconds were we weighed our friendship and discovered that it hadn’t lost a gram of its value and that nothing would ever change between us, we were still best friends.
As I ate my cornflakes and snaked my tie around the shoulders of my jacket in readiness for work, and my girlfriend got ready was just finishing her coffee and getting ready to leave the house, he sat stood there wide eyes and electrically charged, still carrying in him the flux and smog of Tokyo. He was still somewhere over the Pacific, I had no idea when he got there or even what he was doing there, all I knew was that the major part of him was there with me in my front room at half past seven in the morning and I was very glad about it. I felt reassured that he was safe under my roof, I say this and I measure my words carefully, but I always felt that the threads that held Ollie’s life together were of the thinnest flimsiest and finest material that could ever exist, he used to say that he lived in the astral web and every time I was with him I felt it. His whole life was no more solid and substantial than a silken spider’s web, shimmering silvery in the moonlight, but a few heavy drops of rain could tear the whole thing apart.
I can tell you no more than that, this is strictly a subjective feeling, call it instinct or intuition whatever you like but I’ve always known that he would soon be gone.
Jo came into the room, looking perfectly fresh and ready for her job at the accountant’s in town. She smiled at Ollie:
“I’ve heard so much about you but I never thought I’d actually get to meet you. Where have you been?”
“How was it?”
“It was,” he paused looking for the right words, “very very interesting. I went out there to get the east-west fusion thing going on, find my soul, something like that, and also get to the bottom of that sushi thing.”
“How did that work out for you?”
“Well I found a way of controlling my own perception of reality through meditation and I tracked down the location of my own soul, which was cool, but a man could spend a whole lifetime to understand the profound mysteries of raw fish.”
“I think it sounds disgusting personally. I mean, I couldn’t stand the idea of eating raw fish.”
“I miss it already, the prospect of eating meat again sickens me, still its all relative ain’t it.” He said with a wink.
“Yeah, I suppose, okay I gotta go to work, see you later people.”
When she was gone he seemed to become himself.
He looked seriously at me and spoke:
“It’s the strangest thing,” he had said, “wherever I go there are always this group of people around me.”
“Sounds good!” I said.
“No, it isn’t, I can’t really explain it but I’ll try.”
And he did try and I think perhaps he succeeded, then at other times I don’t know what to think. Anyway I didn’t go to work that morning, not after what he had said to me, I was spooked, scared for him and myself for having heard his story. I didn’t like it in the least.
“It’s not good because these people who surround me are not my friends, in fact they pretend not to know me but they know me alright, they are my enemies and they follow me everywhere.”
I smiled, and feeling light I cracked a little joke, thinking perhaps that this was what he was talking about, I said:
“What do you mean? You’re not telling me that you upset the locals eh? That some nice proud tea drinking Muslim has sent his family on to you for breaking into his nice chaste daughter’s Hijab and they had followed him on his travels. Or did you spill A Yakuza’s pint?”
He smiled a cracked and strained smile. That wasn’t it, it seemed.
“Yeah,” he seemed distracted and elsewhere, “something like that, I think.” He paused before adding, “I don’t know. I don’t know who they are, where they’re from,” He looked down at the carpet, “or what they are.”
“What do you mean?” I asked carefully.
“I don’t know, there’s so much I don’t know. All I can say is I’m glad to be back, on firm ground with my best mate.”
He gave me a look of such intensity that I couldn’t match its gaze for more than a few seconds, his eyes burned with something: knowledge, wisdom or madness, I couldn’t identify it but it was a very powerful something. It worried me because I couldn’t understand it, where had he been?
The more he talked the deeper my confusion became.
“I arrived at some restaurant, some mad Japanese place where the waiters dress up as ninjas and jump out at you carrying your desert skewered on the end of a shiri-saya blade. It was early, the Japanese corporate piss up crowd hadn’t finished their overtime yet and the westerners were, well god knows were the westerners were. I was literally the first person to enter the restaurant that day and that was the way I liked it. When I’m eating I find the presence of other people distracts me from enjoying my food, you have to put on a show when you eat communally, well I do anyway, not that my table manners are bad, it’s just that ideally I would prefer not to bother with them, just make like a pig before a trough and get stuck in. Actually the funny thing about Japan is that they have table manners, among the most refined and complicated on earth, but then they do things like eat sushi with their fingers and drink their soup from the bowl and make a loud slurpy sound when they do it. In fact to confuse me further I was told quite reliably by a Japanese business man that if you don’t make the required slurping noise when drinking cha or soup or eating noodles, then your Japanese hosts feel insecure, you don’t seem to be one of them. Apparently making the noise, just making the slurp noise, bridges the culture gap between east and west. So there I was looking forwards to an uncomplicated dining experience with only myself to judge and approve myself, I spread my shoeless feet out under the table and relaxed. I’d just ordered a beer when I noticed a western couple being guided into the restaurant. They sat at the table just opposite me so that they were looking directly at me. That kind of thing was normal, some westerners abroad like to latch onto other westerners, they gaze at them and smile at them just as if they were members of their own family, they’re the weirdos, worth steering clear of, then there are the others, those who flee from other westerners. They’re the sane ones in my book, they go abroad for a good reason, they travel in search of enlightenment through confusion. When they go abroad they don’t want to learn the language nor do they want to understand the country they’re in. For them it is a total drag to perfectly master and understand the language and customs of nation. They immediately become embroiled in taking a point of view and actually having to think about the stupid things that happen in the country. They’re more than happy to be in a country where they understand a great deal of absolutely nothing. The language is a musical jabber and nothing more, the symbols and shapes on the morning newspaper tell them nothing of the death and dissatisfaction that invariably reign. They are blissfully unaware of its sordid and foolish politics, the crafty caprices of politicians, ignorant of the ignorance and prejudice that blights its people. They do not care and they don’t have to care.
However in time, the great evil of knowledge will dawn on them and they have nowhere to escape, their eyes and ears will be assaulted on all sides by news!
They will become a partisan, they will have to take a position and have an opinion, was there ever a more burdensome asset to modern life? All the naïve blind charm of a people seen only upon its virtues will vanish as they dig deeper and deeper until the inevitable disillusionment. So the best thing they can do once they understand the language, the politics and the culture is go elsewhere and bask in the bliss of total confusion again. I am of the latter category. I flee from knowledge and from other westerners. Their gaze was a burden to me, of course back home they wouldn’t look twice at me but they seemed to be in need of a friend that night. They weren’t the only ones. More and more people arrived until the restaurant was almost full. Within two minutes of me sitting down an ordering a beer the restaurant had gone from empty to almost full. I could see too that the ninjas were a bit disorientated by this too, as more and more newly dressed and trained bewildered ninjas were pressed into service to deal with the anomalous surge of diners. It was a little strange but I put it down to some bizarre coincidence, that was until I noticed that they all seemed to me looking at me at one time or another.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe it was because you’re a westerner, a good looking one too.”
“Yeah, well, not to be immodest but I had thought about that but that doesn’t explain why wherever I go there’s always a crowd about two or three minutes behind me.”
“Maybe it’s your private fan club, I’ve heard that Japanese girls are very impressionable.”
“But it wasn’t just Japanese girls, it was all sorts of people, distinguished old Japanese men and their neat and petite yukata wearing wives; loud mouthed and leery English teachers, even small and extremely quiet Japanese children, it was like a total cross section of society would turn up wherever I went like a shadow. First I thought it was amusing, like I’d go to a pub, it would be more or less empty and totally quiet, I’d order a pint, cross the deserted dance floor and I’d sit down at a table and sip my pint. I’d look down at the front page of my English Japanese newspaper, recline back in my chair, music would come on and look up from my newspaper and the dance floor would suddenly be crowded with all sorts of people dancing, jiving and twisting. Thirty seconds ago not only was the dance floor empty but so was the pub, now it was full, and they all seemed to revolve strangely around me. I can’t explain it but I was the centre of attention, it was always the same, then I started asking myself if I was losing my mind. That’s why I’ve come back here, I didn’t know what it meant and it was wearing my head out trying to work it all out.
I was shocked, it seemed my formerly solid and happy old buddy was losing his mind, or at least that he was suffering from some kind of monomania.
“It gets worse.” Ollie said quietly, I inwardly sighed, I had no doubt that it did.
“Have you ever sat at a table in an ordinary restaurant or in an even more ordinary café or pub and sat at a table next to a couple of these odd people, sometimes a man and a woman, or two women or two men, they order a drink, peanuts hell maybe even soup cheese and a side of beef too, the whole feast, among friends, and the whole lot without saying a blasted word? Who are these people, these frozen mutes who just sit and stare, who go out together not to talk to each other? What does it mean? Who or what are these people, are they real? I think I have found the answer. I think that these ‘people’ are in fact what I call filling. In fact they’re not really real and they’re just there to provide filling to an otherwise empty scene. Like in a movie there are the extras who wander aimlessly and mute or who otherwise repeat the same couple of syllables over and over again to give the impression of conversation, well the extras exist in real life, the filling.. They have no autonomy of course and they don’t think, they just sit and blink all the while. I now believe that half of the whole world is stuffing, and I see them everywhere. and they’re after me. I’m scared, either that they’re really after me or that I’m going mad or that I don’t know anything anymore.”
“But why would anyone be after you? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“You’re telling me.”
“Are you sure about this, it really doesn’t seem very likely?”
“I know, believe me I know, I really don’t want to believe it, but that’s when I started getting really crazy, it was like I was denying the evidence of my own eyes, my brain was telling me something and I was trying to ignore it at all costs. I couldn’t even trust my mind anymore, I even stopped leaving my room, I stopped eating because I kept seeing those strange people. I was destroying myself and I was weak. So I just decided to go with it and chill out, I felt much better, stronger, and maybe in a kind of way it does make sense, I mean there are lots of strange things in the universe and, well maybe I’m getting some kind of spiritual insight from all this.”
We had breakfast together and I called in sick and I didn’t have to try too hard. Ollie certainly seemed to be crazy, at least what he said was totally crazy but he was still the same old Ollie, I decided not to make any kind of judgement about what he was saying, just go along with it and see what happened. It was true that he was a bright bloke and had seen a lot of things, maybe in some way he was right, I did hold out the possibility that all or some of the crazy things he said could be right, however it was only a small possibility for me. It was all so unfamiliar to me, he was too much a philosopher, always had been, for me to follow him out there wherever he was lost and wandering now.
After breakfast we decided to go out for a couple of drinks and a few games of pool.
As we walked down the street on the way to the pub Ollie noticed a black car driving slowly just behind us, it followed us all the way to the pub, and parked while we went inside.
“I told you!” Ollie said.
“Just a coincidence.” I said.
“I wish I could still believe it was that simple. You say coincidence and it doesn’t trouble you in the least but the word coincidence scares me and fills me with horror.”
“Why? Coincidences are usually nice things like bumping into a mate you haven’t seen for ages just when you were thinking about how nice it would be to seem him again.”
“Yeah but do you understand them, how they work and why?”
“Well, not really, they just happen don’t they. It’s a good feeling though, makes you feel kind of spiritual I would say.”
“But what if they were bad coincidences? Not bumping into a friend but into somebody who can’t stand you, and not just sometimes but every time you go out, every time you go out something totally improbably bad happens to you. Like your best friend gets killed in a car accident just when you were out the night before having the best time you’ve ever had with them or a bank error has caused you not to have your account credited with your wages and at that very moment your sister begs you to lend her some money because she’s in serious financial trouble.”
“Yeah but I’m not sure that heavy shit happens that often.”
“It’s happening to me now Jake, and it happens every day.”
“Something’s out to get me and it’s not of this world, some other power is messing with me and I’ve no idea why.”
“God I don’t know what to say. Is there anything I can do?”
“Yeah there is actually.”
“What? Anything I can do?”
“Get pissed with me, lets get rolling drunk.”
“Is that all?”
“Hey it’ll mean a lot to me, while I was away I couldn’t even trust my drinking buddies.”
We walked through the car-park of the Boot, the duke-box was playing a song I didn’t recognise but which seemed to be significant to Ollie as he gave me a look which seemed to say ‘here we go again’.
The pub was empty when we went inside and Ollie seemed to be looking around furtively, he gave me a resigned look to say that it wouldn’t last and that soon the bar would be full.
However we sat there and two pints and a couple of games of pool later, the pub was still as bare as it had been when we went inside. A little later I remembered something he said and while I was lining up the black I asked him.
“How come you couldn’t trust your mates in Japan?”
He gazed at the black ball I was preparing to pocket, and he shrugged.
“Oh I don’t know it’s the coincidence thing again it scared the shit out of me. I would be mulling over my pint and perhaps thinking about how Spurs were getting on back home when my friend would suddenly start talking about football and how his favourite team was Spurs, I thought he was reading my mind at first and I nearly went mad but then I realised that it was just a coincidence, a creepy scary and viciously orchestrated coincidence.”
I struck the black side on and sent it firmly the corner pocket with a satisfying clunk.
“Nice shot!” Ollie said.
I started racked up the balls for another game, and tried to cheer him up.
“Maybe it wasn’t so viciously orchestrated, I mean maybe it was a good thing that your friend shared the interest with you and that you had something to talk about.”
“Well I don’t know about that, it just freaks me out. Then there’s the weird crowds that seem to be watching me all the time, I don’t know if that’s some kind of coincidence too.”
“Well they haven’t followed you in here, maybe this place is too dingy for ‘em.”
He smiled, “Nice idea, I think maybe I’ll stay here then.”
“About these crowds that are watching you, have you tried to talk to them.”
“I might seem strange but no I haven’t.”
“Well I don’t know, I just don’t think it would serve anything, besides they sicken me I’ve nothing to say to them.”
“So when did all this start?”
“Oh I don’t know, it was kind of a gradual thing. I thought I was becoming more spiritual, like Jung talked about synchronicity and apophenia.”
“What’s apophenia when it’s at home?”
“It’s pattern recognition, or at least it’s a kind of mania that leads you to see meaning behind the most otherwise insignificant things. I think in small doses it can be nice, like the coincidence thing but in larger doses it can drive you mad. I’m a case in point. Still I’m not the only one, Stravinsky it is said suffered from delusions of apophenia.
Jung’s own example was of a beetle flying into his room while a patient was describing a dream about a scarab. The scarab is an Egyptian symbol of rebirth, he noted. Therefore, the propitious moment of the flying beetle indicated that the transcendental meaning of both the scarab in the dream and the insect in the room was that the patient needed to be liberated from her excessive rationalism.”
A couple of people came into the bar, I eyed them suspiciously, seemingly Ollie was contagious and I almost considered them as his weird stuffing people but then again they were just blokes like me and him. A couple of moments later a group of four of five people came into the bar.
“Is this your fan-club here?”
“Could be, they arrive in small groups gradually until there’s at least a dozen of them, they don’t actually talk to each other but somehow they know each other or at least they’re involved in something together.”
I went over and talked to this guy and told him that my friend thinks he went to school with him and wants to talk to him. They got chatting and Ollie kind of realised that he was just a normal bloke, the problem was that he hadn’t spoken to anyone for such a long time, not a proper old chin-wag like, that he started to get kind of manic. Ollie talked to me and seemed to be cured of his delusions.
“I don’t know what to say, maybe things have been getting to me lately, well for these last five years or so. I guess I’ve had no stability, hell I haven’t had a girlfriend for the last year, maybe the loneliness got to me.”
“It probably makes more sense than this business about people following you and what was the other thing?”
“The stuffing people?”
“I’ve just been somewhere totally different for the past year or so, Jesus I feel like I’m just waking up out of a bad-dream. I feel such a fool.”
“Hey well it’s all over now.”
“I think coming back to see you is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, thanks mate.”
He hugged me with warmth and he seemed very full of grateful emotion. I was really happy, still puzzled how my friend could have lost the plot for so long but relieved now that he was better and I was pleased to have been able to help him in such a simple way, just by being there. To celebrate we decided to keep up our day’s festivities into the night when we ended up our favourite haunt of years gone by, a very small but very funky little nightclub called Swift’s.
We had a few drinks and danced to all the cheesy hits of our youth.
The last time I saw him he was dancing opposite me to some cheesy old Brit pop song that seemed to take about 10 years off us and reminded us of good old times. There was a surge on the dance floor and I saw a couple of girls dancing next to him and he started talking to one of them, or at least shouting at them, you know how it is in night clubs, impossible to have a conversation, she was a pretty pixie faced little thing, just his type. Whatever he was bawling into her ears seemed to be making her smile and I figured that he probably wouldn’t be going home alone tonight.
He seemed to be floating away from me across the dance-floor, and there was another surge and more people came onto the dance floor increasing the number of people between me and Ollie. The Specials came on, Night Club, he’d started dancing again with the girl, they were pogoing up and down, I kept seeing his head pop up above the others.
He seemed really to be enjoying himself, almost like old times, then I didn’t see his head pop up anymore, he must have stopped dancing. I found myself pushed out to the edge of the dance-floor and I took a seat. That’s the last time I ever saw him.
All I know is he’s gone again, maybe he’ll come back one day maybe he won’t. I don’t know where he is, no-one does, his mother doesn’t know what happened to him because she called me to get news. It’s strange. Anything could have happened to him. I feel strange, maybe one day there’ll be a knock on my door when I least expect it. When I’ve almost forgotten about him and I’m having my cornflakes, he’ll show up with more incredible stories. The only problem now is that in my heart of hearts somehow I really don’t expect it, not at all.
That’s really all I know.