You are sitting outside a coffee shop with your left elbow leaning on a whitewashed parapet overlooking the Mediterranean. What isn’t blue is white. You are wearing a pair of white cotton flannels and a diaphanous white shirt and watching a man, his skin flaccid with age, leading a donkey in the street below. The man wears no shirt and the braces of his black trousers hang down by his thighs. Occasionally the animal halts and the man tugs on the rein to get him moving. When that fails he goes behind the beast to push its rump. That works.
Fortunately, you are shaded from the sun’s full heat by a striped awning. Up here, in the shop, the people are beautiful. You are aware of the purple hills drifting away to the north, the torpid, whitewashed homes below, the same cloud that has hung immobile for the last two hours. Taking a pen from your pocket you write on a napkin the words, ‘We are all victims of the world’s apparent simplicity.’
The town you are in is called Misonena. The country is not important – any will do, but it’s in Southern Europe, over looking the Mediterranean. This town has only been a tourist resort for the last few years, and already it is starting to degrade. Except for the Old Town – there one can still find the lugubrious beauty travellers desire.
So, there you are. When a waiter approaches.
“Excuse me,” he says, “there’s a telephone call for you.”
He hands you a salver with a mobile phone.
“Me?” you ask.
He nods, ‘Yes’.
“Hello, is that You?” asks a voice on the other end.
“Yes, can I help?” you ask.
“I’m afraid I have some terrible news. The world is going to end in twenty-four hours.”
“Twenty-four hours, that is all. Do try to make the most of it.” Then he hangs up.
The waiter smiles at you and you look at him.
“Twenty-four hours,” you say.
But you don’t reply and he leaves you, alone. It really is most curious how these terribly odd things can happen. Example: At the precise moment you receive this news a team of monkeys locked away in an American laboratory randomly type out the word ‘CUMULONIMBUS’ as that cloud you’re watching begins turning grey. Across the parched hills the cloud’s shadow swims over the surface and you begin to feel an emptiness come over you like fires across a dry field.
Then something catches your eye.
Now, this is an odd looking fellow. He looks like a young man, but has an old man’s face with a large talon of a nose. Huge eyebrows crest his eyes and he wears a white shirt and black trousers. He looks like a character from a Venetian drama. As he steps from the telephone booth he looks at you, smiles and tips his hat.
“Excuse, me,” you call.
The man ignores you and starts walking off down the cobbled street, up which comes the man with the donkey.
“Hey!” you call louder. “Excuse me!”
Then he stops, turns and looks at you. He taps his nose with his finger and points to the call box. Leaving some money by your empty coffee-cup, you get up and go to the booth. It’s one of those modern ones – the area surrounding the machine is glazed and the local phone book hangs from a chain. The smell is pungent and musty, and the plastic furniture holding the machine has cigarette burn marks. Sticking out from the receiver is a folded piece of paper, which you take and read:
Watch the road and memorise,
the path that lies before your eyes.
You look up, thinking about the words, and see the man watching you, some way off. He lights a cigarette, flicks the match into the gutter, smiles, tips his hat and turns down another street.
There’s no point in getting carried away about this, so you don’t. It is still, after all, an immaculate day, even if it is beginning to cloud over. This part of the Old Town is typically Mediterranean: narrow streets, white-washed buildings with terracotta tiles, sun-bleached grass, the natives in black and tourists in white. The man in the call box clearly has something to do with this, and it seems quite natural that you should follow him to find out. So down the street you go.
The old man with the donkey is now sitting on the kerb, watching cars go by. The donkey stands by him and sniffs some grass that grows beneath a tree. As you walk by, the man looks up to you and points to a small red car.
“There’s one,” he says.
He lifts his hand to stop you a moment while he lights his pipe. One, two, three hefty drags and the tobacco starts to burn and a plume of silver-grey smoke drifts into the sky.
“I.D.,” he says.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I like to sit here sometimes,” he says between puffs, “and see what words are spelt out in a car’s registration plate. That one said ‘ID’.”
“Oh, I see. Yes,” you say. “But surely, there can’t be many with more than two or three letter words?”
“No,” he says ruefully. “Best I’ve ever had is ‘EGO’.”
An uncomfortable pause.
“Well, enjoy yourself, but I must go. Take care,” you say.
You stand there, unsure whether now is the time to leave. After hovering a few seconds you decide it is, turn and walk straight into the donkey.
“You, too, huh?” asks the donkey. “I didn’t put my glasses on this morning because I thought it might rain. Now I can’t see anything.”
“NOW!” shouts the man, pointing with glee at a passing car.
“Your donkey just spoke to me!” you say incredulously.
The man puffs on his pipe, looks at the donkey and then looks at you.
“Don’t mind him, he thinks he’s clever.”
The donkey shrugs his shoulders.
The old man is puffing once again, looking down the road, waiting for cars, and the donkey is munching the grass. The man from the telephone kiosk is making his escape. Backing away from the old man and donkey, careful not to bump into the beast this time, you go down the road, across the asphalt and along the cobbles.
I suppose all that threw you. And well it might, because how many talking donkeys have you met? Not many, I should imagine. No, instead you’ve spent your life in coffee shops. How very Seattle.
There’s a woman singing an aria from an upstairs window. Her words sift through the air like the smoke from the man’s pipe. You hear the pop and rattle of a motorised scooter on the main road as it trolleys over the cobbles. There is a sweet smell, as well. Mmm…coriander? Yes, coriander. Coriander and tomato coming from one of the homes. The smell is like salt, shaken all over the street.
Down the end of the road is a young man in sandals, dark shorts, bare chest and sunglasses. He’s well built, muscular and has a ‘six-pack’ abdomen that puts your ‘bargain bucket’ to shame. On each arm is one of those attractive, well-formed girls you’ve seen on the beach with the other 18-30ers. Judging by the way they willingly swathe him in their flesh you would guess they’re happy to please, and he’s happy to be pleased. One of them lets her hair wash over his shoulder – his chest heaves with pride. Every few seconds they find it necessary to burst out in a peel of laughter. You have no choice but to walk down the street, after the telephone man, and try to avoid them, but just a few feet away the young man stretches his arm out to you.
“Here you go, mate,” he says, looking at the girls for approval. You notice the slip of paper in his hand. “A bloke down there with a hat on asked me to give it to you.”
You mumble ‘thanks’ as the three continue up the road.
Sometimes you have to see how the glass is glazed.
It’s the same handwriting as the first one.
The sky is now getting darker. It’s an odd colour – not exactly grey, more of a reluctant blue. Rain is fairly inevitable. There is still little wind though, the breeze that there is, is hazy and indistinct like trying to remember a dream. You head down the street in search of the man who keeps leaving you messages, across the cobbles that massage your feet.
Here is a square with a fountain in the centre. The spout has been carved into an image of Poseidon commanding dolphins at his feet, out of whose mouths the water charges.
“Is fascinating, no?” says a woman’s voice behind you.
You turn to see a shock of gingham. Pink and white gingham. The woman is dressed as a dairymaid from Devon, but dark hair, olive skin, painted Maybelline eyes and her snowdrift accent mark her as local. She’s not much older than yourself. She wipes her hair from her left eye.
“It was built to commemorate a war,” she says.
“Really,” you say, searching the virtually empty plaza for the man.
“Many people died in this war.”
“What war was that?” you ask.
She nods toward the fountain. “I don’t know how you say,” she points to a plaque at the base of the fountain. “Read,” she says. You bend down to read the brass panel:
The Fountain of Misoeneanea
In honour of the glorious many who gave their
lives in the Dipthong Revolt of 1647
You stand and think on it for a while.
“Is this another message?” you ask the maid.
“Message? What sort of a message are you looking for?”
“Eh? Does that mean it is, or isn’t? And which way did he go?”
“He? I am showing you my town’s history!” She sounds indignant. “I thought you were interested the way you looked at our fountain. I thought you wanted to know, to be part of it! Pah!”
And then she shoves you. You go through the air, twisting, caught by surprise. Poseidon’s dolphins loom and you cover your face and hit hard into the water – a cold slap across your cheek before you submerge at the god’s feet. She did it, she actually did it, you think as you sit up. And there, tucked under Poseidon’s trident, is a scrap of paper:
To do is to be – Rousseau
To be is to do – Sartre
Do be do be do – Sinatre
Then the wind picks up and it starts to rain.
Fizz, plop! A match falls from above and extinguishes in the fountain. You look up to see on a balcony directly above a familiar nose, hat brim and smoking cigarette: your man.
You are soaking wet. With each step you take, water pulses out from your shoes, breathing through any gaps in the fabric. You wallow across the plaza, in the rain that speckles the pavement like small flowers on a summer’s lawn. This is not an enviable situation to be in, but it’s a darn sight more exciting than drinking coffee.
So, you puddle over, across the blossom, to the building you saw the man in, legs slightly apart to stop the wet material rubbing you raw. The fascia is of wood panelling, stained black and smelling of creosote. Large ferns sit along the front and obscure a sign stencilled on the windows. Automatic doors. A large reception. A young man in baggy vest and tan. Back-to-front baseball cap.
“Is it raining hard?” he asks.
You ignore him – there’s nothing worse than a dry wit in a situation like this. Brushing aside his comment you ask, “Can I go up?”
“If you want to. Sure.”
Up you go. Still hidden behind more ferns you see the sign again – ADRENALINE SPORTS CLUB. This is not the sort of clubhouse you are used to back home. However, that man is upstairs, and you feel confident that you are near the end. Up the stairs and down a corridor with doors either side. From a door down the far end can be heard music. It’s loud and it’s fast with guitars and drums exploding. You open the door. Hold your breath.
Inside, it is ten times as loud. What is actually in the room will always remain a mystery, because you are actually in there for precisely 3.4 seconds. A lariat tightens around your ankles, clasping them together, and two pairs of hands grab you and throw you out of the open louvre doors.
You glide the way a swallow doesn’t. With the aerodynamic capabilities of a brick you plummet. A feeling comes over you like you’ve been chosen as a contestant for Blind Date. The ground gets nearer. Nearer. Then further. Further. Elation. You’ve been bungeed. Ooo…
There’s something. Hanging upside down gives you a chance to look around. You can see the cobbles and the concrete coffee shop – your feet no longer touch them. You think. You touch nothing, suspended in the air; dripping down to the sand below like butter. The part of the building you swing from overhangs a cliff, which looks over the beach. The only people on the rain-soaked sand now are the oblivious 18-30ers and the two men who wait for you as you’re lowered. Just beyond them, however, is a pile of surfboards, wetsuits and other paraphernalia arranged to spell out:
To want to live, first you must nearly die
“Which way did he go?” you ask one of the men as he unties your feet.
“Here,” says the other, handing you a piece of paper:
Scientists claim there will be scorching temperatures,
culture and learning will be wiped out and gangs of
thugs will roam over the debris.
You look up and see the 18-30ers enjoying themselves. The first man points to them, and you start walking. The sun’s coming out now and it’s stopped raining.
A phone box starts ringing, so you pick up the receiver.
“Hello, is that You?” asks a voice.
“Yes. What’s this all about? What do you mean, only twenty-four hours?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t think of anything else.”
“So it won’t end in twenty-four hours?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so.”
“So what was all this in aid of?”
The caller hangs up. You put the phone down and as you do so, you look up to the cafeteria in the hills above and the short road, more ephemeral than navigable, but a road just the same, that takes you there. You start digging your hands into the sand, ploughing through it with your toes. It feels warm and grilled, like coffee beans; so you sigh and think of the very bitterest taste you could possibly swallow.