'One more' he thought, emptying the remainder of the whisky into his favourite glass with trembling wrist. The golden elixir had no time even to still though: as the bottle was set down on the well-stained coffee table for the last time so did the well-filled glass rise to satisfy the longing of impatient lips, his hands accomplices to the fact. It was his toothache, he would maintain, that had prompted his first drink of the day; the ceaseless throb-throbbing numbing his brain completely, that great towering beacon of torment pulsing regular as a lighthouse, and blinding him with pain- there being nothing else now to see or feel. The rest of the bottle followed without protest, each generous measure welcoming the next.
All afternoon he had been slouched on the ex-display canvas covered two-seat sofa donated by his old neighbours when they had left some months back. A monstrous palm leant over, gothic in silhouette, the tips of its leaves occasionally scraping the nape of his neck as a gale-force sometimes squeezed itself through the three-inch gap of the fully open 14th storey window directly behind him. The wind chimes on the balcony clattered wildly with fairy pitch abandon; magic atonal, rhythmic nonsense- the sugared sound of a going-nowhere spell masking the marching of time-ever changing: And he in the eye of the storm. He is unaware of all this, that is to say he does not realise what is happening to him. Or what has happened to him.
The once white sofa wouldn't even pass for magnolia now; rubbed-in cigarette ash, conceited beer stains and the swaggering scuff of inebriated boots have claimed possession. Ownership being the right to mistreat. At 2.30pm a steaming mug of English Breakfast sits on the smallest of the teak 'nest' tables, used as a telephone stand- an unread novel on a two-week loan wedged under the short leg to maintain a near-horizontal surface. The cordless handset is in his hand. It is by his ear. There is music, and he is waiting to get through- to speak to someone, for an appointment. The toothache, pre-whisky is unbearable- bears down upon him; some ravaging sickness ingesting his senses whole, his memory chewed up- no 'before', no 'to-be'- and overpowering as if now he only existed through it- this tremendous pain: a parasite upon it. The lines were busy at 1.56 and after the second chorus of California Dreamin' he hung up. The lines were still busy (as always) and the Four Seasons was playing. He decided to listen, as much to distract him from his pain as for the sake of keeping his place in the queue. No use. After two and a half minutes the bold, jaunty strings playing all springtime joy made him nauseous and he hung up again.
'you'll never get through if you keep hanging up.' She says.
He grumbles something incoherent and presses re-dial only to hang up seconds later, silent curses upon his lips:
'what time is it?'
'almost twenty-five to three. have you seen my car keys? -i'm going off out in a bit.'
The car keys are by the phone.
"dunno, where you going?"
"Sara's. she's not been well."
-Indignant inwardly at her betrayal. And then feebly:
"will you get us some more paracetamol- please?"
She spies the car keys beside his unhelpfulness and gives him that look as she takes them reproachfully: a minute later- out of the flat. She may have said goodbye. He stares hard at the tomb heavy door -slammed shut- where a concrete bordered sky was momentarily displayed like a picture in a gallery, and wonders how it came to this.
At 5.46pm it was becoming clear that if he could manage to eat any food he would have to cook it himself. Moments later the phone rang and this fact was confirmed. He had begun to hate her long ago, before he even realised, so absorbed was he in his own despair. He resented the restrictions on his freedom she imposed. Made him feel guilty about coming home drunk. Harangued him for the tiniest of details. Refused him her favours- from malice no doubt, revenge against his free spirit. Would rage and curse. Or would sulk and ignore him: he often stayed out at night to avoid her silent disgust. It didn't help.
After a brief venture into the kitchen he decided his pain was already too great to risk the further aggravation that eating might cause. It was on this reconnaissance that the whisky was sighted- a cheap oversized own-brand affair, and almost full. Temptation. But he had another hour before his useless painkillers wore off and he wasn't to mix them with alcohol- she had taught him that. So, sullen and hungry, he re-establishes his majesty upon his second-hand throne, hand clasping the remote control like a sceptre God-given: thumb poised in judgement, ready to efface anything not to his royal taste.
Just after 3.30 there was still no human response on the phone: the endless cycles of musical trash enforcing their sickly optimism upon his tired ears. His patience and anger both worn away now, and he is drifting off inside himself. All negatives are spirited away by the romance of nostalgia, sweet memories of past girlfriends- leading to the dreamy possibility of erotic reconciliations. Memories swirling around his head pleasing and drifting idly: ...his winning goal...promotion...camping out on the moors in winter...the award- all long, long ago. Vague. Disjointed. Nostalgia is always hollow. The memories begin to fade: become twisted, distorted images of a tired, mundane disappointment that characterise his existence. The ambitions of his younger self, whatever they were- (thwarted by past girlfriends' probably) -left undone, decaying somewhere dark; rotting toxic on his bleak narcotic brain- a rank, unholy symbiosis. Through it the impossibility of reconciliation- the inevitability of this pain is unbeknown to his ignorance. Each thought progresses one way only, his mind focused on achieving misery, self-indulgence: his life a motorway without exit, all signs point to the frustrations of his failures. How he suffers! -this victim of the world's ingratitude. Sulking. This wasn't how he imagined his middling years would be. He was morose, wasted, an underachiever. All his life he'd sacrificed what he wanted for other people. They took you for granted. If you gave them anything they became greedier, took more. Fuck them. And fuck her as well. Three years of self-sacrifice and 'compromise' and for what? How he wished she'd leave him, let him get on with his own life. Bliss. Freedom. He struggles hard to grasp at some dream, some aspiration that might once have given him vision, strength- something to lead him from this malaise towards something...something else. But all he can think about is this pain- inside and all around him: his pallid memories papering the cold jaded walls, abuse and neglect littering the furniture and the carpet and the trinkets of lost opportunity tumbling from the overflowing bin. And, oh this agony! -the throb-throb-throbbing bringing him almost to tears of self-pity. And so he sits slumped on the forsaken couch, brooding over daytime talk shows and murder mysteries, the clock ticking circular eternal, and he feeding off his pain and hatred, derelict but expectant, waiting for his life to begin.
Earlier that day, when there was a little more sunlight he had been reading a novel she had brought from the library. There was some disease-ridden town in Africa and they were all quarantined and there was some man who was trying to write a book but couldn't because he kept changing the first line over and over again and never got beyond that first line. That seemed pretty pointless and it didn't distract him from his pain as he had hoped so he abandoned it less than half way through and found another use for it. He had taken the day off work sick: no acting skills necessary as everyone had endured the authenticity of his tortures yesterday. It was a relief to laze around the flat- at first. Then he found sharing his time was becoming quite tiresome. She wouldn't book him an appointment, asked him to tidy-up the 'mess', was generally getting in the way and trying his patience. Just his luck that she had taken the week off as holiday; he wouldn't have minded if she'd gone away for a few days, perhaps to see her parents. He just wanted some peace, and for this tooth to stop nag-nagging him. At 11.37am he phoned, perhaps for the first time in many years for a reason not work or drink related. Much surprise to be told by a machine voice that he was to be put 'on hold'.
"they'll put you in a queue" she says, ever helpful.
He holds. He holds and he watches her as she potters about the flat seemingly unaware of his suffering. All they ever do is argue. He wonders whether she cares any more. He wonders why he should care if she does. He holds onto this moment, is transfixed by this moment that is his whole life. But he does not recognise this. He thinks he is someone else. He sees only details of his own inadequacies masquerading as misfortune. Fools himself. Anger, blame, frustration -all conjured up from that cauldron of delusional self-hatred deep within him. He does not recognise this moment as his life. He is not part of it. He is not aware of himself, for if he were this wouldn't be happening. Or have happened.
There are choices to be made. He is afraid of making a mistake. And the grass truly is always greener on the other side. He holds and listens to soft dreamy harmonies from a distant past, not his own; lulling him, a lullaby, into himself, into the safety of his daydreaming, into the numbness of being on hold, telling him softly, soothing, he'd be safe and warm if he was -somewhere else.
Contrary to the values of those cheerful pessimists and cowards who feel the need to spread musical linoleum over the great yawning abyss of 'being on hold' with Vivaldi or the Mamas and Papas; this interval in the drama of your life would be better approached head-on, honestly, courageously. Only then does its existential significance reveal itself.
You are on hold, waiting to get through. What you have begun now dictates a course of events for you. But not yet. With a phone to your ear you wait- for some response, some recognition of the validity of your purpose, for something to happen- for your life to continue. And all this while you are subjected to the musical equivalent of idle chattering by those who demand that you share their fear of silence. Any meaning or worth that could be ascribed to Four Seasons or California Dreamin' is entirely absent in this context; lost in the surrealism of the situation and swamped by the music's function of distracting one from understanding it. This music is pleasantry, preamble; the unnecessary small talk that aims to avoid the real issue. It is also necessarily deceitful for it feigns a purpose (that of entertainment) other than that of the pretence it actually sustains. In these eternal moments we witness a desperate embrace of the vapid, the humdrum, the inoffensive, in the hope that the hurricane emptiness howling destruction at our feeble constructs will eventually yield and give way to the safe calm of the mundane. The music entreats us to join this denial of the fact of the matter. It says 'everything's ok, everything's normal, life goes on...' but it goes on, and on, and so on. Finding yourself in this wasteland of meaning is like talking to a sundial: 'what time is it?' -one o'clock, 'what time is it?' -two o'clock, 'what time is it?' -.... this is mere distraction and the definition of irrelevance. It takes your time away from you. When you are on hold, your time- your life (for in this instance they are synonymous terms) is being stolen from you. This 'music' intends to fool you, to cloud your senses, to form clots of mindlessness in your cognition: while you are California Dreamin' your home is being burgled. When you wake, its too late, everything's gone.
"hi, its me, i'm going to stay over here tonight. Sara's really not well. i'm really worried about her."
"...are you ok?"
"yeah, s'course. i thought youdave binbackagesago. a woz..er wurried n'all."
"are you drunk? fucking hell, can't you stay sober for one night?"
"no...am not FUCKING drunk. -aye ownlyadaglass o wiskycause me tooth was drivin memad."
"ok, ok- i just don't think you should drink so much, you know?"
"so fucking what? i don't give a shit what you think, yous always tellin me what to do, you don't give a shit about what i want. av been in fuckinagony and you don't even givashit."
"you've had toothache. its hardly the end of the world is it? -and you'll have that sorted tomorrow......you did make an appointment?"
"ohh see- yer jst fuckin nag me all the time- nag nag fuckin nag...."
"you didn't make an appointment did you? well you fuckin-well deserve to be in agony then. you're such a prick..."
"a cuddent fuckin get through, aalright? thers noone ther. 'snot my fuckin folt if thers no won ther."
"look, i'm going, i'm not talking to you when you're like this."
"no, don't ang up, am just a bit pissed s'all. ah want yer to come back like, y'know..."
"no- Sara's really ill, i'm staying here. i'll see you tomorrow."
"jeesus....you must be pissed, get some sleep and i'll see you tomorrow. -and eat something or you'll be ill, i bet you didn't have any tea..."
"oh-fer fuckssake, shut the fuck up-don't fuckin bother cominback then. yer mightaswell stay at fuckin Sara'syer fuckin care about 'er more than me...i don't givashit, ...yer didn't even get me paracetommol, why ddnt you yer get me fuckin paraceetomol for me? you knew i wanted em."
"why didn't you get them yourself? -its only 10 minutes to the shop."
"you said yawould..."
"i did not..."
"well, 'sjst-fuckintypical yer don't do anithin for me, yer afuckin selfish cow. i only wonted sum fuckin paraceetamol, n'yer wont evn fucknido that for me. am infuckin agony n'you won't even get me some fuckinparaceetomol..."
"don't you fucking speak to me like that you selfish bastard. you're a real arrogant shit sometimes. you don't even realise what i have to put up with off you..."
"what you put up with...?...i ave to fuckin putup wi all yor shit..."
"jeezus! -you're a fucking conceited shit- you know that? all you do is sit around watching tv and getting pissed up with your mates, i don't even know where you are half the time, you don't come home half the time and when you do you're pissed out of your head...."
"..boring boring. i aftergo owt to get away from yoo goinon all the fuckintime- you jst cant stand that av got a life o meown yer jst jelous...yerfuckin jellus..so...just fuckin leave me alone n'stop fuckinaggin me-stayout see if i care.."
"you want a life of your own? fine, have it, you can do whatever you want 'cause i've had enough of your miserable, self-pitying whinging and moaning. you hear me? i don't even know what i saw in you you selfish bastard. you just sit on that fuckin couch getting' pissed up, wasting your life- you're disgusting, you're a fucking waste of space. i don't know why i put up with you all this time. you talk to me like i'm shit or something. well you can fuck off. you're just a fucking loser......just cause you're a piece of shit, don't mean you can treat other people like shit. good fuckin riddance to you. i'm not having it anymore. you fucking deserve all you get....i'll pick my stuff up in the week, so you'll have to bear seeing me once more before you get your precious life back."
"ah, dont be like that, 'tsonly coz yerknow'ts...jst coz,...y'know, yer don't mean it d'yer?.........'lo....hello..?.......wher areyer?.......hello?-..............fffuckin bitch."
Understanding the self-deception implicit in believing 'the grass is always greener on the other side' is no refutation for those who live their life on hold. Such self-awareness merely reveals the fear that underlies this state of being. Encourages inaction. Why not change your life? You hate your job, your girlfriend, yourself...you decide to do something- what you begin will create a new course of events for you, a new destiny- but not yet. Now is not the time. This is a trick. You know the grass is no greener there than here. But you pretend to believe and then put it out of reach. Deceit slanders the world. You tell yourself the moment must be just right. But the moment will never be just right. The creation of a world of obstacles is his greatest artistic feat. It is a spell he weaves around himself like a shroud- to shield him from living. He thinks it keeps him safe from time. Fantasy. Stasis, self-imposed but justified, he thinks, by the opposition of his creations. These hardened enemies he conjures define him- provide his essence. Without them he is nothing.
Karl had phoned at 5.32 to see if he fancied a drink later on. He had declined, expecting his beloved to nurse him through his sickness. He was also informed of a vacancy coming up at Karl's work- should be a good earner, and would help him get out of that job he hated so much. He said he'd think about it. He thought about the bonus coming up at work and decided he couldn't afford to miss out. Waiting for the right moment.
At 6.11pm he pours himself a glass of whisky. Downs it. Sublime. For a second the hoarse-dry fire in his throat and down into his belly becomes all, his whole being. For that moment tooth is forgotten. And, he almost smiles. But then it is over and once again throb-throbbing driving him to despair. He pours another large measure, takes a sip and places it upon the near-even surface of the table beside him, for later, this being for medicinal purposes. At 6.14 he is grumpy once again, aggrieved at the lack of attention he receives from his other half. She is overbearing even in absence though- she always seems to be in his way- they don't even get on like other couples do when the 'spark' goes. He could never finish a relationship though. He'd always let it drag on, dying slowly; festering; wait to be 'dumped'. He'd been waiting a long time now. But maybe it wasn't hopeless- there'd been something once- he knew that. It wasn't impossible for things to work out- they had a history together, surely that counted for something -couldn't there be a future? An advert caught his eye, and with it his attentions. The significance of his emotional state faded lazily into the mists of unconsciousness as the need for a new car surged up within him.
The acquisitions littering the lounge took on a dank unwholesome quality in the fading light of evening; seemed to watch him, challenging. What use were they? Random purchases of c.d.'s, books, pictures, ornamental crap, bla bla bla... -each purchase offering so much at the time of transaction, now just clutter; surrounding him, their physicality an assault on his idealism- he is their prisoner. Captivated. They force an identity upon him. A lottery ticket lies on the floor by the coffee table- now used as a footrest. All the possibilities that could offer! Life would be fantastic, he thought. Imagine the places he could go to, the things he could do- everything at present out of reach, everything denied to him would be within his grasp. He wanted it all. And he wanted to live forever. First he would quit that soul-destroying job necessity had forced him into then- then he would reclaim his independence from the constrictions of monogamy. A new car perhaps. Anything! He could be himself, at last, and -ah, the world would be his playground just as he had always dreamed.
The clock ticking circular eternal. And he unsure of how many glasses he has drained, noting casually that the level in the bottle is on the wrong side of half-full. Drunk. His mind now tossed this way and that, from apathy to rage, through self-pity and dark humour, as if a storm were upon him- trapped in an dead-end alleyway, spun around in cyclone currents. Around and around. Dead leaves spinning. And he, absorbed in his maudlin frustrations unaware. The wind chimes crashed down upon the balcony floor. The spell now broken. And still he does not understand, still sitting on his coffin couch wishing things were different.
When there was just under a quarter of the bottle left she phoned. They argued, she said it was over. She hung up. And he was left listening to the sound of being cut off. A monotone, senseless drone highlighting the silent emptiness bearing down upon him. Finality. No future now- no reconcilliations. No California Dreamin' -no, not on hold. Cut off. The phantasms of misfortune heckle no more and through their absence all meaning dissolves into ether. The fear of silence: that cosmic indifference beneath our shuffling, uncertain feet- and all around us, menacing at the periphery of our dreams, whispering silently of the worthlessness of our lives, the pointlessness of it all. Cut off. And he, too far away for anybody to hear him.
The distance of dreams estranges desire; here remains only the void in which the dreamer comes to know his emptiness through the voyeurism of his condition. Self-betrayal- revealed. The fear of silence that leads to dreaming and the creation of illusions will overcome these unsustainable constructs eventually- the silence underlying the state of being-on-hold is too powerful, too evocative of that to which it points- the silence of being cut off. He was dreaming and now he finds his life has been stolen. Oh, where is Vivaldi now? He wants to feel that he is eternal, that his life, like the clock blurring opposite him continues circular eternal -that like the four seasons is beyond time, outside it, eternally recurring refreshed anew -that everything's ok, that everything's normal.....but no amount of self-deception can satisfy the real need for overcoming this terror. To hide it, to put it out of sight only makes it stronger- more dominant. He is sick. Vomit on his chin, forearms upon the toilet seat, his thoughts barely coherent. He wanted everything to be perfect- he wanted to be perfect. Waiting for the right moment. How could he explain why he had to keep himself hidden from that terrible melancholy, that dying realm we call reality? -That he was not yet ready? -That he must wait on hold until he understands just what it is he is waiting for? His silence slanders the world.
Some water passes his lips. After a slight improvement in his condition he climbs back upon his sofa, the ark he hopes will save him from the floods of time. The room is unclear through his bleary glazed eyes. The remote control smashed on the floor, a small black smudge where it hit the wall. Shelves have shed their contents- now spilled over the floor burying the previous generations of junk-memory. And he sits wondering how it came to this. Almost calm now, he takes the whisky bottle and empties it into his favourite glass; takes a mouthful and swallows slowly- for his pain.