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I had been living in this city for a long time; years since I washed up here with my books and my cat and my phone. It doesn’t matter what drove me to this old, out-of-the-way city with it’s baroque European architecture. Suffice to say that I arrived after a long period of stulted illness, seeking a quieter life to concentrate on my studies. The city is large enough to feel unknown, which suits me just fine. I might even say, once or twice (when feeling brazen and sure of my company) that I knew the city well, although that would really be a lie. Cities are always anonymous, to everyone.
I used to walk the streets a lot when I first came here, my gait set to the rhythm of whatever academic dilemma I had rattling my head. I found I could pace out the problems that I sought to answer. If there was a journal article I wanted to contend, I would do so manifestly, physically; turning away from the inviting, easier arcade as I would turn away from the easy answer. Crossing the cobbles of Queen’s Street as I meant to cross my adversary of letters. My internal arguments could be scrawled across the city in the glowing blue blips of my phone’s route-tracker.
Sometimes the problem would require a short stroll, other times I would pace through the night. But one thing for sure: by the time that I would return from my evening walk, the conundrum would be resolved.
That was, until the McAlistair Theorum.
Micele McAlistair, or known more simply just by his moniker MM, is a titanic figure in the world of Literary Theory. A critic, a theorist, a Practical Berkelian, and an affective Pataphysicist – stories swirled around Micele McAlistair just as the leaves of this year’s Fall swirl about me. That he was the descendent of some Crown Duke of Saxe-Gotha, by way of an unmentionable Scottish Jacobin, and that he had learnt the art of physics from none other than Planck himself. That he was, in fact, a she – who had been forced to hide his identity from the academic establishment in the bad old days when being a woman meant an instant disqualification. That he had been friends with Wittgenstein, but s/he had punched Dali.
McAlistair held court over a range of ultra-theoretical academic journals; the Republic Contemplivia and the Review, where he would spout forth his complex and bizarre claims about James Joyce, or the works of Virginia Woolf, and why the modern bumblebee must be a very decadent species, owing to their similarities with the last days of Rome (despotic rulers and threatened ecology). All very droll stuff, and I was glad to be left to my own philosophies, my cat, and my streets.
The McAlistair Theorum was a basic one. A ridiculously basic one, in fact. He argued that the world had no inherent existence, while I argued that it did. He argued that the world was not real, that it was a passing delusion that our mind was playing on itself – and I argued that it was solid, shared, and external, bound to the laws of Darwinian chemistry.
And what was more, was that he even claimed to have proof.
“As I have stated this position repeatedly at all places of import for the past fifteen years, and not a woman nor a man has dared disprove me, I have to presume like every good scientist that the odds are in my favour. In an infinite universe, (a fact that every pre-eminent quantum physicists and astronomers claims to be the case) eventually the possibility has to exist that I am right; and if I am right, then we can be in no other universe than this illusory one.”
It was a challenge of course, a warning sign thrown up to scare us ‘pedestrian’ thinkers. Huh. I paced the turn onto the row of night-lit houses, knowing that street signs and academic bully tactics could not apply to me.
The problem with the McAlistair Theorum, I route-marched past the pretty houses in their cul-de-sac positions, must be one of bad thinking. This district of the city was overwhelmingly urbane, houses built in the exact same style sitting row upon row next to each other, each surrounded by personalised gardens, each I imagined with the same layout of rooms. At the end of this suburban spread was a small footbridge that arced over the local branch-line of the tram; my access route to the rest of my walk.
If the world really were not real, then what could cause it? I stepped onto the enclosed bridge, across the gulf below. I was halfway across when there was a rattle of the fences about and a roar as, far below me, a mysterious beast of iron and motion roared past in the night.
What could cause it all in so much complexity, so much exactness, so much order? I built on my reasoning, descending the footbridge to the far side of the train station, to find myself on the route that would take me back through the Old Quarter of the city.
I was feeling confident, cocky even in my thinking as I moved through the night. The McAlistair Proof was, of course, a distraction from the fact that his (or hers) Theorum rested on no more than conjecture.
What could explain the exactitude, the completeness of the world? The way that every bit of the world fitted together into every other part? I reasoned, wondering whether I should take the route through Queen’s Park or around. At this time of the year it would be a soggy walk, and perhaps the route that looped around the railings would be quicker.
Take, for, example, that nothing exists alone – I thought as I set off around the railings; a strobing line of black lines appearing in an endless curve on my left. My body stays alive through eating, and that food comes from the plants and animals around me, who in turn partake of the plants and animals around them. One day, I too, will become the nutrient-food for plants and animals – at least in a complete sense. One thing is made of everything else.
The railing extended on to my left, always curving on the long sweep of the park. As my steps proceed at a steady clip, another line of railings appeared on my right. I hadn’t realized that there were two parks so close to each other here in the Old Quarter, but I rarely walked this way anyway.
Besides which, I was on a roll. Not only is one thing made of everything else, it is connected with everything else, but in Micele McAlistair’s delusory world, one thing might not even be what it really is. What is to stop an apple really being an orange, or water being dry when you attempt to drink it? Or people not dying and eventually becoming the food of another, but just progressing, never-ending? The ground would not be the ground when you walked on it, but something else.
No. The McAlistair Theorum was clearly ridiculous. I allowed myself a small laugh as I walked onwards. Now between two rows of black railings on either side of the road. They were so alike as to be almost identical, and I wondered at the oaf at city planning who had designed such symmetry.
In MacAlistair’s world, even – I eventually came to the abrupt end of the park, an exact crossroads in the road ahead, followed by the two corners of sandstone buildings. I struggled to remember which route to take back.
Didn’t I have to cross the railway again?
Anyway, in McAlistair’s world – a world which is based on delusion and nonsense, one thing may not even have to be what it was five minutes ago. What is to stop this very city becoming another city? Becoming the streets of Syracuse, Paris, or Beirut?
I took the turning left, sure that I must be walking in the right direction, at least. The street here was narrower, higher. The Old Quarter was famed for its quirky architecture.
My steps faltered only once, when the road curved around a stand of old stone halls or monuments of such, beside an overgrown canal. Where was the canal in the city? I tried to recall the names of the rivers nearby, the St. James, the Ouzel, the Terse. No canals, I was sure of it – but then again, I hadn’t walked this way much, and the Old Quarter was full of strange little things.
A footbridge lifted its body over the canal, it’s metal railing cage catching the gleam of streetlights and moonlight as it arced over overgrown and brackish waters. There. I thought, that will take me to safer ground.
Anyway and besides – back to McAlistair: if their theorem was right, then this would not be a bridge, I would not be a man, and this city would not be a city. Now I have had many strange passing fancies in my life, and have been wrong many times, but the fact remains that if this were not a city then I would not be here, thinking about Micele McAlistair; if this were not a bridge then I would not be walking upon it, and my legs aching, and if I were not me, well, who would be thinking all of this thought then? Having these doubts?
The bridge was paved with that strange spongy-type asphalt stuff, the sort of thing that makes you think that you’re not walking on solid ground at all, but actually on plastic, or mud.
Not for the last time that night, I felt a curious sense of vertigo as I remembered my earlier bit of reasoning; if McAlistair was right, then a thing would not really be what it was, the ground would not be the ground.
That curious springy sensation under the feet, the unexpected bounce to a step that the city-worn feet were not raised to expect… I quickened my pace, cursing myself for my nerves as I neared the end of the bridge and something large and roaring moved underneath and beyond, out into the darkness.
“Ho!” A small fright at the murmuring growl, and I reached out to steady myself against the railing, and felt something slimy – as if my hand was disappearing into quicksand.
“Uh!” I snatched my fingers back, massaging them to wipe off whatever substance befouled the railings, but found my fingers dry. It must have only been a brush with whatever it was (my brain imagined some teenagers chewing-gum, or seagull shat), but when I crinkled my nose and looked at the rail, all I could see was black-painted, weather-proofed metal rusting and corroding slowly to itself.
“Ugh.” I must have knocked it off, whatever it was, into the canal below – and remembered the sound. But the memory of the glutinous, soft texture stayed with me, as if the solid railings had become impossibly malleable for just an instant, a break in the logic of the universe itself.
That sounded like a train, like the train that passed under me on that other bridge. The thoughts, inspired by dark and nocturnal ramblings rose in me. Was there a train track next to the old canal? Did this footbridge cross both?
I descended the final steps of the footbridge, feeling a little shaken I had to admit, more eager to find my way home than to continue my argument. I should write to Micele McAlistair, I thought. Tell her (or him) that I dared to refute him (or her). That the odds are certainly not in their favour!
My foot misjudged the last step. It must have done, because when I put it down onto the solid stone of the pavement beyond I had the sudden knowledge of falling. Like vertigo in reverse perhaps, I could feel my weight not finding anything to hold it up at all, the rush of wind and sound as I toppled over-
For a moment in that yawning dark, the sounds did not feel familiar. The jangle of chains. The clip of canes on cobbles. The distant chime of a dock bell, although this city was not by the sea.
Thud. “Agh!” I flapped my arms, shocked by the sudden connection of my foot with the paving slab, just as if I had never fallen. The errant sounds were gone. I had imagined somewhere else.
I breathed, staying still. The gap between last step and stair was not so very great. A normal gap. Not one filled with another time, another place. The stairs were of an expected height, and one that I would have normally imagined should be there…
I tried to chuckle to myself, how could I be so silly as to be mistaken? In my escalating worry, it had taken a moment for the sound of my own voice to reach my ears. Did my voice sound like me? Did I not have a deeper voice? What if I had somehow immediately and suddenly, had the voice of another?
No. I thought resolutely at myself. Knowing that at last my thoughts were my own. No. I must be abed. A part of my brain must be fogging to sleep, even as I walk. You hear of people sleepwalking all the time in this city.
There was a roar behind me, another grumbling thunder as the carriage or beast roared through the night. The roar of a train or tram, where there should be a canal. It was getting too much for my frayed mind, and, I am ashamed to say, that I fled. My feet quickened through the streets, heading back for light and the solace of my humdrum and routine life. As I ran I wandered if my footsteps indeed sounded like my own, or perhaps the beating of great wings, or the turning of pages, or the chuckles of Micele McAlistair.
It was a long time before I eventually found my street and my house (and my city? an unhelpful doubt ventured), and a long time before I allowed myself to open my door.
What if there was another house beyond this door that looked like mine? A different house, with different books on the shelf?
When I had finally found my courage, fumbling for the key which behaved like a key to fit the lock which behaved like my lock, I found my house pretty much as I had left it. Familiar, usual, safe. My heart began to slow, the panicked fluttering breaths in my chest ease, and a semblance of normality returned.
This was of course my home, my city, and my life. Who’s else could it be? I thought as I climbed the narrow stairs to my bed, happy to put the strange incident behind me.
A dark shape in the shadow of my bedroom door moved, making me startle. But it was only my cat…If this cat made different noises than the ones that my cat always made, I resolutely ignored them.
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