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Zebra Crossing

January 2004 – for the Orange short story competition

(All stories were to be grounded around the word “North”.)

There is no time here. For years I lived by routine, by day and by night, yet still I cannot create it here. There is just space. I look around and see nothing recognisable, nothing to remember later, nothing to grapple my attention. For as far as I can see everything is exactly the same, all around. But there is no direction here, no left or right, no north or south; at times I lose track of what is up and what is down. Just black above and black below, both showered with glimmering white starlight. The silence is just silent, nothing more. I feel slightly nauseous but I guess that’s OK considering.

I don’t know how long ago I lost contact. It’s still as dark as it was then – two hours? Four? Less? Around me, everything slowly changes but everything stays the same. I was supposed to return by morning. It was supposed to be a routine trip. Out, then back. Same as always – done it plenty of times, they all have. I don’t know what went wrong. I’m just lost, trapped in an infinite darkness punctuated by pinpricks of icy light. I think I’m cold. I should be; the temperature plummets here when the sun leaves us. There’s no point in moving, I should save my energy, even though I don’t know what for. I know they are somewhere behind me, but I don’t know which way that is.

My equipment was damaged in the accident. That always happens to people. It makes for a more interesting story. Actually, maybe it doesn’t always happen to people. Maybe their equipment does the job it’s supposed to and they get saved in minutes without recourse to miracles or autocannibalism. We only ever hear stories of danger and struggle and the ‘being saved at the very last second of death’, or the ‘escape from the inescapable and the long crawl home to welcoming arms’. Still time for that to happen, I guess.

There’s still no time here. The thought occurs that without it, I can’t be bored. This isn’t comforting in the slightest.

Blacked out again. I got the bus into town to do the shopping and bumped into a lady who hurled abuse at me for walking on the wrong side of the pavement. I’ve always had a problem remembering that kind of thing. Think she went a bit over the top though, probably could’ve saved more stress and energy by just adjusting her stride and slowing slightly. Or maybe she’d have never got to where she was going that way. Obviously my fault, anyway. I just bought fresh stuff to last me to the weekend since I knew I’d be doing a bigger shop then for the party. We’re having a few old friends over, no big deal – in truth it always ends up a little stale, probably due to the drink, but we carry on inviting them anyway. I think maybe we miss the descent from back-slapping dinner conversation into slightly darker and more heated ‘discussions’ before we reach the full blown arguments about nothing particularly important but something that’s been really pissing us off about the others simply because we’ve had nothing else big to piss us off about. That’s what’s so nice about the civilised world: self-manufactured anger. Soon it’ll be bottled in jars and sold with a free audiotape specifically designed to get you nicely settled into prescribed vehemence. They’ll do tests at the clubs – ‘you on Rage mate?’ Maybe not. I reappeared into my blackened world just before we descended into comfortable depression, so I guess I’ll never know. It’s still cold.

I’ve discovered that the only part of me still movable to any useful degree are my eyes, and there is still nothing to see. I can’t remember whether everything was damaged in the accident or whether I’ve just frozen stiff. I’m looking forward to the hallunications starting though; I’ve heard they do a pretty good show out here. Probably still a while before that happens though, everything just looks as bland as before. Distant stars in pools of black whatever. I think about using the metaphor of dandruff on a suit jacket, until I realise that a suit jacket isn’t usually as boundless and doesn’t usually pick up constellations in such quantities.

Only now have I realised that I’m talking to myself, or at least thinking to myself. It’s the first time I’ve noticed it – whenever I consciously think, rather than just on impulse, I can only think using a language, say English. You would’ve thought English was a pretty crummy language to feed into the most complex neural network known to man, but apparently it’s doing OK in mine. I start to wonder what would’ve happened if I’d never been taught a common language – just been born into a world where there was no way to communicate externally. Would I still be able to think? Would I still be able to buy fish and chips on Blackpool Prom? Would it necessarily be a bad thing if I couldn’t? People like Descartes reckoned if you started with a blank slate you’d still end up being able to prove yourself and God, but the trouble is he’d already factored in some sort of logical language as an assumption, and so he wasn’t really doing it properly. However he did have the torture chambers of a viciously religious society to influence his thinking a little.

The idea of a world where communication was removed starts to become a little too experimentalist, in more of a fascist/lunatic dictator than cure-for-cancer-esque way, but I do mentally smile at the possibility of me being the most intelligent toddler on earth, with a direct routing of thoughts in the natural language of my brain: having resolved poverty and famine and invented easy cook rice which doesn’t require a diploma to prevent it from turning to glue, before someone dumbed me down by trying to teach me only the 26 letter alphabet, whereupon I started to think AC/DC were pretty good.

I start to get a bit worried about my lack of direction, both in life and my current situation, and anyway my mind is starting to numb a little, starting to get used to the lack of change, and has decided to wind down a gear or two. I decide to help it out by blacking out for a while.

It is Africa by night. The sky is vapourless and the wind escaped long ago. We have been out since dawn gaping at the most incredible and lovable creatures roaming the planet. The safari can only capture a glimpse of a fragment of the wilds, but its intensity blows us away. For centuries we have feared lions most of all, yet they languish in the shade merely metres from our vehicle. We have been told not to stand up, since this would break the box shape of the vehicle and indicate that we are alive, but the fact that we speed off at 40mph in search of leopard doesn’t seem to offer any more hints.

These animals know and tame the land, yet life is harsh and unpredictable. Food does not come from a supermarket, brief respites from the daily grind do not come from a book or television. But to watch them is beautiful, graceful, and above all, more real than we have ever known.

We leave the track to allow an elephant to pass. It is a natural zebra crossing – as encroachers on their rightful terrority, we must wait, patiently and with a little bit of fear. And then it is night, and the ghosts of the heavens shine with a brilliance and beauty that cannot be found elsewhere but the wilds of the lost continents. The overpowering sense of distance and breadth of the universe is awesome, but the closeness and comfort of these twinkling gifts over us is even more bewildering. Oscar Wilde wrote ‘we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars’; he is usually right, but if he were here now, he would never have noticed the gutter.

Fucking stars. I see things which aren’t there. I still see nothing but I see everything at the same time. Nothing changes but nothing stays the same. What is the point in sitting here staring at what I hate? Why can’t I move? Why hasn’t someone come to find me?

I dream of Africa once more, of races ancient and modern, unknown and hidden from our view. Some of them dream of the West, of civilisation and technological prowess. Some of them do not, as they do not know how to dream. They are not content but they are happy. These people know and tame the land, yet life is harsh and unpredictable. Food does not come from a supermarket, brief respites from the daily grind do not come from a book or television. But to watch them is beautiful, graceful, and above all, more real than we have ever known.

I am lost. I am being wrenched in half by myself. Should I stay here and wait for the inevitable, or should I move around aimlessly and risk getting more lost? I know they are somewhere behind me, but I don’t know which way that is. Help me.

Nothing. Darkness and no light. Silence hounds me and I long for home, no matter where.

I wake to find I have lost. Everything has left me. I long for nothing but the stars, for a place to be. Nothing surrounds me, and then even that abandons me, and I am gone.

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