Movement 3: Summer
It was a vibrant morning in Trafalgar square. As we walked through the throngs of people the ambience of street performers shifted in and out of different styles as we passed different acts. I had picked Annabelle back up from room 41 in the gallery and we were now in search of a small perch to enjoy a picnic.
“I don’t know if I love or hate London,” Annabelle said thoughtfully. “It’s so hectically busy, but I like it because it’s so full of different people and cultures!”
We sat on the wall in front of the National Gallery and began eating our lunch, overlooking the ever-changing crowd moving beneath Nelson’s protective stance. He and his lions were really the only constants of this square; of course that’s because they were statues, but like the paintings so much had happened within their ‘sight’.
“I wonder how many individual people you’d see if you sat here all day,” Annabelle said.
“I don’t know,” I said casually, but my mind was elsewhere. It hurt to look at these people because most of them had lives ahead of them. In every single one of them I saw the privilege of time that we did not have. It was painful to watch them all go about their daily business, so blissfully unaware, so ignorant, so… People don’t like to contemplate the reality of death until they have to. I fully understand why. We cannot bear to worry about what death could mean for us. We surround ourselves with death in fiction to try and dumb it down, give it meaning, console us or whatever… In the end it does not good, the reality is still there. I just wished we had more time. We had perhaps less than a day.
“Does it make you feel small or big to be part of it all?” Annabelle continued “Are you an insignificant grain amongst the human race or are you a supporting pillar as part of a whole?”
“Can’t we all be significant?” I said. “Can’t we all be individually important?”
Annabelle nodded in agreement and smiled. “Think of how much power there is here,” she said, “as in human power… Think of how much you can love, be hurt, realise ambitions and multiply that by thousands, millions, billions… It’s amazing.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Even though the conversation was bordering on the uncomfortable topic of our lives’ insignificance it was a fascinating and uplifting idea. “Everyone is just as complex as us,” I said. “They can all think, feel, learn, live…”
Annabelle held my hand and rested her head on my shoulder. “I think it’s beautiful,” she whispered. “There are people in this square for every type, every place, every age.” She pointed to a young married couple with a toddler who was climbing on one of the lions. “Do you think that could be us in a few years time?”
It was a life we would never have, one that was otherwise so very possible. The woman even had Auburn hair exactly like Annabelle’s, the man’s was black like mine. I bit my lip, I tried to hold back tears but I couldn’t stop the small trickle that ensued. Annabelle didn’t notice. It could almost be ghosts of us in another future, a future not dictated by the inevitable. The woman smiled and laughed as she held up the child and the father took a photograph. She put the child down and he began climbing up onto the stone lion again. The parents held hands and the father kissed the mother lightly on the forehead, just like Annabelle and I sometimes do. That happy family was a twisted image of us, of something we deserved to be but never would be.
“I would like it to be,” I said wistfully. “I want that to be us, more than anything else. I want us to go on, forever and ever…”
“How about those people?” Annabelle said, pointing to an elderly man pushing a woman of equal age in a wheelchair, “Do you think that could be us? Do you think that we will last that long? I think we will!”
I screwed up my eyes to curb the tears. “Annabelle, I will stay with you until death; you don’t have to worry about us lasting. I’m so so sorry for what happened yesterday. Whatever I said, whatever you felt I accused you of, please ignore it. I didn’t mean it. I want nothing more than to spend my life with you.” I put my arm around her shoulder. “And that is the truth.”
We sat in one of those intimate shared silences as we watched the world turn around us. The people moved on and the street performers changed their rhythm. We watched as still and closely as the lions, but we were not to be as eternal.
“You know what I was saying?” Annabelle said. “About how amazing it is that everyone is just as complex as us?”
“I think that is what makes us all significant.” She paused. “You are significant to me; my life would be completely and utterly different without you, the same for you. Neither of us could exist in the same way without the other. Well, maybe that’s the case for the whole of humanity. Maybe one person seems like nothing, but we all have effects of causation that mark our significance on this Earth.”
I smiled. “Perhaps we do.”
“It’s like the butterfly effect,” Annabelle continued. “You can’t tell one person’s significance throughout time because something that seems immeasurably unimportant could cause someone else to do something. Maybe you sneezed in a quiet place and caused two people to look round, meeting eyes for the first time. Maybe a lighthearted compliment you gave someone could have grown inside them to be all the motivation they needed to push themselves to their full potential. We have no idea how much we might affect the lives of those around us, but we do.”
“We do, we do indeed.”
“Do you think things would have been different if we hadn’t had that initial glance on that first day?”
I considered it. Annabelle was one girl in a hundred I could have met on that first day of sixth form. Maybe I could have harboured obsession for another who cared nothing for me. Perhaps we would never have been drawn together.
“So maybe we have some nameless year seven to thank for our lives together!” I said. “Huh. weird when you think about it like that.”
Annabelle hugged me tightly. “ Well I’m glad those little brats were as persistently obnoxious as they were!”
Was it chance? Was it fate? Were we always going to be together in this way and was our death predefined in type and occurrence as clearly as its date? Did we really have any control over the future or was the chaos of butterfly effects that humans caused, at its core mathematically calculable? My death was fixed. I knew that as certainly as the sun would set that night. Was everything else fixed too? Did it even matter? Fate had brought me to Annabelle and even in its cruel game of abrupt endings it had spared me two beautiful years. Maybe there was even a God out there in some strange form. Perhaps, maybe I’ll find out tomorrow, maybe I’ll never know. We wandered hand in hand around the square through the jungle of culture, devoting a quick moment to each one of the street artists, a flame juggler, a neckbeard dancer, a bagpiper in a kilt and finally a young rapper. He stood at the centre of a small circle of audience as he quickly spewed a precise but incomprehensible string of words.
“I think I know that guy,” I muttered
“Hmm?” Annabelle asked.
“That’s Dave from Hackney!” I said as the revelation dawned on me.
“Sorry?” Annabelle said, confused. “Dave from Hackney?”
“Yes! I remember I met him at one of those inter-school science fairs back in year ten and for some reason he was ‘Dave from Hackney’ to everyone.”
“Well I guess he’s called Dave and he comes from Hackney?”
I shook my head smiling. “I don’t even know; he’s really unpredictable and er… subversively ambitious though he doesn’t really show too much outward enthusiasm. He’s not really a particularly nice guy at all, a bit blunt really. He just… well… you know I was pretty depressed at that time?”
“He was sort of kind to me, I say sort of. He recognised that I was depressed. He didn’t really help but he didn’t tell me any bullshit about how everything would be alright. He was a realist I guess… He didn’t really seem to give a shit. But that’s what I liked about him, his ability not to give a shit about anything. He had no inhibitions, not a care in the world. Yeah, he’s kind of weird but I got the impression that there was slightly more to him than he let on. I don’t really know what. It was like he wanted to be someone. Maybe that’s why he never seemed to give a shit. Maybe he gave so much of a shit about everything all he could do was to hide from it by purportedly giving no shits; I probably sound like I’m talking rubbish don’t I?”
Annabelle giggled. “I kind of get what you mean…”
Dave finished his verse and took a deep breath before smiling proudly at his accumulated audience. We applauded him enthusiastically. He took nervous, un-rapper-like bow and held up a fedora to collect change from the audience.
“Dave!” I called out “Dave from Hackney?”
He paused from his rounds and turned to look at me. For a second he looked a little confused then his face burst into joyful recognition.
“Gabe?” he said uncertainly. “Science-fair-Gabe?”
“Gabriel,” I corrected him.
“Whatever!” Dave said exasperated. “It’s been absolutely fucking ages since I’ve seen you! How’s it going man?”
“Well as you can see I got myself a girlfriend!”
Dave looked a little confused. “I don’t really see that, but oh well,” he said.
“She’s just so perfect,” I said warmly. “I love her so much, she couldn’t be better!”
Dave nodded awkwardly without looking at Annabelle. “Glad you’re happy,” he said.
I continued, “I finally escaped that ‘shell’ I told you about!”
“Oh yeah? Good for you! Showed that fucker who was boss? I dunno, I’m not all that learned in psychology yet, I haven’t read much about shells or depression or anything.”
“Hmm, yeah, it might only be me that uses the shell analogy.”
“Sure! Well, it’s been nice to see you, great to know you’re better - anyway have my business card!”
Dave handed me a premium business card which said, ‘Dave from Hackney - rapper for any occasion’, followed by the phone number and address.
“Thanks,” I said.
“You’re welcome to drop round if you want, we should probably catch up properly - bring your girlfriend if you like so I can meet her! Gotta go now, got a wedding to rap at! See y’ Gabe!”
And with that he was gone, an eccentric flourish to the middle of our day.
“He’s kind of weird,” Annabelle said.“He seems kind of… Could he not see that I was your girlfriend?”
“I seriously don’t know. He’s so unpredictable, it could be that he was being sarcastic or maybe he genuinely did not register that the girl standing next to me might perhaps be the friend I was talking about. I seriously didn’t see him becoming a rapper, but then he always can across as unpredictable so I guess I’m not surprised. I always presumed he’d end up selling drugs; he seemed to know what he was talking about when I met him before; he spoke to me about the best ways to grow weed right out in the open.”
Annabelle looked confused. “Maybe he’s mad?”
I shook my head. “He’s almost so sane he seems mad, he seems like he doesn’t care but I just get the sense he might have some underlying control to his life. I get the impression that he’s actually really clever and he’s got it all planned out.”
“There’s a lot of depth to him then,” Annabelle said, “and he’s just one of thousands of people in this square, just like we were talking about! We’re all just as deeply complex as each other, it’s just that different people display different amounts of depth.”
“Oh I don’t know about that!” I said, almost a little too scornfully. “There are some pretty shallow people out there.”
“Maybe they are just shallow on the surface, but have a cavern as deep as the earth beneath,” Annabelle said quietly. “Maybe they keep things hidden away or they hide things from themselves. How do you think you come across to others? Apart from me?”
I considered it for a moment. “I don’t really think it matters, I know some other people on the art course but I’m not really interested in them and they’re not interested in me. I have you to your complete depth and that is fine for me.”
“Do you think your fellow artists are shallow?” she asked.
I paused. “No, all they seem to do outside of class is engage in primitive gossip, but then I guess that’s no more than I do with them. If I said they were shallow based on what I saw of them then that would make me shallow… Maybe you’re right, perhaps no-one really is shallow!”
We continued our pleasant walk around the square for a further twenty minutes. We made a couple’s selfie with one of Nelson’s lions and eventually found our way into the Waterstones bookstore. After some quick browsing I bought her a couple of books, one a novel and the other an anthology of poems. I remember being conscious of the time but for a brief moment of that day it was not death that was on my mind. I was at that moment excited for the future, amidst the threat of approaching death I found that I was anticipating our trip to the theatre with mounting excitement. Whilst I don’t think our day had peaked during our time in that bookshop, the temple of human knowledge, I think it was the time when I was most at ease. The fears had slipped from my mind and for about twenty minutes I was free. I was living on the surface of my mind in the shallower waters and all I could think about was Annabelle and the play we would be seeing. I guess this is what the day must have been like for her, no anticipation of death, no relentless, unstoppable bass line beneath the upper melodies of the day. I guess all she felt was excitement and happiness to be sharing the day with me. I’m glad I was able to give her this day. When I finally decided it was time we got going for the Globe I whisked Annabelle off into a cab, whispered the address to the driver and told Annabelle I had a surprise in store.
I held my hands over Annabelle’s eyes as we left the taxi, I guided her slowly down the pavement until we stood right in front of the Globe Theatre.
“Can you guess where we are?” I asked provocatively.
“I really have no idea!” she said excitedly. “It could be anything - but I get the feeling it’s something good! If you’ve chosen it!”
I pulled my hands back from her face and she gasped in astonishment.
“‘Macbeth’ playing here in thirty minutes,” I said proudly.
Annabelle laughed and hugged he gratefully. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” she said, eyes shining. “You know me so well don’t you? You know exactly what I like! It’s perfect!”
I exchanged my £1000 for the two tickets from a rather worried looking woman at the box office, who kept smiling at me kindly. She was the one I spoke to on the phone and probably the only person in the world really aware of my situation. I thanked her and she told me to make the day as good as I possibly could.
The seats were fantastic, situated in the ‘middle class’ section of the theatre in a central prime position. To get something this good I have a feeling the box office woman must have bought back tickets from some fellow spectators, bent easily by the prospect of £1000. We stifled laughter at some of our favourite insults, reacted as one with the crowd at the brutal deaths and applauded enthusiastically for the fantastic cast. But the show was over far too soon and the dawn of the next day two hours closer. Could Annabelle and I end up like young Siward or King Duncan, our guts spread out on the ground and the life blood drained from our bodies? It was too horrible to consider. I pressed the thought of farcical death from my mind but it was still there, clinging to the fringes of my brain, determined to stay.
We stumbled out of the theatre shaking with excitement like ‘normal’ teenagers after a pop concert.
“So?” I said smiling. “What did you think?”
Annabelle laughed. “I loved it!”
“First time seeing a live shakespeare play wasn’t it?”
“Worth losing your Shakespeare virginity to?”
We both burst out laughing. An elderly couple looked at us in disapproval but we didn’t care. To share a laugh is a uniquely human experience to cherish and there is no point in holding it back.
“Worth every bit of it! ‘Macbeth’ is a well worthy play to take it!” Annabelle said giggling.
“I’m glad I was able to make such a good choice.”
I put my arm around her shoulders and she leant lovingly into my body. “You always make good choices,” she said tenderly, “when it concerns me.”
Her words rang back in my mind. I knew it was right to keep the truth of the encroaching death from her. We walked slowly down the embankment. The late October sun was slipping gently down towards the horizon and the buildings along the Thames began to transform into their evening silhouettes.
We stood at the edge of the river. The sunlight skipped from crest-to-crest of the little ripples. A cool sea-breeze carrying the fresh scent of ocean salt brushed our faces and Annabelle’s beautiful auburn hair flowed gracefully against my cheek. I noticed everything, the touch of her hair, the delicacy of the breeze, the sharpness of the salty smell and I savoured them all. I revelled in the beauty of every detail with the knowledge that with each element this would be my last encounter.
“Think of everything that has happened here,” Annabelle said. “How much history London and the Thames have. There was a Globe theatre in Shakespeare’s time. Maybe the playwright stood in this exact spot and stared out at a similar sunset.”
“The same sun,” I replied, “the same river, the same earth.”
“Isn’t that amazing?” Annabelle asked. “Think of how many generations there have been, and all of them sharing in the same world? Separately, but joined through time by these universal constants. Everything is so connected, it’s beautiful…”
I nodded in agreement. “We’ve always been the same, so long as we’ve been human we’ve always loved the sun, the rivers, the earth… I guess they are constants to us all, too slowly changing for a generation to really notice. They’re something to rely on, a rock to lean against.”
The crowds around us swirled past like the shining waters below. If only we could stay here in each other’s company for ever. If only we could be constants to this Earth as the waters of the rivers and the sun of the sky. The salty scent skimmed my nostrils and the thought of the vastness of the ocean rolled across my mind. I would never see it again. I had not seen it for three months. I thought of all the other seas of the world, the deserts and oceans and rainforests and reefs and… I would never set eyes on them. I would never feel the warmth of the Caribbean Sea or the chill of Antarctic ice. The experience of swimming with dolphins would not be for Annabelle or me and neither would the brilliance of skiing on a glacier under a crystal clear sky. We had not even had the time in the variable of our lives to experience all the wonderful constants Earth had to offer. The ticking clock was so overpowering that even Sun and Earth bowed down to it. It gave us time to live but forbade us enough of it. Without more time we could go no further; this was it. I pulled my arm a little closer around her and she hugged me tighter. Maybe what we had was enough; maybe we didn’t need any more.
I dropped Annabelle off at her University reading club and promised I would meet her later for dinner. She beamed at me broadly and told me how much she had enjoyed the day and how special I made her feel. We kissed briefly and departed. Every moment with her was beautiful and every moment was torture. I felt deceitful for keeping the truth of our impeding fate from her and that everything I said was a lie. How could we talk about anything in the future if I knew it was not to happen? Could we dream for the sake of dreaming? The worst part of it all was knowing I would lose her soon, knowing that within a matter of hours ‘we’ would be no more. It hurt so much to know that the end was coming and that every moment together was quickly drawing towards our last. I almost couldn’t bring myself to let her go to the reading club, but I needed time alone before our final evening and our Last Supper.
I walked with solemnity and aimlessness down the streets of London in search of answers to questions I didn’t really have. There was simply nothing that could be done. Fallen leaves of the autumn lay in my path where I trod. The trees above would live another year, their individual lost leaves insignificant. If trees were capable of emotions they would probably be glad to lose leaves once in a while; it offers space for newer ones to thrive, younger, healthier ones. I guess it is a greater loss if one of those healthier ones falls but it it still insignificant as another will grow the following year to takes its place. As long as the sun shines there will be new leaves and old leaves, growing leaves and dead leaves, made redundant and brown by time. I watched the people moving around me; they were the leaves of humanity and society was our tree.
Collectively humanity lives on; when individuals die, new ones take their places. In the natural order the number dying is insignificant, posing no threat to the whole. The tree lives on for another year, the fallen eventually trodden into the ground and turned to forgotten dust. That is the way of the world and the order of nature. Every part plays a role but each role is so small and so easily replaceable that none has individual value to the whole. Maybe I’ll even have a positive impact when I’m gone. Am I a waste of space studying the arts? Am I a leaf that won’t pull its weight and won’t photosynthesise sufficiently for the tree? Do I consume more resources than I offer?
I loved the arts because they were ‘useless’ without direct link to survival. It made me feel human to appreciate them in that way. I began to wonder whether this was a selfish view and a pursuit of the arts was a waste of humanity’s time. In frustration I kicked a pile of leaves from my path; a couple caught the wind and danced across the leafy grass of Hyde Park. It would be a matter of weeks before the earthworms and larvae emerged from the ground to consume the dancing dead and return them whence they came. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Born of the earth and returned to the earth.
One counsellor tried to tell me that I was special once, that my DNA stretched back to the dawn of humanity and that the elements that made up my body were forged in stars. The image was supposed to empower me; perhaps if I was in the right mood it could. But at that moment all I could see was that in the physical world I was no different from the dead leaf. We both had ancient DNA, we were both built from materials born in stars. We both grew up as part of something larger but in our minuscule existence never contributed anything easily quantifiable. We would both end up as dust that haunts the corners of abandoned rooms and the lungs of asthmatics. In physical terms we were no different. I kicked another pile of dead leaves and watched their corpses dance in the breeze across the earth again. The light caught their fragile edges, the light which once gave them life was now slowly burning them away as the poisoned radiation crippled the dead cells. The stars from which their atoms were born now tore them apart. Nature always forms a complete circle, everything existing in balance, life juxtaposed with death, joy with anguish, gratitude with longing. It was not good, it was not evil, it was unfeeling chaos and we rode its uneven waves to fates we cannot control.
I left the park of the dead and wandered into the nearest branch of my bank, first of all to attempt to transfer as much money from my savings account as I could to the Royal Shakespeare company, in honour of Annabelle, secondly to withdraw all the remaining cash from my current account. It was reckless to walk around with £5000 in my pocket but honestly there was no point in leaving it in the bank. I had to make this evening special for myself and Annabelle and I would do it properly.