Monday, 13 November 2017 / Leave a Comment

1. Little Girl Lost

Arthur typed the dead man’s name into a search engine. As expected, Randall’s official biographical details had been suspended indefinitely. For some time now, the Agency had tried to silence him completely. His books had slowly been going out of print. His name had all but vanished from public life. His image airbrushed from the archives. He was, to all intents and purposes, being gradually erased from the annals of social history.
      Arthur tried to cast his mind back to Randall’s famous story, the short piece of creative writing which had catapulted him to international fame. If his memory served him correctly, it was the story of a little girl on a crowded train who had somehow become separated from her parents. Hard as she struggles through the mass of bodies, squeezing her way from compartment to compartment, along shunting corridors, she fails to track them down. When the train eventually comes to a stop at a busy station, the little girl is dragged down onto a bustling platform with the rest of the commuters. In vain, she looks everywhere but still can’t find her parents.
      Increasingly distressed, she approaches a slightly older boy stood all on his own. In shaky tones, she explains exactly what has happened, how she had been aboard the train with her mother and father, how one minute they were there, the next minute they were gone. To her (and the reader’s) astonishment, the young boy tells her that he too has lost his parents, in the exact same manner in which she became separated from hers. Kindred spirits, in the same situation, they resolve to stick together, to help each other find their missing loved ones. But no matter how many different platforms and waiting rooms they search, they fail to find a single trace of them.
      Frustrated, they decide to ask a grown up for help. Only the station concourse is populated by such huge numbers of travellers, many of whom are rough, barely literate provincials, pickpockets, petty thieves, they are far too afraid to approach anyone.
      Towards the end of the day, they come across a man in his early twenties, sitting on a bench, elbows propped on knees, his head in his hands. Tentatively, the young boy taps upon his shoulder. When the man lifts his head, he tells him of their plight. ‘But I too am searching for my parents,’ he interrupts. ‘Fifteen years ago to this very day, I disembarked from the very same platform from which you disembarked earlier. Only I couldn’t find my parents anywhere. Each day, I have returned in the hope of tracking them down’.
      For the rest of the afternoon, the three newfound friends approach men and women of all ages and classes, asking if they have seen couples matching their parents’ respective appearances. Each and every traveller responds in the same way, telling them that they too are searching for missing loved ones. It’s as if everyone at the station is lost, accounting for the tumult and confusion, the sheer numbers of people trooping up and down both platform and concourse. No one is, in fact, waiting to board a train or for friends to disembark. They are waiting for parents who abandoned them to this most transient of all locales many years previous.
       There was something about the story that had always resonated with Arthur, a subtlety, be it the backdrop of a busy station representing a world in flux, a metaphor for the chaos of modern life, or the vast number of hopeless, misplaced souls struggling to find a place for themselves in society. It was a simple yet beautifully executed, efficient piece of writing, worthy of the plaudits it received worldwide, the kind of rich, rewarding story any writer worth their salt would have wanted to have written. Why the author would choose to veer so wildly from his original artistic vision was as mysterious as his death itself.

2. Arthur
Arthur had often been mistaken for somebody else. Most memorably, the time a grizzled war veteran approached him at a supermarket, open-armed, convinced that they’d served in the same regiment, that Arthur had saved his life in the field, even though Arthur had pacifist leanings and would never have dreamed of enlisting in the armed forces. Or the time a glamorous, hugely desirable young woman claimed that Arthur had given her the most amazing sex of her life during a one-night stand in a city Arthur had never once visited. Or the day an irate stockbroker accosted Arthur in a lift, accusing him of swindling him out of a fortune in an insurance scam that took place when Arthur was still in junior school. Or, just before Arthur’s sister went missing, the time a young boy had taken his hand at a pedestrian crossing and insisted that he was his long-lost father, and when Arthur tried to dispute his claims, to explain that it was a case of mistaken identity, the boy produced a crumpled old photograph of a man cradling a baby in his arms, a man who resembled Arthur so incredibly closely it could’ve been his twin.
     Having seen the signs so many times, therefore, Arthur could tell that the well-dressed stranger crossing the street that day meant to approach him, long before he waved and started to shout:
       “Neil, Neil!”

3. Vasily Ronzakov – Spiritual Conduit
“Last year I think it was,” said Evans, reaching for his glass, “I read your piece in The Evergreen, the essay on crime writing, you know, missing persons, how it’s all a metaphor for our struggle to understand our own mortality, people dying, loss, bereavement. Or a broken heart, the end of a relationship.” He drained the last of his beer. “How did you put it? – ‘Life’s beautiful, melancholy uncertainties’.
     “And it got me thinking, about how much I used to love all those Agatha Christie novels when I was growing up, and later, Raymond Chandler, and how I didn’t really appreciate the subtleties involved, what I was actually reading. Yeah. It was a great piece of writing – your article, I mean. And” – Evans shot Arthur a quick, anxious glance – “and well, it got me thinking about your sister.”
     Arthur gave a start. He rarely if ever talked about Lorraine, her disappearance, and the years of uncertainty that followed.
      “I’m sorry,” said Evans. “I didn’t mean to stir up any bad memories. Only I was around the city the time she went missing. We were friends.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a shiny embossed business card. “And I know this will sound pretty random but a cousin of mine lost her husband recently, was in pieces, distraught, suicidal almost. And she ended up going to see this guy.” He handed Arthur the card. “And trust me, he’s not a crackpot, whether you’re a believer or a cynic, he helps people come to terms with their loss.”
      Arthur looked at the name on the card: Vasily Ronzakov, Spiritual Conduit.
      “What is he? Some kind of clairvoyant?”
      “No, no, he goes much deeper than that, the man is a spiritualist, a prophet, like an oracle. When I heard about what he did for Anne I read some of his pamphlets, and was so impressed I signed him for the Agency. His first book is out next week. And I know how close you were to Lorraine, maybe he’s somebody you should talk to.”

4. The Visitation
I walk into a room, like a waiting-room – narrow, low-ceilinged, beige-walled. To my right is a shiny leather sofa (maybe a Chesterfield), to the left a mahogany desk, with two chairs either side of it. On the desk are a telephone and two framed photographs, facing the other way around, so I can’t see them. Across the room, up two thickly-carpeted steps is an adjoining room, much bigger, with a higher ceiling.
      I walk towards the steps.
       Inside the other room, just visible, two young children, boys in matching sailor suits, are playing with toy train sets and teddy bears – but they pay me little or no attention, so I pay them little or no attention in return.
       I climb the steps.
      In the centre of the room is a light-coloured coffin. Beside the coffin sits an aged, weary-looking Labrador, our old beloved family dog, Jim. As I approach the coffin, he raises his head and looks at me with big mournful watery eyes, but is too weak to move, even though I sense he’s desperate for some affection. Repressing the impulse to kneel and stroke the dog, I look inside the coffin. Lying there is Lorraine, dressed in a strange black and purple gown, her face heavily made-up in the same shades, around the eyes and mouth, mascara and lipstick. Suddenly she stirs, opens her eyes and stares right at me.

       “I’m so sorry, Arthur,” she speaks softly. “I just wasn’t made for this world. I had to go. There was no other way. I was far too Chekhovian.”   


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