From then on, at work and at home, I hammed about in the black cloak of a bad mood. Perhaps my flatmates were up to something especially devious. (I sensed sometimes, from behind my eyelids, stuff quietly shifting around me.) George and Lewis had after all spent a rainy day assembling a domino run of CD cases that made a can of beer splash me awake. The two of them were in their late thirties.
Ignoring the matter was probably best. But how could a man who peeked at his girlfriend’s texts leave something like this alone? Especially with the internet, the bastard internet, ‘what a resource of information at your fingertips!’ — well now it became a taunting know-it-all, tempting me to keep checking whether I was losing my memory, if not my mind. Static jolted my head and my eyes swam: more sleep needed. But I stayed in bed only to avoid slipping up in front of my flatmates, while the threads I blankly scrolled through were alt-tabbed for search engines the moment Carol went downstairs.
No, Eddie Murphy hadn’t appeared in Cheers. He had, though, appeared in Dallas.
Had I been making mistakes about a set of things I would have admitted that my immersion in Western culture was not yet at an acceptable level and gone back to my secret studies. Had it been a set of mistakes about one thing, then I would have admitted that Eddie Murphy was a particular blind spot that needed remedy. But these mistakes of mine were not accumulating. They were varying.
I did not dare consult a psychiatrist. I did not want to give a smug lab-coat the chance to cash in on a new disorder. I did however leaf through one of Carol’s textbooks and learnt about people who could hear sounds but not songs, or who saw coded messages in cloud formations. Many of these people managed to function, within reason. By now that was all that I wanted: to know I would continue to function.
But after a post-work nap that didn’t take because my bored flatmates were from the sound of it speed-surfing TV channels, I read through blurring tears that there’d never been any Shrek films. In their place, something called Ogre and Out! - the title also the donkey character’s endlessly repeated catchphrase. The horror of it. Varying and worsening.
Received wisdom says that if you think you’re going mad then you’re not, because the mad have no idea that they are. Lies! Lies! When you start to feel the panic, that’s when it truly starts. And when you find a version of Willy Wonka with a child Eddie Murphy, and your girlfriend dumps groceries on the case, frees it, and says in a bright tone, “Ooh, let’s watch this!” what reaction other than panic do you expect? The worst confirmation of my predicament was that nothing was bothering her.
Our movie nights had once just been ways to extend our time spooning like we did in bed. She noticed though that the rhythm of my chest did not quite match her back. She asked if I was ok, rubbing my leg pre-emptively. I managed to claim I was fine while transfixed by the sight of Murphy in cowboy hat with his fellow TV-addict of a mother. By the point that Wonka was yelling the Latin subclauses of everybody's non-disclosure agreements, I was shivering. Carol went to get me a blanket, but I followed her upstairs, overtook her, then swooned to a static-crackling bed that looked as if it wouldn’t be there to catch me. She rubbed my back till I told her to stop asking me what was wrong.
It was the cage, it was starting to drop around me. There could be no more work-shy lie-ins. George and Lewis’s reaction at breakfast was to give me ‘funny looks’. Wish I could laugh. I resented them for not asking what was the matter as much as I’d have resented them for bringing it up. My bedroom became a gallery of printouts and showbiz mags. In my office, on overtime, I’d sit in the open-plan dark, yawning, crying and periodically refreshing Eddie Murphy’s Wikipedia page. Then one night, as my drooping eyelids almost hid it again, something changed.
It took less than a second. It was without the feeling of movement and with the sound of a radio scanning through stations: different offices scrolling around me, fewer desks, more desk plants, but then a hospital ward too, a balcony-view from a great height, the sea, in different tones and shades, like scrolling through microfilm, till the fizzing went and my office returned.
How I came crawling back: to bed, under the covers, where I foetal-positioned and refused all conversation. I did though take the laptop with me, and in that screen-lit cave learnt that Murphy had now won an Oscar. Bizarre times indeed, for this variation was qualitatively different to the previous: what deeper changes in the culture would there have to have been for Eddie Murphy to be the shrink to tell good Will Hunting that it was not his fault, it was not his fault? (Whose fault was it?)
Whatever changes they were though, they remained in place…
An hour passed. Another hour. I sat up under the covers and let them slip down. Reality showed a little clearer, more sensible, like an old TV that’d been slapped. The thing in my office — it’d been climactic. The last thunderclap of a departing cyclone. A whole weekend passed of adrenaline nausea and yet there wasn’t any further sign of him or his monstrous variations.
No reset button had been pushed exactly, or so it seemed. But that was not for me to decide. All I had to decide was what to do with the mess that’d been left me:
“Carol? Everything’s fine.” Yanking open curtains, ripping filmographies from the wall. “All this stuff is coming down. It’s all going to be like it was.”
But she’d already left for work without saying goodbye.
That last movie night, she’d waited for my shivering to stop to try for a goodnight kiss. But I’d rolled her off — she had to help me in a different fashion.
“For Pete’s sake, why should I know? He was in a few, wasn’t he?”
“In the ’80s.”
“Then Beverly Hills P.I.”
“You mean Beverley Hills Cop.”
Maybe I wanted her to convince me with an Insolent Rabbit dialogue switch. Maybe I was just being cruel. She was the one who stopped the rally.
I think I’ve got some smoke in my eye. The dumpster’s needed propping open wider. This must have made it glow, because someone out there walking past while singing stopped in her journey just when the lyrics said not to.
She was coming closer. What the hell did she think she’d found? Some gold? An elf? There was a wet gust as the dumpster flew open.
No torches or cold gloves or dogs this time. Instead a woman so drunk she looked at once enraged and very sleepy. We took a moment to consider each other.
Then my voice cracking with a parody shriek: “Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?”
She shrieked back, and ran off, knocking the dumpster. It slammed shut and blew out all my candles.
But then relighting in this cryptic space, I see the folds in the candle-wax. The creases in her belly when she leans over me to turn off the bedside lamp.
I don’t happen on such similarities. My mind seeks them out. What a ghoulish, vain thing love is.