Approximately ten minutes separated the moment he understood his relationship of almost five years was over, and the moment he found himself sprawled out on his back in the middle of a busy road. He couldn’t feel his legs and lay there helplessly wondering whether this was it. Was this it? Was his life now about to change irrevocably? He’d often perversely anticipated a moment like this on the timeline of his life; a jolt of something, anything. Ten minutes isn’t much time to process both the end of a relationship and the potential loss of the use of one’s limbs. Then again, ten minutes could also be considered a lifetime, if, during this time he had seen (whom he later understood to be) death riding casually alongside him, waving at him through refracted shop window reflections with a somewhat sardonic expression on its face. He was sure death was an ‘it’. Wasn’t it? Yes, had to be.
Ten minutes. A length of time he’d considered a reasonably accurate gauge, guided as he was by a timer soundtracking this micro action movie of his that was slowly turning into an introspective arthouse chore. You see, ten minutes (or thereabout) was near the length of the track Variation III from the album Variations: A Movement in Chrome Primitive. The album was by William Basinski, an electronic music composer, who specialised in creating elegiac ambient sound, known for his repetitious explorations of sound through analogue recording devices as crucial components in the creation of his ethereal soundscapes. He manipulated the output of tapes that degraded through excessive use, the sound of wear and tear, mournful odes to the erosion and decay of time. The track in question here was number three on the album. A creature of looping habit, it was the one he had chosen to play during the cycling segments of the past week. He’d noticed the track had helped sustain a consistent cadence with his single gear and as luck had it also seemed to help temper disillusion at what he had been struggling to understand about time in his life. What of ourselves do we give to another?, he wondered, swerving to avoid an ignorant driver lurching out of a side street without looking his way. What is the value in a love rich at its inception but now fading forever to black? Is this value inclusive of and worth what can never again be retrieved? What more than the seasons is given over to a love? What of myself has gone forever? What of myself is trodden into the earth as brown leaves of autumn into wet soil, to be lived again somewhere else with someone else, nourishing the next dinner, the next pregnant silence? What more significant benefit is found in the repetition of it all until another set of seasons follow the same journey of a tear meandering down the contours of a cheek?
Later, he continued musing this way as he lay unexamined, on a hospital bed left in the hallway, abandoned to the melee of a beleaguered Accident & Emergency department and numbed by painkillers hastily administered by an overworked junior doctor.
He looked at her through eyes soft in focus, and he looked at their disintegrating love standing before him in silence. She had arrived at the hospital quickly, thanks to the initiative taken by a helpful stranger calling his last dialled number while he lay there in an adrenaline-induced paralysis. Ten minutes she stood looking at him and his swollen face, which could have been a suitable prosthetic fitting for David Lynch’s Elephant Man. She looked up and down at what remained of their love. He looked back at her flatly. Ten minutes and only the tears that trickled through a thin monochrome wash of mascara and down each cheek. A grey splash on a sanitised floor.
Faint strains of Variation III’s deconstructing piano loop refracted out—meditative shards of life. Basinski’s compositions buzzed faintly in his right ear as one earphone remained in place, the other likely shattered underneath him by the fall. Variation III served as a pretty methodical soundtrack for his return to earth. He blinked himself conscious to each of his hands held tenderly by celestial beings haloed against the light of the late summer sun. Many pairs of concerned eyes gazed down at him. Who were all these people? There was much chatter.
‘Did you see what happened?’
‘The cunt drove off innit. Didn’t stop.’
‘Has someone called the ambulance?’
‘What a bastard!’
‘His phone still works. Hold on, I’ll try and find a number.’
‘You’ll be ok.’
‘Don’t try to move.’
‘Saw the whole thing. Guy just drove right through him.’
‘Anyone see the number plate?’
‘I can’t feel my legs’, he thought to himself as he lay, weakly resisting panic. ‘I can’t feel my legs. Fuck!’ The pairs of eyes peering at him increased in number as more people from the neighbourhood came to examine the commotion. ‘I can’t feel my face either’ he thought. Raw heat emanating from the grazed skin on his elbow calmed him somewhat. ‘Oh, I can feel that’. The newly tarmacked road upon which he lay was warm and sticky from a full day exposed to late summer heat and the many impressions from oily vehicles. He shifted slightly to circumvent the discomfort of a broken bicycle light pressing into the small of his back.
‘It’s OK, don’t try to move. You’ll be OK.’
‘The ambulance is on its way’.
‘So this is the moment my life changes completely?’ he thought. ‘Really? Like this? Fuck, that’s pathetic.’ Thoughts of an existence dependent on the kindness of others flashed through his mind, causing him to shudder. ‘Someone would have to look after me’ he mused ruefully, listing all those he had abruptly curtailed from his life at what even he later admitted to himself were fairly mild indiscretions. He was hard on many of the people near him, but he was harder on himself.
After a recalcitrant few seconds of bewildering disorientation, the overdose of adrenaline began to subside. Slowly, the lower half of his body crept awake, and bruises let their presence be known to him through sharp jolts of pain. Emboldened by this sensory reprieve, he shifted his right leg a little to be sure his body still generally worked and still - in a sense - belonged to him. The rest of him shook without consent.
A hard surface caught his landing, drifting him into darkness, his eyes homing in on a black fuzz. Fractionally prior to losing consciousness, his hands had met the sun-softened ground and held his torso vertically aloft for a moment, in which he and the terror he was facing were frozen together in a pose almost beautiful as he gazed down at the earth. The speed at which he had toppled and the opposing force of the careening, chromed vehicle that glimmered messages at God from its bonnet in the blazing sun, gave a little too much responsibility to his hands, and as a result, he was barely able to restrict the force with which his mouth hit the ground. He could absorb some of the impact through intersecting lines on his palms once read by her as ‘one who would aspire to open doors, but only so far ajar’. Whatever that meant. Her disappointment often lay there darkly like the ink in the jars that she used to wantonly splash her canvases. ‘At random’ she would happily regale anyone that asked about her process. She desired to tame the untameable, deploying fire, water and the air we breathe as her tools of creation, through destruction. Her experiments threaded the outline of some metaphysical patterns that she saw existing between the elements and would finale on her canvas as circumstantial lava, slowly cooling. She always held each piece aloft when she felt it was finished. Decay and destruction having whittled down a composition of some sort, with flames having licked the edges of pages from old French literature and mastheads divorcing themselves from the stories they were due to tell. He might be washing the dishes, and his chance response to these compositions would sometimes leave her wanting. He’d often ask her when she knew a piece was finished, but she would never give an answer. Later, as he hit that hot ground, he’d wonder to himself if emotion carries memories in the way muscles do. His reflexes swiftly kicked in, which was fortunate, as this limited the amount of car bonnet that connected with his torso at a velocity that said to the driver ‘Just flee. Go’.
The machine was already upon him and indeed time here was elastic, at least when seen through individual frames separating this fraction of time into a more digestible form and speed. In here were many images of experience and deduction, but stretched out, broadening one’s scope for a rare peep at a deeper, less fathomable perception. In this moment he found himself bent and warped into new forms. He thought about how much we rely on machines, but how little we seem to understand them, or their autonomy, or their kind of will. A will to be shaped by our intervention. Wasn’t such intervention itself a significant component of nature? Or are we simply not of nature’s inherent formulas? Simply not natural? Or, he thought, we simply are. Maybe it is there in how we can choose to mine the body as a mineral, and squeeze out its juices to power our gods. Though we might find ourselves at the helm of a machine, does not mean we have the machine under control. ‘And what of love?’ He thought about all our multiple codes of experience and the layers of expectation we gather through the journeys of our lives. The myth had always told you this image there in front of you of a machine rolling along at speed on four wheels is as far as this story will get, as ordinarily there will exist a line of control. Though instead, here, you will hear the engine whirr in a panic as it misses a gear and accelerates towards you.
Not what you expected. The sense that the machine will lead and we will follow, a sense of greater power and in a sense, greater will to ensure you engage in the most visceral way possible with the authority of the machine. The screech of tyres and burn of troubled rubber is recalled as this moment is lived, in addition to every memory telling you how this is supposed to unfold. You will smell the engine’s oil and see the sun shimmer reflections of the green traffic lights back at you. His lights were green, which is why he continued to pedal. He expected the car to stop. He saw it, and it saw him, so it will stop. It has to. This expectation lingered as he tumbled over the hot car bonnet, briefly catching the vacant gaze of the driver as he put his hands out in front of him to save from completely pulverising his face on the warmed tarmac. Occasionally myths are shattered.
Embers of rage shifted to determination, the final destination here was – inevitably – less vital as he pushed through his pedals. Gripping the handlebars of his racer more firmly and locking in his thighs, knees and calves into a form that smoothed his cadence, a rhythm that channelled seemingly uncontrollable fire into fuel and a release that propelled him at significant velocity and slowly distanced him from her pain at least. Each push on the pedal drew in more controlled heat, each release saw his machine respond obediently, a light breath coursed through the channels of bodies and mechanisms in motion around him, surging past each new thought and fragment of voice and decision, carrying along with him a whirl of wants, desires and confusions.
‘Give me some room, you move too slow! So I find the gap between you both, right along the central lane-dividing line. Again you hit brakes, and I’m aware and ready for the mechanics of such gesture. The back end of your vehicle will dip, I will sustain my momentum, which will carry me past your own. On my steed, our greatest invention, maybe even our truest augmented self-actualisation. Do not watch me too long as I charge through. I pay you no mind, there is too much on mine. Her heat. Her rage. My own. This place. My cold. Concerning my past and ours. It was always ours. I ride. I take flight. This is me, and this is my way.’
The two of them had fallen into a union quite naturally. Their gaze had held amidst a grand parliament of night owls cooing and strutting. He remembers her as she was, lit like the moon, but by artificial light. Her long milky neck held aloft – like a plinth – a face that he saw as ethereal in its lightly stirred ingredients of colonial alchemy. Her scales of existence seemed to forever shift back and forth in delicately apportioned weights. Today leaning more into the restless displacement of her Vietnamese heritage, tomorrow leaning back into the bourgeois assurance of the first arrondissement. She had made his youthful fantasies real. She had a presence that had given authentic voice to his early exposure to lyrical black and white French films on terrestrial television channels, back when television had some aspect of conscience. Their intertwined fantasies formed quickly, unaware that the fantasies would remain just that. She would run a finger along his bookshelves, chancing upon a volume she had laboured to find, and which she just happened to need right at that moment. Their eyes would often meet here, a realisation of something they seemed to have located within each other. Something, a solace found hidden in the cerebral, lent itself to paper over personal loss. He pushed onwards with the one gear available to him.
Variations III laid out a path of repetition and disintegration. Tapes eroded. Analogue procurement of a relationship's routines had been a discovery to both of them, and somewhere amidst that, trepidation grew, at least on his part. On the other hand, she seemed to live mostly in the expectation that those near her were tithed with great responsibility in their offerings of generosity and selflessness. Not of the monetary sort, but that of their time. Like a table of endless friends and endless wine from bottles delivered to the table unrequested. The night would not be allowed to end, and here was most of the flow of her world, or at least the story she wanted to be heard. How the openness of friendship offers a substance, like that she would try to control in her work and that she would try to measure out as generous helpings of friendship like they were ladles of second-serving bourguignon. She had given little room to the variables of life, the time, space and location(s) to fall in and out of love, of friendship, of responsibility and needs. In this moment clutching at something that had been missing from her life, histories arrived without form, the journeys of those she wanted to keep close were little scrutinised, but her charismatic laughter and her joy in the present were infectious. Red wine from loosely clutched glasses would merrily splash on white tablecloths. Others would gather, she would address the revelry around her with the louche confidence of superior knowledge, and not least, education. Her spattering of classical references knowingly whizzed by over the heads of some, but rarely him who often she would converse with, in the spaces that existed between her words, allowing them room as they floated up above the black markings and the rest of the evening in the presence of those many around her that she loved intensely, but not the way she loved him.
A little mental clarity appeared for him as cadence burnt through his thighs, pistons working. Disorientation within their relationship came along with the whirl of youth. How then is one supposed to give, he wondered. Why does that desire to give then wilt in its own heat? How can something once of such manifest beauty curdle into something ugly? How can one lie awake courting a possible end to this story and pretend to be asleep when her keys turn in the lock late at night? He would respond to any emotional confrontation by closing off. Like an animal’s instinctive response to the presence of a larger predator higher up the food chain, he would shut down cold and shrouded impersonating stone. Such an automatic defence had origins too hazy at this point to help light these moments.
They had been an infinite loop. She and He. He and She. Like the repetitive piano loops of Variation III, there would be a leader and a follower. Sometimes He, but more often than not, She. Their orbit was observed by many. They would hover and be delicately jostled occasionally but would retain a soft but defiant song they’d share within the tempestuous winds of their young lives. They gradually became an audible singular. He would have an idea that she would amplify. He looked to grow in stature. She would parse thoughts of classic works at him, letting him know his thoughts or instincts weren’t new or novel—cause and effect. She made her advantages known to him though it seemed she was splintering from within. Almost imperceptible shards of despair cut away at her from inside as she clawed at status and education to serve as the crutch she could use to retain some superiority despite many of the things she tried to hold tightly crumbling around her.
The evening air was hot, simmering the rage floating visibly off their foreheads. They were outside, and he was cold. Not cold as a result of the weather, but cold in the way he was with her, with them. He had been trying to get her to walk away, trying to show her the face of his cold world. Trying to show her that he isn’t that guy, but she was not buying it at all. It was a poor performance on his part, rehearsed and obvious to her what he would say. She was often right. This default itself fuelled some of the problems and fuelled the rage of this moment as she would always be right and got used to being so, and from that lofty plateau, well, condescension was hard to avoid. She would forcefully tell him he was a coward and ran from facing his ability and responsibility to love. She was forcefully showing him he needed to love her, as this was in her story, a fable pre-written through tear dampened diary paper and ink splashed and smudged from tears of neglect. This was something he needed to fix.
‘Man up! Stand up and be a man for fuck sake!’ He stood there, wondering what this meant. She had shed new tears. Not just while they were talking but over the last, well, two years or so. Why was he stooped so low? What was this invisible weight upon his shoulders? Maybe he would understand one day. Splashes of ink and tears rolled together down through folds of her diaries and canvases, she allowed these chance formations to crystallise as a kind of catharsis for, or at least a reflection of, the grief she had lived her whole life.
The title of this story comes from William Basinski’s album of the same name.