337 – The Locked Box

It still seems strange that the world is filled with people all leading their own lives. We’re approaching seven billion souls on this planet yet the number is so vast it’s difficult to comprehend. Facebook users with friends numbered in their hundreds stagger me, while when I run across friend lists numbering in thousands, it’s inconceivable. Get a few thousand people together in one place and I’ll readily believe that’s the entire population of the planet Earth–all 6.8 billion of them–standing on the Isle of Wight.

And every one has his or her own life. It’s an important, terrifying point to make. Not billions of faceless souls like enemies in a first person shooter; not born into consciousness when they walk into your sight path, then erased from history once they leave it again. Pick one at random and follow their daily routine and you’ll see their workplace, what they do in their down time, whom they talk to, love, sleep with, cheat upon, every building they visit, the homes they live in, even the shops they shop in–many of which you’ll never have seen before and will never see again. Stalk people in a video game–in Skyrim or Shenmue–and you’ll learn these routines, but real lives are infinitely more complex and random, and there are far too many people to keep track of.

Plus, you know, the police really frown on this sort of behaviour.

Selfishness is a necessity to some degree. Like termites in a mound, keeping track of everyone would be an exercise in hair-pulling futility. Hell, you probably have trouble keeping tabs on just the few people in your intimate inner circle. How many times have been shocked by a break-up, a new hairstyle, a suddenly announced move–any one of a number of surprises your friends and family have sprung on you? Cramming extra complexity in a world already labyrinthine, the inner workings of the human mind are unfathomable. Who can say what determines an amicable break up? Who can predict a sudden suicide?

You’d go mad trying to, so it’s best to develop tunnel vision to corral your empathic tendencies, your need for order. Concentrate on the most important things in life: concentrate on yourself and those closest to you, and if you can keep everyone in that set in line you’re doing better than most of us.

Not really liking people I do my best to forget they’re human beings, the same as me, with all the trouble and strife the human condition brings them. I view the world as a sinister theme park where the attractions are unpredictable. They can be interacted with–and yes, ridden–but I’m the only human guest in the park and what I choose to do is up to me. It’s an unhealthy attitude to have but hey, give me a break. At least I’m through the turnstile now, ready to have fun.

It’s that inner turmoil that’s the problem: the hidden workings of the human mind. I only have other people’s word that they can think and consider, that they’re not merely acting based on some divine programming. Humans come lump sum, without separate pieces. They claim to think, but from my perspective their mouths open and sounds flap out–which is exactly what my sister’s sound-activated storytelling Sylvanian Families doll did. Play a tape near it and it’s jaw moved, its ears rotated–it appeared to ‘speak’ but really, it was doing nothing of the sort. Rubbing the microphone hidden in its belly produced much the same result. The thing was animate but it couldn’t think, it couldn’t understand.

Not to put all you lovely people down but where’s your proof that you’re not simply super-advanced robot bunnies, or–given that our only interactions are through text–that you’re not AI chat-bots? What if you’re prefabricated chunks of text that are stamped into our conversations? Who’s controlling which chunks I get to read? Who handles the stamp? Is everything predetermined? I mean, I can hear my thoughts, I can decide to stop

mid-sentence and then continue a line down as if writing a new paragraph, but what if my writing’s being kerbed like a dug stream by some unknown power that’s prompting responses with carefully selected intrusions into my life? Are my memories of yesterday afternoon really real, or were they injected into my brain seconds ago?

It’s best to ignore these thoughts, too. Wherever they lead, it’s probably not a place I’d like to visit.

With other people having the temerity to live lives completely independent to any mental breakdown I may or may not be undergoing, yesterday my wife and I met up with her friend–oh, let’s call her Petey–who’s going through a very difficult time.

Petey has broken up with her boyfriend. Break-ups are hard enough at the best of times, but for Petey the break-up was made much worse because of many factors, not the least of which was that this was Petey’s first proper relationship. After three years she discovered her boyfriend had another woman in his life: his fiancée, whom he was to marry imminently.

I met Petey a few weeks after she’d discovered this, after she’d returned from a stay abroad following their marriage. Until she learned of his betrayal she thought she’d be marrying this man, not som pre-assembled wife who’d fallen out of the blue like a piece of Chicken Little’s sky. She’d asked my wife to accompany her to the bank so she could get a box in which to put his belongings and every other memento of their time together; ominously, she wanted my wife to co-sign for the box, so that in the event of her death she could burn or return the contents as she saw fit.

I’m not so great at meeting my wife’s friends. I’m used to having her to myself and knowing every detail of her life. We’ve been together for so long it’s uncomfortable being reminded that there’s almost two decades during which I didn’t know her at all. Many of the worst things that happened to her happened then, when she was young, during times which should have been happy, when I wasn’t there to protect her. I don’t like thinking about those times.

And she makes friends–effortlessly, it seems, though I’m assured this isn’t the case–where I do not. They eat together and chat, and do things other friends do. They reminisce about old times–sometimes laughing, sometimes shuddering–and end the night with hugs, swearing they should do this again sometime soon.

Petey’s one of her oldest friends and one she’s wanted me to meet for a while. She’s very small and thin–from behind she could almost be mistaken for a child–and though I didn’t know her before it’s obvious this break-up has taken its toll. Fidgety, trembling, and insecure, in a world filled with overconfident swagger she seemed as fragile and panicked as a bird lost in a house.

“I’m sorry for wasting your time on this crazy mission,” she said–the first of many apologies that night.

It wasn’t an issue, I told her. If I wasn’t at the bank I’d only be wasting time back home on my own.

The bank was small but high-ceilinged, with a window overlooking the lobby from which a Scrooge of a manager could keep tabs on his staff. With soft classical music coming from hidden speakers and low lighting the lobby itself felt more like an art gallery or museum during a find-raising party; it was, I thought, the perfect setting for canapes and champagne flutes.

On a table to one side were flyers advertising various services and a mug of free miniature candy canes. Lindsay took one, ate a bite of it later that night, then politely spat it into a napkin saying “It’s bad. Don’t eat those.”

A softly-spoken woman who didn’t know quite what she was doing punched Petey’s details in her computer, setting up the necessary accounts before she could go on go allocate a box. In between signing papers and electronic tablets and writing cheques, Petey and Lindsay swapped a few catch-up stories and sent texts on the phone. Sitting behind them both, later following them from vault to a private room to fill the box with photographs and ticket stubs, I felt like a bodyguard.

Every so often Petey turned to me to include me in their conversation. I’m not used to this. Usually I’m such a lumbering third wheel at Lindsay’s meet-ups that nobody says a thing to me, and usually, that’s the way I like it.

But I was a male at a meeting all about washing the man from Petey’s hair. I was to be included whether I liked it or not.

“Just tell me, and be honest: is she prettier than me?” Petey proffered a picture of the bride.

I laughed.

“What? What’s funny?”

“Hey, Linds,” I said, passing the photo on. “Remember Kamal from Big Brother 6?

She laughed too, and spent the rest of the session trying to find a suitable picture of Kamal on her mobile. Sure enough, they looked very similar, even down to the wedding dress she wore which was an exact replica of the one Kamal had worn into the Big Brother house.

Though she was worried at first, Petey soon cheered after we informed her the Kamal we were talking about was, in fact, a horse.

This and a few other barbed comments sent the bride’s way made her feel a little better. Her keepsakes locked away, we left for dinner.

Dinner went as dinners with Lindsay and her old school friends usually do: with in-jokes and laughter and stories about people I’ll never know. The conversation took a swing for the disturbing when Petey brought up an old crush of Lindsay’s, whom she’d always thought of as “too smart for his own good”, and who may or may not be now in the running for US presidency. Nothing like comparing poorly to some super-genius to deflate the old ego.

Still, the afternoon had gone well, we all seemed to have had a good time, and against my better judgement I found myself rather liking Petey, and wishing a better life for her.

“He lives right across the road. I’m going to stalk him,” she said. “Just a little.”

Under any other circumstances it might have seemed sinister but he broke her heart in ways its inappropriate for me to elaborate upon. You’ll have to trust me–as much as a chunk of text can trust a human being–that if the worst things in the world were to befall him, it wouldn’t be so bad.

Lindsay now has one of the keys to the lock box. It wasn’t quite big enough to store all of Petey’s mementos, meaning she took a sheaf of photographs home with her.

“We’ll burn them,” my wife said. “Together. It’ll do you good.”

I don’t know whether she was talking about just the two of them or all three of us but I’d happily help put this cheating love out of Petey’s heart, mind and life, if only because she’s helped me learn at least a little of a concept I’m having trouble with.

Astonishingly, it turns out that people are people, too.

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