There is one thing that puzzles me, Socrates says cutely. My chair tilts to one side. No it doesn’t. I hold on to keep from falling off.
It happens like this: a darkness splitting a darkness. A hole opens between my head and the computer screen, and I fall in. It only takes a few seconds. I look up, look around. Did anyone else in the lab notice? Did anyone else see that I fell in, pulled myself out with a desperate frantic jerk? No one noticed. Pale students type on, keeping to themselves. I sweat. I lurch backwards, stand up. The room spins. I close my eyes. The dark wheels. The floor pitches. My legs wobble and sway under me. I open my eyes, grab my knapsack and stagger out of the computer lab.
It gets dark early in Edinburgh, a city that is warmer than the Canadian city I came from but seems dark and cold, a winter place. I was writing an essay. Joyce. Beckett. Woolf. Those dour optimistic modernists. I was hungover. Hunched into the screen, I typed furiously. I believe in written words but am always angry at them, the way a teenager believes in and hates his father. I want to impress a certain professor who wrote his dissertation on Bob Dylan and seems like someone I might become despite his earring and his mannerisms. All of this in my mind; and other things. A girl in Israel. A song lyric stuck in my head, a crooned line more meaningful than it really is. Beckett. Malloy, Mallone. Woolf’s polite alter egos attend an interminable garden party. Bloom’s bacon breath.
I lurch through the main campus and the busy streets of the city with my head down and my arms in front of me, zombie style. I am afraid of falling, of running into things that used to be stationary but now move around. As I stumble through the interconnected parks aptly named the Links, the ground undulates as if I’m part of a waking dream. It’s cold but I sweat. Sweat drips off my forehead into the grass between my feet. Everything sways. I take a darting glance forward and my stomach heaves. I have seen enough: a few steps ahead of me.
With shaking hands I pull open the big wood door to the university residence, the home of fifty students—freshmen from Glasgow, from small Scottish towns, from mid-sized British industrial cities. Americans, Germans, a stocky Frenchman. I am the only Canadian. We live in single and double rooms surrounded by imposing Victorian five-storey walkups from which no one ever emerges. The residence was a mansion once. Tall, wide staircases spill into an imposing foyer lit with a miniature chandelier. I stagger in and watch my feet move up the staircase, carry me along the hallway. I drop my keys, fumble for them in the gloom, manage to work the lock and fall into my room. It is cold. It is always cold. I pull off my sweater and the wet wool traps my head. Then it comes again, the sudden horrible yawning hole opens. I tear at my clothes, try to escape. I fall in.
When it’s over, I lie naked in the cold, white room with the window that looks out over the street. I am breathing very hard. I am skinny and weak. Outside it begins to drizzle. It is nearly winter in Edinburgh. It will rain almost constantly for the next three months. I wipe my brow with a bare arm. I shiver. The small room presses in around me. I take a few faltering steps, fall into the narrow bed, pull the rough blankets over me, curl into a fetal position and close my eyes. It is five o’clock in the afternoon. I listen to the rain. I wait for the darkness to stop moving.
I stay in bed for days. We don’t have a cafeteria in the residence, just small kitchens that used to be closets, with fridges that are divided up and cupboards stacked with cracked, stained dishes. Someone knocks on my door. I don’t answer, the knocking stops. In the fading light of day, I stare up at the high ceiling and consider the grey-white peeling paint. When the room darkens, I don’t turn the light on. I get out of bed, feed a token into the gas range and sit on the wood floor in front of the fire. These ranges are the building’s only heat. We buy the tokens from the warden, a retired lady named Elsie who lives in the basement. Each token costs a pound and turns on the range for forty minutes.
I wake up sprawled on the floor. The fire is out. It is still night and I am out of tokens. Bibi, a vocal Christian exchange student with a wife and three kids back in Nigeria, must be microwaving a chicken. I have to get away from the stench of cheap poultry stewing in its own radiated juices.
I get dressed and go out. Just like that, I say to myself. You see? It’s easy. In this city, with few friends and much time, I have taken to walking compulsively, without paying attention, aware only of a vague sense of the foreign—black scarab taxicabs, butchers with old-fashioned signs peddling rashers and mince and haggis, pubs on every street.
I find a group of fellow residents in one of those pubs. Strangers to each other, we drink in a cluster, stay close to the residence. Cliques and couples are forming, but I don’t belong to any of them. I have one friend, my next-door neighbour, an Irishman named Liam. We have shared a few sprawling pub crawls. He studies maths. We drunkenly and haphazardly debate the question of whether things like numbers and words can be real. Or are they always abstractions, pointless shadows obscuring the real? Will studying make us smarter or stupider? At least, that is what I think we talk about. One night I cooked Liam a lamb stew. He feeds on pub food and the occasional supermarket frozen dinner—toad-in-the-hole or steak and kidney pie. My lamb stew was a revelation to him. He made me promise to teach him how to cook.