Darker Country

HAL NIEDZVIECKI

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.

Liam hangs out with his own friends, not with the group. But I am here. Out of my room. The girls are plump, white, with crooked teeth. The boys are scrawny, smart, self-conscious, unfashionable. I push through the crowd to the bar. I order a pint and a whiskey. I breathe in the odour of stale beer and cigarette smoke, which isn’t that different from the taste of air trapped in the chapel of a synagogue. I visited the Edinburgh synagogue on Yom Kippur and broke fast with a middle-aged professional couple with two blond children ages eight and ten. We sat around a nicely appointed table and spoke in a hush. There are no other Jews in the residence. I never went back to the synagogue. I don’t know why I went in the first place. I promised my mother.

The pub is alive. The crowd closes around me as I wait for my drinks. This time I feel it coming: a tightening in my shoulders, a drop in my stomach. The hole opening, sucking me in. I dig my fingernails into my wet palms. I close my eyes, will it to go away. All right, mate? The bartender in front of me, waiting impatiently for payment. I hand him a wet fiver and drink the whiskey while he makes change. I want to go to my room. I take the pint back to my crowd. I am safe in my room. Am I? The hole is there, too. The world lies on its side. My crowd is talking, telling stories. I pretend to listen, try to listen. I drink fast, as fast as I can without attracting attention. Drink. Drink again. After several more pints, I take my turn telling a story. We are talking about hometowns. I describe my high school in suburban Maryland—cheerleaders and football players and field parties and make-out sessions in McDonald’s parking lots. It’s just like on TV, I say. Only weirder.

Now I am buying drinks and talking loudly. This is the cure. I am cured. Sure, why not? There is a girl, soft and round. I have bought her several drinks, looked into her eyes while I told my stories. She laughed with the others, her lips wet with drink. We go back to my cold room. I give her whiskey. I must keep drinking. The dark hole lingers above me, not gone at all. Maybe it is gone, though. She is English. Tells me about her French boyfriend. She met him on a trip to Paris, last summer. Only a few months ago, but to both of us the summer is like a dream. She says, He won’t find out. How can he find out? I make jokes in a French accent. Oh, what are ya on about? she giggles. I kiss her. We undress. I suggest a condom. It’s okay, she says, I’m on the pill. I put it in. Thrust a few times. Finish in her. I am cured, I think. It will be over now. Should I go? she asks. I don’t answer. Maybe I am pretending to be asleep. She dresses and leaves.

I am in love with a girl in Israel. Last night I lasted only a few minutes. But when I masturbate, it can go on for hours. I am revolting and weak. Or else it isn’t me at all. It is the world that is something to be endured and gotten over.

I force myself to gather my books and attend my morning class. I need to walk. I need a destination. When I arrive on campus, I cannot remember which class I am supposed to attend. I have to pull out my binder and consult the schedule. I am due in a philosophy lecture, my class on Plato’s dense masterpiece, Theaetetus. The professor is an Italian who was disappointed and perplexed when he discovered on the first day of lectures that not one of us spoke a single word of Greek, ancient or otherwise. Still, he persists in reading to us “from the Greek,” as he announces frequently. He follows these incomprehensible readings with his own unique translation. He considers the expensive translated edition that we all bought from the university bookstore vastly flawed. While he talks, I flip wildly through the pages of my thick annotated text trying to figure out which passage he is referring to. It gives me something to do. But even when I find the right page, Plato’s account of Socrates discussing the definition of knowledge with some guy named Theaetetus remains slippery, a fish flashing in the sun, jumping through my soft palms. At the professor’s request, I have already met with him several times to discuss my essays. I am used to getting okay, mediocre grades—Bs, not Ds. The Greek professor underlines vast swaths of my heartfelt commentary and adorns the margins with question marks. He tells me I need to learn to make my arguments in a precise fashion according to the strictures of philosophical logic. I tell him logic makes no sense. We have reached an impasse.

I try to ignore the unbearable itch in my legs, the need to walk, move, escape. There is one little thing that puzzles me, Socrates says cutely. The professor discusses the refutation of the assertion that knowledge is perception. From the Greek, he drones. As if singled out for a question, I break into a sweat. My legs itch and my stomach drops. The hole opens. My chair tilts to one side. No it doesn’t. I hold on to keep from falling off. This is how the interminable hour passes, my eyes closed, my head down, my thighs trembling and tense, my fists tight against the plastic edge of the seat.

If I do not attend classes, I will fail. I do not want to fail. I have never been a success at anything in particular, but I have never been a failure, either. My classes ground me, give me something to do. More than that: they suggest a truth. I am twenty-three, at a time in my life when truth seems elusive but necessary. What is knowledge? Socrates wants to know. But I’m more interested in truth. My favourite class is Introduction to Scottish Literature. The words that the professor reads out loud fill me with longing, a need that cannot be satisfied. Words create places, and places create words. Perhaps I can find words, create a place. What place? Already I am asking the wrong question. I need to start from the beginning. What is knowledge? What are words? If I don’t attend classes I will fail, and if I fail I will never find the words to invent my place—not a place, really, but my own personal epistemology, the answer to the age-old question Socrates never quite resolves. But I am failing. It is only possible to answer Socrates’ question through reference, metaphor, example. This, according to my professor and Plato, is no answer at all.

Class is over. The floor shifts at random angles, causing me to stumble as I move through the hall of the philosophy building. I must look drunk. I don’t drink during the day. I think that I will go to the pub and drink. I will take the cure. I will drink during the day. The cure will kill me. I will fail and die. Knowledge is what you know. Isn’t it?

I force my legs to enter another building: the student clinic. I’ve never been here before, walked past it often enough.

I need a doctor, I tell the lady at reception. I need to see a psychiatrist. I’m going crazy. I speak loudly, urgently. Everyone in the room stares at me. What do they see? I am skinny. My curly hair is long and greasy. My clothes are unkempt: flannel shirts and ripped jeans. It is the age of grunge—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sound

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HAL NIEDZVIECKI

Hal Niedzviecki is a writer, cultural commentator and editor. He is also the founder and fiction editor of Broken Pencil magazine. He lives in Toronto.


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