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These Times and Live

When Daniel was happy he could shut his eyes and experience a bloom of pleasurable light irradiating his consciousness, exploding outwards like a soft cosmic blast from an infinite depth of black space. He could travel forwards through it, diving down and swimming onwards – thought without arms – until the sensation ended in a flood of warm feelings that spread throughout his body from his neck to his feet. He liked to do this best when he was lying face down on the pillow, blotting out the world.

The world had been bothering him rather too much lately. He'd had problems with his rent, then with his landlord, then with work. He couldn't really identify the order these had come in because they had been rotating in his head for so long that their outlines were blurred like spinning plates, impossible to decipher their pattern. Okay, he'd messed up at work and shouldn't have taken those three days off—three glorious days with Sousa by the sea, admiring her topless sunbathing and the crashing of the waves onto the shoreline, right where the bank of fine, coloured shingle met a gully of pure bronze sand in which birds with long beaks were pecking around, spikily. Okay, he should have at least phoned in sick and got a doctor's note, but he didn't so they cancelled his next seven shifts, which they were perfectly entitled to do, since he didn't even have a proper contract and there were plenty of other people queuing up to do his job.

After that he'd turned up every day half an hour before the start of shift and stood outside the foyer waiting for Cabbo, with his beady eyes, to come ambulating down the stairs with his stiff-legged sideways movement like a clattering crustacean, waving the sheaf of work orders in his pincers and grinning at the waiting gang of casual workers, knowing that half of them were going to be disappointed when he read out the names he'd selected for that day. For seven days Daniel's name had been left off the list which, added to the three days he'd taken off pretending to be sick, meant his pay-packet was ten days light, not leaving him enough to pay his rent. He couldn't just pay seventy percent of his rent, although he could keep it aside and pay two months next month, but that would mean finding one hundred and thirty percent out of next month's pay-packet, if they hadn't sacked him by then.

He should have been worried, because the landlord – in fact, the landlord's wife, Mrs Joffrey – had told him that he would have to move out of his flat unless he paid his rent by next week. Surely they understood what it was like to be a stranger? – they were descendents of immigrants themselves, but they didn't consider him an immigrant because he spoke English and had white skin, as if that meant anything. Despite these problems, there was some inner core of happiness in Daniel that made him smile as he looked into the endless inner space inside his head, as if it was a place he could go where no-one could follow, not even Sousa, although she probably wouldn't want to. It was normally him looking at her: lying next to her sunbathing with her eyes shut, her mouth perfectly composed, he'd tried to imagine the space behind her eyes and what thoughts were playing there, orchestrated by an inner wealth of experience and memory, apprehension, hopes and dreams. It was weird how she'd ended up with one being and him another and how they could never really know each other, introspectively he meant. He could try and guess what she was thinking; he could even ask her what she was thinking, and she could try and tell him, but then it would become words and sounds, ideas, things floating in the air like unravelling spools of wool, unknitted from the real fabric of her thought which only she knew the touch of. Yes, although she could tell him, he would never know what it was like to be inside her head.

Was it like his head, inside? Did she see warm blazes of light when she closed her eyes, like fireworks night softened by a mist? Was there a connection between her mental states and the sensations in her body? She certainly looked calm, lying on her towel with her long black hair twirled beneath her head, and snaking out in ringlets around her ears. Her skin was tanned and smooth apart from two or three stretch marks on her breast, just above the nipple, which could not have been from having children because she told him she'd never wanted them, so possibly she'd been fat at one time, though it was hard to believe that now, when you looked at the leanness of her belly, which was almost concave. And her hips were bony, creating a gap between her stomach and her costume as the waistband stretched across from one hip to the other.

She was thirty-five and he was twenty-seven and they'd only been sleeping together for two weeks. They'd met in a café on the seafront about three months before while he was reading one of his textbooks, Brain Morphology in Mice, and she'd asked to sit at his table because all the others were full – the tables in the sun; there were tables indoors that she could have sat at but she chose not to. He tried to carry on reading but he was aware of her sitting opposite him with her straight back, her long hair streaming down over her shoulders, her fixed, composed expression behind the thick black sunglasses with the fashion marque on the left side-piece, and a silver cross hanging outside her black jumper. She ordered a double espresso and he made one of his typically nerdy and academic jokes: Does a double espresso come twice as quick?

—Sorry? She said, turning her head towards him, with little animation in her face.

He didn't want to repeat it—he knew it wasn't funny, just a way of breaking the ice.

—Nothing, I just said… And he repeated the joke, which didn't sound as funny to him the second time, didn't sound funny at all.

There was a silence, while she observed him from behind her shades. Then she spoke, in an American accent—but didn't everybody learn American English these days?

—It doesn't mean ‘quick' – espresso – it means ‘pressed'.

—Oh, right, so I should have said, ‘Do you think they press it twice as hard?'

—Yes. What are you reading?

He told her and she asked him if he was a student?

—Research. And you?

—Similar. I'm a writer, magazine articles mostly, on bizarre and arcane subjects. In fact, I'm writing something at the moment about the brain and the self, just one of those populist things about how many selves we have, you know?

He did know. Three, he answered.

Be serious, she said, smiling for the first time.

I am, he replied, seriously—your mother and your father and yourself.

And then they had a long talk about the brain, consciousness, the self, the hidden self, the hidden selves, the affective unconscious, and the functional unconscious. She was milking him for information.

—Why don't we meet up tonight, for a drink, and discuss it further, he suggested.

So that was how they met: she needed something from him. And now he needed something from her. He reached out and ran his finger around the curved extremity of her breast, where it fell back on itself and flattened out, creating a shadow on her ribs. He'd like to be tiny and stand beneath there, in the shade. She could pick him up and hide him inside her bra, in her cleavage, and walk around with him all day. What would it be like to climb inside her vagina? It's lucky that they had different minds and she couldn't know what he was thinking.

—I've got a problem with my flat. The landlord is kicking me out, even though I've said I'll pay him. Term starts in seven weeks and I'll get my grant.

She didn't answer, but she moved her arm over and touched his, so he carried on.

—I think I'll probably find a house share, I just can't afford my own place any more, and without a deposit, no reference, I'll…

At that moment a jet flew high overhead – too high to hear – and left a trail of vapour that fan-tailed out. Too many of those and there'd be no sun, he thought. He rolled over onto his back and shaded his eyes with his arm, intrigued by the inverted forest of black hairs, perfectly detailed, that grew down from his wrist.

—Yup, I have to do some serious thinking, he said. I have to have a plan.

She reached out and held his hand—the first time she'd done that, ever, even when they were walking down the street, or waiting in a queue at the cinema, or staggering from a bar at three A.M., she'd never held his hand. They'd linked arms, and thrown their arms around each other's shoulders, briefly, but never held hands. There was something too formal about her nature, too sophisticated, to be seen idly walking along the pavement hand in hand. Maybe she would change over time. It was all those people at the magazine, who thought they were riding high on top of the social world, because of the parties they went to, the glamorous people's lives that filled their pages, the thickness of the rumours that filled their offices—they thought that they were celebrities themselves.

Sousa wasn't like that; she was a freelance, but she still had that patina and stiffness, an over-concern with her appearance. It wasn't a criticism, as such, and he wouldn't have mentioned it to her, because he knew that her spirit was so different to the mask she had to wear every day in order to compete and survive. It was a jungle back there, of offices and tenements, jobs and contracts, bills and outgoings, commitments and responsibilities, anxieties and ambitions, and then there was all the subjective stuff to deal with, the mechanics of the self, of finding out who you were and what you should become, how you should act and what you should say, what you should know and read about, what mattered and didn't matter. There was so much pressure on people to follow the agendas set by the media, worrying about what was happening in the world – at least the bits of the world they deemed important enough to tell us about – keeping informed and having the right opinion. On top of all that, another person comes into your life and you wonder what is going to happen and what it says about you: will they end up making you feel better or worse about yourself? Will it end in pain? Again.

So that was over three months ago and they'd only been sleeping together two weeks, which showed how slowly and cautiously she moved, a quality he admired, but not necessarily the night on her sofa when he'd undone her trousers and slipped his fingers between her legs and felt how wet she was, but she still wouldn't go to bed with him. He didn't know why at the time, but he found out later it was because she was still seeing ‘him' and they were still sleeping together occasionally, although ‘everything was over between them'. Daniel didn't care. He had an open mind and would have slept with her even though she was still seeing ‘him', someone whom she never gave a name to. To be true, it was more Daniel's urgent need than his open mind that would have stopped him objecting to the other man, because after a few weeks of going out together her scent and her physicality were driving him mad; it was like a slow burn firework about to go off.

He thought that she liked him. He knew how to make her laugh. He was considerate of her. She liked his mind. But he knew that there was something that other man had – that ghost shimmering in the machine of their relationship – which still held her entranced. In his mind, Daniel constructed his rival as somebody moody, difficult, complicated and passionate, with a magnetic personality, possibly dark and doomed, vulnerable—the kind a woman would fall in love with and desire to protect, to mother.

Daniel would never be like that; he always saw the funny side of things, was optimistic, always cracking jokes and, despite the richness of his mental experiences, was an uncomplicated guy. Or that's what he thought. He knew enough about the brain to know that no-one was uncomplicated even if their personality was. There was still something juvenile about him, that's what it was, but it was something he liked and didn't want to give up easily, but he could see with her that he might have to. The way she looked at him sometimes when he made an inane joke and tried to tickle her into laughing at it, it was as if she was wincing but at the same time attracted by his naivety. He thought that she should loosen up a bit and let herself be entertained. He knew that she was impressed by how much he knew about a range of subjects; she'd already told him that he was cleverer than her, whatever that meant, since she was amazing in ways that he couldn't begin to enumerate; there was just something about her that impressed him, a deepness, possibly a wisdom that was far-seeing.

He saw forwards, how they could live together and have children. He would become a professor of cognitive science and they would move out of the city and buy a big house on the island. She could carry on freelancing from home and occasionally he would drop her near the station on his way to work and she could go back to her office to meet her editor, ringing him from her cellphone when she was ready to be picked up. On the way back they would stop at a bar and have a drink, just like the old days when they'd first met and she would tell him the latest scandals from the cut-throat world of publishing. Yes, that's how it would end up, he didn't dare to dream.

He turned over onto his stomach and opened his legs to let the sun reach the pale inside of his thighs. He rested his chin on his arms and watched, about eight inches from his nose, a red ant dragging a piece of fibrous stalk from a desiccated sea plant. It was twice the size of the ant's body and the ant dragged it backwards for a while, managing to lift it's whole bulk into the air, then dropping it, scurrying around to the other end and performing some mysterious motion with its antennae, pushing the chip around and dragging it again. The pale green, smooth outer surface of the stalk and the red of the ant's body had the same brittle cellulose sheen. Individual grains of bright silicon sand tumbled away from the ant's busy legs. Daniel picked up a dried blade of fine grass and tickled the ant's body with it; the ant ignored it at first and then retreated, preparing to attack, its elbowed antennae waving around to detect the enemy's scent.

What kind of mind does it have? thought Daniel, trying to empathise with the ant, its little stimulus, its  particular view of the world, mainly detected through smell. He imagined blindness, a world constructed of smell and touch and how those inputs translated into mental sensations. Was that consciousness? Did they know? Did they sit around later, emitting pheromones that were the equivalent of, “You'll never guess what happened to me today?” creating a frisson of excitement in the other ants of the colony. The ant was watching the tip of the blade of grass as Daniel waved it within an inch of its mandibles. What does it see? It has different kinds of eyes, different kinds of processing areas in the brain, less sophisticated than ours, so what it sees is not what I see, and what I see is not what some other creature might see. What of the world then? Is it my world, or theirs?

He threw away the grass and left the ant to carry on with its task. The sun was burning the back of his head but his hair was thick so it didn't matter, although it gave him a nice sensation when he shut his eyes and let himself doze. At sea, a ship's horn sounded in the distance, three long blasts, an ‘O' in Morse code, and the frenzied cries of the gulls grew and faded to silence, leaving just the gentle slopping of the waves that dragged the shingle and broken shells into tinkling banks. Broken up sentences and fragments of wordsound drifted easily through his mind, sharing space with vague memories and reflections, each with its own subtle mood of endearment or alarm. His apprehensions melted away like butter in the sun, the same golden drool sliding beneath the platelets of his thought as his pleasure increased and he felt an erection growing in his shorts, pushing premonitorily into the sand as he imagined lying on top of Sousa later that afternoon. Change the subject!

He wanted to leave that flat anyway. If she didn't offer, although he wasn't going to ask, he would find a house with a bunch of academics and at least the conversation would be lively. The fact the she was older, owned her own place, had more money, dressed in more expensive clothes – would all that make a difference, especially if he was living in a ‘student house'? What was that other man like? Rich, drove a sports car, nice apartment, ran his own business, fashion conscious, but not unintelligent, practical, phlegmatic, cautious with money, owned investments, visited his widowed mother once a week and took her flowers, his hobby was… sports, probably tennis, which he played competitively but without obvious aggression, treating victory and defeat with the same courtesy as he shook hands with his charmed opponents. What does she see in me then? Something more eccentric, less worldly, less superficial, more intellectual, thoughtful, humorous, spontaneous… poor. Okay, he wasn't going back to the factory to be humiliated; instead, he'd move out of his flat at the end of the week and sleep on someone's floor until term began and his grant came through. Then he would find a room in a shared house and just concentrate on his research and see her if she wanted to, but on his terms—he couldn't afford to be drawn in and become the weaker party.

Later that afternoon, towards evening, they walked back along the seafront, which was crowded with people and cars, the cafés busy with idle people chattering noisily like a parliament of birds, others lingering over the evening paper and iced-coffee. One man, the only smoker amongst a group of Italian men and women, held a distracting, fuming cigarette theatrically away from his face. They turned off into the back streets towards her apartment, which was in a quiet road with trees down both sides and well-tended gardens out front. The sun had bleached them of conversation and they walked slowly and lazily without speaking, until she took hold of his finger and pulled him towards the door of Lorenzo's, a cool, dimly-lit narrow bar that darkened towards the back like a cave in which a couple of old men sat drinking brandy, smoking, and playing cards. Daniel and Sousa sat at a table near the window and ordered two beers which Lorenzo pulled from a gleaming steel pump, wiping away the froth from the top with a flat-bladed spatula, muttering something about the weather from beneath his moustache. He carried the beers around the bar to their table, his enormous belly hidden beneath a white apron which he lifted in order to wipe his hands. There was a mischievous glint in his eyes and a sensual ruddiness to his cheeks as he made a joke about the heat, while admiring Sousa's bikini top as she riffled in her purse for change. She looked up and gave him a note and a few coins and then instinctively pulled her shirt-front together to hide her cleavage.

The ice-cold beer lubricated their dry throats and after a while they started talking, while all the time aware of the little activity in the street outside: a few slabs of colour from the walls opposite, neo-Med pastel shades subdued but harmonious, painted with waving sea crests and white bubbles of foam, were occasionally passed by schoolchildren dragging idly back from school with their shirts untucked and their bags hanging from their arms.

—So you're going to leave your flat then? she said, with the tone of someone suppressing an interest.

—Yeah, probably, he said casually as if it was an everyday affair, like deciding not to do the dishes.

—Hhm, she murmured, with an intake of breath, at once nonchalant and urgent.

He told her what he was planning to do, hoping that she would suggest that he moved in with her or they got a flat together, even though there was no way she would consider selling her place at the moment.

—You can always stay at mine, she said, until you get yourself sorted out. You know, for a few weeks until term has begun.

—Thanks, he said, I might do that.

Maybe he was completely mistaken about her – about them – he thought as he followed her up the stairs to her apartment, watching as she took the key from the sisal-hemp shoulder bag she always took to the beach. He didn't know anything about her former boyfriends – including the mysterious ‘him' – so it's possible that the two of them were completely out of synch and that he had dreams but she didn't. She seemed quite a reserved person, world weary and man wary, and he wondered if she'd been badly hurt or used before. If so, it wasn't fair that he should pay the price for that. Maybe he'd got this all wrong and let his imagination run away with him, and that he was just another short affair for her, someone who'd stay a summer and then migrate.

They went to the bedroom without showering and he tasted the sea-salt beneath her armpit and between her legs, and when he kissed her as she came, her mouth was wet and slippery; he shut his eyes and tasted oysters, and opened them to see her sea-green eyes looking at him with perfect clarity, but the way she started to move her mouth to say something and then stopped, meant there was a question there, the uncertainty of a conflict that cannot articulate itself.

—What? he said, forgetting about his own orgasm.

Her eyes looked so cold, like aquamarine tanks of clear water with densely patterned stones at the bottom. He looked into them but she turned her head aside, as if to say, No, you can't understand.

Normally it was him who was the one bad at eye contact. He rolled off her with a sigh, turned on his side and looked out the window at the balcony where her beach towel flapped in the evening breeze.

—You don't want me, do you? He heard his own voice like a stranger's in a strange land.

—It's not that, she said, moving her bare leg against his.

—It's him then.

She didn't answer. So it is him, he thought. She'll never forget him, he's the big one, the love of her life, the one she'll measure all other men against. He'll always be there, like a ghost, trembling behind every curtain—the ghost of boyfriend past. But men like that, they're more than boyfriends, they represent something deep and troubling, an homme fatal she would always go back to if he called her up. Daniel sat up on the edge of the bed and looked down at the pile of his clothes on the floor, his underpants, trousers and socks all pulled off in a single movement and wrapped together in a conjoined bundle.

—No, it's not him, she said at last, when his mental projections had already gone too far. He was no-one, nothing to me really. The reason I couldn't finish with him was because he was a junkie and had a lot of problems and I couldn't just kick him out. I had to help.

—He lived with you?

—Only for three months.

—So if it's not him, what is it then?

—It's you.


—You'll go back to Israel won't you, in two years when you've finished your research? And then I'll be two years older and on my own again.

—Why do you think I'm going to go back to Israel?

—It's your homeland—you all go back.

—I'm never going back. I'm sick and tired of the war. I'm staying here. I'm going to get married and have my children here.

—But I'm so much older than you.

—That doesn't matter. When two people…

Two hours later, after they'd finished their omelette and salad, they were playing backgammon on the sofa. The atmosphere had changed and Daniel was convinced in his heart and brain that he was never going to let go of her. There wouldn't be any rivals because he had a strength inside of him, a determination, and a sense of fate that would make his dreams become a reality. They were a perfect fit, his dreams and reality, so long as she was with him, totally.

In the middle of one of his jokey stories the telephone rang and she answered it. He held his finger on one of the backgammon counters, listening to the unintelligible syllables of a woman's voice leaking from the earpiece. When it was finished, she dropped the phone down and he looked at her face which was suddenly full of concern.

—That was the hospital. He's taken an overdose. I've got to go and see him, he's got nobody else.

But before she left, she hugged and kissed him, reassured him, told him not to worry.

She rang around midnight and said that she would not be back; he was in a coma and they didn't know if he would survive.

Daniel went to the bedroom and lay face down on her side of the bed, trying to smell her body. As he fell deeper towards sleep, an endless blackness opened up, permeated by a sound which he knew was the sound of his mind, its collective tone. He felt what it would be like for consciousness to come into being, a dark excresence of the spongey matter of the brain, partaking of the universe and the origins of time, filled with mysteries and possibilities. It occupied no space but contained everything, and every living creature had it. It came from nowhere and went to nowhere, and in the middle of it we were totally alone, without contact. We were alone together, trying to read each other's signs.

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