by Simon Brown
I watch a man die less than ten metres from me. I see him briefly, alive and well, and then glance his way again just as he is shot in the head. He says “Oh”, but so quietly it is as if he’s just remembered something only vaguely important. Blood spurts out of his forehead. His legs crumple underneath him. He falls to his knees, then forward, face down on the ground.
I say he is a man, but he is a boy, really, probably my own age, around fourteen or fifteen. The army is desperate for bodies. The Americans and British are everywhere. The Rhine is no longer a German river. Germany itself is no longer a German land.
When I stretch my memory, I think that was seventy years ago. Maybe more. Time means less and less to me.
Her name is Giselle, and she is the most beautiful woman I have ever met. She stands naked in front of me. I am cupping her small breasts in my hands and leaning over to kiss her on the mouth. I am as cautious about this as she is in kissing me back. Neither of us quite understand how we’ve gotten to this point. But as soon as we start kissing, the caution evaporates.
She is short and dark-haired and slight of body and smells of charcoal and sex.
I cannot remember how I felt about Giselle then, but I feel quite tender about her now.
When I was young I knew numbers the way some people know language or art or music, so deeply that I can see it unfold in the shape of the landscape and falling rain, or in the curve of a girl’s face or the speech of a politician. I saw it in the stars and in the oceans, in the caress of a breeze or the heat from a log fire. Everything made sense with numbers; nothing made sense without.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am captured wearing a uniform. Some of us were sent to fight in our street clothes, our pockets filled with ammunition, and when they are captured they are executed as spies. I see one child in his school uniform, so terrified his pee runs down his legs, standing in front of a firing squad. I wonder what the soldiers are thinking, but cannot imagine.
After the war the British make everyone in our village watch the news reels taken at Bergen-Belsen. We have to watch in two groups, on a Saturday and a Sunday night. The priest tries to stop the second viewing, but the British ignore him. When I see the bodies in the mass grave I estimate how many there are to fill the hole. Numbers as anaesthetic.
Giselle died from blood poisoning. It was just a small thing, a rose thorn. I was there when it happened and she sucked it hard until it stopped bleeding. Three days later skin was bright red under the arms. The day after that she fell into a coma. Two days after that she died. I try to understand why I cannot grieve, but again and again my mind would drift back to one question. How can something as beautiful as a rose kill someone as beautiful as Giselle?
I now wonder what memories are truly mine. I have the feeling that I am borrowing other people’s memories. That’s why I feel nothing. All the deaths I have seen, all the dead I have known, flicker through my memory like photographs in other people’s albums.
Mrs Thwaites, who secretly detests Germans, asks me if I have children. I lie and said “Yes, three, but they are all at boarding school in Switzerland.” She asked what their names are. I don’t hesitate. “Martin, Luther and Heidi,” I say. “Fifteen, thirteen and ten years old, respectively.” I want her to ask me more questions about the children so I can make up more stories about them. I could say that Martin wanted to be a pilot, and Luther a lawyer, and Heidi a doctor. But Mrs Thwaites accepts what I say, and suddenly I, too, feel it must be true.
I can see Martin, now, with small golden wings on his jacket’s left lapel. I can see Luther wearing a wig like a British lawyer. I see Heidi in Berlin, giving vaccinations to poor children. If only Giselle had lived long enough to see them all. She would be so proud.
I realise I am like an old tree without any heartwood, no centre of my own. I am held up by the vines of everyone else’s memories wrapped around my trunk. I can see I have a long way to fall, but the vines keep me up in the air, suspended, a spire in a forest of other people’s lives.
Work at the Hawker Siddeley plant is not exciting. I am not a scientist. I process numbers. They have a computer now that does the same thing, but slower, although no one believes me. Sometimes I test myself against it. When I see someone stacking cards to enter data, I start calculating the result. Most times I get the answer spot on. Yesterday the stack was one decimal point out; I told the chief the data set was wrong. He said I was speaking rubbish.
They made a wing for a new supersonic fighter, but it failed all the wind tunnel tests. I reminded the chief about what I had said before. He orders the calculation redone, and I am proven right. The next day the chief fires me.
I am lucky with my work as a janitor for Tesco. My job is to wash the floors every night except Sunday night. It does not pay much, but an old German living in England should not complain. I estimate how many mops it will take to cover the whole ground floor. And I estimate how many decimal points it would take to cover the whole ground floor. In the process I discover something interesting about density, and from that something interesting about gravity waves … if they exist. I wish Giselle was still alive so I could tell her.
I escaped from East Germany by digging under a barbed wire fence. I was one of seven making a break for it. We crossed over near Dömitz, into British controlled West Germany. I thought the machine gun was my heart, hammering hammering hammering. Three of us made it. We promised to be friends for the rest of our lives. We never saw each other again, but I think we are still friends.
When I am very small my father, who is not a big man and very abstemious in nature, drops dead from a heart attack. I am playing in the garden and see him keel over ramrod straight like a statue pulled off its base. A small posse of lilac butterflies flitter into the air around him, filling the space he has just vacated.
I remember thinking that what I remember is just another way of thinking.
I remember how Giselle used to smell, so I think this is real. I cry when I think of her. Then again, I cry when I think of our children who never get in touch anymore, and I am reasonably sure none of them is real. Although I allow that maybe, just maybe, Heidi is real. Heidi in Berlin healing the sick.
Maybe Giselle is real, but the memory of her blood poisoning is not. Maybe Giselle is still alive. Maybe she is with Heidi in Berlin.
When I am captured by the British they give me a cigarette. I’ve never smoked before. They laugh when I cough out my lungs, but they think they are doing me a favour. A week later I wish I had saved the cigarette; it could buy me food for a day, or a comfortable bed for a night, or a fuck with one of the whores circling the army barracks like desperate seagulls circling a garbage dump.
Have I ever killed anyone? I shot at the British, but I am pretty sure I missed. I used to shoot in the air to make sure I did not put a bullet through someone’s head. There are times when I remember being shot, right in the heart, but for the life of me I cannot find any scars on my body.
More and more these days I look at myself in the mirror. I like the way my skin, so old and scaly, folds down over my chest like a dewlap. There are 83 silver hairs between my breasts; 83 is a prime number.
I remember growing up in Portsmouth, which is not possible, of course. I am German. But I remember the tang of the Channel after a storm, and how beautiful and grey the world becomes with the sky cascading into the sea and … oh … the silver slash of light across the water.
And I remember sails, flashing white sails, lifting off the sea and rising into the sky like a flock of birds, and disappearing into the clouds.
I know people who believe in ghosts but have never seen them. I see them all the time, but I do not believe in them. I see the handiwork of God all around me, but I do not believe in Him.
How is it possible for a number to be irrational? Pi is infinite, irrational. So are fractals. I think God is like a fractal, an infinitely progressive slice of creation; the more you look at Him the more detail you get, but you never quite get it all. Sometimes I also think ghosts are the numbers that make up God; they are the echoes of God.
My mind echoes back and forward through different worlds and different times. Like Pi, it is entirely irrational, but like Pi it makes sense.
My favourite sentence in creation is not really a sentence at all. It is an equation, called the nonrelativistic Schrödinger Equation. Well, it is a sentence if you understand numbers the way I understand them. Among other things, this equation describes how the wave function of a subatomic particle changes over time. It is hard for most people to understand what a wave function is, let alone how it can change. It helps to pretend that a wave function is like the ghost of a real person, smeared back and forward in space, and itself subject to the fluctuations of time, not to mention energy, whim, the spirit of the age and a million other things.
My favourite word in the sentence is i, called ‘the imaginary unit’. If you square this number, you get -1. What could be more unimaginable and more beautiful than that?
I am five years old. I stand on top of a hill that overlooks a valley filled with a small forest. The edge of the forest sweeps halfway up the hill like a petticoat. It is autumn. I blink very quickly and the seconds turn into minutes and the minutes into hours and the hours into days, and as I blink I keep my gaze on the forest. All the leaves in the centre of the forest turn yellow, then orange and then red, and like a bloody tide the colour washes out and out towards the hill where I stand.
I’m found by a hunter who returns me to my home. My parents are beside themselves. Apparently I have been missing for over a week. The police and the army have been looking for me.
Is this what kills my father?
I will die on a Tuesday.
The day before, I will travel to Portsmouth. I will visit all the old haunts, although I should not be able to remember them (in this context, “haunts” is a peculiarly apt word, since I have never been to Portsmouth). Afterwards, I will sit on the edge of Southsea Pier. I will watch the sea and create a series of equations that will explain to anyone who is interested the frequency of the waves washing in and out between the piles beneath the pier. From those equations it will be possible to promulgate a wave frequency for any particle in any context anywhere in the universe. But no one will talk to me or ask me what I’m doing, so the equations will die with me. On Tuesday.
There was a message on my phone. It is a woman’s voice. She says her name is Heidi and she thinks about me all the time. Then at the end she says, ‘I have never met you, and yet I know you better than I know myself. Do you know someone called Giselle?’
I try to return the call, but no one picks up.
Portsmouth is nothing like I remember. I begin to doubt my memories, my whole life. I have never doubted before. But mid-afternoon I go to Southsea Pier and it is how I imagined it would be. I pick a spot about halfway along, well apart from all the people dropping fishing lines into the sea, and study the waters beneath. I don’t see currents, but equations, their variables changing moment to moment. When the numbers and signs settle I am left with a single equation – no, a symphony – that would fill two A4 pages, 8 point Courier, single-spaced, describing precisely to which vector any given wave will collapse. It is beautiful. It is truth. I look up and see the clouds scudding along the sky, and then lay the equation across them and it fits perfectly.
I stay until nightfall and almost everyone has gone. An old couple walk by, arm in arm, and greet me as they pass. One of those who’d been fishing walks the other way with an empty bucket but wearing a smile like a crescent moon.
When the stars came out I look up again and match my equation to the whole universe and there it is: all possible worlds and all their possibilities – all the could-have-beens – pull together like separate threads in one weave. And I understand.
I am fulfilled, I think. And then, almost immediately, feel pity for all my fellow human beings who will never understand, never see, what I understand and see. I am filled with a sadness I have never felt before, a sadness not for my own state but for the state of all my fellows of all ages and all times. I think tragedy is like this: inevitable and overwhelming.
I leave the pier and start walking back to my hotel. Then something happens I had never experienced or dreamed or imagined before. I am halfway there when I see two young people spray-painting their tags on a redbrick wall. In turn, they see me walking towards them and run off, dropping their spray cans. I pick up the cans, a yellow one and a white one, and without hesitation start writing my equation on the redbrick wall. It is beautiful, and now everyone will see it.
I die that night in my hotel. I wake suddenly, not able to breathe, my chest caving in, craving air, pain instead of blood circulating though my body. My heart stops. I stare at the roof. I feel my brain closing down, the brainstem, the parietal lobe, the temporal lobe. Blindness strikes me like lightning, a dark flash, then paralysis steals my limbs from me. Then all my memories float up and away from me like oil in water, floating up and floating up, except the very last one …
I am five, and the forest below is still green, filled with its summer growth. I see clearly in my mind how I will die in my tiny hotel room. I look down on my old face, know that I am suffering, but at the same time, mystifyingly, I am smiling.
Simon Brown hails from Watson ACT, Australia and has written over 50 short stories which have been published in Australia, the US, the UK, Poland and Japan. A handful of stories have been picked up for Year’s Best anthologies in Australia and the US.
He has also written eight novels, all published in Australia; the last six were also published in the US and Russia.
That’s a really good story. It’s sad, and beautiful, at the same time. I like it a lot.
The mathematical equation to life resonates beautifully. The flashback adds beauty and charm to the narrator’s current state of mind. I loved this piece. Well done Simon!