Authors: James Runcie
Tags: #Historical, #Fantasy, #Modern, #Romance
‘I see. Caca rather than coca.’
‘I’m sorry. A little joke.’
Was the man mad? I could not understand how the Doctor could cure me in this way, nor did I really know the disease from which I suffered. What could it be? Thinking hard I realised that it must surely be a combination of melancholy, bad dreams, and eternity. But would this man ever believe me?
‘What are you thinking now?’ he asked. ‘I would like you to say whatever comes into your head, without fear of offence or censorship.’
‘I do not masturbate,’ I said firmly. There was at least one thing that I needed to make clear.
‘Everybody masturbates,’ the Doctor countered.
‘I can assure you that I do no such thing.’
‘Then how do you find relief?’
‘I think of other things.’
‘You can achieve satisfaction by will-power alone?’ he asked.
‘I can …’ I said firmly.
‘You are not married?’
‘Have you known love?’
‘How long ago?’
‘I do not know.’
‘How old are you?’ the Doctor asked.
This was becoming ridiculous. I had to help him. Even if he did not believe me, perhaps at least he might find me entertaining.
‘I think perhaps I must be three hundred and eighty-seven years of age.’
‘And do you know anyone else to have achieved such an age?’
‘Only my greyhound Pedro.’
The Doctor seemed remarkably unsurprised by my assertions, and I was impressed by his calmness.
‘And can you think why this should be?’ he asked kindly.
‘I do not know. All I know is that we seem to be travelling the world in search of love and chocolate, and that we might never grow old and never find rest.’
‘Your pulse is certainly slow …’
‘Like my life. I cannot live as others.’
‘You think that you are doomed to live eternally?’
‘I think that this may be so.’
The Doctor paused for a moment, staring into space. I turned to see if he was still listening, and finally met his eye. His concentration and intensity seemed ferocious.
‘One can only prepare for life by preparing for death. If the threat of death is removed, then life ceases to have meaning.’
‘That may be so for you, but it is painful to me. I no longer know the purpose of my quest.’
‘You feel that you are on a quest?’
‘This is how my adventure began.’
‘Tell me your story. The quest is important.’
‘It may take days, weeks, or even years.’
‘Please,’ said the Doctor, ‘I think that I may be able to help you …’
‘In what way?’
‘I too am something of a conquistador,’ he continued solemnly, ‘but my travels are perhaps far further …’
‘Where have you been?’
‘Everywhere and nowhere. My adventure is in search of the treasures of the mind.’
‘I no longer recommend adventure,’ I replied, thinking of all the trouble it had caused me.
‘On the contrary. I think that we must confront our fears. There is no stranger land than the human mind.’
‘And no land more terrifying.’
‘Then,’ concluded the Doctor, ‘let us explore this strange territory together.’
And so, from that moment on, I proceeded once a week to the Doctor’s rooms in order to tell him the story of my life. Although we formed an uneasy alliance I soon began to depend upon my visits, storing up the right things to say, planning each encounter as my life unfolded before him.
I tried to keep my account as factually accurate as possible, but the Doctor soon began to interrupt me, asking specific questions about what he called my interior existence, the subconscious life of the mind.
‘Tell me,’ he asked one day, ‘of what do you dream?’
‘Sometimes I do not know whether I am dreaming or living my life,’ I answered. ‘I feel as if I am like the man who dreamed a dream in which he dreamed that he was dreaming.’
‘I cannot trust that anything is true. At times I feel that I have been in places before but do not know how or when
or why. I feel that I have already lived this part of my life but can do nothing to stop it happening again.’
‘We are often condemned to repeat …’
‘What can I do? Do you believe me?’
‘I believe, that whether your life is a fantasy or whether it is real, it makes no difference. It is real to you.’
‘Will I be cured?’
‘I hope so. For it seems you have neither the will to live nor the means to die.’
He paused to let the import of his words take effect and I noticed that he had arranged a collection of ancient burial figures on the mantelpiece: Greek vases, Abyssinian heads, Chinese horses, the Egyptian god Ptah, a Roman Venus; there was even, I was sure, an Aztec idol.
‘Where did you find those?’ I asked.
‘I have started to collect them,’ the Doctor replied modestly. ‘Perhaps you recognise them?’
‘I do,’ I replied. ‘I was there. In Mexico. I know I was.’
The Doctor picked up a small terracotta head. ‘I am interested in the idea that they have only been preserved because they have been buried for so long.’
‘Like emotions.’ I smiled.
‘Or memory, which is often past desire. Perhaps you could tell me how far back in time you can remember? Is there perhaps a recollection of when you were happiest as a child?’
‘You know that I do not know if this is a real memory,’ I replied. ‘It is like an echo heard from far away. Memory is uncertain to me and I do not trust it. It is never stable. I think that I change a memory each time I recall it, so that although it seems fixed, it is altered, or even combined
with other memories in the process of its recall. Nothing is permanent.’
‘In this dream, or memory, I am a small boy, sitting in an orange grove. I have just climbed a tree, and I am resting. I am not sure if I will ever be able to get back down, but I am trying not to think about that. I am looking down over the city of Seville below me and in the distance.’
‘And you remember this?’
‘I do, and I feel it to be absolutely true, but it cannot be so, for the tree would never have been high enough from which to see the city.’
‘Perhaps you have combined a view of the city from the hillside, with the act of climbing the tree. Two distinct memories have become one.’
‘That is perhaps the case.’
‘And you have made yourself seem higher than the rest, set apart in your dream.’
‘I have. It seems that life exists differently for me than for other people. And it is true that I have been set apart.’
‘Do you ever feel that you have divine tendencies? That you might be a type of super-man or Christ-like figure?’
‘No, no,’ I replied. ‘That is quite wrong. It is not like that at all. And, besides, I have come to the belief now that there is no God. How can there be when there is such random suffering?’
‘I agree,’ the Doctor exclaimed eagerly, and our conversation now moved at an increasingly brisk pace. ‘God has been invented by civilisation as a consoling response to the crushingly superior force of nature.’
‘We cannot bear the thought of our extinction,’ I said quickly, warming to my theme, ‘and so we create another world, another stage on our journey. We see the universe not as it is, but as we wish it to be.’
‘It is our escape from the chaos of history.’
‘We hope for a better life beyond our own,’ I said.
‘Which does not exist,’ said the Doctor firmly.
‘I cannot believe that it does, or that there is a benevolent creator active in the universe, no,’ I agreed.
Here at last was a man who understood me, and our conversation continued at a breakneck pace, as if, here, we were allowed to express what could not be spoken lest it shock the polite society of Vienna.
‘God has been invented to take away the pain of death. But if you then take away God …’
‘You must take back death,’ I said.
‘Exactly,’ answered the Doctor. ‘Now we are getting somewhere. For this is what you cannot do. This is your problem and your neurosis. You refuse to mourn.’
‘But I truly believe that I cannot die, and that I must endure a living death, condemned, like the Wandering Jew, to roam the world for ever.’
‘You are a remarkable man,’ the Doctor replied.
‘No,’ I said firmly, ‘I am not. I feel that I am a relentlessly ordinary person who happens to have one special attribute. I do not feel superior to other people, but detached from them.’
‘Because you cannot die?’
‘Exactly. I might as well live selfishly, entirely for my own enjoyment.’
‘And what stops you from doing this?’
‘I think that one cannot live an exclusively hedonistic existence. Even if I live on, the pleasure must pass. It will die, even if I do not,’ I argued.
‘But with other human beings, pleasure seems to be a headlong rush towards death.’
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘it is almost as if there are people who have a death instinct. For without the will to die, there can be no will to live.’
‘And without death there would be no philosophy.’
‘But what then is happiness?’ I asked plainly.
‘I do not know,’ said the Doctor, the pace of our conversation slowing at last. ‘I thought that you, having lived so long, could tell me?’
‘Perhaps it is truly the art of living with the knowledge that we must one day die.’
The Doctor nodded sagely.
‘And this is part of our happiness?’ he asked.
‘It must be so,’ I replied. ‘We cannot be happy without a knowledge or anticipation of death.’
‘I too have been thinking of these things,’ the Doctor replied. ‘Our only contentment in this life is but transient pleasure. We seem to love the things that vanish away. Death is the only permanence.’
He rose from his chair and walked towards the window.
‘And since we have no hope of any lasting success,’ he concluded, ‘we must learn to live with despair. But tell me, how do you find comfort?’
‘I travel. I perfect the art of making chocolate. I take comfort where I can.’
‘There is nothing wrong with chocolate. It gives great pleasure.’
‘It reminds me of the love I have lost and cannot seem to find again.’
‘You wish for your love through chocolate. It is understandable. It is how you remember Ignacia. There is nothing wrong in this.’
‘I cannot do anything else.’
‘It is a sign that you love her. Chocolate is often found in dreams. My daughter dreamed of it last year. Her mother came into the room, throwing a handful of big bars of chocolate, wrapped in blue and green paper, under her bed.’
‘Because she had been denied them earlier in the day, and so sought the fulfilment of her wishes in her dream.’
‘Are all dreams so clear to you?’ I asked.
‘No, not all. And in your case they are often confused because of the length of your life and the complexities of your memory. But tell me,’ he inquired, ‘you must also be wearied by the everyday business of living if your life is lived so slowly?’
‘I am ineffably bored by it, I must confess. It is hard to feel alive when life has no urgency.’
‘Then you must work. Perhaps write of your experiences so that you might preserve your memories and find meaning in them. For our task is surely to understand something of the riddles of the world and try to contribute to their solution.’
He rang the bell to send for my coat, for it seemed that the logic of our argument could proceed no further.
‘Although I do pity you,’ the Doctor consoled me, ‘I can only suggest that you continue to search for meaning.’
‘It seems pointless.’
‘You cannot lead a retrograde life. You must push forwards, taking your place in the development of our species, and then, perhaps, death will come. You must live all you can. Live and eat and love and suffer and hope to die.’
‘But I cannot seem to do these things as other men do,’ I said, putting on my coat.
‘No, I cannot. For it seems that I cannot love and I cannot die,’ I almost wailed.
The Doctor put a comforting arm around my shoulder.
‘Are you certain of that? Do you not feel older than you were?’
‘It’s so hard to know the truth of what I feel.’
Tears filled my eyes.
‘Perhaps you are simply destined to live your life at a different pace. You suffer, not so much from eternity, as from slowness. You live under a greater shadow than others do, but the end will surely come. It must.’
‘But what shall I do until then?’