‘My name’s Carl,’ he said. ‘With a “K”.’
I took a big swig of whisky. It burned. Karl with a K was crossing his right hand across his chest for me to shake. I did so, hesitantly.
‘Nice to meet you, Stan,’ he said, holding on for slightly too long, not meeting my gaze but instead staring ahead at the road which suddenly seemed to be moving at a fantastic speed. Then he turned to face me, still holding my hand. ‘Or should I call you Charlie?’
For the second time today, I pulled my hand away like I was fighting free of a coked-up zombie. The steering wheel jerked to the right in the process and the car briefly mounted the central reservation.
‘Easy, tiger!’ cried Karl, grinning maniacally as he took control of the vehicle.
‘What the fuck is going on?’ I demanded, recoiling slightly, suddenly sweating. ‘Who are you? How do you know all this stuff?' I was breathing heavily. 'Am I in any danger?’
‘Oh, don’t be such a ponce,’ he snapped, but with a smile. ‘You were always a bit of a soft-arse,’ he said. ‘You wear it well though. It works in your favour.’
‘What favour? What are you talking about?’
‘Eeeeeeeeeasy,’ he said. ‘Take it easy. You’re not in any danger and there’s nothing whatsoever to be afraid of. I promise you. OK? In actual fact, I'm just beginning to see, it’s all great. It couldn't be better. I don’t know how the fuck we got here, but I think it might work out really well.’
I sighed and tried to relax again. It seemed like a mere matter of minutes ago that I was in the very hand-hammock of sensory paradise. Now I didn’t know if I was coming or going. My brain was fizzing with the seemingly impossible nature of what I was having to attempt to deal with…
…I was sitting in a strange car with a strange man who claimed to know more about me than anyone alive, and then went some way to proving it by calling me by my real name.
In all my gauche moments over the last two and a half years, my real name was one of the few things I never managed to give away, anywhere. I could conceive of no way he could know it. My brain was gyrating.
It had started raining. I glanced from the wing mirror to the windscreen. It was probably about 20 per cent covered with tiny prisms of rain-water. I immediately became considerably more tense than I already was.
I hate not being in control of a motored vehicle in which I happen to be moving at around 85 miles an hour. How long would he leave it before he switched on the wipers? What was he waiting for, for God’s sake? This was my life he was playing with. I had to bite my tongue. ‘Turn them on, man!’ I wanted to scream. When it got to 75 per cent invisibility, I would say something. Ready. Now! ‘Do you think....’
He managed to flick on the wipers at the exact moment the first syllable came out of my mouth. I made a petulant noise, and was just about to cry, petulantly, ‘So? Don’t you think you owe me an explanation?’ when from his left hand on the steering wheel he lifted a finger – as if it had a paper mouse attached to it – and he said, ‘Hold on a sec. I know a place we can sit and chat. Nothing sinister. Just some underground car park.’
He pulled off the motorway. I looked out of the window and tried to see where we were, but I couldn’t see anything. I assumed that his joke about the underground car park was indeed a poor attempt at humour and not an insidious double-bluff. I forced myself to assume that I was not in any danger. At least not physical danger. What I did feel, however, was an epic sense of profound unease.
We drove across a roundabout and along a couple of dark suburban streets. I had no idea where we were, and I didn’t much care. It was just a place.
Then we were pulling into a car park that was maybe a quarter full. He drove into a far corner, slowly, and reversed up against a wall. ‘So we can see what’s coming,’ he said.
‘What are you expecting?’ I asked.
He switched off the windscreen wipers, and then the engine. ‘I really don’t know,’ he said. ‘Something though.’
The rain was coming heavy now, blatting onto the roof of the car like a tiny riot. Karl switched on the interior light and unfastened his seat belt. It was the first time I’d got a proper look at him.
He was about 40 years old. A small dirty-looking indentation on the bridge of his nose told me that he probably wore glasses most of the time. Maybe he took them off to drive. No. He was wearing contact lenses, the moist rims of which were also illuminated by the tiny stark light between us. He had short brown hair, greying at the temples and skinny, hairless arms.
‘Awwww,’ he said, resting a girlish elbow on the steering wheel. ‘You’re not ugly at all.’
I shook my head and sighed. I felt sad. And a little scared. ‘Please tell me what’s going on,’ I said.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘There’s something I need to tell you.’ He looked away and rubbed his eyes. ‘Oh, how I’ve dreaded this day.’
‘What the fuck?’ I cried. ‘Get on with it!’ A part of me – the fantasist perhaps – was almost beginning to get excited. It was thinking about those moments in books and films about special people, gifted people. There’s always a moment where someone tells them that they’re not like other children. No. They have super powers. Was this baldy-armed man actually my fairy godfather, about to grant me my all-time number one favourite self-centred fantasy wish and make me irresistible to women? He took a deep breath.
‘You don’t exist,’ he said.
‘What do you mean? I don’t exist. Of course I exist.’
I listened to the rain. It was heavy and loud and sinister. And wait – was that a timely creak of thunder off in the distance? What the fuck was he talking about, I didn't exist?
‘I said,’ I said, ‘“Of course I exist”.’
‘I know you did,’ he said. ‘But you don’t. I’m sorry. I suppose you exist up to a point.’ He pondered, then continued. ‘But only inasmuch as you’re still just a somewhat fictionalised version of me.’
I was shaking my head, squinting my eyes, almost beginning to smile. ‘Are you a looney?’ I asked.
‘I swear I’m telling you the truth,’ he said. ‘I made you up. I can’t believe you don’t know it, frankly. Even the fact that I’m sitting here talking to you is so idiotically unfeasible that I swear, I’m practically on the verge of believing in something. God maybe. Maybe even you.’
My God, I thought. ‘You are a looney,’ I said.
He laughed. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry it’s difficult for you to get your bulbous head around.’
'Oy!’ I snapped. ‘There’s no need to be rude.’ I hate that.
He held up his hands. ‘I apologise,’ he said. ‘I was out of line.’
‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘you're wrong. It’s not difficult for me to get my head around. It’s impossible for me to get my head around, and the reason it’s impossible for me to get my head around is that it actually is IMPOSSIBLE!’ That last word I screamed a little. ‘This is not a Woody Allen play, for fuck’s sake. You know? So, please, I’m really begging you, stop fucking about and tell me the truth.’
‘The truth,’ he said. ‘OK.’ He took the whisky from me and took a swig. ‘Your real name is Charlie Weaver. It’s actually the same name I gave to the central character in an unpublished novel I wrote years ago. It’s actually a bit crap I think, as names go. A bit obvious. It doesn’t matter though, ‘cause it was a pretty crap book.’ He took a breath.
‘You have a scar on your back from a boil which first came to fruition when you were fifteen. It’s in that place on your back that you can’t quite reach, the blind spot between both sets of fingers. It started small but grew to the size of a throbbing fist. Finally it erupted in a religious studies exam. You stood up slowly, trying not to attract attention, and, holding your blazer in your right hand, you walked from the exam hall with a surprisingly believable veneer of calm. Your shirt was already clinging to your torso because of your excessive sweating, but now of course your entire back was drenched with a fairly rancid concoction of blood and pus.' He paused and winced sympathetically. 'Occasionally the boil comes back.’
‘No!’ I cried. ‘No!’ I cried again. ‘How do you know about my boil? It isn’t possible!’
‘I gave you that boil!’ he yelled back at me. ‘That's how. I borrowed it from someone I used to work with years ago. You don't actually have a boil. Because you're not actually real.’
He was doing my head in. He was doing a brilliant number on my brain, Derren Browning my mental gravy into oblivion and I had no idea how he was managing it. But I did know one thing: I knew I existed. It was time to put a stop to this with cold, hard logic.
‘OK, so,’ I began. ‘I don’t exist. Right? I’m not here.’
‘I never said you weren’t here,’ he interrupted.
‘Oh, come on!’ I cried. ‘You can’t have your cake and eat the fucker! Either I exist or I don’t.’
‘OK, OK,’ he said. And again with the raised hands, as if he feared I was going to pop him one.
‘So I don’t exist,’ I resumed. ‘So what about the last 10 hours or so? What about standing by a road and having orange peel chucked at my head? What about Polio Peter and his happy finish baguette? Does he not exist either? What about Vic and his tit-rolls? Did you make him up too? Eh, God-boy? You narcissistic freak, you.’
‘Those were things that happened to me when I was in my early twenties,’ he replied. ‘When I used to hitch a lot. It was a tenner for a tit-roll in those days too. That’s inflation for ya.’
‘Don’t make jokes!’ I cried, upset. ‘What the fuck?’
He laughed. ‘Look, most of your life is just stuff that happened to me at one time or another,’ he said, smugly, ‘or to my family or friends. I'm sorry and everything, but you’re going to have to deal with it sooner or later.’
I was getting angry now. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll believe you if you can answer me one more question.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said.
‘If I don’t exist,’ I asked, ‘What’s causing that terrible pain in your head?’
Before he could respond, I punched him as hard as I could in the face. Although it was my left hand, it was quite a slug and I felt his nose shift under the sudden pressure.
He cried out and covered his face with his hands. ‘You fucker!’ he cried. ‘You absolute shit! What the fuck did you do that for?’
I sat back against the car door and smiled, slightly self-satisfied, slightly afraid of retaliation. ‘Well, it's a fair question,’ I said. ‘How can a man who doesn’t exist smack some fucker in the mush?’
He held his face in a nest of his hands over the steering wheel. ‘Jesus!’ he shouted. ‘It’s really throbbing.’
Suddenly, I snapped. ‘Alright, I’ve had enough of this. I’m either getting out here and going back to the motorway, or you’re going to tell me what’s really going on.’
‘I’ve told you!’ he whined.
‘Alright, fuck that. Until you can explain how I managed to punch you in the face, if not by the pure force of my very existence, then I don’t want to hear another word about it. And if you don’t want to take me to Sunderland, then tell me now and I’ll make alternative arrangements.’
He was dabbing at his nose with a piece of tissue. There was blood. Huffily, and with a series of pain sounds, he stuffed twists of the tissue into his nostrils to stanch any flow. Then he started the car and drove off. As he did all this – and melodramatically – he gave the following little speech:
‘Fine, fine, fine. Fine. I’ll take you to Sunderland, and when I drop you off, that's it. I never want to see you again. That’s you and me finished. As it happens, I don’t know why you’re here. I know I wrote you down because I did. I was there. But I don’t know how you’ve managed to become independent of me. That’s got me pretty fucking stumped actually. If you want to know the truth. I was thinking maybe parallel universes or something. Or maybe a wrinkle in the space-time continuum. But then I’m no scientist. Even so, despite all that, I was prepared to run with it. You know? I was prepared to dig in and try to make the best of it. I was even imagining introducing you to my mum and my sisters. I was imagining the conversations, and the laughter, and it was beautiful. You know? It was like a fucking Christmas film. And what did you do? You punched me in the fucking face! I can’t believe you did that. I… That’s not how I wrote you. I made you placid and nice. Or at least I tried. Obviously I’ve failed you. And this is how you repay me. Well, to hell with you. I don’t forgive that shit. Not that. I’ll drop you off in Sunderland and you can carry on with your so-called life without me. See how far you get. Violent motherfucker. Oh – and you don’t want to hear another word about the fact that you don't exist, do you not? Fine. Suits me....’
By which time we were pulling back onto the road. Onto the motorway. I thought again of Jack Kerouac.
I only realised I’d fallen asleep once I’d woken up, maybe an hour later, just as we were passing a sign that said that Sunderland was 27 miles away.
Thank fuck for that.
It had all been a dream.
Tomorrow: The End of the Road
Saturday, 29 May 2010
‘My name’s Carl,’ he said. ‘With a “K”.’
Posted by La Bête at 08:00