My parents and I are in our kitchen watching something when our Filipino cleaning-lady Marissa explodes and amid the shower of blood, which splatters the ceiling and floor, Marissa’s limbs hurtle and spin; bing, bang, boom. Her right arm whacks my mother’s face, her left arm clatters my father on the chin and her head knocks me in groin.
Groaning, on the floor, in pools of blood, I wonder: Did she somehow do it on purpose?
But that, I am afraid, is the least of my worries, our worries.
According to the media, we are ‘approaching the end of the Age of Anxiety.’
I wipe the blood from my face. ‘Father,’ I say, ‘maybe Marissa’s exploding has something to do with the end of the Age of Anxiety.’
He shakes his head. ‘No,’ he says. ‘No. You and your… symbols,’ he says.
Seeking answers, I visit the local church.
The priest, I forget his name, says, ‘I suppose it’s a possibility Marissa’s explosion has something to do with the end of the Age of Anxiety but then again anything’s possible these days don’t you think, considering?’ And he shuffles away, muttering, ‘The lights must never go out, the music must always play. The lights must never go out, the music must always play…’
In the University, deep in the Faculty of Science, over tumblers of brandy, the scientists hypothesise.
‘And had Marissa a temper?’
‘She could be stroppy,’ I say. ‘She was stroppy from time to time.’
One of the scientists smiles and says, ‘Well, of course, if Marissa had an explosive temper, did she have an explosive temper?’
‘I suppose you could say that,’ I say. ‘I suppose.’
He sits forward. ‘There is a theory,’ he says, ‘which proposes that the metaphorical can, in certain circumstances, manifest itself as an actual physical event, yes, ahem, so, you see…’ And he sits back, puffs from his tobacco pipe and swirls the brandy in his glass.
Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools.
‘Father,’ I say, ‘is the Age of Anxiety actually coming to an end?’
‘I should hope so…’
He’s watching images of an earthquake aftermath. Feeling vaguely responsible and somehow guilty I decide (decide?) to leave the room.
In cafes, offices and pubs, in houses, apartments and restaurants, in cars on motorways, in tents on the edge of town, people speak about the end of the Age of Anxiety:
‘What comes after anxiety?’
‘Or more anxiety?’
‘Deeper anxiety? Like fear maybe?’
‘Like after a humid day you have this big fucker of a thunderstorm? That kind of thing? Like that? Hm?’
Marissa’s explosion and spontaneous combustion has made the news. Social analysts and academics argue over interpretations. The Symbolists swear upon their mothers’ graves that the nature of Marissa’s death is without doubt an indication of the age that, flexing its muscles, will replace the Age of Anxiety.
‘This poor woman exploded. People explode when they are angry. After much anxiety and tension people often explode. After the Age of Anxiety? The age of…’
‘Anger,’ my father says, shaking his head. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he says. ‘Not for a minute.’
‘You don’t? You don’t believe it will be an Age of Anger?’
‘Marrisa’a explosion had nothing to do with the age that is to follow the Age of Anxiety,’ he says. ‘Marissa’s death wasn’t a symbol. Why must people varnish everything with symbols? Even the scientists. The scientists! For the love of…’
‘So what is to come then, father, after the Age of Anxiety?’
‘Son,’ he says. ‘Do you even know why we’ve been anxious?’
I shake my head. ‘I never really thought about it,’ I say.
‘Electric speed and the global mass media,’ he says, ‘heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree.’
‘But what is to follow, father?’
‘The Age of Sacrifice,’ he says. ‘It will be a difficult age, one of great restraint. Many will deny it. Many will choose to live in the past.’
On a stepladder, washing Marissa’s bloodstains from the ceiling, my mother nods accord.
‘What should we do?’ I say. ‘Is there anything we can do?’
‘Sit tight,’ my father says. ‘But first, we must attend Marissa’s cremation.’
Smoke ascends, becomes part of the clouds, and is inhaled, maybe, by flocks of birds, who know nothing about the end of the Age of Anxiety.
Marissa’s funeral is media-plagued. My personal space (the boundaries of which have been closing in of late) is invaded by lenses and microphones.
‘And are you concerned about what Marissa’s sudden explosion symbolises? Regarding the end of the Age of Anxiety? And the age that is to follow?’
My father sighs.
I grab the microphone. (Ever since all the speculation about the end of the Age of Anxiety, and the age that is to follow, I’ve become uncharacteristically impulsive.) ‘Fuck the media,’ I say. I hand the microphone back. ‘Broadcast that,’ I say. ‘Print that. Fuck the media.’
My father pats me on the shoulder.
‘Fuck the media.’
On the newspapers’ front pages the following morning the words FUCK THE MEDIA beside a photo of my face.
Numb, numb, numb…
I want a woman.
‘Father,’ I say, ‘I am going out.’
From above his glasses his peering eyes appear to ask: For what, son, for what?
‘To find a woman,’ I say.
‘Be careful,’ he says.
For three strange days and nights, getting drunk in the nightclubs, waking up in strange places, drinking milkshakes to soothe my head, my stomach, my addled mind, I search the city.
Wandering, I hear rumours.
I hear that nuns are no longer allowed enter cathedrals; cookbooks instead of food are given to the poor; clocks, watches and calendars are dumped, daily, on top of meditating Buddhist monks. I hear, too, that control of the zoo has been handed over to children; gunpowder is poured down volcano craters; Braille has been replaced by smooth surfaces. Molecules of oxygen and hydrogen, I am told, have been ordered to no longer associate with one another. And suicide is now promoted, as per government policy, on newspaper pages.
I am in a bar. Before me is a dimly lit stage, upon which stands a man with a harmonica. A woman enters the bar and sits at the table beside mine. Beside the musician is a stool, upon which is a glass of water. The woman is beautiful. Her eyes are brown and melancholy; her lips, the colour of blood. Immediately, I want her. The musician dips the harmonica into the water and shakes away the excess before lifting it to his lips. I glance again at the woman. The musician leans in toward the microphone. Gradually, unobtrusively, a melody emerges, notes emerge, flowing from the combination of harmonica and breath. One dim light shines upon the musician’s face. All else is dark.
The notes, incomprehensibly lonely, remind me of a train whistling through a valley at night; the loneliness of a man or woman, unbridgeable, untranslatable. The loneliness of Earth, floating alone.
I glance again at the woman; her face in profile, softly lit by the spill from the stage.
The musician takes the harmonica from his lips. He pulls his head back from the microphone and the light. The bar is silent but the notes linger in my ears, ringing out. I say nothing, can’t even applaud. In silence I sit listening to the internal echoing notes.
The woman at the next table stands up, approaches my table. ‘I recognise you,’ she says. ‘You knew Marissa, the woman who exploded.’
‘May I?’ she says.
‘Please,’ I say.
She sits. She seems preoccupied. ‘I saw your picture in the paper,’ she says, ‘beside the words FUCK THE MEDIA.’ She sighs. ‘I mean what are we to think when the media begins cursing itself. I mean I don’t know what to think anymore.’
‘I understand,’ I say. ‘I sympathise, I… I empathise.’
‘I want to have one thought,’ she says, ‘just one, one that I can say, hand on heart, hey, Melanie (Melanie’s my name by the way), hey, Melanie, that’s true, I believe in that thought, you know? Is that too much to ask?’
‘That music,’ I say, ‘the harmonica, it got me…’ I look down. I look up. ‘I don’t want to be alone, not now, particularly not now…’
She looks at me.
‘I want you,’ I say.
We take the train from the city to a satellite-town.
Above the rattling of wheels on track Melanie says she loves clothes. Especially dresses. Especially dresses with a hundred buttons down the back which take a man a long time to unbutton.
We book into a cheap hotel.
She stands with her back to me. I unbutton her dress. She counts. ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-nine…’
Chemicals and electricity swirl in my body and in Melanie’s body and all around the room.
‘One,’ she says – I ease out the final button, hold my breath – ‘hundred,’ she says. And her dress, falling to the floor, crumples up. And she steps out of that crumpled circle into my arms.
‘If this age is coming to a close we can no longer be apathetic,’ she says, ‘we can no longer be unconscious, mindless.’
‘But I want oblivion,’ I say.
‘Oh,’ she says, sadly, ‘me too. I want oblivion too.’ And she begins to unbuckle my belt, saying, ‘Oh it’s ironic don’t you think?’ Then she shakes her head. ‘But no,’ she says, ‘no, I don’t want to think anymore.’
‘Neither do I,’ I say.
We empty the mini-bar. Little glinting empty bottles of whiskey, rum, vodka, gin are strewn with our clothes about the floor across the end of the bed. Sunlight streams in between a gap in the curtains, illuminating the stem of her cigarette smoke, which flowers at the ceiling.
‘I didn’t like the Age of Anxiety,’ she says.
‘It wasn’t a popular age,’ I say.
‘But surely it has been easier than what is to come? The age of… Kiss me,’ she says.
I kiss her.
We are frightened.
I kiss her.