Shaking the Tree
by David Brookes
Bored with the cats and the courtroom, she thinks again of Alex. She imagines him in his new suit; then in his jeans and favourite denim shirt; then naked and relaxed. She tries to catalogue the emotions she feels, dissecting her reactions to these images. She tries, but every time she thinks of something, her mind connects her to something else, like crossed phone lines or a bad hyperlink.
It’s getting dark already. A long day lies behind her: the courts, the trail of cats and their mysterious destination, and the intervening hours between then and now. She spent the time looking over some documents she brought home from work with her: blueprints for aircraft, spacecraft, stations and satellites. Her engineering department specialises in some spectacular things, but she couldn’t concentrate; she threw her papers from her desk in an uncharacteristic piece of drama, her frustration having gotten the better of her.
She is more comfortable outside, where I can see the sky, she thinks, where I can feel small.
Feeling small is the best way to realign herself. Most days she is a puzzle piece dislodged from the finished picture. It takes perspective and grim determination to click herself back into place.
I’m a tiny creature in a vast universe. No, we know better now: I’m a leaf on an ocean of knowledge. My memories, my experiences, my problems, are only a dewdrop on the leaf. By comparison, I’m nothing. I’m a raindrop shaken loose in a great storm.
Oh, Alex. Why did he have to choose that moment, that place, to do it? First, to trap her in a confined space, where all she wanted to do was get away; forcing her to do the opposite of what she wanted, which was to talk things out, to close things off neatly and carefully. As it was, she felt adrift and lost, as though flicked free of a dream but unable to readjust to the real world. In the twilight, she had no shadow and no clear path. The intervening space between worlds disoriented her horribly, leaving her sick in her stomach.
When looking over the blueprints didn’t work, she had taken herself to a restaurant. She Knew the best one, siphoning the information from the overwhelming layers of Knowledge that lay beneath space. The Knowledge was like a tower of mattresses; the thing that was bothering her was the pea at the very bottom, the pit in the peach.
I’ve got to sort this out.
I’ve got to call him.
He doesn’t even need to answer the phone. It blips, and stops after half a ring. That is enough; he Knows who it is, and why she wants to speak to him. He thinks he knows how the conversation will go, and wonders if it’s really worth meeting her.
The things we are... the things we do seem so small in face of all Knowledge. He feels like giving up, like going mad in the street and jumping up and down with his arms in the air, frustrated at the universe for turning things upside down for no reason, and furious with his race for setting that change in motion. We don’t deserve to Know all this. I’m not sure that we’re learning anything.
What the hell is Knowledge? The first answer to come to mind is “things that we know.” But what about “know”? Is this something that we’ve committed to memory? Alex claps his hands together in the cold, understanding the paisley swirls of invisible particles that the clap has initiated. But what about the things I don’t remember?
How many times has he been asked a question and thought, I know the answer to this. Knew, but couldn’t remember. What about written knowledge? He Knows for a fact that he could recite the Bible from beginning to end if he had to, from Genesis first and first to the final apocalyptic lines of Revelations. You cannot know something that is written in a book, not unless you have read it and memorised it.
A series of large vehicles rumble by: a bus, a truck, a long-distance lorry. The noise and vibrations make Alex look up and notice that he’s arrived at the restaurant. He crosses the street, Knowing that there is nothing coming in either direction. He steps onto the pavement on the other side and peers up at the illuminated sign above the door of the restaurant. Half, if not most of the bulbs have blown. The surviving twists of neon tubing hum a secret language. The sign hasn’t been broken long; the daytime manager of the restaurant has already arranged for it to be looked at.
Alex steps into the cool shade through the doorway, tugging off his worn jacket and draping it over his arm. Through a glass screen he sees Louise, sitting on the left side of a booth with her hands on the wood veneer of the table. A tall class of Coke bubbles between them, and Louise stares down the length of her straw, eyes unfocused.
The waitress takes his coat, forgoes the now-unnecessary ticket, and gets him a drink without having asked what he wants. The waitress Knew his preference.
He waves at Louise.
She sees me.
The conversation takes a while to build up steam. The darkness has already fallen outside, and a pale night-time shower ripples the windows. That too will blow over, like the blustery wind of the night before. The colours of the streetlights refract themselves in wavery lines on the glass beside them, something for Alex to focus on as he struggles to find the right words.
She says for him, ‘This wouldn’t have happened if the world was right.’
‘If it hadn’t gone wrong?’ he asks.
‘Mm. That’s what you think too, isn’t it?’
He nods, looking not at the rain on the window, but through the rain at nothing, just gazing blankly through the distorted reflections on the far side of the glass.
‘I don’t believe it’s going to work, now,’ he says. ‘We Know too much about each other.’
She pouts. ‘You can know too much about a person?’
‘Of course you can.’
The waitress is startled behind the bar as Louise throws up her arms and shouts, ‘People all across the world are breaking up right now! This is something we’re all going to have to get used to!’
‘Put your hands down.’ He plays with his drink. He doesn’t believe he can get accustomed to this, to this Knowledge of the world and its people, of the Universe. History is a closed book — who said that? They didn’t Know anything.
He says then, ‘We don’t need to know these things, Lou. For God’s sake, we can get on fine without knowing. I just want to live my life as I did before. That can’t happen now. Even if this thing goes away, what we Know will stick with us, won’t it? Might fade over the years, but the stuff that’s important — that’s important to us, I can’t forget that. I wish I could.’
‘Do you?’ she pushes. ‘Then you don’t want to know all about me?’
‘No, I don’t!’
‘So you only want to know the things about me that you like?’ she asks sharply.
‘Lou, that’s not it...’
He pushes his empty glass away. His hand moves too fast and the glass skids on its own perspiration, clinking noisily against Louise’s in the center of the table. The last chips of ice rattle around the straw in her Coke glass.
‘You don’t want to know everything about a person,’ he says. ‘People are despicable, Lou, they’re ugly. And there’s no way around it. We educate people, we try to coax them or threaten them but they just don’t learn. And this thing that’s happening to us is the ultimate education, and it’s burned away all our cover, leaving us exposed.’
‘The first thing we did,’ he says, ‘the moment we were all vulnerable, was to turn on each other. We call it a clearing out, getting rid of the people who did wrong to others or abused the system, but it’s a cull. We’re just getting rid of the things we don’t like. We could be learning from it, but we shouldn’t have this Knowledge and you know it. We all Know it now. We’ve been given a gift and we’ve used it to wreck everything we’ve spent centuries creating. What a waste.’
‘You’re angry. You went to your office today. A promotion? You didn’t get it.’
‘The last guy got sacked because the board Knew he hadn’t done anything useful in five years. They didn’t give me his position because they Knew that I wasn’t capable.’
‘So you’re angry at me?’
He sighs. When he looks at her, she sees stark pain and misery in his expression. He doesn’t try to hide it. She grabs his hand immediately.
‘We don’t need each other,’ he says.
‘I think that’s a lie.’
‘What do you Know?’
She purses her lips in mock indignation. He begins to feel a little lighter, but fights it.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m not happy. We can’t live like this.’
‘You can’t forgive me? People have forgiven worse,’ she points out.
He pulls his hand away.
She says, ‘It’ll go away eventually.’
‘I’ll still Know. And you’ll still Know about me.’
She sits back in the booth, tired-looking and heavy-eyed. ‘We need to make a decision. Either way.’
He leans over the table, head in his hands, and drags his fingers through his hair, over his scalp. He savours the sensation, almost, the tactility of his movement, smooth and rough, hair and fingernails.
Muffled, speaking to the table between his elbows, he says, ‘I don’t know what the answer is. I can’t see it.’
Copyright © 2010 by David Brookes