I turned up outside the Waldorf Meridien
Hotel in December 2000 in a dark suit with a soft blue shirt and a bright gold tie, and a
small suitcase that bumped off my ankles as I pulled it behind me on its little wheels. I
didn't know what I was doing there. The doorway was practically gold plated, and the
porters had this strange look on their faces which I interpreted as You might be
wearing a suit but you're not fooling anyone, you know. I was shown to the
conference room and left there to wait among the debris of half-constructed stands and the
clatter of coffee cups being stacked along a perfect white table. I read the conference
leaflet which listed the talks:
I wondered again how I'd ended
My colleagues soon arrived, and we
put up the stand and arranged the leaflets in attractive, multicoloured piles. We put the
Win a prize! scratch cards behind the complimentary pens, and I hooked up the
laptop to the plasma screen and started the ScreenCam demo. About half an hour later, when
I was sipping strong coffee and reading the newspaper, other people began to arrive. I
sighed, and put away my newspaper, and stood in front of the stand. For today, I was to be
Lunch came, and I wandered into Covent
Garden. I walked with my head slightly down, deep in thought. For some reason visiting
London always makes me very contemplative. On this occasion, I was wondering how other
people see me. I can be judgemental about people sometimes I see people wearing
suits, for example, with harassed, self-important expressions, and in my mind I categorize
them as one of that breed of people to which I never wanted to belong, ever since I was
young and saw my father's face fall and deaden with every late evening. He'd
arrive home and flop in front of the TV every night in his nice dark suit, trying out his
nice new expression, and he never spent any time with me any more. I hated his suit. He
was like a different person in it; it was the uniform of a lifestyle that was destroying
all the joy in him.
Or that's how I saw it. Now I found
myself sitting on a bench in Covent Garden, watching the street performers and wondering
if they were looking at me and thinking, I am different to you. Two years ago I was
living in a dirty, dark house in Leeds with four jugglers, smoking weed most nights and
sleeping in a freezing, dusty room. A year later I was living in a spiritual community,
meditating every day, living a lifestyle involving no drugs, sweeteners or stimulants of
any kind, and even a minimum of cooked food. A year later still, and now I was living in
Dublin, working as a software developer and wearing a nice dark suit, but who was I? Who
am I? Are we different, and if we are, where did we diverge? What can you point to when
you say, this is you and not me?
I stayed as quiet as I could while
the other people in suits laughed over their afternoon coffees in the hotel room with
moulded walls and chandeliers. I wrote a poem on a postcard showing a picture of James
Dean sitting in a race car and tried to mail it to my girlfriend, but all the post boxes in
central London were welded shut. I asked why when I got back to the hotel, and they said
Bomb threats. This was the Winter of 2000 they didn't mean Al
Qaeda. No one had even heard of Osama Bin Laden. They meant the IRA. I felt slightly
exposed, grinned awkwardly, and walked away. I never sent the postcard. Eventually I typed
the poem into my computer and put the postcard on my photo wall.
I was bored. I had to give a couple of
demonstrations of our software, which I dreaded because I felt like I had to put up this
big front, like bluffing in poker. I'd written part of the program, so I knew what a
piece of shit it was, but I had to give the impression when answering questions that it
was a professional, stable product, and I found it a great strain to try and maintain an
air of sincerity while doing this. I stopped short of actually lying, but I was definitely
guilty of misrepresentation. I could tell myself It might not be this good just yet,
but it will be soon, but I still felt like my job was basically to pull the wool
over peoples' eyes. Even worse, it seemed like I was good at it. People trusted me
when I spoke. My boss, Michael, said afterwards, "We'll have to bring you to
more of these conferences, Alan." I smiled, wondering how he, or any of these
people, saw me. After ten years of lying for a job, would I still look trustworthy?
I don't think so. Lying harms the psyche over time, just as truth heals it, over
time. Truth and time, and then it doesn't matter how anyone sees you.
After the conference Michael and I went to
get some food. and on the way we passed a small theatre which was showing a play called Copenhagen.
Michael had gotten it into his head that he wanted to go to the theatre, something about
London and culture and not missing out, so we bought tickets, even though I'm not
usually a big theatre fan. At the ticket office, a young man with greying hair and
intelligent spectacles asked us where we'd like to sit.
There's the gallery for £30,
the standard seats for £20, and the jury seats for £15.
Slightly puzzled, I asked about the jury seats, and he pointed to a map of the seat
The play is set up so that the players are performing in front of a
So the audience gets to be on the stage?
If you want, yes. There's no interaction, but you're on the
I couldn't believe it.
And those are the cheapest seats?"
Well, you have to be on time, and you can't leave to go to the toilet
while the play is running.
Michael was less enthusiastic than me.
I'd feel exposed, I wouldn't be able to fall asleep or
What do you want to go to the theatre for if you're planning to fall
We ate in Wagamama. Michael used
chopsticks like an Englishman, which is to say that he struggled manfully throughout the
meal against asking for a fork. Behind him flames billowed up from the woks, and the chefs
laughed as they talked and cooked our food. You can't make reservations at Wagamama,
and the story goes that Madonna had to wait in her limo while her bouncer queued for ramen
and raw fruit juice. It hardly matters any more if that was true or not. I watched Michael
eat, fascinated by the unconsciousness and awkwardness with which he shovelled food into
his mouth, using his fingers as much as his chopsticks. He finished well before I did, and
then sat looking slightly uncomfortable, glancing every now and then at his watch.
We filed into the jury seats five minutes
before the actors came out. Out of thirty high, varnished pine seats, hidden behind smooth
benches just like those of a real jury, only ten were filled. The rest of the theatre was
three-quarters full, so I could only assume that most people shared Michael's
feelings about exposure. I'd almost have paid to be there when the lights
dimmed and the actors emerged, it was instantly clear that I was a part of their drama,
and the atmosphere, for me, was one of immediacy and closeness. I shared the actors'
space. I was in the play.
Copenhagen takes place in the
mind's eye, a non-specific location, a little like an afterlife, or a white realm
between parallel universes, in which Niels Bohr and his wife, Margarethe, meet with their
old friend Werner Heisenberg, and relive their meetings together. They discuss their
intoxication with their research into the atom, and their fear and horror when war broke
out across Europe and they found they were being asked, by both sides, to design a bomb.
Bohr is the Tarot Emperor, secure and sure, pontificating and theorizing while the younger
Heisenberg frets and regrets. Bohr helped the Americans and Heisenberg helped the Nazis,
which makes Bohr 'good' and Heisenberg 'bad' - or does it? With
the help of Margarethe, they try to piece together their memories. What exactly did they
say to each other on that afternoon in 1941, when Heisenberg came to visit Bohr in
Denmark, and they fought, and never spoke to each other again?
I felt like I was being asked to puzzle
out the mystery with the characters. Did Heisenberg in fact deliberately fluff his
research for the Nazis, allowing the Allies to pull ahead in the race to develop an atomic
bomb? I knew that these people really existed, these things really happened. It might seem
terribly abstract - a play with three characters, two of them physicists who throw
theorems and terminology at each other as they argue, but it's so terribly important
these physicists were part of a chain of events that led to tens of thousands of
deaths, possibly prevented many hundreds of thousands more, and changed the face of human
The three actors orbited each other like
electrons around an invisible nucleus. They were drawn and repelled to each other at the
same time they would argue, and fight, but always return to the same orbit, the
same question. What happened? Can we remember? Can we justify our lives to this audience,
or even to ourselves? Did we do a bad or a good thing? We, the audience, the jury, had to
give meaning to their lives. We were their catharsis. We were the observers who changed
the event observed. I wondered how the audience saw me, if they noticed me at all in the
high jury seats, leaning forward over the rail with my chin resting on my hands, but I
soon forgot to wonder any more. It didn't matter what they saw.
My brain was buzzing when the lights
brightened again and Michael and I rose and shuffled with the crowd towards the exit
doors. The air outside was cold and crisp, not freezing, and our voices echoed distantly
from the high buildings.
Michael hadn't enjoyed it. He
wondered what it had all been about, all that strange science. "You'd need a
degree in physics to follow that script," he said, huddling into his long duffle coat
as we walked. We talked a little about it, and I tried to explain how I'd felt about
it. We crossed the Thames on our way to the train station. When I looked back from the
centre of the bridge I could see the massive, old stone hotels along the banks, their
floodlights gleaming on the pitch dark water. I could feel their weight and space in my
own mind, and all the space of the wide river and the starry sky.
I felt as if my mind had expanded to
include the whole world. No; actually, it wasn't that. My mind was gone, and I was
directly in contact with the world around me, without the separation that comes from
thinking about it. I was talking to Michael, with no effort, or any feeling that the words
were coming from me. I didn't know where the words were coming from. The flow of the
river was inside me. I was wide open, like the air. It was the same world as a minute
before, except that I could really, truly see it, feel it, taste it on my tongue. I was
disappeared, but I was the same as I had ever been. So ordinary; a fingertip touch on the
window of the infinite.
Boats were moving slowly on the water, and
their sounds and the sounds of traffic carried gently to us as we reached the other side.
Michael was telling me about work now, and I was half-listening, still remembering Bohr
and Heisenberg, Copenhagen, London, the unknowable past and future, and the luminous
present. Very simple: speak, walk, breathe, think, hear, see. Nothing special was
happening at all.
Michael's father met us at the
station, and drove us home. His name was Coilin, and he looked young and vigorous, his
hair darker and more lustrous than his son's even though his face was more deeply
lined and weathered. He made tea for us, and showed me how to work the television before
he went to bed. Michael sat quietly in the sofa while his father brought him a mug of hot
tea and some biscuits, strangely passive, like a young boy waiting for his dad to tell him
what to do. Their house was quiet and perfectly neat, a shrine of shampooed carpets and
Wedgwood ornaments and varnished hardwood chairs and floral print curtains, dominated by
an enormous digital television.
We watched television for a while with the
volume down low. The house was eerily silent. Michael fell asleep within five minutes, his
tie loosened, head back, mouth open. I started to feel relaxed, detached and alert, as I
always do when I'm in the room with a sleeping person. The television no longer held
any interest for me, and I switched it off and sat still for a few minutes, looking around
the room. There was a mantelpiece above the gas fireplace, upon which rested many family
pictures in tiny gold frames, china ornaments, and a neat gold carriage clock. Tiny blue
flames danced underneath the artificial coals of the fire, and to one side was a small set
of fireplace instruments tongs, an ash brush and shovel, and a poker, never used,
gleaming. In the centre of the adjoining room sat a large, perfectly clean pine dining
table and chairs, and against the wall there was a large display cabinet made of the same
wood. It held crystal glasses and bowls and vases, some childhood trophies, valuable
plates and silverware. The curtains hung perfectly, each fold an equal distance from the
two next to it.
Michael snored lightly, and I remembered
that this has been the feeling of my grandparents' house when I spent the night
there, years ago. Nothing ever changed there, and everything stayed in its allotted place,
moved only for cleaning. Houses like that usually drive me mad if I have to stay there for
long, because I'm a naturally messy person, but sometimes, in a certain mood, I can
feel totally at peace in a place like that where every single item has been
consciously chosen, placed, cleaned and aligned in its correct position. Everything in its
I picked up our plates and brought them
into the kitchen, which was as immaculate as the living room. Instead of leaving the
dishes in the sink as I might have done anywhere else, I washed them carefully, trying not
to make any noise, and left them on the draining board to dry. I was breathing slowly and
deeply. It was very clear to me that nothing unexpected was going to happen here. No one
was looking at me. No one was going to wake up and ask me to justify myself, and while I
was staying here I didn't need to worry about anything at all. I woke Michael, who
mumbled, looked around with slightly crazed eyes, and staggered up to bed leaving his
jacket and shoes on the sofa. I sat for a while longer, listening to the sounds of cars on
the road outside the estate, and then I went upstairs.
I folded my suit neatly and hung it from a
hook on the back of the bedroom door. I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, my toes curling
in the plush, soft bathroom mat. Even the safety razors were arranged symmetrically on the
glass shelf above the sink, and the mirrors were so spotless that I felt compelled to wipe
off my water splashes with a piece of toilet paper.
Sitting in bed and trying to meditate, I
began to realize how at peace I felt. I realized that for the last couple of hours, ever
since leaving the play with Michael, I had completely forgotten all the good and bad
things in my life. I'd forgotten to think about my girlfriend, and whether or not we were
breaking up. I'd forgotten to think about work, and how people saw me, and spiritual
life everything had gone. My mind drifted, and recent memories mingled with the here and now.
The actors and their voices. Boats on the water. Tea and television. The fireplace and the
furniture. Michael's sleepy breathing, and the gurgle of the bathroom taps. This
room, its feeling of safety and calm.
Nothing special was happening, and yet I
felt like I'd understood something important. I rummaged in my suitcase to find a
biro and the only paper I had: a copy of Viz magazine. I turned to the back, to an
advertisement for an X-Files DVD box which featured a woman with a shaved head, and the
banner: I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE 26 TIMES. I wrote this.
Life is very simple.
We all do what we truly want and need to do.
It all gets complicated by should, would, might.
It isn't deep or hidden, just immediate, present.
It is clear, available.
Meaning is based on paradox but not mystery. Paradox disturbs us but mystery heals
Is any of this 'true'?
Just awake, open, clear, honest.
Not an end-point. No fireworks. I haven't realized any thing. I'm just
feeling clear and simple, uncluttered, free and unthreatened, and I wanted to write some
of it down.
I sat for a little longer, and then
I put away the magazine and pen and sat in bed looking at the walls and the ceiling. There
was no sound, no hint of anything outside the room. There was no sense of anything to
come, or any particular feeling of who I was or what I wanted. It was just a moment like
any other, but I was noticing what a moment actually is.
It doesn't matter who we are. In this
moment, all our past has never happened. Everything is uncertain and mysterious; this is certain, and there is no mystery about it. I turned out the light and went to sleep.