By the time you reach the end of this, someone, somewhere in the world, will have told a story.
There’s a little town in Amsterdam – I forget the name – with a long row of market stalls and a McDonalds and a few office blocks and convenience stores, and it looks identical to any number of towns in England. Oh, there are subtle differences – the Dutch look a little different from the English, for instance – but for the most part, identical.
It’d been a terrific holiday, without a doubt, but when I got back, I had to wonder: why there? I mean, I could have gone anywhere in the world, right? Anywhere in this country, for that matter – it’s a pretty big place. Could have gone up north, saw some old friends. The point is, would it have changed the whole experience? Would I have been worse off? Well, what if I’d have been better off?
It’s something that’s been on my mind a lot recently. I remember arriving early to class one day, sitting in the corner at the back, watching the rest of the students turn up. Then the chatter started, quiet at first, isolated, so you could pick out individual voices if you wanted to – but then it grew and grew until it was as if the class was operating as one, an indistinguishable mass with the same voices spoken in the same tones, the same words forming the same sentences. The teacher walked in and the static continued until she faced us all, ready to speak – then the room went silent in concert.
This went on for a while, but work was a little better. Good mix of people there – hell, good people in general – young, old, black, white, you name it. But that was work, you know? We were all wearing the same outfits and doing the same jobs in the same way. It was as if whatever personality we had was being, I don’t know, covered up by something. Hidden. Then when we got made redundant – me and my closest buddies there, incidentally – we went to a bar for a drink, all four of us, and it wasn’t like how it had been at work. We had nothing to say.
Well, eventually they moved up north, while I stayed down here. I thought at the time that my choice separated me from them, made me stand alone, stand apart, or something along those lines. But looking back, this wasn’t entirely true. I was hardly the only person in town staying where I was. In fact, their going up north probably separated them from the rest of us.
Then there was the Amnesty International society. In the Amnesty International society we talked about ourselves, people we liked, people we didn’t, clubbing, drinking, parties, bar crawls, relationships, sex, sports, music, video games, TV shows, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, YouTube, celebrities, clothes, tattoos, piercings, selfies and a stunted take on politics best described as malignant. It went on and on and on and it was the same thing every week. Never changed the whole time I was there.
Back then I had long black hair and wore a black shirt and black jacket and black jeans – I really liked those jeans – and even black socks and shoes. Sooner or later people started taking notice, and before I knew it they were calling me the Man in Black.
One afternoon we were supposed to be reading out the stories we’d written, only nobody actually wanted to, but then someone volunteered and the tutor motioned for him to start and he began his story with “By the time you reach the end of this, someone, somewhere in the world, will have told a story.”
My theory is this: the more people you meet, the more likely it is that those funny little quirks you once adored in your friends and lovers start to seem not quite so original after all. And it doesn’t change with time. The people around you, having grown older and established their place in the world, may now be less similar to each other than the teenagers you grew up with, but you still can’t tell the difference because by the time you’re older, whatever individuality they have means considerably less to you. That man you’ve been looking for all your life, with his ambitious drive and, yes, mature opinions, may have seemed like a godsend ten years ago, but now that you’re older, you don’t pay as much attention. Age cancels it out. You see?
What is it they say? “Original thought isn’t inherited – it’s learnt.” The point being that even the most original thought would have to stem from somewhere. Only now that I’ve said it, I’m wondering is it actually a quote, or have I just made it up?
When do we start wondering who we are? Who sets the standard? Somewhere along the line, I became a cynic, like my father. In my eyes, this was normal. But I’ve met only a few cynics in my life.
Well, it’s funny. Ever since the turn of the century – and I’m tempted to quote someone here, but I won’t take the risk – the young have been convinced that they’re pioneers, the pioneers, racing ahead to push limits and break boundaries like no one has ever done before. And then, when they’re forty or fifty, their children leapfrog over them, pushing their own limits and breaking their own boundaries, convinced that they’re the first generation to be going against the system, to be taking such risks.
We’re caught in a cycle, yet we confuse going through the motions with originality. We direct our ideas on innovation inwards, at ourselves, never stopping to look – really look – at others, never allowing ourselves to think that maybe it’s our own self that blends with the crowd, that forms part of an indistinguishable mass, that one day falls in line with a long row of gravestones, all different, but at a glance, identical.
But listen to me. I never used to tell a story like this.
Cameron Gaudina’s work has featured in Layers. They are currently working on a novella in the spirit of Clarice Lispector and Raduan Nassar.