All At Once One Thing And The Other

Harris Pax is already two drinks in when Jonni Sood arrives in a bluster.

You alright? – says Harris Pax, as Jonni throws his coat across the back of a seat.

Jonni Sood raises a hand to his friend, indicating that nothing will be said before a drink is in hand.

You alright? – says Harris Pax again, when Jonni is fully situated, drink in hand.

Jonni Sood takes a long swig of his drink, and visibly settles into his chair.

Alright? – says Harris Pax, a grin shaping his lips.

Mm. – says Jonni Sood, then – Just a bit of a weird walk down, is all.

Weird how? – asks Harris.

Oh, it… nothing. – Jonni looks at the barmaid across the pub. She is hot, by his reckoning, and suddenly the next thing coming out of his mouth not sounding insane seems politic.

Harris Pax looks along his companion’s sight line, to see the young woman with the drinks and the banter and the belly-button ring that shows whenever she reaches up to the too-high rack to grab a glass. By his reckoning, she is a good barmaid – fast, and pleasant, and not too swayed by the attention of the male patrons, or too oblivious to the female ones.

He is about to make a comment to this effect to Jonni Sood when he is slapped rightly on the shoulder.

“Alright, geez?” – says the new arrival, the voice snapping Jonni’s attention back to the table.

Harris Pax is surprised by the impact, but not at all perturbed by the man taking up an empty seat at their table.

Hello, Shifty – he says to the newcomer – wondered if you might be in town. “Geez”, though, really?

“Yeah, sorry,” – Shifty says, hand reaching out for Jonni’s pint glass – “been in The Smoke for a few months. Picked up some bad habits.”

Uh, – Jonni says, scooping his glass out of the way, disguising it as a bid for a sip – hello?

“Hello, mate,” – says Shifty, not skipping a beat, picking up a beermat instead, – “You are?”

Jonni? – says Jonni Sood, keeping hold of his glass.

Shifty flaps and flicks and flips the beermat against the side of a table, and other beermats, in an elaborate routine, as he speaks.

“So what’s occurin’, mate?” – He says, directed at Harris Pax.

The usual. – Harris Pax responds.

“Don’t mind if I do, me old sort!” – laughs Shifty, and Harris grimaces, embarrassed to be caught out. – “You got a tab open?”

Harris rolls his eyes, and shakes his head, and says – Go on, then. Get us another round while you’re up there.

Harris Pax and Jonni Sood watch Shifty flirt with the barmaid. Jonni turns to Harris.

Who the fuck is that bloke? – He says.

That’s Shifty.

Shifty? What sort of a name is Shifty? – Jonni says. – A bit dodgy, then?

Well, not really. A bit. Maybe. – Harris drains his glass in anticipation of the next one coming. – That’s not how he got his name, though. Not sure how that happened.

I think he might be a bit of a knob. – Jonni Sood considers and delivers.

Ah, he grows on you. He’s just a bit full-on at first, is all. Good heart, though.

“What’s occurin’, geez?” – Jonni mimics, with a head-waggle. – Nobody talks like that. Knob.

Well, he’ll probably drop that after a bit. – Harris Pax says. – He probably hasn’t really been in London, to be honest.

So he’s a liar? – Jonni almost sneers as he asks it.

He… doesn’t really lie, no. – Harris says, nodding at the now approaching beers, with Shifty attached.

 

An hour or so later, Harris Pax, Jonni Sood, and Shifty are more drinks down. It hasn’t gone without note to any of the parties present that Shifty has yet to put his hand in his pocket for anything smaller or crispier or janglier than his mobile phone.

Jonni feels less taut by now, because the guest at their table has turned out to be robust, if unreliable, company. There are stories…

“Yeah,” – says Shifty at one point – “I’ve been working as a chef in this little bistro in Covent Garden for the last year or so. Taking a pay-rise every few months, it’s going so well. Shagging the owner’s wife, n’all.”

But at a different point, he has spent the last year in Ayia Napa, DJing in a strip club and getting blow-jobs off the mostly Georgian strippers in his booth while the middle-aged male punters sit around watching the show, bored and oblivious.

In still another, he worked on a luxury cruise, giving art lessons to octogenarians, and working his way through the female staff.

The only thing consistent about the stories seems to be the character of the protagonist… truth or lie, Shifty is the persistent hero at the centre of each adventure, his knack for super-competence in the face of every role he’s placed in in an ongoing but precarious marriage with his penchant for exuberant irresponsible behaviour and for women he could get killed over.

Jonni Sood thinks about questioning each new iteration of the man’s history, but gets sidetracked by the enjoyment of each new story.

 

Later, though, as Shifty takes another stab at the barmaid, Jonni Sood and Harris Pax are left to talk, and they do.

It’s all bollocks, isn’t it? – Says Jonni Sood.

Well, it does sound like it, certainly, – says Harris Pax, a little more reserved in his judgement, – except that, well, he’s always been like this, even back when we first met, and the thing is, I’ve never known anyone catch him in a lie.

Hm, – ponders Jonni, brow furrowed, – he doesn’t sound like he’s lying, either, I suppose. But he must be. What, you can’t be in three places at once, can you?

Well, no, – says Harris, – I can’t. But I have wondered about Shifty. Anyway, – he says, sipping his drink, watching the barmaid giggle, – I reckon he believes it all, at least.

You reckon?

Yeah.

They sit in silence for a second, before Harris remembers something from earlier and soberer.

What shook you up so much before you got here, anyway? – He asks.

Oh, probably just my imagination, – Jonni says, dismissive, but the beer has loosened his hold on propriety, and he continues – just saw something weird, up on Bothways Lane.

Yeah?

Yeah… you know how it’s like a big elongated roundabout? With the big patch of grass in the middle, not big enough to let a dog run around off the lead, but not small enough to avoid stepping in dogshit?

Well, anyway, the bus from the Uni into town drops off on the side of the Lane that I walk in along, but the halls of residence are across the grass, and up one of the roads up there, so there are always little clusters of students risking the traffic and bunching up on the pavement, or strolling along in little groups of hipsters across the grass.

So, anyway, I’m used to this, and I don’t think anything of this one group as they cross the pavement and then the road a little head of me, except that… well, one of the girls was a bit cute, so I did keep an eye on them.

There were three lads, and two girls. And, well, this girl was really a bit cute, so I see if she’ll look back at me, so I’m watching them. And then there’s only two lads and no girls, right there, as I watch them. Then there’s three girls, and five lads. And then there’s no-one there at all.

Jonni Sood takes a deep swig of his pint, and looks across at Harris Pax, to see if there’s any indication on his friend’s face that he thinks Jonni has the mentals. So far, so good, so he carries on.

What I mean is, they kept vanishing and re-appearing, and then they went altogether. There wasn’t anyone else about, and the trees on that patch aren’t big enough to hide behind. I have… no idea where they went. They were well shy of the road on the other side, too, and I’d have seen them cross over there if they had.

Blimey. – Says Harris, but he isn’t as nonplussed as Jonni had anticipated. – That’s a bit weird.

It’s a bit weird. – Repeats Jonni Sood.

Don’t worry, though, – says Harris – stuff like that just happens when Shifty is in town. It’ll stop when he’s back off on his travels.

Eh? – says Jonni, the way one might type “WTF” in block capitals.

At which point Shifty returns, with more contradictory stories of his life, and the subject is dropped.

 

Until later on, when it is Shifty’s turn to tap Harris Pax’s tab up at the bar once again.

I have been trying to work out what you were on about earlier on, – says Jonni Sood – but what with trying to pick my way through Shifty’s wildly changing life-story, and the fact that it sounded a bit mental, I have come up empty.

Harris Pax smiles, then creases his brow, considering his next words. Then he smiles again.

I saw this video in the week, on the net, – Harris says – where this kid in a pushchair rolled down a station platform and fell on the tracks. Then this train pulled into the station, and went over him.

Christ, that’s horrible! – says Jonni Sood, aghast and confused.

No. Oh, no, it’s okay… the story explained that by some miracle, the kid was untouched by the train – Harris says, quickly – it’d gone right over him. Didn’t leave a mark on him, except a bit of dirt.

Blimey, – Jonni sighs, relieved, then – but still…

Yeah, I know. The thing is, the footage was taken from a security camera, so there’s no sound, and it’s all a bit grainy. And what you see is, this pushchair slowly edge toward the platform edge, then tip off. The mum’s there, and she doesn’t notice straight away, but then you see her twig, and she runs to the edge, but then she stops. You don’t know why right away, but it’s cos she’s seen the train. You can’t see the train yet, you see… it’s behind where the camera is.

This is fascinating, but… – begins Jonni Sood, then realises that those four words say everything he wanted to anyway.

Bear with me. – Harris Pax says.

So for a few seconds, you’re wondering why the hell nobody is doing anything to get this kid. For the viewer, there’s no train, but for the people there, it’s a different story.

And then, you see, the train rumbles in. And it seems to take forever. And this woman… She’s only a little dark smudge of a shape, because of the video quality, but you can see from the way she’s moving exactly what’s going on there. She’s as close to the train as you can get, and her shoulders are hunched, and her head rocking forward, and you just know she’s screaming and screaming and screaming.

Because, you see, her kid has just gone under a train. Her kid has just died, and the train keeps going.

But the kid survived. – Says Jonni Sood, and he only sounds half-certain, a creeping concern that his friend is going to change the story on him sifting in. – Right?

Oh, yeah. As a viewer, you know that before you even start the vid. It’s there in the news story. Plus, you know, you can be fairly certain the video wouldn’t be on a mainstream site if it actually had on camera death. Like if you saw a kid fall on their head on You’ve Been Framed, you can assume the kid doesn’t die, or slip into a coma, or something.

But for the woman, her reality for the time you’re watching to after the video ends is that she’s just lost her kid. In one of the most horribly violent ways possible. She doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight, or know that it all turns out okay.

And there’s another wrinkle, because, well, the thing is, that’s where the video ends. You don’t see the train pull away, or the kid reunited with it’s mum.

That’s a bit depressing. – Says Jonni Sood.

Yup. And my point is, we only know the kid survived because the story tells us so. I’m not preaching media-paranoia or anything, I’m saying: The kid is alive for us because we’ve been told that the kid didn’t die, but at the exact same moment on the video, he’s dead for his mum because, well, a train is rolling over him.

For us, it’s a shocking, amazing piece of footage, but at the same time as we’re watching, a person’s life just broke in half. And at the same time, she’s reunited with her kid, and so relieved that we can’t even imagine it.

In ten years time, the whole thing might even only seem like a story that they tell each other, just to remind themselves that it happened, because the details are hazy, and they’ve started filling in gaps.

What are you getting at, Harris? – Says Jonni, not impatient, but a little confused.

Well, that in that thirty second bit of film, there’s, what, five? Six? Seven different versions of reality happening at the same time, depending on your point of view, and depending on the context, and at which instant of the thing you’re experiencing.

Like “Rashomon”? – Says Jonni.

Like “Rashomon”, yes. Except that the way people always talk about that, it’s about different perspectives, and how different personalities see different things. But what it’s really about is that none of the people are lying, and none of the stories aren’t true. In real life, everyone can be telling the truth and the stories still not fit together, because what happens and happened is changing all the time, depending on what we know, or where we’re sitting.

But… – Starts Jonni.

But that can’t be right, because things normally go along in a straight line, and we generally work out what’s what without all that much fuss, right? – Says Harris.

Exactly. I mean, okay, the five people I saw, the formation they walked in might be open to interpretation or they might have walked that little bit faster or slower than I expected or whatever, but the numbers of them change? Or them just vanish? That’s a bit fucking beyond the pale, innit? – Jonni looks up as he says this, wondering where Shifty is in all this, and where he’s got to. – And what’s it got to do with Shifty?

Well, if the truth is normally a bit subjective, when Shifty’s about it gets damn near argumentative. Things tend to come apart when he’s around; it’s like all the things that could happen, do around him. I don’t mean the possibilities in any given night are endless, within the constraints of the time and space of that night. I mean it’s like he doesn’t have to make the choice between going to bed or going to an all-night club, or going down to junction 8 of the M1 and hitching to Leeds – somehow he manages to fit them all in.

What you were seeing wasn’t a confused version of those people walking across Bothways, or your mind making a definitive version of the pieces it was seeing. It was all of the possible things that could have been happening there, right at that moment in time. In some versions, those guys were still in the Uni library, or the Student Union. In another, different mates decided to go home at that time.

That’s… that actually just doesn’t make any sense. – Jonni says, still looking around for Shifty. – Does it?

Well, not much sense. Mind, when I met Shifty, we took a lot of drugs. Difficult to see now where the cause and effect of that was. At least, the weirdness seemed a bit easier to get to grips with back then.

Where is he, anyway? And where’s the barmaid? – says Jonni Sood, before adding – You know, normally your stories seem to pan out, but I’m calling bullshit on this one.

Well, the other possibility is you’re going mad, or got concussion at some point and didn’t notice it. – Says Harris Pax, draining his glass with a wry grin. – I mean, there are plenty of other ways he could have got that nickname.

Yeah, right. I’m going to the loo. – Says Jonni Sood, despondent. Then: – Hang on, where’s my drink gone? – And then: – And my fucking wallet?

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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