Going back

It was early in the morning. I stood on the metro platform and I was reading a newspaper, only vaguely aware of the people around me. A girl with abundant black hair and a green skirt. A man with an umbrella. Two boys in their school uniforms.
So absorbed was I in my paper, that I heard rather than saw that the metro had arrived. A voice over the intercom said something unintelligibly, first in Catalan, then in Spanish, but I didn’t pay attention to it. I heard the doors open and I stepped forward.
Then a guy jumped out of the metro and clashed right into me. I realised I stood right in front of the doors. Normally, I hate people who do that: blocking the exit way for passengers who come out of the train. They should all be shot, I think. “Fool!”, said the guy who had come out. “Sorry, ” I said, hiding my face behind the paper and then I was in the train and the doors had closed. The train quickly gathered speed.
Only then did I fold my paper and sat down. And only then did I realise that there was nobody in the train. Except for one girl, who sat right in front of me. She must have been about 10 years old and she looked strange. She wore a dress that was much too big for her, and also much too adult. Like a grandma dress.
Meanwhile, the train was still going faster, and it didn’t stop at the next station.
– “Hello,” I said to the girl.
She pointed with a finger to me: “You should not be here.”
– “Why?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
– “So, why are you here?”
– “I waited too long. And then it was too late.”
I didn’t understand. – “So, where are we going?”
– “Back,” she said. Just one word. Back.
– “But…,” I said…, moving my hand to imitate the movement of the train which was clearly going forward. But she shook her head and indicated her watch, an old-fashioned golden watch. The watch was so small that I couldn’t read the time but only saw a blur.
I started to wonder what was wrong with this girl. Maybe she was ill. Why was she here, all by herself? And where was everybody else? More stations had passed by and the train did not stop.
I looked at her. On a string around her neck hung a pair of reading spectacles. Strange.
– “So, when no passengers are allowed,” I said, “Why did the train stop at my station? Why did it let me in?”
– “It didn’t”
– “Yes, it did. The train stopped.”
– “Not to let you in. To let you out.”
I shook my head. Maybe the poor girl was crazy.
But the train was slowing down. Another station passed by. And then the train slowed down some more and the girl pointed to the doors. I looked around. The train had stopped at the station where I had gotten in. We must have gone around in a circle.
– “Get out,” she said. It was an order.
For some strange reason, I didn’t hesitate in obeying her. I jumped up and out of the train. Some stupid guy, reading a newspaper was standing on the platform, just outside the doors. People blocking the exit should all be shot, I think. I collided into him and called him a fool. “I’m sorry”, he said and got in. The doors closed and the train left.
I looked at the other passengers on the platform, waiting on the train. They were looking at me now. A girl with abundant black hair and a green skirt. A man with an umbrella. Two boys in their schooluniforms.


The Big Change

LandscapeThat day, at 8:10, as every day since years, the man appeared at the metro stop. As always he carried the same briefcase under his arm and he had the same look on his face. At about 8:17 the subway train arrived and he got in, as always in the second but last wagon. Since it is one of the earliest stations of the metro line, there are always enough seats free, so we can always sit. As always, the man sat down on the bench near the door where he got in.

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I am in the metro, therefore I am

We can assume I was in a metro train. Right from the start I felt suspicious. For one thing, because of the other passengers in the train. They already were a dead giveaway about what was going on. For one, all of us looked the same: indistinct, underweight, sexless creatures were we, hardly more than arms and legs – two of both – each sitting in elementary chairs and looking in the same forward direction.

Also, we started at station A. Too bloody obvious. Certainly, after a certain “x” amount of time, we would pass station B. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to deduce at what time we would arrive at station C.

But what really made me understood all (where I was, who I was and why) was when I saw the ping-pong table in our wagon. It could not have been more obvious. Two passengers, as sketchy and sexless as the rest of us started to play and since the train remained its constant velocity – not slowing down, not speeding up -, the game proceeded as it would have if the train had been at rest.

Next, I noticed huge clocks next to our heads indicating the local times. The train moved at high-speed and when I looked out of the window, I saw one long platform moving past. On the platform, on equidistant intervals (or so it seemed), identical looking characterless figures stood observing us, and all of them were looking at enormous stopwatches they carried with them.

Yes, then I understood and I was filled with sadness because I knew I was going to die soon.

We were all going to die, as soon as we would arrive at station C and the problem of our arrival time would have been correctly calculated while taking into account all kinematic laws (first Newton, then Einstein). And then, with a final flourish and a flourishing finale, the teacher in front of the class would erase the blackboard and us (the train, the passengers, the ping-pong table and me) out of existence.

There is a world going on underground

It was just another morning, and as usual, I took the metro. I found an empty seat somewhere, without looking around. The metro stations passed by while I was still dozing in a morning haze but after a while something started to disturb me. I opened my eyes and saw what it was: someone was staring at me.

Continue reading “There is a world going on underground”

Las Vegas, or: How to make a fool of yourself without dying in the attempt (4)

As a Ph.D student in physics, I went to a collaboration meeting in Boulder, Colorado in the U.S.A., and took an extra week off for driving around the neighbouring states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona,… I had rented a car which, like most American cars, had an automatic transmission which made it much easier to drive for hours on end without getting tired. At least, without getting tired of driving. I did get tired of the radio stations which in those places only played country music and sermons. In the end, in Flagstaff, Arizona, I bought two tapes, one of Bo Diddley and one of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and listened to those instead. Much better. And of course, if I say “Flagstaff Arizona”, Chuck Berry fans will already have thought of route 66, which indeed I drove on for a few miles although it is not really used as a main road anymore. Other things I remember: a Navajo guide in Monument Valley who asked me, being a physicist, to drop a nuclear bomb on Washington, bookstores that served tea, music shops that sold guns, and a tacky dancing where a married wife tried to hit on me but got stopped by her brother-in-law, and endless roads, endless roads, just like in the movies. And, of course, I remember Las Vegas.

Continue reading “Las Vegas, or: How to make a fool of yourself without dying in the attempt (4)”

How to make a fool of yourself without dying in the attempt (3)

I am not a great talker. I don’t really enjoy it. And I don’t see why people would make the talking process take longer than strictly necessary. Why say: ‘Yes, I agree with you’ if you can just as well say: ‘yes’? Or – indeed – why say anything at all, if you agree anyway? As you can imagine, meetings at work are a torture to me, telephone calls are life threatning and my choice to live in Spain (a country that lives for two things only: eating and speaking, preferably at the same time) was, in this respect, maybe not well thought through.

However, the problem existed also in the Netherlands, and to show it’s not only a matter of  being a grumpy old man, it existed as well when I was young.

I was about 14 years old and I was invited to the home of a friend. Actually, we were not really very good friends, and I am not sure we even liked each other much, but anyway, we were class mates and I was at his place, in his room. We were playing some very complicated board game, involving dice, ships and special bonus cards and it was my turn. I was thinking very hard about what was going on and then his mother came in with tea. She said: ‘hi’, and I answered: ‘hi’, and she said: ‘I have brought tea’ and we both said: ‘thank you’, and then I went back to the game, trying to figure out the rules and what I was supposed to do. Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, she kept on talking but I did not pay attention. Only when suddenly there fell a silence I looked up and saw on their faces that some kind of answer was expected from me. My thoughts were still elsewhere and I said: ‘Yes, goodbye’ and turned back to that bloody game again.

It was the embarrassed laugh of my class mate that told me that I had done something wrong. I looked up, suddenly blushing heavily but it was already too late. ‘Yes, goodbye!’ his mother snapped back and then went out of the room, closing the door with an exclamation mark. Unable to think of ways to fix the situation (apologize, jump out of the window) I just pretended it hadn’t happened and we went on playing the game.

I don’t remember how I got out of the house. If it hadn’t been on the 4th floor, I would have sworn I did jump out of the window.

(versión en español)

The Sentence

‘The only real pleasure of writing (and reading) is repetition,’ the Writer pondered. Repeating the same situation, the same idea with only slightly different words, is what makes writing (or reading) the most pleasurable. There is no greater pleasure than reading (or writing) the same thing over and over again, with only little changes in the wordings.

And, as a matter of fact, not even a change of words is necessary. Why not simply repeat the same sentence over and over again?

‘When I am famous and I can do whatever I well please, I will do that,’ the Great Writer mused. ‘I will write a book with the same sentence repeated over and over again.’ It would be a book with, over and over again, the same sentence. It should be a simple sentence. Nothing fancy. A simple sentence without any coy cleverness or fake fanciness.

The man took off his hat when he entered the shop… ” (The man clearly should wear a hat, to give it a touch of the archaic.)

“The man took off his hat when he entered the shop, greeted the shop girl, and asked for half a loaf of whole wheat bread, in slices.”

Maybe it could be “the smiling shop girl“, but that would be already pushing it, because why would she be smiling?

The book, about 278 pages long, would only contain that same sentence. Over and over again. What a pleasure would it be to write it! What a pleasure would it be to read it! Its title would be “The Sentence“. The Dutch translation would even be nicer because “De Zin” would mean “the sentence”, “the meaning”, “the sense” and “the desire”.

He would read the entire book, sentence after sentence and in the end would turn over the last page and read the last line: “The man took off his hat when he entered the shop, greeted the smiling shop girl, and asked for half a loaf of whole wheat bread, in slices.” And then he would close the book and then open it again and start all over right from the beginning. No other book would be necessary any longer.

It would be the book to end all books.