Peter van Straten Art by Peter van Straten

The Fool’s Largess

“Oh yes,” I say “it’s a lovely day. There’s no question about it. If you look over there,” I point, and continue: “you can see a boat coming into harbour. It is an unattractive boat, nothing more than a common little fishing vessel, I’ll give you that, but the mere idea that it is a boat, coming into a harbour, is attractive, wouldn’t you agree? And it’s on the sea isn’t it? The sea which in all its sunlit radiance, gives not the slightest indication that it might be in trouble. And look over there to the left: a group of small children and their teacher, walking in single file along the pier. Look there! One darts out of line to chase away a seagull! And over there, on that bench over there – an old woman in a winter coat with a pink, woolen beanie on her head, eating fish and chips from greasy newspaper on her lap! This is the very definition of a day! Are you listening?” I glance to my right. I look at Eddie, beside me on this bench, dressed in his own coat and beanie. What a moron he is. What a perfect symbol of man I think. Unquestioning, amazed by nothing.

“A few clouds,” I continue, “like back-lit bits of cotton wool, float lazily across the azure sky. So why is it then, dear Edward, that I feel like killing myself? Right here, right now?”

He says nothing, doesn’t even look at me.

“It’s chemical you say? But I’m not in the least unhappy. In fact I’ve never felt happier. I mean it! Yet intellectually, my dear little Eddie, I simply cannot accept this day. I say: ‘no!’ I say: ‘sure, you’re a nice day, a beautiful day, a magnificent day even, but I reject you, because you mock me by revealing yourself to me like this. Because you are not of my choosing! Because I merely woke up, and there you were.’ Of all the infinity of experiences I could be having anywhere within the vastness of all that is, I am having this particular experience. And that is so unnerving my dear Edward, that I feel a sudden urge to stop it all, to make it go away. Because only by making it stop would I feel that I was acting out of free will!”

Eddie says nothing, he doesn’t even look at me, his eyes are locked on the sea.

“Eddie, my friend,” I continue, “you are not the brightest crayon in the box, but if there’s even one little part of what I am saying that makes sense to you, raise your right hand.”

He turns his head to bestow on me a weary, contemptuous stare, then looks back at the sea.

“OK,” I say, “just one finger Eddie. Lift just one pinky finger of either hand if anything I’m saying makes any sense.”

He doesn’t move.

Framed by the railings that fence the promenade I watch a toddler on the beach below as he starts jumping on his sand castle. When it’s thoroughly destroyed he stops, kneels, and starts filling his bucket again.

“Oh Eddie,” I sigh dramatically, “what’s to be done with you?” Despite the fact that he once punched me in the face for pestering him like this, I can’t help but adding just a hint of the ‘tired mother’ to my voice.

“Your silence sings the greatest mystery of them all Eddie: not why we’re here, but why we accept being here, as if nothing could be further from weird. Well, let me tell you: it is weird. Man’s existence,” I continue, in my sing-song professor’s voice, “is an anomaly, not to mention nature…”

“I don’t understand you,” replies Eddie suddenly, elbows on his knees, leaning towards the sea. “One minute you’re happy to be alive, the next you’re not… You are-”

“It’s not about happiness Eddie, you freaking moron. Its about the holy grail!” I scream back, standing up. “Its about a fucking reason for being! I’m happy all the time! I’m the happiest person I know. I swear it on my mother’s grave, but that’s no reason for being. I’m sorry, I just can’t do anything for no reason, including living.”

I slowly sit down again, without taking my eyes off him.

Eddie stares at the sea.

“When is the last time you did something for no reason?” I ask.

Eddie says nothing, he’s gone again.

“You see!” I continue bravely, “you can’t remember. Because you’re always doing things for very specific reasons, however misconceived. It is in fact very, very uncommon indeed for people to do anything without a specific reason. Not even the mentally ill do things for no reason. So how can we live then for no reason?

I’m getting very excited. Personally, I am understanding everything I’m saying.

“You see?” I say, my voice triumphant.

Eddie leans back against the bench and looks at me. He’s starting to get really angry, quiet angry.

“If you are so clever,” he says slowly, “then why can’t you invent a reason for being? Seeing as you want one so badly?” He looks at me for a few more seconds, then turns contemptuously back to the sea.

I think about it. He’s right! It had never occurred to me one might be so brazenly -almost blasphemously! – practical about it.

“My god,” I say slowly, my excitement notched up to a whole new level. “For an idiot you are a complete fucking genius!”

He snorts.

Suddenly everything looks different to me. I notice an entirely different category of things. I see that one of the seagulls that’s hanging around the old woman’s bench has only one foot. I notice that the mother of the little boy on the beach, tanning on her belly, has undone the string of her bikini top. I notice that the Eddie has just provided the most pragmatic solution to the mystery of existence I have ever heard, and he’s not the slightest bit proud of himself. I stare drunkenly at my new world, grinning like an idiot.

Egg returns with our chips. Eddie shuffles over without taking his hands out of his pockets, and Egg sits between us. She’s warm, and I lean against her. She kisses me on the cheek.

“Our friend over here,” says Eddie, watching the old woman, “wants to kill himself.” Meg the Egg looks at me, waiting for confirmation.

“It’s a basic human right,” I defend myself, “or at least it would be if I was in charge. Throughout the world and throughout the ages,” I tell her, taking an oily steaming chip, “people have been looking for the solution to man’s suffering, and I’ve found it: Suicide. Lots of it.”

“Ith murther,” says Egg, chip in mouth. “Murhter motht foul.”

I can’t help but laugh at her. She’s a tonic.

“You’d be murdering my boyfriend,” she says once she’s got the better of the chip. “In fact you should go to jail already, for planning to murder someone. Conspiracy to murder. We could turn you in right now, then there’d be more chips for us.”

This is the sort of drivel I love from my dear old Egg. I take a chip. She makes it almost impossible to stick to the main theme, and I love a challenge. But it still upsets me that neither of these two are taking me seriously: Not about my urge to kill myself, that’s just lazy semantics, but about the concepts underpinning the logical urge. These people, I muse darkly, feeling at one with the sea, have no theoretical sensibility

We’re quiet for a while.

We eat chips

The sun shines on the sea.

A woman walks by behind a dog.

“So how will you do it?” asks Egg after a while, looking at me. I’m amazed by her focus.

“Maybe,” I say, smiling, and taking her hand, “you could screw me to death.”

“You wish!” she laughs. “That’s disgusting,” she says, as an afterthought, extracting a chip from a lump of others.

I lean forward and turn my head to look at these two friends of mine, and realize there’s no point in pursuing such an important topic with these young people.

Like everyone else I have ever met, they cannot sustain any prolonged interest in theory. Like everyone else they regard theory as separate from reality, like a hobby.

I survey them seriously, but they both just smile at me with greasy lips. The greasy lips I decide, of the doggedly unconvertable.

I am not up to the task, I realize, of trying to awaken an interest in matters of life and death in two such chip eaters.

I stand up.

“Where are you going?” asks Egg.

I ignore her, and walk across the grass to the bench where the old woman sits.

“Excuse me,” I say in my nicest – this society makes perfect sense to me – voice, “but I’d like to talk to you about an important matter, and my two friends over there,” I turn in the direction of their bench, where the two sit watching me with some amusement, “are not very helpful.”

“Certainly,” smiles the old woman. She moves her handbag towards her, making space for me on the bench.

“I’m me,” I say, reaching out my hand.

“And I’m me,” she replies, laughing like sunshine.

We shake hands, and her eyes actually twinkle! I can’t remember when last – if ever – I’ve actually seen someone’s eyes twinkle.

“The thing is,” I start, “that despite an almost heightened awareness of what a magnificent day it is, I feel an overwhelming desire to kill myself. For theoretical reasons.”

I look at her. Her eyes are not twinkling anymore.

“And my two friends,” I continue, trying to remain undaunted, “don’t take me seriously at all.”

She stares at me, her eyes suddenly quite severe.

“Why should they take you seriously!” she bursts out suddenly. “Of all the selfish, self indulgent nonsense…” She keeps her eyes locked on mine. “My son Denny killed himself,” she tells me, straightening her back, “and I haven’t had a moment’s peace since.”

“Was he depressed?” I ask

“How should I know,” she replies, her voice rising an octave. ”I’m his mother for Lord’s sake. Always the last to know… But I’ve been depressed ever since,” she nods, “that much I can tell you.”

“But what do you live for then,” I ask, hoping for a gap.

“You know you really are not very bright.”

We both think about this for a while.

“One lives for others,” she concludes, assessing me seriously.

Seagulls have started amassing around our bench. The other me has lost interest in her food, and starts throwing chips at the gulls, who fight over them. The hapless potato, murdered for a second time. How could it ever have guessed that it would come to this: skinned, cut up, bagged, frozen, defrosted, fried, wrapped in the day’s paper, then eaten by an old woman on a bench, and finally torn to shreds by fighting seagulls.


I wait quietly until she has finished sharing the last of her food. My two friends ,I notice, are still watching us. When the last scraps are gone, she crumples up the greasy paper and throws it into the bin next to our bench. By and by the seagulls lose interest in us and fly off – towards the pier. I look at her face, waiting.

“One serves others. That’s all. If not to bring them joy,” she sniffs, “then at least so as not to bring them sorrow – by… dying.” She wipes her hands on a hanky from her bag. “It’s a fool who doesn’t know he’s loved,” she finishes, glancing stiffly at me.

I look away. I think about what she has said, and at first, I’ll confess (perhaps the sea is hypnotizing me) it seems true. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like pure drivel!

“No!” I shout, with sudden certainty, glaring at her. “Serve a double fault! Serve a summons. Serve Brussel sprouts if you have to! But serve others!? Bloody hell! It’s pure cowardice, that’s all. A substitute for customized purpose. It’s tinned morality,” I scream. “A refuge for those who just couldn’t work it out! Jesus, you’ve learned nothing! No wonder Denny opted out! I commend young Denny for his bravery!” Her eyes are definitely no longer twinkling. “He should have got a medal! People go to the moon, and they get a medal. People go to death, a far braver exploit, and what do they get?”

She stares at me, her mouth hanging open, and I stare right back. I feel my eyebrows rise.

“If human beings were normal, if human beings did things for reasons – they’d kill themselves in their droves, by the bus-load, every hour, every minute.”

She picks up her bag and stands.

“They live in their shacks,” I continue mercilessly, my voice shrill and insane even to my own ears, “in filth and squalor, or they sit for hours in traffic to get to jobs they loathe, and they just keep on going, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, and all for no reason!”

I expect her to leave but she stays right where she is, looking down at me, her face flushed red with outrage and contempt beneath the pink beanie.

“And do you know what keeps them there? Do you know what their cage is made of?” I ask as she starts to turn away.

“Hope!” I shout after her.

“Blind, dumb, hopeless HOPE!” I shout at her diminishing back. But instead of walking towards the shops and flat-blocks, as I’d expected, she heads straight for the bench where Egg and Eddie sit.

I watch her, amazed. She introduces herself, then sits!

And there they sit then, the three of them, watching me. A most comic triplet. But not funny “ha-ha.”

“Issues,” I whisper, are at stake here. “Principals.” But what next, I wonder, looking at them. They’re talking now, nodding in unison, and watching me. Wild action is required. I decide to test them.

Leaping suddenly from the bench, I run towards the sea, over the grass, scattering birds, tripping on the pavement edge and very nearly falling. Then over the promenade railing, over the sand I run, and straight into the waves! The first one I clear with a wild jump, shoes heavy with sand, the second trips me up, and I crash headlong into the third. I rise up – DEMENTED JOYMONSTER – from the restless shallows. I flop soggily onto my back, and lie there, my clothes like sea weed about me.

I watch the railing – nothing. The bastards! I am a fool, but I have their attention, I know I do, and with the fool’s largess I have given them this moment.

A gift.

I smile, and in my luxury I stretch out my arms. I watch the sky and my smile widens. I am even happier than I was an hour ago, and held by the sea, as safe as irony, I bide my time.

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