There was a bit of rain earlier, now the sky’s just half-clouded-over with tough little clouds whose rims are picked out in the sunlight. The sun itself has dropped from sight, disappeared behind the wooded hills, and the temperature’s fallen correspondingly. The water level in the river is high, a white foaming backwash forms at the steps, I can almost feel the power of the moving water as though it were flowing through me, a powerful, living stream. A hundred yards upstream, where the water plunges over the weir, the gurgle has made way for a loud, full-throated roar. Although roar isn’t quite right either, it’s a little imprecise in its many meanings and associations, what doesn’t roar, the river, the rain, the wind. The ether roars. Sounds of water—I should start a file on them, though I wonder where it would go in my system. Under Nature, Physics, or even Music? Sounds, smells, light phenomena, colors, there’s so much missing from my archive, so much that’s never been described, taken on, computed.
I walked along the path that follows the river up into the valley. Franziska has joined me, I don’t know where she’s sprung from, perhaps she was lured by the water, as was the case always for both of us.
Suddenly she’s walking by my side. She doesn’t say anything, she just smiles to me when I look over at her, a sort of roguish smile that I could never quite fathom, which is maybe why I love it so much in her. She nods, as though encouraging me to speak, to act. That causes her hair to tumble down across her face, and she brushes it back. I feel like reaching out and touching her neck, kissing it. I love you, I say. I reach for her hand, but there’s nothing there.
Sometimes she appears abruptly like that, without my so much as thinking about her, she accompanies me for a bit, and then she vanishes as quickly as she arrives, and I’m on my own.
How long have I been walking? Half an hour, an hour? Ahead of me, a black beetle is crossing the path, and I stop to watch it. I wonder what kind he is? There are hundreds of thousands of different insects, and I can hardly name a dozen: ladybirds, May and June bugs, cockroaches, woodlice, millipedes, grasshoppers, bees and wasps, ants, that’s about it. There are so many things I don’t know.
The milky shades of spring, with the stronger colors of summer already looming, the breeze, which isn’t cold, but isn’t warm yet, and makes me shiver a little, not cold, a sensation on the surface.
I took the footbridge and walked back on the other side of the river. The path here is wider and less frequented, in a few places the ground is soft, puddles have formed that reflect the electricity cables overhead and the clouds. As I approach the edge of town, the noises get a little louder.
The nameless path I’m walking, the little allotment gardens, some of them already dug in readiness for spring planting, others still in their winter sleep, and a few of them completely neglected, presumably not tended for years, and behind them the railway line, and a little behind that the highway. The roaring of the river, the roaring of the cars and trucks, a high whine, and then a different roaring that sounds metallic and rhythmic, a train just passing. How to itemize and categorize all that?
I’m tired from walking, I’m out of the habit, and so I stopped at a wooden bench below the weir. I sit by the river and am stunned by the fullness of the impressions that flood my senses. It’s the feeling of clarity and permeability that you get the first time you leave the house after a long illness, say, still a little woozy, but alert and with keen senses. I close my eyes, and the roaring seems to get louder, there’s more water in the river, it’s flowing quicker, it’s a muddy yellow. The rain is falling more gently now, before finally stopping altogether. I’m shivering in my trunks, with a towel round my shoulders. The cold gives me a keener sense of my body than usual, everything feels both terribly clear and terribly superficial. I have a sense of happiness that feels not much different from unhappiness.
I think about Franziska, who’s most likely at home, doing her homework or baking a cake, or doing whatever girls do. We walk part of the way home together. At the big crossing, where our ways part, we often stop and talk for a long time. I wonder what we talked about then? We never seemed to be short of subjects. Then one of us would notice the time and see it was late, and we were keeping our mothers waiting with lunch.
The way home, still with Franziska in my thoughts, her voice in my ear, her laughter, the things she would say and not say. Then the squeak of the garden gate, and the crunch of gravel in the noonday silence. The buzz of the extractor fan, the smells emanating from the kitchen, the sound of the pips through the open window, the one o’clock news, Mother’s voice, the clatter of a pan in the kitchen sink.
When there was no afternoon school and I was left to my own devices, I often thought about Franziska. Or rather, I didn’t think about her, she was just there, walking in the woods with me, watching me do whatever I was doing, sitting by the river beside me, throwing pebbles into the water as I was. She tickled my neck with a blade of grass, like a shy caress. Did you know it’s not possible to tickle yourself? she says, and runs the blade of grass across her cheek, and smiles at me.
Was I in love with Franziska? All the time at school, there was talk of this boy and that girl, or her and someone else, and these two are inseparable, but what did it mean? My feelings were much bigger and more bewildering than those of childish couples who were over as soon as they had begun. My feelings for Franziska overwhelmed me, when we were together I had the feeling I was in the middle of the world, and there were only the two of us and this moment in time; nothing and no one else, not school, not parents, not pals. But Franziska didn’t love me.
I rarely left home that winter, in fact I went out less and less in the time since I lost my job, and since my separation with Anita, which wasn’t really a separation as such. I gave up Anita, the same way as I gave up so many things in these past years, and with her maybe my last chance of leading a normal life, the sort of life you are expected to lead. But no one looked to me for anything anymore, and myself least of all, and so over time I became increasingly withdrawn. Some days I only ventured out of doors as far as the mailbox, or to the garden for a breath of fresh air. I do my grocery shopping in a local store once or twice a week, making a point of going at closing time, when I’m unlikely to run into other customers, then I buy one or two items. Each time, I’m grateful to the owner for greeting me as though I were a complete stranger. Whatever the shop doesn’t have I can get from catalogs or the Internet, I adore the unpopulated two-dimensional world of online shopping, the pictures of merchandise against a sterile-looking white background, front view, back view, side view, accessories, technical details, your shopping cart.
I go to the bank when I run out of cash, and to the barber when my hair gets too long. I can’t remember when I last went to the doctor, but it’s been a while.
I spend most of my time poring over the newspapers and magazines I subscribe to, cutting and pasting relevant articles, giving them codes and putting them in the appropriate files, the work I used to be paid for, and which I continue to carry out on my own behalf since my dismissal, because I don’t know what else I would do with my time. Even if everyone says the archive is no longer required and was an anachronism in an age of data banks and Internet searches. Why did my bosses have such a hard time then, letting me take the archive? The original decision to junk it was quickly made by some executive, one of those dynamic characters that people like me only got to see from a distance at the annual Christmas party. But when I suggested taking over the archive in its entirety, including the motile shelving, and storing it in my basement, at that the board got suspicious and wouldn’t give me a decision for weeks. My immediate boss came with all kinds
of objections, it was much too expensive, would my house be able to tolerate the weight of the files, would the fire department even permit such a quantity of paper to be stored in a private dwelling? I had more than enough money and promised to pay for the removal myself. My basement was spacious and had concrete floors that could easily cope with the weight. And the fire department seemed not even to understand what the problem might be. If you knew what people kept in their basements and attics, said the man on the telephone, and laughed. I thought his laugh had an unpleasant note, as though he was making me privy to a dirty secret.
Even after I had overcome my boss’s objections, it still took my superiors weeks before they finally agreed to put the paper archive in my hands. A complicated contract was drawn up, all about copyright and confidential information, and I agreed not to use the archive for any commercial purpose nor to sell it. I read the contract through several times word for word, I have always admired contracts, the tiny type, the thin paper, the structure of the paragraphs, and the strangely convoluted legal language that is supposed to anticipate any and all eventualities. I sometimes thought things only began to exist when they were the subject of contracts: a marriage, a job, a house purchase, an inheritance.
The signing of the document was the one and only time I met the board member in question, and I could tell he thought I was a nutcase, which only had the effect of making me still more determined.
People like that have never understood the true point of the archive, they only ever saw expenses, and divided them by the number of search orders, and realized it didn’t pay its way. But tell me, what does? The archive not only points to the world, it is a picture of the world and a world in and of its own. And unlike the world, it has an order, where everything has its appointed place, and can with a little practice be quickly found. That is the true point of the archive. To be there and make order.
The installation of the shelving in the basement was carried out by a specialized firm, which dug grooves in the concrete and laid down rails. The deafening sound of drilling filled the house, the dust penetrated the upstairs rooms, a fine mist that showed the rays of sunbeams, the white light of change.
At last the great day came when a van drew up outside my house, and, groaning and swearing, the movers lugged the crates of files into my basement. I was a little alarmed when I saw how many boxes there were, how much material was now mine, and my responsibility. The excitement of the building work and the removal was so great that it took me a few days to get back to normal. Then the installation of the files was like a slow healing process, restoring order, and finally knowing that everything was in its place.
It’s a source of joy every time, to find the right place for an event. A natural disaster, a celebrity divorce, a new public building, a plane crash, the current state of the weather, of anything, there is really nothing that doesn’t have a place in the system, or for which a place couldn’t be found. And when something is fitted into the hierarchy of subjects, it becomes understandable and governable. If everything is equal, the way it is in the Internet, then nothing has any value.
Files on current events, which are often completed and added to on a daily basis, lie on my desk or on the floor of my office; other items are stowed away in the shelving in the basement, until the moment when a subject comes bobbing up to the surface again, and with it its file.
To maintain the archive is a lot of work and calls for great care. A misfiled article is as good as lost forever. I am sure there must be hundreds of such orphaned texts lying in the wrong place. One day, I have determined, I will go through everything to fish them out and refile them in the correct place, but even in summer, in the so-called silly season when there isn’t much news, there isn’t the time for such a Herculean undertaking.
The amount of work I have to do may be a further reason why I leave the house less and less over time, and the few times I have done so, the more effort and resolve it cost me. In the immediate wake of my dismissal, it may have been embarrassment that kept me from going out in public. I didn’t want to be one of those wretched beings that you can tell from a distance are no longer needed for anything, so I stayed home and did my work for myself. Over time, I became habituated to this solitary existence, and by now it’s gotten so that I feel most at home in my four walls, in the house I grew up in, and to which I returned after my mother’s death. When I am outside, I feel uncertain and somehow compromised; at home I am shielded from the confusion of the continually changing world, which only disturbs me in my thoughts and memories, and my daily routines.