It was one of those conversations. The kind that packs enough fuel for the musings of a life time. It began in the restless banality of a Sainsbury’s check out line in the heart of Camden Town. I had just landed from Delhi. I was back for a brief visit after a one-year experiment of reintegration into my country of origin after a 26 year absence had failed spectacularly—I could not then, and am even less able to now, call England my “home”. I would be back in Mother India in less than three weeks, but I already felt nervy, as if undercover jailers walked the streets—I could almost hear the jostling of keys—scanning supermarket aisles for escapees like me.
The checker was tapping away at a stubborn till key with a crimson talon.
“Roxanne! I need assistance here!”
The pot-bellied hipster behind me grumbled a fat crumb of sarcasm into his beard. Roxanne arrived. Squat, square-jawed and rosacea-faced. She didn’t look much of a Roxanne. More of a Linda or a Debbie. But a penny-sized tattoo of a sleeping fox below her right ear was a wink of Roxannyness.
“What’s the problem?”
“The call button doesn’t work.”
“Okay, but what was the problem before that?”
“It just went blank. I dunno what’s wrong.”
“Did you void it?”
“Turn it on and off” the beard offered with a self-satisfied snort, “Always works with the telly.”
I was used to machines going haywire in my proximity. One of the reasons I didn’t wear a watch. That and not putting much store in time. Cashier tills were the most aggravating manifestation, as it involved the cardinal English sin of holding up a queue.
“There’s that woman with the wonky magnetic field,” they must be thinking.
I was sent to another line where a lanky European girl was opening up the register. No one followed me, because no sooner had I moved away than I heard the ding of the opening till drawer, Roxanne’s exasperated “Look, it’s fine!” and the crimson talon return to business.
I put my Greek yoghurt and three Mars Bars down on the counter and waited. But the cashier just stared at me. I thought her eyes an unusual pale of blue. Her hair gripped into a tight ponytail all the way down to her coccyx. I didn’t hear the first words she said, partly because they were shrouded in a heavy German accent, and partly, well, because what she said was so odd. Something about “the void”. I thought she meant the cash register. While I waited for her to call Roxanne over, she repeated herself with precise deliberation like I was a deaf two-year old.
“You’re looking for the void.”
“I am?” still thinking maybe she was talking about cash registers.
“Most people they would do anything to keep away from the void, but not you. For you, the void is all you want.”
Okay. She wasn’t talking about cash registers. Now, I should mention that I’m no stranger to recondite conversation openers such as this. People just seem to think they can rock up to me in the street and unload about a break up, their dying Spaniel, their latest philosophical insights, anything at all. But I can recall only three instances where the subject of the matter was “me” as opposed to “they”. One is too private to share, even with protected identities. The last two also took place in London, where in the space of one week in June 2014, two ladies—one Jamaican the other Korean—had asked, “Are you okay, darling?” I hadn’t been. Not even close to it. And I recall fighting back tears that two complete strangers had not only noticed I wasn’t, but had cared enough to ask. Of course, I’d told them I was fine, under their gentle knowing better gaze. But today, I was fine, in the sense that I had become much more adjusted to my lifelong condition of rampant mythologizing (or “exaggerating” as my teachers had called it) where everything was five times taller and ten times wider than the measurements everyone else seemed to be taking. The worst of it meant the shadows cast giant-sized demons; the best of it meant the light cast behemoths of loveliness. I was falling in love all over again with the goalless meanderings that I had the audacity to call a journey.
Back in the UK, during that ill-fated year, I had almost succumbed to the insidious propaganda that hurled suspicion, disdain and hostility at my chosen life. But I had shook myself awake from that dream, the one where I stood half-drowning in a sea of waving anemone-fingers, accused of the crime of dreaming as if it amounted to high treason. Had begun to hang my head, even as the eyes of my most energetic prosecutors, when they looked at me, became windows into the never-healing wounds of their own thwarted missions to the stars. And though that trial was history now and I had returned to my magical walkabout, I had somehow remained uncommitted to the stark demands of freedom beyond the matrix. I found myself on occasion still chewing on half a crumpled plan to settle down and try my hand at a “normal” life, even though the very thought sent my body, in its own visceral wisdom, into adrenal overdrive and head to toe nausea.
“You’ll never fit in here,” the German girl continued, as if hearing my thoughts. “It’s not your path. You should give up now. You’re going to travel far, speak to many wise people, and learn many things. You will grow old happily and you will know exactly why you are here. In this life.”
I began to wonder if I was on a hidden camera reality show, and eyed up the CCTV just in case, to let them know I was onto them.
“You may have a bit of trouble in the Middle East, but you’ll survive.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” I said, not convinced it was. I figured I should just jump in and take this at face value. I could dismiss it all later as the creative diversion of a bored under-achieving immigrant with a talent for pranking. But what if she was the real deal? I couldn’t help myself.
“What about money, relationships? Do you see any of that?”
Both accounts were running low, but the question sounded silly even as I asked it. She closed her eyes momentarily, as an unexplained waft of strawberry ice cream hit my nostrils. If an expression could say, “Meh,” hers was it.
“Give up this thought of normal life. It’s not for you. For you is the void and the journey to the void. You want to get all the way this time. And you will.”
Deep inside my chest cavity, a spontaneous rewiring of conduits shot quantum electrical signals into the dormant chambers of that imperial organ. I don’t know why, but the story about a scroll of Gregorian chant music that had been discovered buried in the vault of a ruined church slipped into my mind. A local choir became the first instruments of its message in half a millennium led by a choirmaster named Ian. But where was the music all that time the parchment lay silent in that dank lonely vault—between the last lips that sang it and Ians? Was it always still there, in a sense, trapped inside the inked annotations, like a cake lurks inside a recipe until someone puts the ingredients together and cooks it for twenty minutes at 360 degrees?
“That’s four pounds thirty pence.”
The unusual pale blue eyes peered over glasses. They had clouded over, rainbows and unicorns summarily dismissed. I started to laugh, but she was serious.
“Four pounds thirty pence, please,” she said again, without a hint of irony. I made to cross her palm with silver. Not only had I been given permission to light a campfire with my Curriculum Vitae, I had been practically ordered to. I felt like a six-year-old who’d been told they can celebrate Christmas every day in a house made of candy. I figured it was a bargain. The void was calling. There was no stopping me now.