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Short Story

Out There

Jonathan Sheasby takes a look at reality from street level.

Jamie sat there, just sat there, ruminating callously about the mandarin orange. He’d decided he felt nothing for it. He was not related to it in any way – it was out there in the world, and he was very much within himself, disconnected, separated from street corners and people asking for the time or for a cigarette, from people going somewhere at speed, from the concrete he was sitting on. All that was out there, in another place, from which he was fenced off by an invisible all-encompassing barrier.

From his detached perspective he viewed Doug arriving, nodding his hello and leaning back decorously on the chair next to him, outside the café across from the imposing building. He observed Doug taking in his environment: breathing it in, soaking in the world through the pores of his skin. Doug was someone you could say was one with the world of real experience, of relationships and cigarette smoke, of paving slabs and heavy footsteps and people asking the time. Indeed, clad in his stylish shiny brown shoes and expensive pink shirt he looked the epitome of the ‘man about town’, and Jamie, whose shirt hadn’t been washed in aeons and whose hair cascaded in unkempt curls down his back, wore his detachment from the corporeal world like Doug wore his rather fancy looking medallion.

Jamie sat in silence as the person known as Doug spoke of restaurant bars and females dressed as if in glossy magazines and things happening all the time: so many events in the real world. As usual, Jamie found himself withdrawing, analysing emotions and perceptions that were happening somewhere within him. As usual, as he ventured further within he observed personalities rising up and asserting themselves against one another, and strange images that meant something… All the time he was conscious of irritating chatter in the background, occurring out there. But then the incessant noise had ceased and Doug was leaving, and Jamie plunged back into himself. Then he jumped out of himself breathlessly for a few seconds, to glimpse the strange building in front of him with its sinister plinths and equally sinister suited creatures wandering in and out, devoid of emotion and engaging in destructive calculations about objects that Jamie could only guess at. Despite their mysterious, faceless visages, Jamie felt certain that these so-called ‘businessmen’ were all connected somehow, all working on some evil plan to do him harm. With this fear came a sense of sickness – a wish to escape both outside reality and the self that was subject to these dangerous machinations, accompanied by the feeling that out there in the world something genuinely grotesque was about to happen.

Doug had given up thinking a long time ago, ever since Jamie’s madness began. Both friends had indulged in the intimacy of copious drug-taking in an attempt to see the world anew, but Jamie had gone one step further: he’d engaged in the perilous act of thinking, deep thinking at that. He’d attempted to analyse the structure of the universe and his reasons for believing what he did, and since both friends had taken about the same amount of mind-distorting substances but only Jamie had lost his clearly precarious marbles, Doug concluded that it was the excessive thinking which had finally severed his friend’s tenuous grasp upon reality. And so Doug undertook to cease all reflection for good, and focus his attention solely on living for and acquiring what his unreflecting mind presumed would satisfy him.

As he sauntered off from where he had left Jamie – who had inexplicably knelt down on the pavement – Doug suddenly heard an angry, suspicious voice: “What the hell’re ya doin’ on the floor there? She coulda tripped over you and broke ‘er neck!” The voice emanated from a suited gent whose girlfriend had evidently nearly taken a tumble over Jamie.

Doug ran back to pacify the situation: “Hey c’mon Jamie mate, let’s sit over there,” he said, smiling at the suit and his escort, and urgently gesturing to a bench while helping his friend to his feet, asking, “Did you lose something on the floor?”

“The reptiles are here!” Jamie shouted, glancing in horror at the sky.

“What do you mean? There ain’t no reptiles around here, mate.”

“Can’t you see them?”

“No. You’re just seeing things. You gotta think about it. Reptiles ain’t gonna come from the sky – they live in the sea.”

“But the spaceships!”

“There’s no spaceships, man.”

“How d’ya know?”

“Because I can’t see them.”

“But I can, so your not seeing them proves nothing! Let’s get outta here!” Jamie yelled, dragging Doug after him and eliciting suspicious glances from the city workers walking past in their droves along the cobbled pavements. Doug tried to pull back, but seeing the intense fear in his friend’s face he thought it best to humour him, and so he ran with him to hide in the long shadow of the walls of the office-block.

Panting for breath, Doug fought internally against the worryingly convincing logic of Jamie’s argument. He would normally refuse to engage with his friend’s crazed beliefs, partly because he secretly feared he had no way of disproving them and entertaining the possibility of their validity for just one moment might open him up to believing them himself, and consequently to madness and the social ostracism and lack of control Jamie had endured. But his friend’s perceptions had never been so strong and so horrifying as they appeared to be today. Concerned that Jamie might do something stupid, Doug knew he must attempt to engage with Jamie’s ideas to reason him out of the convictions which so sorely afflicted his mind.

He looked in the direction of the supposed reptile-driven spacecraft upon which his friend’s eyes were transfixed, but he could see only a cloudy blue sky and the sun peering between two majestic Victorian structures, their statues looking down on them from on high. “Hey mate, if those spaceships were really there, surely other people would be running, not just you and me?” he asked.

Jamie wavered, saying, “Maybe. Or maybe they can’t see them because they’ve blinded themselves to the dreadful reality because it’s too much for them to take – just like the people who ignored all those Old Testament prophets.” But nevertheless Jamie faltered in his belief. As he did so the spaceships hovering overhead seemed to fade slightly. He also seemed to feel less hostility emanating from his surroundings.

Jamie blinked. “Maybe I am having a false perception,” he continued, stammering slightly, “but how do you know you couldn’t be also? If my senses can deceive me, surely yours could too?”

Now it was again Doug’s turn to feel uncertain. The horrendous possibility that things might not be as they seemed opened up before him like a hellish chasm. What if the world were peopled by aliens and reptiles and demons without him knowing? Striving to overcome his self-doubt, Doug said almost aggressively, “Things are as I see them. They just are!”

“How do you know?” cried Jamie. “Objects look different close-up to how they appear in the distance, they’re different coloured depending on what light you see them in. How do you know that things have that shape and colour in reality? You can’t see atoms, but according to scientists they’re floating around inside us all the time. If they hadn’t discovered them we’d be none the wiser.”

Now Doug found himself floundering in a sea of unbelief, his reason desperately attempting to clutch hold of something solid. He thought and fought a while before articulating his conclusion: “My perception of reality might not be entirely accurate, but it seems to work for everyday, practical purposes. So I might be better off trusting it, if only to get by in life. And the fact that it does help me to get by in life strongly suggests that it corresponds largely with reality, doncha think?”

Although engaging in this debate had momentarily threatened Doug’s belief in reality as he saw it, it had focused Jamie’s mind anew upon his analysis of what he perceived. Considering how the spaceships had begun to appear less tangible as soon as he began to doubt their existence, he concluded that perhaps they did have less reality than the reality Doug perceived, regardless of how incomplete his friend’s perception might be. Jamie also found himself motivated by a resurfacing need to connect with other people, to escape his sense of loneliness, and to be less scared of life. These emotional needs, coupled with what now appeared to him to be most likely, led him to simply say, “Okay. I’ll try to trust what you see.”

“Nice one mate!” said Doug, relieved, observing that his friend’s face appeared more relaxed now the fear was fading from his expression. Doug concluded quite accurately that where Jamie had previously seen spaceships towering above him he now saw only the cloudy blue sky and the sun peering between the two tall Victorian buildings. As they walked through the crowded London streets toward the pub for a much needed pint, Doug’s sense of relief was however temporarily tinged with apprehension. In simply accepting a commonsense view of reality were they perhaps not living authentically, and cutting themselves off from the possibility of an experience of existence in its entirety by placing too much trust in what they perceived via their flawed senses? Nonetheless, he concluded that this was a price worth paying for sanity, at least for the time being.

© Jonathan Sheasby 2014

Jonathan Sheasby is a writer living in the unreal and alien world of London. He works for Westminster Council.

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