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Short Story

Street Entertainment

Luke Tarassenko is determined to make a splash.

I was reflecting on the idea that all of us are shackled to the dictates of determinism as I took my Sunday afternoon stroll through town when I came across a large crowd of people.

A huge herd of them stared with open mouths and empty heads at a muscular man with a shaved head and a demented grin who was standing at the top of a small flight of steps leading to a wooden platform. Next to the platform was a transparent cylinder about as tall as two men, filled about three-quarters of the way up with water.

water ripples

The man held a rope in one hand and was gesticulating with the other in time with the rise and fall of his frantic speech: “Any one of you can tie me up with this rope, and I’ll escape from it while submerged in the water – quickly enough not to drown, you’ll be pleased to hear! There’s no reason to worry, of course. I’m an escape artist, and I’ve been doing this for years.”

Despite his reassurance, nobody volunteered to be the person to tie him up – though they all seemed happy to stand and gape until someone else did. Frustrated at this mass passivity, I bustled my way to the front and announced that I’d do it. For some reason everyone applauded, and the man with the rope beckoned for me to walk up the steps to join him.

There wasn’t much room on the platform, but I painstakingly set about tying him up with the rope according to his whispered instructions – a lengthy and tiresome catalogue of very specific requests that I thought detracted completely from the credibility of his act. Nevertheless, the onlookers doubled in number between my starting to wrap the length around him and my securing the final knot. Finally I had to padlock a chain with a ten kilogram weight attached to it around his torso.

When all this was finished, he asked for ‘complete silence please’, though I couldn’t imagine he’d be able to hear very much underwater. He then gave us his final address, turning to me to say in a loud and theatrical voice, “Now, young man, I want you to make it as hard for me to escape from these ropes as you possibly can!”

Hush fell properly as people paused their conversations. Yet the escapologist’s brow wrinkled at me when, instead of checking the knot as I expected he wanted me to do (which would have been pointless as I had just tied it and knew that it was perfectly secure), I replied, “Are you sure?”

He regained his composure almost at once and said “Yes!” in the same raised, confident voice, in order to keep the crowd’s attention: “Make it as hard for me to escape the trap as you can!”

So I hit him as hard as I could on the head with the weight, knocking him unconscious and backwards into the container of water. There was a small splash, then a moment of silence. Then one woman felt it was necessary to let out a long high-pitched scream. Two men, clearly intuiting the duty of heroism, ran up the steps, barged past me, and dived into the water.

As I descended the steps a boy asked me, “Mate, are you psycho or something?” I replied that I had merely done what the escape artist had asked me to do. “Hey pal, you’re out of order!” another said. I apologised to him for being so. This appeared to pacify him; at least, it appeared he could think of no reason to speak again.

The crowd was getting even bigger now, the street entertainer’s act having been upgraded to a full-blown spectacle. For a moment I just stood and looked at them. By now the two rescuers had the man onto the platform and were messily trying to perform CPR according to the shouted orders of one of their spouses. But I had the undivided attention of the crowd. Fathers stood to attention, assuming the appearance of men ready to leap into action at any moment to defend their families from this skinny nineteen-year-old sociopath. Mothers shielded their children from me. The children, however, seemed to have found in me their new role-model for all of life’s conduct, their eyes lighting up with wonder. Others, free of familial attachment, merely looked shocked. Some appeared to be waiting to see what I would do next.

Angered that I had become their latest form of transient titillation, and yet at the same time not wanting to disappoint, I delivered this speech: “Ladies and gentlemen, the man you have just seen performing claimed to be an escape artist. But I put it to you, can he really call himself such? Who among us can escape our own body? Who among us can escape the inevitability of cause and effect? No, ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you that this man is no more of an escape artist than any of us are. Rather, he is trapped, imprisoned, constrained, by the same deterministic laws that affect us all. Look at him. He can’t even ‘escape’ the confines of his own unconsciousness! Do not be angry at me for what I have done here today, ladies and gentlemen, for I, like you, am merely a slave to the dictates of determinism. Do not blame me. I did not choose to hit this man over the head. The laws of causality made me do it.” Even as I was saying this I saw someone near the back of my little congregation dial a number on his phone. Since I only saw him tap in three digits, I thought it best to take my leave of the stunned Sunday shoppers, and I started backing away from them slowly.

It was only when I heard the sirens that I began to run.

© Dr Luke Tarassenko 2019

Luke Tarassenko is a secondary school Philosophy teacher with a DPhil from Oxford on the work of Kierkegaard. He’s currently undertaking a fiction writing mentorship with The Literary Consultancy. This story is an extract from a philosophical novel he’s writing.

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