map The Modern Debutante

by Hamish Gilbertson

Published in Issue No. 10 ~ January, 1998

“The crowd is untruth.”
— Soren Kierkegaard

The young man felt the burden of his epiphany. People needed telling. The problem was getting them to listen. Rush, rush, rush everywhere — so unsettling. People busy ‘getting ahead,’ and finding that ahead, by its very nature, is difficult to get to, have little time. This he knew. He also knew that he had to present his story in a brief attention grabbing way that people could easily understand.

Sometimes the social worker knocked on the door when he was over burdened with the world’s deafness. It was luxurious to sit back and listen to the knocking and her calls of his name. Sweat revenge to pretend to be deaf when the noise could be deafening.

Sometimes his calling, and the noise in general, could become so loud. He would sneak out and buy tape to cover the bits round the windows and doors where the noise got in.

So much noise and no one listening.

Why must that woman, qualified helper of the people, call him Wally? He had told her many times. “Please,” his mother always insisted on politeness, “call me Walter. I prefer to be called Walter.” Sometimes she remembered for a while. He had got sick of waiting for her to lapse.

His mother never called him Wally.

Sometimes the children at school had called him Wally. Repeating the word – not his name – redolent with another meaning; repeating it over and over ’til it rang in his ears. They said he was a real ‘Wally,’ giving the name the requisite sharpness with their sneering tone. They would see soon.

It was the name calling, which had prompted his mother to withdraw him from school. It had all come to a head one day in the playground, when he had lost control. The principal pulled him of his chief tormentor.

The correspondence course ‘couldn’t stress enough the importance of knowing your market.’ The business he was in was literature: the message was crucial. The difficulty was convincing the market of the worth of the truth that blessed and plagued him. You had to know what made people listen.

He had to venture out into the world, to feel the unenlightened market. The TV and the magazines and papers and things gave you an idea but results so far – an unrewarding silence in response to submissions to publishers and magazines – suggested that the idea was insufficient. The world was really deaf it seemed. Know your market; that was the way to launch yourself on to the world.

What he saw out there scared him. To give the people what they wanted meant adopting their malaise.

It was amazing the trash people bought. Propaganda of sin and fanciful variations on the Horatio Alger myth suggesting the banal brutality and rapacity required to ‘get ahead’ today… Not for him this easy sell out to the world it depicted and created. Chicken and egg: a trashy world reads about trashy characters. People begin to believe this is reality and expecting the worst of people get the worst of people. We write the world in writing about it.

What was doubly scary though was that he could see how to get his message across. Selling out was truly easy. The secret to exposure was fearfully simple. It was too easy. He kept himself prepared, though, just in case. It may be necessary to sell out in the short term for the greater long term benefit. Better though to take a more conventional path. His literary debut and the adoption of his ideas would be acceptable to him done the hard way. Selling out would sour success.

You had to go to bookstores to get books. Mail order was limited in scope, mostly books he didn’t want, trashy books. You had to search to find books worth reading. He learnt by reading, laughing out loud sometimes at the naiveté of the people writing. They didn’t understand; no one understood the world they wrote. Just couldn’t see it.

He had one joy in the world outside the house that formed the bounds of his comfort zone. Whereas most of his trips related to his mission, his film trips were pure pleasure. Enveloped in the darkened world of the cinema he could sit virtually alone – he always went during the day when most people where at work and the cinema, being suburban, was generally deserted – and revel in true people. He didn’t like the modern films, the blockbusters that relied on effects not people; he liked the old films and foreign ones. Some of the foreign ones were so beautiful, slow moving and peaceful. This was the kind of world his mission, if successful, would create. It would be successful; truth always won through. Sometimes the films ended with death. The protagonists were not always successful. There was no façade of happiness. If they died, they died truly, beautifully.

Such beauty was hard to resist but he must no procrastinate. He must attend to his mission.

It was comforting to have a mission. Comforting but also difficult, the responsibility got to him. The burden of superior knowledge was hard to bear at times. He didn’t get up for days. He would lie in bed reading and sometimes watching TV. He felt a need to know the trash. Sometimes it transfixed him and he had to pull himself out. Understandable the people had trouble, when such as he had to make such an effort. He

wrote letters to the newspapers. They never printed them. The world was deaf, so deaf.

The social worker was deaf too. She called around and told him he should get out more. She called around with her degrees in helping people. She’d told him what the letters on her card with the pretty design meant. This was when he inquired as to why he should take any notice of what she said. She needed a qualification in listening, he thought.

He was not a child, what made her think she could talk to him like that. The grin was so obsequious at times, the smile so knowing. He had to fight a rage that scared him then. He struggled with himself while she droned on about self worth and healthy interaction and other stuff. He could feel his being twitching at these times. He fought the urge to take the easy way, but the battle was harder every time, the rage more well armed and organized.

He wrote to the education people and the University suggesting qualifications should be available in ‘listening.’ He furnished them with a proposed curriculum. They’d thanked him for his input, but nothing happened; he’d scoured the papers for the press releases.

He’d noticed something. The magazines and newspapers were full of reviews of books; sometimes people even interviewed the authors on the TV and Radio. They even tried to pretend that they didn’t like the trash sometimes. He knew, though, he read the best-seller lists.

This was when he had the idea – his epiphany. It was simple. It was brilliant, you could do it all from your house: mail order and correspondence courses. He could use his mother’s computer – she’d written lots of letters too. They hadn’t printed many of hers either. He knew how to write; he’d practiced. A counselor they’d made him go and see, a stupid man, told him to write it all down, to write about his calling. He laughed to think of it, out of the mouths of fools.

He read so much. He couldn’t help but know about writing.

The beauty of it was that you only had to go to the post office, not far, and empty if you went just as it opened.

Then the dilemma arose. It seemed he had to know more about people. The tutor said his characters lacked depth, what did she know about depth; she even went as far as to say that he should be wary of caricatures. She couldn’t see the truth of people. He had to listen to her, though; this way had to be better than total submission to the mores of a morally bankrupt age. He’d get them to listen and then tell them what they really needed to know. First, he had to depict the real, as they understood it. This was the way to get people’s attention.

He needed to see people interacting no matter how hard it might be to control the noise level. He had to try and ignore the noise of his calling to fulfil its request. It was going to be hard to do. He liked that.

The pills were an easy way too. Not natural. Take one pill then you had to take another to stop the shakes or whatever. Christ, he paced more with them. The noise mellowed when he took them. But it wasn’t natural. There was the pacing. Worse, his vision went. He couldn’t go out at all. The sun would burn him when he went out. In two minutes – it felt like two minute – he would take on a bright red color. It wasn’t aesthetic. It stopped his trips to the cinema, stopped him going out. No vision and you were stuck inside, it couldn’t be right. Better not to take the dam (he could hear his mother admonishing him as he thought this, “there is never a need to swear,” she would say; he could almost feel the sting of her wooden spoon) things, not to listen to the silly people. They were victims. Better to stand the noise as best he could, stay true to his mission.

Besides, he had to go out. The difficulty would grow his mission. His vision was blinding in its clarity; the noise was cacophonous out there. Sometimes he had to suspend everything but his movies, stay inside until he recovered from the sensory bombardment he had to endure out there. His suffering was necessary; it would bring world enlightenment. Going out was a pilgrimage, a journey through the wasteland to observe its emptiness but find it’s good. There was good there, he was sure of it. You just needed superior vision to discover it. People would write of him as they had written of Marco Polo (how dare they suggest he was a fake), Magellan, Drake, Columbus and Cook. Great discoverers, but his would be a greater discovery, a greater revelation of something unseen and unknown before. He would join Jung and Freud in sentences about the human psyche. He would be compared and contrasted with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Kafka and Camus… Missions, lives, were supposed to be hard.

He already had all the answers to all the questions the interviewers would ask in his ‘answers to interviewers’ questions’ notebook.

He had to go out. He had to join the crowd for agonizing moments. He had to put his ear close to a decaying society, try to ignore the squawking vultures that circled. The squawking drowned out the voices of the people. It was the cadence of these voices that he had to find and repeat in his writing. The trigger of the world’s catharsis would be the discovery of the writing of Walter Jackson.

Within the walls of their house, his mother had created a sanctuary. It had been free of the world, save what his mother allowed through. He could not understand why his sister had left. What she saw in the smarmy young man with the flash car and friends. It had been a mistake to let his sister attend university. His Mother had not made the same mistake with her Walter. She had given him the best education her guidance and the published word could offer. So, he knew the company in which his name would soon be found. Knew who were the important people. He knew also who were the dissemblers Machiavelli wrote of; but knew, more than Machiavelli, that this prophet of humanity’s evil, had helped to hide the good.

His mother had, unwittingly, prepared him for his mission.

It was eighteen months now since his mother died. She had died a bitter woman: never able to forgive the world for taking her husband before, she felt, it was due him. Bitter at the people who had elected the politicians that saw fit to construct a foreign policy that killed people for no immediate reason. Bitter at the language that disguised the death of her happiness as ‘Foreign Policy.’ Bitter at a husband, taken in by their words, willingly dead in a foreign jungle. Bitter at the children who stole her chance for a new beginning, but determined to protect them from the bitter world in which they lived. Determined to defy that world. Determined that the world should not get at her again.

She had just collapsed and died. He’d found her doubled over on the kitchen floor, with the sharp vegetable knife, he had never been allowed to use, clasped in her hand. The vivid orange of the chopped carrot, which had joined her on the floor along with a chopping board, contrasted well with her dark blue dress, he had thought. It was like a death in a European movie, arranged by an artistic cinematographer. The silence had been overwhelming. It was the last time he had known silence. A dribble of bile had been visible, hanging, listless, from her chin.

The Doctors said she was full to the brim with cancer: undiagnosed stomach cancer. It had spread almost everywhere. They said she must have been in great pain. He’d noticed an increase in her consumption of Valium but she sometimes hit them hard when the world threatened her. She’d fainted and swallowed her tongue. The bluing of her face had been just right: noticeable but not enough to spoil the juxtaposition of her blue dress and lighter surroundings.

In her house, he had wanted for nothing. Well, one little thing, perhaps. Perhaps, sometimes he wanted to believe that people weren’t as bad as his Mother made out. She was a student of human inhumanity, though; statistics burst out off her, as steam bursts out of an overtaxed boiler. Suggestions of good drowned in a fiery flood of vitriol.

A war pension and munitions stocks supported the sanctuary. She followed human misery with a passion, an intimate knowledge of the killing industry supporting visionary trading. She picked over the huge volume of magazines and journals she subscribed to and the print and broadcast media smelling carrion in the nascence of what was called ‘regional conflict.’ Rotting societies went to war and his mother smiled knowingly.

‘Conflict pays,’ she would say, ‘you can trust it.’

He couldn’t agree. Something in his being believed in the good of people. It was in her magazines but she didn’t see it, blinkered as she was by her own bitterness. He saw it also in his movies, the wonderful movies he could sneak out to see with impunity now she was gone.

The bitterness ate away at her, a parasite growing inside, feeding on her soul. He had to make them listen: resignation to people’s evil, ended in picturesque death in a spacious suburban kitchen.

With her death, the wall of mistrust of people, behind which their sanctuary was created, began to crumble. He just couldn’t maintain it as she had. His world became less comfortable. The need to actively pursue his mission built up with the noise.

He would tell his story, make them listen.

As a boy, people had scared him. There happiness appeared hollow, cleverly constructed but superficial, eerily untrustworthy. His vision allowed him to see into their souls, through their furtive eyes, which contradicted their displayed joy in each other. Sometimes he thought, wished, he was mistaken but his vision was too strong. He could feel his mother’s presence, hear her dismissal of the pretence. Yet he knew there was good also.

He was steeling himself once a week now, though. Venturing out, watching them interact. Searching to know them. So he could write them, speak to them.

He had mastered café speak, with the help of his mother’s magazines which he continued, enough to order at least. So he would go into town and sit over his coffee, and watch them. He would ignore their efforts not to notice him, feeling their disdain.

He sat for an hour this time. Watching and taking notes. Some of the people he had seen on TV, they were most ‘happy.’ He heard them delighting, with the less successful, in the misfortune of others. Sometimes disguising their delight as concern. They only disguised it, though. Disturbed, he felt the rage grow. He must rescue them from themselves.

Their laughter sang in his ears. He wondered whether he should go home. It wasn’t one of his good days.

He could remember the little boy’s neck feeling warm in his hands, that day when he had had enough.

The noise grew deafening, the rage sang too. He had to act now: pander to them, speak a language they would understand, hear. It must be the easy way, their way. He reached into his bag…

The composition was a little cluttered he thought. The scene was overwrought: too much red; too much furniture; too much disarray and too much movement. The squirming was unsightly. The clarity was lost. It had impact though.

According to some reports, amongst a huge volume of coverage, he was heard to whisper, as they overpowered him, ‘Now you’ll listen.’

The social worker was ashen faced at the station. When asked she handed the phone over meekly. The woman who answered the phone at the publishers was shocked, at first but was soon talking about ‘his story’. He thought he’d leave movie rights and interviews for later.

He was a little disappointed to have sold out. Sometimes you compromise your ideals to get ahead, be heard. Sad but necessary, this.

Walter Jackson, celebrity, smiled knowingly.

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Hamish Gilbertson lives in Wellington, New Zealand. This is his first published story.