Art Pact 265 - Interruptions
"There was once a man who mistook his wife for a-"
The storyteller stared at me, his eyes narrow.
"Hat?" he asked me.
"A hat. You know, there was a book about it. The man who mistook his wife for a hat. By - I mean, I want to say Jamie Oliver, but obviously it wasn't him. Something Oliver."
"Oliver Something," said Besson. "Not Something Oliver. Oliver Sacks."
"Oh, right. Yes, Oliver Sacks."
The storyteller looked from Besson to me and back again, and clucked his tongue. The sun had begun to set behind him, and from where I was sitting it now looked as though it was sitting neatly on the top of his hat. I closed one eye and then the other, causing the red orb to leap on and off the flat platform at the tip of the fabric frustum.
"Are you quite done?" asked the storyteller. I stopped winking.
"Then I will continue, if I may be allowed the honour of addressing two such erudite scholars."
I nodded graciously, since I was only ninety-five percent sure that he was mocking me and I did not want to appear ungrateful in the event that it was a real compliment.
"Thank you. Now, there was once a man who mistook his wife for another woman. This man, whose name I will not reveal lest you one day meet him, was a butcher."
"Is that likely?" I asked. The storyteller looked for a moment as though he were about to leap up from his chair and tear out my throat, but he swallowed and composed himself and raised his eyebrows in inquiry.
"Is what likely?"
"Oh, wait - no, I'm not impugning the probability of your anecdote. I just mean, is it likely that we'll meet this guy? This butcher? Normally - I mean, I would expect that a story that begins like that: there was once..."--I shrugged--"well it might as well be once upon a time. Is this a real story, I suppose is what I'm asking, and did it happen so locally in both time and space that I'm likely to stumble upon the subject of the narrative in my everyday life?"
The storyteller sat quietly for a moment, stroking his chin. The sun's gory circle had merged at its edge with the fabric of his unusual hat, so that it now resembled a demonic halo. It hurt my eyes to look at it, so while he considered his answer I looked around at the other faces in the group. Besson, of course, was waiting for the answer as well. Leat was still working on her sketch. Her eyes flicked up and down from the storyteller's face to the charcoal drawing in front of her. There was something odd about it - otherworldly, almost - which eluded me until much later, when I realised that she had taken so long over the drawing that the light had completely changed, so that parts of the storyteller's monochrome face were rendered with different shadows from the rest. Her fingers were blackened, and there was a single dark smudge across her forehead where she kept reaching up to brush away a rogue lock of hair.
"If I answer," said the storyteller, "I give away more and more of the man's identity. You may or may not meet him. He may be too far in the past for you to ever meet him directly, but his descendants may yet live. This information about information is itself information, do you see?"
It sounded like gobbledygook to me, but I could see I wasn't going to get anything more useful out of him at this juncture. I nodded - then, when he didn't seem satisfied with that as a signal, I gave him the thumbs-up.
"Good. Now then, put such thoughts out of your mind. Here was the man, the butcher, walking down the street one day when he saw in the distance a silhouette he had not seen for many years, of a woman he had once been in love with. She had spurned him - so he thought, because of his profession. Now, he-"
"Brian." said Besson.
The storyteller sat with his mouth open, as if the words had literally been snatched off his tongue.
"Brian," said Besson again. "Why didn't you just call him Brian? I mean, that would have been just as uninformative about his real identity without drawing our attention to it. I don't know about anyone else, but now that I know I'm not supposed to know who this is, I really want to know."
"What if his name really was Brian?" asked Leat.
"Come on, no-one's called Brian."
"Plenty of people are called Brian," said the storyteller. "It's a perfectly common name."
"My point exactly!"
"That's the opposite of what you just said," Leat pointed out.
"I mean it's a perfectly common name. It's the sort of name that everyone has, but no-one has."
"You seem to be mistaking a koan for an argument. Either too many people have this name or not enough. Is there an over-abundance of Brians, or a tragic lack?"
"What I mean is that no-one of consequence is called Brian. It's a name without any historical weight. Why do you think the Pythons picked it? Because no-one important can be called Brian. No-one in a story is called Brian. If this guy was called Brian he'd be the most uninteresting person ever, and we wouldn't feel the need to go delving into his past."
"Well, except that that's the whole point of the story, right?" she gestured to the storyteller, appealing for his support. He was not forthcoming. "It is. If we listen-"
"If!" the storyteller sighed, rolling his eyes.
"-we'll learn something about the past of this butcher. The anonymity isn't to protect his past, it's to protect his present. Or rather, his future, since his present is now and he's not here at the moment."
"As far as we know," said Besson - and now it was his turn to narrow his eyes, looking suspiciously at the storyteller. By now the sun had descended yet further, reaching under the edge of the hat to cradle the storyteller's head and transform his ears into jug handle silhouettes.
"This man - whose name was not Brian," the storyteller said forcefully, "was walking along the road one day when he saw the silhouette of a woman he once loved. She was talking to a man - also silhouetted - and the butcher remembered why he had loved her. There was a vivaciousness to her actions, so that just to watch her reach up and put a hand to her fellow shadow's cheek was to feel a little more alive in yourself. He stopped walking, struck with a painful nostalgia, with the mind-twisting vertigo that can only come from staring down into the abyss of the past. Should he talk to her? It seemed too much - to walk into the light himself, to touch her on the arm, to greet her. Would she remember him? She should, of course, they knew each other well in the old days. Or did they? Of course, he thought, she did not know him well at all, and perhaps he did not know her. But they had spent a lot of time together, enough that she should still know him after all these years."
"How many years?" asked Besson.
"Twenty," snapped the storyteller. His hands were clasped, and I could tell that he was on the cusp of a decision - whether or not to continue telling us the story, I assumed. He opened his mouth.