The immortal mayfly


                                                                                  by Frank Roger


            As I entered The Empty Hourglass Pub and looked around for a place to sit, a man in a brightly coloured, chequered shirt looked up from the sheet of paper he had been scribbling on and stared in my direction. As we both noticed all the tables and barstools were occupied, which was far from unusual in The Empty Hourglass at this hour, the man indicated the empty chair at his table, kindly inviting me to join him. I plunged headlong into the smoke-filled atmosphere of the place, lit by multi-coloured lights to dazzling effect, and shot the man a thankful smile as I took my seat.

            "Good evening," I said. "Very nice of you."

            "The pleasure is mine," he replied in a voice as warm as the look in his eyes. Although he had spoken softly, his words had effortlessly drowned the brouhaha filling the pub, as if our meeting had reduced our surroundings to mere background.

            "Can I offer you a drink?" I asked, feeling compelled to return a favour. "Thank you, I'll have a Guinness," he said, and so I ordered our first round. As we waited for our drinks, a warm smile curled his lips and made his eyes light up. "Do you come here often?" he asked.

            "I am by no means a regular," I said, "but I drop by every now and then."

            "I must have seen you here before," the man said. "I come here almost every day. I work here." He pointed at the sheet of paper in front of him. I shot a glance at it and saw it was covered with graceful handwriting, a true exercise in calligraphy.

            "Work?" I asked, not quite grasping what he meant.

            "I'm a writer," he explained. "I mostly write poems. You can find me here about every evening, writing my third and final draft of the poem I've been working on that particular day. Occasionally I might do a short story instead, but I tend to view myself as a poet. Poetry has this special kind of magic no other type of writing has."

            "I see," I said, nodding appreciatively. "But isn't this place rather inappropriate for such an activity? Can you work with people talking, music in the background, smoke whirling around you? It seems to me a quiet place would lend itself more to delicate creative writing than a pub filled to capacity like this one."

            The man nodded, and the multi-coloured lights reflected in his glasses danced and shook, leaving me disconcerted for a moment. "I understand what you're trying to say. Let me explain my method to you. I write my first draft in the morning. Usually I go for a stroll in the park, and then I take a seat on a bench, a pen and a notebook ready on my lap. When inspiration starts to flow I begin to write, undisturbed by any outside influences, alone with my muse, surrounded only by chirping birds and buzzing insects. Of course you're right that the typical atmosphere of a pub filled with party animals swinging pints would detract me from this phase of my writing.

            "I do my second draft in the afternoon, at home, in a quiet room that I also use in the morning on rainy days. I don't mind having someone around when I'm in the middle of this second phase, as the main creative work has already been done by then. Now we've come to the point where the poem or story has virtually assumed its final and definitive shape."

            "I understand," I said, finishing my Guinness. "The third and final draft is mere polishing of the poem, applying the finishing touch. Finding yourself in the middle of a crowd of boisterous drinking partners can't bother you at that point."

            "On the contrary," the man said. "An environment like this forges a link with the real world, reestablishes my connection with common everyday reality, which I find stimulating in a way and which enables me to chisel and mould my poems into the exact shape I want them to have. It's here that I reach perfection every night, or at least that I get as close to perfection as humanly possible. Here my poetic ambitions reach their acme. Here I find my highest fulfilment."

            A short silence followed, and as our gazes turned to our empty glasses it struck my newfound friend that another round of Guinness had to be ordered, and so he did.

            "You must have produced quite a body of work already," I said as the waiter brought our drinks, "if you write every single day as you just explained."

            "Oh no," he replied with sudden force. He took the sheet of paper lying in front of him and held it up. "When I come back home, later tonight, I will destroy all the drafts of this poem. Nothing will remain of it. It will slip back into oblivion where it came from."

            "I beg your pardon?" I asked, completely baffled.

            "It's a ritual I perform every night," he continued. "Every night I destroy what I have created, thus completing the cycle I have started. By doing so creation and destruction are in perfect balance, and there is no way any artistic expression can be more meaningful and more symbolical."

            I stared him into the eyes, totally incredulous. It was clear the man was not joking or lying. He had meant every single word he had said. I swallowed, licked my dry lips, tried to come up with a sensible question, but the man noticed my unease and bewilderment and offered more words of explanation without being asked.

            "I tend to view art, and poetry in particular, as a symbolical representation of man's life and his place in the universe. If a poem is to represent fully the human condition, it should reflect man's doomed nature, the inevitability of death, the fundamental futility of all man's endeavours and ambitions and goals, the essentially tragic nature of fate and existence."

            "So, exactly like the subject it is supposed to illuminate, your art must perish," I said, having regained my faculties of speech.

            The man nodded, glad that someone understood - or seemingly understood - what drove him.

            "So none of your stories or poems has survived?" I asked. "Nothing of yours has been published? Wouldn't you like to see a collection of your best work, or at least a few poems in magazines? Don't you miss a sense of fulfilment, don't you crave some gratification for all your painstaking efforts? The way you're working now you'll never have anything resembling a literary career..."

            "Publications, literary fame, awards, money..." He made a sweeping gesture with his hand, as if he wanted to encompass the entire universe. "Wouldn't the pursuit of all that be at right angles to the philosophy behind my work? Wouldn't I be aiming for some kind of brittle immortality that is actually bound to remain out of reach, except perhaps for an all too brief period that does not really matter? Shouldn't I resist the lure of fame and fortune, and persist in my chosen method that truly exemplifies my artistic credo, my deeply symbolical coupling of creation and destruction, of yin and yang, of birth and passing away..."

            "I suppose you're right," I mumbled, and took a gulp of Guinness for want of anything meaningful to say. How could someone spend all these endless hours writing and rewriting, polishing and refining his work until it was perfect, with as sole purpose to destroy it all at the day's end? What drove this man? And how could he earn a living if he wasn't paid for all his writing, and if there was little or no time left, judging from his daily schedule, to do other work? The man looked too young to be retired. Maybe he was rich, and didn't have to work?

            Or perhaps earning money too was utterly futile, another losing battle fought against inevitable doom? But still the question remained how this aiming at the true essence of art by destroying it allowed him to keep going and to give meaning to his life...

            The man shattered the silence that had been building up by saying he had to visit the men's room, and left. In the few moments I was alone, I picked up the sheet of paper and read the text my friend had written.

            It was a brilliant poem indeed.

            It was at least as good as the poetry produced by writers considered leading talents. It was extremely well-written, rich with symbolism and laced with hauntingly deep philosophical thought. It was unquestionably great art in its purest form.

            I read the poem over and over, until it was etched in my memory. Then I let the paper slide back onto the table, looked up and saw the poet of doom reappear. We chatted for a few more minutes about rather trivial matters, and then he excused himself, saying it was getting late and he should be heading home.

            He took the sheet of paper, put it away, wished me a good night and left. I ordered another Guinness, sat back and let my thoughts roam. No doubt the man would destroy his poem, as he had done with all its predecessors, and would do with all its successors.

            Only today's poem would not quite be destroyed as effectively as all the others - for I had read it, and memorised it, and it would live on in my mind. I might even note down the lines, and allow the poem to survive for even longer than my memory would last.

            My reading the poem had broken a chain of events that would otherwise have gone on uninterrupted. Would it make difference? Would it change anything substantial in my life, in the poet's life, in the grand scheme of things of which we were part? Or would my efforts to read, memorise, and possibly reproduce the poem prove as futile as anything attempted by mankind, an exercise in pointlessness that merely illustrated the poet's theories' correctness?

            Maybe it would be better if I forgot the poem, if I erased the whole incident from my mind.

            But I proved unable to do that. The poem hovered before my mind's eye like an advertising billboard in glaring neon light, impossible to ignore. Was this symbolical as well? Was it an incentive to keep the poem alive, to prove that man's creations could survive if only the will to do so was strong enough?

            I finished my Guinness and left the pub. As I walked home the incident gradually faded in my mind, but the glaring neon lines of poetry didn't grow dim.

            I could feel that as soon as I got home I would note down the poem before I retired to bed. It would survive. One way or another. Who knows what I might decide to do with it, who else might inadvertently lay eyes on it, what might eventually happen to it. It might one day see print, albeit anonymously.

            It might be noticed. It might be nominated for an award. It might be reprinted, anthologised, kept in print for a long time.

            And all that because the man had left me alone with the poem for a few minutes. A thought struck me. What if he had done so on purpose, knowing that I would at least glance at the sheet of paper, in full view in front of me and begging to be read? And how would this fit in with his theories, and my counter-theories? Had it all been a show, a masquerade? Had I fallen into the trap he had prepared for me? Or was I simply betraying the confidence he had shown me, would I brutally and unforgivably shatter the man's deeply cherished ambitions by carrying out my plan...?

            More and more ramifications surfaced in my mind, possibilities and hidden intentions unfolded, possible manipulations and eventual destinies presented themselves...

            A long train of events had been set into motion.

            Lost in thought, I continued on my way home, knowing that this time coming home would only be a starting point.



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