permafrost

…the coldness which subsists beneath

A word about the dictionary. Well, more than a word, a few words; actually, upwards of one-thousand words, but what’s a few words between narrator and reader? Call it a chapter, if you will.

It is sitting on the table in the front of the living room – this dictionary, which Oscar risked all for, well took some risk for – no he didn’t, he got Helen to risk all for it, or rather to take some risk, a risk which was realised in her being caught trespassing on private property, enemy territory, etc. – in his old classroom, so that it, this dictionary, could sit there on the living room table, as though it were some sacred object, surrounded by the profanity of detritus and bric-a-brac of Oscar’s life.

Not that it isn’t used. Oscar uses the dictionary everyday, several times a day, but not in the normal sense of the word “use”, wherein one gets some use out of it, wherein the object’s function is applied, wherein some understanding is arrived at concerning the meaning or use of a particular word – such as “ineluctable” or “entropy”. So, with regard to the accepted meaning of the word “use”, the dictionary isn’t “used”. However, it is opened everyday, or rather let fall open at random on any page, whereupon Oscar lets fall at random (how he tries so very hard to ensure the randomness of this action) the index finger of his left hand (sometimes, in a vain attempt to eschew any regularity in his movements, he substitutes the index finger of his right hand, and he has often experimented with other fingers on either hand, at random of course) upon a word – the word – which will circumscribe, but at the same time give structure and content to, his inspiration as a literary genius for that particular day, though some days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months and months…

Taking the word which heads this entry, chapter, or random collection of words as a for instance: it can be applied to the soul of Oscar, his subsoil, what lies beneath the inessential and the merely apparent – his unwashed clothes, his unshaven face, his rancid socks and his jaded appearance – that which is hard and unchanging, and cold. Yes it is cold, this soul, this essence, this underneath, like stone, hard like stone, like ice, severe, frigid, eternal, that part of him which will pass into the ether or ascend to heaven or descend into hell – what it is that makes Oscar MacSweeny Oscar MacSweeny. That which cannot melt or change or be adulterated by the advice of Smith or the insults of Helen or the agonies of Henry.

As a writer, Oscar must be cold. He must stand back. He must not get involved – how can you stand back ant take it all in if you are in the thick of it? He must be the cold hearted observer of Henry’s demise, of Smith’s ups and downs of Helen’s rise into the stratosphere of a world so ridiculous you can only acknowledge its ridiculousness if you are standing outside it, leaning against a wall at the corner of the street with an ironic look on your face just about apparent above a smug grin.

But we are all, just as Oscar is, prone to the vicissitudes, the slings and arrows, the minor irritants, the needs (how long is it since Oscar had even approached the warmth of human kindness, never mind the slightly warmer climes just hinted at by the hollow behind a woman’s knee or the concavity at the base of woman’s neck, the word for which escaped him), the slings and arrows (there are many of them), the fears, the loneliness…

But Oscar stands firm – his dictionary is the petrified ground upon which he stands, the wall against which he leans, the frozen subsoil which nurtures his inspiration, the…

On running out of words, or comparisons, or metaphors, Oscar has recourse to his dictionary, his friend, which is always there on the living room table, which accompanied him through twenty-six months of banking, eighteen months of teaching, and how many months of unemployment, all the while a writer, struggling to put onto paper the eternal truths…

It has a golden hue, that dictionary. And it’s a dull day outside, not that the Venetian blinds and brown curtains would admit to any other kind of day. But beauty, as with golden hues, Oscar would readily accept, are in the eye of the beholder. Unless of course the object in question was a well-polished brick of gold. Then the golden hue would be in the eye of every beholder, unless there was no beholder, which raises the question… such idle thoughts were the stuff which bound Oscar to this world, a kind of hobby, at least a distraction, at least a chance to stop dwelling on his cold heart, frozen soul and frigid life.

And such idle thoughts were what he shared with Henry, and with Smith at times, and even with Helen when the mood took her (it could take her everywhere else). Such as:

Henry: Sometimes I wish I was born in another time.

Smith: Like in the future.

Henry: I was thinking more of the past… the eighteenth-century perhaps. If I was born in seventeen-eighty-two I’d…

Oscar: …you’d be dead.

Henry: Yeah, but what I’m saying is – if I were alive in the eighteenth-century…

Oscar: You’d be dead now.

Henry: You don’t get it.

Smith: He’s right you know. You would be dead.

And other idle thoughts on the relative merits of heaven and hell, the possible limits on the numbers of words in a language, the substantial merits of the life of a Catholic priest, the perfect murder, the perfect meal, the best bag of crisps, the problem of how an immaterial soul can interact with a material world, whether it was possible to imagine or to picture a million of anything, the thought processes of a cat, dog and cow, the price of fame, the likelihood of the old woman next door dying, the taste of milk…

At such moments Oscar was alive, in the thick of it, living, being a part, jumping around in it, gulping down it, breathing it in and exhaling it; life was coursing through his every gap, and as he balanced on the arm of the sofa, his glance briefly resting on the shadow between Helen’s breasts, his mouth carefully forming the word “transcendental”, his thoughts racing ahead to his next great pronouncement, he felt truly alive.

But at the end of the night, on hearing Helen bolt her bedroom door, on hearing Smith’s door close next door, on hearing Henry’s car start outside on the street, Oscar was left alone with his dictionary and the bitter-sweet knowledge that his life, circumscribed by the entries of the dictionary, beneath the vagaries of experience, was that of an artist, standing apart, leaning against a wall as life goes by, distant, cold, severe – he took what comfort he could from the fact that he was an outsider.

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