…the purgative effect consequent of witnessing the pointless and unending suffering of others
Oscar wasn’t one to wallow in the suffering of others. He was, rather, one to blithely ignore the suffering of others, even if that suffering was thrown in his face by people who had little regard for the sensibilities of others. One such person, a sufferer of great sufferings, who had little regard for the sensibilities of others, just then entered the scene.
She, this woman who suffered greatly, was middle aged, more owing to her great sufferings than through the passage of years. She was voluble in her suffering, prone to outbursts of terrible moaning and sighs as frequent as her every intake of breath. Her gait, a rather pathetic dragging of each foot, inspired either infinite pity or infinite impatience. For Oscar it was infinite impatience which was inspired, a concept which he had a lot of trouble with at one point in his life. How could impatience be infinite? But life, that wisest of teachers, had shown him how it was possible before too long.
Upon eventually coming close enough to Oscar to converse in her usual whispered drawl, this woman began her whole story all over again. It was a story which Oscar had heard several times, without variation, sometimes twice on the same day. Oscar’s familiarity with this story did little for his faculty of empathy. Not only did he despise this woman, once he heard her lengthy tale of how she was brought so low by the machinations of certain evil people in the world, a slowly recounted list of such evil people making up a quarter of her actual story, but he began to despise all people who had lengthy tales of how they were brought so low by the machinations of certain evil people in the world. In fact, by now Oscar had lost the ability to empathise with people who had a predominately sad life. Not only did he lack the ability to empathise with these people, he lacked the ability to pity them. He had even reached the stage of hating all people whose life could be labelled as “sad”, “miserable”, “tragic”, or even “unfortunate”.
Oscar didn’t even know this woman who was again accosting him in his local. Of course he was by now familiar with her – how else could he hate her? But he didn’t know her. And she didn’t know him, which made her crime, of trawling through the encyclopaedia of misery which was her life, all the more serious. It was under just such circumstances – Oscar sitting in his local enjoying a pint in the early evening – that this woman first approached him and began, without saying more than a word of welcome, without the obligatory introductions or apologies, laying bare the intricacies of her tragic life.
Now Oscar was a fan of a good story as much as the next person, but this story didn’t even merit the name “story”. It was full of inconsistencies, like some kind of smart-ass novel. There was no plot to take hold of. There was no attempt to set a scene, establish atmosphere or introduce characters. There was little or no attention given to creating any suspense. Timescales and locations collapsed in on themselves like in some kind of dreamscape. And in order to undermine the attempt to create a surreal piece of literature, this woman then went on to list in great detail the items of crockery in her mother’s kitchen, a list which was followed by a comprehensive description of a suburban street, down to the exact colour of the privet hedges in winter, a shade of green apparently worthy of a ten page digression, and a suburban street which seemed to bear no relation to the events described elsewhere in her rambling and fragmented narrative.
And now off she was going again. And Oscar didn’t even bother to acknowledge her this time, knowing that it would make little difference. He considered standing up and walking away, but he had only just started his pint, a pint he knew he would be tempted to throw in the face of this woman before she got to the third chapter of the collected and disorganised and unedited and nonsensical ravings of a mad woman, illustrated by the sour face of their miserable star.
Now Oscar knew that she couldn’t be interrupted, not for very long anyway. Any question he posed would be answered by a blank look, and she would soon be back on track, though a track without any rails or sleepers. His favoured tactic, the last time she came upon him in this fashion, was to ignore her and to concentrate on placing himself in a world without suffering, a world where he wouldn’t be subjected to endless plodding recounts of how the world is a place of suffering and how people are devils in rather shoddy disguises, intent on inflicting suffering on all comers.
Watching the manner in which the bar’s lights were reflected on so many different surfaces, how the polished wood gleamed, how the whisky bottles, lit up from behind, glowed a rich amber, Oscar found that he could block out most of what this woman said, but not all of it. Concentrating on her face, the lines drawn liberally and deeply, the eyes sunken, the eyebrows thick, the skin pale and pock marked, the lips thin and chapped, the teeth yellowed, one missing, the chin pointed and thin black hairs beginning to grow… Oscar lost himself in the details of her face for at least one chapter, possibly two.
But listen to some of it he must, he couldn’t avoid it. The words hung in the air about him until they seeped through his eardrum. He tried, as he always tried, to hear the words as meaningless babble, but even their meaning seemed to drip through into his conscious mind, so that he was reminded of this other person’s misery, the misery of the world, the misery, the misery…
Oscar could take no more. Standing up, spilling his drink onto the floor at her feet, he cried “Enough!”
This desperate cry only sufficed to momentarily derail her and she was off again, after maybe ten seconds had elapsed, on to the next miserable occurrence in the series, unperturbed by the obvious distress of her unwilling listener.
Taking to his heels, heading for the toilets, but still hearing echoes of her voice, echoes of the misery, Oscar felt a deep and desperate need to submerge his head completely in cold water. Waiting for the sink to fill up, Oscar had a moment of lucidity, as one extreme of distraction swung around to another, to consider the effect of such an experience upon him – the only effect he could discern, was a complete eradication of any sense of fellow feeling he once might have had with other members of the human race.