…the property which lends substances their substance
The following conversation took place yesterday evening, just after Oscar returned home from work. He found Smith standing in his (Oscar’s) kitchen eating a bowl of muesli. When Oscar dropped himself onto the sofa in the living room Smith followed him in. Smith sat himself on the windowsill, pushing and twisting the dust laden Venetian blinds against the window’s glass. Looking down at Oscar on the sofa he shook his head, swallowed the last of the muesli and asked: “You’re getting a cat?”
Oscar nodded. Oscar was getting a cat. It was the next step. It was a responsibility. It was how he would reclaim his humanity. Everyone likes cats.
“What’re you going to call it?” The bowl and spoon were dropped down, balanced on the edge of the windowsill.
“Oscar.” In this cat Oscar would see himself. It would be another Oscar. Another being with the same legitimacy. It would exist at the same pitch of reality. He would feed it milk and mince meat.
But Smith wasn’t convinced. “Oscar?”
“That’s your name. You can’t call a cat your name. That’s obscene.”
Smith sat back on the windowsill, ignoring the sound of the Venetian blinds snapping behind him. “There’s something wrong with that Oscar. It’s just wrong. It’s playing god. It’s disgusting. It’s not right. What are you trying to do? Tear a whole in the fabric of significance? Undermine reality? Mock the very substance of life?”
“What?” Oscar, as was often the case when talking to Smith, felt that there were two mutually exclusive conversations going on at once. “It’s just a cat.”
“A cat called Oscar. What could be wrong with that?”
Smith pushed himself off the windowsill, again cracking the Venetian blinds against the window pane. “I don’t want to hear of this scheme again Oscar. Keep me out of it. Never mention it in my presence again. And if this cat does come into this house, this Oscar cat, then I never will. Is that clear?”
“You’ll never walk uninvited into my house again?”
“Hey! What’s yours is mine.”
“And the converse would also be true?”
“My house is your house Oscar.”
“But I’ve never been into your house. Don’t even know what it looks like. Maybe you’ve got a cat called Oscar in there. Is that the problem? Two cats called Oscar?”
Two hours later, sitting in the same room, neither having left in the intervening period, but having continued talking, the conversation took the following turn:
“I cut myself shaving this morning,” Oscar said, not in reply to any question, not following up on any thread in a conversation and not adding to anything already said.
But this was enough to set Smith off. “Yesterday, I was stood there shaving.” Smith stood up the better to imagine himself shaving. Looking into the mirror. “Just like I do every evening before I go to bed. Looking into the mirror, smoothly applying the foam. I use gel. But it’s best to foam it up in your hands before applying it to your face. It doesn’t foam up as easily on your face. I don’t know why. But anyway, I cover my face, like I usually do, starting with my neck, then my chin and the sides of my face and finally that little bit under my nose.”
This threw Smith for a moment, but only for a moment. “Then I get the hot water running. It’s got to be hot. Really hot. Sometimes I boil the kettle. It makes all the difference. But there I am putting the razor to my cheek, like I do every night. And that’s important – I do it every night. Every day of my life.”
“Every day,” Oscar agreed.
“And I put the razor to my face, just like always, starting just below my side locks, the ones on the left of my face, and I’m just pulling the razor down like I always do, and then it hits me. Just like that: What the fuck am I doing? That’s what I say to myself. Maybe I even said it out loud. I’m thinking, Jesus Christ, I’ve gone crazy. I’ve finally lost it. I’m shaving my face. What the hell’s the matter with me?”
“What?” Oscar asks, genuinely interested. “What were you doing?”
“I was just shaving. That’s all I was doing. Same as every night of my life. Just like always. But I all of a sudden get to thinking that I really shouldn’t be doing this. Not that I shouldn’t shave. But that shaving, what I was right then doing, was the craziest thing a man could ever go about doing. It was like – what the fuck am I doing?”
“So did you shave yourself?”
“Course I did. It was just a moment. But for that moment I thought I really had lost it. I thought I was out of my bloody mind.”
These two conversations framed what would seem to be a far more significant conversation, indeed a more weighty conversation, a conversation on a topic which must surely be resting heavily in each of their minds, a topic which must be weighing Smith down particularly, such is its significance, such is Smith, such are the consequences, the implications, ramifications… why isn’t Smith running around the place? Why isn’t Oscar at least shaking his head? Why aren’t they wondering? Why isn’t Oscar feeling the weight of destiny? Why isn’t Smith shouting out how he has been justified, how his suspicions were right, how the conspiracy is real, how his recently acquired nemesis is indeed about to do no good, is doing no good, and that no good will only get less good, worse and then terrible. Why isn’t Smith in awe of the terror that is about to befall them? Why is he instead talking about shaving himself? How can this topic of conversation be so easily dropped off, left to one side and forgotten? Smith? What’s the matter with you?
The subject was actually raised by Smith, who claimed to have been making some progress in the case of the man with the limp.
“I’m getting closer,” Smith said. “I can feel it.”
“Oh yeah,” Oscar said, as though it’s nothing at all. “I know who that guy is. In fact I saw him today. He was in town, leading a counter demonstration. He’s against “always remembering”. Dead against it.”
Smith had frozen, acknowledging the great weight of this piece of information, so much weightier than the sinister naming of Oscar’s cat Oscar.
“Turns out, this guy is Tommy Kilpatrick. Teaches at Didsbury Girls with Henry. Strange guy. Bit of a limp. Teaches history. I remember him well. Kids love him. He’s quite a figure at that school. And then, the day before, looking through old files at the newspaper, I come across his face – what are the odds of that?”
Smith seemed to be under a terrible weight, his red face speaking of tremendous strain, all of which Oscar missed as he was leafing through one of Helen’s fashion magazines as he spoke.
“An anarchist apparently. Known trouble causer. Even has other names. This guy gets around. He says to me today – “we’ll see”. Well what the hell does that mean? It means nothing. And what the hell kind of demonstration was that – Don’t remember. Always forget?”
“Oh I don’t know. Something or other. Can you see that pizza box from last night? I’m sure we couldn’t have finished it.”
“It’s under the chair.” The deep redness of Smith’s face, the whatever it is written across his face, gradually subsides, and is gently swept away by more prosaic, less weighty topics – the next one being people who wear light brown shoes.