Mortal words

Just on 3 weeks ago I flew out of the country. That night I had my bags packed and was in a cab by 7pm. It was a cold night, and winter dark. I was on my way to the African’s, for dinner and to kill my time leading up to a 1am departure.

I don’t remember much of the taxi driver. I sat in the front, we chatted a little, I watched the remnants of peak hour traffic. I was in that state of transition, all packed up and ready to go, but as yet, not going. It’s a state of mind, a relaxed fugue. You wonder if there is anything you have forgotten to pack, knowing that it’s too late to do anything about it. You anticipate the journey ahead, and the destination. You wonder at what you’ll find, what adventures might unfold, but it is all distant, speculative, not quite real. For now you’re neither here nor there.

We drove via Kingsway before turning onto the Westgate freeway. I sat in the passenger seat and watched things go by: the other traffic, their lights bright, on their way home, or out; the buildings static by the side of the freeway, tall, impersonal apartment blocks, and the odd squat industrial fixture; the road signs all lit up pointing to different places down the road, this direction, or the other way, never going anywhere; and the neon lights and the billboards lit by spotlights.

It was the billboards that sprung my imagination. I looked at ads for cars and drinks and health insurance and so on. I’d passed by this way many times before and seen these billboards every time, advertising something different. I would go by them next year, and the year after, and see something new on them each time. I watched them slide by silently, feeling the utter vacuity of the gesture. There are people who earn good money coming up with snappy captions, and whole industries that take the photos or do the artwork, who print and edit and ultimately erect these transient bits of kitsch for the likes of me to see. And it’s the likes of me who see these and sometimes who will think: that looks interesting. Maybe I’ll buy that.

For all the infrastructure and industry and consumer aspiration it felt hollow as I looked at them. I felt as if I could see through them. Todays billboard is tomorrow’s landfill. What’s new today is usurped by something newer tomorrow, and ad infinitum. We live like that, blindly and unthinkingly responding to these temptations, or else blindly and unthinkingly seeing them before our eyes slide off to blindly observe the next. I thought of the odd ancient billboard you see in the country by the side of the road, or painted on the side of a building in faded colours. For a moment there is a sense of curiosity as we see them, a novelty harkening to another era – almost art. Tumbleweeds may well cart-wheel down the road but these billboards continue to advertise Pepsi or Amoco or something else long disappeared from the supermarket shelves. They’re dead though, I thought, skeletons of past industry left behind.

At this point I thought, vaguely, that I was thinking about the transience of things, like the obsolescence they build into things so that we need to buy replacements. Everything passes, what has meaning now is irrelevant before you know it. We live within that cycle, responding to billboards and other cultural prompts, we catch the train to work and home again, we drive the same roads year after year, follow our football team with something close to rapture every weekend then have the same conversations about it in the week following. Then in a blink of an eye it’s over.

I met with the African and we had a pleasant meal and pleasant conversation and then she drove me out toward the airport at about 10.30.

We chatted as we drove out, but as before my eyes were directed outside of the car. We joined the stream of traffic, passed more billboards advertising new things. This time different thoughts came to me.

Out of the blue I recalled a time perhaps 8-9 years ago when I drove mum and Fred out to the airport late at night. They were flying out early next morning for one of their extravagant European jaunts – a cruise on the Rhine, the Orient Express, a castle somewhere – that sort of thing. Mum would have been excited. She always was, and I remembered that again. Fred took delight in mum’s pleasure. I drove them and we had dinner at the airport Travellodge and then I drove back.

I remembered that and I wondered how it can be that they both dead now? How can all that expectation have passed? All they did that trip, the photos they took, the meals they enjoyed, the laughter they shared, the stories they told us on their return – how could that be all gone now? I was there at the start of that and here I was again years later driving the same road and what was new then and fresh is ancient history now and buried, literally, dead.

It’s a kind of transience, but by now I had figured it was not transience my mind was fixing upon – it was mortality. Everything dies, things as well as people. Thoughts. Here I am writing this, and one day someone might read these words and I’ll be gone. This will be a fragment of me, a sinuous voice from another time, a personality, a perspective, a tortured viewpoint, but it will be frozen and unchanging, a withered branch.

Often I’ve read the words of dead writers and wondered how the mind that put these words together and shared these thoughts with me could be dead. How can it be? Yet it is. As I prepare to write the next sentence, as my mind searches for the words and attempts to make sense of the rush of feeling, I am dynamic. Things can change in me, anything is possible. The words committed they become a static representation of a moment in time. If I’m lucky that will somehow survive and remain, not alive, but visible at least like one of those old billboards. Or not. More likely, like most, what was once will disappear forever. Yesterdays billboard is torn down. The memories of a happy holiday on the Orient Express are lost forever, except, for now, in my brief reminiscence. Until I go, and another chain goes with me.

I expect this sounds pretty bleak. It’s life though, the truth of it. I think it’s one of the reasons I write. I always thought there is a kind of immortality in being read beyond the grave. I don’t want to be forgotten. I don’t want to disappear. Seems a strangely irrelevant desire as I write it down. What will I know of it? Nothing. What does it really matter? Likely very little. And it’s not immortality. These are scratchings, preserved perhaps one day like a butterfly under glass, but inert from the moment I hit publish. Others might make something of them, but for me they are gone.

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