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"The tracks started to sough silently now. Not yet the clear, loud and pervasive sound that was about to come, but a distant and very weak sizzle that announced what he was waiting for.


Camera obscura


John was waiting for the train. Standing in the full dark, feeling the cold breeze caress his toes, knees, arms, nose and forehead, made John feel warm and comfortable. The wind was coming and going, swirling his thoughts to a rest and all he could do was wait and think for the last time. The tracks were still silent. While turning his head backwards towards the city where he had lived for the past 58 years, he suddenly couldn’t help grinning. Smiling even. 


The streets were no place for smiling. So everyone had always said. And almost everyone that had passed him on the streets (A thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?) had always acted according to this philosophy too. Almost all of them had had serious faces, keeping their silence, walking with a hurried pace, gazing at something that he could not see but that had to be depressing, because it rendered their eyes vacant, filled with some sort of dislike. He had never been able to make up if it was the thought of what they were going to or what they were leaving behind that they saw, because they always had looked the same, morning and evening. 

He on the contrary had been full of want in the past thirty years. Something which he had always externalized with a wide gum smile. Professionally, everything had gone well for John. In his twenties, he had had a cleaning job for a couple of years, but after that he had been able to change profession and turn his passion into his job. He too had had to work like everybody else to put food on his imaginary table, but he had been his work, what had made it a lot easier to agree with it. Every morning, he had gotten up from his slatted bed, had yawned his fermenting breath into the world and had embraced life victoriously like a child does with a kitten. He had been bigger and stronger and therefore life had abided to his rules, whether life had liked it or not. Life had been great. And the title of his job function had also helped him to be so cheerful every day: ‘ambulant graphic storyteller’. The pride about this title had often made John dream of a little golden placard to attach to his vest, so that everyone could immediately have read what he did. What you do is what you are and he had been a self-made man. His work had been his essence.


The tracks started to sough silently now. Not yet the clear, loud and pervasive sound that was about to come, but a distant and very weak sizzle that announced what he was waiting for. An almost inaudible omen for the lights that would appear in the distance soon.


What John had liked about his job was that he often had had a rewarding contact with his clients. He had never set a fixed price for his work, but he had always let his customers decide for themselves what amount of money they wanted to give him. In fact, his customers first gave him the money and then were surprised for the service he gave them. He hated it when people where discontented and, well, they often were. He knew that his mere presence, his being, had had a strange and discomforting effect on most passers-by. It had only enforced their idle walk and vacant staring which had lead them to ignore him. Therefore, the only purpose of his profession had been to render that other group of people, those who gave money, happy. To make them smile. His goal was their teeth. If he saw their teeth, he handed them the picture.

It had been vital for him that, during work, he had always been surrounded by his friends. They had never let him down. He knew everything about them. What date they had been born. How their houses had looked. What date they had gotten married. When and where they had been on holidays. When their children had been born. What cars they had had. His brown leather suitcase had contained his friends, pictures of them that is, and John had carried them with him all the time. The only thing he had had to do, was tell his clients his friends’ life stories. All the joys and successes and happiness that they had encountered.

His exemplar storytelling had no other purpose than to let people know how great life could be. How his friends had found joy in all the little things. This greatness of life was encapsulated in John’s great eloquence too. His choice of words, his tempo of talking, his sentence structures, his pauses and his tone: they had always filled the air between him and his clients with an astonishing warmth. With his stories, he had tried to struck a chord within them that left them amazed with an unexpected sight of wonder. With the beauty of his language he had colored the faded black and white picture that he held in front of them.


The yellowish white duo now suddenly came popping up from behind the bend in the tracks. They were still far away from him and seemed like nothing more than two randomly floating light bulbs in the vacuum dark in front of him. But they were attached to where he was standing. By their defined course they would slowly fill him with a rejoicing acceptance.


Although he had always been like a kind of preacher of the wonderful life, a prophet of his own Beautiful Bible, he knew that hardships, humiliations and injustices could be a part of life too. Over the years, he had endured many blows of disbelief with the harshness of his fellow men. Especially youths and alcohol were sources of enduring evil. And when combined all love and reason and respect were gone. Often had he been the passive participant in what one could call ‘a fight’, but what he preferred to call ‘a unilateral exchange of aggression.’

It had always started when he was standing in a porch at night, watching the warm glaring city street lights engulf the nightly passers-by who were bemused from swimming from the warm to the cold to the warm to the cold light. But sometimes some suddenly started throwing inebriated name-calling at John. The invectives were mostly related to his malodor, his dismal financial state, his rash style of clothing or his deplorable dwelling situation. None of the accusations had been lies, so he had never protested. However, his silence had always seemed to enrage them and all he could do then was take the blood-spilling beating. In newspapers they would term these kinds of aggressions ‘pointless violence’. But how could it be pointless if it had a meaning for them? He was in no position to judge them. His leniency had made them happy and that was all that mattered.

Only once had John encountered one of his former aggressors a second time. This had happened last year. Their encounter had lead to quite an awkward situation. It had been over five years since they had met each other for the first time, but John had recognized his face immediately after all those years. This because every smile that he had received from a client was something John never forgot. The vivid, short-haired, muscled and obviously very fertile thirty-something at the time had thrown a couple of coins at him. John had taken a photograph of his friend Irma out of his leather suitcase and had started to talk about her. She was a nurse, had three children, loved going to California on vacations and had an adorable long-haired chowchow. The picture he had chosen was Irma with her husband Fred, holding a trophy which said ‘Greenlake Garden Contest 1st prize’. The minute John had started with his introductory orating about pictures as the bearers of present words his client had smiled broadly. Although John had been surprised by this rapid contentment, he handed the picture of Irma to his behearer. Nevertheless, his thanks had been a punch on the nose, the scattering of all his photographs over the ground and a pleased client walking away into the night with a hellish laughter of self-absorbance, murmuring something about a ‘gibberish bastard’. But their second encounter had been different. John had seen his former client get run over by a car in an outlying alleyway and the car had fled. Standing next to the unconscious man, John had felt an uncontrollable urge to let his urine clatter over the helpless victim. So he had done. It had nothing to do with silly revenge or whatsoever, but it had been what John had felt meaningful to do, so the man had had to accept it with dignity.     


The yellowish light had now intensified into one bright white halo, as if a celestial body was trying to make itself noticed, leaving the observer with no choice other than to watch its magnificence. John gazed with awe, his mouth now opening and closing itself repeatedly to be able to breathe a little harder, his teeth clinging to each other when his lips closed with the corners of his mouth raised, his head suddenly filled with a satiating lightness, as if he had discovered a radiant truth which he had yearned for all his life. The tracks were roaring with passionate intensity now.


When he had been sleeping at night, some had looked in disdain to what they saw as a lazy heap of human body. Others had looked with a countenance of deep empathy to what they thought was a misfortunate product of the harsh society they resented with all their heart. But none of them had ever seen the satisfied smile on his face, every night again, hidden in his beard, his body enjoying the moist warmth coming out of his fan bed. Back to the womb was what everyone craved for, but their contempt and compassion had prevented them from seeing that he was living that dream.

However, in love, John hadn’t been the luckiest guy on earth. He actually only had had a relationship with a girl once, a couple of years ago. Except for the holding hands part, or the living together part, or the sexual intercourse part, or the hugging part. But she had been the only human being who had ever really talked to him and who had been genuinely interested in him. They could talk for hours. She would buy him coffee and they would sit in the park, feed the ducks and laugh and look at each other with a sense of understanding. John had never felt this way before. The fact that he was the object of her psychology master degree or something didn’t matter one bit.

That’s why she was the only one to which he had ever spoken about his past. Because nobody else had ever asked him. He didn’t really like talking about it, but when he was with her, the only thing that did matter was the act of exchanging. So he had told her about his fear of worms as a little kid, about how he had liked to stay in trees from dawn till dusk as a teenager up till his early twenties, about how he had always loved rice crackers and about the cleaning job he had done as a young working man.

John had liked the alliteration of ‘The Crime Scene Clean-up Company’ immediately and his employer had provided him with a decent pay which had allowed him to rent a decent apartment in the city center as a youngster. The work itself was quite fun. He had always had an urge to keep everything neat and tidy, so the obstinate liquid stains were an enjoyable challenge for him, every single day. It had always been a pleasure to choose the right detergent and the right steam cleaner and see the mess melt away. He had worked there for six years and he had always tried to see work as just work. With the homicides, this had been no problem, but when it came to suicides, his fascination knew no bounds. Consequently, at a certain stage he had started to take photograph books home with him from the houses of the suicide cases which he had just cleaned. He had then looked at each photograph separately, reading what was written on the back, smelling them, all night long, again, and again. His eagerness to look at the photographs never faded away. It was only three months and seven books until the company, after several complaints, had discovered his kleptomania and had fired him. John hadn’t been really disappointed. He had told his boss that he had thrown the photo collections away and had looked forward to the new chapter in his life that had arrived.


A loud horn sound suddenly escaped from the halo. John was biting his trembling lower lip now and was awaiting to be pulled into the diffuse light in front of him. His girlfriend had gotten her degree and he had given away the last picture of his friends the other day. All his essence was now gone. He actually felt sorry for his friends at this point because he was feeling so strong. They had done the same as he was doing right now, but they had never really wanted it to happen, although they had wanted it to pass. They had chosen something which was out of their power. He on the contrary had handled life perfectly and he was able now to choose what he had done. If he could do it all again, he would choose to be the guy with the photographs all over again. Until he would be standing here once more in front of the bright light that was about to fade.


Davy Verbeke, 2013

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