I just finished Blonde on a Stick at the weekend and Loss of Separation is taxiing into position for takeoff, so talking about a Conrad Williams story seems timely. Conrad used to be a regular in The Third Alternative, but this short from #4 is the only time he’s appeared in Black Static, and that issue also contained a Case Notes feature on him, with an interview and all.
The story is a first person narration, and right from the off we’re in the thick of a ‘grunge horror’ sensibility, with the protagonist describing alcohol intake and having thoughts of his female best mate ‘banging another man’, but as it progresses we’re given hints of something terrible in the offing – ‘I’d give anything to be suffering from some kind of virus. Something to distract me from what’s coming.’
It’s pinned down that this event is supposed to take place before midnight and also, from a question from the friend, that it’s something to be frightened of. The copious alcohol intake is a coping mechanism, a way to take the protagonist’s mind off what’s about to happen.
As the story continues we get a stream of memories, the narrator remembering his relationship with his parents, the night he lost his virginity etc, and intercut with these his thoughts on how the world has changed and the gradual unveiling of his obsession with numbers and how he believes that these, in the form of signs and portents, have predicted the moment of his death – ‘Death is in us from the moment chemicals massage the heart awake in the womb. I’ve unpicked that delicate double helix for myself. I’ve seen the death warrant.’
And now we get to the crux of the story. The man expects to die, sometime before midnight. All the thoughts running through his head are part of a process roughly analogous to the reputed ‘whole life flashing before your eyes’ of the drowning man.
Only midnight comes and goes. Nothing happens. The man’s companions go off and leave him, and from one of them at least there is the suggestion of annoyance, anger at the time that’s been wasted.
And wasted time is what it’s all about, in the end. As he sits alone with his thoughts the narrator realises that he has wasted his whole life, that all his existence amounts to is a nexus of untapped potential and unrealised opportunities. And the reason for this in part is that he felt there was no point to anything as he knew when he was going to die (but Williams also suggests that he used that ‘knowledge’ as an excuse for his own shortcomings, a crutch to lean on). He is already dead, a zombie in all but name, the toxic accumulation of a lifetime of feeling sorry for himself. The living dead walk among us, and they are all those who, like the narrator, ‘tiptoed through life’, never doing anything, not even having a vindaloo.
We often pay lip service to the idea that knowing the moment of our death would be a boon, would give us the kick needed to use wisely whatever time was left to us, empower us to take risks, but here Williams seems to give that theory the lie, showing instead that the knowledge has been like a ‘dead hand’ on this man’s life. As with so many other things it’s only ignorance that keeps us safe, that lets us try things we would never dream to attempt if we knew that it was all fated to end in tears.
It’s a common or banal truth perhaps, but with the beauty of his writing, the depth of emotion and the originality of the central conceit, Williams elevates it above the base material with which he is working to produce a masterful story.