Guess Where I Am
By Paul Elliman
Wandering through life our journeys get shorter, our circle of friends gets smaller. Trying to remember all the people you’ve ever known is like surveying vague distances through an imaginary telescope. Planets drift apart across a far universe. They are all out there somewhere but where, and where have they been?
Just the other day I ran into a friend I haven’t seen for many years. It was the solstice and he appeared out of nowhere, jumping on me like a friendly dog then looking at me curiously like I was the one out of place. I said that I would come and find you when we are old and grey. We were both pleased to see how the other had aged, but I was too pragmatic or too scared to understand what was really happening. I associate Gavin with unexpected encounters. We are from a time before mobile phones, when telepathy was still an option and a lot more whistling. One occasion he was coming from Broadcasting House having recorded something about his favourite nonsense songs. The natural habitat of songs, he told me, was at the very edges of language. He performed parts of it right there on the pavement. His inner Fred “oo-baba-doo-baba-day” Flintstone serenading his outer Perry “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” Como. A stranger walking past said he was the fountain in the park and threw him a coin. Gavin had a game where he would phone you at home to say Guess where I am? He called me once from the press box of a football stadium in Frankfurt, West Germany. Guess where I am he shouted over the thrum of the crowd as the England football team were about to play the Soviet Union. Then he sang a line from Jerusalem in a bad Russian accent. Another time he sent a seven-page fax, a kind of epic war poem of “Youths accompanied by fife and drum, whirling in the dance.” In terrible handwriting, as if written to keep up with the transmission of the fax machine, he described the many pleasures of ordinary life inside the siege of Sarajevo. All faded away, I still have that long and hallowed blank sheet from another world. I kissed you once when you were asleep and you took no notice. Bulkier than I remember, he wears a moustache now and put on glasses to look at his watch. I felt the sudden precipitation of twin tears forming in my stomach. No, wait, I tried to speak, where…? My voice was brittle like old cement, invisible plumes of powdery dust or pollen. But you know where I’ve been, you silly Boule. I’m dead. I saw you with your young daughter Rae at my funeral all those years ago. You and Vern called in at my mum’s afterwards. Then he hesitated, the anthologist of the nonsensical lyric perhaps doubting again the value of words. Stepping into the road he made a fist and comically mimed punching himself in the face, turned it into a wave and wiped away a strand of hair, smiling back at me as if to say something like “And don’t ever let me catch you on this planet again!” Clearly the world hadn’t ended yet and he wanted to go for a walk in his old neighbourhood, have a laugh at the changes, or lack of them. It’s ok, he said, I’ll find you. An invisible orchestra played and the stage grew dark. The buildings were now a shadowy outline against the pale sky. The evening star was out, and a few evening people. I had the feeling we had all travelled incommensurable distances at some unimaginable light speed and were now about to walk casually home along our own separate paths. But it did hurt, it still does.
What is the past, what is it for? Is it a city or an ancient forest? Life is everything that happens and it drives us along with it for a while. But the passage of time is tidal, and the moon knows far better uses for the days than we do. I felt the first spots of rain. The weather report, a kind of astrology, never mentions heartbreak. We stumble through and the things that bring us joy make us cry. In the end the doors and windows swing open, curtains dance in the wind, voices, footsteps, running water, beams of light.
Yes, Gavin might say, I could have told you that some time ago.
Paul Elliman is an artist based in London. His work, which follows language through many of its social and technological guises, has been exhibited internationally, including “Century City,” the inaugural exhibition for Tate Modern, London (2001), Platform, Seoul Bienniale, South Korea 2009; “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” at MoMA, NYC (2012); KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2017), and the Liverpool Biennial (2018).
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