3 – The world as it stands

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. – Ecclesiastes 7:4

[Back to chapter 2]

“Truly remarkable, isn’t it?” asked a familiar voice to Henry’s immediate right. Henry turned to acknowledge the question from his long-time acquaintance, Sandra.

“Absolutely,” he said. “What a world she lived in. Who is she, by the way?”

Sandra, a German woman with black hair and strong but lean in build, shrugged. “I don’t know. She came here a few days ago from the south.”

“The south?” Henry asked with inflection, probing to learn how south was “south.” Sandra only nodded.

Henry drank when he saw that Sandra would not oblige to his simple inquiry. “South,” he said to himself.

The German acquaintance was a younger lady with rustic qualities. She owned a hard look on her, but her soft and friendly voice betrayed the typical harshness of her native tongue. She grew up in a time when her Germany, an ex-country, was disparaged by factions pining for absolute control. What was more, her countrymen who had jetted off to the stars extracted much of their country’s wealth, resources, and even infrastructure, requiring those Germans who remained on Earth to reactivate their hunter-gatherer mode of living. Sandra was someone who could venture into the wild and make it a comfortable living space for herself and for whoever could possibly keep pace with her. This made her, by virtue of an unofficial appointment by others, the village’s hunter and gatherer.

Henry respected Sandra out of one-part fascination and another part fear.

“I thought you knew everyone by now, Henry,” said Sandra.

“It’s a big world,” he said.

“An empty world,” Sandra added.

Henry drew his attention closer to the West African woman’s display of memories. They were things Henry never had seen with his own eyes before, and he grew sad knowing that, perhaps, he would never get to see those things as they were if he were able to go those places. He was so moved and touched by what he saw, that he stood up and cried aloud in a great voice, “Three cheers to Africa! May the Earth in its waning breath bless the continent.” The attention of the Kneipe now rested on Henry. “May its people forever gift mankind with its love and passion! Hip-hip…”

“Hurray!” rang the hall in response to the hips, thrice.

The West African woman sheepishly waved to all while bearing a big smile. The projections from her Memory Box flashed images of the Kneipe. She then quickly unhooked herself from the machine while every continued to cheer and drink.

Henry chugged the rest of this beer as he dropped back down to rest his posterior on the seat; the mug was empty before he made contact with the wooden bench.

Sandra raised a glass to Henry. “The hall’s favourite son,” she said. “Gut gemacht!”

The crowd returned to their previous conversations. Henry basked in the throttling buzz of chatter, clinging, and laughter. The bartending couple fixed Henry a second mug of beer – this one larger and frothier than the first – and it was wisped away from the bar top. The mug passed from hand to hand in the crowd. From Henry’s point of view the mug looked to be riding a wave of human hands and talking heads. The mug was firmly placed before Henry. Some froth wept down the side of the cold mug.

Henry smiled, and drank.

“Go on, now, Henry! Your turn!” cried that Nordic voice. “Give us a tale! A story! A tune of the old days!”

“Stefan?” Henry called out to the Nordic man, looking deeply into the crowd. Stefan did not present himself. Sandra and a few others sitting around Henry were puzzled at the beckoning of Stefan. “That fool,” Henry spat.

Sandra interjected, “Perhaps you mean Gerard? He’s over there.” She pointed to the opposite corner of the bar to a small, smartly dressed older man with white hair.

Henry shook his head, “No, no. Not ol’ Gerry. I could swear I heard Stefan.” Sandra shrugged while Henry chugged from his mug. “Anyways, I do have a story to tell.”

Joy washed over Sandra and the others. A story from Henry was always a treat packed with laughs and insightful comments on the world. Henry plugged into his Memory Box. His was bulkier and heavier than the others’. It had fewer lights, knobs, and buttons than them, too, but it was well-kept and running smooth because Henry ensured it was done so.

Henry closed his eyes for only a few seconds before dancing images like of crystal glass appeared on the table before him. His projections were sharper and more detailed than the others’ all the more.

A teenage Henry was seen by the viewers getting into trouble with his school friends. They had wandered into an empty neighborhood with derelict houses and graffiti plastered on any wall that still stood, and they were breaking out windows, shedding branches and flowers from unkempt gardens, all the while smoking and drinking. The projection flashed to Henry’s father, a strong, hard man, lain up in a bed at Henry’s home. It could be read from Henry’s father’s face that he was amused by the antics they were getting up to. (Henry did not disclose to the viewers what was wrong with Henry’s father.) Henry and friends would scribble rude and snarky captions with spray paint underneath public billboards depicting villages of minimalist architecture planted on Mars. Henry did not need to explain the political jabs and jokes mentioned in their vandalism, for all in the Kneipe laughed with Henry. Then the story moved an older Henry spotting the same painted comments on a foreign billboard in a foreign place.

Henry ended the story.

“I guess you could say that our political banter caught wind rather quickly,” Henry surmised with a smile.

Henry was praised with cheers: “Atta boy, Henry!” “You said it well!” “Damn those who left!”

The crowd thanked Henry for the story. All were happy and amused with themselves and more drinks and laughter multiplied in the hands and voices, respectively, in the Kneipe. Henry sat and rested well knowing that this snippet of his life brought not only amusement for the people around him now but a self-vindication that he made a good choice back then.

It was good to have done what I did, Henry thought to himself.

Henry worked diligently at finishing the massive mug of beer. Sporadically, others in the pub would come to see Henry and share a few thoughts and comments with him, mostly about the day or of recent happenings in Ruzemberok, but also of grander topics like the southern border and swelling of anxiety within other villages. The latter of these interest Henry only a little. It was Henry’s duty to enjoy the present time, enjoy the present setting, and enjoy the present people around him.

This, too, is a good thing, thought Henry; it is a good thing to tell of my life!

The hours crept on into the night, then onwards to the morn of the next day, but the pace of frivolity did not deaccelerate. Some earlier patrons did leave and were replaced by new but familiar faces.

“Henry, come on, now!” cried that voice of Stefan’s yet again. “Tell that other story! You know the one.”

Henry strained his neck to get a better view through the crowd. “Stefan! Where are you?” Henry asked.

There, in the middle of the pub, Henry spotted the back of Stefan: the tall, blonde-haired man pestering him all this evening to tell some forsaken story. He was moving his arms with great animation as he talked to others.

Henry stood quickly and made his way over to the centre of the Kneipe, unbeknownst to Sandra who was caught in a deep conversation with another woman.

Henry playfully confronted Stefan. He reached his arm on the tall man’s shoulder to turn him around. “Stefan, tell me, what has gotten into you?”

The man who turned was not Stefan. Initially jostled but subsequently delighted, this man reached both arms out to embrace Henry.

“There’s the good man!” he said. “You’re a real spitfire, Henry.” Henry suffered through the hard squeeze of the hug. “Thank you, Andrew.”

[To chapter 4]