Oliver’s Twist

When Oliver woke up that morning, he could sense something was amiss. For one thing, he felt rested—which never happened. Even more significantly, the only thing coming in through the open window was—silence.

He looked out onto a street full of slumbering cars. It unnerved him.

Finding the remote, he turned on the TV.

“We are potentially all at risk as it is yet unknown how quickly the virus may spread,” the reporter was saying in a cheerful, peppy tone. “The government has therefore declared a state of emergency, banning all citizens from leaving their homes without a face mask.”

While the words were still fading into his consciousness, he heard his phone vibrate—briefly but resolutely.

“Due to present health crisis, all employees are to work from home until further notice. Email communication to follow.”

Although Oliver had occasionally worked from home before, it had never been on his boss’ orders. He looked up from his phone and in a single glance captured the entire living space of his studio apartment. Instantly, something gripped his throat with an ever-tightening squeeze.

“Must go out!” his brain was screaming.

“Must go out!” his legs were pulling him.

“Must go out!” every single cell in his body was chanting.

Pulling on yesterday’s pants and the sweater he’d meant to have washed a week earlier, he tied a bandanna around his nose and mouth and broke out of the confinement of his four walls.

He sped down the stairs and was out of the building in seconds, but didn’t stop running until he reached the park.

Predictably, there were no people around. It was barely ten minutes after seven.

Oliver looked up at the sky—the vast, endless canopy overhead—and felt the grip around his throat relax. He could breathe again. He could enjoy life again: The crazy birds with their boisterous arguments, the air fragrant with nascent spring. It was all there.

He made his way to the pond where the ducks and the moorhens observed their breakfast quietly. But as he leaned over, to get a closer view of this spectacle, he noticed his own reflection and saw the unnatural muzzle. He could have sworn it was beginning to tighten around his face.

His throat closed up again. His nose refused to take in air and his mouth was just gasping and gaping. In a fit of panic, Oliver took to his feet again and did not stop running until he had shut his apartment door behind him.

“Free at last!” he announced jubilantly to no one in particular as he ripped off his makeshift face mask.

His smile soon faded. Here it was again: The same four walls closing in on him.

He looked at his watch. The dial read 7:25. And a voice inside his head came mocking him, “Until further notice.”

It was going to be a long day.


Carried along

He spoke with a mild African accent, if you know what I mean. Not the sort of accent you’d call soft; rather, mild. But it wasn’t his accent that first caught my attention. It was his linen robe made out of several stripes of different colors, carefully sewn together, as if to last an entire lifetime. He was just about to pass me when, after a moment’s hesitation, he stopped right in front my face.

He asked about a place in my town, and could I take him there. I slightly raised my eyebrows in an expression of surprise, but immediately checked myself and said I wouldn’t mind.

There was a dull silence before either of us said another word. I can still hear the streetcars screeching over the bends and the pep talk of the early-morning engines, encouraging the two of us to start a conversation. But none of us really felt like it.

It wasn’t that we found each other uninteresting. There were tons of questions I could have thought of, in fact. Still, maybe we just didn’t know what to start with. And maybe we suspected that the answers would anything but quench our curiosity.

“Watch out!” I said, noticing that my companion had stepped onto the road after he’d looked the wrong way.

“Oh,” said he, “thank you.” Another pause followed.

“You know,” he suddenly turned to me, some 10 meters past the road crossing, “this isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. But I must say I’ve been lucky so far.”

He frowned a bit to himself. “This,” he continued, pulling up his sleeve,” is as bad as it got.”

He now revealed a purple bruise on his arm. “Not too bad, huh?” he asked me. “And, of course, a couple scratches here and there.”

I smiled politely, or intended to, for that matter. I never knew if he’d noticed because he just went on explaining.

“Back home people drive on the left side of the road, you know? Don’t ask me why. It’s always been like that, I guess. But then – you guys have been driving on the right side as far back as anyone remembers. Maybe it’s something to do with the hemispheres…”

“They also drive cars on the left in Britain,” I objected.

“Do they,” he seemed surprised. “Well, I guess that ruins my theory, then.”

“I’m afraid so,” I nodded.

For another minute my companion seemed to be absorbed in his own thoughts. He pressed his lips together and bit one corner of his mouth. A second later, his eyes had spotted a bakery.

“Hey,” he exclaimed, “can we stop over for some breakfast?”

“Sure,” I shrugged my shoulders.

We bought some nice pastry and ate it with hot cocoa as some sort of religious ceremony. I looked around a bit every now and then, only to find people employed in the same ritual. My companion noticed it and smiled.

“Breakfast is breakfast,” he said, “whether you drive your car on the left or right side of the road.”

We slowly finished the pastry and the hot cocoa, and left the bakery. Yet, out of the corner of my eye I could see him taking in the smell of fresh bread for another 100 meters. And I was doing the same.

“As I was saying,” he started over again, “back home people drive on the left side of the road. What do you suppose – which is better? To drive on the right, like you do, or to drive on the left, like we do?”

“Left sounds good,” I blurted out not to offend my companion.

“Nonsense,” he replied. “Do you think fewer accidents happen when you drive on the left side of the road?”

“Not here,” I attempted to joke my way off the subject.

“Nor anywhere else,” my companion said. He seemed determined to go on, so I let him talk.

“The truth is neither of us really knows which is better. That leaves us with two possibilities – either both ways of driving are equally good (or bad, when it comes to that), or one of them is better, but we can’t really tell which.”

“I suppose so,” I shrugged my shoulders again.

“Now, if both ways are equally good, both your people and my people can lie down and sleep and feel safe. But what if one these ways of driving is wrong – what then?”

It began to dawn on me. “You’re not trying to tell me you came all the way from Africa to figure this one out, are you?” I asked unbelievingly.

“No,” he said quickly. “That’s not the only reason I came. There are many more questions waiting to be answered.”

“Like what?” I was curious.

“Oh, you’ll see for yourself,” he waved his hand, “once you’ve made this question your major concern.”

“You must be joking,” I guessed. “There are things far more important than that. I don’t have time to spend my life trying to figure out which side of the road is better to drive on.”

“Then,” he said with an almost theatrical gesture, “you’ll never know the answer.”

That left me stunned and for a good while I could not bring myself to say anything. I just stood there, watching the cars and motorbikes quickly passing by. Were people naturally right-handed or were they left-handed? Did they naturally prefer cars or motorbikes? Would younger children prefer the same means of transport as the older ones?

I finally realized what had happened inside me. I managed to make the left-or-right question the center of my attention for once. And all the other questions were beginning to come up. I turned to my companion, quite satisfied with myself, but – my companion was no longer there.

At first I thought it was a miracle, or a sign from some deity. I found out a minute later my wallet was missing and so was my cell phone. Even worse, I still didn’t know which side of the road was better. But I decided if this was the price to pay, it really wasn’t worth knowing anyway.


Nothing happened

I personally found those days enervating. Long and toilsome. The several times my friend Jason asked me how I was doing on the writing front I had to respond that there was no time. I mean I was doing fine on other fronts — redecorating our apartment, spending time with my wife, even reading. But somehow my mind was empty as to the potential subject matter.

I was often left wondering what I would do if I could never again produce a single sentence worthy of a second one. I dreaded just the thought of it. And as the days progressed my fears seemed to be getting painfully real.

“I am a sore loser,” I said. I wanted to hear my wife’s reaction.

“Why would you say that?” she replied. That was not the right reaction. None would have been.

“It’s not a matter of whether I would. I just did.”

“Well, why did you?” Another bad reaction.

“Oh, don’t bother,” I said, rising from my sofa, overcome by a surge of righteous anger.

“I won’t,” she added lightly, upsetting the last bits of my delicate ego.

You can see now how empty I felt. It was like waiting for Godot when you know the funny fellow’s never really going to show up. I hoped my wife at least would turn a compassionate ear to me, but she acted as if she was trying to raise my spirits by being cheerful herself. That really got me down.

One day, as we were going through our sore-loser routine, my wife seemed to have forgotten her lines.

“You know,” she said with not half the joyfulness of the previous days, “I think I’ve heard this enough times. I can’t take it anymore.”

“Fine,” I replied, “go and find somebody else to live with, then.”

“I will,” she agreed and continued doing the dishes.

I watched her for one more hour and as she made no effort to keep her promise I thought I might as well leave in search of a kindred spirit myself.

I left the apartment without further ado. I wondered when was my wife going to find out I had gone. I could picture her running around the rooms, on the verge of collapsing with despair, checking every tiny crack in the walls. But I would be nowhere to be found.

I grinned with disgust. Nothing like that was ever going to happen. If my wife ever discovered I’d left, she would simply shrug her shoulders and go to bed same time as usual, then get up the next day as usual and do everything else as usual. But I doubted she would even notice. I had been right, after all. I was a sore loser.

I made my way through a group of people surrounding a street entertainer. Down the road an old man was selling hotdogs and corn on the cob. I looked at him as I imagine some junkie would, big sunken eyes bulging out of their sockets. He smiled awkwardly, expecting business. I took out some coins and held them up on the palm of my hand. I looked at him, at the coins, back at him, back at the coins. The old man frowned. I dropped the coins into his outstretched hand and turning away, I set off.

I could hear him yell after me and the louder he did, the more pleased I was with myself. At least I got someone upset.

Grinning in a Mr-Hydeish way I pictured my wife again — desperate, her hair unkempt, her clothes torn at places, revealing some of her more intimate places. Crying her head off. Begging me to forgive her. It really turned me on.

I made up my mind. I would go and make her suffer. Show her who’s the boss. Let her feel my contempt. My revenge.

With great determination I pressed the door handle. The door opened slowly, almost soundlessly. I made for the kitchen. She wasn’t there. I halted abruptly, then turned, slightly raising my finger.

“Well,” I heard her voice from the hall. “It’s been fun. Enjoy the rest of your life.” The hat on her head, her long coat and her tightly packed suitcase were all I could see of her. Then the door slammed shut.