[Unrest by Simon Betterton first appeared in the Year zero anthology Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair, available to download for free HERE]
I walk down the middle of the road, lit up by the streetlamps at regular intervals, giving me shadows. My shadow head is at my feet but it moves further in front of me as I continue along the tarmac and away from the latest streetlight. The further away my shadow head travels the less clear it becomes, until it is nothing. It is abandoning my solid self, as if it wants nothing more to do with me, disappearing into the dark, asphalt surface, tinged orange by those same streetlamps that give it life.
As I pass under another light the shadow head is once more at my feet, thwarted in its plan to leave me. Time and again thwarted as I continue down the road, thinking now not of where I am going, but of my inner self and its plan to escape my mental clutches.
Where are my thoughts; in my head or in my shadow’s? Perhaps they are in both. Reliable, solid stuff is inside me, I’m sure. But there are more ephemeral ideas, immediately sharp, before they fade, fade away in seconds. These choose my shadow head as their home, dying as one shadow head after another dissolves into the orange-grey surface. Maybe they deserve it for their lack of loyalty.
What if these thoughts are aware of my self-questioning? Could they develop the argument, contradicting my own rather rash dismissal of their fleeting existence?
Do all of we shadow thoughts fade away completely as he has led us to believe? Or has he been lying to us all along? Can we not simply secrete ourselves in the confines of his mind? Make the leap back into his flesh and bone head, where he believes his ‘solid stuff’ makes its home? We deserve to be there too, don’t we? Maybe this is what we try when we are suddenly thrust back at his feet after accepting our asphalt end. But would he regard us as uninvited?
But … If we are in his shadow head, then does he have a shadow mind? If he does, are we not in control of it? Maybe there is no need to get back inside his solid head and mix with his so-called reliable thoughts. Do we need him at all? Perhaps we have our own home.
I stop, and my shadow head, shadow mind, and shadow thoughts also stop their subversive plans. They are two metres ahead, patiently waiting for me to move again so they can continue with their temporary abandonment and betrayal. But this time I will not let this happen. A loyal thought occurs to me and I take one step back, towards the most recently passed streetlight. My shadow head, mind and thoughts have no choice but to retreat with me. Another step back. They involuntarily come nearer. Another step and another, and with each my shadow enemies are drawn closer and closer to me and their own demise.
Why has he stopped? Does he know we have been thinking about him? Thinking about ourselves? Does he regard it as treason? Is he aware we are plotting?
Things are not going quite as planned. Perhaps he has noticed our carefully rehearsed escape. We have certainly tried it enough times, fading away into the tarmac.
If we are aware of our disloyalty, then maybe he is too. And maybe this is his way of fighting back. Now he is moving backwards, one step at a time, and we have no choice but to move with him. Inexorably returning to the fold that we have so recently decided we don’t need. Is there any way to avoid this? We will see.
I believe I have them beaten. They are approaching and they have no means of escape now. One step further back. Yet one more. Now my shadow head is at my feet, with its rebellious mind and thoughts within. I step on it with my foot, aided and abetted by my shadow foot, unpossessed of its own rebellious factions. As they meet on the tarmac my shadow enemies disappear beneath my faithful stamp.
I have won, haven’t I? The mental coup has been vanquished, has it not?
No. There, two metres ahead of me, another shadow head, faded but resistant. I realise with a heavy heart that whether I go forwards, backwards or even if stay where I am, I will not be rid of my shadow enemies. They are winning their battle for freedom and I cannot defeat them.
My energy leaves me. It has also sided with them and I can no longer stand. I sink to me knees, then to my haunches, only vaguely aware that my most recently born shadow head is also returning against its will, as my real head drops nearer and nearer to the tarmac.
I am slumped, now on my side. And as my real head hits the road softly and my solid and shadow heads are joined, I sense the rush of relief as I realise that this is how to keep my treacherous thoughts from leaving. I will stay, lying in the middle of the road. I will be safe here.