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Library: frailness of man's memory

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Author: ulver
Date:Feb 13 2008

A man in his late sixties, called Howard Elkins, a distinguished gentleman but
living a life of solitude, was making a call on a tuesday afternoon.
He had realized that it will be the anniversary of the end of the war for him
and his comrades who he fought with. He liked to recall those times, as an
officer in a submarine, sinking U-boats of the axis or preying for their
convoys. And yet, as he constantly told to anyone who was willing to listen,
the
stories of it all, he never seemed to remember the same things twice, but
since his listeners were few, most likely nobody were ever to notice this.
He had in mind to arrange the party himself, although he was unsure how many 
would attend on such a short notice, or if indeed, they already had a party
planned.
In spite of all that, he called for a catering service, reserved the banquet
hall of Grand palace,
and ordered for himself a limousine to pick him up at 6pm, sharp.
That night, Howard had much trouble sleeping.

The morning woke Howard with it's blazing glare of sunlight through his
bedroom window,
he had taken out his old army uniform and placed it on a hanger, ready to be
worn once again,
and so he did, for the whole day he thought, it should only be proper to do
so. 
By afternoon tea, he was so anxious about the coming evening that he was
unable to stay 
seated, instead, he paced around his livingroom, glancing out the window or at
the clock every time
he passed them. Finally, his clock was nearing 6pm, and he felt sort of
relieved, atleast a little.
He wore his mantle, placed his hat on his head and went outside to wait for
his ride. Precisely at 6pm, 
it arrived, but only to startle him by the fact that it was driven by a young
girl, not much more than twenty
on her years. She came out to open the door for Howard. 

-Good evening Sir!; she said
-Good evening, said Howard coldly and entered.

The car started and began to slowly roll towards the highway and the city, and
in total silence.
Just as they approached the crossing of two big streets, they both heard a
lound noise of a car,
passing them with no lights and fast, too fast for these roads. The chauffer
girl said something
about crazy people who shouldn't be allowed to drive a car, and Howard thinked
to himself the same,
about girls so young as she. They turned and started their way into the
direction the speeding car had gone,
and after a short while, a loud crash. Howard's driver slowed down, and halted
on a sharp turn, where there were
tiretracks leading out of the road and a crashed car was turned upside down
near some woods.

Howard: Don't stop, there will be others to help, I must get to Grand Palace
or I miss everything!
The girl: I must, it is the law, besides, there must be somebody hurt inside,
at such speed they crashed.

Grudginly, they both came out of the car and walked towards the crashed car.
They heard moaning sounds,
and soon, saw two people crawling out of the wreckage, what luck must they
have to survive that kind of a crash,
said the girl. Howard and the girl went nearer to help them, two men it
seemed, one who had a nasty gash
on his head and was bleeding. They walked back to the limousine, and the girl
said to them to enter, so she 
could drive them to a hospital. Again Howard protested, on how his appointed
celebration would be all finished,
by the time he would arrive after such a delay. To the girls suprise, both of
the men also stated they had no interest
in going to a hospital, but rather a police or just to follow the car that
they had followed. The girl asked for a reason for
all this. The uninjured man told them about how they had been having a nice
time at a local pub, when someone had
spilled his drink on this old man who had been seating next to their table. He
told how the man had stood up, his eyes
blazing with rage, shouting about "You should be more careful, you don't know
who you are dealing with" and all this
was just amusing for a party of four, coming from the mouth of an frail old
man. After that, the man had left the pub,
and a while later, they heard crashing sounds and had went outside, and see
the man hitting their car with some sort
of a iron bar. By the time they had realized, and went to see closer, he had
smashed their windows and both headlights
into splinters, hopped in his own car and driven away towards the city.
Infuriated by all this, two of us started a pursuit,
to catch him or atleast catch his registration plates of the car he drove. And
that is how we crashed, going too fast,
I suppose, said the other. By the time their story had ended, they were
closing in on the city limits. 
The two men they had picked up, asked where Howard was heading to, and at the
mention of Grand Palace, 
they agreed to follow, for a drink or two, and to play maybe a game of dices,
since there was a casino near, and to
think how to catch the man who they were pursuing.

They arrived at the Grand Palace, only few minutes off the schedule of
Howard's. He paid the girl for the ride, and told her to wait for him. The
display of lights at the entrance of Grand Palace made Howard stop for a
moment, and then he continued towards the large twin doors with guards in red
uniforms on each side. As he made his way inside, he walked to the
receptionist standing behind a desk of marble and polished brass gleaming like
gold, and the receptionist, a middle-aged man wearing a black tuxedo, looked
as stiff as the marbled desk, impassive. Howard inquired about the banquet
hall, if all the preparations were ready for their anniversary, and still the
receptionist looked at him with blank eyes. Howard introduced himself, and was
blushing slightly as he was annoyed by the appearance of the receptionist to
his inquiries, as he seemed to have no records of Howard ever reserving a
banquet hall, nor did they even have one suitable on such a short notice he
said.
Howard was confused, and was guided by the receptionist into a bar near the
casino games, who told Howard that maybe a drink might help you more than he
could. Howard walked towards the bar, and noticed a small news stand close by.
He approached the stand, and thought he might as well buy the news paper for
today, and as he thought about it, was unsure which day it was. Dazed and lost
in his thoughts, the man selling papers coughed loudly, and asked if he could
help.
Howard browsed quickly through the magazines, and particulary a pile of
magazines named World of War catched his eye.
There were volumes from past years and he started to browse from the oldest.
To his suprise, there started from the end of
second world war, and two of them even had headlines of submarines, just like
the ones he had served on. He briefly looked at the articles and was
dissapointed at them having no mention of his old ship, and continued to
browse through the pile.
As he came to year 1977, the year he thought it to be, he was suprised, very
suprised, to notice that there were alot of
more volumes, frantically he went through them all and halted with the year
2011 printed on the latest. His heart seemed to miss a beat or two. Howard
asked the vendor how was this possible, and asked him what year it was. The
vendor looking amused, said it was 2011, soon to turn into 2012 as it was
close to new years eve. Howard looked dumbfounded, his step faltered as he
staggered backwards out of the news paper stand. Everything around him went
black, all sounds escaped him except the pounding of his heart, until he heard
a grating voice speak behind him, creaking like that of an old rusty gate, but
somehow so familiar that he snapped his head up and turned. An old man, older
than he could guess was standing behind him, wearing a black, neatly cut suit.
"Good to see you again this year, old friend" said the man with a tone of
sarcasm in his voice. Howard was unsure if he had even met this man before,
and stated so out loud. The man laughed at Howard, and said "it doesn't
matter, this is how it has been for these past decades, you come in each year
and never remember me"
"but you do remember your old shipmate, lieutenant Barkley, don't you?" 
Howard thought for a fraction of a second before it hit him. "Yes, I remember"
Barkley, looking at Howard smiled, "But you don't remember what happened?" 
"What do you mean?" asked Howard
Again, the man called Barkley laughed. "Let's go have a drink shall we" and
walked towards the bar.


As soon as they had seated and Barkley had ordered a bottle of good vintage
scotch whiskey, did Howard start to speak.
"What do you mean what happened, I remember the war, and how we fought and
won, and how we have always celebrated to this date, on this same day, the day
it all ended, but where are all the others, is this some kind of a joke?" 
Barkley looked at Howard, slight shadow of sadness passing in his eyes before
he anwered. "You have come here all these years, and every year we have this
conversation" he sighed and continued. "You remember, after they had called us
home, how we had such a good time, joking and talking about all the things we
would do once we got back home?" "Sure I do" said Howard and smiled. "You do
remember how that german U-boat we encountered only hundreds of miles before
reaching the harbour?" Howard, puzzled for a moment shook his head. "They had
not heard the news of the war ending, maybe they had bust their radio, or
maybe they didn't care, but they shot at us, and sent a torpedo that struck us
on the aft, blowing up our engines and sending us sinking into the atlantic."
Howard, his eyes wide listened, shook his head, "this cannot be true, I
remember nothing of such things." Barkley continued his story; "As soon as we
had been hit, there were only a handful able to operate, most had either lost
their consciousness in the blast, or already drowned, but the captain managed
to signal out an SOS signal while the few us climbed out the hatch and escaped
that fastly sinking grave. We had only one small lifeboat, but there was a
storm approaching" Barkley paused to sip his drink and eye Howard before
continuing. "There were five of us who finally managed to get out, but with
the storm on top of us, we had slim chances of survival. Just before the
sundown, we heard a helicopter in the distance, and shot a flare" Howard had
closed his eyes and was listening with intense concentration showing on his
face. Barkley sighed and continued again "You were laying unconscious on the
bottom of the raft, as you had hit your head on the way out, and we had to
drag you through the final hatch. The helicopter arrived with the last
remaining light on the horizon, and they lowered a rope to pull us in, all the
while, the storm was getting more fierce and they had trouble keeping in
place. We tied you on the rope, and I was hanging on to you, an
d just as you were being hauled up, you woke up and started to twitch and
scream. You kicked me and hit me on the face, and I fell back into the raging
sea as they raised you onto the helicopter. They attempted another landing,
but the storm had gathered in force and they were unable to pull anyone else
up, so they left us on our own." Barkley looked at Howard who had opened his
eyes and was staring in horror at Barkley as he spoke again "At that time, me
and the others woved, to never forget this, and even if it was an accident,
somehow we blamed you for it. It was only two weeks later that we were found,
by small boat of fishermen. At that time, only two us were alive. We never
sought to look for you, instead, we inspired to somehow get a revenge for all
this, and after years of hard work, we were in position to do so." Howard had
regained some of his composure, and looked at Barkley, "What do you mean with
revenge?" he asked. Barkley smiled, and said "We had gained such influtential
positions in life, where as you had spent time in a hospital and doing odd
jobs, getting married, until we found out who you were" "We conspired to drive
you off the society, slowly turning you into an outcast. We made sure you
would never have a job, and your wife left you because of it, we even made you
disappear from most public records, after which you were turned in to an
asylum." "We had our revenge, but it didn't taste so sweet after all." Barkley
looked sad and Howard just gazed at him in disbelief and horror. "..Why, how
could you do such a thing, it was an accident!" Howard asked in a loud voice.
"It all was such rough time, that it all just swept us with it, just like that
storm swept away our hope." "Anyway, for twenty years now, you have come here
to celebrate something that never was, a happy group of heroes of war, and
every year we have this conversation, and you just forget it all" "I have
asked for your forgiveness each time, and every year you just run away."
Barkley looked old, and broken, sadness was hanging around him like a heavy
cloud. Howard, still shocked, was unable to tell if this was just a bad dream,
and he would awaken in sweat soon, he even pinched himself but nothing. 
"How could I forgive you for what you have done, you took away my life,
everything, even my sanity." asked Howard as he stood up. "If all this is
true, I don't know if I can ever forgive you, and if you can ever accept it as
so." He started to walk away, 
Barkley coming after him and pleading "If you never forgive me, I can never
die in peace, and neither will you" Howard just shook his head and walked on,
out the doors of the Grand Palace and headed for a big square across the
casino, where large fountain was doing it's never ending display of water and
lights. Howard stopped, looked around for a place to sit and sat down to a
bench made of grey rock. It was moist with the sprays coming from the
fountain, but he didn't notice. He just sat and stared at the fountain,
thinking. Finally he rose, as he had an idea. Already were things from
yesterday becoming hazy, like a dream you slowly forget as you wake up. He
walked towards a group of people, wearing glittering evening dresses and fine
suits, laughing and obviously enjoying some fresh air, instead that of the
stale casino. He walked at a man who wasn''t talking to anyone at the time,
and asked him; "Can you see me, what do I look like" But the man just stared
past him. He walked to another who had stopped talking and asked "Can you see
me, do you know me?" and again, nothing, not even a blink. He looked at
himself for the first time that evening and saw, not an uniform with gleaming
medals, but instead just rags, pants and jacket barely recognizable as suchs,
hanging tatters and clotted dirt in patches. He rose his head and looked at
the people, again laughing at and starting to take their leave, as the night
was chill. Howard walked for the last time towards them, and asked "Can you
see me, am I real?" and as he heard no response, struck one man with his hand,
which passed right through him like air. Everything seemed to fade away from
Howard's view, becoming just a blur, and then, he was alone, again.


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