Tomorrowscape

The future, if you think about it as simply another place to go you’ve never gone before, is bound to have its ups and down, its pitfalls and impasses not that that’s deterred billions of us - refugees from the present - from blithely heading off into the unknown even though we haven’t the foggiest notion what it’ll be like. We arrive, often ill-prepared, weighed down by expectations, some reasonable, most not, but the one thing all of us know for sure is once we scramble across that border under cover of night there’s no turning back. It’s as well we don’t know how the land lies. It's hard to believe the grass can possibly get any greener than the stuff we’re used to, but we have to be sure. Understandably, in time, we start to miss where we’ve been before and wish we were back there, but there’s no going back - like some monstrous puzzle everything’s moved on and the past’s never where we thought we left it.
 
Do you see that man over there, the one perched on that park bench fiddling with that envelope in his hand? At first glance you wouldn’t think he was capable of the kind of hurt he’s going to dish out tomorrow. He looks like a librarian but that says everything.
 
Look at him, poor wretch. It’s killing him trying to get through the next five minutes. Yes, life’s a journey - no one would ever argue with that, and much of it uphill (with, or without, a boulder to shoulder) - but it’s not a journey without toilet breaks on the way; every day we get to stop for a bit, stretch our legs, set up camp, take in our surroundings and fritter away our time which is exactly what he’s doing right now. The trek from right now through tomorrow’s going to be so hard on that fellow. It’s like this: he’s going to get some news from the past when he does get around to ripping open that envelope and what he’s going to discover is that that past’s changed beyond all recognition and his present’s about to do the very same. Just because it’s Tuesday and someone tells you it’s Belgium you don’t have to believe them.
 
He's not a complete fool - he knows he can’t go back to his salad days. He’s been mostly content up till now and he’ll continue to be up until he finds out all about his wife’s extramarital shenanigans. When that happens (and it will as soon as he reads what’s in that envelope - what is taking him so long?), everything will change. The present will become unbearable but there'll be no comfort in the past - he won't be able to trust any of his memories - so onwards will be the only course of action that'll be left to him, the only thing that'll even hint at the possibility of any relief. Assuming, that is, there's no afterlife to carry his pain on into.
 
Tomorrow afternoon his wife’s due back from her trip. She is on a business trip this time and that’s the irony of it - there wasn’t time for her to arrange her usual adulterous activities due to the venue being changed at the last minute. That won’t have stopped her picking up someone at the hotel bar and making do; needs must.
 
It’s hard to know what to take with you on a journey. You can’t pack everything; there’s no room for everything. Our friend in the park will start to decide shortly, sitting there surrounded by daft pigeons who live only for the moment, exactly what he’ll need tomorrow. It’s to be expected he’ll choose anger, hurt, possibly disappointment. He’ll swither about violence. A part of him’ll want to take it but it’s not something you’re likely to use more than once or twice if at all and it does use up so much energy. There’s always forgiveness and compassion, love and understanding, but he won’t expect it to be that kind of trip. If he needs them tomorrow maybe he’ll be able to scrabble around and see what he can dig up there. No, he’ll decide it’s better to travel light and leave it at that; then he’ll drive home and not sleep.
 
This is what’ll happen: tomorrow, as she walks in the front door, he’s going to be in the hall waiting for her. It’s where she would expect him to be, either there, or coming out of their kitchen having just put the kettle on to boil so this won’t look even a tiny bit suspicious. He’s a thoughtful sort; he knows she appreciates a coffee in her special mug as soon as she gets through the door. Tomorrow the kettle won’t be on though. If it’s even filled it’ll be pure chance and there’s no accounting for that no matter where you go.
 
The thing is, despite all the deliberation that’s going to take place between now and then, despite all his efforts to be rational, he’s going to find he’s lifted all the wrong feelings. No sooner will his wife have settled her case on the floor and stood up to hug him, as is their routine, he’s going to strike her full across the face with such force that she’ll smash her head against the wall. He’s a southpaw so she’ll doubtless catch the mirror on the way down. Immediately afterwards he’ll experience a tremendous surge of relief. It’ll catch him unawares and, for longer than you’d think possible, he’ll stand there in the throes of the most powerful adrenaline rush of his life. Once that has passed - and only once that has fully passed - will he bend down to see why she’s still lying on the carpet. Only then will he realise he’s killed her.
 
The fault, let’s be clear on this, is not tomorrow’s. Tomorrow had hoped to be just another day, a quiet day with no upsets, no lumps, bumps or bruises, let alone dead bodies. You can’t blame the open road if the brakes fail on your car. You can’t blame the laws of physics for doing their job either.
 
And, while we’re on the subject of roads, did you ever wonder why the chicken crossed the road? To get to the other side? It’s the most clichéd of jokes. No matter what side of the road it’s on there’s always another side for it not to be on. You can’t imagine a chicken wandering up and down the side of the road looking for a safe place to cross. They don’t call it a bird brain for nothing. Eventually, though, it will find its way to ‘the other side’. Think about it; it’s a far, far subtler joke that people realise.
 
Our friend’ll get through tomorrow like the rest of us, and that’s the thing, we mostly always do get through our tomorrows. A decent insurance pay-out - facilitated by sloppy police work - can take the sting out of most things. But it won't change anything. Not for him, not for us. We'll all of us keep on packing up and moving on, packing up and moving on, crossing over from one day to the next in the night, and then the next, convinced against all rational argument that that next tomorrow will be the one, will be better or at least sufficiently different, until one day we find ourselves caught in Life's headlights and we freeze. And then it’s all over.
 
It’s sad really. Maybe it was funny once but not anymore - not in the slightest.
 
 
© Jim Murdoch 2013
 
Tomorrowscape is from Jim Murdoch's 2013 short story collection Making Sense.

The future, if you think about it as simply another place to go you’ve never gone before, is bound to have its ups and down, its pitfalls and impasses not that that’s deterred billions of us - refugees from the present - from blithely heading off into the unknown even though we haven’t the foggiest notion what it’ll be like. We arrive, often ill-prepared, weighed down by expectations, some reasonable, most not, but the one thing all of us know for sure is once we scramble across that border under cover of night there’s no turning back. It’s as well we don’t know how the land lies. It's hard to believe the grass can possibly get any greener than the stuff we’re used to, but we have to be sure. Understandably, in time, we start to miss where we’ve been before and wish we were back there, but there’s no going back - like some monstrous puzzle everything’s moved on and the past’s never where we thought we left it.
 
Do you see that man over there, the one perched on that park bench fiddling with that envelope in his hand? At first glance you wouldn’t think he was capable of the kind of hurt he’s going to dish out tomorrow. He looks like a librarian but that says everything.
 
Look at him, poor wretch. It’s killing him trying to get through the next five minutes. Yes, life’s a journey - no one would ever argue with that, and much of it uphill (with, or without, a boulder to shoulder) - but it’s not a journey without toilet breaks on the way; every day we get to stop for a bit, stretch our legs, set up camp, take in our surroundings and fritter away our time which is exactly what he’s doing right now. The trek from right now through tomorrow’s going to be so hard on that fellow. It’s like this: he’s going to get some news from the past when he does get around to ripping open that envelope and what he’s going to discover is that that past’s changed beyond all recognition and his present’s about to do the very same. Just because it’s Tuesday and someone tells you it’s Belgium you don’t have to believe them.
 
He's not a complete fool - he knows he can’t go back to his salad days. He’s been mostly content up till now and he’ll continue to be up until he finds out all about his wife’s extramarital shenanigans. When that happens (and it will as soon as he reads what’s in that envelope - what is taking him so long?), everything will change. The present will become unbearable but there'll be no comfort in the past - he won't be able to trust any of his memories - so onwards will be the only course of action that'll be left to him, the only thing that'll even hint at the possibility of any relief. Assuming, that is, there's no afterlife to carry his pain on into.
 
Tomorrow afternoon his wife’s due back from her trip. She is on a business trip this time and that’s the irony of it - there wasn’t time for her to arrange her usual adulterous activities due to the venue being changed at the last minute. That won’t have stopped her picking up someone at the hotel bar and making do; needs must.
 
It’s hard to know what to take with you on a journey. You can’t pack everything; there’s no room for everything. Our friend in the park will start to decide shortly, sitting there surrounded by daft pigeons who live only for the moment, exactly what he’ll need tomorrow. It’s to be expected he’ll choose anger, hurt, possibly disappointment. He’ll swither about violence. A part of him’ll want to take it but it’s not something you’re likely to use more than once or twice if at all and it does use up so much energy. There’s always forgiveness and compassion, love and understanding, but he won’t expect it to be that kind of trip. If he needs them tomorrow maybe he’ll be able to scrabble around and see what he can dig up there. No, he’ll decide it’s better to travel light and leave it at that; then he’ll drive home and not sleep.
 
This is what’ll happen: tomorrow, as she walks in the front door, he’s going to be in the hall waiting for her. It’s where she would expect him to be, either there, or coming out of their kitchen having just put the kettle on to boil so this won’t look even a tiny bit suspicious. He’s a thoughtful sort; he knows she appreciates a coffee in her special mug as soon as she gets through the door. Tomorrow the kettle won’t be on though. If it’s even filled it’ll be pure chance and there’s no accounting for that no matter where you go.
 
The thing is, despite all the deliberation that’s going to take place between now and then, despite all his efforts to be rational, he’s going to find he’s lifted all the wrong feelings. No sooner will his wife have settled her case on the floor and stood up to hug him, as is their routine, he’s going to strike her full across the face with such force that she’ll smash her head against the wall. He’s a southpaw so she’ll doubtless catch the mirror on the way down. Immediately afterwards he’ll experience a tremendous surge of relief. It’ll catch him unawares and, for longer than you’d think possible, he’ll stand there in the throes of the most powerful adrenaline rush of his life. Once that has passed - and only once that has fully passed - will he bend down to see why she’s still lying on the carpet. Only then will he realise he’s killed her.
 
The fault, let’s be clear on this, is not tomorrow’s. Tomorrow had hoped to be just another day, a quiet day with no upsets, no lumps, bumps or bruises, let alone dead bodies. You can’t blame the open road if the brakes fail on your car. You can’t blame the laws of physics for doing their job either.
 
And, while we’re on the subject of roads, did you ever wonder why the chicken crossed the road? To get to the other side? It’s the most clichéd of jokes. No matter what side of the road it’s on there’s always another side for it not to be on. You can’t imagine a chicken wandering up and down the side of the road looking for a safe place to cross. They don’t call it a bird brain for nothing. Eventually, though, it will find its way to ‘the other side’. Think about it; it’s a far, far subtler joke that people realise.
 
Our friend’ll get through tomorrow like the rest of us, and that’s the thing, we mostly always do get through our tomorrows. A decent insurance pay-out - facilitated by sloppy police work - can take the sting out of most things. But it won't change anything. Not for him, not for us. We'll all of us keep on packing up and moving on, packing up and moving on, crossing over from one day to the next in the night, and then the next, convinced against all rational argument that that next tomorrow will be the one, will be better or at least sufficiently different, until one day we find ourselves caught in Life's headlights and we freeze. And then it’s all over.
 
It’s sad really. Maybe it was funny once but not anymore - not in the slightest.
 
 
© Jim Murdoch 2013
 
Tomorrowscape is from Jim Murdoch's 2013 short story collection Making Sense.

POST RECITAL

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TALK

BR: What exactly is an author's “voice”? Maybe it's possible that when Jim Murdoch is writing at his desk in Glasgow, the voice in his head sounds like someone else entirely. We interviewed him by email. Here's one version of the result...
 
TN: On The Strange Recital, we feature stories that "question the nature of reality." With that in mind, why do you suppose we chose Tomorrowscape?
 
ES: Because the narrator can see clearly into the future. In writing we don't bat an eye when we encounter an omniscient narrator. We realise they're a device; they're not real. But what if they were? And why should all-knowingness end with the present? If you know everything that's happened, how hard would it be to extrapolate from there? I had a rigorous religious upbringing which I've never completely shucked off but it's also proved to be a rich source of inspiration. From an early age I was familiar with the concept of prophecy although I could never quite reconcile how, since we supposedly have free will, God could be so sure of what was going to happen unless he manipulated events along the way - which, on more than one occasion, he did. Of course if you asked the faithful how God could know what was going to happen the retort would be, "Because He's God," but that always bothered me. It's like saying birds fly because they're birds.
 
BR: Quantum physics suggest that time and space are mental constructs that we humans need. Future, present, and past are actually simultaneous, more like a pool than a string. Events ripple in all directions. Does this story point toward those ideas?
 
ES: I only took Science at school for as long as it was compulsory. It never really interested me and yet I'm fascinated by science fiction. As a child I didn't read a lot of it other than the irregular Marvel and DC comics that came my way but I adored shows like The Outer Limits and Out of the Unknown. They suggested other possibilities. One of these was we are not as in control of our lives as we imagine; that free will, for example, is as much an illusion as time is. There was an article in The Independent only last year showing how the mind rewrites our experiences to better suit our beliefs. I don't know the first time someone suggested we're all characters of someone's dream but I've always been captivated by the idea. Prophecy's easy-peasy if you've traveled from the future and know what's about to happen.
 
TN: I've noticed that first person narrators in fiction seem to be all the rage these days. But in this story, you chose an omniscient third person. Why?
 
ES: Allen Ginsberg had a motto—"First thought, best thought"—and although I don't agree with him entirely I have to admit I don't think too much before putting pen to paper. 'Tomorowscape' is one of about forty short stories I wrote between the end of 1999 and early 2000. I'd come home from work, sit down at my computer and without a second thought begin to type. Never once did a usable story fail to emerge. So I'm not saying there was no choice - obviously there was - but there was no... let's go with “prior contemplation.” All the stories I dashed off over that period have strong voices and it was the voice inevitably that dictated (or at least suggested) the direction the narrative should take.
 
BR: This particular narrative voice is one you've used in some of your other fiction as well - a third person with a very conversational manner, a distinct point of view, a personality. Almost like a character in the story, but one that is never named. Can you say more about that narrator?
 
ES: I’ve difficulty visualising characters and scenes when I read. I'm not saying I have aphantasia but that images aren't especially important to me and if you have a think back to all the stories in my collection Making Sense you'll find few descriptions of anything. I loved the design of the film Dogville with its chalk outlines and non-existent walls. So although this narrator—and the bolshy one in my story “Monsters” even more so - possess distinct personalities and have, if you like, stepped from behind the curtain to better tell their characters' tales. I've never pictured them as anything more than a voice in the dark. Of course in this story it's hard not to see the narrator as a Rod Serling type but in these changing times there's no reason why he couldn't be a she.
 
BR: As you can tell, I'm very interested in narrative voice. In The Writers Studio in New York, which I attended for some years, the theory was that we connect the deepest with our material when we get our own conscious agenda out of the way. We do that by "hiring" a narrator who is not our own self. We focus on technical craft to do that. Then, emotional truth sneaks in the back door, so to speak, bypassing any preconceived ideas. Our unique voice comes through because we are who we are, it can't be otherwise. What do you think about those ideas?
 
ES: I've written poetry for some forty-five years but I've never read publicly. Twice I've recorded poems when asked, and with some reluctance and I can't say I was happy with either of my efforts. I was thinking earlier about voice and something dawned on me - something blindingly obvious and yet I can't say I'd noticed it before: the voice in my head is not the voice I speak with. I'm not even sure it has an accent and it definitely doesn't struggle with sibilants.
 
All my characters are me, some aspect of me, but none of them are me and you'll find scant biographical data in any of my prose; the poetry comes from a different place and has its own agenda. The man in 'Tomorrowscape' certainly isn't me and, of course, he can't hear the narrator but that doesn't mean he isn't listening to his own inner voice laying out the pros and cons for him, not what will happen but certainly what might. How many times have I sat like him preparing to face the future? How many times have we all, with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other? Would it not be comforting to know there was a Plan, as with Philip K. Dick's The Adjustment Bureau, or even God's grand plan in the Bible if that’s the way you want to go - and ultimately we can’t be held responsible for our actions?
 
TN: I know I try all the time to not to be held responsible. One last question: are you now or have you ever been a bearded man from Scotland?
 
ES: Hmm, well maybe that is exactly who I am. A listener or a reader can never really know, can they?

BR: What exactly is an author's “voice”? Maybe it's possible that when Jim Murdoch is writing at his desk in Glasgow, the voice in his head sounds like someone else entirely. We interviewed him by email. Here's one version of the result...
 
TN: On The Strange Recital, we feature stories that "question the nature of reality." With that in mind, why do you suppose we chose Tomorrowscape?
 
ES: Because the narrator can see clearly into the future. In writing we don't bat an eye when we encounter an omniscient narrator. We realise they're a device; they're not real. But what if they were? And why should all-knowingness end with the present? If you know everything that's happened, how hard would it be to extrapolate from there? I had a rigorous religious upbringing which I've never completely shucked off but it's also proved to be a rich source of inspiration. From an early age I was familiar with the concept of prophecy although I could never quite reconcile how, since we supposedly have free will, God could be so sure of what was going to happen unless he manipulated events along the way - which, on more than one occasion, he did. Of course if you asked the faithful how God could know what was going to happen the retort would be, "Because He's God," but that always bothered me. It's like saying birds fly because they're birds.
 
BR: Quantum physics suggest that time and space are mental constructs that we humans need. Future, present, and past are actually simultaneous, more like a pool than a string. Events ripple in all directions. Does this story point toward those ideas?
 
ES: I only took Science at school for as long as it was compulsory. It never really interested me and yet I'm fascinated by science fiction. As a child I didn't read a lot of it other than the irregular Marvel and DC comics that came my way but I adored shows like The Outer Limits and Out of the Unknown. They suggested other possibilities. One of these was we are not as in control of our lives as we imagine; that free will, for example, is as much an illusion as time is. There was an article in The Independent only last year showing how the mind rewrites our experiences to better suit our beliefs. I don't know the first time someone suggested we're all characters of someone's dream but I've always been captivated by the idea. Prophecy's easy-peasy if you've traveled from the future and know what's about to happen.
 
TN: I've noticed that first person narrators in fiction seem to be all the rage these days. But in this story, you chose an omniscient third person. Why?
 
ES: Allen Ginsberg had a motto—"First thought, best thought"—and although I don't agree with him entirely I have to admit I don't think too much before putting pen to paper. 'Tomorowscape' is one of about forty short stories I wrote between the end of 1999 and early 2000. I'd come home from work, sit down at my computer and without a second thought begin to type. Never once did a usable story fail to emerge. So I'm not saying there was no choice - obviously there was - but there was no... let's go with “prior contemplation.” All the stories I dashed off over that period have strong voices and it was the voice inevitably that dictated (or at least suggested) the direction the narrative should take.
 
BR: This particular narrative voice is one you've used in some of your other fiction as well - a third person with a very conversational manner, a distinct point of view, a personality. Almost like a character in the story, but one that is never named. Can you say more about that narrator?
 
ES: I’ve difficulty visualising characters and scenes when I read. I'm not saying I have aphantasia but that images aren't especially important to me and if you have a think back to all the stories in my collection Making Sense you'll find few descriptions of anything. I loved the design of the film Dogville with its chalk outlines and non-existent walls. So although this narrator—and the bolshy one in my story “Monsters” even more so - possess distinct personalities and have, if you like, stepped from behind the curtain to better tell their characters' tales. I've never pictured them as anything more than a voice in the dark. Of course in this story it's hard not to see the narrator as a Rod Serling type but in these changing times there's no reason why he couldn't be a she.
 
BR: As you can tell, I'm very interested in narrative voice. In The Writers Studio in New York, which I attended for some years, the theory was that we connect the deepest with our material when we get our own conscious agenda out of the way. We do that by "hiring" a narrator who is not our own self. We focus on technical craft to do that. Then, emotional truth sneaks in the back door, so to speak, bypassing any preconceived ideas. Our unique voice comes through because we are who we are, it can't be otherwise. What do you think about those ideas?
 
ES: I've written poetry for some forty-five years but I've never read publicly. Twice I've recorded poems when asked, and with some reluctance and I can't say I was happy with either of my efforts. I was thinking earlier about voice and something dawned on me - something blindingly obvious and yet I can't say I'd noticed it before: the voice in my head is not the voice I speak with. I'm not even sure it has an accent and it definitely doesn't struggle with sibilants.
 
All my characters are me, some aspect of me, but none of them are me and you'll find scant biographical data in any of my prose; the poetry comes from a different place and has its own agenda. The man in 'Tomorrowscape' certainly isn't me and, of course, he can't hear the narrator but that doesn't mean he isn't listening to his own inner voice laying out the pros and cons for him, not what will happen but certainly what might. How many times have I sat like him preparing to face the future? How many times have we all, with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other? Would it not be comforting to know there was a Plan, as with Philip K. Dick's The Adjustment Bureau, or even God's grand plan in the Bible if that’s the way you want to go - and ultimately we can’t be held responsible for our actions?
 
TN: I know I try all the time to not to be held responsible. One last question: are you now or have you ever been a bearded man from Scotland?
 
ES: Hmm, well maybe that is exactly who I am. A listener or a reader can never really know, can they?

Music on this episode:

'Beginning' by Audionautix.com

Used under License CC BY 3.0

String Quartet No2 Op10 by Arnold Schoenberg.

off the album 'music from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum'.

Used under License CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

THE STRANGE RECITAL

Episode 17061

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