I've met an awful lot of people here and on twitter in the last 18 months. And most of them have no idea why my blog is called what it is, why it has the funny little avvie it does, and why my twittername is unspellable. Well, without gong into the long version, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes is a novel I began in the spring of 2009. And never quite finished. And for all I have other ideas and novels, I keep coming back to it, so I have decided to use NaNoWriMo to edit and finish it for good.
The avvie is the central image from the book, the eyes a pair of trainers - look closely and you'll see the pupils are the 500 logo)
Here's the opening, so you can all see at last why I have the username I do. It's a work of (increasingly - the opening section is harmless enough) transgressive literary fiction, and I'm going to quit the usual self-deprecation and come out and say it. It's the best thing I've ever written, and I need to finish it (I have 56,000 of a projected 65k already but lots of editing to do).
Why are some images impossible to ignore, while others disappear without ever being seen?
In 2009 one image became as iconic as the face of Che Guevara.
A story of art, politics, online communities, environmentalism, and the nature of celebrity;
Of the search for the truth behind a seemingly tragic death, that became the most watched YouTube video in history;
Of two personal journeys – a man whose daughter, missing for ten years, is fading from existence in a world he cannot reach; a schoolboy whose quest for beauty in mathematics has kept him locked in his room for three years; and the website that unites them;
Of the world’s most reclusive artist; of a dominatrix who uses other people’s pain to break down the doors to parallel worlds in search of the origin of her own agony; of an astrophysicist determined to preserve the moment of his wife’s death forever; of a vicious vigilante who spends his evenings composing haiku.
Of the relationship between beauty, pain, and reality.
It’s nearly midnight, and I’ve watched Agnieszka die 103 times since I woke.
In that time, the clip has had 274,392 views.
I click the play arrow for the 104th time.
Running on the treadmill like millions of other middle class woman in their twenties. She looks fantastic in her lycra – she has the time and money to do this on a regular basis. Stop here and you’d never have noticed the silver and greens on her feet.
The camera wobbles. Has her friend turned to check out someone on the pec deck? Another tiny wobble, enough to remind you how casual the whole scene is, that she has no idea what she’s about to film – although there’s been speculation about that, of course, just like everything else.
Here it is. Three seconds of footage, the seconds before she stumbles. She turns, and over her shoulder she says something to her friend. It indecipherable. Not one of the people at the gym that day can remember her speaking at all. The best Polish and English lipreaders are clueless.
Everyone in the chatrooms devoted to her has their own theory. She’s calling out to a child she
gave away as a teenager in Gdansk; she realises she’s lost her footing and lets out an expletive; she’s begging her friend for help; she’s fluffing up the camera for posterity. The truth is she says something different to everyone who watches the clip. It’s as though, in those final seconds, she’s stepped out of her own body and time and speaks straight to you, the viewer.
See you, Dad! I’m sure that’s what she says. Every time I watch I’m even more certain. I pause the clip. Play. Pause. Play. Pause. I see her mouth form the shapes.
The gate closes. Her hair moves first, and then her head turns; she looks at me over the burgundy uniform; “See you, Dad!” she shouts. “Take care, love!” I shout back from the kitchen window but she’s already turned away, heading for school.
See you, Dad!
Was that the last thing she ever said? Why say it that morning? Was she worried? Did she know something I didn’t? No matter how many times I go through it, I just don’t know.
“Take care, love,” I whisper at the screen.
Ten seconds and it’s over. Nothing left of Agnieszka but her silver and green Mercury 500 trainers, logos filling the camera like startled eyebrows. The image of the year; of the decade, probably. The picture on every student’s wall, on T-shirts and placards and newspaper spreads.
And the reason my boss will call me tonight – the front cover for Epoch magazine’s Review of the Year.
Give me a different angle on it, Sarah will say. Make it fresh. Sure. Three weeks to find a completely new take on the most reproduced, rehashed, reformatted image of the century.
There’s the phone. The ringtone’s the riff from Smells Like Teen Spirit. Emma had Nevermind in her CD player when she left. I let the second bar finish and press accept.
“Hi!” I get ready for the inevitable banter about calling the wrong side of midnight, and click the mouse out of habit.
It’s not Sarah’s voice. It takes a few seconds to place and by the time I do the line’s dead. The phone’s still against my ear and I hear every word in real time, as though the line’s on a delay.
“Dad? Can you hear me? I’m safe but I don’t know where I am. Dad, I can’t explain it but it feels like I’m fading. Like now; I’m shouting but it feels like nothing’s coming out. And sometimes when I look down at my feet I think I can see through them. Does that make any sense? Dad, you have to come and find me. Please.” The line clicks dead.
Find me. Please. The words synch perfectly with Agnieszka’s lips.
“I’m coming, love.”
But she’s already turned away.
She trips, tangles, and the film ends.
We can see her clearly. She’s sitting with her legs folded underneath her, gripping the phone with both hands. It takes a moment for us to register things are wrong with this image. We have to blink several times, but still our eyes don’t feel right. We look closer, and then we see that although she is sitting on her legs, her legs aren’t on anything.
She’s not floating. Nor is she in a darkened room, lit only by an infinitely precise light. We don’t even have noticeably tunnelled vision. It’s just that we only see her.
Sometimes when we stare at a flecked carpet in summer we sense that something is amiss. Then we notice a movement. A few seconds later we see an ant scurry through the fibres, and suddenly our optic nerve turns on a switch and we see that the whole floor is a teeming sea of ants.
In the same sickening way we see all at once: this is Emma, and she is still 14 years old, the age she was when she disappeared; but the telephone she clutches like a parachute rip-cord is an iPhone; her skin and clothes are blurred. It’s not our eyes. We see the iPhone perfectly well. It’s her.
She is blurred.
She turns. Her eyes make us seasick. Instead of colour there’s a soup of grey strobing and fuzzing. “Where am I?” she asks.
She sounds sad. Or maybe we just imagine that she must be sad, because through the white noise in the pits where her eyes should be it’s impossible to say if she’s crying or not.
“I don’t know,” we reply. “How long have you been there?”
“I don’t know. No, that’s wrong. I’ve been here a day. Only this day seems to happen again and again and again. I don’t know how many times. It feels like someone’s caught it on tape and they keep playing it over and over and over, and the tape’s wearing thin in places. What will happen if they play it too many times and the tape snaps?”
She’s speaking quickly, like she only has one lungful of air and she has to get everything out in that single breath. We daren’t interrupt, even if we could answer her questions, in case she goes silent for ever.
“I’m scared. I don’t understand what’s happening. Would it be better if they stopped the tape and left it in an archive somewhere it could never be played again? Does that make any sense?”
“Tell Dad,” she begins but whatever the connection was, it’s cut. We blink several times.
Everything is sharp again. We stare at our computer screens, and Emma exists only in the words we see there.
Shuji Nomoto stands with his head pressed against the door. He has been listening for ten minutes as his mother, Junko, and his older brother, Yuichi, argue about something inconsequential downstairs. At last he is satisfied there is no one on this floor, but still his muscles pull against him as he puts his fingers on the handle. His grip falters; the sweat on his palm slides against the metal. He swallows hard and listens to the sound of blood in his ears, the quick, quick, quick beat of his heart, the only fragile thing that separates life from death.
Silently – every day he uses oil from his fried tofu lunch to keep the door from making a sound. A crack of strange light appears from the corridor and Shuji winces. Cooler air and the smell of bean curd catch his face and he feels giddy. He closes his eyes, pushes, feels for the tray with his feet, pulls the door, eases the handle back, turns the lock, and leans back against the door, fighting back shameful tears as he waits for his heart to slow.
Eventually he is calm. He sits at his desk, his back rod-straight, and moves his finger in a perfect nautilus spiral on the mouse pad to bringing to life the ageing laptop his mother bought before his confinement began.
One morning, when he was 14, Shuji stepped out of the shower in the corner of his Kobe room and towelled himself dry. He pulled on his underwear, trousers, socks, a vest, and a clean white shirt. He stood in front of the mirror, pulling wax through his short hair, expertly teasing it into spikes between his fingers. Without any warning, he stopped, stared, and saw someone he didn’t recognise staring back at him from the mirror. It was like he was looking at a mannequin in a shop window, a model on a billboard.
There was a stranger in his room, and the stranger was him.
He took off his school uniform, emptied the identikit outfits from their drawer, bundled them into a bag, placed them outside his bedroom, closed the door, and locked it behind him. He washed the gel from his hair, dressed in jeans and a Nirvana T-shirt, sat at his desk, fired up his laptop, and began scouring the internet for every reference he could find to the Byfield Effect .
He hasn’t spoken to, seen, or been seen by, another person since.
At first he was fascinated. He devoted every second of his time to understanding the Effect. It felt to him as though knowing it better than he knew anything else in or about the world was all that mattered. He had been given a task of monumental importance, but he had no idea what, or why. All he knew was he had to prepare for it by mastering this theory.
Two years later, Shuji saw the clip of Agnieszka Iwanowa’s death. He played the clip through five times. Each time Agnieszka turned her head to the camera, he pressed his face closer to the screen, trying to decipher her words, to make out what she was saying to him. He knew what he was watching change his life forever, but he had no idea how.
Eventually his eyes hurt so much from the concentration he cradled his head in his hands, massaging his brow with his fingertips. Through the gaps between his fingers, he saw on a piece of paper handwriting he recognised as his own: Nomoto-Byfield Conjecture.