How long does it take to know someone? Is it weeks? Months? Years? Or could it just be minutes or a flash of a glimpse, and you feel you’ve known them all your life? On the other hand, you may spend all your life with somebody and still realise that there are many things that you don’t know. But how much can you know about someone on a drive on M6 from Birmingham to Manchester? When you know nothing about her? And when you haven’t spoken a word? When she wasn’t even in your car? It ought to be nothing, right? But why do I feel like I have found my doppelgänger?
Anna re-read the paragraph written on her blog. This must be the fourth time she read it, and she still feels restless today. It’s somewhat unusual for her; she doesn’t struggle with her emotions anymore like she used to do. But what happened today prompted Anna to do something about it, although she doesn’t know what to do. That’s why she opened her blog that she stopped writing when Alice was born seven years ago. She looked at the time again. It’s only 9:30 pm. But she only managed to write those few lines since 7, and couldn’t think what else to write. She just re-ran this morning’s events in her mind for the 50th time. They are still vivid in her memory…
It started yesterday when her friend Paul, the only big client Anna has got left, called for a meeting in Manchester. Before, she would have taken the train, or send one of the employees. Now there’s only three of them left to finish all the orders, and she had no choice but to drive. Anna likes going for long drives, but with three failed MOTs and no money to replace the car that clocked 380,000 miles, she can’t afford to put much strain on the car. But that’s not all the reasons to she was wary about driving to Manchester.
Her friends say she drives like a man. It wasn’t meant like a compliment; she drives like a dick. Whether it is bumping the car over speed breakers, waving in and out between lanes on busy motorways, leaving the car smelling like a kennel, speeding, tailgating, road rage — Anna does it all. It’s been a long time since her friends stopped coming in her car, and her family followed suit. Anna personally doesn’t like the comparison to men, she thinks it’s female drivers who actually cause problems. But she likes driving her old motor — what she calls her car — and in her mind, she knows what she’s doing and it’s safe. It’s just she knows that if her car stops working, the business will be pretty much finished as well, and she is very protective about the car. So, when she was called to the meeting in Manchester, she wasn’t overjoyed. But Anna has fond memories of Manchester when she was at the university, and later when she started her business — all big orders were from Manchester through her previous contacts. The friend, who she’s meeting with is also from the uni, and he helped her set the business up nine years ago. So, she thought it would be nice to go back there after nearly a year.
Anna left a bit later than she expected this morning because the childminder was caught up in traffic. Then she realised she hasn’t got enough petrol in the car to go to Manchester and back. Her local garage has the cheapest fuel in Birmingham, so it’s a no-brainer paying 10p more per litre on the services. She bought enough to last the journey and finally set off. She ran through the route in her mind, and couldn’t believe her eyes that she’d make it in 90 minutes. The satnav must be wrong, with all the roadworks going on! She thought she must speed up in the 70mph sections on M6.
Just after M6 merged with the M6 toll, Anna moved to the fourth lane to go past the annoying middle lane hoggers. But just as she pulled out on the fast lane, she noticed that another car just pulled out behind her. And it was closing in behind her car.
“Must be another arsehole tailgater”! Anna thought.
Then she looked at the car and the driver through her rearview mirror. It was a woman, much to her surprise. And a blonde one! Anna thought it must be one of the bullish drivers, who just tailgates to push cars out of their way. She sped up to go past the cars she was overtaking and moved into the third lane, and the car sped past her. And it then moved on to the third lane in front of her. Anna thought the driver must have got some motorway driving etiquette after all, that most people lack. She noticed that the blue Vauxhall in front of her is also a 2004 registration, just like Anna’s. She thought it was a strange coincidence but didn’t pay any more attention. She saw a large gap in the inside lane and swerved onto that lane. She must make use of any small gains she can make to get to the destination quicker.
It was one of Anna’s rules. She followed them strictly while driving. Any gap she saw, she moved in there, no matter which lane it was in. After all, if slower cars stayed in inside lanes, there wouldn’t be any gaps. She also limits the speed to 73mph, apart from short bursts of acceleration when she needs to go past somebody. She always signals, checks her mirrors, lets faster cars pass by. That’s why she can’t agree with her friends that she’s a reckless driver. Anna thinks that’s just good and sensible driving, to get from point a to point b in the least time. She was proud of her rules and hardly deviated from them.
As she was going past junction 12 at Cannock in the first lane, cutting under a long array of lorries and cars, she was quite pleased that her manoeuvre had worked. Sometimes she’d go past a lot of cars but then sit behind a slow one on the first lane while the slower cars on the outside lane would gradually go past her. It paid off this time, and Anna was right. After she went past the long line of trucks, she was suddenly looking at unobstructed four lanes ahead and stayed on the first lane keeping at 73mph. But just as she was going past the slip road that merges with the motorway, she noticed the blue car again; it came behind her, went past her using the second lane, and pulled in front of her on the first lane as it gradually sped off.
This time Anna was impressed. She generally comes across two types of motorists. One, who drives at 65mph in the second lane even on an empty motorway, or two, the types who stay on the outer lane, and at times go past other cars using the inside lanes or tailgating them. And there is a third type, middle-aged women in 4x4s, but they mostly stay out of motorways. She rarely saw drivers who were comfortable manoeuvring the car in all lanes and maintain the speed. Anna thought she was special, and now she just witnessed someone else doing that.
“Looks like she’s using my rules, this is mental”! She thought.
Given her prejudice against female drivers in general, she was even more pleased to see someone who drove just like her. When she first noticed the blue car behind her, she knew straight away who it was, and as the car went past her, she tried to get a closer look at the driver. She couldn’t notice much, other than she was wearing a black and white striped top and trousers. While the car was speeding away, she thought it must be driving at 75-76mph. Then the car went out of Anna’s sight into the maze of cars ahead of her. She thought that the other driver was impressive, but the speed the other car was going at, she wouldn’t see it again.
But then she saw the roadworks ahead sign, and the 50mph speed limit zone started. Anna moved out into the outside lane to drive at 58mph, another of her rules to drive within legal limits without risking getting flashed. She couldn’t see what lay ahead of her because of a large X6 in front of her, but she slightly pulled out towards the crash barrier to have a look and saw the Corsa about 5-6 cars ahead. Anna suddenly felt a sense of rivalry.
“Let’s see how she drives in roadworks, can she drive like me here?” Anna wondered.
She generally goes past most of the cars ahead on roadworks. Anna knew from experience that people leave gaps ahead of them and she can use those gaps to maintain her speed by moving between lanes when needed. After going past a few cars and trucks, Anna was in the third lane, and she went past two large cars and moved back to the outside lane. The blue car was only three cars ahead of Anna. Just as she was planning her next move, the blue car spotted a long gap in the first lane and quickly gone there from the outside lane. Where Anna was, she couldn’t do the same, but she suddenly thought that the driver drives just like her, except a bit faster on empty lanes. Anna got her share of luck and found that a car was doing 50mph, and there was a large gap ahead. As she pulled out in the fourth lane, she pressed the pedal to 58mph and looked out for the Corsa. It was still ahead of her, changing between first and second lanes. And then, suddenly the speed limit was finished. Anna sped up to 73mph but soon found that the blue car moved lanes as well and was just in front of her. She read the number plate and read it over and over in her mind. The car now was in the second lane as all the lanes had empty spaces ahead, and as it was going past a lorry, Anna thought she knew what the driver would do next.
“She’s going to the first lane now. I can bet on it!”.
And Anna was right. The car did move to the left lane, sped off in the gap ahead up to a truck, then moved to the second lane again. Because Anna was going at a slightly slower speed, it wasn’t possible for her to do the same thing, and she stayed on the third lane, maintaining her speed. She saw the blue Corsa was in the outside lane again, ahead of quite a few cars. She felt a bit frustrated that she couldn’t catch up with the car as she planned. But there was another length of roadworks ahead, and it was Anna’s turn that time.
As she kept the speed to 58mph, all cars ahead of her in the fourth lane moved about the same pace, and after a while, Anna noticed that she was going past the blue car on the third lane, unable to change lanes. She looked at the driver again. She noticed she wore glasses. She wasn’t sure she remembered what the woman looked like, nor she knew why she wanted to know anyway. She thought she wanted to see the woman who drives so much like her that she could almost read her mind. Anna must put a face to the person, more than just the glasses and striped top. She continued to drive slightly ahead of the blue car, not letting it move in the next lane but making a plan to get the car behind her. She kept the same speed until there was a big gap ahead, and then accelerated, leaving room for the blue car to move in. It worked! Anna was thinking what if the car behind her sped as well, but she was pleased to see that the blue car was behind her. Anna slowed down again and looked in the rearview mirror. The mysterious driver looked in the early forties. Anna wasn’t sure if she liked how she looked. She couldn’t see very well because it was overcast, despite the good weather forecast this week in May. As Anna kept looking in the mirror, she didn’t realise the 50mph limit had finished, and there was a gap in the third lane until the blue car went in that lane and sped past Anna, and back on the outside lane. Anna pushed the pedal, but the blue car was away again.
“I can’t let her get away again!”, Anna thought.
She thought that when someone is playing exactly by her rules and is still ahead of her, she must change her rules as well. The only factor that separates them was their speed, and Anna put some more gas on. She was about a 100 metres behind the blue car and the gap wasn’t increasing; the speedometer read 77mph. She could now guess what the blue car would do next, and it followed exactly the same pattern as she predicted. On the inside lane when nothing was ahead, then to the second, then wherever the next gap was. The blue car didn’t drop speed, nor did Anna this time. They were almost driving in sync. She did wonder if the woman realised that Anna was following her.
“What if I did!” She thought, “it’s a free country”.
They went into another short span of roadworks near Stoke. Anna was confident that no matter what happened, they won’t be far off as both of them drove faster than 50mph, and moved between lanes. The blue car went out of Anna’s sight, but this time, she wasn’t bothered. She focussed on the other things on the day ahead. About her meeting. Wondering whether she’d get the order to supply her lingeries to the boutique shop at Intu Trafford Center. That would bring some cash in the business she’s desperate for. She might call back one of the part-timers she had to lay off a few months back. And she realised that she’s hungry. She didn’t have breakfast in a rush, but if the satnav is right, she should have some time to eat something. Eating nice food is a luxury these days, but she’d feel guilty about Alice and perhaps will pack half of it home.
While Anna had these random thoughts, she went past the limited speed zone and looked for the Corsa. She couldn’t see it ahead of her, so she moved to the empty inside lane, waiting for it to appear. She looked more at her mirror than the road ahead. Then, she saw the car emerge between two trucks behind her, and it sped past her again. The car went so fast that Anna didn’t even get a chance to look at the driver again. Anna was getting restless by then, but she didn’t know why. Fair enough, she found someone who drives like her, and she can prompt every move that woman will make and Anna was right every time. But that’s not enough reason to feel so desperate to look at her.
She pressed the pedal down back to 77mph and stayed right behind the blue car. She could see that the driver looked at her a couple of times through her rearview mirror, but Anna wasn’t worried about that. She tried to look at the driver through the mirror but it wasn’t good enough. Besides, the weather was still overcast and it was hard to see through the glass. Anna thought she must be in front of the car if she wants to look at the driver. She stayed on the fourth lane while the blue Corsa moved to the third lane. They were approaching a long stretch of roadworks. Anna went past the car and without thinking, she just stared through her side window while overtaking the other car very slowly. She thought again the woman was in her early forties, she must be quite tall because her elbows seemed under the window level and she was sitting quite farther back from the steering wheel. She wasn’t wearing any makeup and Anna could see the acne on her right cheek. The glasses were of metallic frame, and Anna thought it suited her thin, long face. She didn’t have any jewellery on other than a thin golden chain. Her clothes didn’t look expensive, but why else would she drive a 04 plate car in 2018! The woman looked at Anna staring at her and looked quite bewildered.
“Perhaps she thinks I’m egging her on for a race”. Anna thought. But the woman looked uninterested.
As Anna went completely past the blue Corsa, she had an urge to keep driving next to the car and look at the mystery woman again. They were already in the roadworks zone, and Anna saw the blue car inching past her in the inside lane again. Anna stared at her shamelessly. This time the woman looked at her, and her gaze stayed on Anna more than a second. It felt as if she was trying to figure out why Anna was ogling her. She pulled out a wry smile on her face and a small nod to the woman in the blue Corsa. The woman didn’t know how to react and turned her head and drove on.
Anna could have moved behind her but she wanted to be in front of the blue car. So, she accelerated to tailgate the car in front instead. She usually doesn’t tailgate anymore these days, but she was getting desperate not knowing which junction the other woman was getting off. It paid off for Anna by pressing the car in front. The car pulled in front of the blue car and Anna went past the two and moved into the third lane. She sped forward a bit, leaving a gap behind her and the car she overtook. That was her bait ready, and she was waiting for the Corsa to fall into Anna’s cunning trap. She knew it would. Anna would have done the same. And so she did, the driver of the Corsa. She went past the car in front of her taking the outside lane, and moved into the third lane, right behind Anna.
Anna let her foot off the gas slightly, so she was still doing above the speed limit, but slow enough for the blue car to stay in the lane. Anna was helped by some faster-moving cars in the fourth lane. So her driving-alter-ego had nowhere to go but stay behind Anna. Anna was pleased to see her little plan work. It was time to have a look at the driver again. It was not as close as it would have been if they drove side by side, but that would look weird.
Just as Anna looked in her rearview mirror, the cloud cover just disappeared and a beaming summer sunlight shone on them. If felt as if a spotlight was set on the car behind for Anna. A long time ago when she was at the uni, Anna read a book that said something like if you really want someone, the whole universe conspires for your dreams to fulfil. Anna couldn’t help but remember the line, that everything she wanted was turning in her favour after a long wait. Anna looked on, and the blonde hair that looked quite drab before was shining, in fact glowing, in the sun. The woman raised her right hand to run through her hair. Her hair looked slightly frizzy or it might be a mild curl. Now that the sun is out, Anna could see her face and she suddenly thought despite her ordinary outlook, the woman was pretty attractive. On the same breath, without even realising it, Anna thought it’s been nearly six months she had sex.
She felt a bit embarrassed thinking about sex while she was looking at a stranger, but she didn’t know why. All her past sexual encounters in last five years were with strangers on occasional nights out. After separating with Alice’s dad, she thought she had been messed up enough by men and decided to raise Alice on her own. She just needed men from time to time, but hardly any went past a one night stand. As Alice got older, Anna had less time to go out with her mates, and she didn’t believe in online dating and chatting. She was more interested in diversifying her lingerie business then, although that was just a disaster, leaving Anna to shrink her original business to survive. She had to sell her house in Solihull and move to a flat in Nechells to pay off the loans. And her cars. Like in a sinking ship, Anna threw all her energy, money and time to salvage the business. No wonder she didn’t have much human interaction, especially with men, as she had grown a natural distrust for them.
Brushing aside her thoughts about sex, Anna looked at the driver again, through Anna’s mirror. But she knew that once a thought struck her mind, that’s going to bug her the whole day. She saw the woman in the blue car has a habit of running her hand through her hair often. Anna thought the woman looked at her as well, straight into Anna’s mirror.
“Shit, has she guessed anything?”She wondered.
But she was more interested in looking at the woman through her mirror. It was like a guilty pleasure. Thanks to the bright sunshine, Anna can see most features of the face, but she thought it wasn’t as good as looking at someone right in front of her. She could notice that the woman had thin lips. As a natural reflex, Anna pulled out her sunshade makeup mirror and looked at herself. She was dressed to impress, and tried to get herself ready this morning as much as she could. She almost started to scrutinise how she saw herself. Her dark red lip colour covering the bite marks and cracks, dark circles neatly masked by layers of foundation, the grey eyebrows neatly plucked away. Despite all that effort, she couldn’t hide away the wrinkles appearing on the sides of her eyes, and on her forehead. She looked in the mirror again, and looked aside to the rearview mirror to see the driver in blue Corsa and thought that despite nearly ten years between them, they have many similar features.
“Gosh, how I’m gonna look like when I’m her age”!
The outside lane was full of faster moving cars, and reckless white vans. That ensured that the blue car can’t go anywhere. Anna started to wonder what was next. What if the woman is going to exit M6 before she did? What if Anna has to leave first? The woman messed with her hair again. Looking at her doing that, Anna suddenly had a vision of the woman posing with her back towards Anna, with nothing on but a pair of light grey thongs Anna designed for the meeting. The room had Venetian windows and thin strips of sunlight filtered through on to her back. The woman’s back was covered in black and red spots, skin tags and had a slightly darker tone than her face. Anna tried to shake the picture out of her mind. She looked at the makeup mirror again but couldn’t look into her own eyes. She snapped the mirror shut and pushed the sunshade up.
The roadworks section seemed to be endless and it felt as if it was their destiny to stay one behind another for eternity. Anna was slightly annoyed at herself for not focusing on the meeting and her business, for which she sacrificed last nine years. She chose what she wanted the most in her life, and partners didn’t have a place in that vision. And now she was letting herself fancy a random middle-aged woman whom she knew nothing about. She wanted to move to another lane so she didn’t have to look at her. She moved behind a truck on the second lane and then to the first. It was a slightly dangerous manoeuvre because she just pulled in from of another truck and got flashed and beeped at. She didn’t care. After a minute of driving on, Anna thought it was really foolish of her. After all, that little fling wouldn’t have gone anywhere, it’d end when one of them goes off the M6. But there was no going back because she was stuck to 48mph and the cars were moving faster on the next lane. Anna felt the urge to be back on the lane she were, or drive next to the woman. But to her surprise, the blue car emerged behind her. Anna was confused but pleased to see it again. But she couldn’t fathom out the reason why that car would move to a slow moving lane without a purpose. She thought it’s either because the other woman now wanted to stalk her, or because she’s getting off the next exit.
“As much as I wanted the first to be true, it ain’t that”
Anna deduced the reason in her mind. And that suddenly filled her with a bit of anxiety and sadness. What would she do? Would she come off the junction as well? She knew nothing about Knutsford. What if she gets held up in traffic? She couldn’t afford to miss the meeting. But she felt that she was almost ready to get off the motorway as well. The blue car started indicating as Anna went past the 300 yard marker for the exit. In her mind Anna knew that she was going to Manchester, but as if she was waiting for her hands to defy that chain of command and indicate exit. She slowed further down for the coming 200 yards just so that she could see the woman one last time before the blue car reached the exit and sped off the exit. By the time they were parallel again, the blue car was on exit slip road and quite high up. Anna looked at the driver window and saw that the woman was looking back as well.
Then they went out of each other’s sight. At first, Anna felt nothing. She looked at the time and found that she was doing okay to get there by 9:30. As she was going past the entry slip road, she looked on her left, almost expecting the blue car to have played a prank of going off and joining back on. There were no cars coming on to M6. Anna suddenly felt a feeling of loss, almost like a lost opportunity. It’s true that the other woman and Anna are complete strangers, and they may have nothing in common between them except the way they drove. But then, Anna thought, that the way one drives, shows their outlook towards life. How predictable the other driver was, there could have been more similarities between them. It could have been a fresh start of her love life. Then she thought, all these thoughts are coming from her infatuation and lack of sex. She must go out on the coming weekend. And the scene with the woman in Anna’s lingerie flashed in her mind again.
For the rest of the route, Anna spent in a trance. She couldn’t decide whether she was really interested in that woman or it was just a fancy. Then she was engrossed in finding out what was going on the route as she was driving on agricultural land according to the satnav but she was actually on a newly built dual carriageway. She relived her memories of the past of driving to Manchester from Solihull on Mondays. But the woman with strips of sunlight on her bare back kept messing up with her mind.
After reaching Manchester, Anna nearly forgot about the morning. She couldn’t believe how the place has changed. She had a flashback of her old self when she was at the uni — big dreams, pubs every evening, bistros by the canal, theatres, gigs. Life has changed beyond belief in last ten years. She wondered if she’d have that vibrant life back, but this time with Alice in it. She knew the answer already and that brought her back to present. She went into the meeting slightly distracted. It’s a small business, but she started it from scratch and knows everything she can offer, prices that she can accept, delivery times she can commit to. She always had all details and didn’t have to go back to do the numbers. The meeting brought some fresh breath of air in her life. The client liked the designs and decided to add them to their product line for the shop in Trafford Centre. It’ll be a trial for three months and based on numbers, but even three months would be nice and after setting all the money aside, she might book a holiday with Alice. During all these thoughts, however, Anna kept seeing the woman in the blue Corsa, messing with her hair, or looking at Anna curiously. And after the negotiations, when her client had to go away and discuss the prices, Anna dozed off for a moment, and is that split second, she saw the woman in a black fishnet leotard. She woke up with a start, and couldn’t remember for a minute where she was.
After the meeting, she went for a drink with Paul. Normally she stays for a few drinks but she was in a hurry. She headed back home at 4 pm.
“What if the woman returns by M6 today?”, that was the only question circling inside Anna’s mind.
She was full of hope again. She didn’t know what she’d do if she saw the woman again. Perhaps nothing, but just drive parallel or in front of each other. Does she even live in Birmingham? What if she was returning to Knutsford rather than driving there? Anna felt slightly guilty that she’s not thinking about her business when she just doubled her present order volume. She was thinking about the stranger, and she didn’t know the nature of her feelings. Is it love, or just friendship? Or is it an obsession? Is it her love for her own self and the feelings Anna is having is because she seemed so familiar? What if they met again, in a situation where they can talk, what would Anna say to her?
She reached Knutsford around 5 pm. Unlike the murky morning, the afternoon was sunny and warm, enough to make one sleepy. As Anna was approaching the exit slip road, she had another vision of the woman wearing the grey lingerie Anna presented during her meeting. But that time, she was sitting slightly turned towards Anna and Anna could see the outline of her left breast, small and sagged, with strips of sunlight on it and all across her back. Anna felt quite turned on, but she didn’t know whether it was due to her attraction towards the woman or just her craving for sex. She looked on the entry slip road, and couldn’t see any sign of the blue Corsa. She felt disappointed but decided to drive faster for the rest of the route, in case the woman was indeed returning and Anna can catch up with her.
She drove like she used to drive a few years earlier. She was reckless, moving in and out of lanes but dangerously, and she sped beyond the speeds she knew wouldn’t get her a ticket. Anna tried not to think much about the woman from the morning, but she felt that her anxiety is getting worse again. She felt almost breathless, waiting for a sign of the car to appear somewhere on the horizon. Closer she went to Birmingham, she felt more and more desperate, not being able to decide whether to speed up or slow down. By the time she reached spaghetti junction, it was 6 pm. Anna felt gutted but the good news about the business stopped her hitting the rock bottom. She was back in her street in Nechells in five minutes. The trip to Manchester was over, although Anna wasn’t overjoyed.
When the childminder Jane saw her at the front door, she looked horrified looking at Anna.
“Oh dear, Anna, you’re bleeding again!”
“OH Fuck!… Is it bad?”
“All over your clothes, bab.”
“OH Fuck!… Is it bad?”
“All over your clothes, bab.”
Anna touched her nose and saw her fingers are covered in blood. She copes with her anxiety well, but at times when it gets out of hand, she gets the nosebleed. Anna is used to it, her GP said it’s not unusual. It was a lot worse when she was splitting up with Alice’s dad five years back. She looked down and her clothes were stained with blood. She was embarrassed at herself and angry as well, knowing what caused it. Jane let Anna use her toilet to get cleaned, and gave her pads of cotton to stop the bleeding. Alice understands now that Anna gets the nosebleed at times, so she didn’t need to explain or calm her down.
Alice was tired and she went to bed at 7pm as usual. Anna had a chat with her before she went to her room about the day, and told about hers. She didn’t mention anything about the car. Since then, Anna just sat in front of her computer. She managed to write just one paragraph, and the more she tried to rein her thoughts, the wilder they became. She decided to take a break and get her clothes cleaned. She was annoyed about the bleed. Not only did she fail to realise it was happening, she will now have to make sure that she removed the stains. She hasn’t got many businesswear left, the rest are all larger sizes. Anna’s friends are jealous about her size but she knows that she felt better before, and she didn’t really want to lose all the weight. She took her clothes off and applied some stain remover on them. She looked herself in the mirror. It felt as if she was looking at the other woman in the car. As she took her makeup off, she thought she looked older than she is. She made promises to herself that she’d take more care of herself but after a few weeks, it was back to square one. She did wonder why younger mums at Alice’s school don’t speak to her. A few years later perhaps even Alice wouldn’t let Anna drop her to school.
As she stood there in front of the mirror, naked, she suddenly thought if that woman was just an imagination, she was actually looking at herself a few years ahead. Well, the hair was different but she can colour her ginger hair to blonde and let it grow longer. It seemed that they were about the same height. She turned to her side and remembered the vision she had on the way back to the woman. Anna’s breasts look the same size as the other woman. She looked at herself again in the mirror. Is she attractive? Can she still pull? She didn’t have any problem last time; it’s just the last time was a long time ago. Has she got a few more lines on her face? Does she look frail now? She could see her rib cage, which isn’t a good sign. She could never see her rib cage before. And her hip bones. Anna wondered if she kept changing so rapidly, in a few years’ time, will she still find people on nights out? Or should she hurry up?
Anna made her mind up. She had a quick shower. It made her feel refreshed again, and Anna felt she doesn’t feel so agitated now. Draped in towel, she sat down with her laptop. She must start acting on her plan. The outcome of what she’s planning is uncertain but she never worried about uncertainty. If she could handle it in her business, so can she in her life. Anna saved her blog for another day and opened a search page. She typed the registration number of the car. KC04 AKE. The spinning wheel of death is taking a long time to load the page. She needs to find out if she can get any more detail on the Corsa. The results are finally loaded. Anna clicked on one of the links from DVLA and it opened. The car is indeed a blue petrol Corsa. She was relieved that she wasn’t imagining about this morning. The woman was real. Probably Anna’s dreams will be as well. One day she’ll meet her alter-ego face to face, not through car windows. She looked at the other links. One of them must have details of the owner. If search results don’t reveal anything, there is photo search, forums to ask in, report DVLA about an accident. There will be ways. It can take as long as it takes. Anna can wait a few years, at least. She will just have to be patient and wait for the universe to conspire to bring them together. The future isn’t looking so bleak after all.
Of all the significant years in my life, 2008 must be the one of them, along with 1994, 2011 and 2014. 2008 was all about change. My life was about to take a new direction, and it certainly was a mad rush trying to get ready for an educational break, a busy job and spending all weekend learning German. 10 years on, my German is schlecht now, and there’s no time to start from where I left. Found this letter, supposed to be about a day out when I showed a few places in Calcutta to a German tourist couple. It was interesting finding out how much they knew about Calcutta (Didn’t know about the Lonely Planet guides then!). If you read German, you’ll see that I had only learnt up to past tense. It was a surprising find in one of my old notebooks…
Wie geht es dir? Jetzt schreibe ich den ersten Brief zu dir. Nächstes mal musst du mir einen schreiben. Jetzt kann ich nicht einen Thema finden, deshalb schreibe ich über meinen Erfahrungen am letzten Samstag.
Da bin ich aufgeweckt um 5 Uhr, damit ich um 6 Uhr zum Flughafen fahren konnte. Ich hatte schon einen schlechten Kopfschmerzen. Ich hatte ein deutsches Paar getroffen, und schon eine Begegnung um 10:15 Uhr vor das indischen Museum fixiert habe. Aber alle schlechten Sachen fande zusammen Statt. Der Flugzeug kam 30 Minuten spät. Dann bin die Taxi von Calcutta Flughafen sehr langsam gefahren, und habe ich zum Haus punkt um 10 Uhr erreicht. Ich habe mich rasiert, habe mich angezogen und dann bin ich unter 10 Minuten hinausgegangen. Endlich hatte ich etwas Glück, weil ich schnell einen Taxi gefunden habe.
Also, war ich nicht so spät, außerdem sagte mir der Mann vorher, dass sie mir erwarten werden bis zum 10:30Uhr. Dort fande ich ihnen, unter den Eingang des Museums, beides Gesetzen auf einer Stühle. Wir haben uns vorgestellt und dann sagte ich ihnen “Wohin möchtet ihr gehen?” Du weißt, als hatte ich kaum Zeit, mochte ich sie um Victoria Memorial und Indisches Museum anzeigen. Aber erstaunlich sagte die Frau, dass sie mochte Kumartuli sehen. Da wurde ich total krank. Ich kaufte die Fahrscheinen bis zum Shovabazar. Das war eures ersten Erlebnis über Calcutta U-Bahn. Während unseres Trip diskutierten wir über verschiedenen Thema, Die Politik, Das Leben des Bengalens, Die bengalische Philosophie usw. Seit 25 Jahre wohne ich im Calcutta, aber war ich nie zum Kumartuli gegangen. Die Gasse waren kurz, aber die Häuser an Beides Seite sind alt und zu groß. Endlich erreichten wir das Studio eines Künstlers. Dort gab es viele großen Statuen der Durga. Fragtet ihr mir viele Fragen über die Religion und Gott. Ich wusste nicht viel aber konnte ihnen beantworten.
Dann sagte der Mann,”Wir möchten zum Fluss gehen”. Während liefen wir durch die kleine Gasse, sahen wir viele schönen und großen Häusern, die vorher einhundert Jahren gebaut wurden. An dem Ufer des Ganges sahen wir ein sehr großes sechsstöckiges Haus. Der Fluss sah aber sehr schmutzig aus, gab es Pflanze in dem Wasser, das total Gelb war. Nachdem gingen wir zum Shovabazar Fährhof. Wir standen auf der Kurzer Brucke, wenn Conny, die Frau sah ein Boot kommen. Sie möchten mir kaffeetrinken einzuladen, aber zu bootfahren auch. Da plante ich im Boot nach Howrah gehen und dann mit dem Bus zum Indian Coffee House fahren. Es war schon nachmittags. Und die Frau war krank vor 4 Tagen. Die Sonne war es nicht da, aber die Hitze war sehr ärgerlich. Trotzdem hatten wir viel genossen, ein Bootsfahrt zu machen. Es war schön, die zwei Ufern. Ich zog ihnen die “Ghats” an. Dann waren wir von Howrah Bahnhof mit einem Stadtbus nach College street gefahren, damit bei Indische Kaffee Haus zu besuchen. Sie waren erstaunt : so viele Bücher und so viele Geschäfte!
Aber da, fühlte ich mich nicht so wohl. Treffen einem deutsches Paar, für mich, war eine Gelegenheit, in Deutsch zu diskutieren. Ich spreche nicht so gut im Klass, da wünschte ich, wie schön wäre es, wenn ich wie ihnen deutsch sprechen könnte. Aber sie sprachen immer Englisch!!!Nur wenn Sie die Bedeutung nicht verstehen konnten, fragten sie mir in Deutsch!!! Dann sagte ich mich : da geht nicht mehr! Punkt wir waren wir in die Cafe eingegangen, sagte ich “vielleicht konnen wir in Deutsch sprechen, um uns etwas besserer kennenzulernen”. Dort gab es viele Leute, und der Platz war sehr laut, deshalb müssten wir auch laut sprechen. Wenn der Ober nie kommt schnell, hatten wir viele Sachen diskutiert. Wir aßen Tomatensuppe und tranken Kaffee mit Creme. Dort hatten wir gute Zeit verbrachten. Dann gingen wir nach Millennium Park. Die Frau fühlte sich unbequem, und sind wir schnell in die Park erreichten.
Dort hatten wir über zwei Stunden verbrachten. Wir hatten ein Platz gefunden, die vor dem Fluss stand. Es gab Luft, das macht uns etwas bequem. Wir diskutierten über die Religion, Calcutta, die Volkskultur, die Geschichte des Calcuttas, indische Wirtschaft, die Politik, Glauben des Inders und Deutsches, meine Gedanken über Zukunft, ihre Plan usw. Ich habe viele Tatsache über Deutschland gelernt, die ich sonst nicht wissen könnte. Plötzlich sah ich die Uhr an, und es war schon 16 Uhr. Schnell hatte ich mich entschuldigen und zum MMB führte.
Vielleicht ist der Brief zu lang, aber möchte ich alle Verbformen benutzen. Bitte korrigiere-mich schnell. Bis Samstag.
Last week I carried out a social experiment inadvertently. I left my phones at a site on Thursday, I could only collect them the next Monday late evening. I have previously seen similar experiments carried out, with the outcome ranging from no effect whatsoever to life coming to a standstill. So, when I found myself in a similar situation, I now reflect on the findings based on how last four days went on.
Life goes on
This is my motto of life. We, humans, are super-adaptive creatures and no matter what life throws at us, we just face it and move ahead. This situation was no different. We lived before the smartphones existed and if by a freak accident or a giant solar flare, all phones stopped working one day, we will still carry on living. It was easy to cope with the change at work. Fewer calls meant I had more time to actually work. Also, if anyone wanted to call anyway, I was reachable on my desk phone. I can say that there was no noticeable difference between having a phone and not having one. This might have been different if I had to go away from my place of work, but as long as I had a mobile phone, I would have been fine; a smartphone wasn’t necessary.
It was not so easy on the personal front. At times it was difficult to manage things. And that brought my second realisation.
We are slaves of data
We like to be in control of our life, and as part of it, we love to be on top of our game. The recent Facebook data privacy fiasco showed that we trust technology a bit too much, more than it needs to be, and in hindsight, probably a bit far beyond our level of comfort. For example, how many of us have actually done a network reset on their smartphones lately? Just because we don’t want to lose all the WiFi logins we gathered over the years. Coming back to data, now most of the websites use a two-stage login. So without the phone, I could not access my bank accounts, over the weekend I had to carry change for parking because I couldn’t just pay with the app, before the drive home I couldn’t quickly check if there was any traffic congestion. I even had to pay the full price for a burger in Burger King! And all the walking I did wasn’t logged either.
But all such things I couldn’t do, they were not indispensable. Not at the beginning at least. It was nice not to carry your wallet and pay using the phone. It was a privilege not to queue up at the machines in the car park and just walk over to note the location number. It felt safe that your bank generated a random number so one cannot log in without the phone. But the more we started using these features as necessary, rather than just call, text and store contacts, our life started to depend on the smartphones. It’s like with the advent of calculators, we lost numeracy. So, in effect, a lot of our daily functionalities now depend on the availability of 3G/4G or Wifi.
On the plus side…
So far I have written about things that we can do without smartphones but chose to use them in order to make our life easier. And how over-dependency gives us a rough time when these conveniences don’t work. However, what I really missed about not having my phones was the ability to connect with my family. Functions like FaceTime that almost makes you feel as if you’re talking to them face to face. Not that the technology didn’t exist before, but smartphones made it a lot easier to stay in touch with your friends and family. I’m not an avid user but I can see the attraction of apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat, to communicate with your friends real-time, no matter where in the world you are. And I really missed having the ability to take pictures whenever I wanted. So I couldn’t capture my three-month-old daughter smiling at me, or her big sister singing songs or playing in the garden. Those precious moments will be lost in the memory without any testament.
The bottom line
In conclusion, I think smartphones dominate our life these days, because, with time, we have become lazy. Also, in order to make our already complex life a bit easier, we have relied a bit too much on the smartphones. Yet, the functionalities that are indispensable to us are the ones that have been the basic features of mobile telephony. Beyond all the cutting edge operating systems, engaging apps, underwater camera and face detection features, it is ultimately a phone, that connects two people away from each other. It is an eye-opener for me because the more I watched the adverts of newer phones, it appeared as if they were anything but phones. But being able to speak is the main feature that I missed during the time I didn’t have the phones with me. The rest was just habit and I’d have soon learnt to live without them.
I seldom write about travel, and when I do, it’s only about spectacular experiences. I have never written about misadventures that caused so much anxiety and grief that I wonder why we carried on when things started to go wrong. But when you have such an experience that lasted from the time of beginning the journey to the very end, and beyond, I thought on the hindsight, it was an adventure worth remembering, even though we were not that amused when it all happened.
It began when we started our journey to France on a mid-June Monday. We had already moved from our Kent home, so we stayed overnight in Ramsgate. In the morning, as we left for the ferry from Dover, it was a last minute dash because of the roadworks along the way. As we were waiting for the ferry, I realised we forgot to book the European breakdown cover. I made a last minute frantic call to the breakdown provider (I had three covers those days, don’t ask me why and how!) and selected an option that was slightly high priced but provided more cover. To be honest, that was the best last minute call I’ve ever made; if I hadn’t done that, we probably had had to come back without the car. So with the breakdown sorted, we set sail on the way to our destination, Normandy. We planned what we’d do each day, and had a busy schedule ahead but we were sure that we were going to have a great time. Only if we knew what lay ahead of us.
Here, I’d flashback to the week before we started our journey. I was on M25 on my way home and I suddenly felt the car lost all its power. As if it went into a limp mode. The car was only over a year old, so you don’t expect a major fault to develop. The breakdown mechanic couldn’t fix it, but he reset the warning light and asked to start and see if the traction is back. It worked. So I thought it was a freak incident and I must have done something to cause that. The dealer could not have a look in such a short notice, so we decided to carry on with the plans and get the car fixed later.
Coming back to 20th of June, we did the usual. On reaching Calais, a trip to Adinkerke to buy cheap tobacco and Speculoos, a quick trip to Carrefour Mivoix and late lunch at the McDonalds there. With all that done and a cranky terrible two, we headed for belle Normandie. Except that we were running a bit late and looked like we wouldn’t get to the campsite before 8:30 pm. It was a long drive but that never bothered us. Not until the things started to go wrong very quickly. We were approaching Boulogne-sur-mer on A16 where the road goes on an incline. It’s not steep by any means, but the car generally needs to work harder. Whilst on that section, the car lost power again! Second time within a week. I exactly knew what went wrong when the engine warning flashed on the dashboard. It made me panic a bit. A breakdown on a foreign country is a terrifying prospect, let alone that happening on the autoroute meant we’d have to pay highway authority the fees to be towed away from the autoroute. So I decided to carry on driving at 50mph until we reached the next exit. Thankfully it was a country road and I carried on driving for a while before we stopped on the verge. My satnav said it’s a place called Beuvrequin. I remember the place we stopped, with houses on the right and the other side of the road, had vast fields.
After we calmed down our crying daughter, upset that the holiday might not go ahead, I called the breakdown agency. I reported the breakdown and was told that the wait time is about 45 mins. Being parked on the pavement by a country road was not the best of the places, especially getting stares from people who had to go on the grass. A few minutes later, I received a call from the French contact from the breakdown company, telling me that they cannot send assistance because during my application I said we’ll be going to Belgium and then France. So, tow away will have to come from Belgium, and they don’t to towing across borders. Infuriated and anxious, I called the UK number, and after explaining the situation, they said we should get assistance and they will arrange with the French colleagues. Another 15 min later, which is almost an hour since I was told that the assistance is 45 min away, I received another call from the French number saying they are sending breakdown van and it’ll be coming around 5:45 pm. By then, I doubted any garage will be open.
The breakdown truck arrived slightly earlier than we were told. As expected, the mechanic didn’t know a word of English. I thought that would be ideal to practice my French. I probably would have, if I knew all technical terms. I didn’t even know what brakes are called. Anyway, the guy picked the car on his truck and asked us to go in the truck to the garage. I think that was the highlight of the day and my daughter loved travelling in a truck. We went to a garage in Boulogne-sur-mer. He met another colleague who had a computer to connect to the engine management system. They decided that it’s beyond their knowledge and learning that the car was under warranty, they said the work can only be done in an Opel garage. By that time we gave up our hope to get the car fixed that day because it was already nearly 6 pm. The mechanic said he’ll take us to their garage to keep the car overnight and we can arrange the taxi pick-up from the garage. We were offered a replacement car or stay in a hotel and get the car looked at the next morning. I was confident that it’ll just be resetting the alarm and we’ll be able to drive on. So we chose the hotel and waited at the garage. The taxi came around 6:30 pm to take us to the hotel in Boulogne.
The hotel was pleasant and it was located close to Boulogne city centre. We walked down to a square called Place Dalton and had a nice dinner, trying to forget the headache we’re about to have the following day. The following day we had nothing to do but wait for the updates from the breakdown company. So we were just cooped up in the room. About 9 am we received a call saying that the breakdown garage will take the car to the nearest Opel garage. I thought it would be done in minutes, so our hopes of having our holiday soared high again. But that state of euphoria didn’t last long as a follow up at 11 am confirmed that the car was still in the garage. The agent said she’ll call me back shortly. When she did, it was even worse news. Opel garage was fully booked and they wouldn’t be able to fix it before Wednesday or even Thursday. At that point, we thought we’d had enough and started thinking of cancelling the holiday and go back home. As a last ditch attempt, we demanded a replacement car. After waiting another 10 minutes for a callback, we were told that our only chance was if we left the hotel immediately because the car hire place they use will be shut from 12 pm. It was already getting towards 11:30 am. So we picked all our tonnes of luggage, waiting for the taxi. Then the taxi dropped us at the wrong place, which meant we had to drag all our luggage and a toddler across a busy junction without crossings. When we arrived at the Enterprise Cars office, there was only one employee, waiting for us. It took another half an hour to get sorted. But in the end, we had our car.
I wish our story could end here, but it wasn’t unfortunately. Our understanding of the breakdown cover was that we get the hire car until the time we are ready to return to Boulogne on our way back. On Wednesday afternoon, as we’re exploring the American war memorial in Colleville-sur-mer, I received a call from the breakdown company that our car was fixed and they want the hire car back. Shouting or swearing is normally my cup of tea, but if I lost my temper that day, I’d expect people would have sympathised with me. I kept my calm but said that they are expecting me to make a 600 km journey because they screwed up a breakdown repair. It also seemed like the day of our return, Saturday, is only for the Car buyers at the Opel garage and the repairs department is shut. I was told very sternly to go back on Friday to which I refused, agreeing to pay the difference for an additional day of car hire. Half an hour later, I received another call that the garage had been very understanding and made a very rare exception of opening the repair garage on Saturday.
With the good news that the car was fixed and that we can get on with rest of the holiday, we felt relaxed then and enjoyed the rest of the days. Except the fact that Normandy is where it rains most in France and it rained really bad the week we went there. Unlike previous caravan holidays, we opted for tent that time, and the floor was filled with water because of the leaks in the floor sheet. We spent most of our stay in the tents mopping the floor, wet feet, soaked trainers and a damp tent. Despite this little inconvenience, I felt the time in Normandy was much more enriching than in Paris. Just when we were about to enjoy the holiday, having lost nearly two days, it was over and it was time to come home.
We started with plenty of time in hand, thinking of collecting the car early so we could go to the cheap wine store in Calais. We got to the Enterprise Car place at about 12. But then we realised that they are shut in Saturdays and we needed to drop the keys at a hotel opposite the car hire place, past the big junction. Les Gens de Mer — the hotel looked quite nice as we browsed the lobby and menu while we waited for the taxi. The taxi arrived late, and we were on our way to the Opel garage near Outreau where our car was getting repaired. When we got there, the manager said everything was done and they are getting the car ready. It did surprise me a bit because the car was ready on Thursday. We waited nearly 45 minutes before we were given the keys. We were at the last minute rush again, trying to get cheap fuel from Carrefour and head for the ferry. That was the beginning of another nightmare journey.
As we headed back to Calais, I noticed that the tyre pressure warning sign came on. I was not too worried at the beginning, because sometimes if one tyre had less pressure than the others, the sign came on. But as we went closer to Calais, I started to get more and more worried as the pressure kept on dropping. When the other tyres read 38 psi, the fourth tyre was at 25 psi. There must have been a leak, I thought. But where would that have happened? The car has always been at the breakdown garage or at the Opel garage. Did they just find out and handed me a car with a leak? Surely they can’t be that unscrupulous! But everything signed that way.
So we went back to Carrefour, filled the tank and put some air in the faulty tyre thinking it might have some problem that’s going to fix itself. When we boarded the ferry, I left the car with 35 psi on the tyre and hoping that it should stay like that when we reached the UK. 90 minutes later when we came down to the deck, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The tyre was completely flat. And we had landed as well, so we didn’t have any time to change the tyre. It was a Saturday afternoon and most of the garages would have been shut by 4 pm.
Now I made a faux pas at that moment. I had the option to come off the ferry and get the tyre changed with the spare tyre. We could have then driven home because our spare tyre is a full spec one and there is no speed restriction. Silly me, I didn’t remember that at the moment of madness when I thought if I take too long changing the tyre, and something else is wrong, I might lose the last chance to get home that night. So I decided to drive on to the next open garage, which was Kwik-fit. As I drove on the alloy wheel, the sharp and annoying screeching deafened our ears despite the windows were up. I was worried that there will be damage to the wheel as well but it was a relief that there wasn’t.
Kwik-fit changed the tyre straight away and we also got another tyre which was getting towards the legal limit. After that, we hit the road, hoping to get some dinner at Bluewater or Lakeside, places that we used to visit often but missed a lot when we moved. After a filling dinner, with our daughter falling asleep in the car, we finally felt that after all this, the holiday is coming to an end. But there are more twist in the tale that one can imagine. Just because everything had to go wrong on that trip, as we were on M6 nearing Coventry, my daughter woke up and started crying. We didn’t want to stop, being so close at home, and as I tried to accelerate harder, BANG! The engine warning light came back on and the car won’t speed beyond 50 mph. The sting in the tail that was waiting for us before we reached home. So all that fuss at the Opel garage, did they do sod all apart from puncture the tyre? Nevertheless, my daughter’s incessant crying made me carry on rather than stop and ask for another breakdown. I just pushed the pedal down and used the downward slopes on the road to speed up and use the momentum to drive the car at a higher speed as the road became flat or went up. Without much difficulty, we reached home, bringing a close to the worst travel experiences we ever had.
Like many stories have an epilogue to the end, the tale of our misfortunes does not end there. I had to take many days off as I was unable to commute to work while getting the car fixed. Back then, I was doing a commute of 300 miles! During next few days, the car was repaired, and the fault reappeared almost immediately at times. In the end, it took a call to their grievance line to report the issue to get the technical team involved, who sorted the problem. One of those days when the car was broken down, I had to hire a car to go to a meeting in London. There, as I was trying to get on the Hammersmith bridge, I was caught at the box junction and was fined £70. Now the car belonging to the hire company, they received the fine notice first. By the time I received it, I couldn’t appeal online, so I had to send it over email. I then got the email address wrong and was then facing a court action since the first notice was received much earlier and the normal 2 weeks response window had gone. This dragged on until November. So nearly 5 months after that week in June, we put an end to the dreadful journey, but before that end, I had to pay out the final amount which had since doubled.
So, there we are, our story ends here. Terrible experience to sum it up. And I believe we won’t forget it very soon. Yet, the good memories will last longer. Visit to Utah, Omaha and Juno beaches, our daughter’s excited walk in the sand, the American war memorial and its deafening silence at Colleville-Sur-mer, the Bayeux tapestry, Caen, beautiful village of Beauvron-en-auge, riviera of the north Deauville and Trouville-Sur-mer, surreal grace of Lisieux abbey, sunrise over the trees at our site in the middle of nowhere at Château Le Brévedent, the quaint villages Le Pin and Blangy-le-château near our campsite, the bridge at Le Havre — the memories are countless and one day, if not already, they will outweigh the dreadful experience about the journey.
Just as I finished this with a positive spin, I remembered to add one last note about our holiday from hell. The year this happened was 2016, and I guess we all know what happened that year between 20th and 25th June. Yes, Brexit. That happened while we were on this holiday as well. Before we left, we were all confident that it was just a paper exercise to finish off UKIP, and in fact felt smug to see the smiles disappear from the leavers’ faces. On 24th when the results came out, we were going to Trouville-sur-mer. The entire day was spent in disbelief, then frustration and then anger, as all the lies started to surface. Brexit was the pinnacle of the catastrophes that week and I believe it was symbolised by everything that went wrong with the car. It was a nightmare, getting a simple thing done took forever, service on both sides of the border was equally appalling, and above all, since it happened, things were never the same. You live in fear that things will go wrong again, and so it did. The car proved my premonitions, and Brexit will go the same way. I think there will be a time in future where all good and terrible memories will fade away, and we will remember the journey just as our own Brexit disaster. I think that should say it all.
This is an overview of two fabulous films I watched recently. One is a brilliant film shown in Cannes, the other one is a cult classic featuring in the hall of fame of the flops.
I learned the name of Leviathan (2014) while trying to find about Deux Jours, Une Nuit. Like Deux Jours, Leviathan was also shown in Cannes in 2014 and was nominated for Palme d’Or. The poster of the film was equally eye-catching — a man sitting on a rock with a giant whale skeleton lying in front, on the seashore. I wanted to watch the film since, but the opportunity didn’t come until last month.
It was a stunning film. At the end of it, I was speechless. The protagonist of the film resembled a typical example of a Shakespearean tragedy. There are instances when you think that the situation couldn’t get any worse, but it does, and it’s relentless. It was an example of the power struggle on the fringes of Russia, where Moscow and its influence means nothing to the power sharks. It’s a tale of exploitation, desperation, disillusionment and betrayal. Shot in the Murmansk Oblast, Leviathan showcases the murky backdrops to set the dark tone of the film. The dilapidated infrastructure, symbolic shooting of the Soviet leaders’ portraits, the ostentatious focus on the word Pravda (truth) by the Orthodox Church priest — it heralded a Russia far away from the shining riches of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here, despite the camaraderie in the working class people, they live in fear, they don’t go against the flow, although inherently, there is a deep-seated hatred and disappointment of being deserted in the past.
Leviathan won international accolades just as it did criticism from the Russian cultural ministry for wrongly depicting Russian rural lifestyle where people stay drunk all the time, they bicker and commit adultery, the church brainwashes corrupt politicians. We don’t know the truth, but I can draw parallels to another brilliant film I watched many years back called Manorama Six Feet Under. In both films, politics was shown as the source of power, and exploitation that the usurpers cherish to the fullest. In an Indian backdrop, there was no doubt that the film was based on truth. For Leviathan, I’d like to be proven wrong, but for now, I believe the story is almost a true depiction of life at the far reaches of Russia. However, internationally acclaimed films about Russia are perhaps needed to be taken with a pinch of salt, where most of the successful films are found to be castigating the Soviet past.
Apart from the worrying storyline, Leviathan features brilliant acting, some breathtaking views, and beautiful music scores. Although halfway into the film, you’d start to hope that something positive happens to the central character Kolya, and hope there is some justice, that justice doesn’t happen. Leviathan is not a story that fills the viewers with a feeling of optimism and hope. Instead it drives home the message that life is not fair and it is controlled by the people with power. For the rest, it’s just a story of survival. It is a remarkable film and I’m glad I finally managed to watch it, although it took me three years.
For the other film, I don’t know where to begin. I’ve often written about brilliant films, that change your whole perspective about cinema and its role in our lives. The Room (2003) is certainly not one of them. The Room is, on the contrary, something that’s known as SBIG — So Bad It’s Good. And when someone makes a film featuring the filmmaker of that original film, you’ll have to admit it must be spectacularly disastrous.
The Room is the brainchild of Tommy Wiseau. It was originally played in theatres, but Tommy was so inspired by it that he wrote a book. When nobody published it, he decided to produce a film. The end result is The Room, where Wiseau played the protagonist apart from his many other credits. When within five minutes into the film, Tommy has sex with Lisa, the female lead of the film, and within another ten minute, the same scene is repeated, you know that this is going to be hilarious. Even porns have a better script and acting on them. The Room has nothing to boast about. The film is all about a banker Johnny in San Francisco and his fiancée Lisa, who has an affair with Johnny’s friend Mark. The story revolves around Johnny’s obsession with Lisa, Lisa’s lack of love for Johnny, and then Mark’s hesitation in choosing between Johnny and Lisa. Outside this, many characters pop in and out but fail to play a significant role. The script is incoherent, the acting is amateurish, editing nonexistent. It felt as if a dictator trying to make a film about himself. Tommy kept changing the dialogues, forcibly inserted scenes that had no relevance to the film like men playing football in their tuxedos. The budget for the film apparently surpassed $6 million whereas the first two weeks taking in the box-office came to about merely $1900! The Room is an ultimate disaster movie, with Tommy Wiseau at the helm.
With such a catastrophic start, one would expect the film to end up in cold storage with some old DVDs turning up in 99p stores in some remote seaside town. Possibly with a two for one offer. But The Room was destined to become something else. A legend. A cult classic. So 15 years since it was first released, The Room has its range of arcane followers — it often had midnight screenings across San Francisco, where Tommy Wiseau attended many times and posed with fans. Apart from this, Tommy Wiseau was an enigma to the crowd. The Room is his only prominent screen appearance. Nothing is known about his past that he claimed, like being of Eastern European origin but growing up in Paris. There were speculations that he made the over-budgeted film to get rid of the black money earned from dubious sources. Speculations led to many researchers delve into Tommy’s past life. And when Greg Sestero, who played Tommy’s friend Mike, wrote Disaster Artist about making of The Room, that opened up many facets of Tommy as well as unknown facts about the film. Hollywood rejected Tommy Wiseau in The Room, but then, thanks to its eccentricity, The Room will be reborn in Disaster Artist (2017), the screen realisation of Sestero’s book.
Sometimes in our life, we encounter things that are good and things that are bad. It’s the way of life. Both have their own roles to play. The same applies to films. You watch Leviathan, and then watch The Room and realise how good or bad filmmaking could be. What puts these two films into perspective is their budget — The Room with its extravagant spendings coughed up nearly $6m, whereas Leviathan was made on a shoestring budget of c. $4m. This only serves as an example that good films should not cost a huge budget, and you can throw millions but can still end up making a car-crash like The Room. It was a pleasure watching Leviathan, and The Room was painful to watch, but both films will feature in the hall of fame of the epic films I’ve watched — but for very different reasons.
Yet, at one aspect they both seem equal. In The Room, despite the end result was hilarious, Tommy Wiseau gave more than 100% of his abilities. He was frivolous, but it can be seen that there was not shortage of his dedication. So was Andrey Zvyagintsev in making Leviathan. Even though the end results are polar opposites, both filmmakers would still get the kudos for their dedication to tell a story they wanted to tell, irrespective of the reception.
Logan died last night. In fact, he died on 1st March this year, or in a distant 2029 — whichever way you look at it. But I wasn’t aware of it. To me, Logan died yesterday. No tears were shed, no sleepless nights, but inside I just felt something has changed forever. There was a sense of emptiness. The 17-year stint when the X-men were a part of my life has come to an end. And I know that it’s only going to get worse.
I grew up in an imaginary world of superheroes. In my early childhood, it was the comic strips of the Phantom — the ghost who walks, Mandrake the magician, Flash Gordon and alike. Then there were Batman, Superman and Spiderman in comic books and with their film franchises. All these characters had one thing in common. They were infallible, invincible. They fought many battles, they lost some, but they came back like the phoenix from the ashes. At the end of each book, or each film, you’re left with a feeling that they are there — whichever imaginary city or country they were protecting. We knew that they will bounce back. They come back. Always. Except for Phantom of course, who’d die but pass on the legacy to his offspring, who’d become the next Phantom. Phantom dies, but Phantom lives on.
When the superheroes only meant Batman, Superman or Spiderman, back in 2000 entered a new franchise that I had no idea about before. Rather than a single protagonist, they were a bunch of people. Or mutants, to be precise. The mutants on the film had remarkable powers, but like many others, I became a fan of the Wolverine. He wasn’t endowed with supernatural abilities, but when you gave up hope, Wolverine was the one who was in charge. A hard grafter, almost fighting with a feral instinct. That’s why in films like The First Class, you end up waiting for more since you don’t see him much. Wolverine became the next sensational superhero. X-men is the only film series that I waited as eagerly as Harry Potter films, and that tells something about it. Now knowing that Wolverine dies, the interest in any further X-men film has ebbed away. X-men won’t be X-men without Wolverine. Period.
After the initial moments of numbness, I tried to think why have I been so upset? Ultimately, it’s just another fictional story, created to earn millions in the box offices across the world. It is a big franchise and the crew cannot continue forever. It had to come to a stop. Better this way than like The Last Airbender, that created a lot more expectation and then fail to follow through with the sequels. So, what was the root of this sadness? There are many reasons, as I thought about it. Death is perhaps the main factor. We saw Wolverine die, and Professor X. Death came as a finality. I’ve known people, who passed away unexpectedly, and it is difficult to come to terms with that. Perpetuity is something we probably seek unconsciously, and comic book characters that withstand the test of time could provide that permanence. Many Golden era heroes have passed that acid test and are still equally popular after possibly four generations of readers. The untimely deaths of Wolverine and Charles broke that promise of permanence. We watch throughout the film how Logan is struggling with his health. Although in many scenes it was alluded that he is really ill, viewers could still hope that by some miracle he’ll wake up again, and perhaps even rejuvenate. But that doesn’t happen.
And waiting for that miracle, we see how powerless Logan and Professor X has become. They are shadows of their past, or more precisely ghosts. They seemed like mere mortals. They lived hiding away in a disused factory. Even on the run, they don’t really stay on focus. They looked like a spent force. Expendables. They live in a virtually mutant free world. There wasn’t anything left to fight for. 2029 represented a world where no X-men are left other than Wolverine and Professor X. Charles possibly killed all the mutants in one of his bouts of uncontrollable mental waves.
But the more pertinent reason was the end of hope. Watching films or reading books about superheroes makes you push the boundaries of your imagination. They make you believe in the supernatural and that all these things are possible — at least for the duration of reading the book or watching the films. Watching them become powerless permanently — their commonness take away the sanctuary inside your mind that somewhere there is this person who can kick some ass to the bad guys. A concept similar to god in a way. More so because in your mind you know they can do bugger all; they don’t even exist. Logan featured this death of hope. He remained a tour de force in almost all X-men franchises but suddenly he’s gone. Not disappeared mysteriously so he could make a dramatic entrance later on like Jane in X-men three. But he died. And he was dying throughout the film, it was not a sudden shock. Like all death, Logan reached the finality of the Wolverine. That’s when the hope finally evaporates away.
The death of Wolverine may not mean much as far as the film franchise is concerned. Although Hugh Jackman hinted that he will no longer play Wolverine, with a right script and a right fee, he may change his mind. The possibility of Wolverine being featured in a film is still big. We know now that he dies in 2029. That’s still 12 years away, and there can be as many X-men films as possible. Even after 2029, films can be set in the past like we see The Wolverine set in 1945. As long as Hugh continue to look like the invincible Wolverine seventeen years back, he can carry on X-men film franchises. So, it is still possible to see Hugh play Wolverine in future.
But it won’t be the same. In the past films, you knew that Wolverine will be back again. He’s less of a mutant, but more savage. But after watching this film, no matter how savage Wolverine appear in the next film — if there is any — Logan with all his vulnerabilities and resignation will come back to mind. Death, as the great leveller, has claimed another victim, who will now fade into oblivion.
As the next generation matures, X-men will probably become a thing of the past, just as are the Arnie or Stallone films to the present generation. The tapes will remain, and their hay days will live on through the dusty memories of the parents and grandparents who once dreamt of doing what they were doing on the screen when they grew up. Wolverine is not there yet, but we can say Logan marked the end of that era. Memories of Wolverine are still vivid, and that’s how we’ll remember him — the pain in his eyes, yet the savage outlines of his face, always on alert, trusting no one and finally, with his shiny Adamantium claws that hadn’t become rusty with disuse. The Wolverine who dominated my cinema experience in my twenties and thirties. Logan has been the swan-song of an exciting seventeen-year stint. It’s a shame that he chose to end Wolverine’s legacy and dash any hope that Wolverine will live on, like all other superheroes that were created. But then, it’s Wolverine. He’s the perennial bad boy; since when did he play by the rules?
So 1st March 2017 is the day when the hope ended. That mutants and humans will live side by side. A vision that Logan himself was very sceptical of. Melancholy is a profound word, probably not applicable to superhero films. But it was melancholy that filled my heart, seeing something, that has been a part of me, end. The last scene was pretty symbolic when Logan’s daughter turns the cross over his grave into an X. It could be a symbol of optimism, similar to le Roi est mort, vive le Roi. Or, it may mean that the story of X-men ended there, with the last true X-men biting the dust. Who knows what’ll happen to the mutants now?
In my previous blogs, I have often mentioned about serendipity. It’s a magical word, and the effect of serendipity in our lives is even more astonishing. One such example would be how a great inning from the maestro Sachin Tendulkar would lead me to Blade Runner and the C-beams speech, and following that through to my revelation about the science fictions in Hollywood.
It was the summer of 1998 when I witnessed what is known as “The desert storm” — Sachin dismantling the ominous Aussie bowling attack in Sharjah. The ferocity and sheer brilliance cannot be explained to anyone who hasn’t witnessed it. It was devastating and lyrical. The next day as I still reminisced the flurry of strokes by the little master, I came across a compilation of musical scores. One of them caught my interest instantly as if it complemented the replays of the previous day going through my mind. I noticed that the music was called Chariots of Fire, a tune I had heard many times before, composed by none other than Vangelis.
Fast forward a few years, when I’m working and have all the money to splurge as I have no outgoings. Finding Vangelis albums in Calcutta was extremely difficult as the handful of well-known music stores mainly stocked what the most people wanted — 90’s boy bands, 80’s rock and 70’s pop. Who’d be interested in a Greek electro composer? Still, I found luck and the old love rekindled. Each CD cost equivalent of £50, but I still bought a few. Apart from albums like Chariots of Fire, China and Antarctica, there was another compilation album called Themes. That’s where I came across Blade Runner first. It was the title soundtrack of the film, and unlike the serene Antarctica or China, the music was strikingly different. The music seemed completely in sync with the name Blade Runner as though the protagonist running against time — the Laser beams shooting past him in a futuristic world. Learning from hearsay, later on, I thought it’ll be another cop film. But regardless the genre, Blade Runner compositions has been permanently etched in my memory.
Let’s blitz past another decade. The year is 2017. I came across reviews of the Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the original film. The superlative reviews, about how the sequel befits the original film perfectly, made me want to watch Blade Runner, which, despite initial low earnings, is now hailed as a cult classic. However, a lesson I’ve learnt watching Tron: Legacy is that I should at least learn a little about the original film if I’m going to watch the sequel first. And that’s how I decided to watch Blade Runner.
This brings me to the role of serendipity again. I needed all these preludes to tell a story behind deciding to watch Blade Runner. The rest is pure magic. It is undoubtedly one of the best science fictions I’ve ever watched. Set in 2019, this doesn’t perhaps resemble the world we will be living in two years, that most of Earth’s populations will set sail to intergalactic colonies, and there will be flying cars and replicants. But when you think that the film was made in 1982, the concepts of the film and visual effects are mind-boggling. Most of the film features a bleak backdrop — a dystopian LA full of darkness and dereliction. And throughout the film, the music from Vangelis casts the web of magic that complements the feeling of noir in the film, yet in a dreamy world. He pulled all the stops in making the soundtrack for the film — from Indian classical instruments to techno-synth — and the result is magical.
I’m not writing a film review here, so I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the film. But it was an amazing experience, even watching it on my iPad. All I would say is that it was a thought-provoking film, and asked many existential questions. Questions that are still unanswered and admirers are still looking for answers arising from the closing scene of the film. And then there was the C-beams speech. A speech that immortalised Rutger Hauer amongst the Blade Runner fan community. The sheer contrast of character that the viewers witness in Roy Batty during the closing climax was baffling enough when he saves Deckard from falling. Just as we begin to take in what had just happened, Hauer delivers the C-beams speech and blows us away!
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
The words were profound, but beyond those dramatic words superbly drafted by Rutger Hauer himself, the C-beams speech leads to another window or realisation. A realisation that the film, just like its enigmatic soundtrack, was way ahead of its time.
As we are left spellbound at the climax of the Batty vs Deckard duel — Roy Batty said his last words, the white pigeon fluttering away symbolic of his freedom, the downpour and the dark background and finally, the mesmerising music from Vangelis — the film seemed unmistakably 80’s. And it made me wonder. Was 80’s the best decade for science fiction movies? And you think of Tron, Blade Runner, Terminator, ET, Back to the future, Predator, Alien. The list goes on. And when you look at the visual effects and the concepts adopted in the films, the ideas are still fascinating even considering forty years of advancement in science and technology. At times it feels like we have let down those visionaries who depicted a picture of the future, by not advancing enough! I mean, there are brilliant science fictions since the eighties like Jurassic Park, Matrix trilogy, Inception. But the flurry of maverick ideas that we see in the 80’s seems to have been lost. The scripts are much more mainstream and cautious. We have talking robots like in Transformers, but they don’t make C-beams speech anymore.
Watching Blade Runner was nostalgic in another sense. Apart from marvelling at the concept behind the film, it reminded of the growing up, the teenage years, forbidden pleasures of going to the cinema without telling parents. I recently came across a term — Xennials, a generation born between 1977 and 1985, a crossover between Generation X and the Millennials. They are characterised by having the cynicism from the Gen X and optimism of the millennials. This unique combination is perhaps the result of an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood. Living in an analogue world meant the digital reality of today was science fiction then. The information was scarce, so science fictions opened the magic doors to a glimpse of the future. Blade Runner rekindled those memories of the past, and provide inspiration to explore the magical world of science fictions. All this due to a whirlwind inning nearly twenty years ago. Butterfly effect? I call it serendipity.
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