This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Emperor

“I used to like that poem by Poe,” said the boy. “You know that one, The Raven.”

“Nevermore?” I asked, amused.

“Nevermore. You’re surprised, aren’t you, that I should know it? A slum kid like me?”

“Well, if you want the honest truth, kind of yes, I am.”

“I had a friend,” said the boy, picking at the newspaper spread over the table in lieu of cloth. “He was big on poetry back in the day. Used to have a small book of it in his bag all the time. He kept on with those poems, you know? I liked that one, The Raven. It’s sort of like my life. ‘Nevermore.’ Yeah, I liked that poem. Once upon a  midnight dreary...”

“So where is your friend now?”

“No idea. I heard he escaped. Got a job abroad or something.”

“And you – you’re here.” It sounded cruel, but the boy didn’t take it that way. He shrugged.

“Right. I’m here. I used to dream about escaping too. Now? Nevermore.” He laughed. “At least I chose my future rather than let my future choose me.”

“How do you mean?”

“You know who lives next door? A guy my age, someone I played street football with once upon a time. And now he steals and begs for the money to shoot up every six hours. I’m better than that, at least.”

“But this isn’t really getting you anywhere, is it? Where do you think it will end?”

“I know where it will end. With a bullet in my chest and blood in my mouth. It’s come close to that a few times. But it’s still better than choking on one’s own vomit after an overdose.” He stood up and dragged a drawer open on the table. Inside there was a heavy grey handgun and a wad of money. He pushed them aside and pulled out a pouch full of a white powder. “Look at this – top line heroin, and I never touch a milligram of it for myself. It’s better to be a doer than a victim.”

“Most people would say that’s a sad philosophy.”

“Most people,” he said, standing in front of the broken window, “Don’t grow up without parents and on the streets, thinking themselves lucky if they can find enough food not to lie awake all night with hunger.” He laughed suddenly. “Most people don’t inhabit my world. You don’t understand yet? There’s no commonalty between most people and me.”

Someone had set fire to the pile of garbage I had noticed earlier in the street, and smoke began eddying through the broken window. “If the world were to stop tomorrow, though, who do you think would be better suited to survive, ‘most people’ or someone like me?” The smoke wrapped itself round him in shades and tones of grey.

“At this point,” he said, “I could probably tell you to go away and leave me alone. I have my life to live, so long as it lasts, and you have yours, I assume. But it doesn’t work that way, does it? Once you start opening a door, it’s got to open all the way. You can’t shut it – not this kind of door.”

“How about girls?”

“There was a girl I liked. A leader took her, and she even went willingly. I don’t blame her; he’s got money and power and she isn’t going to be left alone suddenly. With me she’d never know when I’d never come back again.

“Love? What’s that word? I hear it in songs and it seems to me it’s something invented to sell music and Valentine’s Day gifts. Sex I can understand. Love? No.”

The smoke was still coming through the window. He jerked a thumb back over his shoulder. “They set fire to the garbage and think it’s all gone. But it began as a pile of rubbish and it’s turning into a lot of dirty smoke and some dirty ash. One sort of pollution to another.”

“Are you happy?” It seemed important to ask.

“How should I know? Can you tell me if the smoke is happy being set free from the garbage? I couldn’t be happier when I compare myself with some others, and I couldn’t be less happy comparing myself with a few others, too. I try to live for the moment. After all, I don’t know if there’s such a thing as the future, do I?” He laughed again. "I think of myself as an emperor of my own little kingdom, which consists of one person - me. It helps."

“I have to go now,” I said. “But I’ll be seeing you again.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “Do you think you will?”

“I hope so,” I said. “I hope so.”

Two days later, in the morgue, I identified his body.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009


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