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Chapter 1 (cont’d)

When he opened his eyes, an elderly man stood before him. Though partly bald, long curls almost touched his shoulders. He had peculiar greenish eyes, the left one with a yellowish stain on it. He wore a brown suit, that once might have been fancy, but now looked rather shabby.

‘There’ve been many intruders here, but they never had time to fall asleep. Most of them were some sort of efficiency checkers, travelling around to make sure that everything in the world is sufficiently efficient, according to rules that they don’t really understand themselves, because of their inner complexity and contradictions. It’s all a bit beyond my scope, but I get the impression that they find it efficient if a building that has been registered as unused and empty is so indeed. So when they come here I usually hide, or else I pretend I’ve lost the way, and ask them to tell me where we are, and sometimes they hardly know, while I do.

But what has brought you here? Just because you fell asleep I am stupid enough to tell you all this, so now I’d like to know a little more about you.’ Ladethe started. He didn’t like direct inquiries about himself, although he really wouldn’t know what he had to hide. After a while he said: ‘Perhaps emptiness attracts me. Or I like quiet places. I don’t know.’

He tried to reverse the attention. ‘I take it you are here often, as you’ve seen so many visitors here? You live here, so to speak?’

‘That depends on your definition of living in a place. Some people say they live somewhere, but they are only there in the early part of the night. Others have to be in a place night and day, but do they live there? Are they at home?’

‘Maybe you are really living somewhere if you can feel homesick about it.’

‘Could be. But sometimes I am homesick about the smell of wet soil after a long period of frost. Yet I don’t want to live on wet soil, or on anything that’s wet or sticky. We don’t grudge anyone the longing for home, yet a cousin of that word was once misused for what turned out to be imperialism and abuse of power, with genocide as the end station.’

‘Anything has two sides, either of which may look different in the sunlight. It doesn’t do anyone any good to know it, but it just happens to be true,’ Ladethe concluded not very much to the point.

After a moment of silence, the old man got even more reckless. ‘Well, yes, as you might have guessed, I live here, and I work here, why should I conceal the facts? But you still haven’t told me about your facts, have you?’ he tried again.

Ladethe, encouraged by the way they had been talking, now felt like something that would sound more like an answer. ‘I try not to think of where I came from, or where I’m going. You dwell, but I wander. I’m on the run, but I sometimes run in circles. I won’t keep you any longer for now, but I can tell you I’ve enjoyed my visit. I’ll be back, if that’s all right with you.’ So he went.

He spent the evening in a pub in a nearby town, sitting on his own, nobody wanted to know anything about him, nobody wanted him to do anything, he just sat and watched. He liked that, loneliness sometimes hurts, but often does not, for it gives you a lot of freedom in return.

There were posters on the walls, announcing various kinds of performances, and advertisements of people trying to found some club, looking for lodgings, or trying to sell or buy musical instruments and the like.

It was not the kind of place where a girl is immediately surrounded upon entry, women were not treated as prey here, but as persons, made up of sex as well as many other constituents. Yet there were very few females in the pub. Ladethe almost fell in love with one them, but seized the railing just in time. She was not exactly pretty, with unimpressive eyes, and short colourless hair. But he felt a very strong attraction, he would have been very pleased to be friends with that girl. He stealthily looked in her direction several times, but she paid no attention. He didn’t talk to her, not out of shyness, he told himself, but because there wasn’t any use in it (‘what’s the use of anything’).

As midnight drifted farther into the fog of the past, fewer people stayed. Most of those still present were a bit drunk, though not very, and Ladethe limited himself to blackberry juice. He felt quite like the others, they were all enjoying themselves in simple ways, by talking, walking about and singing together. But fear (and hypocrisy) suddenly grabbed him, when he almost became part of this little mutually anonymous crew. He convinced himself that the achieved result sufficed, and that more fun or togetherness would be overdone, and therefore harmful. So he hastily left this pub, mumbling goodbyes that nobody really paid any attention to. It’s all right, it’s all right, he kept telling himself, it’s been a wonderful evening, far better than sitting at home doing nothing anyway.

The town was small enough to soon reach the fields again, and then the wood. There was a sandy path parallel to the road, at times it was a hundred yartres away, at times hardly ten. He had to find a place to sleep now, so he decided to return to the laboratories, where there would at least be a roof over his head, and perhaps even some breakfast and company in the morning.

Apparently the path valued the vicinity of no matter what, and when farthest from the road, it touched a pond. The water level was just over a calf-length below the path, so Ladethe sat down and, having nothing spectacular to do, wasted some valuable time musing upon the value of time.

Before he could switch over to a more useful topic, his pondering, so near, was interrupted by the sound of breaking twigs. He looked in the direction of the rustle, and exchanged a gaze with a horse. It stood there frozen like a reptile. After a minute or so, the horse walked towards him, in a manner suggesting that no-one could ever have expected anything else to have happened. The horse smiled like horses do, his two ears up in the air. But Ladethe was suspicious, didn’t know why at first, then saw what made him that: this horse was a freak, with no more that four ears, with two of them trying to gain sympathy, while cheating with the back pair. Ladethe turned and took to his heels, and so did the horse. He soon came to his senses. It was a relief to be away from that awful beast, yet he regretted his flight, for he had never feared a horse before, nor had he any other animal.