It was a free day and one that I had left yawning like a tiger trap, for something marvellous to walk right into. Maybe I wanted to eat Eggs Benedict in a Morningside tearoom or to inspect an exhibition of surrealist relics at the Dean Gallery. Edinburgh’s streets were waiting, infinitely to explore, and today I would follow them about wherever they led until I had happened upon an answer.
The day outside was sunny but bleak. Huge sunbeams, as cool as neglected tea, stretched across the roads and pavements. I prefer to walk briskly than to encase myself within a heavy coat, but today, on a whim, I opted for a scarf. It seemed a light and spurious thing to put on, like a prop in a play.
As I was leaving my apartment, I caught sight of my gaunt figure in the hallway mirror and then I was suddenly weightless in the arms of some swift, unexpected impulse. I undressed before I could suppress this urge, stepping out of my collapsing clothes, and I then made a study of myself. My limbs gleamed bone white; my face was hard and pallid, and its mild countenance looked strange now that it was attached to this shrunken, apish body. There was a smattering of black locks on my chest, as if I was wearing an emblem of my animal heritage. For a moment I gazed at this unearthly figure and he gazed back with his doleful face. I smiled at the figure to try to bring him to life but I was met in return with a scared smile and scared eyes.
I poured desperately over the man in the mirror, searching for anything boyish or loveable, but he remained grave. Beholding yourself in a mirror is always unsatisfying. The mirror-image is like the version or hallucination of yourself that walks in dreams, apparently you but without any of your everyday personality. The man in the mirror was just such a stranger.
I scooped up my pants and then I had plunged back into the warmth of my clothes. I left the apartment feeling horribly frightened and dismayed.
The road to Marchmont took me past St Catherine’s Argyle Parish church, a dumpy little barn of a church, with arches over the windows to pinch it into shape and a tiny fairytale tower for a spire. A retinue of silver birches stood around the church, like careless guards. This pretty building seemed to chime with the rather dainty beauty of the winter morning, and I glanced without interest at the worshippers who were smoking and chatting outside. Then my mind was scrambling wildly on the spot. I knew them all. I looked again at this astonishing vision and reeled before its senseless jumble of old friends and former co-workers, people who were surely connected in no other way than that they knew me…
I must have been spotted. There was an abrupt, strangled shout and in a single ripple, the group flinched and froze.
I was wading towards them, my face set alert and hard to receive whatever incalculable situation was about to wash over me. “What the hell is going on?” I growled. I then registered that all of the men were exquisitely shaven and that everyone was dressed in new black clothes.
“You’re alive!” For a second Noah was glaring at me. Next, he jumped and shook his head. “Biggy, thank fuck, you’re alive!”
Thank fuck. I had wondered whether the affronted mourners were going to bundle me into a coffin and force down the lid.
Renata scowled. It seemed entirely natural for her to be beside me, but I suddenly realised that it was the first time we had been in each other’s company for months. “Well, since you’re alive I’d better be getting on with my morning.” Cocking her nose in the air, she spun on her heel and vanished.
“Renata?” I called after her. For a second, I had the unnerving impression that I had been roused from a daydream rather than meeting her in real life.
People stepped forward to reassure me. Someone put a hand on my arm. They’d received news that I was dead and so, distressed, they’d agreed on Facebook to arrange a church service. After all, they’d presumed that the body would be returned to Poland and the funeral held there. It was unreasonable to expect them to drop everything and coordinate holidays, as if I was holding a stag party.
This funeral is twinned with one in Poland? At this, I somehow pictured three forlorn acquaintances gathering in a desolate churchyard, under black skies.
We continued to stand frozen, like statues facing each other in an abandoned town square, whilst the senselessness roared around us like a gale. What had happened? “I’ve recently deleted my Facebook profile,” I said suspiciously, my mind racing to apprehend some connection which was still slightly out of reach.
There were eager, relieved smiles. Yes, it must be a misunderstanding.
My fury began to dance like a fire. “You held a funeral because I had deleted my Facebook profile?”
Nigel, a chef from the hospital cafeteria, smirked. It evidently didn’t sound very sensible when put like that. “Well, they do delete the profiles when people die. By the way, why did you delete yours?”
In every scenario our boss Scott always makes it his priority to assign blame. “We met Pablo smoking outside the Greenmantle. He said that it had been deleted after you had been killed at Duddingston Loch – in a punch-up with a swan.”
I stared about, still caught flapping in the web of this nonsense. “And you really thought that was likely?”
“Pablo is one of those guys who you can never tell when he is being sarcastic or serious. We could hardly ignore the news. If it turned out to be true, we would look really bad.”
I had deleted my Facebook profile because I had grown obsessed with a seventeen-year-old Malaysian girl who I had met in the Oz bar. When smoking outside, she had hugged me and kissed me primly on the lips and told me that she adored me. Her eyes had shone with innocent mischief, but this exhibition had still deeply affected me. I had begun to check her Facebook profile daily until it had become as naturally compulsive to follow as a soap opera. Soon I was checking it at a rate of once every half hour. The girl only ever posted a new photograph every eight or nine days, so you can imagine the state that I got into.
As my passion grew more feverish, I got to know, or rather recognise, her sisters, her three best friends, and various men of different ages who were plausibly dating her. In reality, for the soap opera to function, I had to build lifelike characters and motivations out of a handful of photographs and comments. I had never heard any of these people speak. Moreover, I was decoding most of their comments into a somewhat strained English using Google Translate.
As well as recommending that I delete my Facebook profile, my GP sent me to see a counsellor. I was here overtaken by a curious coincidence. The counsellor knew the Malaysian girl – he had met her in the Standing Order – and outside the pub she had hugged him passionately and told him that she adored him. My counsellor and I both started to gossip happily about the girl. Yes, she was bewitching.
James, the editor of my website, emerged from the church conferring with Noah.
“Ah Tychy,” James said. “I’m sorry about your obituary.”
“My obituary?” I spluttered.
“We’re struggling to get any hits at the moment and such a post would have hardly helped. I was trying to work the Charlie Hebdo massacre into it. That would have at least bumped up the traffic.”
“Why, thank you very much!” I turned my back on James, only to be inundated with a jostling queue of well-wishers. Many of these mourners were people who I had not encountered in years. On to my little tent of death now crashed down this huge avalanche of life: years of new girlfriends, dumped girlfriends, marriages, children, new jobs or qualifications, exchanged homes and long foreign adventures. When I could finally walk away from my funeral, now with no ken of where I was going, I felt utterly dazed. It was as if I had swallowed years of Facebook like a single pill.
It’s a funny thing, leaving Facebook, but my life immediately shrivelled up to a fraction of its earlier size. I currently seem to attend barely one in five parties, and at the fifth I’m treated as if I’m a vegetarian: a difficult guest who can’t be contacted in the normal way and so needs obscure, special requirements. I also lost contact with old friends who had moved overseas, and who could be now marrying and breeding and dying in blissful privacy. Logging on to Facebook had been rather like climbing the town steeple, to look down on hundreds of lives. Now, however, I was peering through dense fog and only ever detecting tiny flashes of news.
In recent years most of my memories of my old friends had been admittedly photographs from their Facebook profiles. There may be more to friendship than subscribing to a feed. I was always mildly awed by the ability of Facebook to make itself seem unremarkable or commonplace, when the entire service is in fact grotesquely, even extravagantly, perverse. It’s a great challenge to look at this thing which clings all around your life and see it for what it truly is.
Your Facebook profile is supposed to lay out your whole identity, to erect a deeply personal arena in which information about you and all of your friends is exhibited. But it’s simultaneously owned and controlled by complete strangers, who can alter everything about it on a corporate whim. If the state owned Facebook – as it very easily could do – then people would think that they had lost some of their most basic rights. Yet Facebook makes its perversity acceptable by inviting you to collaborate in it; to start collecting the tradeable files on your “Friends”; to enrol in the whole, laboriously-petty Stalinist monitoring system. On becoming a little spy, you are eased into the same moral club as the big ones.
My drinking cronies Pablo and Tori both made fun out of me for quitting Facebook. They gleefully christened me a “hipster” – I didn’t know what this meant but I somehow knew it was unlikely that I could be one. Nonetheless, they recommended a new social network, which turned out to be inhabited by pompous snobs who had quitted Facebook. This network was not actually on the internet: it was a weekly public meeting, held in the Forest café, where everybody bitched about the service that they had left whilst subliminally expecting the meeting to provide some sort of replacement. I preferred to be lonely and afraid.
[Previously on Tychy: “YouTube.”]