by Russell Smith, Altitude, Volume 1, Creative 2, 2001.
PDF Version: Stain
There’s a stain on the ceiling.
I noticed it today, it’s very faint, you’d hardly know it was there. You might stare at the ceiling for days or even months or even years and never notice it. And then one day you see it, or rather, you sense it, and from that moment on it will always be there, indefinite but unmistakable, like those patches of warm water in the sea, or those shivers you get in the sun for no reason.
I call it a stain, it’s more a discoloration. It’s so faint, it’s almost the same colour as the ceiling itself, which is white, I may as well clear that up at the beginning. The ceiling is white, and shades by imperceptible degrees of discoloration into the area of stain, which is, obviously, not white, to put it mildly, but without being any other colour in particular, for all that.
Not that the ceiling is particularly white either, oh no, not that luminous transcendent whiteness of the perfect tennis shirt or the ideal set of teeth, but a sort of déclassé whiteness, what passes for white for the likes of us, what passes for white in this bitch of a world, just as what we call silence is clamour, just as what we call death is pullulation, and so on, enough.
So, one could say, the stain is to the ceiling as the ceiling to that other whiteness, never to be known, very pretty.
I’ve always loved doing nothing, I could happily do nothing all day long, if I didn’t tend to fall asleep from time to time. Asleep all is confusion, turmoil, panic and vain effort, it’s a relief to wake up again, I can tell you, back to the old nothings, the old blankness, peace and quiet at last.
When I’m awake I like to stare at the ceiling. No, like is too strong a word. When I’m awake I stare at the ceiling without bothering to ask myself whether I like it or not, you can call that liking, it’s as close as you’ll ever get. I call it doing nothing, it’s not really nothing, it’s something, there’s no denying it, it’s nothing much but it’s not nothing.
I used to smoke too, to pass the time, it’s important to have an occupation, but I couldn’t keep it up, I don’t know why, my heart wasn’t in it. Doing nothing is a lot better when you smoke, you can really get something out of it. Without the cigarettes even staring at the ceiling has lost the sense of purpose it once had. I don’t know why I stopped, lack of willpower, perhaps, I lack tenacity, or so I’m told. Personally I have no opinion. Lucky, in a way, that this stain came along, or I might have got bored, in the long run.
At first I didn’t notice the stain, and then there it was. I saw it, or rather, sensed it, all at once, in a flash, like an idea, or a revelation. Impossible to describe it, the stain I mean, it seems to be literally without qualities. It has no parts, no edges, no centre, no colour, no shape, no dimensions, nothing of which you could say, it is like this, or it is like that, nothing but itself, in itself, in its being.
For instance, I could say, the stain is so big that it hangs over you like a net, but that may be a trick of perspective, it may, in reality, be no bigger than a handkerchief, in reality. Or again, I could say, it is shaped like a duck, for example, or a fireman’s hat, or the letter M, but it would be truer to say that it is shaped like a duck, for example, that has been atomized and sprayed onto the ceiling with a soda siphon.
In fact, when you start to think about it, it’s difficult to decide how you know that the stain is there at all. Its edges are so indistinct, it fades so gradually into the ceiling, that you can’t perceive its outline. But if you take the opposite tack, if you try to locate the middle of it, and say, here is the stain at its worst, at its most flagrant and unmistakable, it still looks just like the rest of the ceiling, and you realise that it’s only by its edges that you know it’s there at all.
Out of the corner of your eye you perceive it with great clarity, like those stars you have to look away from in order to see, but when you look at it directly, it becomes indistinct, it recedes, and if you don’t look away in time, disappears altogether.
I’m not afraid of it dripping. It seems to be a seeping stain, rather than a dripping stain, if it is either of these. Personally, I think it’s a dry stain, a dry seeping stain, if such a thing is possible. I like to think of it as a sort of oozing crystalline muck, slow, imperceptible, mildly toxic, eventually crushing us all.
Some days I don’t even notice it, and other days it seems to have got worse. Yes, and some days I’ll be thinking about how much worse it has got, and whether I should do something about it, assuming for a moment that anything could be done, and assuming too that if anything could be done I would be capable of doing it, and if, occupied with these thoughts, I look out of the window for a moment, to calm myself, distract myself, stupefy myself or gain time, by the time I look back the stain is gone, as if I were dreaming.
But at other times the stain, when you look at it, disappears, and returns when you look away. No, that’s not right, start again. When you look at the stain, the stain’s not there, and when you look away, out of the corner of your eye you see it disappear. It comes into being in the periphery of your vision, only to disappear in the same instant. It exists as a disappearance, appears as its own vanishing.
It occurred to me one day that in reality the stain may not be a discoloration at all, but a shadow. That wouldn’t surprise me, on the contrary, it would be more surprising if things turned out to be what they seem, even after the most probing investigation. The deceptiveness of appearances is the rule rather than the exception, if I’m not mistaken. So one counts on being wrong at least a reasonable percentage of the time, but not enough to be able to count on being right by a simple process of reversing one’s judgements. To be wrong all the time, what knowledge that would be, in the right hands. In the end you learn to be wary, to reserve judgement.
So, perhaps the stain is a shadow. If the ceiling is not perfectly white, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s not perfectly flat as well, it stands to reason. Perfection is not of this world, I’ve often noticed it. And so what appears to be a permanent discoloration of the ceiling would in reality be the effect of the shadows cast by the ceiling’s imperceptible convexities over its imperceptible concavities, that would explain a lot. The fineness of the variations in the flatness of the ceiling would account for the diffuseness of the stain’s edges, and the changes in the angle and the intensity of the light would account for the apparent changes in the size, shape and intensity of the stain. An ingenious hypothesis, setting all my questions to rest at a single blow, simple and elegant into the bargain, I must see if I can refute it. But, why bother? I don’t believe the hypothesis, why should I believe its refutation?
It’s easy enough to say to yourself that existence is absurd, life is meaningless, there’s no point in going on. You can even find comfort in it, in a funny way. But it really only remains a frigid and artificial construction of the understanding until you start to feel, sooner or later, that in fact it is only your life that is absurd, meaningless and futile. And not just your life like the lives of others, your life like life in general, but your life only, your life as the exception to the rule, not a universal futility, but a singular one. When the conviction gradually takes hold that, amidst such bounty and promise, while all around you others thrived and prospered, you managed, totally against the odds, to make of your life one enormous concatenated fuckup, that’s when you really start to crack your teeth on the existential toffee apple. To go on living in such circumstances, to go on laughing at the same old joke long after it has ceased to be funny, can only be taken as an insult, without it being exactly clear who is insulting whom, whether you the others, or the others you, or you life, or life you, or life itself and to hell with the personalities.
Sometimes, when I look at the ceiling the stain is still there, and sometimes when I look again the stain is gone, and sometimes when it’s still there I’m relieved, and sometimes when it’s still there I’m anxious, and sometimes when it’s gone I am happy, and sometimes when it’s gone I am fretful and afraid, so that sometimes I close my eyes and think about the stain, and about how faint it is and how unmistakable, and how it isn’t really anything at all, and how it persists.