The Devolution of Man
On Friday evening I bought a tall can of beer to drink on the train ride home. I didn’t usually drink in public but I was feeling oddly reckless. This was the only time when there was any hint of happiness and optimism in the stuffy air of the carriage. Everyone knew that the next two days would be a break from the toil and monotony, which in itself was crushingly monotonous. The train was filled with people from my own company. I’d never met them. I didn’t know which department they worked in. I’d never know their names. We’d never exchanged a single word even though, for years and years, we would receive our salaries from the same source.
The train stopped at a station I’d never used, never got on or got off at, not in all the years I’d spent passing through it. The station served a town I knew nothing about. The doors opened for thirty seconds, there were recorded announcements, warnings about the door being about to close that no one ever listened to. The train moved off, gaining speed, reaching the limit and then three minutes later slowing down to stop at the next station. Another thirty seconds, then four minutes to the next stop, then on again and again and again. I drank my beer slowly, saving it for the long, dull ride.
The train was full and it was silent. No one spoke. No one passed a single word to a single one of their colleagues sat next to them. Every single person behaved as if they were the only passenger, as if they hadn’t noticed anyone else was there. With my beer cold in my hand I thought of the picture of evolving man, that chart with four or five images starting with an ape which slowly gets to its feet in stages, straightening its posture, raising its gait to two feet, becoming tall, an upright walking human being. But now the sequence had been reversed.
The new employees were tall, outward looking, their eyes scanning the new horizon, full of hope and expectations upon waking one morning and finding they were in a new position on the food chain. For a short time they roam their new habitat, enquiring optimists, with all the potential offered by evolution’s myriad niches. Then through the years they are overcome by the drudgery of a salaried life, worn out by mundane and meaningless affairs which, in the smallness their shrinking existence becomes, take on enormous proportions. They are wearied and bent over, beaten, broken and bound, their tools, their creations, their intellect is taken from them until their final image is that of an ape dragging its knuckles on the ground to and from its grinding mill of belonging.
The final figure is a bewildered beast no longer able to survive in the modern world, its instincts and memories out of date and unwanted, useless. Until one day the ape will board the train for the last time, no longer needed by the organization it devoted its life to. The ape will drag itself to its home to await death, all the while looking back in longing and regret at the time it was a man and lamenting the fact that it did nothing to avoid the devolution, the wasted half life.
The train stopped for another thirty seconds before rattling off again into the darkness. Opposite me sat a sleeping man whom I’d sat opposite to a hundred times before today and had never exchanged a single word. I wanted to shake the man, to wake him up and say to him; “Your being is futile!” I wanted to ask him; “If you were given the option to be able to sleep until the end of your life would you take it?”
I wanted to stand on my seat and shout; “Where are you all going? What do you do when you get off the train? Do you live wholesome lives filled with love? Or is there nothing but loneliness and depravity?”
I wanted to ask them all; “Are you so disappointed by your utterly unfulfilled lives that you welcome the approach of old age and death? How many of you would submit to suicide if you had the courage?”
“Listen to me!” I’d beg as they stared open mouthed at the beer swilling madman or ignored him pretending they couldn’t hear, “How many truly great human beings have lived throughout history? How many people have made a real and valuable contribution to the betterment of mankind? Wouldn’t they all fit on this one train if they were all gathered together today?”
“And what of all the rest of us? In all the world’s antiquity and alive today, the overwhelming majority of us lead pointless lives only to die and leave nothing behind save yet another generation to live for another ninety years only to consume resources and themselves leave nothing behind except for more of the same, a viscous cycle of ever depletion! Is this what we are here for? Someone answer me, please!”
I wanted to beat my chest, pound my fists and scream; “DOES ANYONE HAVE ANY FUCKING IDEA WHY WE ARE ON THIS FUCKING TRAIN?”
Four minutes later the train stopped. The sleeping man awoke on cue and left. Two schoolgirls boarded and took his place. They were young but old enough to be cute and sexy in a simple, forbidden way.
“Hey girls,” I wanted to say “how would you like to come to a hotel with me? I want to strip you both naked and suck from every part of your body, I want you to suck from every part of mine and then from each others! How about it?”
“But what would be the point?” the schoolgirls would ask me, “You know it never would, never could, happen, don’t you? And even if it did it would never live up to your fantasy, your expectations or imagination, would it? You would only be left with more craving and emptiness, more disappointment and dissatisfaction, an endless, un-satisfy-able longing, you know that don’t you?”
I would only nod and look back at the darkness beyond the window as the train moved on, quietly sipping my beer.
The previous afternoon one of the heads of my department had retired, it had been his final day, at 65, with a company he’d entered in his early twenties. We had all filed into the meeting room to wait for him to enter, feigning surprise as we all applauded and shouted out congratulations. After more than forty years he was given a bunch of flowers and a framed certificate of long service. Alcohol was prohibited anywhere on company premises under any circumstances so there had been no toasts, those would come later in a smoky backstreet bar staffed by cheap aging hostesses, with the other department heads.
Instead, in the office there had been speeches by the manager.
“On behalf of the company,” he’d said, “we cannot even begin to thank you for your long and loyal service! You are an example to us all! Bravo!”
“Bravo!” everyone had chorused.
The manager shook his head theatrically from side to side, “I honestly do not know how we are going to cope next week without you here!”
Everyone nodded in fake agreement. Everyone knew perfectly well that nothing would change and that we’d hardly notice he wasn’t there at all. The retiree hadn’t made a difference to the place in years.
Then it was the old man’s turn. He looked around at the faces of those assembled, some of whom he’d toiled with for decades, and looked suddenly shocked that he was about to walk out the door for the last time, never to return and with nothing significant to look forward to.
“I…I was responsible for…” his voice was actually faltering with emotion as if he was accepting the Nobel Prize, “… the new filing system for invoices and receipts.” he told everyone gathered. I almost burst out laughing. The filing system was full of faults and was about to be overhauled. “I was also part of the team which computerized operations in this department in the 90s.” Something that had happened twenty years ago. And that was it.
Everyone applauded and bowed, the old man shook hands with everyone and smiled though there was a look of terror on his face. When he came to me I looked into his eyes. I was looking down a long dark tunnel, at the end of the tunnel was a mirror with the reflection of a 65 year old me looking back at myself. What would I say in my farewell speech? What had I achieved?
In that moment I decided I would never be the man in the mirror at the end of that long dark tunnel. No, instead I decided that one day I would say to someone “I killed a cop, and I killed him so that I could take the virginity of a beautiful teenage schoolgirl!” I didn’t know if I would be saying it to a drunken stranger in a dingy backstreet bar in my old age, or to my cell mate on death row, but somewhere, sometime, I will say it.
The train arrived at my station at the same time it always did. The two schoolgirls stayed put playing with their phones but I got off and walked the way towards my home dropping my empty beer can in a bin at the station entrance. I walked the same steps I’d walked thousands of times. It was so familiar that if I were suddenly blinded I could still walk it. I was hungry and my wife and my dinner were waiting for me.