The Future is Empty, Easy to Convince and Ours

It is the end of summer; she can feel it in her bones. Just now, as she walked along the verge towards the park, the long grass had tried to rid itself of moisture against the opaque nylon flesh of her ankles. And, although the sun still reaches her warmly between thickening cloud, she can taste a coldness on the wind that beckons bonfires.

Last night, on the way to bed, the condensation on the skylight had been so thick that it cast crystals in the moonlight, which spoke of a sudden disparity between inside and out. This morning, for the first time in months, she had hesitated when taking up her thin, tweed jacket, remembering the weather had shown similar symptoms at the end of spring, leaving her flushed in a fuller, woollen overcoat. Her mild irritation then was easily displaced by joy at the prospect of long hours spent outside. But now, a likely reversion to warmer clothes signals a relapse, to days truncated at teatime, housebound and fearful.

The park retains the sprightly air of the waning season. Freshly watered lawns still resonate with colour and trees cling desperately to their leaves as she launches her frail body on its daily round. Only the rotten rhododendron petals that litter the gently curving path and the crunch of seed cases underfoot belie its straitened circumstances. It is her familiarity with every inch of the park that causes her to notice these slight changes; she has been coming here since her mother joined the proud legions with their prams. In her infancy, she had known the willows before they had something to weep about and the gnarled oak before it fell to its knees.

Her past is replete with memories, flickering and furrowed, defining without constraining her. But it is the future for which she lives. Although there is no way of checking with anyone her own age – this kind of conversation having been consigned to the dustbin of personal history – she supposes that, for a woman closer to the end than the beginning of her life, she spends an excessive amount of time dwelling on the future.

Her mind wanders as she walks, adjusting her pace to allow the thoughts to catch up. She thinks of the changes she has witnessed within one lifetime, of the progress that no-one could have predicted and its gradual distortion. Presided over by concrete and glass, her concentration is perforated by the rumble of traffic in the middle distance and the miracle of flight overhead. She tries to imagine a better world in the fervent hope that someone will have the energy to implement it. Saluting a lonely magpie, she wonders what fate has in store for the next generation.

Rounding the bend, a shift of blue catches her attention on the left hand bank, pansies newly planted in the bed that had lain fallow only yesterday, incongruous for the time of year. She blinks at this implausibility, the materialisation of hundreds of plants in the cold dead of night to confuse her, and wants to reach out and touch the velvety surface to prove its existence. But she satisfies herself instead with the vague scent of massed plants and recently turned soil. Pausing to admire the flowers, she thinks fleetingly of the hanging baskets that had bracketed their porch before the bombers came. Look ahead, she reminds herself, look ahead.

From the front, the flowerbed resolves into a familiar gimmick of lettering, of the kind used to herald festivals in bloom. But this slogan resists an easy reading and she squints slightly to decipher the spidery text that defies the block capitals of expectation. The future it says, as she begins to walk along it, familiarising herself with the writing, is empty, easy to convince, and ours. Just like that: complete with punctuation but grammatically ambiguous.

Crossing the path, she stands far enough away to take in the whole statement as it bends its flimsy head to blur and resolve in the breeze. The future is empty, easy to convince, and ours she reads in a slow, internal voice, wondering which cryptic product this is advertising and what business it has in the municipal gardens. Silently, she resents this gentle intrusion, which seems to belong to a world she no longer understands. As it moves from left to right, the vivid indigo letters fade to white as if the hand that inscribed them ran out of conviction by the end of the sentence. It seems to fluctuate from pessimism to optimism, from nothing to everything, and then vanish.
Turning on her heel, she undertakes the rest of the journey blindly, lost in contemplation of the message. It is the middle part, the easy to convince, that irks her. Does it mean easy to change, to control, to determine the future? Not easy, surely, but it has to be possible and is certainly more urgent than ever before. Uncanny, she thinks, in light of her ongoing preoccupation; perhaps someone is trying to tell her something.

Reaching the public conveniences near the exit, she decides to pay a visit, the nip in the air having taken its toll. Holding her breath, she ventures through the much-glossed door, past a dripping basin stuffed to overflowing with tissue paper. Locking the cubicle behind her, she moves to hitch up her skirt in the confined space and then she sees it. Scrawled in the same youthful hand – The future is empty, easy to convince, and ours – it seems more emphatic in marker pen than ephemeral petals. This time, there can be no mistake; the juvenile author of this sentiment is staking a claim on the future. Maybe there is some hope after all.

Commissioned by Katrina Moorhead for the ‘Floral Graffiti’ project in collaboration with Maggie Hills for Vardy Gallery, 2004.

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