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Proof/The Great Divide

by Anthony Edwards

I think I’ll start at the beginning. Or at least at a beginning. At one of the beginnings. I’ll start with the taps. But first, I have to tell you about my work, about what I do, did, do, for a living. You’ll understand this better, I hope, as we go along.
I’m a proof-reader. I read proofs for a publishing company. We handle everything from trade journals to free-sheets to special promotions for client companies. It’s big business. All image. The quality of the finished product reflects directly on the Corporate Images of both the client and ourselves. So the copy must be perfect. It usually is. We’re the best in the business, and I am, though I say so myself, the best proof-reader there is, or was, or is.
Let’s begin with the taps. Lately, I’ve found myself running a tap to fill a kettle or a basin, walking away, and letting it run and run. A few minutes later, or longer, I’d catch myself wondering why the hell the tap was still running. It’s a small thing. A very small thing. I notice small things. Maybe I’m going senile, or the pressure of work is getting to me. But there’s more to come.
Like I said, I’m a proof-reader. I’m trained in, and experienced at, noticing anomalies. It’s part of me. I read everything, watch everything, analyse everything around me continuously. I’ve often gone into shops to tell them their signs were misspelled, or been forced to put aside in anger a newspaper strewn with simple and stupid mistakes in syntax, spelling and meaning. Even on holidays I never turn off. And I’m always right. Or I was, used to be.
Take “it’s” versus “its”. This was even worse than the taps. On one particular day, I just could not get it right. It was like “flip”, one day you use “it’s” for the possessive, and the next you use it only for “it is” I couldn’t believe it. Even though I looked at every guide to proper English, every dictionary, every Thesaurus in the place. They all agreed. I still couldn’t believe it. I still can’t.
And my name. That’s Michael John Madigan. But everyone calls me Johnny now. And it just doesn’t sound right. Not at all right. Michael John sounds better but even that has a strange air about it, as though it referred to some character in a book I’ve read, or someone in a film I’ve seen. A Johnny I’m not. Definitely not.
I can’t really speak to anyone about this, because I don’t seem to know anyone very well anymore. I have thought about this too, and I think I can trace the strangeness, the difference, back to the River. Since then there’s been something like a rift, a huge divide between what went before and what came after.
For instance, a month after the River Incident, a wonderful job opportunity presented itself to me. I had to move to the other side of the country, but it was such a chance in a million, I just had to accept. And the job has lived up to all my expectations. As I said, I am now chief proof-reader in the largest, most successful publishing company in its field.
I have a great deal of job satisfaction. I live in a new house on the fringe of the suburbs. The climate here is better and I spend a lot of time on the beach. However, I don’t see much of my old friends or family, and when I do, we don’t seem to “connect”. It’s almost like we’re strangers. Life is better here, but something is awry, some things just don’t gell.
The River. I’d better tell you about that, and although I did say I hadn’t spoken to anyone about the taps, or my name, or any of the other things that bother me, I have talked to people, asked them enough to know that every single one I’ve questioned has had his or her own “River”, had his or her own Rift or Great Divide, though none seem to recognise it for what I now suspect it is.
The River. It was a bright sunny day. The Big Pool on the river was a popular place for bathing. Fairly clean, safe, and within walking distance of town. There was even an old slippery diving board. We rarely used this for diving anymore. The river wasn’t as deep as it used to be, and there was a lot of debris and mud on the bottom. As kids, we used to dive down, become explorers of the deep. On this bright, sweltering day, I just wanted a quick dip, so I climbed onto the board and dived head first into the cool, still water. The shock of the water was slightly disorientating, and I just went down and stuck in the mud. It sounds silly like that, but that’s what happened. Stuck in the mud. I was so frightened I didn’t know which way was up or which down. I forgot I was under water. Forgot I was a mammal and not a fish. I forgot everything, until I awoke in a house by the river, lying on cool white sheets, and watching white clouds float by the window.
Looking back now, I can see that nothing has really been the same since. And it’s not me. At least I think it’s not. Everything is the same, but some things feel like they should be different. Everything is the same, but some things seem a little less so. Not quite different. As though the shadow of their real selves - or some other selves - hangs over them. Like the taps. I behave as though taps should turn themselves off. All taps. But they don’t. Not here anyway. I behave as though my name is not Johnny Madigan, or Michael John Madigan, not quite Michael John. I behave as though I were trained to spell “its” as “it’s” when used in the possessive sense, whereas the world persists in the opposite. This world. The world I’ve been in since the River. A complete world, a “real” world, a world in which all the parts relate perfectly to each other, except to me.
I’ll tell you a story. A man - say a Jimmy Madigan - is walking home from the pub. It’s a Saturday. Let’s say it’s raining, and the road is narrow and twisting. At a particularly dangerous bend on the road an inebriated motorist takes the corner too sharply and feels a slight bump. He carries on. On the roadside, Jimmy Madigan picks himself up and considers his escape miraculous. The motorist later feels guilty, turns back and finds the body. Jimmy Madigan is buried two days later. The notices for his funeral are in the paper. But Jimmy Madigan doesn’t read the death notices. Even if he did, he wouldn’t find any mention of his death in the paper he buys every day. Not in the paper in his world, in his new his death in the paper he buys every day. In the old world, life goes on without Jimmy Madigan, while Jimmy Madigan goes on with what he doesn’t suspect in his new life.
But I do. I suspect. I notice. How could I not? I’m a proof-reader. I read proofs. I notice things. For instance, my body “isn’t what it used to be”. More precisely, my legs “aren’t what they used to be”. They’re shorter, stockier. And everything here is heavier, and built closer to the ground. As if gravity was greater here. Like I said, I notice things. Eventually. I’m a proof-reader. I read proofs. But where’s my proof? Now there’s the rub. But let me ask you one question. Think carefully and tell the truth. Have you ever “miraculously” survived “certain death”? Have you? What’s your River, your Great Divide?


Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’ (1991), pages 44-46.


Anthony Edwards

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