Je ne Regrette Rien by Cian Morey Oct13

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Je ne Regrette Rien by Cian Morey

It was a decidedly wet Sunday afternoon, and Alan boldly resolved to add “weather forecasts” to his extensive list of untrustworthy things, which already included such deceitful knaves as “Urban Dictionary” and “Nick Clegg”.

He sat dripping on an uncomfortable park bench, watching the world go by. Confucius sat beside him, pawing at said bench despondently. The bench was painted an ugly shade of green, except for where they appeared to have run out of paint and used an uglier shade of teal instead. Confucius was not impressed.

‘Well, this is just wonderful, isn’t it?’ Alan commented.

‘Woof,’ Confucius replied.

‘I wish I had found my umbrella,’ Alan said to nobody in particular.

‘Woof,’ Confucius agreed.

‘I mean, it must be in the apartment somewhere, mustn’t it?’ Alan mused. ‘It can’t be down the back of the sofa, can it, because if it was I would have found it when I found my shoes. I don’t know why I didn’t just put it in the umbrella stand.’

‘Woof,’ Confucius reminded him.

‘Well, yes, that’s true,’ Alan admitted. ‘In that case, I should get an umbrella stand as soon as possible.’

They fell silent once more. The rain started to lighten.

‘At last,’ Alan murmured.

The rain worsened again immediately.

‘Damn,’ Alan muttered.

He glanced up at the tree beneath which they sat. He wasn’t even sure if it constituted a tree. It had about five spindly branches and leaves were scarcer than penguins in the Australian Outback. Hailstones beat through it like bullets through a handkerchief. Alan sighed. Confucius sneezed.

Suddenly there was an elderly man sitting there beside them. Alan blinked. In his experience, elderly men usually walked at the approximate speed of a dying slug – except when they were crossing roads, at which time they walked even slower – and so one could see them coming from a mile off; this particular specimen, however, appeared to have made it to the bench without Alan noticing his approach at all.

‘A-Afternoon,’ Alan stammered.

‘Is it?’ the man asked. ‘Ah, yes, so it is… strange, isn’t it, how man imposes such divisions upon his time on Earth, when, really, nature doesn’t care one whit. Man is born, man dies, and man lives a bit in between. All else is superfluous. Time should not be judged in days, or weeks, or even years. A good life is not a long life, but a life well spent.’

Alan found his Sunday afternoon to have suddenly become rather more interesting.

‘Nice philosophy you’ve got there,’ he remarked.

‘Yes…’ the old man said miserably. ‘I’ve had a long life to think about it, you see.’

Alan thought he saw where the old man was going with this, then realised that he didn’t see where he was going with it, then wondered if maybe he had in fact seen where he was going with it after all.

‘And… um… was that long life… a life well spent?’ he inquired cautiously.

‘I’m afraid not,’ the old man replied.

Alan had no response to this, but sat there awkwardly like a lottery winner in Kolkata.

‘Well, the flowers are nice,’ he said eventually.

The old man raised an eyebrow.

‘I think you’ll find many of them are dying.’

Of course they are, Alan sighed to himself.

‘But they will come back again next year,’ the old man continued. ‘They have a whole new life ahead of them. An eternity of new lives, perhaps. For them, death comes and goes. For us, death comes and stays.’

Alan had thought that his day couldn’t possibly get any worse, and that he couldn’t possibly get any more depressed, after the rain started falling in Biblical proportions. He realised now that he had thought wrongly.

‘Um… I suppose, for us, there’s life after death, isn’t there… maybe?’ he spluttered feebly. ‘You know, Heaven and… and all that?’

The old man glanced at him with his bloodhound-like eyes and said, ‘As I have said, I have lived a long life. I have walked after God, I have walked alongside Him, and now I have passed Him out. If life had been shorter, I might never have lost my faith; but life is what it is, and more time leads to more reflection, and more reflection leads to more sense, and more sense leads away from religion. There is no life after death for me.’

Alan, despite his best intentions, found himself listening very carefully to what this man had to say. Prior to this, he had never thought that old men said anything worth listening to. His grandfather, for example, had spent his last few years either complaining about how “the buggers buggered the minting process” of his war medals, or commenting at length, regardless of the incumbent government, on the “dreadful state of the country thanks to those tosspots in Parlour-mint.” This old man, however, seemed quite different.

‘Anything else you’ve… uh… pondered on?’ Alan asked. ‘You seem to have a lot of interesting  ponder-y stuff up your sleeve. You should write a book.’

‘A book?’ The old man chuckled. ‘Yes, that’s an idea… a book. I should have done that a long time ago. A lot of things I should have done, really… ah, well. It matters little now.’

They fell silent again.

Alan spent a few moments thinking furiously about how he could break the silence, but ended up merely murmuring, ‘Hmmm.’ It didn’t quite break the silence like a sledgehammer to a window pane, he reflected, but at least it was something.

You should write a book,’ the old man said suddenly.

‘Me?’ Alan exclaimed. ‘God, no! I can’t write a book!’

‘Anyone can write a book.’

‘But it wouldn’t be any good!’

‘Ah, well, that’s a different question, you see. My suggestion is not a matter of talent, but a matter of willpower. A matter of an adventurous spirit. A determination to try anything, no matter how good or bad you are at it, just because you know that, if you don’t, you will regret it later on.’

‘Well, I… I can’t think right now about what I will or won’t regret in the future, I mean, I-’

‘Trust me,’ the old man said solemnly. ‘If you do not try it, you will regret it. I am certain of it.’

Alan paused, then said gently, ‘You have a lot of regrets, don’t you?’

‘I’m not sure,’ the old man replied. ‘I lost count.’

‘Has your life really been that bad?’

‘It hasn’t been bad, not at all, just… empty.’

‘Empty?’

‘Yes… uneventful. Unmemorable. Dull. I never did anything at all, really. Never progressed very far in terms of a career; never had many friends; never had many hobbies; never got married. There are so many places I never visited; so many books I never read; so many foods I never tasted; so many pastimes I never tried; and so many people I never knew. I have no happy memories. I have no sad memories, either, mind you… I’ve just got no memories at all.’

Yet again Alan didn’t know what to say. This old man had a bit of a habit of ending his orations on something to which you had no idea to respond. Not that the man seemed to be looking for a response. He didn’t glance at Alan in the hope of seeing some sort of reaction, like an unruly child glancing mischievously at the others in the class as he marches himself up to the teacher’s desk at a curt call of his name; he simply stared straight ahead, lazily, almost like he could drift off to sleep – or worse – at any moment.

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Alan managed eventually. It was the best he could do.

‘No, you’re not,’ the old man said.

‘What?’

‘You’re not sorry, not really. Don’t try to pretend that you are; as I have said many times, I have lived a long life, and therefore I can see very easily what is true and what is false. But don’t worry, I don’t mind; I never much cared for that sort of thing. “I’m sorry to hear that”… one of the worst sentences of all time. What good does it do the unfortunate person to hear someone else say that? All it means is that there are now two people upset instead of one, and that can’t be an improvement. And if it is a situation like this, where the person who utters those fateful words is not actually sorry at all – well, then, that’s even worse. One person is truly upset, and the other person is acting. It is pointless.’

‘I-I’m sorry,’ Alan stuttered, ‘I didn’t… I didn’t mean-’

‘There you go again,’ the old man smiled.

Alan shut himself up quickly.

‘Woof,’ said Confucius.

The old man grinned and patted the dog with a trembling hand.

‘Does he have a name?’ he asked.

‘Confucius,’ Alan replied.

‘Confucius, eh?’

‘I know, it’s a bit of strange name. I don’t know what inspired me to use it. I must have heard it somewhere, on the radio or something. I always thought it was an unpleasant adjective. “You, sir, are a Confucius!” That sort of thing.’

‘Confucius…’ the old man mused. ‘Confucius, Confucius, Confucius… a Chinese philosopher and teacher, I think. “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others”… that was one of his, wasn’t it?’

‘Really? That was him? Can’t believe I never heard of him. You see, you’ve enlightened me now. You’ve taught me something new. And still, I suppose, you’ll go around saying that you haven’t done anything worthwhile with your life?’

‘The mere act of imparting knowledge is not worthwhile, I’m afraid. It only becomes worthwhile when the other person absorbs it and remembers it.’

‘Are you saying I won’t remember what you’ve just told me? Of course I will!’

The old man smirked. ‘I’m not so sure, and I would remind you that a long life makes one rather a good judge of people… but I would be delighted if you proved me wrong.’

‘Oh, I intend to! You’ll see… I’ll rattle off the story of Confucius like a derailed train rattles off its tracks.’

‘I admire your confidence. It is something I’ve always been lacking.’

‘Confidence?’ Alan laughed. ‘I’m not usually confident, to be honest. Certainly not to admirable degrees.’

‘No matter how little confidence you possess, I am sure you possess more than I. I never had the self-assurance to do anything noteworthy; I’ve never had any impact on the world.

‘So, even if you’re not a confident person, do please try to do something memorable. You can climb a mountain, cure a disease, write a book as I was suggesting, but you don’t even have to do something that significant; just draw someone’s attention by learning to play a harmonica, or telling a wonderful joke, or wearing outrageous socks. Leave an impression, however small, on somebody, anybody. You can do something huge, or you can do something tiny, it doesn’t matter; as long as you can look back on it later on and say, “That’s something I’m proud of. That’s how I left my mark on the world. Je ne regrette rien.”  Do that for me. ’

He looked a little pleadingly at Alan with his bloodhound eyes, which were tearing up ever so slightly. Alan looked back at him, considered what he had said for a few moments, and then at last replied, ‘Alright. I will. I’ll make sure of it.’

The old man smiled briefly.

‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I wish you luck with it.’

He checked his watch, and stood up slowly.

‘But wait!’ Alan cried. ‘What about… what about you? Aren’t you going to leave a mark on the world? After all these years?’

‘Well,’ the old man said, ‘I think I just have.’

And that was that.

Alan was left sitting there on the park bench with Confucius in a vague haze of awe. The rain had stopped a long time ago, and he hadn’t even noticed. Ideas were whirling around in his mind like profound kites. He had an awful lot to think about.

‘Woof,’ said Confucius.

‘Oh, yes, Confucius,’ Alan remembered. ‘What was it he said – “the act of imparting knowledge only becomes worthwhile when the other person absorbs it and remembers it”. Well. Let’s see, then… Confucius. A Chinese philosopher and doctor, who said, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others”.

‘You see?’ he said to Confucius. ‘I did remember. I proved him wrong, just like I said I would. He misjudged. Yes. Yes indeed.’

He paused a moment. Something didn’t seem quite right.

Did he really misjudge? he wondered to himself. Seems strange. I didn’t think he was the sort of person who would. Ah, well, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got quite enough on my mind already.

‘Come on,’ he said, petting Confucius gently on the head. ‘Let’s go home.’

*

 

Thirty-Five Years Later

It was another decidedly wet Sunday afternoon.

William sat dripping on the uncomfortable park bench, watching the world go by. Plato sat beside him, pawing at the bench despondently.

‘Well, this is just wonderful, isn’t it?’ William commented.

‘Woof,’ Plato replied.

Suddenly there was an elderly man sitting there beside them. William blinked.

‘A-Afternoon,’ he stammered.

‘Is it?’ the man asked. ‘Ah, yes, so it is… someone once said that it was strange, how man imposes such divisions upon his time on Earth, when, really, nature doesn’t care one whit. Man is born, man dies, and man lives a bit in between. All else is superfluous. Time should not be judged in days, or weeks, or even years. A good life is not a long life, but a life well spent.’

‘Who said that?’ William asked.

‘I never found out what his name was,’ the old man replied. ‘But it’s always good to have a few mysteries left, isn’t it?’

‘I suppose so…’ William murmured. ‘Interesting quote, anyway.’

‘It is, isn’t it? Yes… I have tried my best to live my life by it.’

‘And have you succeeded?’

The old man thought about this for a few seconds, and then replied, ‘Yes, actually. I think I have. Je ne regrette rien.’