A title comes first. Duke, Baron, Knight. Sir Edgar as it was, named after a character in a play who pleaded honesty but screamed naivety. The man in question had never read the play or seen it on stage or seen a trite governmentally programmed version or even a crass American reimagining. This choice of ignorance and blame had haunted him from afar, through the spaces that bridged spaces, corridors, roads, empty carpets, trainlines, and turbulence. When chronicling a person like this, one must wonder if they are worth the effort, if their existence grants the words. For Edgar and his sideways face – his eyes, nose, and mouth always running away from something else, the words come from a warning for what never to be.
This man, the dignified named, walked along the curvature of the road under drooping trees of late summer shadows, stepping over a short metal fence onto a church courtyard, touching the dry grass with an ankle crack. Leaning against the names of dead friends a couple was continuously throwing a tennis ball for an undersized dog, which made Edgar exhale in coincidence, that quick noise where you breathe in and out at the same time. In the shade a girl was reading a pocket atlas, no larger than her hands, laid on her front, and beyond her two gangly teenage boys were booting a football around to disrupt the peace. Edgar passed this scene without observation, then as he was about to step over the fence to return to the road, the whisper of an old man told him to turn around. He looked over his left shoulder to see a dozen beasts traversing the foreground of the eglise, meaning church, meaning animals with thick coats and wide soles and stunted horns.
Muddy yellow fur collected into thick strings hung on their bellies, and their faces, low over the eyes. They moved in sultry tandem, in no hurry, or with any serious relevance to the world around them, the dog didn’t bark, the girl didn’t look up from the maps, the teenagers didn’t stop kicking. It was only Edgar that saw and only Edgar that knew. The beasts were the anomaly, the sign that the fragments and materials that surrounded him were the extracts of a long-deceased consciousness. He could almost see the outline of the church projection, and the translated words that hovered above, the symbols that held the false reality together. Edgar tried to remember when it began, but his mind was blank, as though trying to find the starting place for a dream. Everything else that was important – his body, his mind, and his sentience were all intact. The same could not be said for those relaxing in the park, or the running dog, it would take only a hand through their binary shadowed existence to discover that. They were members of the loose memories of Roland Jameson, Edgar’s old tennis coach, probably still alive somewhere, maybe in the same computer drawn village, but hardly solid beings within the resurrected mind of man that had died three years ago.
That voice Edgar heard was Roland’s lingering force on the environment, and Edgar had to remind himself that this wasn’t his world, nor his reality. He had paid close attention to the curator’s instructions before the exercise began – don’t trust what your eyes see, don’t expect to feel the gravity beneath your feet, and don’t, under any circumstance, tell the subject that they are dead. The last instruction was relayed several times and in the sincerest of tones. Edgar had heard stories about people who had been lost in a dead consciousness for years, when the subject realised they were already perished, and had taken control of their own mind, or allowed it to crumble. The lack of gravity came when the church courtyard was behind him, the path ahead seemingly wobbling beneath Edgar’s feet. His peripheral vision lacked precision and the world around him was muddled and out of focus, but wasn’t it always, young man. Old man nowadays, overweight and worn out, with still so many unanswered questions and short-lived promises, with an inability to really remember anything with confidence. Edgar supposed that the whole courtyard scene was a taster of what was to come. He had been settled into this peculiar new reality and now he was ready to surge towards his end goal. The price he paid meant he was on the clock, Edgar wasn’t the type of man to be able to afford an extended period with a lost loved one, as those with a fatter chequebook chose to do.
This surge was a form of transportation – an aggressive dragging through the torn pieces of Roland’s memories of the place he had lived his entire life, to the front door of the house he had died in. The former fuzzy lines were replaced by much clearer ink, and it was now impossible to see the falseness of this reality. Roland’s extracted mind was at its most cohesive at his home. There was clarity and truth to what Edgar was seeing and experiencing, the wind riding upwards through a green plant covering the bottom of the front room window. Edgar peered through, wondering whether he could see Roland inside, whether he was already there when the simulation began, or whether he was only around when he was. The curator wasn’t entirely clear on Roland’s place in this façade, but Edgar suspected that Roland’s fractioned existence within his glued together former life was eternal. He would be forever waiting for Edgar to knock on the door.
It had been a delayed visit, some twenty years or so since the Great Storming Off the Court Serving Session in the Rain and the Mud of the Last Summer before the Decision. Edgar’s over-expensive analyst described it as the ‘inciting incident’, the moment that scrunched him up into a paper ball and thrown him into an office bin. He never picked up a tennis racket again and could never work out why he ever did. There was never a reason to contact his old tennis coach from then on, could Roland solve his workplace boredom, soothe his cursed marriage? Certainly not, and so through the clouds and the mist of years passing, Edgar forgot about his days playing tennis as a child, about being a possible tour player, about escaping the grim reality of his tormented upbringing. Roland never forgot, that’s what his children told Edgar at the wake, that he never forgot anyone he coached, good or bad. The funeral was public and held at what remained of the village social club and tennis courts, much of it had been glossed over by orange bricked new builds, peaking over in mortgage highs as Roland’s eldest cried through his speech. Edgar attended because he was around, sanctioned back to England thanks to foreign visas total cancellation following the border closings. He had spent much of his adulthood veering further away from his hometown, until slowly drawing back in, expanding and contracting as the universe does.
Edgar gazed at the pretend sky trying to spot the curator’s long lens before knocking on the door, his knuckles aching as he did so. A sweep of cold air brushed past him as he waited, and waited, until he remembered that he was told not to expect an answer, and to just walk in. Edgar opened the door to a small kitchen and half-heartedly announced himself, inspecting the immaculate sides and sink, the archaic stove and oven. He had only ever been in this house a handful of times, but it remained exactly how he remembered it, which made him question which version of Roland was he about to meet. Surely not the one he had last seen in person twenty years ago. The curator said he would be an amalgamation of the many found resources of Roland’s mind: his memories, his personality, his belongings, photographs, testament from those closest to him, his DNA. Apparently, his lack of social media presence made it more difficult to build a complete form, but Edgar didn’t require much from the program. An inspiration, Edgar wanted, a something of a something.
The sound of enunciated commentary came through to the kitchen and Edgar walked towards it. Roland was sat facing the television in the next room. “Are you still watching it?” Edgar asked, scared he might receive no reply.
“You’re early,” Roland said, still facing the television.
“Only by a few minutes.”
“Yes, I still watch it. The game is still the game. Sit down then, and I’ll put the kettle on.” Roland rose from his seat and stood taller than Edgar, even with an arched back. Grey hair was combed over his head, glasses with soft edges on the end of his long nose. This was a visualisation of Roland that could have been close to when he had died. He smiled at Edgar and patted him on the arm, repeating that he should sit down. It took a couple of short strides for Roland’s legs to start working, but after that, he moved as spryly as a much younger man, or a much more alive man. On the television was the US Open, which dated the simulation – a nice trick from the creators to envision reality. Edgar didn’t keep up to date with the tournaments and the players anymore, but from the colouring of the picture he surmised it was from the last ten years. He sat on the end of the long sofa and gazed up at the framed photographs covering the walls around an electrical fireplace. Grown children and their spouses, grown grandchildren and their spouses. Roland’s late wife in her wedding dress who he had now joined in death.
Uncanny, Edgar thought, but no, to Roland this is all real. The mantlepiece he had built himself, the paintings on the wall by his uncle, to the dead Roland this was concrete truth. Whatever unease Edgar felt that was conjured by the cloudiness of the outside was replaced by simple nerves, the act of seeing someone you barely knew. Something moved in the corner of Edgar’s eye, and at first, he thought it was Roland returning, but it was a cat, leaping onto the armchair. It looked identical to the cat Roland owned twenty years ago, dark fur with orange speckles, a washed-out patch of hair over the left eye. “How are you still alive?” Edgar said out loud, as though some intern hadn’t written the animal in green code.
“Different cat,” Roland said, holding a pot of tea. “Once you get to know him, he isn’t that alike Ancient Ivan. Could you imagine him jumping that high?”
“I don’t think I knew Ancient Ivan that well.”
“Really? I have this memory of you playing with him right there.”
“Probably one of your kids.”
“What do make of this new cat?”
“He’s not bad.”
Roland placed the pot of tea on the coffee table, then hurried back into the kitchen for two mugs, then hurried back and poured. The cat had elongated its body across the armchair to sleep. Edgar reflected on what the curator had trained him on to get the best out of the simulation: to bring the subject to life. The revived consciousness was only half-awake, it needed a shake of remembrance to come fully alive, but to Edgar’s eyes and nose and ears the man sat across from him was very alive indeed. He repeated in his head: don’t trust what your eyes see, don’t expect to feel the gravity beneath your feet, and don’t, under any circumstance, tell the subject that they are dead. “You have gotten old,” Roland said unexpectedly, sitting back down in the chair, and muting the television.
“So have you,” Edgar said.
“I was old when we met. You were a child.”
“I wasn’t a child when I last saw you.”
“True. You did shoot up fast, and now you have filled out. And your hair too.”
“Nearly all gone. I really should shave it and let it go.”
“Do you still play?”
“Not since I left you on the court. Do you still coach?”
“Here and there. Remember Jessica? She got on the tour, played against some of the best. I think now she’s a coach at some fancy Canadian university. The old courts aren’t there anymore, but my grandson plays, one of my youngest’s boys. It’s taken a long series of ancestry to finally get one that plays the game. Sometimes I watch his sessions whenever I’m down visiting.”
“Is he any good?”
“He could do with a better coach.”
Roland’s five children were always distant from Edgar, curious of him and the relationship with their father. They were not unloved children but they never saw the excited smile he gave to his players when he saw something special in them. “I was sorry to hear about Zelda,” Edgar said, in between a sip of tea. This was a planned line of attack, Edgar thought what better way to waken Roland’s dead mind than bringing up his wife who expired years before he did.
“Who told you?” Roland asked, eyes narrow.
“My sister. She still lives in the village.”
“Well, she’s gone. There isn’t much more to say on that. Zelda always said that one day you would come back, but I think she meant on the court for another lesson a few weeks later, not after twenty years in our front room after she was dead.”
“I’m sorry, has it been that long?”
“Yes, I remember because the commentators are making a big palaver about that player on screen right now being thirty-seven and still playing on the tour. You beat him in your age group once.”
For a moment, Edgar tackled with the sense of that statement then chose to ignore it. “I shouldn’t have left you on the court in that way in the Rain and the Mud.”
“It was the best decision for you to leave when you did. I could have never told you that the tour wasn’t right for you.”
“I think I knew I wasn’t good enough.”
“You were good enough, at a time. I’d say when you were fourteen or fifteen you had the promise to compete in grand slams. Then you got big very quickly. Over a single winter. At first, I thought it would work to your advantage, stronger serves, stronger returns, but it made you uncoordinated, awkward. It turned out your best strength was your speed across the court, and that was all gone.”
“You never told me this.”
“I didn’t have the heart to. Surely you noticed. I couldn’t tell you because of where you came from and what the sessions meant to you.”
Edgar’s sessions were heavily discounted because of a governmental scheme where ‘at-risk’ children were given opportunities in sport so that they didn’t become drug addicts like their parents. Over the years, Edgar has grown to find humour in this. Tennis pacified his chances of turning into his father, a man most known for eating a pigeon for a bus fare, or his mother, a woman who was vacant behind the eyes because of an addiction to pain medication. And what did this pacification give Edgar? A path to either professional tennis or an office desk at a computer firm. He had stepped out of the furnace and into a sea of expectation and normality. Edgar was jealous of the chance to prove his childhood wrong, robbed of any agency, and that’s why he walked away from tennis, that’s why he stomped away in the Rain and the Mud. “I don’t regret giving up the game,” Edgar said.
“You shouldn’t,” Roland said. “You’ve done well for yourself. So, I hear. I don’t know much about computers, but I know there’s money in it.”
“There was. I couldn’t quite ride the wave. I worked my way to a position with a handful of programmers below me, then couldn’t work out what to do next. With tennis, there was always another game to prepare for, something to work on. If you’re not creating, what is there to look forward to? I got married and felt the same way.”
“Most people tend to have kids at that point. We did and it turned out perfect.”
“She left before we could make that mistake. That’s one of the few lucky things to happen to me, the foresight not to damage things further in my marriage with children.”
“Luck? Being born in a warzone and finding an onion amongst the rubble is luck. Or getting a good bounce or a good call from the umpire. Your wife leaving is on you, Edgar.”
“I was only speaking, not meaning.”
The shell of a human presented for Edgar was shattering with each passing word. Roland could not have been this out of touch in reality. He could have not transformed from kindly mentor to cruel grey voter, become another product of the anti-strapped in, of the kin of separation from technology. The curator had imagined something that Edgar could not comprehend, a consciousness of separation that Edgar should have expected, but he couldn’t think straight in this room of ones and zeros. Edgar had never been described as a good person, he was a person, never doing anything particularly ‘good.’ He figured the grand projection all around him and the animated corpse reflected his own mind, and perhaps that was his ego talking, but what of the colliding of his memories of Roland and the ones utilised to create the resurrected embodiment of discipline. That was the continual problem, anxieties and doubts in the way of building a soul that could be good, that did have the time to look past itself, to live in each moment without fear of the next. And, as always, during this inclusive rhetorical deliberation, Edgar was interrupted by a noise.
“Was it the weather that pushed you over the edge in the end?” Roland asked.
“I don’t know,” Edgar said, truthfully. “Maybe I saw a reflection of my father in a puddle.”
“That’s a bad joke.”
“It is. I did always have fantasies of him walking onto the court one day during a session. And I would have dreams of him flying across the sky during a match.”
“You should have never taken that story to heart.”
“I’ve come to terms with it not being totally true. I even tried to find him years back using the Pigeon name as a lead. Got nowhere.”
“Did you ever try with his real name?”
“No, because I didn’t want to find him. It was an act of catharsis.”
“I don’t know what that word means. What I do know is that any time looking for that man is wasted. He ruined you without you ever meeting him.”
“They called me pigeon boy at school.”
“I know. The other coaches at the matches called you it too. It was satisfying when you beat their bred to be elite boys.”
“I didn’t always beat them.”
“Everyone loses. Even Ancient Ivan lost. Answer me this, how many times have you lost something off the courts? More than on the courts for sure.”
“I remember you doing this when I was a kid, making everything into a philosophical argument. It was more than green balls and fresh grass to you.”
“It’s still only green balls and fresh grass. I’m talking about life.”
Edgar fidgeted on the sofa, feeling bile form in his lower stomach. “I don’t think you’re totally qualified to discuss life anymore,” he said.
“Don’t be daft,” Roland retorted, shaking his head. “I have coaching qualifications. My badges are around here somewhere. Zelda always said I should keep them in case I took up lessons full time again. And life? They don’t give out badges for that son.”
“They do. Driving licences and passports and insurance numbers and bank accounts. You try living without those.”
“That’s not life.”
“What is then? Passing that ball back and forth until one of you misses it? Collecting these badges and tokens until a personality is created? I don’t think I’ve obtained enough symbols of a nature, yet. I wonder what they would use to habituate my ghost.”
“I’m lost. It was Zelda who would always go on about the badges. They don’t mean anything to me. Any young player or any coach with any sense would be able to tell I knew my tennis from the moment I walked onto the court.”
“You’ve gotten old. You’ve surpassed the level of wise and into the level of senile.”
“I am content with my mental state, are you?”
Considering that Roland’s physical form was nothing but ashes above the pencilled sky, his mental state was much to be debated. Edgar was starting to enjoy the exercise of playing with this ragdoll. He sat up from the sofa and advanced across to the opposite end of the house to a glass door, not saying a word. “What are you doing?” Roland questioned.
“My parents,” Edgar said, turning around. “They named me after a character in a Shakespeare play.”
“I don’t know much about Shakespeare.”
“Are you saying that because you don’t know much about Shakespeare or because you are programmed to say that when they don’t have enough information on whether you knew much about Shakespeare or didn’t?”
“See. You are crazy.”
“It doesn’t matter. The text doesn’t matter, nor the character, but why would my parents, two people who left school at fifteen to pursue a career in desolation name me after a literary figure?”
“Who told you they did?”
“My mother did.”
“I always liked your mother, and you were too harsh on her, but you can hardly take her word as law.”
Edgar’s mother had died not long after he left the village for a tech university half a country away. He had heard that Roland had paid a visit to the hospital where she was admitted after she sunk an entire translucent bottle of white pills. For the longest time Edgar had loved Roland for this, experienced earnest compassion for another human, but this was outweighed by shame, by the embarrassment of never visiting the hospital himself. Edgar was informed that his mother was cremated promptly after her death via an e-mail that he deleted as promptly as her burning. The cipher sat across from him was another etching of resentment. Edgar thought of the hanging yellow fur. “I saw animals that no-one else could see in the churchyard today,” he said. “On the way here.”
“See. You are crazy,” Roland said.
“That’s a repetition. You already said that.”
“I’m old and my memory isn’t what it used to be.”
Edgar turned back away from the armchair that Roland was leaning over to speak to him to the glass door and looked out at the garden. It was kept pristine by this consciousness, the grass cut to the hedge row in a parallel oblong, leaving a square space at the end for a shed. Above the hedges it was murkier. Edgar was too caught up in the peculiarity of the situation and had to remind himself of why he had paid so much to be there. The money was a thought however, and stretching Roland’s mind could be a good test of whether the program was fairly priced. He received a voucher for the program from his ex-wife, some kind of sick joke, that discounted the price to under nose-bleed level, continuing the cycle of discounts, half-measures, B grades, and adequacy. Edgar guessed she wanted him to use the program to conjure up his mother, and due to mostly spite he chose someone his ex-wife had never met. He chose someone who was a positive entity in his life, a bad memory, but an objectively positive momentum. Selfishly, Edgar was stood in the dead consciousness of Roland Jameson because of his incessant need for kicks up the backside to ever get anything done.
He tried something out. Extending his left leg back towards the sofa he tested if he could teleport there in a single stride. He couldn’t, and so walked there instead, sat back down, and grabbed Roland by the hand. “If I asked you to do something, would you do it?” Edgar asked. “If I commanded you to do something, would you be forced to do it?”
“I’m the coach here,” Roland said. “You should be listening to my instructions.”
“There have to be rules here. Ways of manipulating the program.” Edgar looked up to the ceiling, and shouted, “ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME? ARE YOU WATCHING?”
“You’ve gone mad,” Roland said, releasing his hand from Edgar.
“Poke yourself in the eye right now.”
“Do it. Poke yourself in your left eye with your right index finger.” Roland’s eyes widened but he didn’t flinch. He looked scared, and frail, like an old man given a fright, like an old man disappearing into himself as his memory fades. Edgar couldn’t measure his cruelty because this man was already dead. “What about a tennis lesson?” He asked.
“Great idea,” Roland said, rising suddenly. “We can have one in the back garden.”
“This game is pure manipulation. Lead the way.”
Almost coyly, with a glint in the eye, Roland stood and went to the glass door at the back of the room, and Edgar followed. His curiosity had got the better of him and he knew he was running out of time. The curator had told him that when the time was coming close, he would hear a ticking clock, and Edgar made a joke about how that should happen when you are about to die. Tick, tick, tick. What would Edgar do when he heard the ticking? Probably crawl up into a ball and cry, or masturbate, or both. His narcissism would call out to a god that he didn’t believe in, scream out that he would be more useful in the afterlife than on mortal ground. I was once a decent tennis player; I could provide entertainment in the paradise gardens. The simulation was like a test run for death in a way, experiencing what modern technology had made from immortality. Billionaires infused with the quest to live forever designed these programs to remain a burden once the planet was finally rid of them. As far as Edgar was concerned these resurrections were copies of a dead mind, not the preservation of the original, and so, what desire was there for this farce? I mean, cash, of course, but Edgar wasn’t about to sign away his headspace anytime soon. He couldn’t think of anyone that would choose his consciousness to speak to again anyway, couldn’t think of anyone’s life he had impacted for the better.
Outside in the garden, the edges of the reality could be seen clearly, the lazy ends of the painting. This was a calculated situation, however, the ready rackets and bucket of balls by the fence gave away that, and Roland’s robotic movements to pick them up. “Choose your weapon,” Roland said, picking up his own. Edgar grabbed the only other remaining racket, not much of a choice, and they positioned themselves opposite each other as though they were on a court about a third of a size of an actual one. “Where had we left off last time?” Roland asked.
“Serving,” Edgar replied.
“Ah, yes. You’re right. Well, I suppose you better fire one at me then.”
Roland tossed a ball across the garden, and Edgar caught it, feeling the weight in his hands. He brought the ball to his nose to smell it and was engaged with regularity – the pungent factory scent of a freshy, signifying that plastic industrialisation and the perpetuation of productivity seeped into this realm too. Roland stood bobbing from left to right, regaining that abstract physicality of a younger man. Edgar laughed out loud, then got into position, saying across the shaded hues of the pretend, ‘You are a dead person, you died three years ago,” before serving the ball. Shards of glass twinkled around Roland, and lights came crashing behind him. The old man shrieked in pain as though emitting a second death rattle, but there was no sound, only silence. Edgar could feel the ground beneath him subsiding, the Mud squelching wet with abandoned reality. The two of them slipped together, down to an in-between land of complete darkness, like they had broken through the map in an old video game. Roland was wandering and muttering beyond Edgar, who was frozen in an all-encompassing fear. “Get me out, get me out,” he called into the ether.
He wasn’t begging to that god, but the string-puller with his sweaty fingers on the keyboard. Edgar, falling further into nothingness, felt dampness on his balding crown as Rain toppled through the simulation. He squinted to find Roland, knowing that perhaps he was the one with the control. The old man was a speck on the horizon when the bookend crashed into Edgar’s face, when the pause button was pressed firmly. Around his feet the water was climbing and waving, getting closer to his knees, flooding the now flat environment. The silence was replaced by a groaning, and Edgar, now unable to inhibit a physical form, saw Roland hobbling around reaching his arms out as though he was a blind man. He was, through the muffled sound of manufactured ear drums, crying out for his Zelda, and the only emotion that struck poor Edgar was envy.