Most of us can use our mind to reason, think, feel and perceive. Sometimes it’s hard to understand that the minds of others can operate differently to ours.
Is a conscious mental state a mental state one is aware of? Can anyone make something conscious out of things that are not conscious?
When one is experiencing severe emotional or physical pain, one can have a subjective awareness of one’s environment; one can respond in a way that is contradictory to reality. Only if we can understand how knowledge is formed.
Stay with me, I’ll show you what I mean.
My awareness all started a few months ago.
It was around Friday lunchtime. I was looking forward to the coming weekend, to going to the football match with my boy.
The office was quiet. Four people had the flu and were at home. My boss, who was the one who first got the flu and spread it to other staff in the office, was an easy going Joe. He walked into my little cubicle, with his constant coughing, and asked me if I could do him a favour. He asked me to deliver an item to an unsympathetic customer because she had ordered it weeks ago and someone had forgotten to put the order through.
“I know you are not a delivery man but you are the only person still in the office that I can count on. Why don’t you take the rest of the afternoon off after you deliver the item?”
Flattery will get you everywhere; I was a sucker for it. When I heard it was 60 kilometres away, near the place I used to live, I even felt delighted. I was glad for the opportunity to visit the old neighbourhood and say hello to my good mate Paul.
I took the delivery form from Joe, put the item in the back of the car and went on my way.
* * *
Ten years ago, we started to rebuild our house. During the two years it took, we stayed with Sueanne’s mother.
Every weekday I caught the train to work, leaving the car for Sueanne to take the two children to school and do the shopping. The station was only a 20 minute walk away.
It was a nice neighbourhood. Most people kept to themselves, the streets were always clean and quiet. A few houses had fruit trees and a vegetable garden at the back. If there was too much for them to consume, they would leave the fruit and vegetables on the top of the brick fence or put them in plastic bags and hang them on the gate posts so whoever passed by could help themselves.
One day after work, as I walked home from the station, I saw a man trying to arrange some lemons on the fence for people to take home. We started up a conversation and before long we became friends. He was about my age, new to the neighbourhood like me. The house belonged to his girlfriend who was a widow with two little children.
Xavier loved football and beer, so did I. He also loved women but I won’t go into that. He was not married; he could do whatever he pleased. On the other hand, I was a married man. I loved my children. Any wrong move on my part might mean separation from my kids. I couldn’t do that.
To avoid any complications, often I would ask Sueanne to join us for dinner at the local pub. For some reason, Xavier’s girlfriend never joined us for dinner. He said she didn’t like to take the children to a place like the pub. Whatever!
One day I met Paul at the pub. He was married to Xavier’s sister who lived a few streets away from Xavier. He was a much older man, as funny as they come.
I can’t remember how we started becoming regular visitors to Paul’s place instead of meeting up at the pub. His place was only a ten minute walk from my mother-in-law’s house.
I remember that I would often pick up some icy cold beers from the fridge and go directly to Paul’s house. If Xavier was not already there, he would be soon after.
I guess it was a safe haven to me. When you’re staying in your mother-in-law’s house, a break now and then can save a lot of headaches.
Xavier needed the break more than me. He didn’t like his girlfriend’s children much; who could blame him? I was never fond of children except my own.
Those were the good days. We would put on our football team’s clothing, showing how loyal we were, and sit together in Paul’s lounge to watch the matches on the telly. We all barracked for different teams and were passionate about our own teams but we never lost our cool. That was the beauty of it all.
Paul was a no nonsense man. He was pretty particular, with endless charisma, which ensured he could influence the actions of those around him. He was twenty years older than me but I didn’t believe that ‘older is wiser’ crap. Paul was a determined, confident, versatile, scrupulous, warm-hearted and full of blazing energy guy.
Xavier was an outgoing, alert, free spirited guy and a wanderer. He needed his independence and freedom. He was blessed with a keen wit and powerful presence.
We had lots of laughs, the kinds of laughs that only blokes can have. When I told Sueanne what we laughed about, she couldn’t really get it. I told her so many times, ‘Don’t ask, you won’t understand’.
That was why I was so glad that I could have a chance to visit Paul again.
* * *
It took longer than I expected to deliver the item. The lady was upset that it had taken so long to get the order. She spent a long time complaining to me how stupid the person who took her order on the phone was and how rude the person was when she called to check her order. I tried my best to listen and didn’t say anything to aggravate the situation. Maybe that’s why Joe sent me; he knew too well that I wouldn’t say anything to make the unhappy customer feel worse. I found out later that her husband was one of our regular customers. Lucky I had been most apologetic and patient the whole time I was with her.
After pointing the finger at almost all our staff who worked in our sales department, she went through our personnel, marketing, buyer and accounts departments. When she could not find any more faults with our business to complain about, she was finally satisfied and shut up. I was dismissed.
One thing I had to admit was that she was not a simple minded lady; she did know how a business was run. She was quite right in many aspects but I would not tell Joe that. That is another story.
Let’s get back to what I was trying to tell you.
I went to Paul’s place shortly after 3.30pm with a six pack of icy cold Foster’s Lagers from the supermarket.
Grace opened the door. She had not changed a bit. She was still as plump as the last time I saw her about eight years ago. Her short and fluffy curly hair and the bright red lipstick on her thin lips were just as I remembered.
She was surprised to see me and welcomed me into the house. Nothing in the lounge had changed. I felt comfortable sitting on the seat that I had always sat on.
“Let me look at you Ryan. What brings you to this part of Melbourne? Paul will be so thrilled to see you when he gets back.”
“Are you keeping well?”
“We’re all as good as gold. Nothing has changed except Michael is living with his girlfriend over in the Doncaster area and Chris is living with a few good mates near the city. It is very quiet without the boys around.”
“How long has Paul been retired?”
Paul would be seventy years old. I remembered going to his sixtieth birthday celebrations ten years ago. His children from his first marriage were all there, two boys and two girls. Add to them his two children with Grace – he had actually fathered six children. Xavier had joked, “They’re the ones he knows of. Later he might find out there are more than he can handle.” Paul had raised his glass and said, “Whatever the number, I hope they’re all healthy.”
“Retired? You know Paul, he can’t sit still. What would he do when he retires?”
“Well, how about that! Still working at seventy? Impressive!”
Grace laughed, “You know I would like to go on a cruise like Xavier and Linda. They’ve been on so many cruises and they really love it. Paul said we’d go when he retires but when will that be? When I am seventy? I am not as fit as Paul, you know.”
Xavier had told me in the past that Grace used to be a knockout when she was young. I couldn’t tell by looking at her. She looked pretty much like most of the women around her age. She was not bad, not ugly or anything like that; she was just like any other normal woman. If I walked past her, I would not turn around and have a second look. To be honest, if I walked past her, I may not even look at her at all.
Sueanne said Grace had the height to make her stand out from the crowd and beautiful facial features to draw attention. You know women are more into details; I just didn’t see any of them.
Grace asked how Sueanne and the kids were, how my mother-in-law had settled into the nursing home, how the house was, had we done anything to the garden? I reported what had been going on to fill in the time.
All the time I had known Paul; he was always back home from work on a Friday before 4.30pm. He’d have a shower and take Grace and the boys out for dinner to save Grace from cooking and to let the boys have a break from home cooked meals.
I waited until 5pm but Paul still hadn’t come back home. I had to make a move as Sueanne had told me that morning to go with her to her friend’s party at 8pm. I would get into trouble if I was home too late.
Grace kept apologising for Paul being late. “I’ll let him know you called on us.”
I was disappointed Paul had not been at home but I was glad that I had called on him and that they were all well. I took their phone number and left.
* * *
Two weeks later, I had forgotten all about my visit to Paul’s place until Sueanne asked me if Paul had called.
“Now you mention it, strangely I didn’t hear from Paul.”
“Maybe Grace misplaced your phone number like you had misplaced theirs in the past. Why don’t you give him a call?”
Women are great. They can manage work, look after children and household stuff, get in touch with friends, arrange social activities and still have time to care for their husband’s affairs.
I opened a can of Foster’s Lager, took the cordless phone to the veranda and got ready for a long cheat with Paul over the phone.
Grace answered the phone.
“How are you Ryan?”
“Is Paul about?”
“He’s already in bed, Ryan.”
“Is Paul ok?”
“As good as gold, he was just a bit tired. I’ll let him know you called. He’ll be sorry to have missed your call.”
“Does he have my phone number?”
“Yes, Ryan. I gave it to him after you left last week.”
I waited for Paul to return my call. But he did not call.
One Saturday afternoon, Sueanne encouraged me to call Paul again.
I did. Grace answered the call again. “Paul is out. I’ll let him know you called.”
* * *
“Something is not right,” Sueanne said
“What is not right?” I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
“Paul is someone who would call you after he missed your visit. He’s got your number so why hasn’t he returned your calls?”
“Maybe he is busy, who knows?”
“I smell something fishy. Maybe you should call Xavier and find out what is happening with Paul.”
“What could have happened? Paul is not young anymore. He might just not be able to manage too many activities every day. Give him some time, he’ll call.”
Time passed but Paul did not call.
Sueanne again suggested calling Xavier. I didn’t think I had his new contact details though. From what Grace told me when I visited, he lived with his new girlfriend on the other side of the city.
To get Xavier’s number, I’d have to call Grace to ask for it. I didn’t feel right calling Paul again.
Sueanne tended to prioritise communication. I preferred to give it a rest.
“That’s why nature’s first intention was to create a female.” Sueanne passed on her request in an indirect way.
I dialled the number.
“Hello.” As expected, Grace answered the phone.
After I got Xavier’s number from Grace, I wanted to politely ask ‘How’s Paul?’ but Grace beat me to it. “Paul will be very disappointed to miss the chance to talk to you. I’ll let him know you called.”
Sueanne was not surprised, nor was I.
* * *
When I called, Xavier was in a store somewhere. It took him a while to work out who he was speaking to because of all the surrounding noise.
He suggested we meet up for dinner. Sueanne wanted to come along so he took Linda with him as well.
It was nice to catch up with Xavier. He had not changed a bit, except his hair was thinning on top and his pot belly was pushed out a bit more than the last time I lay my eyes on him. He was still living like a carefree youngster though. He and Linda had a common interest in cruising. They had already gone on four cruises.
“Once you’ve tried it, you’ll be hooked on it. Some people we met on the cruises just spend their lives cruising. After I retire, I’ll spend most of my savings on cruising, that’s for sure. Why don’t you join us on the next cruise?”
Sueanne couldn’t wait until I got around to asking Xavier about Paul so she went ahead and did so.
“Ryan visited Paul a month or so ago.”
“Did you? Good on you. I can’t bring myself to, I just can’t.”
I could not remember any dispute between them. As far as I knew, Paul was very kind to his brother-in-law. He had even offered Xavier a place to stay until he could find a place of his own.
“Why can’t you?” I was curious.
“I can’t visit those places, I just can’t.”
“What kind of places are you talking about?”
“The cemetery! Didn’t Sueanne say you visited Paul?”
What was Xavier talking about? Were we having the same conversation? I looked at Sueanne. She looked like she was watching a horror movie. Then I realised what I had heard was not wrong – Paul had died.
* * *
Paul retired from work as planned but he had often gone back to the factory to do some casual work, as his skill and experience was valuable to them. One day while he was working, the factory had an accident. Some spilled chemicals caused an explosion, killing five people. Paul was one of them.
That was more than four years ago.
I was overwhelmed by the fact that Paul was no longer with us. Again, Sueanne was one step ahead of me.
“How is Grace coping without Paul?”
Good on you Sueanne, you always know how to ask the right question.
“Grace is alright. She still loves to do her pottery, she goes to bingo, has lunch out with the ladies, goes on bus trips for seniors with the community centre. Quite a busy lady, I’d say.”
“Does she…” I could not finish my sentence. I wanted to ask did she realise that Paul was gone?
Xavier laughed. He knew what I wanted to know.
“Grace is not crazy. She just can’t face the fact that Paul is gone. She lives as if Paul is still around. She talks to him like he is in the house. She often waits for him to come home. She still cooks the meals that he liked and sets the table for two for each meal. If she gets caught up and will be back home late for some reason, she calls home and leaves a message for Paul.”
Sueanne wiped her eyes.
“I never met Paul but I think he was a lucky man to have such devotion from his wife.” Linda sighed.
Xavier put his arm around Linda and kissed her on the cheek.
“That was what my mother said.” Xavier mimicked his mother’s voice, “Paul is a lucky man, to have your devotion, Grace. I hope he deserves it.”
“Didn’t your mother like him?” Linda asked.
“No. No mother would like her daughter to marry a man like Paul. I mean, before they married, Paul was a different man. He used to drink a lot and smoked like a chimney. His wife kicked him out. I mean his first wife. He couldn’t keep any job for long. He had a bad temper, often got into trouble. No one wanted to know him except the two women who loved him, his mother and Grace.”
“Are you talking about Paul, your brother-in-law, Grace’s husband?” I had to ask the question to clear my mind. The Paul I had known was a really decent man. No one could change that much.
“I know it is hard to believe that Paul was once a no-hoper. Grace could have had her pick of men but for some reason or other she picked Paul. That really upset my mother. She cried after she knew Grace was going to marry Paul.
I could never understand the love between Grace and Paul. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Paul. Although he was much older than me, I thought he was a great guy.
Grace believed in him, gave him the strength to do better; that’s what Paul told me. He said Grace gave him a second chance to be the good person that he should have been in the first place.
To Grace, Paul could do no wrong. Everything wrong was someone else’s fault, never Paul’s. Paul’s word was the law. He was the best and only clever man that ever lived.
You would think with a wife worshipping him like that, that man would be out of control. Who knew that Paul would become a respectable guy, a guy we all looked up to.
Look at their boys. Michael and Chris are both respectable characters. None of them had teenage problems; they never mixed with the wrong crowd. They are simply well brought up young men. Grace and Paul provided a good home for them.
What was between Grace and Paul was so strong that nothing could break the bond, not even death.
If you look carefully, you would see Grace is not imagining Paul is still around, she is totally convinced that Paul is around.
About two years ago, we were at our cousin’s wedding together. I had a little too much to drink. I asked her, “What is the point of you pretending Paul is still here with you?”
She answered, “Who’s pretending? Paul is here with me!”
“We buried him two years ago.”
“We didn’t bury him, we buried some of his clothing because his brother wanted to do that. That was not Paul. No one can tell me that burying Paul’s clothing is the same as burying Paul because it was not Paul. Paul is at home resting right now. He never liked this kind of celebration anyway and he’d rather stay at home.”
“You should move on.”
“I am fine with my life. I don’t want to change it.”
“Don’t you feel lonely?”
“I have no chance to feel lonely. Paul promised me that he would always be with me until the end of our lives. Paul is a man who keeps his word. For the past 29 years, he has never left me for longer than a day.”
Then I realised that Grace wasn’t imagining things, Paul was still with her. Don’t ask me to explain how it works because I don’t have a clue.
All I see is the contentment in Grace’s eyes. I don’t need to understand it; I just take her word for it.”
* * *
I borrowed many books from the library and tried to learn what ‘consciousness’ is. After hours of reading, my understanding of ‘consciousness’ had not improved. The more I thought about it, the more confused I was. In the end I chose to settle with what I had read. ‘Many philosophers consider experience to be the essence of consciousness, and believe that experience can only fully be known from the inside, subjectively.’