I was sitting in Weston Park the other day, surrounded by dozens and dozens of people who unsurprisingly, had come to enjoy the finest weather Sheffield could offer. Blue, empty skies as far as the eye could see, with the sun beating down on this fine afternoon in July. The park was unusually quiet, despite the population; and I looked around to find that most people had dozed off in the glorious afternoon sunshine. One thing I’ve found after ten months of living here – in a nation deprived of sunshine for the most part of a year, British people are unapologetic when it comes to their appreciation of the summer sun. Me? Not so much. Having lived both in Guwahati and Delhi, I’ve had my fair share of hot and humid to last me a lifetime. The shrubbery and the trees swayed with the breeze, followed by an unsettling stillness; a lilting song heard only by those who truly listened. Distracting myself from my notebook with the patterns the light and shade on the yellowing paper, the familiar letters in black ink shimmered and rearranged themselves incomprehensibly – a fleeting image; gone before I could blink. I sometimes wonder, if the stories of our respective lives ever got intertwined into a convoluted mass where one couldn’t tell heads from tails, would we realise it? Would we perceive our lives differently and wonder how we’d reached this point – a door on the other side of which lay a completely different existence, or would it be swept aside as a fever dream with all of past human experience confined to a musty old cupboard along the back wall, gathering dust?
I watched the cherry blossoms cascade over one another in the breeze, a pale curtain that allowed me a glimpse onto the other side. A rustle in the bushes diverted my attention to what turned out to be a squirrel, mere inches from my arms as it came out of its leafy cover, presumably to play. Staying as still as I possibly could, I reached for the half-finished pack of biscuits behind me – all the while not taking my eyes off its quivering little snout, whiskers twitching as it rubbed its furry russet brown head. It stared back at me with deep black pools for eyes, apprehensive at best. Grabbing the chunk of the biscuit as soon as I’d dropped it, it scampered away into the bushes, leaving a lone human disappointed at the fact that a squirrel didn’t want to play. It was when I parted the leaves and peered into the bush that I saw the envelope. ‘Stories for your reading pleasure’ said the bold font on the envelope, and as I picked it up, I noticed there was folded note stuck to the back:
“To whoever may find this,” it read, “enclosed within this envelope is a story that I would like to tell – it’s been a long time since I discovered telling stories is what I wanted to do with my life, but the older I got, the quicker I realised that people didn’t have time for stories anymore. So I decided to give them away. To you, my reader, I give you this short tale for your enjoyment, that is, if you have the patience for it. Whether you decide to open it or not, all I ask is that you leave this envelope where you found it, so that another can stumble upon it as you did – regardless of whether they decide to pursue my tale.”
The note wasn’t signed, but I decided to go ahead and open it anyway. The sheafs of coarse white paper were filled with words in a deep blue ink, not entirely legible. Because I’d opened the envelope I decided to persevere and read the story anyway, struggling with a few bits here and there that I gleaned from context. It told a tale about a world where humanity could transfer their pain onto other people, and a criminal held captive by his fellow villagers in a chicken coop who had all the pain of the village transferred onto him. The more I read, the more I delved deeper into the mind of the character as he struggled with his own demons, in addition to bearing the brunt of the pain he had received and the pain he had caused, condemning his sense of self into a deeper hole than he’d started out in. At the bottom of the page was a footnote which read “If you enjoyed reading this and would like to read more, head to the alley behind Fitzwilliam Street. On the top right corner of the graffiti’d wall is a blue envelope that matches the color of the bricks around it.”
While I wasn’t entirely in the mood to walk for twenty minutes just to follow a stranger’s directions, I decided to go – if not for my own curiosity, atleast to honor the painstaking effort this person had put in, just to get their stories read. Giving them away, they’d called it. I thought about the countless times I’d observed people at the market, or at a coffee shop; wondering about the countless stories they must have to tell. Human experience is a cumulative one, and these stories, be it real or imagined, coupled with our capacity for empathy, have the potential to stack up – to the point where we could experience the nuances and intricacies of our interconnected lives.
As I passed the blue and white doors of my favourite fish and chip shop, the road curved smoothly, a small inlet leading in towards the left. I turned into the alley to see the wall in question, a riotous burst of colors which stood out in stark contrast to the dull grey and brown of trashcans and dilapidated brick walls. The painted faces stared back at me as I approached this mural steeped in psychedelia, questioning expressions on their face as a few of them looked away. The blue corner caught my eye and as I reached up to detach the envelope from the wall, I noticed the eyes of the green-yellow tinged man angled right at the spot where the envelope was attached. This person had clearly spent a great deal of time planning their endeavour, and I had to give them props for effort. The front of the envelope had the same bold font on it, only this time in white. I turned it over for the attached note and sure as the sun, it was there; the contents virtually identical to the previous one, with the addition of an aside to go visit the spot at the park if the finder so desired. I sat down on a low wall and began reading the contents of the pages that had been left behind. It was much longer than the previous one, and told the story of a boy who joined a voyage into the New World, only to be stranded on an island of cannibals. I sat on the wall for what seemed like an age, engrossed in this Conradian tale; only to discover it was an unfinished manuscript, much to my disappointment. As I turned the final page, my fingers brushed against the sticky note that had been stuck on the back.
“I can sense your disappointment, fair reader. In all honesty, I myself did not have the resolve to finish this particular story, although all will hopefully be cleared up if you choose to go check behind the silver fountain in front of the train station”
I didn’t like the feeling of being strung along for what would likely turn out to be a disappointment, but in addition to added layer of intrigue, I wanted to see this through – the resolution my mind craved was thankfully only a seven minute walk away. Maybe this was just an elaborate prank to weed out the most gullible ones. But for what? Surely nothing was to be gained in leaving envelopes for strangers to find, most people wouldn’t even give it a second glance, but I had too much time on my hands and a mind wandering in search of distractions. Maybe I was the gullible one after all.
I drew some perplexed stares as I tried to wriggle in behind the massive silver fountain, the spray from the jets splattering across my glasses in the wind. Wiping them clean, I began to wonder if there was any envelope left to find, because the likelihood of finding a soggy envelope seemed higher than people around me looking away from the man rummaging behind a fountain. I could see a corner of white peeking out from the space between the walls, and as I grabbed it, I was surprised to find that the envelope was enclosed in an airtight plastic pouch. Again, I marvelled at the effort that had gone into something that on another day, might not have been afforded a second glance. This particular envelope had no lettering on the front or back, and no accompanying note either. I opened it to find a bunch of empty pages, amidst which was a letter.
“Greetings, fair reader. Our paths seem to have been intertwined today don’t they? In a cruel twist of fate, I must inform you that we’ve reached the end of the line. A line you’ve been kind enough to accompany me to, possibly the only one; there’s no way for me to know. While I shall deign to reveal my name for fear of being discovered, I should tell you that I’ve gone away. Probably for the best, the details of which I shall not burden you with. But perhaps, and I hope this with all my remaining strength, you have enjoyed our little walk today, and discovered for the first time in a long time – the joy and sorrow that words bring. Or maybe I piqued your curious literary mind where you follow me for the sole purpose of resolving the plot. Either way, I bestow upon you these empty pages – they are yours to fill, either with stories of your own or tales of other lives. Literature is a joy to be shared, and they cannot take from us what has already been given away. Fare thee well.”
Upamanyu Das is pursuing an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Sheffield after obtaining a BA (Hons) in English Literature from Hindu College, University of Delhi. He writes mostly prose, recently branching out into the world of flash fiction, although he has yet to step foot in the waters of poetry. His literary influences include the magical realist greats like Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Every now and then, he can be seen in bookshops – a frantic figure displaying oodles of indecision, yet the face that comes out is always a happy one. When not writing (which he considers to be his future bread and butter) he likes to jam to some great tunes, cook food that is mostly gorged on by himself, and is a connoisseur of the greatest artistic tradition of this day and age: memes.