Harvey awoke with the definite feeling that today was the day. He felt it instinctually and considered it entirely irrelevant that he had had the same feeling every day for… well, every day since the announcement really. He knew he was right this time. So, when he checked the mail and found his notice there, he took it as incontrovertible proof of the accuracy of his instincts. Even more satisfying than the knowledge of his instinctual ingenuity, was the fact he was completely calm about the whole thing. His problem, his dilemma, had been resolved. And all the dread, which had been building and thickening since he’d first heard the announcement, had simply drained away.
The announcement came just after the third wave of attacks and was preceded by a simple declaration from the Governor General – we were at war. Unlike all the foreign wars fought on foreign soil over far off, foreign issues, this war had fingers that stretched all the way home. Some kind of thing had happened with senates and houses and parties in the government. Harvey really didn’t understand all that political stuff but decisions were made, that he knew. Decisions which led to the announcement: selective military conscription. The army already had troops committed in the Middle East and God-knows where else. With the attacks and the declaration of war, they needed far more personnel than voluntary enlistment could provide.
Selection was random – taken from the voting register – and notices were sent out daily. You had a month – thirty days – to “get your affairs in order” before you were shipped off to training and then deployed. The odd thing was, no-one was really protesting like they had in the past. It had been expected, and there had been some initial stirrings but nothing ever really came of it. As it turned out, it was an entirely impossible thing to protest. In all of the footage shown on TV, the conscripts looked completely content. Relaxed and happy, they munched on chocolate bars, waved to the cameras and talked about their willingness to fight. People were confused at first, but as time went on, the confusion was inevitably replaced with acceptance. Each new wave of conscripts behaved in the exact same way and it’s impossible to protest something if the people enduring it are happy. Rather than demonstrating, civilians were encouraged to take part in a “candy for the conscripts” campaign, with hundreds of packages sent off each week. They kept track of the donations on the morning talk shows. It always seemed that the weeks when there was good news on the war front were the weeks with the most donations. People began to feel they had some control, as though they could swing this thing in their favour if only they sent enough sweets.
Harvey didn’t like it. There was something weird about it all and he just couldn’t allow himself to be sucked in. He wasn’t happy, like everyone else seemed to be, and he simply could not see himself being able to behave the way those conscripts did. It wasn’t that he was a coward. He was perfectly willing to fight; in fact, he wanted to fight for his country. The problem was he didn’t want to die. He could live with losing an eye or a couple of teeth, or even a limb; he just really wasn’t ready to die quite yet. Harvey felt it simply wasn’t fair to be expected to die before you’d even had a chance to live. And he did not consider what he had been doing up until that time living. For a start, all he ever did was work. Or that’s what it felt like anyway. And the money he got for all the work he did only ever seemed to be enough to pay for all the other things he had to do. He had a house and a TV and his own car. He had mates to drink with at the pub on the weekend. He’d even had the occasional girlfriend. But he’d never really done anything exciting or exotic or adventurous. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened, just the same thing day after day. Harvey was certain there had to be more to life, he just didn’t know what that was or how to get it. At the very least though, he felt he should be given a chance to work it out, a chance to live, before being expected to die for his country. This philosophy was also at the base of why he was so paradoxically keen to go and fight. He considered fighting for one’s country to be a definite act of living. And really, he was certain that he would be prepared to die doing it if only he’d had something else as well… some other kind of experience; something to convince him there were things in this world worth his life to protect.
The part that was really troubling Harvey the most was the thirty days. If that thirty days wasn’t there and it was just a matter of going when you were told, he would have been calm and placidly resigned to whatever fate had in store for him. But that soul-destroying thirty days meant that he had to decide when he would go. So if he died it would be his own doing, not that of fate’s. And that was the real beating heart of his turmoil. His notice hadn’t even arrived yet, but he knew it would and, when it did, he needed to know on which of the thirty days he should go.
Most people left at the last possible minute of the last possible hour of the last possible day. Strictly speaking, there was nothing cowardly in this, but Harvey sensed a certain something that somehow resembled cowardice. At any rate, he knew he couldn’t stand to leave it to the last minute like that and then die knowing, had he just hardened up and gone earlier, he might have lived. But then he imagined leaving straight away and once again being killed, but this time dying with the knowledge that he could have enjoyed all the extra time at home and survive the war, if only he hadn’t rushed off. Then, of course, there were all the days in between, each with its own unique fate. How was he supposed to decide which one to chose? Harvey didn’t know. But he did know that he had to decide before his notice came. If the notice came before he’d made a decision, then each day that passed would remove another choice from his hands.
On what I suppose you would call an intellectual level, Harvey was aware that his logic was entirely illogical but that didn’t make it any more escapable. To him, his irrationality felt rational. The days following the announcement passed in a ceaseless procession, each one filled with the same thoughts and each one carrying the possibility of the arrival of his notice. Each day’s dread spilled over into the next and the ever-expanding pool made the simple act of existing quite unmanageable for Harvey. Eventually, he decided that this madness had been beating itself about in his brain for far too long. Having entirely exhausted his own capacity for such thinking, Harvey concluded that the only way forward was to farm it out. He thought about the people he knew and tried to decide which of them would be best equipped to deal with such a farcical problem.
Once again, Harvey got stuck. He couldn’t decide who to talk to. In the end, it all came spilling out, in the transition period between a Saturday night and a Sunday morning, to the first person who happened to ask him what was wrong. He was sitting in the lounge room of his friend Sam’s apartment when it happened. Everyone else had gone home. Under normal circumstances, Harvey would have long since been in bed, but his mind was so completely occupied with his problem, that his body had become defiantly disinclined towards movement of any kind. And so he sat, silent and staring, with an open but completely untouched beer in his hand. Sam, meanwhile, was lying on the floor with his feet up on the couch. He had one of those big “value size” bags of m&m’s and was throwing them, one at a time, up in the air and catching them in his mouth. Every now and then he would miss one and it would go rolling off in an arc across the linoleum floor. He watched one shoot across the floor and hit Harvey’s shoe, then bounce up in the air and land neatly on top of it. Sam laughed, impressed. He looked up to see his friend’s reaction, but Harvey’s unseeing eyes were still fixed on the exact same spot they’d been fixed on when Sam last checked. “Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?”
Pulled back outside of himself by Sam’s words, Harvey blinked. It made his eyes sting and he got the feeling that it might have been a while since he’d last remembered to do it. And that, for Harvey, was it. Once you’ve gotten to the stage, he thought, where you’re forgetting about basic bodily functions, you know your problem’s gotten too big for you. So he started talking. The words spilled out of his mouth with a relief similar to that of a good puke after too many beers. And the more words he churned out, the more room there was for the relief that was flooding in. It was the best he’d felt in weeks. He kept going as long as he could but was eventually forced to stop. His mind had gotten caught up in its own circles again. In pausing to untangle himself, he realised that he’d been talking non-stop for a really long time. Sam had stopped eating and was staring rather intently at a single piece of candy. Harvey frowned and waited for some kind of response.
Not being in a very patient mood, however, he couldn’t help but ask “well, what do you think?”
“I think,” said Sam, after taking a moment to weigh things up, “that instead of just putting little m’s on the m&m’s, they should put the ampersand on some of them too. I think I would enjoy eating candy with an ampersand on it.”
Harvey was horrified. He knew his problem was pathetic and illogical and he hadn’t really expected to be taken seriously, but he had thought he would at least be listened to. “Are you high or something?”
“Dude, you’ve been with me all night, you know I’m not high. You were just talking so fast and saying all this stuff… I just, I dunno, I just couldn’t be bothered following you. But if you’re worried about it man, you should go see one of them counselors. That’s what I did.”
“Yeah, they got free counselors you can see. They send you out a card with your notice. It’s over on the table if you wanna have a look.”
“Wait… what? You got your notice?”
“Yeah man, it’s on the table. I’ll be on my way this time next week.”
Harvey stared at Sam, taking him in with a whole new level of appreciation. He’d received his notice and was shipping out in a matter of days; yet there he lay, like a kid on the floor, eating candy and talking about ampersands. Harvey longed for that kind of tranquility. Somehow combining what should have been a series of moves into one fluid movement, Harvey propelled himself from the chair to the table, sending the m&m on his shoe flying off across the room again. He glanced at the notice for only a moment. The card was what he was really interested in. It was business sized and made of thick, glossy white cardboard. The lettering was small, black and centered. All it said was, “got a problem?” and then beneath that, a phone number.
“How did you know what this was?” Harvey asked, perplexed.
“I didn’t,” Sam replied, “but I had a problem, so I called them.”
“And it’s counseling?”
“Yeah. You call the number and they give you an appointment and, well, you tell them what your problem is and… I dunno, they just sort it out for you.”
“What was your problem?”
“My problem was I didn’t wanna go. I think that’s what most people’s problem is.”
“And now you do?”
Sam thought for a moment. “It’s not so much that I want to go… I’m just not worried about it anymore.”
That was enough for Harvey. In fact, it was precisely what he wanted to hear. He impatiently fidgeted his way through the whole next day (which was a Sunday) and then, first thing in the morning of the following day, he phoned the number on the card. To his surprise, he was able to get an appointment for later that very morning. The woman on the other end said something about it being a “highly efficient system” but Harvey was barely paying attention. All he could think about was the fact that in a matter of hours he might finally be free of the burden he’d been carrying for so long. It was a freedom he desired more than anything.
Harvey followed the directions he’d been given over the phone and came, at last, to the sign he’d been told to look for. Jutting out at a right angle from the red-brick wall, the sign was positioned at a height that would have been just beyond Harvey’s grasp had he extended his hand up as far as he could reach. It was set in black, ornamental cast-iron. The sign itself was plain white, with black lettering that read, “thought reform.” It was positioned above an alleyway between two buildings. Obeying his instructions, Harvey turned in and strode down the path, red bricks to his left and sandstone to his right. The alley led all the way to the end of the red brick building and then took a sharp left turn to continue along behind it. The sandstone building extended back so that, as Harvey walked along, he still had red bricks to his left and sandstone to his right. A short distance after the turn, the path came to a dead end, placing Harvey at an odd intersection between three buildings. The wall of the sandstone building was to his right, the red brick building to his left, and the grey wall of a third building stood directly in front of him. Set into the grey wall was a black door with three steps leading up to it. Above the black door was another, larger sign reading, “thought reform.” Not bothering to fold it, Harvey pushed the paper he had scribbled the directions on into his pocket and went in.
The room beyond the door was brightly lit and sparsely decorated. It had a reception desk, much like any waiting room, but no chairs, no magazines and no-one waiting. The woman behind the desk had one of those phone head-sets on and was talking in a low voice. As Harvey approached, she turned to the computer and the room was momentarily filled with the rapid-fire sound of her fingers striking the keys. She ended the call and, without looking up, said, “eleven fifteen?”
“Ah… yes,” Harvey replied, after finally realising she was referring to his appointment time.
“Straight down the hall, third door on the right.”
The woman still hadn’t looked at him. Feeling that she probably wasn’t going to, Harvey turned and made his way down the hall. As he progressed, he became aware of an odd, repetitive thumping noise. It was muffled and sort of mechanical sounding, as though the building was next to a packaging plant of some sort. The door was easy enough to find but it was what to do next that had Harvey stumped. Should he knock or just open the door? Slightly alarmed at his apparent inability to make any decisions for himself anymore, Harvey settled on doing both at once and so gave a short, sharp knock before going in.
The room was unsurprisingly bland: white walls; a bookshelf; a generic landscape print; a large wooden desk with one chair in front and one behind; and a man, seated in the farthest chair, both palms pressed flat on the desk. When Harvey entered, the man’s face morphed into a broad, symmetrical smile. When the man spoke, he somehow managed to maintain that smile with a consistency that was almost alarming. His lips slipped around every syllable without ever altering their angle and his voice was uncannily steady, each word carefully measured and delivered. He invited Harvey to sit. The thumping sound was a little bit louder in the room and Harvey could feel it reverberating through his chair.
“I understand you have a problem.” The man gazed at Harvey, waiting for a reply.
“I do,” Harvey said, stumbling over even these simple words and feeling distinctly uncomfortable under that placid stare. The man’s smile was already broad, already showing his teeth, but it somehow widened even further. He continued to wait.
Harvey looked down. It was easier to think that way. He stammered his way through an explanation of the fact that he hadn’t actually received his notice yet. And then, without looking up, he started explaining his problem. The more he spoke, the easier he found it to continue to speak until eventually he was even able to look up. So, when he finally finished, he and the man were looking directly at each other.
The man was silent for a moment, perhaps making sure that Harvey had indeed finished. Before he spoke, he folded his hands on the desk. “It seems to me that you’re over-complicating the matter. What you are faced with is actually quite simple. There are two possibilities: either your fate is determined or it is not. Am I right? Or do you think there is another way that things could be?” He stopped and waited for a reply.
Harvey was still finding it hard to think in the presence of that unflinching smile. Nevertheless, he took his time and, when it came, his answer came slowly, “no, I guess not.”
‘Right. So, if everything’s already determined then you have no say in your fate. And if you’re destined to die it will happen regardless of which day you leave. But if everything’s not determined, if your fate is in your own hands, then the decision of which day to leave is just one isolated decision. It cannot, on its own, result in your death. That will be dependent on an entire series of subsequent decisions. Do you understand?”
Harvey paused to think again, “I think so…”
“So either this decision does matter or it doesn’t matter, but either way it doesn’t matter.”
Harvey sat back in astonishment. The man’s answer made absolute sense and no sense both at the same time. It was the perfect solution to his problem. “How… how did you do that?”
The man’s smile, which had reduced itself in intensity, broadened again as he leaned back in his chair. “The trick,” he explained, “is to think about things either incessantly or not at all. Both paths will lead you to the exact same course of action, and it will almost always be the right one to take. What causes problems is when people think about things a little. A little thinking is a dangerous thing.”
“But I was thinking about it incessantly… for weeks… it was all I thought about. I just never got anywhere.”
“That’s because you weren’t thinking incessantly. You were thinking a little on repeat. The same few thoughts going round and round. Ceaseless thinking involves a long, logical, sustained train of thought. It won’t give you conclusions, there is no end point to the process, but it will give you what you need to take action. And that is enough.”
Harvey was abruptly confused again.
The man’s eyes narrowed. “I believe what you need is to not think, but to just do. Thinking is just a conscious deconstruction of what your instincts naturally tell you to do. It’s not essential. You can operate a computer without knowing exactly how the press of each key affects the inner workings. You would be wise to operate yourself in the same way.”
Harvey was still confused. Something felt wrong about what the man was saying but he liked the sound of it anyway. Given the ordeal of the last few weeks, the notion of not having to think anymore was quite an appealing one.
“But… but how do I stop thinking?” Harvey asked. “I mean, how do I stop myself worrying about it?”
“We can help you with that,” the man replied, “if you’d like.”
Right at that moment, Harvey’s heart fell into perfect rhythm with the thumping beat. Of course, Harvey didn’t realise this. He was aware only of a sudden and alarming burst of intensity that felt like it might just come cannoning out through his chest. Dizzy and sick, Harvey pitched forward out of his chair and crumpled on the floor. His vision was failing, darkness closing in at the edges.
“Help me.” He looked up as he uttered the words and peered over the edge of the desk. All he could see was the man. That smile crept gradually closer, descending through the tunnel of Harvey’s failing vision until he felt that he was about to be consumed. And then there was darkness…
…and then there was light.
Sometime later, Harvey emerged from the alleyway onto the street. He wasn’t entirely sure how long he’d been down there but then that didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that he was calm, content and happy for the first time in weeks. Happy, but with a strange and insistent craving for sugar. He stopped on his way home to buy a chocolate bar.