There lay in Julian Barth’s library an old book which he had always wanted to read, but never gotten around to. It had a dusty red spine with the title, ‘Transient Identities’, embossed in faded gold. One afternoon, Julian began leafing through the yellow moth eaten pages of that book. His library was in the basement of his house, furnished with comfortable easy chairs. He spent most of his weekends reading, or tending to his garden.There was also a little window high up on the wall looking out of which, Julian saw that it was now, unanimously dark outside. He had lost all track of time in what was proving to be a very interesting story of a detective tailing a man in a city. He decided to settle for dinner. But as he was eating, he had an odd sensation of being watched. He looked out through the glass doors that opened on to a patio; it was pitch black. He reasoned that it must be the deer or the rabbits that came into his garden often from the woods nearby.
Julian woke up next morning and went into the kitchen to find his box of cereals and a bowl of milk on the counter. He involuntarily staggered back a few paces. He was certain he hadn’t placed them there. The uneasy memory of being watched came back to him and he frantically looked around; the house was empty of course, Julian lived all alone. He took his book and ran out into the street. Looked around. His neighbourhood was deserted. Rows of similar houses lined the streets. Most inhabitants were retired like Julian and they didn’t wake up early in the morning. He went back to the kitchen, and just as he entered the toaster popped out two slices of bread. It was too eerie to bear; he grabbed the book and rushed out of the house again. His once familiar house was now an uncharted territory, or so it seemed.
Even in the clutches of evident bewilderment, Julian’s academic mind went back to the book. Ironically he recalled that the person who was being tailed had much the similar reaction when he realised the detective’s intrusion into his life. Julian went into the neighbourhood park to sit on a bench in the furthest corner to read the book. He was sure if anyone was actually watching him he’d be able to spot such a person in an open place. He read carefully now, it was difficult to concentrate on the book and keep a vigilant eye out for watchers. He thought he saw a man in shades and a beanie staring intently at him, but on looking up properly there was no one. Julian began to read about how the man tried to lose the detective and he began to employ similar manoeuvres while returning home. In his mind it had been such determined that in the book lay his solution to finding whoever was following and watching him.
That evening Julian drew all the shutters, and sat in a high backed chair at a corner of his living room, his back to the wall. This gave him a vantage point and offered a view of most of the floor, and the staircase leading to the basement. He didn’t know what he would do if he met this person, but knowledge itself was power and what he couldn’t identify, scared him terribly. He commenced reading.
A week later the police broke into Julian’s house and found him with his wrists slit, slumped in the chair. The blood had seeped into the pages, the writing was barely visible. The police removed the book and the blade as chief evidence. The case was never solved. They ultimately ruled it as a suicide, as there were no other prints; but they were puzzled as to why a retired professor would suddenly wish to take his own life.
Burges, a retired detective, told me this story many years later, as a case that had baffled the local police. Burges confessed that filing the case away, had always troubled him. From what I know of his methodical mind, he needs neatly wrapped up solutions, and he does not appreciate the presence of doubt. We were, that evening, engaged in other lines of conversation and music and wine. It was only when Burges was about to leave that it occurred to me— if he had managed to piece all of the story together from witnesses and other sources, he might know the ending to the book Julian was reading, for I must confess that the book had left quite an impression on my mind, more so than the murder/suicide perhaps. I was not wrong in my former impressions of Burges’ meticulousness, for he had read the book despite the blood soaked pages believing perhaps much like Julian that the solution lay in the book. Burges remembered the ending—
“...but, but this cannot be. Don’t you realise you’re becoming me? In your act of transgressing into my life and mimicking me you have somehow become me and now the two of us cannot exist. Discord, discord! He yelled. All the cold hard reasoning he had set out with, all the skills that had made him such a successful detective seemed in abeyance at the moment. He had actually glimpsed absolute truth. He knew he had to destroy the man he was tailing or that man had to destroy him. For they had both become the same person and could not exist. He rushed forth and after a brief struggle managed to throw the man through the eighth storey window of his apartment. He now realised that he had become the man he was trailing. But he had lost his identity in the process. It was just as well that no one would perhaps miss him. He set forth as someone whom he had been turning into these past few months, but now the transformation was complete. He felt immensely lost and isolated but at the same time immensely free and unburdened.”
Photography By: Shivani Raturi