Tristan is a high school music teacher who is not particularly fond of teenagers, nor of teaching. He used to be fond of music, he says. The strangers around him are listening attentively to his anecdote. A Spanish man sitting next to him at the dinner table enquires about the splint that keeps his pinkie finger raised, as if he were a coquettish lady sipping evening tea with co-conspirators on a dark winter day.
He has been invited to dinner by the girlfriend he met through The Guardian’s personals ads. Tristan is really trying to make it work and he has a surprise in store for his date this evening, but it is too early to reveal it. The story he must tell now will be the perfect preamble for it, though.
It all began with his brand new, expensive racing bicycle, Tristan says. He had saved for months from his teacher’s salary to buy this beauty. He had crouched down on the moustache handlebar and started down the road with such bravado that people in his London neighbourhood thought he’d turned into a bike messenger, which he sort of looked like, with his trimmed beard, shabby-chic, sporty clothes, and hidden sneer – remnants of a musician’s vanity.
He sprinted down the road, breathing in the cold air, which flew through his hipster beard and up his dilated nostrils, shoulders clenched in full control of that new mechanical jewel when wham! a London cabbie slammed right into his front wheel.
He tumbled, crashed, collapsed, embarrassed himself, and jumped up ready for a fight, but then suddenly he felt a strong, sharp pain burning in his hand. His pinkie was pulsating madly, like it had a heart of its own.
In the emergency room, they’d been very efficient in welcoming him, not making him wait too long, and providing clear information on protocol and procedure to be followed. He loved the National Health Service, he said. But when he was asked to state his name, the person in charge typed Tristan’s name on the keyboard, stared at the screen, and then looked at him with a quizzical expression.
“Tristan Campbell born in Yorkshire, January sixth, nineteen seventy-six?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“How are you feeling, sir?”
“What do you mean: how am I feeling? I’m in the emergency room. I was just run over by a cabby; I’ve just told you that. My left hand hurts. It hurts a lot, as I’ve said when I walked in. And you ask me how I’m feeling?”
“Well, I’m in fucking dire pain, love!” Tristan tried to add a smile but couldn’t muster enough spirit to pull it off.
“I’m just asking because it says here that you are dead.”
“It says there that I’m dead?”
“Yes, sir. It says here that Mr Tristan Campbell, born in Yorkshire on January sixth, nineteen seventy-six, actually died of complications in a Yorkshire hospital twenty years ago after surgery on his kidneys.”
Tristan stared at the nurse.
“I did have surgery on my kidneys in Yorkshire twenty years ago, but I have, evidently, survived it, haven’t I?”
“Not according to our records, sir.”
At the dinner, Tristan proceeds to expand on his discovery of having been unknowingly dead for twenty years, delighting his newfound friends at the dinner table. His date is radiant and admires him for being able to hold the easily distracted attention of this privileged bunch for such a long time with the fantastic story of his own death.
It had taken him a long time to convince the British bureaucracy that he was actually alive, Tristan says to the dinner guests. He had to travel to Yorkshire, visit the hospital, ask to see the original record, and verify who had signed his death certificate. He still wasn’t sure who had declared him dead and why. He said he thought he must’ve pissed off one of the nurses at the time.
“I wasn’t exactly the likeable kind,” he admits to his listeners, putting on his most likeable face. Which is still a bit unlikeable.
Eventually, he was able to set the record straight and felt like he was born again, he says. But this entire process of discovering he had been dead for twenty years, the deep symbolism of it all, did not elude him. It reawakened a formerly sensitive Tristan, the young musician who played guitar in a band, who had moved to London to cut a record, which never got made. He realized he had given up on his dream of being a musician and had turned to teaching as an alternative to survive in London, exactly after that kidney operation.
“I really had been dead for twenty years,” he says, “or, rather, my true dream had.”
He could not let this fortuitous discovery pass without doing something about it, he says. “When they were putting this splint on my pinkie in that hospital, I felt this was my chance to be reborn,” he says to the adoring dozen, the Spanish fellow with his mouth half-open in awe of this cheap symbolism.
“I understood I must sing again and play music, just like I did before I allegedly died and moved to London and was forced to teach music to teenagers to make a living.”
Tristan says he just quit his job and picked up singing and playing and composing music again.
“Oh, play something for us, I beg you!” screams the hostess, excited her girlfriend has brought such an original raconteur to her dinner table.
“Well, my hand is a bit handicapped, as you can see, but I have composed this new song over the last few days, because of...well, you’ll hear about it, if I’m able to get the chords right.”
Tristan caresses the strings of the classical guitar that has been lying in the corner of the dining room. He extracts a naive ballad from it, about dolphins who swim in the sea and an albatross who doesn’t want to fly anymore but is lured by another beautiful dolphin to try once again. As the albatross soars in those oceanic skies, so does the singer, who decides it’s time to sing again, and it’s time to love again.
As he finishes his last lines, and as the last notes stop reverberating in the silent dining room, there is timid, sparse and embarrassed clapping.
Then everyone looks away quickly and desperately tries to find a new topic of conversation.
Excerpted with permission from A History of Objects: A Collection of Stories, Carlo Pizzati, HarperCollins India.