It’s not so much the presence he has, it’s everything that trails behind him, all the invisible souls I see sketched behind his movements, as in a child’s flipbook. Move it one way, they’re all alive; the other, dead. He’s alone at a metal chair, attached to a table like a school desk. I’ve prepared myself for his physical presence to omit palpable evil or underwhelming corporeality but instead it’s neither. These moments—of which it is my first, but of which I’ve read much—are not at all moments. They are a clunky adjunct of time, a page between two chapters of your life refusing to turn.
He’s old, but he’s calm. He has a softness to his face, somehow, that reminds me of the sad father of a childhood friend who, even as I briefly knew him from birthday parties and recitals, had clearly reconciled himself to only bring small happiness to others and not himself. What of his family? I think. Do they make sense of this? I show my laminated picture to the guard standing beside the door and he gestures to the empty chair, wooden, unbolted. My steps make tacky echoes in the bare room.
He winces intermittently, and I realise as I’m coming towards him it’s the sound of my footsteps. I’m about to apologise when I stop myself. What am I doing, offering this man any tiny kindness? I do, however, make sure my steps do not become any louder. He fiddles behind his ear and I notice the cord running to his shirt. I’m surprised they let him have any sort of comfort.
“These,” he says, in a flat voice, “are much better.” He points down to his feet, where I see he has on leather slippers, frayed at the seams. “There is no forgiveness to these walls.” He adjusts his hearing aid again.
I say nothing. I take the chair opposite. I open my satchel and take out his file. I raise my eyes, finally, so we are face to face. I start to speak, like I have rehearsed, with as little emotion as possible.