5 Minutes to Midnight – Jonah’s Diary

He was pacing. Occasionally, he stopped and stood at the lectern. It was, Jeremy noted to himself, a pentagon, a triangle on top of a square, or more accurately a pyramid on top of a cube. Together they formed the basic shape a child might use to draw a house, one side of the roof sloping back toward the speaker.

His tone was professorial, not didactic or hectoring, but smooth, unfurling precious knowledge, rolling it out in front of them, in a calm, unhurried, but authoritative voice.

He continued, intoning as Jeremy struggled to keep his eyes open, “It was an age that had passed away before anyone found his diary. The islands are partially to blame for that. The diary tells one story of the beginnings of those times. You have read the excerpt assigned for today. One of the ironies of the diary is that it wasn’t kept in an especially secret place. How did it survive when so much else was lost? Legend says it was found on a table, under a glass cake dome.”

“No matter,” he waved his hand airily as Jeremy drifted closer to unconsciousness, wishing he had slept a little more last night, “it has come down to us. This man, he lived on a chain of islands named for a small, yellow, songbird. He probably didn’t give enough thought to the birds,” he said, pointing his finger at them in warning.

He paused to take off his glasses and wipe some moisture from them. He picked up the cant again, “And when he did consider the birds, they were the wrong kind.”

He cocked an eyebrow, “You no doubt found that in his jargon he disparagingly refers to young women as birds,” managing to get the environmental and the patriarchal allusion into the same dig.

He went on, “You could start further back in the entries. Others have argued for starting further back, weeks, months or even years earlier in the diary. We have so few documents from precisely this moment,” another pause, “the passing of an era. It is my evaluation that to go further back is baseless, it is to get into an example that is too individualized, too specific, too personal.”

He removed his glasses again. “What we want is to get as close to the degenerate critical point as we can, yet still be able to discern, to trace, the sequence of the function, the flow of data points, lines, that lead into it.”

The room was still and warm. “Some have stated that the circumstances of an island are unique, not generalizable.” He never broke a certain moderate decibel level. He might have been talking about dissent or agreement. He was always modulated, reasonable. Nothing was an exclamation. Jeremy’s eyes had closed. His breathing was soft and regular, as the voice at the edge of his conscious mind’s waters flowed, “In the event things turned out as they did, I prefer to view an island and this diary as a microcosm,  a tragically validating example of the math.”

“Of course, the equation is quadratic near the stagnation point. Like most of these functions, you don’t have to go much past the second order terms, except when something extraordinary is going on,” his voice got lower, “a degenerate critical point.”

Jeremy couldn’t see the projection of the graph through his eyelids. The words came through only just.

“Here is where we want to understand the behavior of the function. In my view, it is only because it was on an island that we recovered the document.”


Oct 21st/

Execrable. Damn it. Where’s the work? There’s no bloody work. Couldn’t be surrounded by more good looking tail. I’ve got models coming out of my ears. Coming out of my ass. Off the beach, on the beach. Hot tail. Hot tail. Hot tail!

And no work. No calls. No shoots. Damn it. Fuck all.

Nothing for more than a month. Its the fucking bankers. Profiteers. A run on Greece, well that was one thing. And Italy? I’m old enough to have seen a 50,000 Lira note, but they never lost it completely. Not completely. Not since the whole buggering world was fighting one big war. Its mushugginah. What the shit hell is going on? Bloody Maggie knew what she was doing when she kept the Crown out of the Euro.

Never thought I’d see the day when Franco-German unity turned like this on Italy, Spain and our dear, sweet Portugal. I mean— I read the papers. Is that an anachronism? Is that what they call it? Or is it a misnomer? I forget. Despite these pathetic scratchings, I am visual not written.

So the papers. Papers? Ha. I read them on the computer. When the power’s on anyway. There’s a full-on flap going. Its a bloody understatement to say its starting to affect prices here. As if the G.D. Americans and Arabs hadn’t driven them through the roof already.

Madeira and I have been living together for most of the last twenty-five years. This place used to be a mini-Ibiza. The parties were smaller, more intimate— but just as wild and consequently, more fun. Things have never been this expensive. I mean, if you are here, at this point— and have bothered to read all the way from the beginning of these tomes, lo these many years I’ve been scribbling my brain’s wash, my flotsam and jetsam— you know I may bitch and moan over the cost of a thing here or a trifle there, but you know good and well, you’ve read the evidence, I throw best and worst around like lead balloons.

Not like the other kind of balloons that used to pass through these hands, either.

No, I don’t use best and worst often. And fuck rot old Dickens, these are the worst of times. I mean, I’ll be damned if anyone has broken out the guillotine yet, but it is no work, no work, no work all day. And prices keep going up. Oh and tons of skinny, young, things with no interest if there’s no money flowing from an old man with barely enough to scrape by and eat a cold tinned supper.

I’ve got the same lenses I’ve always pointed in their direction. I could tease out their beauty, find that something that flipped their switch to on and made them look special. Oh, I had it. I was good. I cashed the checks to prove it. And lived and loved in Madeira.

But now there is nowhere for the photos to go. No one is writing those checks.

The tour guide business is no better. Nobody is traveling to Funchal now. Last month TAP cut their flights back again, from one a week to one every other week. They are the only airline still flying here. Probably because the state orders them to. The inbound flights are empty. And the cruise ships? There are none to be seen. No one thinks of vacation in these times. The beautiful weather only mocks me.

Oct 28th/

Forgive me, it has been a full week and nothing, I know. But there is nothing. No thing. No movement. No action. No work. No Rhyme or Reason for being. Just a belly to fill. What can I say into these blank pages when there is nothing. Their emptiness haunts me. Mirrors my void. Spiritual and in the stomach.

Oct 29th/

One waters down the handsoap and the dish soap, and waters it down. And waters it down again. And again. A little bit more again. But fuck rot! Eventually, inevitably, its just water.

Nov 1st/

Shra A’lvares asked me yesterday when this might all be over. I wanted to grab her, shake her and say— What the bloody fuck do you mean over?!? Over like Aliens land? Like manna falls from the sky? Hellfire and brimstone? Or salvation? Is it over either way? Over?!? Tell you fuck what, I will sleep better when this rots over.

Nov 2nd/

I’m sorry I let my bitterness get the best of me yesterday. I don’t like not knowing what to say. I don’t have the aplomb to be at a loss. I abhor it. I feel foolish. Illogical as it sounds— emptiness expands, becomes cavernous and devouring— leads down long dark corridors to depression and all sorts of other wonderful sentiments. Perhaps, I am a photographer, not a writer, because I don’t have the space, the capacity to be empty.

 Nov 7th/

Why can I only complain? I look back at my last few entries. All complaining. I still eat.

I think when Shra A’lvares asked me when this would all be over, she was asking as a practical matter. Hoping for a real estimate— something she could take to the bank or at least the kitchen table. Is her pension still coming? Surely the bastards haven’t stopped that yet! She asks, when will it be over? And thinks, will I have enough to last? We all watch the prices continue to rise and the shelves continue to empty. Already there are many things there are no more of— no more cherries, no more sponges.

We curse the speculators, but nobody knows who they are. Or how they make theirs. There is no Rhett Butler showing his face.

When I used to sling a little scag on the side, there was never very much money in it. I was too close to the end of the line. It was more about the prestige, being he who always had the shit. I was the bloke with the shit. The good shit. I think it closed the deal on more than a few little chickadees. Though none of the very best. Point being— I never thought about speculators in those days, even slinging. Quite right, I noticed if the prices rose, or if the reverse, there was a quantity special to be had— and I was flush, I noticed. And I imagine the white lady’s not gone either, its likely still here on our lovely island, just far, far dearer than ever.

I don’t dare. All mine goes for the butter half of that old guns and butter equation.

When the power comes on, what I call the best three, four, six hours of the day— I’m on-line. I see the bloody BBC, the news coverage in Italy, Spain and our dear, sweet Portugal. Things are coming rapidly unhinged. We are a tiny dot in the ocean.

Nov 10th/

Shra A’lvares wants to know why food keeps getting more and more expensive. What has changed in the world, she asks me. Is it oil? Óleo? She wants to know. Is it the speculators? The profiteers? It sounds even more the sinister conspiracy against the people in her Portuguese, “Os especuladores?” Her head sometimes tilts a little to one side when she is puzzled or frustrated. Her nervous habit is to tuck stray grey hairs behind her ear.

There are no obvious villains. How to explain to a dear, sweet, little old woman who keeps her purse clutched to her chest and her only piece of jewelry, save for her wedding ring, tucked into her cloth covered bosom. Or so she told me, I haven’t gone exploring. And maybe she has sold it. And she should have. Soon, what will jewels buy? She is still wearing that ring and Sr A’lvares is ten, no, twelve years gone now.

Most what not like us have already parted with our gold, if we had any, and the family jewelry. Though I am not smart enough to follow my own advice. Those who were of a different set, sort who could fly out on their own private jet or sail away on their own bloody yacht did.

How does one explain to a sweet, little, old woman who hasn’t been off the island in more than twenty years, world finance is frozen. The people who are making the prices shoot through the roof don’t live here. When the telly was still showing something, the talking heads were blaming it on Iran and Israel, and then on computerized share trading, first a run on Spain and our dear, sweet Portugal’s banks, then on the Italian and French banks. Bloody reality is I don’t understand most of it myself. I just know its never been more true that our money isn’t worth the paper its printed on. Our money is only worth what we can exchange it for.

Nov 12th/

They will do anything now. The dumbest ones still here. I have had more propositions in the last week than I’ve had in the last five years. Dumb cunts. Don’t they think about it? Of course they don’t. If I had a secret stash of wealth, if I had more than almost bare cupboards and a barren table, wouldn’t I have already used it to get off this island?

Don’t they know?

There isn’t anything to pay them in but worthless money. Money that gets less valuable every day. Even the dimmest bulbs want no part of that. What do they think they can trade their flesh for? Dumb little birds. I don’t even have it in me to lie to them and give them the good buggering they deserve. Fuck some sense into them.

I’ve got nothing. Nothing to give them. Not spiritually, not materially, not with my sword.

Nov 18th/

It is only seventeen days since Shra A’lvares asked me when this would all be over. The internet grows ever more intermittent. It is not just the electrical power though, some days when we have power, the router is on— seemingly connected and functioning, but it goes nowhere. Endless spinning. Retrying. I want to pound it with my fist, but if I broke it— any of it, who would there be to come and fix it? Where would I get a new one?

One day CNN’s website is there, the next day nothing, then no power for most of a day, then I check again and its back. No explanation on their site, but all manner of speculation elsewhere. Most of it wild and apocalyptic. Almost none of it informed. Who has time or money for news when the world is unraveling? It is free to speculate on the internet.

This morning the Google UK homepage says, “It is recommended that all British subjects return to the United Kingdom as quickly as possible.” No explanation.

Click through and the link takes you to a gov.uk site that recommends, “All British Nationals outside of the EU are urged to return to the UK at their earliest convenience, while commercial air travel is readily available. The number of airlines flying to the United Kingdom has decreased substantially since the summer and remaining flights, though heavily booked, may be subject to cancellation. Suggestions for alternative means of travel may be obtained by clicking here.”

Un-bloody-fucking fortunately when you click on that, it merely brings you round to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, “Travel and Living Abroad FAQs.” A bloody fuck lot of good that does.

“I have changed my name/appearance; do I need to get a new passport?”

“I want to visit the White House, can you help?”

Whole lot of fuck rot. Technically, of course, we in Madeira are in the EU. Rot. Rot. Rot. Fuck! Don’t they think we would run along home if we could? TAP’s flight hasn’t come yet this week and there is speculation that it might not. Last flight that left, more than ten days ago now, was full to capacity and even armed guards at the gates didn’t stop the fist fights. I heard they had guards posted every fifty metres along our famous taxiway extension. The pilots were ready to roll away half-full until they got the situation under control. Maybe I heard, too, that one of the guards threatened to fire at the plane, if it rolled off half-empty, or at least without his family. Helped change their minds.

I think we are all enraged. Helplessly fucked. We are embittered and peeved.

Nov 19th/

But I/we don’t know what to do or whom to be mad at— the internet hasn’t worked at all for the last thirty-six hours.

I started thinking about the Americans. How many Americans are left on this island? There must be, by my estimation, at least twenty-two. Surely America won’t abandon them to face their fate here?

No. They will come rescue them. Come save them. Come scoop them off our poor little island. Will it be possible for a Brit or two to pop along with them? What will they pick them up in? What kind of aerocraft will they fly? How big?

They must be going round to pick theirs up. What else were those strategic oil reserves for? If the UK is calling its citizens home, with no provisions, mind you, we must have made a deal with the Yanks. Surely. Surely, we are to be evacuated along with them. How many unsafe places are there in the world with more than twenty-two Americans?

How far down the list are we? Where else are the Americans flying first? Tomorrow I shall attempt to research this question.

How did this place become unsafe? It is because we are an island. We are a fertile place, so much is grown here— but it is not enough to feed us all— people are stealing from the farmers. Other things there are simply none of, the meat freezers are empty.

They ate all the swans. And I heard all the trout in the Riberio Frio have been eaten too, though it was never on the news.

How could I, when I have nothing of value, have more fear of being robbed than I ever did when I had something? What could they take? My cameras and photography equipment? Who would they sell that to now? For what? Money?

Shra A’lvares shared some bread with me tonight. I don’t know where she got it. I have been eating out of tins. I haven’t gone out. She says her friend at the cozhina is very worried. She says we don’t have enough fishermen.

 Nov 20th/

The internet didn’t come on again today, but I didn’t let that deter my research mission. I went out. I went to the library. Without air-conditioning, it was stuffy. Like everywhere else, there was almost no one there. No movement. Walking there made me feel watched. A 1,000 cat eyes steal glances, yet there are no shadows here. We all know each other. It is hard for Madeira to feel gloomy, but it does feel haunted. I don’t dare bring my camera. People can’t bear to be photographed right now. It hurts them to be recorded. (To know.) Still I am a voyeur, if as yet unconfessed.

It was deserted. Empty, but not closed. The librarians both looked up with real surprise when I came in, but said nothing. They looked gaunt. Everybody’s face is a hollow ghost of its former self. The section with the personal computers, so often overflowing with internet surfers in the past, had a notice declaring it closed and a single rope barricading it off. I was not deterred.

Although I am a photographer by trade, I learned how to use the library as a young lad. My mother said books are our friends.

Conclusion? There are probably a lot of places still yet with more Americans than our little Madeira. What is going on in Hawaii? Do the ships still go there? They must. Or are they airlifting food in Berlin-style? I was once told without shipping Hawaii would run out of food in three days. They have four times our population, but how long would we last?

 Nov 21st/

I hinted at it yesterday. So I must say. There is no point to having secrets now. What’s left? Where will it go anyway?

I still photograph. I have set-up a tripod a foot or two inside the balcony. I slide the door back and shoot the sea. Occasionally, there are people, but they are ants. They don’t see me and I pretend not to notice them. Like G-d and us.

I can see the ocean. It is vast, even if I can only see a narrow wedge of it. I have an old Canon EF, an SLR from the 70’s. It is mechanical. Except for long exposures, it can shoot even with dead batteries. Which is good, because there are no batteries.

Who will see these pictures but me?