The whole thing was familiar, Rosencrantz decided. And strange. Very strange. Strange-odd and strange-unfamiliar, which was strange, because something could be strange-odd and familiar, but this was strange-odd and unfamiliar. But familiar. “We were sent for.”
“Yes. I remember.”
“A man on a horse.”
“Standing in his saddle. Fit to wake the dead.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Standing in his saddle. Great deal of banging. Woke us up.”
“Yes, great deal of banging. No whisky.”
“To wake the dead.”
Did Rosencrantz always make his head hurt? Guildenstern wondered. “Fit to cause the dead to wake up,” he said as calmly as he could, which was not calmly at all. More strained than anything, as if he wanted to shout but couldn’t, or couldn’t bring himself to, which could be the same thing but might not be at all.
“Oh. Yes. The dead to wake. Are we dead?”
“If we were dead, could we be awake?”
“Oh, right. We were sent for. A man on a horse.”
“Standing in his saddle. Yes.”
“Then why did the king give us these?” He looked at the tape recorder in his hand curiously. It was heavy, rather, made of silver metal, and it had buttons. Rosencrantz liked buttons. If you pushed one, little wheels turned slowly, and if you pushed another, they turned very quickly, and if you pushed yet another, it said things to you that you had heard before while the little wheels turned slowly. Buttons produced movement, and that was satisfying. But buttons didn’t go with horses.
“So that we might glean what afflicts Hamlet. And he will hear the whole thing.” Because he knows that one of us is a stupid booby who will never be able to tell him, Guildenstern wanted to mutter but didn’t mutter. Couldn’t mutter?
“So that we might glean what afflicts Hamlet. And he will hear the whole thing,” Guildenstern’s voice came again. Rosencrantz giggled. Buttons were satisfying.
“Shut that thing off. Your trouble is that you have hit upon the exact problem.”
“We didn’t have these last time.”
“Last time? Was there a last time?”
“I thought - the horse - a man on a horse.”
“We were sent for. Not for the first time?”
“I don’t remember.”
“The problem being this: we have been given a device that provides us with absolutely no information. One speaks. It repeats.”
“One speaks. It repeats,” Rosencrantz repeated. Guildenstern looked distinctly as if he would like to throttle him, and that was simply not on.
“One speaks. It repeats. But the King did not speak into it before giving it to us. Ergo, it goes perpetually forward.”
“And backward.” He pushed the button again. “So we might glean what afflicts Hamlet.” It made Guildenstern’s voice sound tinny, which Rosencrantz found very amusing. Far more amusing than the look Guildenstern now gave him.
“And backward. But it cannot continue to go backward. Is what I mean. It plays the same piece over and over, going forward only when turned on and backward only in a limited span for an unlimited number of times.”
“But then it was tails.”
“We lose. The device cannot take us back to the beginning, if there is a beginning. It can take us back no further than we have already been. The King does not trust us to know what goes further back than we have already been. How does he trust us and not trust us at the same time?”
“We have been here before.”
“We have been here before. You have been here before.”
“My hat has not been here before.” It was a perfectly fine bowler hat, definitely his hat, Rosencrantz knew that. Guildenstern’s was just like it, only his head was much smaller. So it was not Guildenstern’s hat that Rosencrantz had in his hand. This he knew. And the hat had no past. This he knew as well. A hat has no memory, so it can have no past.
“Has Hamlet been afflicted before?”
“How should I know?”
“We were the friends of his childhood.”
“So they say. I don’t remember his childhood. I don’t remember my childhood. Did you have a childhood?”
“I must have done. You had a childhood.”
“We are grown. You have hair upon your lip. We are not children now. Therefore, we must have been children before.”
“Before we were summoned?”
“Yes. I remember being summoned.”
“Shouldn’t he have had a jeep?”
“Why a horse?”
“He was the King’s messenger.”
“Oh.” Rosencrantz paused to think. He had never been much of a thinker, he was certain of that. It was difficult to think. “Have you seen a horse since we got here?”
“We’re in the palace.”
“On the road. Did you see a horse?”
“How did we get from the road to the palace?”
“We were sent for.”
“We were in bed. And we were sent for. And we were on the road. And we are in the palace.” He marked out the locations, pointing to spots on the rug in time. The spots on the rug did not connect, otherwise they would not be spots.
“How? I don’t remember what comes in between.”
“It doesn’t matter. We were sent for. We are here.”
“We were sent for by a man on a horse. We are here with shiny things with buttons. Something is not right.”
“Thus, we were sent for.”
That was not it, either. Rosencrantz started playing with his tape recorder. Ooh, it opened up if you pushed this bit, and, “Oops.”
“Will you put the batteries back in and stop playing with that? What if he comes right now?”
“Batteries.” Rosencrantz picked one up and examined it. “They are very small to be any good against Norway.”
“Why would you use batteries against Norway?”
“The fat man said something about Norway, and there are soldiers here. But these wouldn’t be very good on their own. Do you fling them at the Norwegians, do you think?” Rosencrantz debated flinging it at Guildenstern, but he did not at all like the look on Guildenstern’s face. Being the target of a battery was unlikely to improve that look.
“I’ll be convicted of battery before this night is through.”
“Convinced, you mean.”
“No, convicted, if you keep on. Battery, an electrochemical cell that converts stored chemical energy into electrical energy.” Pointing hysterically out the window, Guildenstern continued, “Battery, an arrangement of cannon for defensive purposes. And battery, how I am going to throttle you one of these days. If I possibly can,” he added in defeat, looking at his hands. He so wanted to throttle Rosencrantz today. Most days, if today were at all typical. Today felt typical, yet it could not be typical, could it? One could not be summoned by an unknown king every day. One day, surely you’d recognise the king. But he couldn’t recognise the king, not today. And his hands could only do so much, and they could not throttle Rosencrantz.
“An arrangement of churchmen? Perhaps to defend the soul, but to defend Denmark against an army?”
“Canon, one N, churchman. Cannon, two Ns, piece of artillery.”
“Oh. Wouldn’t it be a tank?”
“A tank. Artillery.”
“Why would it be a tank?”
“I have electrochemical cells, and a tape recorder, and it wasn’t a horse, it was a Mercedes M-class.”
“It was a horse.”
“Yes, it was a horse. But it was a black Mercedes M-class.”
“I remember a horse. A man on a horse. And an SUV.”
“A man on a horse on an SUV?”
“No. A man on a horse. And a man with an SUV.”
“A Mercedes M-class.”
“Does it matter?” Guildenstern asked in frustration. This was getting very odd. Two sets of memory, and the more Rosencrantz talked sense, which was rare enough yet becoming more frequent, the more clear it was that the two sets were irreconcilable.
“Does anything matter?”
“We were sent for.”
“By a man on a horse. Or a man in an SUV.”
“Why would he have both?”
“Why are we here?”
“We were sent for. And now we must glean what afflicts Hamlet, who I’ve never seen in my life. Have you ever seen him in your life?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? Who have you seen in your life?”
“Well, you, and the man in the SUV, and maybe a man on a horse but I don’t remember what he looked like, and the players, and maybe another set of players, I’m not sure, and the King and Queen. But maybe another King and Queen, too, they were dressed different. But that might have been the players. And the fat man!” he suddenly realised happily. “And maybe another fat man?”
“Maybe another, maybe another. Maybe the players in different costumes?”
“Maybe. I don’t really remember.”
“Let us analyse. There may be another king and queen. There may be other players. There may be a man on a horse instead of the man in the SUV.”
Guildenstern wanted to say something along the lines of “bite me”, but the words would not come. The thoughts could come, but the words could not. He paced to one end of the room, but could go no further. He wanted to go, but his legs would not move in that direction. He paced to the other end of the room, but again something stopped him. “There is a king and a queen and player prostitutes and a man on a horse or in an SUV. But they have no faces.”
“No, they have no faces,” Rosencrantz agreed, far too cheerfully. “But they have different clothes, that’s how I know they’re different.”
“I could take off this vest right now. Would that make me different?”
“No. You always wear the same thing.”
“So do you. We both wear the same thing. So how do you know you are not me?”
“Because you’re standing over there.”
“And I’m sitting here.” It was a bouncy green sofa, and Rosencrantz bounced. He hadn’t expected a sofa, much less one so bouncy.
“Will you stop that? What if he comes in?”
“What if he comes in? We are his childhood friends. He would expect us to appreciate his sofa.” He bounced again. Yes, he approved of this sofa. The sofa made things slightly better, or at least more comfortable.
Guildenstern rolled his eyes, but he tried to start again. “We are here, in the palace.” There would be sense if they could just put it all together. He was certain of that. “It is a palace. There is a king and a queen who know who we are. We were summoned by a man in a black SUV - a Mercedes M-class,” he added with a pointed look at Rosencrantz, “but he did not accompany us on the road. On the road, we met a pack of player prostitutes. Now we are in the palace, and there is a sofa, and lights overhead, and I have a tape recorder in my hand. And the Queen was wearing a negligée, which is rather worrying in a woman of her age in the middle of the afternoon.”
“Yes. That is all true.”
“But we were summoned by a man on a horse, standing on his saddle, knocking against the shutters. And we passed a pack of player prostitutes on the way. And the Queen has a stiff blue gown.”
“Green gown. Well, it’s sort of blue-green, wouldn’t you say?”
“With a gold pattern.”
“Yes. And there should be candles overhead, and there should not be a sofa. Was there a wall here?”
“Yes. And no.”
“Yes, and no,” Guildenstern repeated. “A window or a door?”
“No, a wall. But then there wasn’t a wall. It was black. Everything was black.”
“But with lights.”
“Then how was it black?”
“But it was. Don’t you remember?”
“Pitch black nothingness. And a metal folding chair.”
“But I can’t remember anything more. It is and isn’t. I remember and don’t.”
“Maybe we should just go home.”
“Do you remember home?”
Rosencrantz thought for a bit. “No. But I’m certain that it exists. We came from somewhere.”
“And what of Hamlet?”
“What does Hamlet matter?”
“He is why we were sent for.”
“Was he? Maybe he’s just an excuse, a way to get us to come.”
“Well, we have these.” Rosencrantz was looking at the tape recorder again and refraining from pushing buttons, difficult though that was. “If the king doesn’t trust us, then why did he send for us?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Why did he send for us? He shouldn’t trust us - he’s never seen us in his life. We’ve never seen him in our lives.”
“Shouldn’t we remember?”
“I feel I’ve seen so many kings. And queens.” Rosencrantz was growing hysterical. “And fat men I only ever see out of the corner of my eye. And messengers I cannot remember, on horses or motorcycles or in SUVs. I want to go home!” he cried at last.
“Don’t let them confuse you.”
“I’m out of my step here -” There was a pattern emerging here, he thought, even through his hysterics.
“We’ll soon be home and high - dry and home -”
Yes, a pattern. Guildenstern never mixed his metaphors except when he did. The little silver metal device didn’t matter, the green sofa might not have existed, the pattern had returned. “It’s all over my depth -”
Rosencrantz was panicked, as always, and it was for Guildenstern to soothe him. Regardless of what the queen was wearing, if she were wearing anything at all, or if it suddenly seemed odd that Rosencrantz had a bowler hat - he had always had a bowler hat, except for when he had a soft cap with a feather - Guildenstern could only soothe him. Words of comfort, or an attempt at them, distractedly mixed metaphors he would never come out with except in this situation, flowed freely. They had got off track somehow, confused, that was all. “Has it ever happened to you that all of a sudden and for no reason at all you haven’t the faintest idea how to spell the word - ’wife’ - or ’house’ - because when you write it down you just can’t remember ever having seen those letters in that order before . . .?” They had been thrown off by the little silver devices, that was all. It had been a man on a horse. This much Guildenstern knew without any more doubts. The pattern had returned.
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