Christopher Clifton: Three Accounts

Prince Salim, the future Jahangir, 1600. Source: Wikipedia


A daughter and a father, known as Emily and Bruce, arrived to meet with an accountant to discuss their situation. Bruce had been the owner of a store for many years of its successful operation, but in recent times had struggled to keep up with the evolving ways of commerce, in a world he could no longer understand, and had in consequence accumulated debts with his suppliers that exceeded his potential to return on current income. Having guaranteed the voice of his sole daughter, he allowed her to explain this situation, and the motive she had found to bring him in there. “We have come to find a way in which to finance our concern, with views not only to dissolve our obligations, but to rapidly increase our operations. I have numerous ideas that I believe may be of use to your financial institution. But before I get to these I will elucidate our current situation”.⟶⟵She produced a set of books that were revealed to hold the record of transactions since the day the business opened. They were written in a script that showed a gradual development from hesitant and broken, to a beautiful assurance in the later tomes – before another hand appeared to take them over. This later hand had also written in the margins of the early tomes, recording names and dates, and linkages to entries in the future or the past, along with commentaries that ran around the pages. Emily explained to the accountant, who perused these books in speechless fascination, that the hand that had begun to write this record was the hand of her late mother, and that the other was her own. She looked in the direction of her father, who was looking at his hands, and said: “Her loss has not been easy”. Bruce looked up, and qualified her words with “Well, at least our loss has helped me to appreciate my daughter”, and he took her hand, and kissed it. The accountant smiled, then asked her what her writing in the early books referred to. She responded: “It is more or less a history of the world in which those entries were recorded, taken from my father, and from any other source I could get hands on. There are stories that relate the lives of customers for whom we held accounts, and their relations to each other. Many of these stories are continued through the course of later volumes, but many of them died. For some of them I also traced their past, to generations that had lived before our business had begun. I have also made descriptions of the networks of supply beside the entries that record the matters taken on accounts we had with others. This was difficult to achieve in many cases, owing mostly to the failures of his memory, but to the fact as well that it was difficult to get my present mind into those eras of the past. However if you look at those most recent you will see that I have managed to describe the world I live in, from the cycles of the rain, to the picking of a grapevine in the highlands to the south, by an itinerant contractor who arrived from where he wants to both forget and be forgotten, to the thoughts about the world that our deliverer made known to me two weeks ago, when handing me a bill we cannot pay, to the hopeful conversation we explored last night at dinner, with the help of good red wine, to the smallest of the details. Which is not to say that I have managed to describe my world correctly, or that what I have described could not be seen from an alternative perspective, for the fact is that I have no other means to take account than with my poor imagination, and descriptions of this kind can have no end. The number of galaxies in the universe has multiplied by ten in just a week – and how could I begin to take account of even one that is our own? But it is quality, not quantity, that seems to be important. Which reminds me of the reason we have come here”. Of a sudden she appeared to be aware that she had listeners, and sat back. Her father placed a hand upon her knee, to reassure her. She looked at him, and after a short pause she concluded: “My ideas about the future are contained in those account books. You can read them at your will. They are an offer to exchange for your inestimable assistance”. The accountant turned the pages of the latest tome, stopping his attention here and there to read a sentence, then allowed himself to say: “I have to say that I’m impressed by these account books. They are like nothing I have seen. I will leave you to consult now with a lawyer, and return I hope with what you came to ask for. Please wait here”. Then he left the pair alone. They waited at the desk until he showed himself again, what seemed an hour or so thereafter, with some documents in hand. “Thank you both for waiting”, he said as he sat down; “our legal team has decided to approve your application, I am happy to inform you. What this means is that your debts will be assumed by our account books, and we will open a facility to aid your operations. Of course this will imply that these are given in the form of obligations, and your efforts to negotiate with each of your suppliers will be taken in the name of our communal institution. Which is not to say that you will not enjoy the freedom to decide how you will do this, for our faith in you is total. The benefits that we expect to see have not been written, but will be written on reception. All you have to do is sign this paper, which may then be used to guarantee your word. Do you agree to these conditions?” He looked at Emily as he spoke, but she then turned to ask her father, who responded that “My faith is also total. I am happy to proceed”. The accountant placed the contract on the desk, and turned it round to face the daughter. She signed it, and her signature was witnessed by her father, who gave thanks. “As for your books”, said the accountant, “we thought it best to keep them in our archive. But you can read them when you like, as well as all the other books and legal instruments we hold in there for reference”. She was happy to oblige, and kissed her father.



An account was opened to facilitate the merchant Augustine in the procurement of a range of sound investments. He began by making use of the associates with whom he had a history of transactions, who were able to provide a working knowledge of the artefacts most recently available to look at, and he was able to invest in such invaluable examples as a skeleton uncovered in the ruins of a temple that had fallen out of use before the bronze age, and was marked from head to toe with indentations in the bone, much like the notches in a tally; and a ring that had been cut apart in order, it appeared, to be removed from someone’s finger, which was made of solid silver, with an intricate engraving of a sun beneath a gemstone that was aqueous in colour, which had come into the hands of a particular collector in the early 16th century, but the origin of which remained unknown. For the archive he procured a set of antiquated scrolls in which the heavens were recorded in the manner of a single-entry system of accounting, the final entry into which was an eclipse that was set down as coinciding with the end of the predicted yearly rains; and a copy of a rule by which an isolated order had continued to exist until the logic of that order, which was shown to have evolved around the margins of the text in a succession of calligraphies, determined that a single and exclusive congregation contradicted its first principles, which resulted in its sudden dissolution. But as Augustine continued to invest the terms in objects, he began to be aware that he was able to invest in more than stationary objects; and he found himself investing in the smallest and most transient of details, which were nonetheless the remnants of a past that had been lost to present memory. Like the blackness of the pupil of a magpie, which had fixed into his eyes as he was walking through a gateway; or the image of two clouds that were converging overhead; or the movements of the branches of a gumtree; the sound of thunder; his vision of a house; the intonations of a voice; the taste of tea; the sound of raindrops on the roof; a silver dish; a beam of light; a drop of water on a petal of a flower; its refraction of the sunshine; or the blueness of a bee; the smell of dust and eucalyptus; the figure of a hill beyond the trees; or the distance of the storm from the perspective at the summit he had climbed, to name a number of examples from a single afternoon. All of which were funded – every aspect of his life being now an immanent expression of the terms by which the funding was provided – but not funded in a way that could allow for him to capture them for later, for the funding was in such that it allowed for them to enter his awareness, but as soon as this had happened it would pass as such away, to leave them hanging without ground by which to designate their meaning. He may have found a way to give them meaning in the course of a narration of that single afternoon – in the story, for example, of his search for a forgotten holy relic – but this story would have only been imposed on what had serviced its invention, which could never be reduced to its retelling.



He had made the same mistake, although the way that it had come about was different than before, for before this time he thought that he had learnt and would be able to avoid it. Now the lesson he had taken from this ultimate surprise was that the same would always happen in a way that he could never have foreseen, and that the only way to cope was to accept it in advance. At the base of this acceptance was a difficult acceptance of himself, which came about by the rejection of those fanciful ideas of who he was, and of the kind of recognition he believed that he deserved, and would have coming. In a strange way this acceptance of himself, as he had shamefully perceived himself, had brought him great relief, as if a weight that he had carried for as long as he remembered had been lifted from his body; and he felt that having seen him face to face, the man he was was now no longer, and the future had been opened in a way that he had never sensed before. He was the same man after all; but the fact that he accepted who he was had made him someone else entirely. He embraced his shame, and thought of it as that which would reveal another nature, and as that which would direct him to make better kinds of choices. Therefore having been requested to withdraw from his most recent situation, when his friend had had enough of his self-serving speculations, his continuous complaints, and his avoidance of concerns, he took his shame with open eyes, and made a promise to himself that he would turn it into good. And with nowhere to return to, and no friend that he could call, he left the world that he had known and turned to wander. His anxiety increased as a result of the uncertainties around him, and from time to time he found himself tormented by a need to get away from where he was, but was unable to escape it, for the fear he felt was fear that had no object. But he found that by allowing what was present to his senses to be present to his senses, he was able to go on. In this way it was the present that directed his adventures, from one present to the next, and not his need to get away from what would never go away. And it was following its lead that he had found himself arrested at the door of a cathedral, on a rainy afternoon some months thereafter, and allowed himself the liberty to enter. He made his way around the nave, and took some time to see the paintings, of the stages of a life, until he reached a tiny door, through which he saw a set of stairs that he descended. At the bottom of these stairs he found a crypt, and saw a group of burning candles, on the far side of the darkness, which were placed around what seemed to be a rock. There was no other source of light, and so he made his way towards them. At the bottom of the rock he saw a sign that gave to know that he was standing in the presence of the tomb of one who walked in imitation, and had died a painful death. He took a seat, and closed his eyes, and felt the presence of the room, and of the fallen. And through that form of imitation he was taken to the figure of the figures it adhered to, and this figure opened up into an infinite abyss, which he fell into. And everything was washed at once away. The image of his pain, and the images of pain that he had brought about in others were dissolved, and he was nothing. There was nothing but this void – and an uncanny sense of joy. He knelt and cried, but asked no question. Then the presence went away. He stood and looked around, then lit a candle. Then he made his way outside. The feeling of relief remained for several days thereafter, during which he had the sense that he was floating in the air around the city; but a minor disagreement in relation to the bill at his hotel destroyed this feeling, and he never got it back. But the memory of the presence of that absence was to guide him on his way into the future. He decided to commit himself to following in quest of an unthinkable reunion, and proceeded to attend to his perceptions of the world as just so many mortal signs of that strange absence, which he cared for when they came, and then let go of. And these many obligations, which were often in the form of human suffering, but also seen in laughter, seemed to turn into so many new reflections of himself, and the process of allowing them to be became the dying of a death that he would never get to see, but had to follow. He was living for that death, and died to live it.