After a night of disturbed dreams in which I kept losing track of time and arriving late at the exam centre (I had those same dreams last week) I indulged myself and my study guide (the book, not a person) with a nice soak in the bath (chapter 1 - it's a long one) and then shifted to the red couch (chapters 2 and 3). I only paused this morning's last minute revisions for my Financial Regulation exam (chapters 4, 5 and 6) to have some breakfast. We turned on the television for the morning news. And there it was, that terrible apocalyptic footage from Japan. Him: "I think maybe we shouldn't watch this. If you think it's going to distract you..." Me: "No no, it's fine, leave it on."
It wasn't really. Fine I mean. What a terrible thing to have happen, those poor people, and me eating my Dukan galette like everything was perfectly normal. Because in my life here in London things were normal - other than my sudden awareness that something had gone terribly wrong on the other side of the world, in a country I have never visited. Such large scale appalling destruction. And no one to blame. No hate figure. No tyrant, no terrorist mastermind. No one to claim the horror as their own. It is what it is: humanity caught in the giant machinery of our planet's inner workings. Like Chaplin's character in Modern Times except not funny. Not funny at all. A tragedy of Biblical proportions in the second decade of the 21st century.
8.9 Those two numbers separated by a small apparently insignificant dot gradually searing into our collective consciousness, erasing Tripoli and Christchurch. Like a cattle rustler's running iron changing the brand on his loot.
I used to live in California so I've come across some numbers. Notably 6.9 and 6.6 which are known as Loma Prieta and Northridge. But can 8.9 have a name? 8 point 9. That's like absolute zero. Or Chernobyl. Or infinity. It defies the human scale. It's in the same league as Krakatoa, or Pompeii, and the Christmas Eve Asian tsunami. It's an uneven fight. Like an egg taking on the Deccan Traps. The news left me with an unsettling combination of squeamishness and denial. And a deep sense of loss that only comes from the premature disappearance of people, places and things one had yet to discover.
But he was wrong you know. The terrible news didn't distract me. For once, and for that I am grateful, I did not use the excuse of the calamity of others to sabotage my own future. I remained focused in the immediate present and the task at hand.
It's a half hour brisk walk to the exam centre. With a butterfly-induced light-headed cheeriness I signed in with the nice man on duty at reception. He reminded me of those friendly volunteers you find in National Trust properties around the UK (ie those old castles and family seats that are open to the public) or in the US at places like Monticello. I'd forgotten that the centre's rules require you to practically strip down before you take the exam. Seriously, they give you a locker and apart from your ID and locker key you have to pack all your belongings away.
Relieved of my possessions, I was ushered into the ante-room, given dee-glo pink ear plugs and taken through a rather surreal and Kafkaesque check: a) could I confirm that I was who the computer thought I was? b) could I confirm that the exam I was about to take was indeed the one for which I had signed up? "You know what, I thought just for a lark, why I'd like to try my hand at Pension and Accounting: an Introduction for accountants, why I don't mind if I do." But I didn't say that (but I thought it very loudly as my five year old niece would say - and with a Southern accent, who on earth was I channelling?). Instead I said "Yes". To both questions. Then it was time to pick a booth.
Nice man from reception: "Would you like an out of the way spot?" Me: "Yes please!" He winked at me and whispered "Good Luck..." That wasn't strictly protocol but he must have thought I was a good egg, and along with my lucky orange tee-shirt from Amsterdam and my new Green Apple Bookstore hoodie (I wasn't going to leave anything to chance), I got booth number 16 which turned out to be pretty lucky indeed (unlike number 13 which I'd selected last week). I took my time, sharpened the two pencils I was given, even though the test was computerised (did I mention I wasn't going to leave anything to chance?) and answered all 55 questions carefully. (5 are practice questions which don't count towards the final score but they don't tell you which. Just because. There is no point railing against the system.)
There was one awkward moment when I had to guess whether Romania or Croatia was in the European Union in order to answer this one question correctly (it's Romania, I guessed right) and I was done! I clicked "Finish" and then clicked the next two buttons asking me to confirm that I was sure that I wanted to end the exam right now. I then had to answer a questionnaire about the facilities and friendliness of staff and click on a further button that read, rather ominously or promisingly depending on your mood "Terminate". After that the screen went black and stayed black so I went back to reception to await the results.
I emptied out my locker and put my clothes back on. I drained my bottle of water in one go and after a few minutes of anxious waiting the nice man handed me my result envelope. As you'd expect, it's one of those ridiculous designs with lots of glue so that you really have to wrestle with it in that And-the-Winner is-Academy Awards way before you can prise it open. Me (doing a bit of a gig in reception): "I passed! I passed! I passed!" The nice man: "Ah well, good for you now!" I continued my gig down the corridor. I dialled his number from the bathroom cubicle to tell him the good news but had to settle for voice mail. On my way out of the building, to compensate because I'm still not very good at dealing with delayed gratification, I said "I passed!" to the girl at the front desk and texted a few people for good measure. I passed!
When I got home later on, there they were, those terrible images on the television. Nothing gory. Worse: total annihilation. I've only experienced it directly once before, when I accompanied a Red Cross assessment team into the Berkeley Hills right after the 1991 firestorm. Nothing remained of the neighbourhoods other than the road we were on, a few chimney stacks and huge clay pots stripped of their glaze. Most cars had turned into pools of melted metal. There were no trees. There was nothing left. Only the smell of ash in the air and crows on the wind.
Then like today, what can I do but pray?