City of the Past

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
What is it like to detect the scrawlings of a man who has lost everything? An obscure attempt at a postmodernist narrative.

Submitted: February 02, 2012

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Submitted: February 02, 2012




I can’t tell you how it began, but that doesn’t matter, because he didn’t care.  There is little we really know about Sneer, his life a bigger mystery than the one he was trying to solve, and the chances of anyone finding out more about him are infinitesimal. His past is of no great importance; there is nothing more to say about him, except this. Sneer’s writings are linear; I have ascertained his actions based upon them.


The streets were as grey as they always had been, and the steps he took on them not distinct from anybody else’s, however his irrelevance as a biological organism didn’t refrain him, in fact it gave him peace, peace in that nobody would see him. Ambition too, in that nobody would notice him. He didn’t have a job (not a regular one anyway) anymore. He felt like Thomas Hardy, leaving the hardships of the novel behind for the smaller, more fulfilling poetry, and in Daniel Sneer’s case, the poetry didn’t make sense, but that didn’t matter because it felt right.

York was full of history, and no matter how familiar Sneer became with its streets he felt like he didn’t know the place. The Romans built it so it was all in squares, which gave his journeys many abrupt turns. None were more abrupt than the turn he was about to take today.

He walked around the corner feeling determined, today would be the day he cracked it. It wouldn’t take him long to find the man, he would be doing what he always did at this time, picking up a paper from the newsagents down Spurriergate. If Sneer’s scrawlings were correct, he would then turn left down Market St., continue down Feasegate and go down to Swinegate, carry on down Church St. and then continue down to the Minster, then stop off at the Cornish Pasty Bakery, he would be there for approximately fifty to three hundred seconds, then he would exit and go down Coney St and engage in the general activity of the city, he would go to the market, but not buy anything. He always did that. Visited the market, but never bought anything. He would stay in town a couple of hours and return home, and he would stay there until the next day. He lived in a house on Vyner Street, a mile or so away from town, it took him about fourteen minutes to get to town, sometimes seventeen, depending on his mood.

He was a common looking man, glasses, hair slicked back, and he was fifty or so.  Sneer knew that he was the one because it was always the normal looking ones that did it. They were able to get away with things precisely because they looked normal. Sneer wasn’t going to let this man get away.  He was going to catch him in the act. He didn’t know what the act was yet but that was precisely why he needed to keep his eye on him.

So Sneer arrived at the newsagents on Spurriergate (everything was a “gate”, for some reason. I have ascertained, from reading his notes, that Sneer perhaps thought this was because each road opens onto another, in the same way as he thought his life always had) and it was a great shock to him when the man wasn’t there. Sneer stopped in his tracks, wondering what the problem could be. A timing issue? No, it couldn’t be, it was 9.53AM, he was right on time. Or maybe the man was already inside the shop?


Then what could it be?

Sneer felt the frequency of his breathing rising, and then he came to a realisation…it was happening now. Right now. And it was his job to stop it. But where was he to start? Where was he to go?

The man’s house. He had no other option. He turned abruptly and started making his way there.


From across the street he stared into the man’s window. For now, there was nothing. Peering in reminded him of his life prior to this and he saw it as a good opportunity to vent his thoughts. He took out his notebook, flicking through it he caught a glimpse of the etchings of the past few weeks, the diagrams, the graphs, the charts, the general detailing of the man’s activity. He turned to a clean page and wrote the following lines:

This is just like old times. It shows that nothing has really changed, the fact that I’m sitting around waiting for things to happen is no different to my former life, and I’m finding myself wondering the same things as before: what fulfilment do we get out of life? If it is going to carry on this way then what do I have to look forward to? Many people are fulfilled by money, but I don’t see it this way, getting paid is nothing to me. The way in which I’m living attests to this fact, I have no income and never will again, and I’m at peace with this. I’m at peace with most aspects of my life, but time and time again I see myself in others and see them living my life better than me, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this. It’s as if I’m only existing. There are other times where I like my life, but it is other people that take the joy out of it by creating envy in me. They are so happy all the time (but they’re not, I know this, not all the time) that it makes me unhappy, if only temporarily. I want to be like them but to be like them as me. In the end I can only find fulfilment by doing what I have a passion for, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now.

So my investigation is moving at a different pace now, he didn’t turn up at the newsagents, which strongly suggests a change in activity, possibly even initiation of said activity. I am currently watching the home of said suspect, but nothing has surfaced as of yet. Will report back later.


The man appeared in the window and did something he had never done before; he looked Sneer in the eye. But how? He was undercover, this shouldn’t have been happening. The man looked contemptuous, and in a second he was gone. Then his front door opened, and he was storming towards Sneer.

Sneer backed up. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He turned and walked away from the man, but before he could make any distance a large hand grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him backwards. He moaned as he landed back first against the bonnet of a nearby car. The man’s face was close to his. Sneer could only gaze into the man’s eyes; behind the fury he detected a hint of panic.

“Why the fuck are you following me?” he yelled. He used a rough tone, but it sounded unnatural on him. Passersby didn’t stop; they glanced and continued on their way.

“Eh? I’ve seen you out and about! Every time I look you’re there! If I see you around me again, I’ll fucking…kill you! D’you hear!?”

The man threw Sneer to the ground, the force with which he did so lacking. He stood up, staggering forwards, holding his back, and trying to save face. He didn’t look back at the man. He would never look back.


The skies were now a light shade of purple and Sneer decided to go into a bookshop. He could no longer detect the activities of the man, but he could still detect the history of York. He was good at finding out information, and if he was going to continue to wander the streets he should at least learn about them. It was a charity shop, he had been there before, and was uneasy about going back now. When he approached the glass door he saw that nobody was on the ground floor. Knowing this, he walked up the three stairs leading to the door, and entered. There was a shelf that had books that were solely about the city, and he picked one up.

He didn’t notice the creaking above him as he browsed.

For ten minutes he flicked through the pages, and he discovered that York was born when the Romans conquered Celtic tribes, that some of the buildings down The Shambles went back as far as the fourteenth century, and that an area where he liked to sit used to be the place where criminals were crushed.

“You…” growled a voice.

Sneer turned. The man was foreign, about sixty or so, and he was glaring. The man marched up to Sneer and snatched the book from his hands, and whacked him on the side of the face.

“Get out of this shop! You fucking scourge! Get out!”

The man kept on hitting Sneer with the book, and Sneer backed out of the door, surrendering. He fell down the stairs and landed on his back. He groaned.

The man, stood majestically at the top of the stairs, looked down at him. He said, “You know what? You keep the book. I don’t want anything that’s had your hands on it.”

He threw the book and it landed on the road next to Sneer. The door then shut behind the man, who disappeared back up the staircase in the shop, and in the glass Sneer caught his own reflection. Scruffy. Bearded. Pathetic. How much can a person lose? he thought.


Sneer takes out his diary and writes the following lines:

I’m sitting in the park, the sun is gone. There is nothing but clouds at the moment. This doesn’t bother me though, because I know that soon they will disappear and the sun will come out again. It’s the same with everything, no matter how bleak things are you always have hope because you know they will be better again one day. I have no food, no money, no other clothes than the ones I’m wearing, and yet I feel at peace somehow. Sitting here I feel content, like there is nothing that should really bother me. I’m glad I got the book today, I’m learning a lot about the city.

The investigation is over. The result: failure. But someone once told me that in order to forget about one thing it has to be replaced by another, and I think I have found that replacement.


This is all that is known about Sneer. This passage is the last. We can only assume that he continues to spend his days learning everything he can about the city, and through this, the earth around him, and that he will carry on with this until he is a part of the earth himself

I watched his mother die today. She had been lying on a hospital bed for the past couple of weeks. I feel terrible that after all my investigations into Daniel’s life, this story was all I could produce for her. It has left the sourest taste in my mouth. Perhaps that is the wrong way to describe my feelings, perhaps it would be better to say that I wish there were more to it, more than a sour taste, possibly even a sense of closure, of satisfaction in what I have achieved, but there is nothing. It leaves me striving to discover more, to gain more, and the worst part of all of this is that I am hopeful. If there is one thing I have taken away from this, it is the fact that hope is nothing but a curse. Daniel Sneer had no hope, and yet he was at peace. Then there’s me, striving to discover more only because there is the slightest glint of hope that I can.

His mother was crying when her last breath escaped her.

© Copyright 2019 Max Watt. All rights reserved.

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