Fiction

The Terrible Event: A Memorial

I OFTEN ASK myself: had we simply stuck with The Memorial’s original name, would things have taken such a tragic turn? At the time, I didn’t object to a name change per se but to the fact that it happened only a couple of months before the conference. I feared that this would just create confusion: people showing up to the conference only to discover that The Memorial (not its full name: we just referred to it as such to save time) was now officially known as something else. As to the new name itself, that was still under discussion; for now we called it ‘the Terrible Event Memorial’.

The Director advised that all promotional materials distributed during this interim period, including materials relating to the conference, must refer only to the provisional name and never to the original name – just to ensure that we all remained ‘on message’. Ever mindful of the Director’s obsessiveness when it came to consistency and accuracy, I lived in fear of unintentionally referring to the Terrible Event Memorial by its original name instead of its provisional name. I’d already made the occasional slip with dates and times in some of the draft conference material (due to staff shortages, it had fallen on me to organise virtually every aspect of the conference, in addition to performing my regular duties). I became so intent on erasing The Memorial’s original name from my mind so as not to use it by mistake, I have long since forgotten what it was. Hence, the following section employs the provisional name – which would in due course become the official name (with a minor amendment).

 

THE TERRIBLE EVENT Memorial was established by the Terrible Event Institute (‘The Institute’) for the purposes of conducting research into the Terrible Event and other events of a similarly terrible nature. The Memorial was the ‘public face’ of the Institute, attracting large numbers of visitors annually.

The theme of the conference was ‘The Terrible Event: Remembering the Past, Safeguarding the Future’. The celebrated Professor N had agreed to deliver the keynote speech. Professor N, a renowned expert on the Terrible Event, was a highly original thinker and himself a survivor of the Terrible Event – a man seemingly without a trace of bitterness despite having personally endured that ordeal.

Preparations were going smoothly until a member of the public who, having seen some early conference-related promotional material that had been circulating, material that referred to The Memorial by its original name – which was, it goes without saying, still in use at the time – lodged a complaint. The person in question, who had hitherto been unaware of The Memorial’s existence, felt that the original name, which articulated in no uncertain terms the precise nature and location of the event that The Memorial was there to memorialise, was, in his words, ‘confronting and emotionally charged’. The Director, who’d never really liked the original name, saw this as the perfect moment to ‘change things up’.

 

THE DIRECTOR IMMEDIATELY circulated an online survey in order to gauge ‘wider public perceptions’ of the original name. One thing the Director fervently believed in, aside from the importance of consistency and accuracy, was the value of an online survey.

It comprised a single question: On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = ‘Disagree’ and 5 = ‘Strongly agree’), what is your response to the statement, ‘The name of this memorial triggers certain unpleasant emotions that may negatively impact my mental health’?

We received ninety-eight responses.

Rating No. respondents

1 6

2 9

3 15

4 34

5 31

(no rating) 3

This came as a surprise to many of us. On the basis of the results, the Director decreed that we should start thinking about less potentially inflammatory names. Our starting point was the survey itself, which provided a space for respondents’ suggestions. These included ‘The Memorial Commemorating a Tragedy’ and the more concise ‘Memorial’. Most respondents felt that the word ‘memorial’ itself was a bit negative and suggested instead ‘Place of Memories’, ‘Place Where We Commemorate’ and the somewhat circular ‘Place Where We Remember the Thing That This Place Is Here to Commemorate’. One respondent suggested that we ‘improve the lighting in the undercover car park’; they appeared to be responding to a different survey, although admittedly the undercover car park was rather dim.

 

THE STRESS OF organising the conference combined with all the fuss around the name change was beginning to take its toll. A week after the decision to change The Memorial’s name, I realised that I’d scheduled a school visit for the same day as the conference – a blunder everyone could have done without, given the current staff shortage. I knew it wouldn’t escape the Director’s attention.

School visits were a regular component of The Memorial’s annual schedule of events; we were proud of our community outreach activities and the central role they played in raising awareness of the Terrible Event, but this visit was particularly special, as the school in question was an underprivileged high school from one of the regional centres, the students of which had never before had the opportunity to come to The Memorial. Depressingly, most of them had no knowledge of the Terrible Event, let alone any notion of when, where, how and why it took place. There had already been so much scheduling and rescheduling just to lock in a day for the visit, I was reluctant to change it now. But there was absolutely no question of shifting the conference date, either, as by that point a number of attendees had already booked flights and accommodation. All I could do was act as if I’d intended all along to hold both events on the same day.

 

WISHING TO OPEN up the discussion about the new name, the Director invited all staff members to participate in a brainstorming session (one thing upon which she placed great importance, aside from consistency and accuracy and the value of an online survey, was the benefits of brainstorming).

In one of the training rooms, we sat in pairs on little plastic chairs at little plastic tables upon which had been placed sheets of paper and a selection of coloured pencils. After some preliminary remarks (‘Clearly, the existing name is no longer acceptable, for a variety of reasons’), the Director allocated us five minutes in which to come up with words or phrases, using a different colour for each word or phrase, indicative of what we thought the new name should convey. (‘Just jot down whatever comes into your head. No rules.’)

At the end of the five minutes, each pair read out their list while the Director wrote the words and phrases (‘welcoming’, ‘inclusive’, ‘promoting understanding’, etc.) on a whiteboard. She had a few issues with my suggestions (‘concise’, ‘catchy’), remarking that this exercise was not so much about the ‘shape’ as the ‘mood’ of the name.

After another hour spent tossing around ideas for the name itself, the Director wrapped up (‘Great work, everyone; thanks for your input’). None of our proposals ended up being used, the Director ultimately deciding that our provisional name would now be our official name. The benefits, she explained, were threefold: the name ‘the Terrible Event Memorial’ clearly indicated that we were memorialising the Terrible Event, without being so specific as to cause offence; it would eliminate any further confusion; and it would save time and money, since the name ‘the Terrible Event Memorial’ was already being used in our promotional material. But for some reason she decreed that the ‘the’ should be part of the official name, so now it was no longer the Terrible Event Memorial, as per the provisional name, but The Terrible Event Memorial (‘Going forward, we must take special care to capitalise the “T”’).

 

THE DAY AFTER the brainstorming session, I absent-mindedly sent an email in which I used a lower-case ‘t’ for the ‘The’, not just once but three times. It might not have mattered so much had it not been an email to the Director herself. She promptly sent it back, having highlighted, without comment, each lower-case ‘t’.

 

AS IF ALL this wasn’t enough of a distraction, a fresh complaint, or round of complaints, had been lodged – not about The Memorial’s name this time, but its content.

The Memorial was not a ‘memorial’ in the traditional sense so much as a collection of experiences designed to unsettle and disorientate the visitor and thereby force him or her to reflect more deeply upon the Terrible Event. These experiences took place at regular intervals throughout the day in a series of darkened rooms of varying dimensions. Although prominent warnings were displayed just outside the entrance to each room, we received complaints from people who, like the person who complained about the name, had never heard of The Memorial until they’d happened upon an advertisement for the conference and on that basis decided to pay a visit.

The complaints centred on three experiences in particular.

1. A room consisting of twenty giant screens, half of them displaying, on a continuous loop, screenshots of random posts from selected victims’ still-active Facebook accounts, expressing, directly or otherwise, the joy of being alive, the other half displaying the final, desperate text messages of those same victims to their loved ones – thus inviting the visitor to reflect upon the fragility of life.

2. A room so small that only one visitor at a time could enter. Upon entry, disembodied voices could be heard endlessly chanting the name, age, height and email address of each victim, at a volume that swung between barely audible and painfully loud – thus inviting the visitor to feel confused and terrified, experiencing the faintest echo of an understanding of what the victims themselves went through as the Terrible Event took its course.

3. A room so long that it would more accurately be described as a hallway and so narrow that only one person at a time could fit between the walls, that person having no choice, once he or she entered, but to continue moving forward to reach the exit, the location of which was a complete mystery (to them). As visitors proceeded along the corridor, they felt their heads and/or faces being lightly brushed, in the pitch-blackness, by mysterious plastic things suspended from above, clattering softly against each other, the darkness giving way, incrementally, until the visitors reached the end of the now fully illuminated room/hallway, by which point they had realised that the hanging objects were pieces of identification – drivers’ licences, staff cards, ATM cards, etc. – carried on the persons of the victims of the Terrible Event and now attached to the ends of polyester cords hanging from the ceiling, this experience symbolising a journey from ignorance to understanding and insight but also alluding to the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ or an abiding sense of hope even in the darkest times.

 

THE DIRECTOR IMMEDIATELY called for an online survey in which visitors were asked the question, On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = ‘Not very confronted at all’ and 5 = ‘Extremely confronted’), how would you rate your response to the experiences, or some of them, or any of them, in The Terrible Event Memorial?

One hundred and seven visitors responded.

Rating No. visitors

1 9

2 17

3 17

4 23

5 31

(No rating) 10

The ‘Any further comments/recommendations?’ section abounded with remarks such as, ‘I’m just sorry that 5 is the highest number I have to work with in order to express my opposition to the experiences in The Terrible Event Memorial. I strongly recommend that future surveys increase that number to 10, or at least 8.’ Some respondents, on the other hand, didn’t give a rating but provided encouraging feedback. These were the exception rather than the rule.

 

I WAS TOO busy to give any of this much thought; the conference was getting closer, and I had my hands full dealing with the many logistical details, not to mention ensuring that the website was kept up to date. Given that the Terrible Event, while indisputably terrible, was hardly of the scale of some of the more well-known terrible events of recent times, the conference would be relatively short: a single day. Thank God for that! A three- or even two-day conference would have done me in.

Despite, or because of, the shortness, there would be a full and stimulating program featuring several respected scholars and other distinguished guests. Things were slowly falling into place, although I slipped up by using The Memorial’s original name in an email to the caterers, and for some reason their reply CC’d in the Director. She’d already sent around a memo reminding everyone to be on guard against accidentally using the original name, as this would be potentially embarrassing for The Memorial and for The Institute. But such was my anxiety about unintentionally using the original name that, as if possessed by some rare form of Tourette syndrome, I went ahead and used it. The Director never made mention of this, but I could sense a coolness in her manner towards me in the days following.

 

THE DIRECTOR TOOK the results of the second survey very seriously. The offending experiences were closed off while alternative experiences were designed – a process guided by the comments/recommendations section of the survey, which was flavoured by a preference for non-confronting and yet meaningful experiences. The Director proposed that when new experiences had been approved and installed, The Memorial would employ a team of young, attractive attendants carrying iPads and wearing V-neck T-shirts in a variety of welcoming colours to be stationed at the entrance of The Memorial in order to greet visitors and invite them to choose from a selection of experiences – experiences they could experience individually, at their own pace and desired level of engagement, immediately after which they would be invited to provide feedback via an online survey. Although, sadly, history was to intervene before these improvements were fully implemented, the proposed survey, by the Director’s own admission, was more demanding than the experiences themselves.

 

THE ABOVE CHALLENGES were closely followed by another, this time directly involving the conference itself: namely, resistance to the choice of Professor N as keynote speaker. This came as less of a surprise than the other complaints, Professor N having had his share of controversy over the years due to his plain-spoken style. Practically the moment the conference webpage went live, we received feedback ranging from concern to outright disgust. Locally based experts in the field and members of the general public alike, many of whom had already contacted us in the wake of the name change, applauding us for our courage, now claimed that we were undermining ourselves by inviting Professor N – that not only would he intentionally fail to acknowledge The Memorial’s new name but that he would gleefully and repeatedly throw the original name in the faces of the other attendees. The Professor’s well-known tendency to call a spade a spade, a trait once so admired by his peers, was now regarded as the behaviour of a man desperately out of touch.

 

THE PROFESSOR N controversy called for slightly different type of survey, and the Director lost no time in preparing and distributing the following (I’ve omitted the preamble).

1. Are you planning on attending the conference? Please choose from one of the following options.

a. Yes

b. No

c. Undecided

2. On a scale of 1 to 8 (1 = ‘Strongly in favour of Professor N delivering the keynote speech’ and 8 = ‘Firmly against Professor N delivering the keynote speech’), how would you describe your feelings about Professor N delivering the keynote speech?

3. If you are planning to attend the conference, and Professor N ends up delivering the keynote speech, would you consider attending the conference but not attending the speech?

For more than half of the 117 respondents, the answer to Question 2 was ‘8’. Curiously, three quarters of the respondents answered ‘No’ to Question 3, whereas all of the respondents answered ‘No’ to Question 1.

On a more positive note: at least the school visit was going ahead as planned, even though the visitors would encounter quite a different memorial from the one they’d signed up for. Fortunately, the teachers and students remained eager to learn about the Terrible Event.

Thus far the Director had been strangely silent about the fact that the conference and the school visit had been scheduled for the same day. I chose to take that as a good sign.

 

DESPITE THE OVERWHELMINGLY anti–Professor N tenor of the survey results, the Director surprised us all by not immediately withdrawing his invitation. Instead, she released a public statement distancing The Memorial from Professor N. Additionally, all promotional material relating to the conference was now required to incorporate this abbreviated version of the statement:

I hereby declare that Professor N’s views are not necessarily those of The Terrible Event Memorial (or, by extension, The Terrible Event Institute), and I apologise in advance should Professor N employ, intentionally or otherwise, the original name of The Terrible Event Memorial during his address or at any other time during the conference.

We were encouraged to include the statement into our email signatures. While I was pleased that Professor N had not been prevented from delivering the keynote speech – he was, after all, an eminent scholar, and at least some of us were keen to hear his insights – I couldn’t help expressing the concern that our signatures would now be too unwieldy, given all the other statements we’d appended to them over the years. The Director said it was up to me whether or not I included the statement but that I should ‘think long and hard’ about my decision, since it behoved us, as employees of The Memorial, to respect the sensitivities of our key stakeholders.

It soon became apparent that everyone at The Memorial had embraced or at least accepted the Director’s statement, even Craig, the IT manager, who never seemed to go along with anything. But even though it was unusual to see this apparent non-conformist conforming, I suspected that he conformed for his own private reasons, reasons that were consistent with his true nature, so he wasn’t so much conforming to the crowd as to himself. I was the odd one out, not because I was trying to take a stand: it was just in the interests of having a more stripped-back email signature. I hoped the Director would respect me for sticking to my guns, but at morning tea the following week, she passed me a slice of cake in a way that said: I’m passing you this cake in order to fulfil the terms of a social contract that demands the passing of this cake from me, the Director, to you, a senior staff member, but don’t expect the cheerful banter or even meaningless small talk that would have accompanied this action had you been a team player and incorporated the statement.

I immediately left the tearoom, returning to my desk to copy and paste the statement into my email signature, bitterly regretting not having done this in the first place.

 

FAR FROM PLACATING Professor N’s opponents, the statement seemed only to inflame them further (in retrospect, it was naive of us to expect otherwise). A vocal group of anti-Professor N activists, consisting mostly of those who’d responded to the third survey with a score of 6 or above, held a public protest right outside our gates, demanding that The Memorial withdraw the invitation and have Professor N banned from coming within a mile of the conference. Although none of the activists had planned to attend the conference in the first place, they now intended to show up purely in order to walk out in disgust should Professor N approach the lectern. The extremists among them hinted at more sinister actions. They didn’t specify what form these actions would take but warned that they were actions we would be wise to avoid provoking by allowing Professor N to show up. ‘In the name of all that is good and right,’ they declared, ‘we will rain down hellfire on the conference, particularly the keynote speech.’ At the time it was hard to tell whether that was just a metaphor or whether they meant it literally.

The conference date was getting ever closer, but the Director still hadn’t come to a firm decision. For the purposes of the draft program, I went ahead and listed Professor N as the keynote speaker.

 

AT THE ELEVENTH hour, the Director decided that there was no way Professor N could show his face at the conference, let alone deliver the keynote speech. But neither did she want to offend him by withdrawing his invitation. Her conclusion: cancel the conference altogether, citing ‘health and safety issues’.

It was a terrible blow after all the work I’d put in. I’d only just that very morning finalised and uploaded a PDF of the program to the website, having decided to leave, for better or worse, Professor N’s name on the list of speakers. The Director, I couldn’t help thinking, was slightly relieved that I would no longer be overseeing this project.

 

NOW THAT I had some time to reflect, it struck me that although many members of the public, not to mention other key stakeholders, had issues with the name, the experiences and the keynote speaker, there had been no complaints – as far as I knew – from those personally touched by the Terrible Event. I pointed this out to the Director one afternoon as the two of us rode the lift to the undercover carpark.

She replied, ‘Maybe you’re right, but this is a memorial to those who didn’t survive the Terrible Event, and the sad truth is that their opinions will never be known.’

I said, ‘Yes, it’s true that this is a memorial to those who perished, but isn’t it interesting that the survivors have remained silent, too – even Professor N himself?’

The Director stared intently at the screen above the lift doors; we were nearly at the car park. ‘So what are you saying? That their silence means they were happy with the status quo?’

I said I didn’t really know but that it was food for thought.

She suddenly turned to me and said, ‘Regardless of what they say or don’t say, it’s not as if we’re going change everything back now, is it?’

The lift doors opened, and she exited without saying goodbye.

 

THE FACT THAT it happened on the very day of the conference (had the conference taken place) seemed too coincidental. Investigations continue, police remain confounded, but everything points to this: the extreme wing of the activist group – or, more likely, an individual member acting on their own initiative – planted the device in the undercover car park, remotely detonating it at the very moment the keynote speech (had it taken place) was to commence.

I’d handed in my resignation just a week earlier.

A few days after the attack I checked The Memorial’s website only to realise that I’d never gotten around to updating it: there was nothing to indicate that the conference had been cancelled. Quite possibly, some people – or at least one person – had been under the impression that it was going ahead, with Professor N as the keynote speaker (I hadn’t bothered, once the cancellation had been made official, to remove his name from the program). Perhaps, subconsciously, I couldn’t accept the reality of the cancellation. Perhaps, equally subconsciously, I was ‘sticking it’ to the Director. But this is mere speculation: the fact is that, conference or no conference, the school visit had gone ahead as planned, commencing at 9.30 am, half an hour before the keynote speech would have been delivered. The explosion occurred at around 10.15 am. No one in the building at that time, including all eleven students and the accompanying teacher, came out alive.

It’s possible that the perpetrator – assuming it was an individual person; their identity remains unknown – wasn’t attacking the conference specifically, but The Memorial itself, and that the attack had no connection whatsoever to my oversight: it was just very unfortunate timing. Or so I like to tell myself.

 

NOW THAT THEY’VE cleared most of the rubble, plans are underway to rebuild The Memorial. From what I hear, the new one will incorporate a smaller, humbler memorial in honour of the school students. The school-visit memorial (it doesn’t yet have a name) will be something along these lines: an arrangement of eleven handmade school backpacks (representing the deceased students) fashioned from fragments of brick, carpet and computer hardware from the destroyed building and mounted on the wall of an internal courtyard (inviting us to reflect both on impermanence and eternal life).

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review