This is a work of fiction. References to names, characters, places, events, incidents and rock bands are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Lyrics of the Great Song remain the copyrighted material of the Pazanna People’s Republic.
Copyright © Claude Vicent 2017
Published by Claude Vicent at Shakespir
Originally published in 2016
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
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I can’t really recall when it first started to go all so pear shaped. Perhaps it was a Thursday. The dullest of days. A depressingly brown, autumn Thursday. Only Sunday afternoons ever seem to trump autumn Thursdays as the most boring of days. And brown is the colour I choose to associate with such dull moments and days.
Whatever it was that first welcomed such a thing into my house will forever remain a mystery to me. They say vampires never venture into a house uninvited. All I can say, is that I never once asked the strange presence into my place.
It’s all in the past now. The calm and serenity of our lives is restored and there is little for us, and mostly my weak self, to worry about any longer. However, such was the despair that took over during that brief period, all so long ago, that I have been compelled to write about it now. A short, dark tale that started on a Thursday, like many others, and eventually ended on a Sunday afternoon. Call it a coincidence. Call it what you like.
What manner of dark forces and energies inhabit our world, is a question I may never find the answer to.
I was making my way home that evening, one slow step after the other, from a job that was slowly sucking the living essence out of every grain of my body. I moved along the streets hoping, miserably and macabrely, to slip and break my neck on the cold icy pavement. Perhaps, I thought, that might end my hopeless existence in this world once and forever. All that was stopping me from stepping in front of the next approaching tram was the love I held for my beloved other half. The idea of her knowing they’d had to scrape me off the bottom of a tram was enough to keep me walking in a straight line, all the way home, day after day.
The stale smell of elderly rotting beings, from the home for the old and demented just across the park, hung in the air with a sickening heaviness. A few of them sat frozen at the front porch. Their miserable faces, hustling over a piece of bread and an apple. Content at nothing. I wondered why they hadn’t ended their lives years in advance. Why they still insisted on holding on? Perhaps I should set an example. Do the world a favour… and just do myself in.
Adjacent to the old people’s version of hell was the building that housed our small apartment, three stories up from the cracking tarmac of the streets below. I had hardly finished hanging my coat and scarf on the nail that hung from the damp wall of our flat, my shoes still clinging to my frozen feet, when I noticed the first of many shadows creeping across the hallway. The piercing sound of the thumping of my heart, beating away like a drum, whistled in my ears. The intensity of it alone would have been enough to end a man a few years my senior. It sent an unexpected bolt of lightning shooting down my legs and out of my shivering arse. The fright was such that I barely avoided filling my pants. A cold, immobilising force took over the better, and still functioning, part of my body. And there I stood, frozen, for a confusingly long time, until a few shady rational thoughts saw best to see me on my way. I moved into the kitchen where I set the kettle on and waited patiently. Carefully listening to the rummaging sounds coming from just behind the creaky door to our bedroom.
What kind of man, I can hear you folks cry. What kind of a man am I, not to pick up a club and storm into the room with the firm intention of facing the intruder? I beg of thee just a few more pages of patience. Then, and only then might you all begin to appreciate the level of fear that I was subjected to. Enough to paralyse my weak frame. Right down to every single atom in my being and loosen the otherwise clenched muscles of my arse.
When the shivering eventually subsided, I managed, against all my wits, to take a peak into the small sleeping room. Shyly I pushed at the door with my finger and to my relief, there I stood before an empty room. Much to my good health, tea cup in hand, and a few cinnamon biscuits the better, I made for the living room. There I decided to light the fire. The cold swept in through the draughty windows and under the doors. The cold autumn months were upon us and I sat there shivering, only to find that the last logs of wood had disappeared. Only a few blazing ones were left in the chimney giving off the last remaining bursts of heat. All I could do was sip on my tea, my hands held up before my chest clinching desperately for a little warmth.
Suddenly, I felt a thump in my chest, as a creaking sound of footsteps began to sound again from the bedroom area. The knocking, scratching and sounds of things falling, dropping and hitting the cold wooden floors started to grow louder and more frequent. The source of such sounds was unequivocally the adjacent bedroom. I sat at my writing table, my eyebrows raised in a manner most excited I imagine, missing my mug every other time I tried to sip at it. The tea dripping on my woolen jumper, and the biscuits crumbling and collecting at my feat as I kept my eyes fixed on the door to the kitchen that gave into our bedroom.
It is a fortune, now that I look back on it, that I did not choke myself to death, when minutes later I witnessed the dark shadow appearing from our sleeping chambers. A tall, large, dark figure, with broad shoulders, covered head to toe in a dark heap of mist. Wrapped in a black cloak, its head held low, heavily hanging towards the floor, and dark as the shadow it cast across the hall. I heard the door knob turn and the hinges creaking as it pulled back at the door and made its way through the kitchen towards the toilet. Before doing so it stopped with murderous nonchalance and twisted its elongated neck and shoulders to stare in my direction. I did not see, as much as I felt, the power of its anger and hate, as it stared at me from within the darkness of the cape, that hid its face.
Time stood still, just as in the worst of cliches, as the dark figure missed a few beats and then hit a wall. From deep within the cape I thought I could make out something which I imagined to be one of the being’s eyes. Its big head twitched subtly over its shoulder before its frame turned to face away from me and back across the hall towards where it had come from. I was left there, sitting incredulously frozen to the chair. Watching as it made itself at home in the house that my loving wife and I had worked so hard to build and call home. And my poor old self, made to feel like a stranger in my own home. Pinching myself would not have done more to make me realise I wasn’t dreaming. I had the fresh smell of shit fear still clinging to me for dear life.
As time slowly began to return to its normal course of things, there seemed to be no rest in the being’s dark tendencies, as it moved about the apartment, which incidentally had begun to grow colder and colder by the hour. For all my efforts, there seemed to be no good way of withholding any considerable amount of heat. As for my health, it too soon began to deteriorate as I shivered with ever more frequency and less and less control. There weren’t many nails left for me to chew on. Whenever I chewed, nervously, chronically, I did so on my fingers, causing them to bleed and ache in the cold air. Seconds turned to hours, which I spent constantly enveloped in the darkness and rain that winter always seems more than glad to dish out, year after year without fail. There did not seem to be any way of escaping either.
In the days following the strange incident, I would attempt to delay my return home the longest possible. Trawling the streets at night in the misty puddles here and there. Sitting in libraries and overcrowded pubs until closing time, when they would politely ask me to leave. Loitering before shop windows and wondering how come I had no one to ring, no one I could rely on. And so, to avoid falling prey to deeper and deeper levels of worthless despair I would eventually embark on my short voyage home. My shoulders held low and my stare fixed on the next few steps in front of me. Putting the key in the hole, hoping, praying to find the entity no longer inhabiting my place, and perhaps to see the beloved smile and feel the warm embrace of my dear wife, the likes of whom I had not had the pleasure of seeing since the entity first made itself known.
Never, during its stay, did it try to make contact with me, nor did it ever try to explain why it had picked that particular spot as its squat. Rather it commanded a powerful presence as if it had always owned the damn place. And so, stepping off the bus at times I would pause, and lean on the side of the brick wall by the small grocery store on the corner. And I would stand there and watch the happy families returning home. Then I would take a deep breath and dare to peak around the building only to find the lights in the windows to my apartment on the third floor to be on. And in the background, the dark features of the figure still inhabiting the four walls of my flat.
The evening routine which I was soon bound to, would start with the unlocking of the door. Ever so quietly as not to disturb the thing. Then I would undress, slowly and make my way into the kitchen where, my hands trembling and the sweat patches appearing, I would prepare something to eat. A humble meal to be consumed standing up straight by the failing radiator by the draughty window. Terrified at the possibility that I might catch a glimpse of it moving freely across the creaking floors. Or worse, that it might see me and approach me.
I could never really tell where the damn thing was at any one time. Whenever I expected it to be in the bedroom it would appear from the bathroom, and when I was sure it had ventured into the living room, by then my own living quarters, it would appear unannounced from the fridge where it would at times disappear for hours before making its presence felt again. And although it appeared to float softly above the ground, its apparent weight caused the old wooden floor boards to creak and the blood in my veins to shoot like a bullet through butter. The frightening fear of nothingness, as best as I could describe that which I experienced, would engulf my whole presence as I was forced to stand alone and petrified, as it went about its business, undeterred, undisturbed.
Soon, dark and uncontrollable thoughts began to dig their way into my feeble mind and on the fourth evening I decided to write a letter to my dear wife. I was beginning to miss her and I wondered whether I would see her face if only I closed my eyes. But whenever I did it was only the dark shadow I saw. The letter was short and to the point. A brief, desperate statement of love which I hoped would serve to see her back in my arms at the nearest possible moment. Somehow I began to convince myself that her disappearance and the being’s arrival were connected. The message read simply: Dear sweet love, I miss you so very much. Do come back. Your Love, S.G.Gustafessen. I left the letter on the small table by the main door, hoping that she might sneak in whilst I was at work, read the thing and consider coming back.
Desperate measures are born of desperate times and so, one day, when I felt there was little more I could take, I walked the twenty-six blocks across town and to the back end of beyond. Through the cluster of chimney puffing shacks, where I was to be introduced to a witch doctor who came highly recommended. The lady’s name, as it read on the scrap of paper it had been written on, and that I held tight in my sweating hand as I walked the pestered streets, was Madame Prudencia. At precisely four thirty pm I knocked on the door to 13 Brassknob’s Avenue, as had been generously arranged by my good friend and fellow backgammon enthusiast Wantington Jackson. A poignant smell of sulphur and garlic greeted me as a woman dressed in a dark green blouse, smelling like the back end of a garlic consuming cow, opened the door and welcomed me in. The grin on her face revealed a few dark, crooked teeth and a breath that could have awoken the deepest of sleeping corpses.
“Was does bring thee here, good sir?” the woman spoke with a gentle voice as I took a seat at the round table under a half-lit candelabra.
“Home, my home. Madam Prudencia,” I began with shaky voice, “it has been invaded by a dark force. A mysterious entity that walks about at all hours of the day and night. I fear it may have harmed my beautiful wife and I honestly do not know how much more of it I will be able to take.”
“’Tis not a mystery I has not dealt with good sir,” she spoke from under the dim light, “and yet I stand to find ones I has not been able to solve.”
“You came highly recommended,” I remarked, at which she proceeded to explain that it would mean a friendly discount on the considerable amount of money she would demand to look into the matter. And she did, after bleeding me for more money than I could ever afford. In a manner which reminded me much of the exorcism of Saint Ballcrak of Arsenals, she creaked and groaned in strange contortions here and there, exploding in wraths of a language which I admit I could not place. Then, whilst at the peak of her fever, she let out a huge fart that reverberated throughout the small room. It’s awful smell hanging in the air of the small room with incredible resolve for a few horrid moments. When the stench eventually dissipated, she recomposed her frail body on the chair before me and began to jot down notes on a small dark piece of paper.
I left her stone-cold hideout and rushed back across town with the paper note in my pocket and a deep desire to finally rid myself of the dreadful being. When I reached the corner shop I held my breath, in a last hope that the being had left but the light to the reading room on the third floor was still on, flickering in the darkness. So there, amid the fear, I quietly walked the flight of stairs and made for the kitchen hoping not to cross paths with it. And as my breath condensed in the cold air of the room, I began to put together the concoction which the rugged old lady claimed would win me back my living quarters and hopefully my love.
I had purchased on my way home, 12 batches of garlic. Three chicken heads. A pig’s trotter. 13 frog’s legs and a few rotten eggs which I had to beg the owner of a back street restaurant for. All this I proceeded to boil in a litre and a half of cat’s urine which I shan’t explain how I came to be in the possession of. All was to be left on the boil throughout the evening, allowing for the awful smells to expand throughout the flat and thus, according to Madame Prudencia, forcing the evil entity out of the premises. A few words were also to be spoken. A spell which I read attentively as I dropped the ingredients one after the other and stirred them carefully in the large pot I had found at a brick and brac store close to home. All this happened under the lingering presence of the thing. It’s immense shadow still moving back and forth throughout the apartment without apparent goal or destination, and without the least worry of my being there and none the wiser of my doings.
When it eventually retired to the sleeping room, I proceeded to prepare for another cold night to be spent sleeping on my incredibly tough and rather uncomfortable sofa. Not, however, before plugging my nostrils with some candle wax. Such was the extent of the stench that had soon started to rise from the cooking pot. That night I spent breathing heavily through my sore throat. Coughing and sneezing. Turning endlessly, desperately trying to find a few hours of undisturbed sleep.
The sun shone straight into my face the following morning in a way which it had not done for quite some time. Still the rotten smell of pig’s trotter in cat’s piss and other unsavoury ingredients filled the rooms with their unforgiving stench. And there I lay for a few more hours, not daring to leave the relative safety of the damp green sofa which had been my home, bed and study for the best part of a week.
Again I heard the rattling sound of the creaky floor boards before the detested sight of the dark cape and shadow appeared from the door to our bedroom. And just like that, as if she had never left the place, I heard her long lost voice screech like it hadn’t for so long.
“What’s this awful smell? What have you been up to?”
She was finally returned to me, and with her the daily monotony of a life which had for a few days left me wondering. No sign of the dark entity which had made its home among us living creatures. A mystery some might say. I was just glad to have her back.
Standing in a bar again. A whiskey bar this time. In whiskey bars you can do one of two things; you can either stand there and look like any other jerk, or if the bar girl is a pretty enough brunette, with a figure that could make a man howl late into the night, you can order a whiskey, or perhaps a whisky, depending on what kind of person you think you are. And if you’re able to pronounce the fucking word, you might get to order something from the top shelf. Then the bar girl might give you one of those rather impressed looks, but still look like she knows you’re going to be staring once she’s up there. But that’s exactly where they keep the good stuff. Up there on the high shelves, away from the common folk, up there where they never dust.
So she has to get the stool out and reach up beyond her comfort. And when she realises she can’t reach it, and starts to look around for help, she turns to give you a sharp look cos she knows you’re staring at her arse. Not just her arse, but the very essence of it, wondering what it would feel like to wake up to that arse every day. To sink your face in it like it were an oxygen tank for life, then lay back in bed, satisfied with not having to go out into the world to find a meaning.
There’s an owl sitting on one of the lower shelves among some of the cheaper blends. It’s stuffed, which means it can’t take its one eye off me (His second eye is nowhere to be seen). I try to forget it and look back towards that beauty of an arse in front of me. It’s no use. The damn owl’s still there. I roll me eyes a couple times then up towards it again. This time she turns to me with a bottle in hand.
“This the one?” she says, catching me staring at the owl.
Damn bloody owl.
Yamazaki, single malt, 25 years.
Sounds good to me.
What’s the price?
I’ll take it!
Glad you agree.
Would you run away with me?
What did you say?
I asked you if you would run away with me?
What do you mean? It’s 123 kroner.
Would you? Would you marry me?
I think you’ve had a few too many.
So what if I have?
Just enter your pin and press OK would you?
You got a name or I should I call you the bar girl?
Fancy that. Where you from xxxxxx
You want the receipt?
Thanks, but no thanks. So where you from?
Why do you want to know?
Why do I want to know? Cos it’s interesting.
What is it to you?
Never mind, bar girl. Just gimme the whiskey, I mean whisky.
And so its back to the table, an expensive brand of Japanese whisky the better and another failed attempted at making an acquaintance. Shame, but that’s how it goes round these parts. She could have been the prettiest of the lot.
The dust generally drove most visitors round the bend that represented the edge of their patience. He, on the other hand, had no choice but to get used to it. The way it would snuggle into every corner of his body, every crack of his skin. In his shoes and deep into his nostrils, in his mouth and in his piss. At times he would sit there looking out over the red desert and wonder what had pushed them to purchase the damn rock. Then that one great star would disappear gradually over the horizon adding to the redness of the atmosphere and he’d be reminded of why they had made the bold decision. To move to the distant place and risk their life savings on such risky an escapade.
He had been a boarder control officer by trade and worked the long shifts, but years of rubber stamping had given birth within him to a yearning for adventure. A craving which had also started to manifest itself in the woman he was at times proud to call his wife. Together they had made the move. Purchasing the rock at auction. Coming away from it with a certain satisfaction and the feeling of having purchased a bargain. It had boiled down to those three last desperate bidders. The rest had pulled out long before, as more and more details of the lot were made public. The whispers and murmurs spreading like wild grasshoppers throughout the auction house. A quick bid here, a counter bid there. It hadn’t taken the auction master long to utter the famous words. And at the last second, they had looked each other in the eyes and agreed that they would go for it. So he held up his index finger to the auctioneer as if apologetically wanting to ask a question.
“Going, Going, Gone to the gentleman sat at the back of the room with the beautiful looking lady. And congratulations to you both on your purchase.”
A few smiled sympathetically and even fewer applauded as the skinny pale young man and his pregnant wife ecstatically made their way to the collection room where they would hand over their life savings in return for the keys to their very own planet.
His wife had given birth on the rock. Their daughter Servizia, was the first two-legged being to have been delivered on the rock for over two thousand years. It had happened without too many difficulties. Her, lying on her back in bed. Him, with the instruction manuals at hand and the help-line on the intercom, talking them calmly through every step. Four and a half years later, they were still there. His daughter, who’s name he secretly detested, had begun to talk and draw. She was showing increasing interest for everything that lay outside the confining walls of the survival capsule they spent most of their waking hours in. At times he would take her out, and together they would explore the rock. He looked forward to the day when they might go for longer walks, then he would be able to show her everything he had ever learned about the place and the people and civilisations that had once populated the planet. Why is it called the rock, she had once asked him. Just take a good look around, had been his answer.
The rock, known as Krapabom 52, was an arid and deserted place. The only blue and green tourists ever saw, was in the coloured postcards his wife would paint depicting the ancient planet as it had once been. The present picture was quite a different one. The sandy deserts that spread from pole to pole had in fact given a drastically dull copper-like colour to the place.
In the beginning they had had to earn their living by exchanging life supporting devices and a little nitrogen in exchange for their questionable services. Now they were quietly optimistic that they would soon be in the position to purchase a couple of slaves for themselves. Secretly he wondered if he might go for a short one, but he knew the choice would only serve to enrage his wife.
They made a decent living. He organised the guided tours and she the cupcakes. It earned them just about enough money. A bargain here, an exchange of goods there. There was always enough to eat, and visitors had been picking up in number recently. Inter-space tourism was in full swing and with little or no low season it looked like they were in with a good chance of actually making it a pretty good year.
Words had never meant much to him, but there was one that held within it everything he longed for. The word was Archaeology. Archeologist was a close second. He admired the complexity the letters added to the meaning of the word. He was indeed an archeologist, if only an amateur, but still a proud one at best. He dug up old stuff and gave it a meaning. The word archeologist just made it all sound that more grandiose and purposeful. Of course few ever referred to him as such, but he always made it a point to mention it at any given chance.
The strategic positioning of the rock along one of the inner galactic routes was what had pushed them to go for broke and purchase the place. It would work as a resting station for traveling galactic tourists. Where visitors could combine a stretch of the legs with a convenient guided tour of that lost pearl. He had read everything he could get his hands on prior to their move to the rock. Their storage room was packed with unread material that he would scrounge through different times a week looking for hints and tales of the old times. Occasionally he would have the odd journal sent to him. Delivered in paper format like they had done on the rock all that time ago. He would wait for them for weeks, and when they arrived he would spend the first few days sitting by himself, reading aloud at night. And every so often he would rest his eyes and look over the red flats, watching the purple coloured sun vanish over the horizon and he would feel alright.
A type-C ship was scheduled to stop off for a short stay before buzzing off into the nothingness of space again. It was due in later that afternoon. Until lunchtime he sat, his daughter Servizia playing peacefully with her stones, his wife lost somewhere in the remote rooms of the centre. He sat at his desk reading some of his precious journals, making pointless notes in the margins. In the distance, miles out to west from the breathtaking view of his window, lay the ruins. Stretching in all directions for thousands of countless miles. The decomposing skeletons of the ancient buildings and structures built by the old civilisations. It was a never-ending playground of adventure and the more he spent out there the gladder he was that they had taken the risk and gone all out on the rock.
Sipping at his tea he felt the powerful force of the reverse thrust firing away just down the road as the HMS Magellana made for the docking station. It was time to get to work.
‘And do mind your step,’ he started with a soft but determined voice as the party of 423 visitors made their way slowly down the crumbling concrete step-like structure that surrounded them. The ship’s log would show that all on board, but Lady Chantaral, had made it down to the docking bay on time. After having suffered a severe case of space jelly-belly she made the wise decision to spend some quality lone time within the safe and comforting vicinity of her WC on board.
The scheduled visit to the architectural wonder was to last no longer than fifteen minutes. A few moments penciled in for some quick photographs and the chance to purchase some locally mined souvenirs and then back up into orbit and off towards their next destination.
The 11 am tour of the archeological excavations started like it always did. His overworked introductory speech by the entrance, and the steep walk into one of the structures believed to have been built over twenty-two centuries earlier. A few of the oversized visitors whispered, fascinated, into their intercoms.
‘It definitely is quite fascinating,’ he insisted on re-iterating. The structure was over two hundred metres wide at the base, about one hundred and ten metres high by eighty metres deep.
‘You will notice the angular configuration at the centre just there. Believed to have been of a broader rectangular shape at the time. The strong protruding ninety degree angles are in stark contrast to the round smooth edges of the outer side of the structure. Forty-two different entrances and one hundred and eighteen different gates all leading into the first, second and third rings. It is believed to have housed up to a hundred thousand pilgrims at any one time. The social cast of society being vividly segregated. The richest and most influential citizens sitting low down towards the rectangle and the lower casts standing high up above the altar.’
‘Looking up and behind yourselves you will notice a protruding grey structure towards the top, just over there,’ he said pointing into the distance.
‘That is believed to be part of the supporting structure of what experts agree was a retracting roof, designed to cover this side of the stands. However, a rather interesting study shows that the central rectangle, where the altar is believed to have once stood, could not have been covered by the same roof. This has led researchers to conclude that although individuals attending the ceremonies might have been protected from the mighty burn of the star in the sky, the centre of the structure was exposed at all times to the great fireball. A fun fact to take back home with you is that if any of you were to take off your protective suits, it would take less than thirty-seconds for your skin to be digested under the impressive force of the damaging rays, and even less than that for your insides to implode because of the extremely low pressure.’
‘Did they also wear similar survival suits?’ someone called out to him from somewhere within the crowd. Questions were always well accepted, although they tended to throw him off course. He had only fifteen minutes before they would all disappear into space again. Quietly he wished they would keep their questions until the tour was over.
‘They didn’t, no. As a matter of fact studies suggest that at the time, the star was as much as one hundred and fifty times weaker than it is now. A lot has to do with the thinning of the rock’s atmosphere. So, no. They would probably have been free to enjoy the festivities of the temple in the freedom of their naked bodies.’
‘Naked bodies,’ someone rather young giggled from the back of the crowd.
‘Absolutely,’ he pressed on, ‘it might be hard to believe, but no evidence has yet been discovered to suggest otherwise. As far as we know, they would have been standing there just like you are at the moment, butt naked to the skin, rejoicing in the glory of the moment and making one with it all.’
‘So when you say ceremonies, what is it you’re talking about?’ some jackpot asked nearly losing his balance and coming close to falling off the highest edge of the structure and to a certain death below.
‘Well, I’m glad you asked,’ he went on, feeling like the question session had begun to turn into an unwelcome interview.
‘The open-aired nature of the construction you see around you clearly points to the fact that the structure was in fact dedicated to some deity. A deity that was venerated on a regular basis, as much as once a month or even as much as once a week.’
‘Some artifacts also point to events taking place every fourth year. Where great conglomerations of monks would travel from all over the rock to join in festivity and pay homage to the deity or indeed deities.’
‘How d’you know so much about all this?’ some macabrely over-weight specimen of a youngster asked in between breaths. ‘How d’you know they met up every other day or every other whatever? It’s stupid!’
‘Sounds like a lot of crap to me!’ someone else added looking down to their watch.
‘Artifacts,’ the guide was quick to point out. ‘It’s all in the artifacts. You see, when we first came across the structure we found some rather large oval shaped cups made of a local alloy. On these objects we found engravings, which experts have deciphered as referring to dates on which specific events took place. Hence the fact that we have been able to establish not only that gatherings certainly took place, but that they did so at regular intervals.’
The rock’s gravitational pull was starting to have its effect on the over strained, under exercised foreign guests. The imposing weight of their survival suits only added to the stress their weak limbs were being subjected to. A good lot of them had already started to find spots to sit although they had been explicitly advised not to on account of possibly ripping their suits on some jagged edge and having their brains sucked out of their backsides due to the sudden change in pressure. The heat of the star was also starting to penetrate into the thin remaining atmosphere as it moved towards its highest point in the sky. Another hour and temperatures would rise to an insufferable eighty degrees Celsius. Here and there the first sweat droplets appeared on the inside of their helmet screens. There wasn’t long left to the visit. Just a few more insufferable moments, before they would be allowed back onto the comfort of their ship and the conditioned environment awaiting them there.
‘And what is it they did at these events then? They didn’t just stand around all day with no clothes on, did they?’
‘The meaning of these gatherings remains a mystery to this day. I won’t hide the fact that we have a few of our own theories. By us I mean, we archeologists.’ Of course it was only him, but it served to use the plural.
‘But they are nothing more than theories. We are currently overseeing some excavations about twelve miles south of here on a similar building and, fingers crossed, we should be able to come up with something a little more concrete on which to hopefully build some more theories. It looks like there are far more of these holy structures hidden around the place than first expected. And now, before our time’s up, if some of you would like to take some pictures, I would suggest the northern side just over there, where the light is best at this time of day. And don’t forget to have a quick peek at the souvenir shop just before the docking bay. We’ve got some beautiful hand carved ornaments, and memorabilia. We take all manner of credit payments as well as blood transfusions and semen donations.’
‘Listen fella,’ one of the visitors spoke to him, resting his hand on his shoulder for some support for his tiring legs.
‘I’d be interested in hearing some of these theories of yours. You know, I do my own reading now and then. It’s a hobby, nothing more than that. I’m half way through planning to write a book on the subject as a matter of fact. I just can’t seem to find myself a decent title to get me started.’
‘Ye,’ cried someone else, ‘let’s hear some of your stories!’
‘Ahh sir,’ he called out to a visitor dangerously flirting with a steep drop,
‘You might find the concrete is a little weak in some spots. Might I ask you all to make your way a little further down for your own safety. Only about fourteen months ago we lost a few members of a visiting party off that slab. It nearly closed us down for good. If you wouldn’t mind,’ he asked again giggling nervously.
‘Now, about my theories. Well, it gets quite interesting. So far, we’ve excavated and archived up in the region of a hundred alloy trophies, and discovered about half a dozen similar but much smaller structures in a ten mile radius. As I mentioned, we estimate that number to be considerably higher, but only time will tell. As for the ones we have discovered so far, they all seem to hold true to that one common architectural notion.’
‘And that is?’ the gentleman who had rested his hand on the guide’s shoulder asked.
‘The notion that the standing crowd should surround the centre altar, which in most cases is unequivocally of a rectangular shape.’
‘Yes, alright, but what is it that went on at these events. Come on man, we haven’t got much time left. Out with it already.’
‘Well one of our most controversial theories is based on some research we’ve done on the location of the structures.’ He rather preferred the term temple but was weary of using it other than in some of his essays on the subject.
‘The six we’ve so far discovered, we have been able to align, without a shadow of a doubt, to a stellar chart of the stars which are most visible at night from this hemisphere of the rock. The results were a major breakthrough in our studies on the matter. We believe that the buildings, as well as the ones we have still to discover, have been placed all around the rock with the intention of mirroring the most important constellations visible in the skies at night. By doing so, we believe it was their intention to communicate to the deities. A manner of saying, we see you and here we are. A unique tribute to their gods.’
‘I don’t get it,’ an elderly man said before risking his own safety by sitting dangerously close to an ancient cigarette that was still mysteriously alight.
‘Well, it’s quite simple. Looking up at the sky at night one can clearly distinguish a number of different constellations. At the time, these were interpreted to be messages from the gods. So in tribute to them, the people of the rock built these temples to mimic the same patterns of the constellations. A spiritual handshake, as it was so beautifully put in my latest book on the matter which incidentally is for sale in the souvenir shop.’
‘Incredible,’ someone spoke from the distance.
‘Sure is,’ someone else agreed.
‘And now ladies and gentleman, if you wouldn’t mind following me, we’ll be making our way back towards the docking station.’
And so they began to move perilously towards the concrete stairway they had risked their lives to climb just minutes earlier. They were already looking forward to another meal, a relaxing month of sleep and their next destination. The rock had proved for many to be exactly what it had said on the brochure. “A stop over on a rock”. Nothing more exciting than that. Some purchased a brick here and a broach there. A few were more than happy to pay for their products by semen donation. And just as the last of the visitors made their way up the ramp and back up to the safety of the unknown, a young figure walked confidently up to him. A skinny young chap, even in the breadth of his survival suit, with a curiously round face, dark round glasses and a peculiar frozen look of apathy on his sick looking face.
‘I beg your forgiveness for the misleading question,’ the young boy started, ‘but my father you see, is Professor Zonkenhorn Matilde of Partage II. You will no doubt have heard of him as you so graciously referred to yourself as an enthusiastic archeologist.’
‘I’m not sure I’ve ever…’
‘Well, my father is very adamant that all this talk of temples and deities is, well, to put it rather bluntly, a load of old space rubbish.’
‘Is that so?’ he answered, not knowing whether to feel embarrassed or annoyed at the spiteful sick-looking young man.
‘He claims it is down to a game they played back then. These so called structures, were actually referred to as Stadia and the game they played was known as the Bola. And people came to the stadia to drink. And they drank themselves blind wild on all manner of mind-altering drinks and groped at each other’s wives whilst they sang, and they spat and cried and watched two teams of grown men fighting for their lives in pursuit of the Bola and the ultimate prize. The honour bestowed upon the best of the best, the honour to impregnate the rock’s most beautiful women. This was incidentally arranged every fourth year as you correctly pointed out.’
A dim silence fell throughout the landing bay and among the fading crowd of departing visitors. Embarrassed, still enthusiastic yet unprepared, he managed only a few words.
‘Well that is an interesting theory. I’ll give it to you young man. However, it is my belief that we owe it to our ancestors to give them the benefit of the doubt. It would be foolish and short sighted of us to condemn them as simple female groping, mind-inducing-drink addicts and obsessive ball chasing beings. Surely they deserve more respect than that. Just look around. Is this not the setting for something quite holy?’
The young boy looked up to him unimpressed. He was quickly brushed aside as he made his closing remarks to the visitors.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for taking the time to visit our precious little rock and I wish you a pleasant journey here on forth. Good travels to you all.’
An unimpressed applause followed, and they were all on their way.
Later that evening, when the ship had long left, he walked down into the dungeons of his survival hub, to where he kept the most precious of artefacts they had so painstakingly excavated over the years. He dialled the code to the vault and allowed the computer to take a DNA sample which the robotic hand obtained by scratching gently at the skin on his elbow. He hadn’t been down there for some time, but the encounter with the young man earlier that day had prompted him to do so. The door to the vault swung open, the lights came on one after the other. He stood there in peaceful silence, admiring his most sacred and best kept secret. The black and white remains of what he considered to be the original ball. The object, that he believed, had for centuries been the centrepiece of a culture he so admired. The key to explaining the construction, on continental scale, of uncountable stadia of all sizes and shapes. The temples to which thousands flocked on a weekly basis. Blasphemy, he thought to himself, that it should all boil down to such a small deceiving object. He had for sometime sedated his inner desire to take a good wack at it. A deeply felt kick at the damn object.
For lack of a better term, he had begun to refer to it in some of his written essays as “the football”.
I was never in the unfortunate habit of hosting people I am not fond of, least of all my my long detested step-sister Esther. A blood-sucking, miserable forty-seven year old scoundrel of a woman, whose daily abuse of cigarettes and alcohol had aged her beyond any considerable level of acceptance. Her ugliness was a matter of constant scrutiny and jokes at my Tuesday night backgammon club.
Her physical characteristics were as disagreeable as he personality. Her two long arms hung down heavily by the side of her hips, which themselves gave way to two lanky twangling legs that ended in two oversized feet which she always saw to squeeze into tediously high heels. Whenever she wasn’t puffing at her cigarettes she would always rely on a fresh gin and tonic to keep her company. Her six foot six lanky husband Roland, could and only would be too happy to acquiesce with all her abusing indulgences and would normally roll along with her like a hopeless log lost at sea.
I had avoided the best part of any form of communication with the despicable pair for over a decade, and was only forced into such an unnatural set of circumstances because of the poor condition my late mother, Lady Theresa of Pocking Point Twizzle, found herself in at the time. A strict, tall, pencil-chewing, husband-munching woman who had, through all manner of strategic moves and back bench lobbying, amassed a fortune compromised of over two million pounds in cash and three estates. All in all it was estimated to be worth in the region of ten million pounds sterling, to be shared equally between myself and my step-sister upon my mother’s most certain and imminent death.
The misty fog and the dampness were the first signs that summer was about to leave us again. Autumn was just behind the hills, lurking and hoping to catch us out in the rain, should we ever chose to venture out into the light of day. It came to me as most things do, on a silver tray:
Mother dying STOP Not long left STOP Must talk ASAP STOP 7.30 train to Trunthion on Wed STOP Esther STOP
Sipping at my Uruguayan calabash filled with the life-enhancing bitterness of the mate tea, and pulling at my finely rolled Turkish cigarettes, I finished reading the telegram before laying it on the coffee table before me and taking a moment to look out across the sea in the distance.
The good times could not last, I was well aware of the fact. Mother was indeed over a hundred and sixty years old and could not possibly hope to push on forever. What itched, on the other hand, was the imminent arrival of my worst nightmare, Esther and that wreck of a trollop of her husband. A financial hiccup, slash recovering alcoholics anonymous drop out. A notorious gold digger and divorcee to three different women already. The one and only, Count Roland Tellerhead Thompson. A scoundrel of a man who was well known to have married some of the ugliest women known to society in all of southern Brebenshire. He was known among the Backgammon circle as the Grim Reaper. Although he always seemed to pick the ugliest ones, he walked out of every other failed relationship a considerable amount the richer. All in all, quite an amiable chap. One had to give it to him after all.
It was a chilly Monday morning, or perhaps afternoon. I beg to differ, alas not always being able to tell the difference after my morning sherries. The sailing boats floated calmly in the sea but a stone throw away from our seaside cottage. None but for a chirpy pair of swans and their little ones had dared venture out into the drizzling rain. The dumfounded handyman’s son across the bay was desperately trying to get them off his newly laid turf. I puffed pleasantly at my cigarette, watching as the mother swan opened her wings and fought back, protecting her young with pride. My money was on her. The poor dope of a young man eventually gave in. I poured myself another calabash of tea. I had only the Tuesday night games to look forward to before they all descended upon me. It all felt so uncalled for.
That afternoon, inspired by all the news and perhaps the weather I composed a poem. I read it to my wife Lilac at dinner. Her response was rather quaint. It went something like this.
Sitting at the window
the sky wimping down at me
I watched a family of swans
floating gently across the sea.
I watched them land
on the patch of grass across the bay.
the place where Tucker had laid his turf
fresh green grass, just the other day.
Tucker’s son, spade in hand,
and brighter brains than none,
tried to scare the birds away,
but they were in no mood to obey.
The brave swans refused to leave
and fought back with pride.
The one message they would convey
Was that they were there to stay.
Lilac was quick to point out that it was an averagely composed poem. She could not possibly understand. After all she was the daughter of a long line of civil engineers. Art and poetry were as meaningful to her as Tucker’s son was to the swans, a waste of space. My poem would just have to wait for a more perceptive audience to please.
I never did make it down to my Tuesday night distractions. I tricked myself into believing that I might be able to escape the oncoming reality for another twenty-four hours before they came thrashing down on me with their demands and advice.
She made her entry, like she always had. Just like last time, over ten years earlier when she’d come off a ship from New York bound for god knows where. She came in loudly, smiling and kissing, friends like always, like she’d never left. Her spineless husband pacing solemnly behind her, one long floppy step after the other. You could have driven him over with a car and he wouldn’t have broken a bone. There wasn’t a single one in him.
“Hello, hello, hello, kisses, oh dear kisses.”
“It’s been so long, and you still haven’t gotten rid of those awful curtains. And the typewriter, you still write? How childish of you boy.”
“Oh yes. Gerard’s always writing. He composed a lovely poem just the other day. Didn’t rhyme awfully well, but was rather pleasant nonetheless. Something about Tucker’s son and some swans fighting by the sea.”
“I guess we’ll take the back room as per usual then.”
“Back room’s my studio darling. Updated some years back.”
“Well, in that case you’ll have to get Gurtrid in and have her make the beds in the front room at once. Roland is terribly fatigued after the coach drive down and could do with a siesta.”
“Gertrude’s dead darling. Swallowed by a water hog during a trip to the Bahamas.”
“Dinner’s served at six darling.”
“We’ll be ready at six thirty, not any earlier I’m afraid.”
So it was that the depressing hurricane of Esther and her spongy husband took over our living space once again. My night of gentlemanly talk and gambling at the backgammon club vanishing before my eyes. Dinner got under way at one minute after half past six.
“Such a shame to meet under such deplorable circumstances. It’s a awful pitty mother got her self ill and all.”
“So how have you been keeping darling? Some more gravy?”
“No thank you darling, quite well actually. Roland has been investing in wine. Just the other year we took over a considerable plot of land in the Pipperham valley. The vinery is a dump, but with some luck and a little tad more funding, one might hope to see it out.”
“And how much of an investment are we talking here? How much you thrown down the hooter this time Roland?”
“Don’t go letting him intimidate you darling. He’s a pushy one. It’s in the region of half a million.”
Coughing on my burgundy and trying to hold me eyeballs from popping out of my sockets.
“The potatoes a bit dry darling? I always use an extra lump of butter you know, keeps the flies from bluffing up your nostrils. Isn’t it darling? Roland, are you following dear?”
“Million! Half a million? And how much you reckon will help save this little project of yours, or should I call it the Titanic?”
“You’re always welcome to join our new venture darling. And it’s not small by any means. Roland reckons that once the roots catch we’ll be pouring out the wine by the bucket load. Isn’t it darling?”
“A drolop dollo. Uhh? Ohh yes. Of course. By the bucket load. More gravy anyone diddly dop?”
“Enough of that, let us eat.”
Thankfully we did just that, interrupted only by the occasional trollop and bobble the dop of Roland’s undecipherable comments of drunken stupor.
I took him for a hundred and thirty pound at the backgammon game that night. Put back a few sherries in the process before it was time for bed again.
Breakfast the very next day went very much as expected. A curious mixture of petty talk, itchy arses and family economics.
“Roland, good morning. I hope you two weren’t up too long last night.”
“Ohh, tollopo bobble, yes. Quite. Ohh not too long a doddle doo.” His red nose was starting to get in the way of his alcoholic breath yet again.
“He played valiantly.”
“Did he so?”
“Ohh ye, a doobidy doo.”
And so we sat quietly, as we poached our way through scrambled eggs and salmon, freshly baked bread and cottage cheese, rhubarb tart and freshly brewed Puerto Rican coffee. The most outrageous ones sliced some bananas and had them on buttered bread slices. In the best silence I could master, I sat back into my chair, lit a cigarette and gave way to the proceedings.
“Well it all seems quite simple to me. Split it two ways down the middle. We’ll keep the estates and use the rent from the Tontie Manor and Cabagepatch House to pay off the remaining mortgage on the house. The money in the bank shouldn’t be an issue if we have it transferred over before the paperwork at the bank is signed. The government bonds might take a while longer. Of course we might have to sit on the cash for a while before splitting it. Keep the tax man guessing a while. It’s always a bit of a nonsense with death certificates. An extra few weeks should do it.”
“Sounds reasonable to me Gerrard.”
“Thank you. Of course it does. Your sincere simple mindedness has always pleased me darling.”
“Now there might be an issue with time there. Isn’t it Roland?”
“Well with all the vineyard and the season not having picked up and all, Roland and I were hoping to raise some money rather sharpish. Just enough to give the business a decent injection of liquidity. So having said that I think we should relinquish the house at once. Sell it back to the bank, and take the cash.”
“But it’s your family home, where your mother was born and her mother before her. It’s where you all grew up, all those memories. And you just want to sell it off like that, you should know better Esther. Your mother brought you up better than that.”
“Just leave it to me darling, no need to get hot and rushy. The sweats never helped anyone. We’re not touching the house. It’s decided. You and trobble de toff will just have to wait. And if that means your little French venture running into the ground, well then be it. Patience and a sound vision are paramount at a time like this. More coffee?”
“How dare you, I say. Roland and I have put all we had into the vineyard, it’s only natural that we should do everything in our means to safeguard our investment.”
“You call a half a million an investment? I call it a scam.”
“How dare you. Darling will you please say something!”
“A dibbly-do, I think I will, thank you, don’t mind if I do a do.”
“I think we should have a talk, just the two of us.”
“I agree. So be it. Darling, show Roland around the garden will you.”
With that they left the room and moved onto the veranda, the drizzling rain keeping them from venturing onto the lawn.
“How dare you put my husband on the spot like that. After all the work we’ve put into this new venture of ours. Not after everything we’ve been through. Not after everything you’ve put me through. You and the gambling, the women, the booze. Do you know how hard I had to work to get Roland back on the righteous road after that period you and him spent down south?”
“If you’re talking about that three week drunken bender he had with that Russian trapeze artists and her one-legged assistant, I had nothing to do with it, I merely watched from a safe distance.”
“Too right you did. I’ve heard all about that little escapade of yours. You and your so called Tuesday night games. I wonder how Lilac would like to hear what you really all get up to on your gentlemen’s nights out? I rather wonder what her face might look like when she finds out the vicar’s daughter is also, shall we call her, a zealous frequenter of your so called club?”
“Now she one hell of a backgammon player, I’ll tell you so much.”
“Enough with the ballamy. We’ll sell the house. I’ve already had the paperwork written up and I’ve made an appointment with the solicitor for Friday next.”
“How very organised of you. Did your husband help you with the preparations?”
“There’s the dotted line if you care. Now you’ll sign there or Lilac gets the whole troddle, and trust me, she won’t like it one bit.”
“Really Esther, I didn’t think you had it in you,” I said calmly as I signed my name across the line. “You really know how to corner a man. That husband of yours must be awfully proud of you.”
“Well, how about we take the boat out for a spin, to celebrate. Toast to this new venture of yours and to the crumbling of everything which represents our childhood family memories? I just can’t help thinking all this calls for a celebration of some sort. The weather seems to be opening. Should be just right for the boat and some water skiing. What do you think darling? You’ve always had a knack for the sport. You may as well go with a bang. It’s your day after all. I’ll call Maxwell at once, have him set the boat and skis. We’ll have Greta make some sandwiches for the boat trip. Rendez-vous in two hours. Just enough time to wake your husband from whatever comatose drunken sleep he’s got himself into this time.”
I kept a light stomach on accounts of what I had planned for later that afternoon. Just a few glasses of red wine were enough to keep my engine running. We all met by the quay at a quarter to one. The witch wore her usual repulsive look as we all boarded the twelve foot speed boat.
“What a perfect day for a swizzle.”
“One might say. Looked like it might pour.”
“Can’t wait to have a try. Must be years since I last did.”
“Like riding a bike darling.”
“Life jacket dear?”
“No need for it darling. Never have used one. Can’t stand the way orange looks on me. Call me a trollop.”
“Will do darling.”
“That’s my girl, bring it in nice and smooth at the end and we’ll be there to pick you up with the boat in no time.”
“A diddly do da. I think you might want to a tripply usa a do a life jacket darling. It’s a little choppy out there a bobbly doo.”
“Darling, the girl knows what she’s doing. That’s right, let her get on with it.”
And so she jumped into the water. I wish I might have puffed on a cigarette but I’d forgotten my case by the shed in all the hurry.
“I won’t be a twiddle darling. Back in a flassidy flash.”
“Passing you the skis darling, this one first, there you go.”
I held the first ski down the side of boat and into the water for her, then pulled at the straps to latch it round her foot and ankle.
“That’s right darling, nice and tight. Don’t want to go losing a ski whilst you’re flying across the water. Let us know when you’re ready for the tug.”
“Awfully heavy aren’t they.”
“Just the way they are darling, hold in there.”
I held out the second ski, the waves splashing up against my perfectly dry suit nearly causing me to drop the thing dangerously close to her head. When all was set I revved the engine and pushed on a little. Couldn’t have been too long I guess. A few seconds before she started to complain, not that I heard anything.
“Darling, they feel awfully heavy on the legs. Wait! I can’t seem to…”
“I, trobble de do da, she might be struggling a do da.”
“Darling turn the boat will you, she looks like she might be going under.”
“Oh dear she is to. These modern boats. I still can’t get the hack of the steering wheel. Won’t be a second darling.”
The weight of the skies pulled her skinny frame down to the bottom of the ocean. She pulled incessantly at the latches in a desperate attempt to release their grip from her ankles but to little avail. We were quite far out at sea, they’d never find her.
“Darling, hold out to my hand.”
Her eyes pierced the surface of the water one last time and I think she called out to us.
“I’m so sorry darling. Wish I’d know what to do.”
“Bloody trippoly, she’s gone down like an Italian salami dolop lee do.”
“Sure sinking fast. You ought to jump in Roland.”
“Roland, for the love of money, do something.”
“A tripoli, do dee, I can’t swim, I don’t know how to a doo.”
It was a silent trip back home. Just the sounds of the boat splashing against the surface of the glassy sea beneath us. The sherry did Roland the world of good. Steadied the man like a ruler.
“My goodness, that was awful.”
I went to sit at the bottom of the garden. Having retrieved my case, I lit a cigarette and placed it back into my inner coat pocket.
“Jolly good day sir.”
“Sure is Maxwell, have a seat.”
“Might cut the grass in the morning sir. The hedge could do with a trim too. How did the skis work out sir? Hope I didn’t hurry the job. I found the lead from an old scrap yard about a mile up the road. The rest was quite easy. Great uncle Stan was a welder. Picked it up as a kid. Only took about forty-five minutes.”
“Worked a real treat son. You’re wasted as a garden boy.”
“It’s where I’m most at home sir. The green grass just calms me soul down.”
“Don’t mind if I do sir.”
“Tell me Maxwell, do you play backgammon?”
The day came when he woke up to another misery. Day for another hopeless job interview, and an attempt at a step up the ladder that led to the edge of the cliff they were seemingly all bound for. Holding his love handles in his hands he looked at his sagging figure and bald head in the mirror. It needed a clean, he thought to himself. His bed, incidentally, was also a fucking disgrace, but he ignored it with a persevering audacity. Standing there frozen. The fresh smell of morning armpits making its way into the air before his nostrils. Where had his youth gone, he wondered.
It hit him like a bat across the groin that morning. Watching his widening body grow like that had put him in the wrong mood. Setting him up for the rest of his life.
Sitting down hunching over, he struggled to reach the laces to his black polished shoes. As he tied the top button on his shirt he felt the pulse hitting his collar and he puffed. Already out of breath. He wondered whether he was just imagining things. When was the last time he’d played football? When the last time he’d played with anything, including himself?
He skipped breakfast that day. He would do so again and again from then onwards. The lonely walk down the corridor and down twenty-eight hundred flights of steps. Him and the rest of them. Standing there in the rain, the buses driving by, every quarter of a century, and if you had enough body mass, will power and dislike for the rest of human civilisation, then you might just be able to trample your way over the rest of them and get a ride.
The interview went well.
‘You were the only person that applied!’ they were more than happy to inform him as they shook hands towards ten o’clock. ‘Can you start next week?’
He would start on Monday whether he liked it or not. The weekend he would spend lying awake in bed for two days and two nights. Looking up to the ceiling wondering where he’d put all his dreams. Surely in some drawer somewhere, but where?
He never would find out about that drawer, instead he ached his back into a chronic pain that was bound to last for decades. He allowed himself only the company of a few cans of cheap lager and some cold chips he found lying behind the sofa. Most of the fruit and veg in the fridge had started to sprout offsprings of their own. The weekend went like it always did, quick and painfully. Before he knew it he was stepping into the building, ready for his first day on the job.
He recognised them all from the bus stop in town. Until then, they had all just been part of the sea of dull faces accompanying him to and from some unknown place. Now he would have to get used to calling them colleagues. It worried him to think that he might have to talk to them, but he would postpone such unpleasantries as long as possible. Until then he would just have to avoid any form of eye contact. He knew he could not keep a conversation going for longer than four seconds. Anything longer tended to become rather painful very quickly.
His new best, worst friend welcomed him to his new life at the office. Slapping him on the back, John Rightcoal, showed him up to the open-planned floor and to his new desk. A dull piece of plywood hidden in the furthest corner of the office floor. For that he was thankful.
‘Right,’ John whispered in a semi excited tone, ‘get yourself tucked into that bad boy. I’ll go let the management know you’ve arrived.’ The bad boy was a can of dog food neatly placed at the centre of his desk. Next to it a plain looking plastic fork.
Bewildered, beyond any level he had experienced until then, he took to his new seat and handled the dog food can. Staring at it with canine curiosity, wondering what it was they were expecting him to do with it. Looking around for some form of help he made eye contact, ever so slightly, with a fellow a few years his elder across the small isle from him. The chap acknowledged him with a slight nod of the head, his mouth too full to utter anything resembling a word. He was busy, by the looks of it, eating out of his own can of processed dog meat, chipping at it patiently with his fork and stuffing his gob with it every few seconds. Bits of it fell onto his lap and onto the stained carpet floor around him. Another nod of encouragement from a second colleague sitting across from the previous one further seemed to aggravate his confusion. It was only when he spun a further 90 degrees to his right, and over his shoulder, to face the rest of the floor that he witnessed the madness. There before him, in the stench of dog food that hung like swinging dung, men and women of all ages were busy munching away at small cans of dog food like it was going out of fashion.
Feeling like he was being put up to something, perhaps even tested on his very first day, he decided, if only half heartedly to go along with it and reached for the fork. He pulled back at the lid of the tin can and dug the fork slowly into the juicy meat. The repulsive smell of it oozed its way to his nose before the fork had time to reach his mouth. The unfortunate result was a certain revulsion occurring between his mouth and his arse. He felt the vomit considering its future, hanging at the back of his throat. Unable to gag or be sick, he looked around for a sign. Someone to tell him it was all just a joke. That he’d passed the test, that they wouldn’t be firing him just yet. There was little or no sign of anything of the such happening.
Still surrounded by a feasting bunch of hooligans, he started to munch away at the dreadful food, fork after fork, fighting back each gag as it came. Trying to keep the portions to a minimum in order to reduce the time he would have to spend munching on it. Then, with swift gobbling movements, he’d force the stuff down and into his gut, trying not to think about it too long. Twenty-two minutes later he was finally able to sink back into his chair from where he admired the empty tin can. Only for a few seconds, before he chucked it, and the fork, into the bin with an action meant to disassociate himself from that awful act of self desecration.
‘Excellent,’ he heard one of the bald headed day managers call over his shoulder, as he too looked down to the dust bin and the empty can of dog food within. ‘Nice to see you took to it that fast. Normally takes folks a few sessions before they manage to put the whole thing back. Looks like you’ll fit right in. Now, if it’s not too much hassle, I’d like to show you the rest of the workplace, introduce you to some of your colleagues.’
The office surroundings were as grey and dull as the best of professional spaces are meant to be. As was the spine-chilling uniform, which his comic strip looking manager wore, along with the long black riding boots and whip, which he tapped gently against his outer leg as they moved on through. He fell in quietly behind as they walked across the open office floor. Colleagues of all shapes and contorted faces looking like they were busy in all sorts of mind boggling activities.
‘More about that later,’ the dictator looking figure of a manager explained.
‘Let’s get you acquainted with one of my favourite tasks. This is what gets me out of bed every morning. Keeps that healthy smile on my face,’ he explained with dubious enthusiasm.
The sense of having entered the body of an actor, and living out some kind of nightmare began to drown him. He felt it grip him by the hairs of his balls.
They walked into a dimly lit room where about a dozen young ladies lay, bent face down over the side of some desks. Their short skirts pulled high up and over their sides, revealing the pale sensuality of their perfectly shaped buttocks. The morning session was in full swing by the sounds of things. Six puffy, middle aged men with sweat pouring down their sides, and their ties loosened at the collar, were deep into whatever it was they were doing. The sound of slapping hands colliding with the sore back-sides of fresh, mid-twenty year old daisies. The girls, with masochistic endeavour, held on to the edges of the desks, hiccuping murmurs of pain and delight that occasionally bursted into bubble-like squeals of ecstasy. It begged the question whether it was the sounds of pleasure or torture he was hearing.
‘Get stuck in my boy,’ came the order with totalitarian punctuality.
‘What do you mean?’ he asked perplexed and slightly embarrassed.
‘Time to get stuck in boy. Take your place over here, behind this slapper over here and give her a good few slaps on the arse. Just like that,’ he concluded slamming his rough palm on the pink, pin-needling skin of his young colleague’s nether region.
‘Ahhh, I don’t think I want to sir, if I’m being totally honest.’
‘If I’m being honest,’ came the stiff reply. ‘I believe you signed up for this job out of your own good will. And, let us not forget, with the understanding that you would do everything that was asked and expected of you. Is that not the case?’
‘Yes, well, I wasn’t expecting to…’
‘Just get on with it already. Go show me what you made of. Go sell it boy!’
‘Sir, I don’t think I …’
‘Just do the bloody slapper already, came the scream. The voice echoing out into the corridor for everyone to hear.
What place was this, he wondered with worried feeling. Some kind of work based torture chamber?
‘There you go,’ the day manager, called out to him again.
‘Slap that cow alright! Straight on the arse. Do it boy!’
And so he did. Ashamed, yet committed, he complied, spurred on by the terrifying prospect of being sent home before his first day was over.
‘Christ on a bike,’ he heard himself calling out aloud in the mist of all the crying and slapping. He tapped the poor girl on the red raw buttock. Someone had already given her a good pounding by the look of it.
‘Harder boy. You ain’t going to get nothing done like that. Harder!’
He slapped her a little harder. Then a little harder. And harder again. Until the first murmurs of a squeal could be heard in the dark room. Still, the orders came like pelting rain, ‘Harder, I said harder!’
And so he did. Progressively harder, for the next half an hour. The sweat building up with sporting intensity under his armpits, neck, forehead and butt crack.
‘That’s the way boy,’ the day manager finally congratulated him, just when he thought he could not take a second longer. It was a straight, yet satisfied face the manger put on.
‘Good stuff. Wipe yourself off with this,’ he said throwing him a towel.
‘It’s time to let off some steam. Hang your jacket in the corner over there and follow me.’
When he’d finished drying the shame off his face, he followed the despicable short being across a white room littered with pale cemented columns reaching up to the ceiling. All around them, he noticed young, bare-chested, men hitting at the walls with their raw fists. The thumping sound of knuckles cracking as they did so.
‘I’ll be back in little less than hour to see how you’re getting on.’
He was left there to fend for himself. He tried to make some eye contact with a few of the guys but he was duly ignored. So then, prompted by a mysterious sense of lunacy, he too began to fist the wall with his bare hands. Slowly at first. The first few hits hurt, so he pulled his hands close up to his face as if it might help. The scenes of butt slapping from moments earlier flashed before his eyes. The humiliation he had caused not just himself but the poor girl still probably resting over the side of the desk, recovering from the hiding he had given her or perhaps succumbing to some other sadistic individual, began to overwhelm him. And as the sense of shame grew within, so did the hitting, which got progressively harder and harder until the initial pain was replaced by a calming sense of self punishment. By the time blood started to pour from his hands he felt it wasn’t only his fists that had gone numb. Something within him had also been affected.
‘Easy, easy boy.’ Were the words that interrupted the gory session.
‘Time for lunch, but first let’s get those hands of yours seen to, what’a you say?’
They gaffer taped his mouth and fed him his lunch through a straw. His hands they tied behind his back so that his fingers stretched under his buttocks. A similar faith was reserved for his ankles. He could taste the sweaty scent of salt as it dripped down his forehead, grooving along his eyebrows and threatening to end up in his eye. The silence of the eating hall. Only the sound of the high metal heels of a fine looking woman, with a distinctly captivating Scottish accent, in a black latex corset and mask, a thick red smile glossed across it. Her whip, she slapped gently, but enough to cause distress among some of the people present in the lunch room. All things considered, he wasn’t in the worst of shapes. There were colleagues hanging upside down off the ceiling, hanging their by their testicles and nipples. A few stood, shaking, on the tips of their toes. A pin having been pierced to their nimble, freezing penises, and tied to a rope that hung tightly from the ceiling. Others, with black eyes and gashing blood stains on their freshly ironed white shirts. And that silence, only the sipping of straws, the falling droplets of sweat, and the sensual whispers the dominating female figure spoke into the ears of a few fortunate ones.
He had little to say when the daily manager came by to ask how he was getting on later that afternoon. How long had they left them there, he wondered. It had felt like hours.
The day ended with a tour of the back offices and the accountancy department before he was shown into the mortgage section.
‘And I think we’ll call it a day here, I’ll leave you in the expert hands of our dear Lucille. Once she’s done with you, you can pretty much call it a day. We’ll kick off tomorrow morning where we left off today. Have a nice evening. Oh and Lucille, go easy on him, it’s his first day on the job,’ the day manager said, looking the young lady in the eye and tapping him on the shoulder on the way out.
Had she turned around and lifted her skirt, he might have recognised a few of his own hand prints still steaming hot on Lucille’s red buttocks. Her face was pretty enough, but it was nothing compared to her angelic backside. His attempt of a smile was met with a frozen stare. He wondered what it would feel like to get to know her, and then perhaps make her laugh. Maybe some day.
‘Step over here,’ she said without too much ceremony.
He stepped over to the side of the desk where his feet were placed into a lock mechanism below him. His hands, still tied behind his back started to lift behind him, pulled up by something, high enough for his upper body to propel forward and his arse outwards behind him.
‘Welcome to the company,’ he heard her utter, before the seven bells of heaven went off like a hurricane in a porcelain shop in his head.
When he felt like he could make sense of life again, he felt the second thump hit his testicles hard. Harder then he’d ever thought possible. Then the slap to the face. It stung with extra sensuality having been delivered by the girl of his dreams.
‘And now, if you wouldn’t mind, I want to hear you thank me,’ the pink faced Lucille commanded him, if ever so rather politely given the circumstances. ‘Let us not get into the bad habit of keeping the client waiting, young man. It’s company policy!’
Then another explosion of electric something between his legs as he felt his balls implode.
‘And now,’ she spoke again, ‘if you don’t mind, repeat after me, Thank you for your business.’
It took another six thumps to his groin bsefore he figured it might pay to do as she said. And so it continued until two minutes to five. The feeling in his thighs had all but gone, when he was suddenly relieved of his duty.
‘Thank you for your effort. Have a nice evening,’ he heard her cold, detached voice call to him as she left the room. He was left to squabble alone on the floor. What followed was the worst kind of headache. Like nothing he’d ever experienced before. Drilling at the inside of his head as he made the short walk out of the office building and down to the bus stop. His hands still paralysed after the battering they’d undergone. His testicles numb to the cold air that blew through his light cotton trousers. The frozen peas he was planning to use, once he got home, would do little to stop the swelling.
His thought process had been reduced to that of a swarming school of drunken bats, barely responding to the signals other two legged beings were sending him. Pushing him from side to side as he boarded the bus and sat his sorry arse on the first empty seat he found.
There she was, Lucille. Sitting across from him. Next to her, a fellow he recognised from the arse slapping session. Neither of them smiled or acknowledged him despite the fact they were in his direct line of sight. Looking at her, he took a moment to breathe in her beauty. What pleasure it had been to meet her, even if in such odd circumstances, he could not help but think.
Looking around he noticed a number of familiar faces from his first day at work. And what a first day it had been, he thought to himself. The pay wasn’t too bad after all. If he stuck it out, perhaps in a few years he might be able to find a place for himself and maybe meet a beautiful girl like Lucille. He might even find it in himself to ask her out sometime. And maybe she’d even smile to him. Then they might lie on the beach in the evening as the sun went down, and they would make love in the moonlight and…
His testicles ached as the bus rushed round a bend and hit a curb. His alarm clock would ring at 5:45 the next morning.
My tribute to Ugo Fantozzi.
All manner of demonic spells had been cast on his home and his family, and more importantly on his football team, or so he claimed. Such sorcery he sought to fight with all methods and routines, which were known to him and him alone. Routines and secret phrases, passed down from father to son, with the sole purpose of keeping the dark cloud of bad luck at a considerably safe distance, whilst allowing lady luck to engulf him and whatever else he and his family wished for in her warm and rich embrace.
They lived in a rather large tower condominium, one of three, very big and very ugly blocks. Stomped into the ground in the late 1950s and left there to grow old. A small two room apartment with a balcony that hung off the second floor. On a good day it overlooked the city in the distance to the east. To the south the hills and the occasional deserted football field. On the darkest of nights, if the game was on in town, he would look out of his window and over towards the city where the lights from the stadium were just about visible, shining in the glimmering light of the night pollution above the town. He would hold his ear towards the distant structure and listen out for the cries of suffering fans, whilst at all times keeping an eye to the TV and the scattered pictures it would project.
The cats, that his wife had collected over the years, had all been locked into the cupboard in the second bedroom as per usual. A room that was always kept immaculately clean and depressingly tidy in case any distant relative (or his eternal mourning mother in law) should call in unexpectedly and suddenly decide to spend the week. The cats, had long become accustomed to such weekly grievances, and they allowed themselves to be carried off quite happily, where they were dumped into the darkness of the bedroom cupboard. Old woolen jumpers turned out to make the comfiest of cushions. And with the safe notion that they would eventually be let out once the game and the screeching from the TV room was over, they napped, peacefully and without complaint.
The flag which ordinarily lived on the wall in the kitchen by the spice cabinet would be placed well in view of the rest of the neighbourhood, and hung off the side of their small balcony with muffled pride. The many neighbours, who considered his team affiliations a treason towards the local working class roots, would make it known to him, and during the hours leading up to the game, they would whistle and call out horrible insults to the extent that his wife would shed a quiet tear now and then. Such was the addiction which affected them all. Not a town, or a city, or a region, or religion, or class, but a whole nation. The young, dead and mourning. Alas not the women. Although the youngest of girls were encouraged to join in the madness, until they too, grew up and found interest in other more stimulating matters.
Once the flag was set up, and the insults had started to flow upwards from the streets below, he would start his weekly ritual. The twelve purple candles, that he would have blessed by the local priest on a weekly basis he would light and place around the TV, precisely one hour prior to the game. A second flag would also hang around the box as if to keep the sacred object warm and safe from unwanted interferences. The water for the pasta was to be on the boil exactly twenty-five minutes before the start of the game, which unless stated otherwise, would commence at 20:45. His wife would then begin the rather simple task of preparing his dinner, which was to be served the second the kick-off whistle blew in the referee’s mouth. Football night called for one dish and one dish only, Tonto Tuna pasta. Spaghetti in a creamy onion and tuna sauce, generously sprinkled with salt, pepper and parmesan cheese. A rather large piece of stale, unbuttered bread would accompany the plate as did the usual freezing cold bottle of beer which would eventually defrost around the 20th minute of the first half, just in time for him to let out the first of a number of thunderous burps. These would conveniently be substituted by a selection of rumbling farts about two-thirds through the second half. And it would work out just fine if his team hadn’t scored yet. But heaven forbid should his team score before the beer was defrosted and pourable. Such rare happenings would send him into a rage, and he would scream out at his wife, who would do her best to avoid being punched in the side and somehow always found a way to serve him his beer unfrozen. She had, after all survived all kinds of misadventures, and had eventually resorted to hiding a second and third bottle in the fridge, against all rules set by the man of the house. It served him well either way.
Further rules and superstitions were as follows. The phone was routinely to be taken off the hook a full half hour before kickoff. Emergencies and other matters would just have to wait until after the game, and in the case of a win until the next morning. For he would venture out into the streets, merrily drunk and full of life. Walking off into the distance towards the football ground in the hope of meeting up with other victoriously cheering fans. Most of the time he would wake up the next morning lying in a gutter, with a black eye and his money missing. On lucky occasions he would make it home in one piece and end up sleeping on the sofa, reminiscing the game and the joys it had given him. Every living moment of his life was otherwise something he struggled to deal with, like so many others.
His dirty finger nails he clipped on game days, leaving only the last one on his left pinky to grow. Not only was it central to his superstition but it also allowed him to dig for wax nuggets deep into his ear. In a similar fashion he would clip away at his toe nails, struggling to pull his feet up close to his chest. Missing the dust bin most of the time, bits of toe nail would go flicking and flying all around the living room. She of course would have to wait until the next day before seeing to the cleaning up.
The salami, which he always purchased on the Saturday preceding match day from Gustavo, the local butcher and loyal supporter of the same footy club, was kept in the cold kitchen cupboard above the fridge. On match day Sundays he spent the mornings hanging the lucky sausages on the walls to the corridor which gave into the hallway, so that the living room was filled with the cozy smell of cured meats and the luck which they too brought to the event.
He wore his lucky number 7 shirt, the colours and jersey of the team which he had been a fan of since an early age. Originally belonging to the working class opposing team, he had been talked into supporting the rich man’s club by a wealthy uncle of his, who had since passed away and left him nothing in the sorts of an inheritance apart for the love of a team which was more than despised in his part of town. And as the insults, in the order of “You motherfucker,” and “You rich bastard,” continued to pour upwards towards his balcony, he sat at his stained red chair, the frozen bottle slowly defrosting on the side table, and his hands busy massaging the horn of a goat that his great, great grandfather Arsonzionato had captured decades earlier. The boat he had been traveling on at the time had crashed into the barren coast of Sardinia. As the sole survivor, he had had to live off the land for weeks. During those dark days he had hunted down the poor goat, killed it, skinned it and dined on it. For 42 days he survived, until some local farmers took him in and eventually posted him back home. The goat’s horn stood as a reminder for the luck it had brought his ancestor. The unfortunate animal’s horn had since been passed down through the family from father to son.
“How long for the pasta,” he would call out annoyed to his wife, who had by then reduced the cooking and timing of his dinners to a science.
“Not long my darling,” she would answer. And sure enough, minutes before the game was due to begin he would lift his heavy backside from the chair and walk over to the bookcase where he would turn the photo of his mother in law to face the wall. And he would do the, all so important, sign of the cross, three times, then look away in disgust. For in his mind, ugliness meant bad luck and there was no uglier face than that of the woman that had given birth to the horror which he had married. He would never forgive himself for that, but he loved her still. At times more than others.
The biggest, and most important of matches would occur twice a season, and on rare occasions, four times, when the city’s two rival teams would meet in the league and then again in the cup. And still he would insist, albeit warnings from the building’s committee not to do so, on hanging his flag from the balcony. And so would start the throwing of objects. Varying in all shapes and nuances. From the oldest and smelliest of eggs, to the largest and deadest of chickens and pigs’ heads. But it would do little to affect his firm enthusiasm.
During the ninety odd minutes it would take for the game to consume itself, his wife would sit, rather uncomfortably in the kitchen, with her side up against the wall, listening to the annoying sound of over zealous commentators in the background, flicking through magazines and occasionally turning a few pages of the erotic novel which she read in secret, and kept locked up with the brooms and cleaning equipment. He would on occasions get up to go to the toilet, but he insisted on leaving the door open, and she would not only have to listen to the dripping sound of a horse like-bladder release but describe to him the events unfolding on the screen, in addition to the commentary that was already doing its utter best to describe the events on the field. And lord forbid should someone score whilst he was in the toilet. For it had happened once. His team scored and he pounced out of the bathroom, his flyer and manhood still in view. His trousers dropping to his ankles, causing him to trip and hit his head hard on the side of the small glass table on which his frozen beer slowly defrosted. He was out for the quietest 20 minutes his wife could remember before regaining consciousness and pulling himself up to his loyal chair.
The one thing that time and patience had taught him was, that there wasn’t enough money in the world to buy his team enough victories to keep him happy long enough to forget how much he hated his life. The harsh reality being, that they lingered, year after year, in the lower tiers of the table. Dangerously hanging, on the verge of relegation. It had never happened in the history of the club. And yet he felt he was doomed, during his lifetime, to bear witness to such a tragic event. He knew it would come eventually.
Defeats came at the hands of all sorts of teams. From the strongest to the bravest and weakest. Such downfalls were regularly followed by increasingly dark periods of mourning that would last on average a full six and a half days, before the pre-match game rituals would start again. His wife Elvira, he would force to wear the traditionally dark black dresses of mourning. The head scarf to be worn at all times and to cover her face whenever leaving the house. And in the worst of circumstances, like in the case of defeats to their local rivals, he would call in sick at work and stay at home for the rest of the week. And she would have to go out shopping for groceries. And the neighbours would wonder. The bravest ones might dare to ask if everything was alright. The caretaker would raise the customary black curtain above the building’s entrance as per usual in cases of death in the family. And she could only but nod and try to avoid as many acquaintances as humanly possible.
Refusal or even the slightest sign of not complying to the six and a half days of mourning would result in semi-violent raptures of anger. During which he would pick up knives and then quickly swap them for more convenient bread sticks which he would smash across the kitchen bench. And he would hold his hands up as if he were going to beat the lights out of her, and instead he would howl and snarl and hold the hammer high up above his head and swing it down in between his legs. And the neighbours, four and a half blocks down the road, would hear the low growls as two or three times he would punish himself. She could only stand there and watch, as his pale face turned green and he eventually went to sit down on his chair where he would not move until either his sick leave was terminated or match day came again.
A turning point in the monotony of those miserable Sundays which she would spend seeing to her overzealous husband’s demands, was the day they came to install the cable television. The news had spread throughout the condominium months in advance and had initially been treated with the same suspicion reserved for a wolf in sheep’s clothing. However, the new technology soon won over many including his loyal wife. She had until the fatidic day, been forced to employ increasingly more rudimentary methods to make sure that the TV set had a constant and acceptable arial reception during the full 90 minutes of the game. Weather permitting, she would be expected to stand in the chill of the eighth floor balcony, holding and managing the arial. Trying her best not to succumb to the constant threat of becoming a target for stomach rumbling pigeons and seagulls, or on the worst of days lightning. And as she stood in the cold winter winds blowing through her hair and her clothes, he would call out to her and screech. ‘A little more to the left, no, now a little back. Now hold still will you!’ The memory still haunted her, the day he had tied a leather belt to her waist and told her to balance off the edge of the balcony. So she did. In the mist that had descended upon their part of town, she hung out of the side of the balcony like a flying angel, hanging perilously by the thin strap of leather that kept her from dropping to her death.
And so, with renewed energy and integrity, and despite all of his cruel and selfish demands, she continued to meet her Sunday routines, week after week, after year after year. Sacrificing the life that could have been, to the life she had promised the old man in the sky on the day of their wedding. Abiding to the role that had been designed for her from day one. Her pasta dishes grew better and better with time and experience, yet he would fail to notice the subtle changes that she would introduce in an attempt to render the monotony survivable. Nor would he notice the subtle changes in the furniture and flowers, colours and smells that she would bring to the small apartment whenever she had the chance. He lived his life by one beat, and one beat only, the beat of the Sunday matches.
The warm summer months would of course allow her a relative rest from the incessant demands and, for a few days, she would walk the streets with the freedom that life should have otherwise granted a rather moderately good looking woman like herself. But then the summer talk of transfers would start, and with it the late night football discussions on TV and before long it was back to the same old routines.
Sex had all but been reduced to a memory. One which she would on occasions re-live when she would hide behind the toilet door, whilst he sat, glued to his chair. And in the semi-comfort of their chilly toilet, she would read a few pages of the dirty novels she would ask the porter’s wife to buy for her from the newsagent across town by the train station. He would criticise her for the lack of affection their doomed relationship displayed. And although she knew full well that he went to other places for those releases, she suffered in silence. Rejoicing in the time she would have for herself and her books.
And so went the life. And the years. And the games. And as they both grew older and wrinklier, and the world quicker and louder, his team weaker and weaker and the threat of relegation ever more a realistic probability. The day came, as it was always written it should. The referee blew his whistle three times, and the players stopped running. He sat there, incredulously watching them as some fell to their knees and hit their fists on the grass in despair. For a few moments he could not find it in himself to move. Then, noticing his wife not making her customary post match trip into the living room to check on him, he turned his head to the kitchen and called out to her with a viciousness which he had until then not known of himself. And again he called, and again. And still there was no answer or sound or sign of her making a move. Appalled, he raised his heavy figure from the sofa and turned towards the kitchen. He murmured in disgust to the turned photo of his mother in law and did the sign of the cross. Mumbling to himself he then walked into the cold kitchen where he was confronted with the frozen figure of his dear wife. Her head hanging lifelessly down and across her left shoulder. The veins in her forehead starting to show through the pale grey skin. A little annoyed at such nuisance he held a hand up to her face. He felt the cold contact and with it stepped back, rattling some pots and pans in the process. A few laughs and cheers could be heard from the streets below. A glass bottle smashed. Someone vandalised his car, again. Later that evening someone would take a shit in a plastic bag and throw it to his window, as per usual.
He dragged his slippers along the cold marble floor. As he entered the living room he looked down to the empty bottle of beer. Then back to the kitchen. He had to stop himself from calling out to her. A bad habit. Then, whilst looking around as if a guest in his own house, he helped himself down to the stained chair. He dropped himself into it with a little bump. His eyes fixed on the screen and still the scenes of desperation from the field of play. But there was no sound. No more soundtrack to it all. There he sat in the dumb silence.
When you’ve spent enough days lying around in bed, wondering whether you’ll live long enough to ever see the sun bless you with its presence again, spring, and the sound of birds chirping away in the trees, cannot as such be put into tangible words. Rather it remains a mystery, a solemn torture and pleasure imposed on those who are damned to experience the dark cold winter months and be reborn every spring.
So I finally found it in me, on a quiet, sunny afternoon to pull the dusty sunglasses out of whatever drawer they’d found their way to, a spring friendly coat, a colourful flowery Hawaiian shirt and a stride in my step, which I hadn’t known for some time. Feelings of possibility and wonder, whistling my way down the same old road, just happening to feel like a totally different person, reborn, fresh. Even the colours in the traffic lights seemed to call out to me, a newfound patience, as everything seemed to fall into place ever so perfectly, as it seldom did. (Probably never really does.) A coffee, at the same old café down the block. Just the beautiful girl with long blonde, healthy hair, green eyes and legs to die for, smiling on this particular day. So I smiled back and she smiled back three, some would call it love at first sight, others madness. Somewhere in the middle they would always be bound to mix and turn and burn.
There’s a lovely park just a few minutes walk from my small apartment block. Up a few hundred steps. A secret viewing spot across the rooftops and the smoky chimneys. The bay, the seagulls, mothers and prams. Walking up the stairs leading to the top I tried to remember how long it had been since my last visit. Too very long obviously, the voice answered. There’s a bench, always has been. It was still there, as I made my way across the top of the hill and down towards a spot shining in the glory of the yellow fireball in the sky. And what else could one wish for I thought. The birds squealing, perhaps burping, stomachs hurting, I don’t know. But what a day. Probably a day like so many others I was destined to live. Then a man, an old man, sat down next to me and rubbed his elbows with determined strength. A nervous impulse brought on by a something itching and scratching at the underside of his wrinkly skin. The clothes he wore were wrinkled with fatigue, and his figure oozed with the distinct scent of someone who has slept rough. And his face too, seemed to have aged beyond the acceptable criteria of nature. As if some evil hand had cranked up the level of his ageing process.
‘It’s a Friday today isn’t it?’ he asked in a calm and warm tone. The distinguished tone of a voice that old age and years of good cigars bless the most lived of elderly men with.
‘Friday it is indeed, and what a Friday. You come here often?’ I asked trying to spread the same love I had felt coming my way. A love that had begun to grow so very thin round those parts in recent times.
‘Only on Fridays,’ he said. ‘Every Friday. Don’t miss a Friday. Every Friday, for as long as I can remember.’
As we looked over the rooftops I secretly hoped someone might come and brake the awful silence, maybe the blonde girl from the café might come and hold my hand. Tell me I was the one she’d been looking for. And she might just ask me to…
‘My wife,’ the old man began. ‘It just happened. I can’t say how long it’s been. I always told her that we should have a place. A rendez-vous spot. Just in case something like this should ever happen.’
‘We agreed. This was the spot. Friday. Every Friday at one pm. I’m not mad you know! I knows my wife. So that’s why we got our spot, here, Friday at one pm, I’ll be here every week until we meet again.’
Looking down awkwardly at my watch, I noticed I wasn’t wearing one. Good, I thought, what a shame to let such a beautiful day succumb to such a grossly man made thing as time.
‘I’ve been waiting for her ever since. Just, something happened and I couldn’t find my way home one day. Strange how it turns out. I went out for a walk, as one does, and when I turned to go home I couldn’t remember where I lived. Forgot my name. Wouldn’t say I can recall what my wife’s called either. All I can remember is Friday, this spot, one pm.’
‘Isn’t there anyone you could go to for help?’ I inquired naively.
‘I wouldn’t know son, all I know is…’
‘Every Friday, at one pm,’ I completed his sentence.
Quiet and perplexed we sat there, me wondering. Would his wife remember they had ever had a secret meeting spot? For all I knew, the poor fellow could be barking mad. Any moment then some men in white shirts might come hopping over the bushes with one of those madhouse shirts. ‘There there Barney, time to get you back to the hospital.’
He could have murdered the poor thing. She could still be there, frozen like a piece of beef. Her stiff look, her cold body nailed to the inside of a freezer, somewhere, forgotten. Post traumatic stress. Chopped the lady into bits and fed it to the dog. He looked rather worse for wear, but still impeccably dressed, rips and tears not withstanding. Knocked her in the back of the head and buried her still breathing in some field somewhere.
‘You don’t get it do you,’ he said all of a sudden. ‘It’s love. A bond so strong you would never understand. What do you know of love? What could you teach me I didn’t already know. Tell me son, have you ever loved a woman? Tell me!’
‘I think I might just have…’
‘Don’t think you dumb shit, just feel! Too much thinking, not enough feeling. That’s the problem with you young people.’
‘Your wife,’ I asked, trying to steer him away from the anger storm that was starting to gather.
‘What was her name?’
‘I told you, I can’t remember.’
‘I see. I’m sorry.’
‘What would you know? What’s the time you useless shit?’
‘It’s, well I haven’t got the time, I think it might be about…’ and that was that. Thanks for ruining the nicest day of the year so far. But I couldn’t find it in myself to hate the poor man. How tragic I thought, to have witnessed such sad an affair. The love that knows no limit, no limit to madness.
Now, some months later, it was a Sunday. I’m taking another hard earned stroll in the same park. Keeping and eye out for the old man, just in case.
‘Do you suppose it’s summer yet?’ I heard a soft voice utter, as a beautifully dressed, elderly woman made to sit down next to me on the bench.
‘Well of course you may.’
‘Wonderful day isn’t it?’
‘Do you think summer has come early this year?’ she asked again.
‘Hard to say. I sure hope so. You come here often?’
‘Now and then. Are you local?’
‘I live just round the corner. Yourself?’
‘My husband used to love this park. Always used to say we should meet here if anything ever happened.’
I sat up in my chair, as I saw this going where you’ve all, hopefully, seen it going by now.
‘We’ll meet at the park on a Sunday. Be there every Sunday at one pm precisely,’ she spoke softly. ‘Ever since he left all those years ago. He left on a Friday you know. Seven long years ago nearly to the day, he left the flat and never came back.’
It’s 10:59 according to my digital Swiss watch. Although the clock on the wall says otherwise, I only trust the one I keep on my left wrist. The one I set every morning by the seven o’clock chime of the great, always outstanding precision of our very own Big Ben. Not that I can hear the bells of Big Ben from my flat. I’ve just downloaded an app. It does the job just the same.
The gate closes in 12 minutes and 18 seconds.
La crèm de la crèm have already boarded the plane and the rest are currently rushing on like a flock of sheep. They all leapt from their seats the second the screen switched from ‘Go to gate’ to ‘Now boarding’. I’m trying to hold my feet in line with the patterns on the linoleum floor which are thankfully logically and geometrically designed. It’s proving harder than I first anticipated as my mind is occupied with a slightly more important affair.
I always board the plane last. It’s what I do. Never last but one, or two or three but dead last. I just have to get on last. If by some chance someone boards the plane unannounced after me, I have to leave the thing and come back onto it. That is how I work. My mind. I can’t remember it being otherwise.
Flight DY329 to Vienna is boarding at gate 21 across the hall, the last passengers are making their way to the boarding gate. A girl standing at the back of the queue is wearing odd socks and it’s starting to annoy me. I have to bite my teeth and look the other way. Gate 23 has just closed. It was flight AZ776 to Rome. Gate 24, directly behind me, is delayed. It’s the 10:00 flight to Stockholm. I’ve counted 123 people so far. There are still about forty odd left to board my flight to Berlin. Only when I’m confident there is no one left but me, will I get up and go through the paces. My little take-off protocol, one from which I never deviate. Goes precisely as such:
Count to 27 in Greek, pull handkerchief out from right back pocket and place into left. Twitch of the eyes 17 times each, before handing over my passport to attendant who must accept with right hand. Once I’m through the gate, I estimate the number of steps through the corridor and onto the plane, give or take 10%. If I get it wrong by more than that margin I have to go back to the gate and start all over again. As I approach the plane, it is important that I keep my right hand on the outside of the fuselage until both my feet have boarded. Only then can I retrieve my arm and hand over the ticket to the flight attendant. Finally, I must give my testicles a thorough pull and scratch before I find my seat and prepare for another lengthy set of routines which are to be executed without fail before take off.
There’s now about 25 people left to board, but the queue is moving slowly. There’s a gentleman sitting opposite me on the other row of chairs. He’s in his mid thirties, well dressed. Wearing blue jeans and some fancy dark shiny business shoes. A light blue and white stripe shirt under a turquoise suit top. He’s probably a size 52 based on his shoulder structure. He looks straight into my eyes and smiles. I can’t seem to return the pleasantry. I must keep concentrated. The girl checking the passports at my gate is left handed. I’m worried that’s going to screw my pre flight routine up big time. Breathe, keep calm, keep positive.
There’s now 11 people left in the queue. The screen changes again to Gate Closing. It’s 10:27.
The man sitting opposite me goes to stand, but ends up just tucking his shirt back into his trousers and looking into the distance. He pulls at his crotch, checks his watch, smiles to a blonde looking girl, possibly Swedish, sitting across the hall from him and then sits down again. He better not be playing games with me. I know his type. I’ve had run-ins with a few of them before. All I have to do is keep a cool head, stay calm and focused. Remember what Dr. Pershawri said, stay in control. I’ve been working at it for a while. It doesn’t matter who gets on the plane first. I am in control. I feel calm and collected. Go with the flow, there’s no need to stress or kick up a fuss.
He looks over to the gate, then over to me again. I can’t help it. He’s obviously playing games. Therapy will just have to wait this time. I’m getting on that damn plane last, even if it kills me. There’s no two ways about it. I’m not letting some well dressed country boy mess with the way I do things. There’s 3 people left now. The gate girl calls out on the tannoy.
“Last call for flight DK235 to Berlin, will all remaining passengers please make their way to gate 22. This gate is now closing.”
He’s smiling again, looking me straight in the eyes. What’s he playing at? He’s obviously done this before. He knows exactly what he’s doing. I’m up against a pro here. How nasty can some people be? Playing with other’s fears and obsessions. Keep calm!
The last three people have gone through. The gate girl is counting the tickets and checking her screens. I’ve started to sweat profusely under the armpits. This is one game of chicken I’m not prepared to lose. He checks his watch again. Straightens his shirt collar and goes to get up again, going through the motions. Then he pulls at his trousers and smiles again. What a prick.
I try a bluff. I go to stand, but he flinches. Ahh ha! I’ve got him. But no. He stands and looks around the place. Again, our glances meet. He’s definitely toying with me, but I can sense he’s nervous. He too must understand that he’s dealing with someone out of the ordinary here.
“Gate 22 is closing. All remaining passengers please make your way to gate 22 for immediate boarding.”
I’m sitting but my bum isn’t touching the seat. I’m holding hard at my brief case. There’s no way I’m getting on that plane before him. I know it’s ridiculous but it’s the way it has to be.
Finally he stands. He makes his way to the gate. I leap to my feet and I’m in hot pursuit. But wait. I swing to the side to avoid shouldering him accidentally as he turns back. What’s he doing? He’s called my bluff.
The screen has changed again. The doors to the gate shut. Gate 22 to Berlin is officially closed. I’ve only gone and missed my flight. It’s my first time.
The panic starts to grow within me. Doctor’s orders: Deep breaths. Keep in control.
Damn bastard. What was he thinking, playing chicken with me like that. Now we’ve both missed the bloody flight. Had I known he was never going to get on that damn plane I would have called his bluff and I would have been on my way to Germany. But wait. What if he had made a last second move and smuggled his arse on board after me? Played some cheap trick on the gate girl. Pretended to flirt with her only to slip on last. What then?
I’m sweating uncontrollably. He looks calm and collected as a frozen cucumber. He sits down directly in front of me again. The guts on this guy. Again he smiles. What’s you smiling about you imbecile?
“I beg your pardon?”
Did I say that out aloud? I could swear I just thought it.
“Can I help you?”
“No. No, I’m sorry.”
“No worries. Off to anywhere exciting today then?”
Strange accent. Definitely not British, too smooth to be German. The bastard, not only has he caused us both to miss the flight, now he’s trying to befriend me. Playing mind games again.
“I’m off to Stockholm for the weekend, flight’s a bit delayed,” I manage to bullshit without stuttering too much. “How about yourself?”
“It’s Stockholm for me too,” he says. “Funny, the way you were moving around back there, for a second I thought you were going to catch that plane to Berlin.”
The ziggidy, scabbidy end.
Pubs are great, strange old places. Each with its own unique smell, colour and humour. They all share a distinct dark tone of green but it’s the people that make them, and keep them all so different and distinguished.
The beer brewing craze has swept through town like wild fire so we make it to the closest and most satisfying place I can think of. The local brewery. And we’re lucky, yet again. Born lucky. So we sit at the bar. On those high stools, looking down on the wonder of taps and bottles of home brewed ale behind the big oak bar and a beautiful specimen of a bartender.
The music is quiet for once, allowing for good easy conversation. It also allows for comments to travel easily through the misty void of the bar. Smoking isn’t allowed, hasn’t been for years. But we belong to a bygone time. So we imagine the smoky surroundings, whether we like it or not.
An IPA is the drink of choice for grown-up boys who others call young men. The indian pale ale. The name itself isn’t half as appealing as the history that gave the brew its now famous acronym. A beer meant for the distant corners of the great british empire. Expected to survive the long and demanding journey and to please on arrival. Hence the strong spicy flavours. A necessary effect of the ingenious chemistry designed to allow the nectar to survive and reach its destination with its natural beauty still intact. Nowadays they brew the stuff on balconies and back garden sheds. There’s no more great british empire anymore. And although my spell checker on my macbook seems to insist that british should be spelt with a capital “b”, I decline. I don’t like things telling me what to do. Especially things that can’t feel.
American pale ale, blonde pale ale. Old simple pale ale. They come in all shapes, colours and sizes. The flavours varying just enough for the general public not to complain too much. I beg to insist, IPA is the way forward. If in doubt, drink an IPA. I don’t think they’ve coined that yet. If they haven’t I’m claiming it as mine. Pay me a lifetime supply of IPA and keep the fucking slogan to yourselves.
After two drinks of the magic stuff each, we order peanuts. We order far too many and get stuck with one too many chilly coated nuts. The hell with it. They do what they were designed to do. Make us thirsty. It’s not like we need any more encouragement. They say the magic starts after the second pint. The setting sun always seems to cast its magical presence across the smoky air of a pub after the second pint. And the bar maid looks all the more attractive now. And we’re twice as encouraged to go on drinking now. After all, the magic seems to happen in that short space of time after that mystical second pint.
His father had taken him down to the processions as a child. He’d stood by the side of the road watching them being paraded up the hill to the Senate, to where their new careers would begin. To a place where their youthful lives would slowly erode to a painful end.
The tyre marks from where cars had melted into the tarmac, the motorbikes and mopeds that had fallen over. Their stands having also melted into the scorching ground. His cheap rubber sneakers, gently squeaking as they too fought off the sticky heat wave that brushed through the city that summer. How warm they must have been under those dark suits, he remembered thinking. The crowds cheering at the top of their voices. He’d been to some football matches before, it had reminded him of them. There’d been no flags though, as they stood on the sidewalks, but the screaming and crying had sounded in his ears just as much. His father had held him up over his shoulders to see over the waves of heads and hats. The arms waving, in dubious gestures which he would later realise or recognise as insults. Some memories could be so vague. Just a few blurry images, but nothing more. That day however, had rigged itself to his memory film in as much detail as the day it had happened.
No one could have imagined him capable of rising to such high levels of public service at such a young age. And yet, some twenty-seven years later, there he was. The sweat trickling down the side of his head and hanging off the edge of his sideburns. They sat in a small room that resembled the changing rooms he had been in as a kid. When playing football, as a child he had sat in a similar place. Listening attentively to the last minute remarks some desperate coach tried to push on them before a game. From those days he remembered the smell of earth and mud. The harsh, blunt knife cutting edge of a dry summer day’s earth and how it would cut into his knees and the sides of his shins. And the deep gripping, heavy presence of mud, on those all too often rainy autumn days, where he would have to shower twice, and then when he was home, bath. Scrubbing the stuff out from the crevices in his knees and from under his finger nails.
There was six of them, tightly squeezed onto that one small bench. Having spent the best years of their lives in the same institutions they were all well known to each other. And yet, in their new suits and finely tuned haircuts he struggled to recognise them. From a young age, unknown to any of them, a path had been chosen for them. Based on the sacred words of a few visionaries and the odd government official for good measure, the few lucky ones were chosen at birth. Their true calling in life, only to be revealed to them in their early adult life. Until then, they were to be schooled and moulded into the serving class of the future.
He had of course put two and two together long before the fact was revealed to him. He’d recognised it in the way teachers and peers alike had treated him over the years. The words his father had used on the night of his eighteenth birthday had come with little surprise to him. He was one of the chosen ones. Chosen from the many, to be one of the few, to go on to serve the many, who in the few put all their trust, worries, angers and expectations. Such was their DUTY.
For years he despised the future that had so artificially been set up for him. His destiny. For years he stayed up late cursing his life. Pondering his reality and the possibility of escaping his own fate. There was no escaping it though, as he well knew, and so he made peace with the fact around the time of his 25th birthday. He was secretly proud and happy to have done so. Looking around the small room, some years down the line, he realised the same was not true for a few of the other five young men sat beside him in that small muggy room.
Farthest away in the corner, a small, resigned boy with dark, pitch black hair. His suit had no doubt been handmade and it hung from his skinny body with master precision. A hefty golden watch, handed down probably to him from generations past, hung a little loose from his small wrist. His legs bounced nervously before him. He tried to halt the jittering a few times by placing his hands on them but there was no holding back the fear. The others too, shook, if however in varying degrees, all with that familiar deep fear of what was awaiting them. Reaching to his own golden necklace, the one his grandfather had given him, he tucked it carefully under his shirt, but not before kissing the small image of the virgin Mary which he so cherished.
He knew exactly what was in store for him. He’d seen it as a kid, read about it as a student and meditated on it long into the nights, in the months and long evenings leading up to the fatidic day. It did not scare him that he would never be able to see his family again. He would miss his mother of course, but his father he knew would get on just fine without him, safe in the knowledge that his son had been chosen to represent the people at the great senatorial round table. He had no other choice. He could already see his father’s image years from then. Still bragging about his son, the Senator. Repeating his story with pride, day after day after month after year. And the people at the small bar round the corner from their home would no doubt grow tired of his stories, but still he would continue to remind them all of the pride he felt and the sacrifice he and his family had made, if however a little unwillingly, for the rest of society.
He by then would probably be long gone. The life expectancy of any given Senator oscillated between the 35 and 40 mark. Such was the strain of the position and the demands and the weight of expectation of a whole nation. Every six to eight years, a new batch of young hopefuls would be picked from the list of chosen ones, and a few exceptional cases would be sworn into the Senate and some of its lower chambers, destined to serve to the end of their days.
As the hour ticked forward he could hear the crowds cheering out in the streets surrounding the small brick building they were being kept in. As a child he had wondered whether it had been cheers of joy or hatred. At that life changing moment, all those years later, minutes from the event, the same question arose within him. He had seen flowers tossed, but also fruit and rotten eggs. He’d seen young girls cast to the chosen ones in the hope that they be taken in as wives, despite a strict law prohibiting senators from mixing with common citizens. He thought he’d seen it all, now he wondered whether he really had.
He’d tried to live his life to the full in the years leading up to that day. He’d owed it to himself and he was proud of it. He’d taken every chance thrown at him by destiny and sucked on the juice of life at every opportunity. He’d run the red lights, stayed out late, escaped form camp, drunk himself to oblivion, chased the dragon, read the books, enjoyed the music, ridden the motorbikes and cars, stolen, cursed, written and painted, punched, been punched and fainted. He’d argued and laughed, cried and ached with pain, of the heart and of the body. He’d met a beautiful girl and they’d been together for as long as had been possible. He’d tasted her skin and run his hands along her back. He’d looked into her eyes and kissed her softly as they made love in the sweat of a sunny afternoon. He’d done it all. All that had been thrown at him, without ever having had the chance to say no.
It sucked of course. The life of a Senator was to be lived under strict regimes and laws. But he had broken rules before, why should it be any different as a Senator, he wondered. The thought brought a smile to his face. At that exact moment one of the other hopefuls looked to him with a look that begged the question, what the hell are you smiling at?
No doubt his father would be there in the crowd, cheering him on. That would be the last time they would exchange glances. He might not be able to pick him out in the crowd, it had crossed his mind. That was fine too, they’d made their adequate goodbyes well in advance. They were meticulous in that way. That too made him smile.
He’d just about managed to squeeze himself enough space on the bench, enough to allow his chest to expand and to breathe in a deep breath of warm, yet, reinvigorating air, when the call came. A bureaucrat in a blue suit walked into the room, his double knock on the wooden door announcing his entry. “It is time gentlemen.” He referred to them as was custom, them not having been formally appointed their official titles yet. For a few more minutes they were still to be gentlemen.
Without much ceremony they were instructed to follow the short blue suit out of the door. They did so in silence. As he rose to his feet he took a moment to adjust his tie and buttoned his jacket the way his father had reminded him of earlier that morning. The corridor they walked down smelt of dry mud. From the small windows high in the wall, shone the bright warm rays of light, the dust fluttering before them in mid air. Outside the crowd could be heard chanting to the beat of a cry which he could not make out. They had been formally briefed on the afternoon’s proceedings, but he had not paid much attention to it, what could it matter at that point?
“Stand here,” he heard a voice instruct as they stood, still in line at the end of a dark corridor. He stood last, at the back of the queue of six. At the end of the corridor a set of stairs led out into a small yard, the same one they had been marched through earlier that day when the streets were still deserted and the sun hadn’t quite risen in the sky. For a few moments they stood there, his heart starting to pick up in pace. The second fellow before him shaking uncontrollably and showing the first signs of a total breakdown.
“Gentlemen, move on through,” the same rugged voice instructed, and with that they marched slowly towards the light, and when they reached the stairs they rose, one stone step after the other and up into the sun-lit yard where their public appointment would take place.
He had to hold his hand up to block out the might of the sun as they stepped into the stone cobbled yard. A few armed guards ushered them into the shaded part of the grounds where they stood before the people’s magistrate. On the remaining three sides of the squared courtyard, a few lucky spectators cried and chanted. He could make out the cries of “Thieves,” and “Robbers” “Go do your time!” “Serve the people!” A few female voices called out for them by name. Their faces having appeared in the papers all over the nation in the weeks leading up to that day. For better or for worse they were famous.
Solemnly they stood before the magistrate, whom upon rising to his feet gestured to the crowds that it was time to settle down. It was his turn to speak.
“Gentlemen,” he began with imposing tone, “today we call upon you to step out of your everyday clothes and to vest yourselves with the highest honour known to our people. On this day, you leave the shadows of the ordinary citizens to step into the all inspiring light which is the Senate and its holy service for the people, on behalf of the people.”
A large cheer arose from the spectators and the crowds attending outside in the streets, as the magistrate timed the delivery of his words with sublime precision.
“Gone are the days where politics was a word for the people and a matter of laughter for a few privileged. Gone are the days when the ruling class conspired to serve its very own existence and survival.”
“Gentlemen,” the magistrate addressed them as such for the very last time, “today we as a nation take a further step towards setting right a wrong which has plagued this land for so many decades. You six men have been chosen for the skills deemed necessary to continue a tradition which can only serve to render life better for millions. In you we intrust the people’s will. That you may go and serve them well. And, so that you may never forget, so that you may be reminded of the responsibilities set upon you by the honourable people of this great nation, we set upon your shoulders the DUTY.”
To these words another huge wave of emotion exploded into the blue skies above. From out of an adjacent door, a number of men, two by two, entered the small yard and carefully proceeded to place large leather collars around their necks. That too he remembered vividly from those days as a kid. How he had seen them, whilst sitting up above his father’s shoulders, the young men struggling under the weight of the heavy collars and the mighty heat of the sun.
The large, thick collars were known to be filled with rocks as by tradition, but in this case pure, good old cement had been employed. He felt the extra immense pull sink deep into his shoulder muscles and down through his back and then legs. His heels instantly beginning to ache under the strain and the hard leather shoes. The boy to his left crumbled to his knees the second the collars were applied. He let out a childish like shriek. Dutifully, he was helped to his feet by some of the guards that had carried them out in the first place.
Fighting to keep his balance, he held his hands up to the bottom of the collar, trying to alleviate its mass by a slight degree, if only to let him take a few full breaths.
“Let the weight of the people reign on you, now, from this day forth until your doing. May your DUTY be with you from dawn until dusk, and that you may only rest from your duties in sleep. With the power invested in me by the people, I hereby declare you Senators for life. Go, and do your DUTY.”
Again, at the uttering of such words, a further explosion of cheers went up and a large set of wooden doors was pulled back to reveal the crowds waiting outside. It had started.
“Senators, to the Senate!” spoke one of the head guards, at which point he revealed a circus like whip which he cracked a few times, as if to warm up his arm in preparation for worse things to come. One of the initial lashes hit one of the newly invested Senators on the lower back.
“March!” came the order.
One by one they were marched out into the streets where the muffled sound of people of all ages and backgrounds squealed and cried out all number of inaudible things. He had trained hard for the day, knowing full well what was to be expected of him. Judging on two of the other newly appointed Senators, they hadn’t done the same. To them were reserved the majority of the whip lashes, as they were pushed on through he growing mob. “Go work!” they cried out. “Go do us honour, thieves. Go serve. Serve the people!”
Then came the lashes. He felt the lightening flash through his back and his body falling to his knee. The crowds again exploding at the sight. He pushed down to the ground with his hand and looked up for he knew it would help. There he was. His father. A man, like many others in the crowd out there. He noticed him out of the mob by the way he stood there transfixed, impassive. Not a blink of an eyelid. For a brief instant they exchanged looks. His father looked emotional, he had most certainly been crying. Were they tears of pride or of remorse and horror at losing his only boy? He would never know.
“Senator, to your feet!” he heard. Then a pair of arms rose him to his feet and a hefty kick to his backside sent him on his way.
For an hour they continued, the curly small street slowly but steadily growing steeper and steeper. The burning sun shining ever brighter and harder on their soaring necks. Not a drop of water to drink. It was against the rules. He had nor the time or will to wonder if the others would make it. A Senator or two were always guaranteed to drop during their inaugural walk. He took what energy he could from the crowds. Looking deep into each one of their eyes, he sucked in their anger and fears and commotions, taking from them their humanity or whatever little else they had to offer. And one step after the other he continued, under the ponderous burden of the DUTY. And they spat and kicked, threw rotten food and dead pigeons. A few appeared before them with beautiful daughters in hand, they were duly removed. Among the pain and suffering, that made him smile, if ever so little. His feet hurt. He felt the blisters starting to form on his heels as they rubbed up against the new stiff shoes he’d been forced to wear for the occasion. His shoulder muscles ached as if a nail had been forced into them. The pain cut far deep into his shoulder. The salty sweat forced its way into his eyes, burning. At one stage, a squealing member of the public threw a mug of vinegar at them. He took the brunt of it. The smell of it sent a fetid feeling shooting through him in the heat. As he recovered, looking up to the end of the cobbled road, he noticed the large, marble building of the Senate. He’d made it. Only a few more steps left.
There was five of them left when they eventually made it to the steps of the mighty institution. He turned back and looked down to the way they had come. The crowds closing in behind them like sinking sand. Attempting to stand up straight, he adjusted the collar around his neck to allow for some rest for some parts of his neck. He’d made it. One of the men had fallen along the way. So be it. So had it always been.
He’d survived the first step. And as he stood there, looking down to the hysteric mobs, he wondered. He might be able to get used to it, the DUTY. He might just come to enjoy his new role.
As they turned to face the overly large doors to the building, he could not help but imagine what kind of world lay behind them. Then, looking high above the doors, he stopped for a second. A second which his whole young life had been leading up to. And there, in the heat of the afternoon sun, he made out the words, “Senatus ad populum.” He could not help but smile.
Inspired by and written in honour of the great Robin Williams, who whilst attending a scientific lecture, in one of his well known stage interruptions, upon referring to the subject of infinity made a quick remark to an imaginary place called Infinity, Montana, “you’ll never get there.” It was a short story asking to be written.
Trying to contemplate something which at times has a beginning but not necessarily an end is exhausting enough. A concept, that continues off into the vastness of whatever is out there, on and on and on. Never-ending lines and numbers that never quite reach zero, no matter how small or close they get. Close, but no cigar.
They say space just goes on forever. And I ask, but where does it start? No one’s been able to answer me yet. They say there’s a number which is larger than all the atoms in the universe. But you’re not allowed to say infinity plus one. That’s just cheating.
It’s no surprise many a good mathematician sadly decided to throw in the towel and take their own lives, rather than continuing to plague their minds with the brain draining exercise of trying to define infinity. A sad affair to say the least, but for all of their struggles I dare say, I have experienced something which is comparably as mind-boggling and, some might argue, scarier than any possible mathematical problem.
Here I sit, putting these few words to paper. My doing so is only a means of recording my attempts, my actions, our hopes, as we push on through. Day after day. And if all else fails, well at least this might just survive. I beg of you only this, please read on.
It began about eighteen months ago. When, inspired by a life of boredom and monotony, a life of lies and murky truths that seemed to decorate my existence, I decided to make the move and apply for a new job. It was never supposed to be anything particularly special. Just an attempt at stepping out of the reality which had begun to eat at me. And like many things in life, I came across it much by chance, as I flicked through the back pages of a science magazine I found on the bus on the way home from another day of murderous monotony.
The position would entail leaving everything behind and moving to a part of the world which I might never have considered moving to had the renumeration not been so alluring. The job application had been a swift and painless one. I put together a brief cover letter, as demanded in the application letter, and described why I thought I might deserve the spot. As specified in the ad, I included a poem. What it might have to do with the recruitment process was beyond my understanding but I acquiesced happily. The poem read:
Here I sat,
so broken hearted,
spent a penny
and only farted.
If truth be told, I never wrote the poem. It was something I’d seen in a toilet some place and had stuck with me ever since. It must have worked some magic. Not two weeks later, the job was mine.
The job is yours, a short, sober letter that came in the post informed me. The news could not have come at a better moment. Just in time to relieve me of my daily chores and constant yearning to find out if hopping off the 5th floor would be enough to crush me to my death. And to think that I hadn’t even begun to contemplate the mischievous nature of infinity yet. In the envelope, together with the congratulatory letter and a warm invitation to take on the position, were the air tickets and a second smaller envelope with the instructions, “Open upon arrival in Infinity, Montana” beautifully handwritten across it.
I quit my position at the Sensual Origami, sex-toy factory the very next day. My day manager only managed to squeeze out an emotionless perplexed look, as if to wonder what else I could possibly be hoping to do with my life. I was, after all, turning down a solid government sponsored position in one of the nation’s biggest anal dildo producing factories. That hardly seemed to worry me though. They’d replace me the very next day with some desperate punter who they’d pay half of what they’d given me. And if he ever complained they’d sack him and the cycle would continue. As simple as that. To think that my predecessor had earned twice as much as me. In hindsight it begs the question, what will happen in the long run?
“Whatever you say man, you gota do what you gota do,” my day manager whispered to me from under his thick moustache before I shot off into my new life.
“I’m sorry to let you down Morgan,” I said picking up my last pay cheque, “it’s just something I have to do before my time’s out.”
“My name’s Tony,” he pointed out a little distressed.
“Sorry mate, Tony, of course.”
“You’ve worked here three years now and you still don’t know my name,” he said saddened by the event.
“Sorry Tony, I got’a get out. We won’t live forever,” were my final words. They had come to me with the sweet ease that only a man who knows he is fulfilling his destiny has.
Town and its people had not looked quite the same that evening. For the first time in a long time I noticed how many of them seemed to be moving through life at the pace dictated by the forces to be. The omnipresent, never changing government and its drug feeding accomplices who took on the shape of child friendly, environment loving multi-continental corporations. I figured my apartment and most of its contents would be automatically requisitioned on the second month of me not paying rent, so with little celebration I took charge of the few things that meant something to me in this life and made for the station. The marine blue case that I took with me was just big enough to fit everything I needed. In the hustle of leaving my small apartment in the fear that I might regret what I was getting into, I flung into the case the basics necessary, in my eyes, to live a life of happiness and tranquility. A few books from some of my favourite authors, namely Ernst Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski and a few others. A pencil, an ink pen and a ball point pen. A semi-filled note pad and two new pads for future notes. Some rough paper, two pairs of underwear, two shirts, two pairs of socks, my extra pair of reading glasses, one pair of sun glasses, a towel, a candle, a box of matches, a sharp knife, some blue tack, a framed piece of paper, on which I had written my goals for the year, and some paperclips. Everything else I figured I would be able to purchase upon arrival in Infinity, Montana.
“I’m off to Infinity, Montana,” I said to the barman as I sat there sipping at my beer, peeking now and then to the departure screen across the hall.
“Never heard of it.”
“Nor have I, but I’ve read great things about it,” I lied. In the rush I had not had the time to research the unknown town. I took some time to think of it, whilst I sat at the crowded airport bar, miserable faces everywhere, traveling to god forsaken places. I realised I hadn’t really understood the nature of my new job. In the haste of it all, that all important detail had eluded me.
Imagine a lifetime of bliss, the chance to pursue your life’s dream, to contribute to ground braking investigations. To see off the rest of your days, far from the ventures of everyday slavery. Apply now.
I was on my way to Infinity, Montana, the world was my oyster. And it didn’t matter if the taxi driver, the airport security lady, the barman or the fine looking molecular swallower sitting next to me on the plane had never heard of the place either. I was going there whether they liked it or not. That was all there was to it.
In hindsight it should have sent a few rusty alarm bells ringing at the time but it didn’t. For, the closer I got to the infamous town, the fever seemed to have heard of it. The only good person who could shine a little needed light on Infinity, Montana was a bus driver. As I stepped off the bus, he pointed, rather unsure but quaintly, towards a road leading into the bushy woods up ahead.
“If I’m not mistaken,” he said, chewing heavily on some tobacco “it should be about two miles down that way. Been a while mind you.”
“Of course,” I insisted. “You’ve been more than enough help.”
And so I stepped into the rest of my life. The bus rushing off into the distance and leaving behind it only a grey cloud of lead. It was a cold day and the steam rose from under my scarf every other time I exhaled. The tartan piece of wool had been tied around my face and neck and served, together with my cap as suitable protection against the wind that blew with might. It had snowed not long before, and although the snowfall had been minimal, the trees and ground to the side of the road were covered with a pleasant sheet of white. The side of the road was a mixture of ice and mushed up snow. I began to walk against traffic and eventually, given the quiet nature of the road, took to walking in the middle of the lane.
The brisk weather only helped to clear a mind, which I sensed had been filled to the brim with shit buckets of worry and unnecessary levels of bowel tearing stress. Step after step I walked, unknowingly into the uncertainty up ahead. A place where I hoped, I would finally be able to be the person I had once dreamt of becoming.
It felt like the road might continue forever, when I suddenly noticed a yellow road sign. Surely enough, a few hundred yards down the road, I made out the words Infinity. The sign hung on a low wooden pole at a four way intersection and pointed to the right. 1 mile, clearly indicated in black on the yellow background.
I calculated calmly, and perhaps rather imprecisely, the time it would take me to cover the distance. Figuring an average person to walk at about 3 miles an hour, it would take me no longer than twenty minutes to complete the journey, and just as well. The first signs of hunger had started to knock at my stomach. I had only the beer from the airport, a stale sandwich from the plane and some old peanuts I had received out of mercy from a one eyed woman on the bus. Incidentally she claimed she’d once known someone from Infinity, Montana.
Despite my best efforts, thirty-one minutes later I was still pacing nervously along the same stretch of road. Then as I approached it, I noticed that I was soon to find myself at another crossing. Again, a similar looking yellow road sign. And as I got closer I could make out the same words: Infinity, 1 mile. This time the black arrow pointed annoyingly to the left. Blaming my mishap on my tiredness and inability to remain concentrated long enough, I made to the left figuring I had missed a turn at some point, perhaps a small path into the woods. Surely.
Having picked up pace, some twenty-five minutes later I began to make out in the distance the mirage of yet another crossroad. Surely enough, as I approached it, I recognised the sign, this time pointing to the right. It had been close to an hour since I stepped off the bus and I had made little progress. My hands were starting to get cold and my legs hurt, my stomach grumbled and the world felt like it was all a thousand light years away. How hard could it possibly be to find the damn place?
Spurred on by a deeper desire, and the imaginary promise of a friendly tavern, a warm meal and a fireplace, I pushed on. This time though, I decided to contradict the road signs and walk in the opposite direction to the one signaled. It was obvious that some young pranksters had most likely altered the signs as a tasteless joke on oncoming folk from out of town.
Alas, a good half hour later I found myself on the verge of despair as I noticed yet another road sign facing me about a hundred yards down the road. This time I approached from behind it and I looked forward to what might be hidden on its other side. Surely there I would find the answer to my problems. The mention of a turn off the main road that I had been missing all along. Some information point. Anything.
Suddenly I felt the mighty chill of frustration running through my insides as I looked up, contorted, to the sign. The soul destroying sign indicating that Infinity, Montana was, yet again, only a meagre mile down the road.
By then, the onsetting cold had begun to take over my limbs, and the uncontrollable shivering of my jaw and clattering teeth soon began to accelerate with worrying speed. The first of a number of soft snowflakes floated gently down from the grey mist above. Fearing a deep despair was threatening to take hold of me, I reached for my case and made one last desperate attempt at it. This time leaving the paved road behind and setting off across the murky forest. What began as a steady walk soon turned to a pronounced march and eventually into a last resigned sprint for nowhere. I felt the cold air suck the last living breath from within my chest, the blood pounding in my head, my cold, wet feet hurting in the blazing weather. Then the darkening cloud descended upon me and I felt my body gently tumble to the floor, and a sudden sense of peace.
I awoke, two days later to the soothing feeling of a cold cloth pampering my fevered, scorching hot forehead. Around me I felt the enveloping cosiness of home cooking. The smell of fresh lamb roasting, crunchy potatoes and the fragrance of wild herbs.
“He’s been out for two days straight,” I heard a voice to my side utter in a gentle tone. “He’ll be back on his feet by tomorrow sun down.”
As my eyes struggled to focus in the dim light that surrounded me, I noticed the tall imposing figure of a man approaching. Gently he took a stool and sat himself down at my side.
“Good to see you’re recovering,” he began. “For a few hours it looked like you weren’t going to make it. You were found not long before sun down. Lucky, doubt you would have made it through the night in the state you were in.”
“Where am I,” I managed to speak, struggling to pull myself up in the makeshift.
“That’s one good question kid,” came his peculiar answer.
“Tell me, what were you doing out there all alone?”
With curious eye, he waited patiently in the candlelight for an answer, but something told me he already knew. He just wanted to hear me speak the words.
“I was on my way here, got mixed up with the road signs, then the weather turned for the worse, I got cold, panicked. I made for the forest and…that’s all I can remember.”
“You should rest,” he spoke as he stood to his feet, placing the stool back there where he’d found it.
“Listen, I was on my way here for a job. I’m meant to start on Monday. I don’t suppose you could get a message over to them,” I asked politely.
“Like I said,” came his answer, “you should rest. You’ll feel better in the morning. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
The next morning I awoke at the crack of dawn. Sitting up, I found my shoes neatly placed on the ground next to a cabinet which appeared to contain a number of medical supplies. But for a bump which seemed to pound on my forehead, I felt well rested and recovered, only a little dazed at my surroundings. Pulling back at the entrance to the tent I walked out into the early day. Just outside the tent, a fireplace that had obviously burned throughout the night, only a little steam still rising off the ashes. Around the campfire, a number of logs and stones had been carefully placed, and in all directions beyond that, a swamp of tents and makeshift huts.
“You’re up. Good,” I heard a voice, the same one I had heard in the tent the day before, as a fright ran through me.
“Easy, you’re safe here.”
With still apparent unease, and jittery nerves I smiled, a little lost for words.
“Boy, it’s definitely been a bit of an adventure getting here,” I eventually managed.
“Sure was,” came the response of a man I could now see in his entirety for the first time. A tall, strong figure, covered in a dark green military anorak, his thick oversized boots hanging comically out from beneath his rain covers, his beard overgrown and untreated, his look, tired and resigned. Yet a sense of leadership and confidence oozed from him in a manner which I recognised within seconds of making eye contact with him.
“Indeed, but I guess I made it in the end,” I said, arching my back and looking into the forest, the morning dew hanging from branches all around.
“And where is that?” he asked
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, where were you heading?”
“Well, here. I was heading here.”
“I see, and where is here?”
“Here,” I spoke again, a nervous laugh uncontrollably bursting out of my lips. “Here, I was on my way here to Infinity. Infinity, Montana. God knows it wasn’t ease, but…”
“I hate to break it to you kid, but this isn’t Infinity. Sure as hell wish it was, but it isn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“We picked you up whilst on one of our hunting runs. You’d passed out. Found you lying face down in the snow. You ran a fever for two days straight. You never made it to Infinity. This place, this thing you see, it’s not Infinity.”
The feelings I felt as he uttered those words are hard to explain. All the more so, after all these months later. Considering all the time I’ve had to think it over, still they remain a deep and painful sore.
“So if this ain’t Infinity, where are we?” I asked hoping in the very least that his answer would send me on my way to finding my true destination.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” a stranger’s voice spoke as a few men and two women appeared from out of nowhere.
“Welcome,” someone spoke as I looked around.
“Ye welcome to nowhere,” some other joker added.
“You mean to say this ain’t Infinity? Ok, I can take that, I guess you all just camp out here. But like I said I was on my way to Infinity, Infinity, Montana, and I’m dead keen to make it there as soon as possible.”
“You ain’t going nowhere,” someone spoke, trying to break the news to me with blunt force.
“What you’re looking for,” the tall leading figure spoke, “Inifnity, Montana, we all came here looking for it. Just like you did. We’ve been looking for it ever since. Most of us have been here for years, a few of us for decades.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I remember uttering, “why can’t you all just up and leave? What’s the point of camping out here in the cold. How far can it possibly be to the main road. The bus stop. Come on, I couldn’t have walked for more than a few miles. The bus back into town’s only an hour’s ride away.”
The good earth gives us everything we need. There are 72 of us. Each and everyone having made their way here for the same reason. In that we all find solace. Many have set out to find Infinity. Just as many have set out to find their way back to the real world. None have ever come back. Some have resigned themselves to seeing out their days here. I, on the other hand, still have a dream. Today, 7th Febraury 1984, I set off into the winter’s dim sunlight. The ice on the lake is at its thickest. I plan to cross it and mount across the mountains behind. From there, I will either find Infinity, crawl my way back into the world from which we all came, or die in the attempt. I have a dream, and I’m willing to die for it.