(which was published online here )
Katie liked the cat. This morning, like every morning, she was woken by his gentle but insistent scratching at the door. Chastising him, but secretly enjoying having a reason to get up, she let him in.
The cat strolled up and down the bed, purring and nuzzling Katie’s face, and Katie stroked him, tickling his chin and fondling his ears, and rubbing a finger up and down the bridge of his nose. That he liked the best.
The cat started to meow and this, she knew, meant that he was hungry. Out in the hallway, Katie heard the door slam. Adam had gone off to work. Adam had taken to sleeping on the sofa again. These days they hardly ever spoke. Katie got up to fetch the cat a tin of GoCat Senior Cat Food which she had arranged neatly, in piles of 10, in the kitchen cupboard.
Adam hated the cat. Ever since Katie had bought it home one day, he had felt nothing but animosity towards it. Stumbling bleary eyed off the sofa to the kitchen he ran into the cat. The cat turned and fled, scuttling off at full pelt down the hallway to Katie’s room. ‘Stupid fucking animal’ growled Adam between his teeth. The cat always ran away from him, always, filling Adam with renewed loathing for it.
In the kitchen, Adam violently chopped a banana with the edge of his spoon. One by one the off-white splodges fell into his bowl of cornflakes and milk with a splash, leaving droplets of milk on the kitchen counter. He did not wipe them up. No doubt Katie would do it over the course of her daily cleaning routine. ‘When exactly was she going to get a new job?’ he thought.
Adam stood in front of the mirror, tying his tie. He thought of himself as a compassionate person. He gave £10 a month to save the Burmese Tiger from extinction. However, there was no escaping the fact that he wished this cat ill precisely because it was weak. These thoughts disturbed him, but like some sort of obsessive compulsive tick, he could not help them coming out.
As Adam opened the front door, he heard Katie going to get the cat’s food, which it would usually throw up a few hours later. The cat really was a wretched animal. Weak-stomached and weak-willed, it may as well be put down. He pulled the door behind him with a slam.
With Adam left for work, and Katie returned to her bed, Marjari sat alone in the living room, in the lotus position. His white paws placed either side of his crossed back legs, sitting up very straight, his tail curled up behind him. Marjari closed his large green eyes taking deep breaths. In and out. In and out.
Marjari had discovered Buddhism as a kitten in India. His earliest days were spent wandering around the local monastery, sleeping in the banjan tree of the temple courtyard and nuzzling the red robes of the monks who passed by. In time the monks came to like him and adopted him as the temple cat. From then on he lived off the food given as alms to the monastery by the local village folk, in a life of quiet reflection and study.
However, it didn’t take long for Marjari to become frustrated with life at the monastery. Though he respected his masters, Marjari did not understand why the monastery had so many rules and regulations, or why the monks did not want to share the fundamental truths of human nature they had discovered with anyone else.
In time, the monastery began to offer rooms to the increasing numbers of western backpackers who passed by the monastery. Most were searching for some kind of spiritual guidance, and Marjari considered that the kind of knowledge he had been lucky enough to receive from his masters must have been absent in the places these travellers came from. Marjari had found his calling.
One day, a young family arrived at the monastery, making a tour of the world in their VW camper van. Marjari took to sleeping on the front seat, quickly came to be adored by the family’s two young children and got himself a passage to London. Once in London, however, the family soon went off travelling again and Marjari was promptly rehomed. So it was that Marjari came to live with Katie and Adam.
Marjari opened his eyes again, uncrossed his legs and let out a final long breath. There was a great deal of conflict in this house, thought Marjari, preening his whiskers. He could sense its almost visceral presence; he could smell it in the folds of the bed, in the hall with the slamming door, and on Adam’s sofa. Especially on Adam’s sofa. Marjari did not like living in conflict. However, if all went to according to plan, he would not have to wait a day longer.
“The female aspect is at its most positive when reaching out mentally to externals and expressing caring compassion through intellect.” recited Marjari.
Katie needed that feeling of reaching out, the feeling that through her compassion and care somebody, or rather something, depended on her for its life when no-one else did. “That is why she overfeeds me” mused Marjari. “I feel obliged to eat what she gives me, even if it makes me ill. Until she is able to find a more appropriate outlet for the care and compassion which is an essential part of the female mind, she might not get out of bed at all.”
“The male aspect is at its most positive when turning inwards mentally to the intuitive, caring feminine aspect and penetrating its own nature.” Marjari continued.
Adam was someone who had for one reason or another forgotten how to listen to his mind. He had therefore abandoned his intuitive, caring feminine aspects. Instead of turning inwards, his mind violently projects itself outwards to criticise the externals that surround him physically. “One of these externals is myself” concluded Marjari. “Adam cannot see that the true source of his anger is not in fact me but the way in which he, Adam, has chosen to live his life.”
Back in India, one topic on which he was always at loggerheads with the monks about was the subject of sexual intercourse. Marjari believed that sexual intercourse was the salve for every ill. It was the principal meaning for existence, indeed it was by sexual intercourse that we were created, and for sexual intercourse that we pursue our lives. The monks did not see it like that, and blamed Marjari’s animal nature for this abhorrent view, but that was blatantly absurd. Marjari had been castrated at an early age. What did he know of sexual desire?
Sexual intercourse for humans, reasoned Marjari, is fraught with such anxiety and curtailed by a great many contradictory social rules and regulations that a large number of human beings, especially in the western world, have given up on the whole thing altogether.
Adam and Katie were the classic example. Adam was far too proud to contemplate mending things between himself and Katie. By now he actually preferred watching pornography on his laptop to real sex. Katie, because of her under-confidence and years of self-repression probably no longer saw herself remotely capable of performing the sexual act, though she did masturbate from time to time.
How absurd it was, thought Marjari, that two members of the opposite sex of another animal species should live in the same place for so many months, sleeping barely six feet apart from one another, pleasuring themselves alone and never even think of conjoining.
Marjari had made a few half-hearted attempts to reignite their sex life, or at best to remind them that things really couldn’t go on like this for much longer. While Adam was at work and Katie had gone back to sleep, Marjari would type up small aphorisms and leave them around the house such as:
The true sexual urge is the urge for fusion, back into one-ness (in Katie’s bedroom)
The thing that makes a man a good lover is not his masculinity but his femininity. (on Adam’s sofa)
When the art of sexual union is lost, misused or not skilful then all manner of ailments of the body arise (on the bathroom mirror)
This hadn’t worked. Marjari’s efforts were scuppered by Katie who, in ‘cleaning mode’ would indiscriminately throw anything away in her line of vision that registered as ‘abnormal’. She did not even look at them.
There must be a more direct way…
The dull thud of keys
The clicking of the mouse
Bright flickering screen
Another morning ruined
The checkouts in the Bishopsgate branch of Tesco’s had been automated for some time, but Henry still could not get used to the concept. Henry scanned his Tesco’s cheese and onion sandwich and Mc Coys Salt and Vinegar crisps and placed them in the bagging area. Over the course of his lunch break he had not interacted with a single person. ‘What were Ahmed and Gurpreet and Maryam doing now?’ thought Henry as he paid for his things. There was not even anyone to say thank you to anymore. Henry picked up his purchases and walked out of the store, under the watchful eye of two burly security guards.
Returning through the sliding front doors of 110 Bishopsgate, Henry passed the front desk with its bleary-eyed receptionist, into the lift. As the steel and glass box commenced its rapid ascent to the 17th floor, Henry gazed out over the afternoon city sky. On the glass to his right, he saw that someone, probably a keen new recruit, had stuck up a poster for a climbing club, aimed specifically at new members: Thursdays at 7, at The Castle near Finsbury Park, followed by a trip to the pub. This was the first time Henry had seen any kind of social communication in the building. It was not at all in fitting with the brutalist-style lift and furthermore, its position on the glass pane obstructed Henry’s view of St. Pauls. It was almost sacrilegious. Henry quickly removed it from the glass, as well as the blutack used to attach it. Folding up the poster into squares of diminishing size, Henry made sure that the blutack was stuck safely inside one of the folds. If would be a nightmare to get off thought Henry, as he stuffed the folded-up poster into the pocket of his black Ralph Lauren microfiber raincoat.
Getting out of the lift, the first thing Henry always saw was Gloria, at her desk. By the lurid yellow and blue colours on her screen, Henry could make out that she was once again on the website for Ryan Air. What could she be doing on there? She had just announced another trip back to her native Italy next month, and was always spending weekends in Paris and Amsterdam and Prague.
She looked up from her screen, giving Henry a little wave as he passed her desk. It was a shame, thought Henry, that with the age of low-cost air travel people now spent their time focussing more on where they will go for their next city break rather than where they have to come back to every Monday morning. When was Gloria going to think about the present, rather than incessantly planning these trips abroad?
Henry settled himself at his desk at the far corner of the room. He considered again the poster for the climbing club. By removing it from the lift he was sure that no-one from the office would be going, and Henry was keen to meet new people. There might even be a single girl there. Henry might find her attractive, and she him. While continuing to hone their climbing techniques they might start dating. Their courtship might develop into a long-term relationship and, despite sporadic ups and downs, they might get married. Their married lives might still revolve around the climbing club, before the children came along. Somewhere along the line they might get a dog. Alternatively, he would do something else on Thursday. The girl whom he might have met at the climbing club might meet someone else. Such was life.
Henry took his sandwich out of its clear plastic packaging and began to consume it in large bites. He often had these spiralling thoughts about his future and always came to the conclusion that in the modern world there was just too much possibility to make anyone happy. There were far too many ‘mights’ around and not as many ‘do’s’ or ‘do not’s’ as he would have liked. He needed more rules. Hell, perhaps he needed a religion, anything that in any way limited the horribly infinite choices he had before him, none of which he was taking.
Sandwich in hand, Henry began to write again:
The sun ripening the wheat
Means nothing to me
Ceres is scorned
As I scoff my Tesco sandwich
Considering the piece complete, Henry planned to spend the next hour of the afternoon composing four emails to girls he had not seen for a while, inviting each one out for a drink, on each day of the week. In this way, he would not have to choose between two options. Henry knew by now that in such a situation he would always feel that he had chosen the wrong one, that the option he had turned down had been the more exciting one. Better an evening at home than an evening filled with regret.
Henry began typing. ‘Hey’ he began. He didn’t want to sound too desperate, so decided he would keep the tone relaxed. ‘… this is Henry…’ although some of these girls he hadn’t seen for a while, best to qualify’… Henry Miller’. Henry stopped typing abruptly. His name was Henry Miller. In the 37 years since his birth he was always surprised to be reminded that that was his name.
Henry Miller. A miller. Somebody who mills grains to make flour. Would he be any happier if he still was a miller, thought Henry, and his father was a miller, and his father before him? If he changed his name to Henry Management Consultant, would he feel any greater fulfilment or, at least, resignation to his fate?
At university, Henry thought that it was pretty cool to be associated with such an author. Miller was a ‘cool’ author because he fucked girls and swore and drank. Henry did all of those things, but his life as a masters student in economics was certainly not ‘cool’. Despite Henry’s success, gaining a highly-envied associate position at a management consultancy soon after graduation, the name of Henry Miller soon became a curse, a clear reminder that life was certainly not going to be the same for him as it was for his namesake.
Henry finished his email with a sigh, and looked up from his computer screen to survey the rows of desks in the large, open-plan office. The ‘research monkeys’, as they were sarcastically called by the management team, were still all hard at work. Henry acknowledged that his job was boring, but it was at least well paid, and respectable. After all, Henry could now call himself a ‘senior’ member of the team. In this firm, however, he knew that the monkeys would always be monkeys, though they themselves might prefer the term ‘market analysts’. In this firm there was not so much a glass ceiling, but a glass tank, through which Henry watched them at work from his desk. It was only because of their small-mindedness that they kept coming here. If the corollary of living in trendy Stoke Newington and going out drinking every Friday night meant that they spent their daylight hours here, generating extensive data on printer cartridge manufacturers, then that was what they were prepared to do. Henry regarded them with pity, and did not join in with his colleagues’ simian humour. Despite himself, he had to admit that they were a pretty uninspiring bunch.
Annoyed that there was nothing else to do except get on with his work, Henry saw that Gloria had got up to go the coffee machine. He sidled over as Gloria stood waiting for her usual hot water, into which she would put some colourful bag smelling of liquorice.
“Hello” said Henry, nonchalant as usual. He really wanted to be friendly to Gloria, but he just couldn’t help keeping up this arbitrary aloofness of his. He had no idea what Gloria really did over at her desk, but knew that she was one level below him on the salary scale. Was this what Henry’s 10 years of extra life had amounted to? He a Senior Consultant and she a Junior?
“Hey!” said Gloria, looking up from stirring her cup of now purplish-red water. She was wearing a thick pink hoodie over her smart trousers and blouse, despite the more than adequate temperature of the office. She picked up the steaming cup with both hands, covered by the long sleeves of her hoodie, so she would not get scalded.
“Getting coffee?” she asked.
‘Of course he was getting coffee. Why else had he come over to the coffee machine?’ thought Henri angrily, until he realised that no, he hadn’t gone to get coffee at all, he had come to talk to Gloria because he was bored.
“Yes” said Henry, pressing the ‘Latté’ button.
Henry glance lingered on her hoodie for a moment. Henry had seen from her Facebook profile – one of a series of photos taken as she and her friends were sunning themselves on a beach somewhere, no-doubt on one of her Ryan-air weekends away- that Gloria had a pretty good body, especially around the abdominal area; strong, lithe and naturally bronzed, ever so slightly pouting.
“It’s cold today isn’t it.” said Gloria
Being sensitive to the cold was a clear sign of mental inertia.
Gloria always asked this question and it annoyed Henry intensely. Did she think that he was actually interested in what he was doing all day?
“Oh, you know.”
“Is that a latté?” said Gloria, pointing at Henry’s latté.
“Yes.” said Henry. Was this as good as it was going to get? Then, changing the subject: “Anyway, what are you up to tonight?”
“Oh i’m off to a gypsy jazz festival in Shoreditch.”
Henry rolled his eyes, despite himself. Why was she always going out all the time? Why was everyone always going out all the time? How would this phenomenon of ‘going out’ be recorded by sociologists in the distant future? It would probably remain one of the mysteries of our era.
“Sounds great. I’m going to an organ recital in Sloane Square with some old friends. Should be a good one.”
“Cool!” Gloria said, smiling but obviously not really knowing how to respond. “Enjoy your latté!”
Oh my God, enough with the latté! He didn’t even want the damn thing. Henry picked up his latté and walked back to his desk.
“Enjoy your strange herbal concoction” he said over his shoulder. Gloria smiled at him again as she walked back to her desk. Her eyes were beautiful, dark hazel brown, almost glimmering.
The problem was, thought Henry, as he threw his latté into the bin next to his desk, is that today we have all the externals of a mating ritual- darkened meeting places, revealing dress, intoxicants, percussive musical accompaniment- but their original function, to facilitate and ritualise the finding of a mate, has been forgotten. While it is acceptable to go out ‘to listen to music’, ‘to get dressed up’, ‘to have dinner’, ‘to get drunk’, to say that we are going out ‘to find a mate’ is seen as socially embarrassing, and if it does in fact come to pass, it is excused as a drunken accident or mere chance. In most tribal societies, the mating ritual is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. In the present day it happens every Friday night, without fail, because we repeatedly refuse to acknowledge its proper function.
Henry checked his inbox one last time before packing up to go home. To his surprise, one of the four girls he had emailed before lunch had actually replied, and in the affirmative! After rapidly sending a text to confirm (she had given him her mobile number), and another text to his organ recital friends to let them know he had been held up at work and wouldn’t be able to join them, Henry began packing his briefcase in a state of excitement and trepidation.
Zara. He had known her at university, where she was a demure but quirky hijjabi. Recently, Henry had discovered that at around 30 years old, Zara had gone through something of a transformation; shod of her hijab, she had developed a penchant for alcohol and casual relations with men. Before, she had had all that Henry ever wanted- a framework for life, a firm grip on some external reality, a God- but she had thrown it all away to be like him, just another victim of the postmodern era. Once, Henry had toyed with the idea of asking her to marry him. It seemed romantic, but Henry knew full well that in practice this would be almost impossible, thus he desired it avidly. Now that he would quite probably be able to sleep with her, Henry was not so interested, but was nevertheless pleased that someone was interested in him.
After making one last check of his desk, and saying a brief goodbye to Gloria and the rest of his colleagues, Henry headed out onto Bishopsgate. A sudden gust of wind enlivened him as he strode purposefully towards Liverpool Street, buttoning up his raincoat. Perhaps it was the alignment of the stars, or the promise of springtime, but things really were looking up for Henry of late. Last month he had gained the promotion to senior consultant he had been after for years, he had also managed to have one of his poems published in an obscure, pretentious and expensive French magazine.
However the main cause for his recent happiness, renewed once again by Zara’s desire to see him again, was that over the course of a Saturday afternoon stroll around the antique stalls of South Kensington, Henry had had the good fortune to stumble across a collection of some of Henry Miller’s later works, long since out of print. He found the book in a bargain bin, shoved carelessly under the stall’s trestle table. The book was old, moth-eaten but by the unruffled state of its pages, hardly ever read. Henry held the book in his hands: “Henry Miller’s Book of Friends: A Tribute to Friends of Long Ago”. What a pretentious title that only a friendless loner could have come up with! Now an ageing hippie living somewhere on the West Coast, Miller, probably drug-addled and incontinent, had written 400-odd pages of weak polemics about everything from the rise of big business to the inferior quality of American bread to Parisian baguettes. It was all so impotent, so trivial, so middle class!
Safe in his room, Henry pored over every page in a state nearing rapture, overjoyed at how crap and boring it was. He had even been prepared to pay the £25 the shopkeeper wanted to charge him, pretty outrageous especially as Henry had had to make a great effort to convince the shopkeeper that the book had actually come from his stall.
They had agreed to meet at 8:30, and as Henry arrived at Liverpool Street, walking to the ticket office as she had instructed him, he cursed himself for his hurried departure from work. It was only 7pm. Why had he not stayed in the warmth of the office for at least another half an hour? For a few minutes Henry paced up and down the station concourse, weighing up his options. It was far too chilly to simply sit down and wait- the weatherman had said that this cold snap of below-freezing arctic winds would last at least until the end of the week- and Henry did not have the inclination to drink any alcohol. Turning up drunk to this date, or whatever it was, would show him clearly as the loser he was pretending not to be. A quick stroll up and down Bishopsgate made it apparent that the cafes were shutting for the evening, and Henry could not bear the thought of going into a restaurant alone.
Skirting the upper level of the station concourse, Henry looked down on the flock of people below, rushing off in one direction or another like a confused colony of ants. The predominant colour was black. How dull. Black suits, black trousers, sometimes a black hat or tie, sometimes even a black jacket thrown over a black suit. He felt like the giant in H.G. Wells ‘The Food of the Gods’ who, when trampling through London, demolishing whole streets with each stride, bellowed out again and again to the terrified little people fleeing him “but what are you all for?” Henry checked himself. Now was really not the moment for an introspective crisis. Trying to regain his previous enthusiasm for the evening, Henry pulled himself away from watching the crowds and returned to the ground floor.
Sensing the cold, Henry went into a Boots, greeted at the door by a waft of warm air. The atmosphere was positively tropical. As he was noting the various types of dental floss he could purchase and their respective benefits and drawbacks, Henry was reminded of his statement, to himself, that the lack of public space was one of his major issues with modern Western society. The only sources of warmth and community were places where you had to spend money, or, as he was doing now, pretend that he wanted to spend money. He really should write something about that, an extended essay perhaps. Henry bought a pack of durex extra safe condoms, putting them away in his briefcase.
Being unable to tolerate any more pseudo-consumerism in the shopping centre, Henry resolved to wait in the cold. He only had another 45 minutes until Zara arrived, and if he positioned himself by the entrance to the underground station, the gentle rush of warm smoggy air would at least ensure that he wouldn’t get unbearably chilled.
From his vantage point, leaning on the railing by the ticket office, overlooking the barriers below, Henry was engaged for a time in crowd-watching; someone dropped their Oyster Card then picked it up again, someone else lost control of their wheeled suitcase and picked that up again. Two people bumped into each other and said sorry. A girl leading a group of giggly friends pointed to the fruit and vegetable stand below where Henry was leaning and pointed; “What a massive onion!” said the girl. Henry looked down. It was indeed a remarkably large onion.
After five minutes more of trying to keep a dignified position on the railings, Henry’s ennui returned again. He got out his book, Atomised by Michel Houellebecq, and began to read. Houellebecq’s characters were the only ones Henry felt were at all representative of ‘modern society’, like Zola or a Trollop in their day. If people took offence it was only because they were escapists. It was a shame though that all his characters killed themselves or went mad. Henry looked at his Blackberry. It had gone 8:30. Fuck’s sake.
For the last 10 minutes Henry had been glancing at the girl next to him, also waiting, above the pages of his book. A few times she had glanced back. Henry couldn’t help it, but he always caught people’s eyes, girls’ eyes especially. However, he could never work out whether it was him or the girl who was staring.
As the clock on Henry’s Blackberry reached 20:45, Henry cursed Zara and asked himself why he was wasting his time on her. At times like this- alone, impatient and cold- Henry looked upon the crowd of human flesh pouring through the ticket barriers and decided that he would be happy to sleep with around 8 out of 10 of the girls between 18 and 40 who passed through. He must try to be more judgemental, but each blemish, each feature too large or too small, each badly co-ordinated wardrobe or grating accent was brushed aside by a charitable sense of compromise, fuelled by desire. It wasn’t as if Henry felt at all saintly about this strange form of selflessness. He just felt a bit pathetic.
9:00 and it was clear Zara wasn’t coming. The waiting girl was still waiting. Could she not perhaps be thinking the same thing, watching the constant stream of people pouring out of the barriers? Really, what would be the difference if instead of meeting Zara, he just met any one of the myriad of people leaving the barriers before him? What would be the difference if indeed he were to meet the waiting girl instead? Henry could not even remember what Zara looked like properly. Furthermore, in the throes of her identity crisis, she could have turned up with bleached blond hair and wearing a red PVC all-in-one for all he knew. No, he wouldn’t mind going out with any of these people instead, not least the waiting girl. There was something tragic about her which Henry liked. In his mind’s eye, this is what would happen:
Henry: Hey. I see you’re waiting too. Let’s just forget this waiting business and go out together.
Waiting Girl: For years I have wanted to say the same thing, to so many people. You’re amazing. I think I love you already.
“Errr..” Henry had walked up to the waiting girl, he had started to speak, but he could not finish. The girl looked at him with complete distain for a half second, then looked quickly back towards the barrier.
“Oh Nick!” shouted the girl, suddenly, running down the stairs, over to the barriers and hugging Nick, who looked happy but slightly bemused as he emerged from the tube with a suitcase and a shoulder bag.
Henry shuffled over to the barriers himself. Ah well thought Henry, as he tapped in. At least being approached by a stranger who wasn’t a beggar may have given her some boost of self-confidence. Henry’s phone started to ring. It was Zara. Oh dear. Henry looked between the escalators in front of him and the barrier behind him and back again. The phone was still ringing. He had also received two messages, which he must not have noticed. Henry looked behind him at the barriers one last time, before heading off down the escalator, into the signal-less depths of the underground.
In here I’m not so bothered by the dark. I mean, since my adolescence I have taken to shutting my curtains during the day. I find it more restful, more private. The quiet is not so much of a problem either. I have always preferred things to be quiet. As a child, my parents always knew to take the batteries out of any new toys they bought me. There were enough loud voices invading my quiet space without my toys speaking to me as well.
Yes, the one thing I cannot abide here are the people. They come and go unexpectedly. I am always so nervous, always waiting for that moment when someone comes clumping down the stairs. They are so noisy, clinking bottles, rummaging around in boxes, messing with these big machines around me which buzz and hum. When they talk it’s the worst; swearing, mithering about their shifts, cooing about some man who bought one of them a drink. One day two came down here and said nothing. But from the slopping sound and heavy breathing I knew they were kissing. That’s when I wanted to get out, to escape. I felt their warmth in this cold room and it invaded my space like a disease. They were silent now, I think one of them must have left, but they were there all the same, I knew it. I longed for them to just go away, for it to be closing time. At least silence holds no surprises.
As a child I only had one phobia that I know of; wearing someone else’s shoes. Once, I must have been about fourteen. I put my Dad’s slippers on by mistake. They were all warm and moist. A feeling of revulsion shook my whole body. I threw them off and rushed upstairs. I stood in the bath and turned on the tap, rubbing my feet with hot soapy water one by one. My own father! I don’t understand why I did that.
There isn’t much space in here. Not space enough for me to make much of a sound. My hands and wrists all so squeezed together, the best I can manage is a scratch. Would anyone hear do you think? Above the buzzing and hissing of the gas distribution machine, above the hum of the water pipes, above them messing around with the bottles and pumps and talking to each other, would anyone hear my little noise? I think not. But what would happen if they did hear? That’s what I always wonder. If they heard me, and got me out, how would I explain myself? What would they think of me? It would be in all the tabloids I imagine. My incredible story, my ‘rescue’. I mean what would my parents think? Dad with his blanket drawn up to his knees, hunched over the Daily Mail, calling Mum over from the kitchen. No. Things are best as they are. Better the devil you know, and all that. When they’ve all gone home, that’s when I can risk a bit of noise. Cough, move myself about, flex my arms. In this thing can feel my whole body move with every breath. Like a big baby in an aluminium womb.
It smells funny in here. Smells like a bar, as you’d expect, but a bar that has never been cleaned. Smells stale. Smells of rotting yeast, of bad breath. Oh. Here comes the girl, puffing and panting. She shouts: ‘Cheryl, where did you say those Magners were?’ God, just make her go away. ‘Where the fuck is that Magners?’ God please. Off she goes, tramping back up the stairs, the bottles all jarring against one another in their cardboard box. Silence again.
In my room, my childhood room, I insisted on having a night light way past the age children are supposed to. I must have been about 12 when I finally stopped. But the thing with the nightlight is, it cast strange shadows about the room. My clothes scattered on the floor, a pile of toys, a shoe, they all took on a different appearance at night. In the half-light they made themselves into faces, scary faces, leering at me from the gloom. Under the covers, I thought to myself ‘if I just stay silent, nothing will happen. If I don’t make a noise, it’ll all be ok.’ I kept looking out, through the tiniest gap in my blanket, to see if they were still there, to make sure they hadn’t moved. I turned my face to the wall, but as soon as I did, I imagined they were coming up behind me, climbing into my bed. I turned again to squint through the tiny gap. Nothing. They were still there, where they were before, the things. Leering, monstrous. Good.
As I’m sure you will understand, being where I am, I have learnt quite a lot about managing a pub. As you can imagine, I am especially interested in anything that has to do with my own position and I have heard the manager explain several times to new staff how to change and how to condition a barrel. Barrels like mine are actually called kegs. They contain lagers or Guinness, I am not sure which one mine should contain, but the concept is the same. They must be injected with a mixture of Nitrogen and Carbon Dioxide gas. 60/40 mix for the lagers, 70/30 for the Guinness. Now my knowledge of science is not what it was, but I remember my teacher explicitly saying that humans cannot respire Nitrogen, neither can they respire Carbon dioxide. Only oxygen. I can’t imagine being under high pressure is good for a human body either. In fact, I believe it is fatal.
This has led me, clearly, to contemplate my own death on a daily basis. I know what will happen. I know the process intimately by now. They will put a plastic tube in the little hole at the top of the barrel- I can feel its ring-shaped imprint on the crown of my head- then they will set the distribution on the gas distributor- 60/40 for lagers, 70/30 for Guinness- and then they will turn the gas on. The gas will be invisible and cold. There will be a pffff sound, and that will be it. I will cease to be able to respire. I will become ‘dead’. I will move on. Somewhere else.
Going back to the creatures in my room, in the end I came to the conclusion that with the lights off, I need not worry if they came to attack me. If they did it would be too late. I got my parents to buy me blackout blinds. In the dark I lost the fear, but not the belief in them, the creatures. If they came, well there was just nothing I could do. Since then, death has never held much mystery for me. Now that I know exactly how it will all end, with the gas, it holds even less. Pfffff. That will be it. That will be all the man or the woman who fills my barrel will hear. That is all the passing of a human life will be to him or her. Pffff. Gone. That made me feel a lot better about the whole thing actually.
Sure enough, one day, Richard’s barrel (for that was his name, Richard) was rolled up to the gas distribution machine. Three times it rolled over. His hands shook, and all his muscles tensed. It felt like he was rolling eternally. A chink of light appeared behind his head, as the seal was broken to put in the tube. For a moment all was grey. Not black but grey. The tube came in; a cyclopic eye examining him impassively. Back to black. The gas filtered in. Slowly at first, sinking down, down to the bottom of the barrel, chilling his backbone, freezing his toes. The flow increased to a scream, a single scream of liquid gas, covering everything around him in a shimmering haze. Richard may have screamed too, but if he did it was lost in the loud scream of the gas and went unnoticed. After a while it ceased its scream. Silence again.
Upstairs in the pub, a typical afternoon crowd. By the fruit machine, an old man looked into his Carling. Another was reading the paper. A mother and two children were having egg, beans and chips, with a collection of J2O’s. A hazy mid-morning light came in from the lead-squared windows.
At the bar, the beer tap spluttered and hissed.
‘Better go check that Guinness again.’
The canapés were brought out on trays; Blini topped with red caviar, vol-au-vons stuffed with mushroom pâté, stilton cheese atop a dry water biscuit. The room was decked out with reels of white silk; three on each side, one at each end, each commencing at the porphyry cornice pieces carved into apples and pears and the leaves of vines, descending the red marble walls in a white flourish and collapsing at the bottom into a heaped mass, spilling across the smooth red carpet like camp magma.
Each man and woman held a glass of champagne, regularly topped up to the brim. The bubbles inside each glass forming little underwater columns, queuing up to explode on the surface, expelling miniscule droplets across the immense pale yellow sea, regularly diminished by the slow sips of cavernous mouths.
All the while a low buzz of vocal chords. Neither a crescendo, nor a diminuendo, but more like the droning of the Indian tanpura. All around there are little motifs, ending almost as soon as they had begun, but all contributing to this universal buzz, filling the room with energy, with life.
‘Have you read Clovis Puffin’s latest drollery on Ancient Greek chamber pots? Somehow managed to have it published at the Oxford Press. The man has quite clearly lost his mind!’
‘To publish a play at last, why that’s delightful! ‘
‘Mr Bronnoysund? Very much enjoyed your essay on The Tempest.’
‘How are you enjoying your retirement Richard? Ischia was it? Awfully good of you to grace us with your presence I must say!’
‘Oh do stop it Henry, you’re embarrassing us in front of the Wilcoxes.’
‘Pshaw! Quite clearly a plagiarism if ever I saw one.’
‘Did we not meet at the society dinner last Wednesday? The lobster was simply divine, was it not?’
‘And you never guess what they had gone and done next! Yes… that’s exactly what my wife said.’
‘The service was simply awful’
‘Oh dear lord Henry, look who’s come in’
‘Christ, would you look at that’
‘Look what the cat dragged in’
‘What a terrible surprise’
‘Is that not?’
‘It can’t be’
‘I’ll be damned’
‘Well I never’
‘Does than man never give it a rest?’
‘What a terrible bore!’
‘Oh Henry, he’s coming our way’
‘Here he comes’
‘Blimey, prepare yourselves’
‘Look the other way would you Margaret’
‘What a lovely surprise!’
‘What a lovely surprise!’
‘What a lovely surprise!’
‘What a lovely surprise!’
‘We’ve all read your latest novel.’
‘We’ve all read your latest novel.’
‘We’ve all read your latest novel.’
‘We’ve all read your latest novel.’
‘Well same to you Albert, same to you!’
‘Well same to you Albert, same to you!’
‘Well same to you Albert, same to you!’
‘Well same to you Albert, same to you!’
‘Indeed, see you again soon I’m sure, yes. We will.’
‘Indeed, see you again soon I’m sure, yes. We will.’
‘Indeed, see you again soon I’m sure, yes. We will.’
‘Indeed, see you again soon I’m sure, yes. We will.’
‘Greatest load of codswallop I’ve ever seen in print’
‘His latest really was beyond the pale’
‘Dear God I could hardly contain myself’
‘I was two seconds from laughing right in his face’
‘So anyway, you were saying, how is young Edward coming along?
‘Any word from your mother lately? Is she any better?’
‘Dreadful weather today, simply dreadful.’
‘Another top up Brian? Awfully good champagne I must say.’
An aside from the Narrator
Albert Audrecht was a man who did not know himself. According to a book I have been reading about how to write a novel, this makes for a pretty poor story:
‘Writers often talk about having a hero whose opponent is himself or who does not know himself. This is a mistake that will cause all kinds of structural problems.’
John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
However, I know Albert personally, and it is true, he does not know himself. I cannot change the reality of that. He doesn’t know himself, he often can be his own opponent, and yes, I imagine this has caused him, and will cause me, ‘all kinds of structural problems’.
By the spread of canapés and row upon row of champagne glasses, Albert stood in line. He was sweating profusely in his suit. A large lily drooped down from his top jacket pocket. His suit was too tight, or rather, he was not as thin as he used to be. He mopped at his brow with a handkerchief, dabbing away as if to wipe a tough stain on his balding head, mostly obscured by a large wide-brimmed hat, tidemarks of sweat leaving diminishing rings of white on its surface. His waistcoat was threadbare, and in combination with his dress shirt unnecessary. He wore a cravat too, tied in a single knot. It was as if he had brought out his whole wardrobe for the occasion. He had an unkempt moustache, which he kept twitching compulsively, the whole thing sprouting from his large nostrils. His hands were shaking.
‘Albert, a word.’
It was the president of the society. Bespectacled, his white hair smoothed back with pomade, he looked like a celebrity librarian. He wore a red poppy in his grey/white jacket with matching trousers. As Albert looked down, he caught a glance of his own draggled face in the shine from the president’s brown leather brogues.
The president led Albert out of the main hall, into the entrance area. The speeches about to start imminently, there was no-one else there but the porter, he himself preparing to leave.
The president, having checked the coast was clear, turned to Albert and folded his arms. Looking him straight in the face.
‘Albert. What are you doing here?’
‘Your publications are making a mockery of my society and your continued attendance of these events puts its future in jeopardy.’
Albert opened his mouth, but before he could let out any kind of sound, the president continued what he was saying.
‘We are serious people. I Albert, I am a serious person. I am trying my best to produce topical, relevant work, to encourage the production of topical and relevant work which expresses, as far as is possible, the political and social developments, increasingly rapid, which are taking place in our world. It does not seem that you share these ambitions. It does not seem you are a serious writer, Albert, it does not seem that you are in fact serious about anything at all. Does all this seem comprehensible, what I’ve just said? Can you give me any reason to suggest otherwise?’
Albert looked around, as if the question was not directed at him, but at someone else entirely. Slowly he turned his head to face the president. His eyes downwards, like a naughty schoolboy in front of the head master.
‘Well’ he said, coughing once, clearly, and rolling his cravat through his fingers ‘all I can say is that that is not what you told me when I was invited to join this society.’
The president rolled his eyes.
‘Twenty years ago Albert! That was 20 years ago! As a public figure, I have to be seen to be ahead of the game when it comes to new talent. I had heard your name repeated in the highest circles of literary people, so naturally, I thought it fit to invite you to join. But let me tell you, I was never at all smitten with your writing. Amusing perhaps, but I rather hoped that you would have mellowed somewhat, that perhaps through meeting some of the finest minds of our time, your writing may have become a little more…a little more…mature. This has not happened, Albert, and what is more, it is no longer amusing. To tell you the truth it is just plain odd. That is what everybody is saying. That is what I am saying. I have been in this business all my life, Albert, and I know that nothing ‘odd’ lasts for long. Twenty years is too long, Albert, too long. Your accreditation by the society, which you gratuitously put at the front page of every book you publish, has made me, with no exaggeration, the laughing stock of the literary world. Yes, people here keep quiet enough, but the reports I hear from my contacts at the RSA, at the Royal Academy itself, are quite frankly too much to bear any longer. Charles Hestler has already made it quite clear to me he will leave if you are not removed by the next session, the Wilcoxes too. And where do you think they will go, eh? There is no argument, no debate. You are scored from the list. If you continue to claim our accreditation in any future books of yours, this will be an infringement of the law, and I shall not be at all averse to taking the matter to the courts, you mark my words.’
Albert twitched his moustache. Sniffed a little, and his hand on his chin, turned to face the president.
‘Well, if that’s what you think, I suppose that is that. You can count on me that I’ll never be coming to one of your events again.’
The president smiled, patting Albert lightly on the back. Good man. I am glad we are in accordance for once.
Said Albert, his finger raised in the air, a smile spreading over his face, taken from the mouth of president, which was instead opening in a little ‘O’ shape
‘… you cannot stop me attending this one last dinner. My name is on the list after all!’
‘Dear Lord.’ said the president under his breath. Then, turning to Albert:
‘Albert, no-one can say you have no right to stay tonight but if you stay, please do not do anything to embarrass me.’
‘Me, do anything to embarrass you? Never.’
‘I mean it Albert.’
The analogy of the naughty boy and the school master vanished into non-existence, and the scene was more like a scene of two boys. One a bully, one a whimpering swot. Albert strode through the double doors leading into the great hall, leaving the president alone, feeble, open mouthed. He rushed in after him. He was going to miss the start of the speeches.