Language feels tangible to me. When reading, I slip around words like an eel wriggling through an underwater log. My brain is linguistically well-oiled; I read faster than I can comprehend, feeling out of breath when coming to the end of a paragraph before realising that although I have eaten the words, wrapping my tongue around the cadences, the amount of syllables, the shapes of consecutive vowels, I haven’t understood the ideas that shimmer around them. Language entangles all my senses simultaneously. Tautology makes me wince, desperate to wash the stickiness from my brain. Ambiguities poke out of sentences, cutting my tongue. Inelegant use of language smells like gas, making me gag. Fallacies make me irate and ill.
By contrast, elegant phrases lighten my body. When language holds hands to become delicately figurative, I become short of breath. My interoception, weak at the best of times, can break down altogether when reading. I squeeze my tongue between my teeth; time feels chewy, and my imagination tastes as real as anything I have ever eaten. There is pain around my side that I cannot interpret. It could be hunger, I might need the toilet. I start when it becomes abrupt and peel through layers of clothes, suddenly sure that I have been pierced by something with serrated edges, as if a crazed robot imagined that I was a loose component that had to be bolted in place with an enormous screw, forced through my flesh until metal was painfully incorporated into my organs.
I don’t recall the precise nature of what I read that day, only what it induced. Checking my watch, I was surprised to see that it was only two in the afternoon, my exhaustion arising purely from mental exertion. The moment I became aware that I was tired, the sensation was overwhelming
“Idiot,” somebody in the queue behind me muttered, just loud enough for me to hear. I’m indifferent to public opinion. The feeling is so ingrained that I can’t imagine being otherwise. The woman on the till scanned my items very slowly. It was part of a game she was playing. Several times, she pressed a button to call over a manager; whenever they arrived, she would claim something was wrong with the till, only for the problem to be magically resolved when she tried again. She was trying to highlight the number of items I had purchased. I admire cunning, even if used against me. However, each time, the managers declined to intervene. Such situations are why I could never be in a position of authority. Every day, a seedy compromise; each moment packed with tiny pressures. Like your skin being constantly pierced with needles, although so slender the pain barely registers.
A stocky man shoved a basket into my hip as I passed the self-service area. “Sorry, mate,” he said, maintaining eye contact with a heavy glare. Two bags fell from my trolley and I held still for long enough to prove my lack of fear. We both showed our contempt without resorting to a cross word; such beautifully constructed etiquette. The automatic doors jammed as I approached them and a woman tutted at me as she strolled into the Supermarket through the exit. A little boy held on to her jeans with a weak grip, looking up with watery, oval eyes. He was probably her son, but perhaps a stray urchin, washed up from one place to another, kept going only by that strip of denim.
After going through the procedure for immortality, I became very bored. I spent decades on trivialities that were only a way to pass the time: learning the succession of monarchs, presidents, and emperors around the world, counting the bobbles on the wallpaper in my room, watching YouTube videos. The lengths I went to avoid thought were incredible. Eventually, I conceived the idea of creating a jigsaw puzzle of the earth. Categorisation creates understanding. I’ve always loved puzzles, but before that project, the biggest I’d set my mind to was two thousand pieces. I hired a warehouse and got rid of everything inside. The vast open space was intimidating when I stood in the middle of it. With enough time, it was easy to gather good quality materials for the pieces, although I’m embarrassed to say that I lost count halfway through and couldn’t be bothered to restart, meaning that I don’t know how many there were. A lot, in short. I used the optimum strategy, which is to start by turning all the pieces the right way. That way, one can work outwards from the most distinct colours. While doing so, I not only had time to listen to my favourite music but a good proportion of all music. An interesting idea for my next project would be to create an audial puzzle. I’m not quite sure how that would work- whether I could create images based on sounds, or somehow transform sound into a manipulatable substance. I was so taken by the possibilities that I almost abandoned the pieces, before having words with myself. Sometimes, having too many ideas is a kind of laziness- it means that one never has to do the disciplined, difficult work involved in putting thought into motion. I grouped the pieces by colour then re-divided them when they became too numerous. In a project of that size, ‘miscellaneous’ soon becomes impossible to manage. After completing the initial
categorisation, I realised that I had a problem. My initial plan was to start with faces. However, the pieces were so small that none were recognisably anything. I spent years trying to avoid that reality, wandering through the warehouse, bending down and squinting every so often in the hope of finding a piece that would prove an exception to the rule. Eventually, I accepted that there were not going to be any short cuts. I would have to commit to working within groups of colour and seeing what emerged.
I’d examined seven thousand, six hundred, and thirty-three pigeons without finding any dangerous objects. Or any objects at all, in fact. In the initial briefing, six months ago, ‘dangerous objects’ had never been defined; to be on the safe side, I would have classified anything I had found as dangerous. If I had found anything. I wiped my forehead with the top of my arm. I was always tempted to scratch my face or rest my head on my hands, which would have been unfortunate, given that my once bright yellow gloves had become stained with shit.
Despite everything, the pay and hours were okay. I knew that I had to do something like that to get a foot in the door. And I got to sit in a room unsupervised with my friend Adam for most of the day. It could have been worse. The people on the grade below us had to do cats.
During the briefing, we were told that there was intelligence that dangerous objects were being hidden in various animals. The groups who were doing it, we were told, aimed to place a number of the items as a test, to see whether they were uncovered. If the trial plot was successful, more objects would be planted, for assassinations, to damage buildings, and for other types of subversion.
I took the next bird out of the cage to examine it using the technique I had been taught. First, I checked around the beak whilst keeping my other hand firmly around its body. That was what most pigeons disliked about the process, but that one only cooed softly, making it seem to expand through my gloves. What had surprised me about the job was how much personality pigeons have. Apart from being more or less aggressive, some enjoyed being petted whereas others would buffet my hands with their wings the moment I let go. Some are quiet, others noisy; some prefer to be at the centre of their group. I think that all creatures have individual quirks if viewed closely enough.
After finding nothing wrong with the beak, I ran my hand down its neck, feeling the tiny bumps there between my fingers, before parting the tail feathers. No matter how delicately I did so, they always made a tearing sound, although the pigeons did not seem to mind. After checking that nothing was attached to the legs, the final part of the examination was to put a finger far enough into the ‘rear’ (as it had been called during the briefing) for me to ensure that nothing was inside and that it had not been tampered with. I then transferred the bird to the other side of the room and removed a glove to make a mark on my tablet.
I never used to daydream whilst I was working. I did not concentrate on what I was doing either, because my job is simple enough to require only dexterity and patience. If anyone had asked what I did during my sixteen hour shifts, I would have struggled to reply, perhaps only saying that I performed my function. I hope I am never asked that question. The only sounds on the assembly line are those of work; for the entire time I have been here, which is over a year, none of the others have spoken a word. They never even look up. I only differentiate them by the items on their workspaces.
Soon after I started to think about what we were doing, I wondered what would be wrong about killing people. One counter argument is that it is immoral to inflict pain, but death can be achieved without it. And the objection that others are harmed by bereavement is countered by finding those isolated or unpopular enough that their absence would not register. It would be easy to find many such people. And that’s even if I accept the premise about it being wrong to cause harm. Is it to my benefit to come here everyday?
There was still considerable discontent on the second floor. Last year, an anonymous complaint about how uncomfortable the building was had led to it being censured in an official report and a series of improvement works being commissioned, at enormous cost. The fundamental problem was that the building was old, it having been built to the requirements of a previous generation, and changing it to the new standards was difficult. The complaint had focused on the gradient of the stairs, which, at sixty degrees, was ten degrees steeper than the legal requirement. In a phrase that had resonated in the civil court, the anonymous complainant had claimed that the slope amounted to ‘forced exercise’, and that employees had been ‘out of breath’ after climbing them, sometimes for several minutes.
The owners of the company had argued that despite the gradient being a technical breach of the law, the lifts, located at a convenient central location on each floor, meant that no employee had to use the stairs unless they wanted to. They even gave an estimate of the maximum amount of steps it would take to move from any desk in the building to the nearest lift.
These claims had been contested by the National Health and Safety Executive (in the absence of the complainant- another controversy), firstly, on a factual basis, by disputing the length of the footsteps used to make the calculation, on the basis that they represented the footsteps of a man six feet two inches tall, and were therefore unrepresentative of a typically foot, but more fundamentally, on the overall significance of stairs. The NHSE argued that not only should all parts of the building be ‘fit for purpose’, in the words of the legislation, but also that there were circumstances in which employees would be forced to use the stairs, such as an emergency, in which it would be unreasonable for the distress of being out of breath to be added to the inherent trauma of the situation.
Ollie awoke in the darkness, trembling convulsively. The sheet was peeled back. He pressed his knees into his chest. His toes felt like rounded ice blocks and he tentatively stroked his fingers but could not warm them. The clock on the set of drawers beside his bed blinked the time into his eyes: 03:45.
He was too frightened to move and pull the sheet over himself. Although the bed was barely wider than him, Ollie was sure he could feel cold breath on the back of his neck. He carefully straightened his legs the slightest amount. Then he jumped up and spun around in one action. He threw a slipper at a lump in the bed, striking it hard enough to knock the sheet flat. The slipper hit the wall behind with a dull thump, shaking the room. Ollie stood still to listen, curling his toes into the floor, fingertips digging into his thighs.
Jake’s original plan had been to play Cubes on his own until he became good enough to go on-line, but somehow, he did not seem to get any better. He had watched dozens of strategy videos but could never replicate what he saw. The game was deceptively simple. The screen filled with a series of cubes, each of which could be rotated. If the player could manoeuvre them to match a line of the same colour or size, they would be transferred to the other player’s screen. One player won when the other could make no moves. To make things more difficult, the player could never see the entire game area at any one time, and at random points, the cubes would change colour. The player could manoeuvre to the edge of the arena to find out what colours would appear next, but doing so often prevented them from making a line.
Jake lost again and had to stop himself from throwing his controller across the room. He had reduced the difficulty to ‘hard’, but still lost almost half the time. When he heard his mum come into the room behind him, he held his breath. If she saw him getting angry, she might tell him to stop playing.
Joe had worked long hours in the weeks before he went to the café, and had reached such a level of exhaustion that he looked forward to any small pleasure. When he arranged to meet his friend Bob one Friday lunchtime, taking a break for the first time in as long as he could remember, he could not sit still with the excitement. His expectation was heightened still further by the fact that a pamphlet advertising the café had been pushed through his letterbox the previous week that contained a coupon for a free half a cake.
When the fabled time finally arrived, it met his expectations. They spoke of many things: their wives, the weather, and the new photocopiers that had been installed in the office. In fact, they were so immersed in conversation that Joe almost forgot about the coupon, until suddenly, reminded perhaps by the whiff of patisserie, the smell strengthened by being carried on a cool wisp of air conditioning, it came to him in revelation. He took the coupon from his wallet and showed it to Bob with the pride as if it had been a picture of a beloved daughter. Bob could hardly restrain himself:
“That’s good that is.”
When Jack was woken by the heat of the sun, he sat up as if he had been poked. The sensation had become alien in his week off work as during that time and he had been roused by his neighbour, Ellie, knocking on his bedroom window and asking what he was going to do that day with a sunny smile. It was a perfectly ordinary thing to do, of course, but after a few days, he had started waking early in anticipation, wishing that he could be left alone just once.
As he dressed, Jack shuddered at the thought that he would have to spend the morning explaining to his colleagues what he had been doing whilst he was away. The others loved that ritual and would not be content until they knew everything. You escape for a week and you get punished for it. They make sure that you get the same amount of grief whatever happens.
When he left home, he saw Ellie sitting under a tree, staring at the sky.
“Back to that which is never complete but that never begins?” she said. I hate work.
“Yeah, I just hope that the thing that always travels but never rests keeps clear today.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, that which covers everything but that has no shape?” She looked at him blankly. Why can’t she understand the simplest thing, he thought, we only ever talk about the weather, what else would I be saying? “… When walking along the…”
“Whispers amongst the shadows of leaves. Why didn’t you say so?”
Jack paused over her expression, which had changed from friendly to patronising. He knew that she would talk about him with their other neighbours, and imagined the pitying tone she would use when describing his continuing awkwardness. He was relieved that she had forgotten to tell him off for leaving his door shut- a habit she thought absurd in summer (like all structures on the island, the house had no internal doors). Jack forced himself to smile back before walking away.
He had no time to think about the fact that he was returning to work as he responded to the greeting rituals of passers-by. They took so long to understand that he had been on a holiday that he gritted his teeth.
Monday 15 April
I buy a diary every year, but this is the first time I’ve used one for ages. They’ve piled up at the side of my bed, making it harder and harder to get up. Recently, I’ve had something to write about for the first time in a long time.
Tuesday 16 April
I was stuck in a lift with Maisie for hours today. She grimaced when I ran down the corridor to catch the lift door. She wore all black and the tips of her hair were darker than the roots. Her knee length skirt covered most of the spider’s web tattoo that ran up her leg. Her mobile was black too, with a pair of dark blue wings on its case. When I went inside, she pressed the button for the sixth floor- the canteen. Quite presumptuous, I thought, although she had guessed right.
She concentrated on her mobile as the lift rose. That was one of the ways that she differed from the image I had conceived when first seeing her six months ago, when she had glanced at her nails, shoes, and over her shoulder when being shown around the office. I had imagined that she would be above such commonplace things. I thought about saying something each time the lift jolted into a new floor, but always decided against it. When the lights flickered between floors four and five, there was a rattling groan from behind the panel. It whistled and gurgled as if about to throw up before the lift shook violently, throwing us off our feet. Maisie scrambled to one side and slapped the alarm button, then squeezed into a corner with her knees drawn into her chest, breathing heavily.
We’d sat on opposite sides for around ten minutes before I finally said “shit”. She glanced up at me with her kohl rimmed eyes.
“Yeah, shit,” she replied, before glancing at the floor between us. She always seemed to have somewhere else to look. My mobile didn’t work; the amount of bars fluctuated rapidly between empty and full, but whenever I tried to ring anyone, it immediately emptied. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to ask: “have you got any signal?”
She looked up. “What? No.” She flashed the screen at me and added, “just playing games.” I nodded, making her head dart up to note the gesture, before she gradually became engrossed again.
It was awkward sitting there like that, our feet almost touching. Soon, the temperature dropped, and I imagined my legs going blue. It became harder and harder to wriggle my toes. The feeling spread and my teeth started chattering. I thought that I was going to freeze unless we hugged. “Do you like reading?” I asked her. She nodded slowly. “But only really cool books.” She held my eyes with a steady gaze. It was moments like that that reminded me of my first impression of her.
When the man sat beside the woman on the train, he made everyone nearby look at her in sympathy when he clumsily swung his carrier bag into her knee with a metallic clang.
“Sorry, darlin’”, he said, taking out a can of beer.
It was not clear why he had sat next to her, as the train was only half full at that time of day and there were many empty seats where he could have sat alone. After drinking noisily for a few seconds, he turned to her and said “where you getting off, then?”
“Just picking up a few things from the shops.”
She looked out of the window. He belched loudly, said “scuse me”, then opened another can. He slurped the contents, drinking like a crow that cannot lift the can but only manoeuvre its tongue.