Sunday, 26 September 2010
Thursday, 16 September 2010
Tuesday, 14 September 2010
Into my skin like a mark of ownership,
The threads themselves are cold-fire chains
Fastened around my withered limbs,
Whilst time itself is a leash of molten lead
Tightened by my wasted thoughts.
Reflected in the fading shine of my £20 shoes
I see no reason to be awake and no reason to sleep,
Except that being one avoids being the other
But either way there are no dreams or nightmares,
Just a question that has no answer
Because I can not afford one.
Friday, 10 September 2010
But rather on the windowsill where
Suspended for an eternal moment
The light catches itself off guard and
Off-white in places due to the clouds,
Or clear as frozen air in others
And textured-blue around the base like
Brushstrokes on a freshly painted wall.
Spheres within a sphere coil around
Themselves as much as that solid space
Like the base pairs in a strand of DNA,
Or the half-infinite thoughts of
A homeless asylum seeker watching
Raindrops cling trembling to the edge
Of an abandoned shop's doorway
As everyone else's lives drift by.
Thursday, 2 September 2010
Three hundred and sixty-five days...three hundred and sixty-five failures.
Sean had worked as a cleaner at the abattoir for a year. He blanched at the reminder he had scribbled on the calendar pinned to the back of a door. Those scratchy pencil letters were like units of time carved into the wall of a prison cell. What had a year come to mean to him? Disappointment; nothing more, nothing less. To him remembering a year was like the feeling a beggar gets before looking into his cup only to see that it is full of coppers, buttons and screwed up coffee shop receipts. He had spent years looking for real work and it was all he could do to stay optimistic in the face of constant, inexplicable failure. He was still looking for an actual job but it was a search conducted more out of habit than hope. The words “it’s only temporary” had long since lost their meaning to him, and anyone else he tried to convince of that fact. He remembered the facial expression of his advisor at the job centre as a sneer rather than a smile. It was the sort of look a stray cat might have reserved for an object seen briefly and only in passing but having been deemed beneath its interest was worthy only of a disdainful hiss.
Despite that, at first after being told the job was his he had stared blankly up at the smoke-stained artex ceiling of his bedsit and dared to let hope encourage his dreams. With a little money behind him he had convinced himself that he could regain some of the dignity and self-respect that had all but abandoned him whilst on the dole. That was until he had spent day after day cleaning gore-drenched floors and listening to the same people say the same things every time they spoke until it seemed that spools of soap opera celluloid were pouring out of their throats. Each squelching sweep of the mop made him feel as though he had scoured away parts of his mind just as easily as he had various kinds of bestial effluent. He had worn himself down to the point where there were no dreams in his sleep. Not even nightmares. Just an expanse of grey, shapeless subconscious thought which, like the clouds he glimpsed through the solitary barred-over window of his room, stretched on forever in all directions until even the horizon was engulfed in nebulous gloom. It was as though his mind was a broken touchscreen phone, and his thoughts a smudged eruption of liquid crystal trapped just beneath the surface. There had been a time when he was glad of any work he could get because it had made him feel useful again. But not anymore. Now when he looked at himself in a mirror he laughed; and before falling asleep he cried. Not because he found his present situation hilarious or depressing, although he knew it was both. But rather because if there was one thing he had learned over the years it was that men like him had no future, and as far as everyone else was concerned they had no right to desire one.
Although at the back of his mind, he knew that was not strictly true. He did have a future: and it was that which made him laugh; that which made him weep. Once, he had looked forward to every tomorrow. But a year of scrubbing blood, shit and internal organs off of tiles and concrete slabs had already reduced his life to an interminable today. The future was only a good place if you could afford to have anything in it. For him, just like so many others, it was empty. He tried to imagine a positive outcome, and fantasised about there being something worth living for. But every time he made an attempt, a savage vision played on his mind. He saw a vast bin full to overflowing with sheep heads. Their vacant eyes frozen in his mind at the moment the stun shot fractured their skull and punctured their brain. Their last living act a terrified snort that sounded so much like his own breath that at times he found it difficult to make the distinction between himself and the dumb beasts whose entrails he scooped off of the ground. Like everyone else he had been educated to expect a career. But since none of the schools that his parents could get him into had been academies he was never informed that what people like him would have instead was simply just another way of wasting time...what in most social circles was politely called a “job.”
Contrary to expectations his employment was not a blessing or a privilege; it was a shackle that bound him to a lifetime of meaningless servitude. It was a form of slavery made all the more degrading because it had been disguised by the illusion of choice. He had “chosen” employment rather than unemployment, but he did not have to be a Nobel laureate to understand that that was no choice at all. It was a convenient double bind situation which meant that no one working in or for the government had to lie, at least about that. In truth he would spend a lifetime working, during which he would not even earn enough to afford a home of his own and the only reward he would ever receive would be a pension barely adequate to keep himself fed. Whilst politicians, athletes and “entrepreneurs” squandered unimaginable fortunes on designer watches, luxury cars and holiday homes he and his kind would measure the worth of everything in terms of how many years they would have to work to afford it.
He drew a cross through the day, as though he hoped that flimsy pencil mark would erase it from his memory. It would not, but he wished it could. A draft crept through the room; its chilly tentacles lashed his nerves and made him shiver. He wrinkled his nose when he realised that he still stank of offal. After his first shift he remembered coming home and vomiting for an hour because of that smell. But as is the case with all foul odours, when exposed to them continuously we become immune to their presence in much the same way that prosecutors learn to ignore the possibility that the defendant may in fact be innocent. Even had he not been able to smell himself for that brief unfortunate moment, he would still have felt the filth on his skin. It was as if he had been bound and gagged, then hauled through a gigantic network of intestines. They did not make water hot enough to purge the reek of industrial scale butchery from his flesh. He was given protective disposable overalls but they did not save him from the appalling stench that drifted around the knifing lines as he swept and scraped; or from the backsplash of bloodied water during pressure washing. For an entire year he had returned home, the scent of ichor oozing from every pore of his body and although his clothes were dry there was the ever-present chill of disinfectant saturated water that sent shudders right through to the marrow of his bones.
Whilst he scraped something vaguely edible out of a frying pan his phone went off. As expected it was no one, just the alarm. He had no idea why he even bothered to set it; whether he was early or late it made no difference. Not to anyone he knew, and certainly not to himself. But it did serve as a reminder that some of the men he worked with had arranged to take him out to celebrate his anniversary. He knew none of them thought the occasion was worth the time or the effort, but it was all the excuse they needed to get drunk during the week. Not long ago he had restricted his booze binges to the weekend like every other fine, upstanding citizen. But recently he had found himself drinking more and more often. Not because he wanted or needed to, and not even with the intention of just getting hammered. He drank simply because there was nothing else to do. Like everything else in his life, drinking had become a way of passing the time, of dealing with the strain of waiting for absolutely nothing to happen. It was not an addiction or a coping strategy but rather his way of making sure he never forgot that his existence was like being on standby. He was constantly desperate for a chance to do something...anything even remotely worthwhile.
He managed to choke down a lump of miscellaneous food. It tasted like it had been incinerated even before its encounter with the skillet. As he gathered his breath around the blackened scrap, he sat down on a sofa so dowdy that it looked as if someone had tried to throw it over a wall into a river but decided against it at the last minute. Not out of a sudden attachment for the abysmal thing, but to avoid being fined for fly tipping. An air of mildew still hung about it, pressed deep into the fibres as though each one had been handpicked by some B-list celebrity for its potential to disgust. That said it was a serviceable piece of furniture which was more than adequate when he felt the need to take a load off.
With a grunt and stretch he reached for the remote control on the table. It was half-buried under a pile of dog-eared take-away menus and a month old edition of the local paper. Finding it made him wonder why he had not just ordered in rather than risk illness and death with what he generously called his own cooking. He knew there was nothing he wanted to watch, but switching on the television was a reflex reaction to silence. He felt like someone had snapped their fingers by way of command and he had no choice but to obey. It was as though passivity had become his watch word, and it had made him content to vegetate and observe rather than act. That is exactly what it was to see the world through the focal point of a screen; to have what was determined to be a suitable reality funnelled into his mind without being able to control or comment. Experience had been crystallised into a digital sorbet of non-descript flavour with the odd natural disaster, terrorist show trial or intentionally far away war thrown into the mix to make people fear and need each other at the same time. Failing that, the voices were reliably a good method of staving off the pangs of isolation as he showered and dressed.
At the far end of the high street there was a pub called The Anchor. Sean once asked why it had been given such a name but the only reply he received was some vague mumbled reference to the town’s nautical history. He found that strange considering the sea was a four hour drive away. He thought that maybe the river had once been part of a canal network leading to a shipyard, an idea he quickly abandoned when he noticed that the river was and always had been little more than a trickle of runoff from a septic tank. It would not have been much use to a mentally handicapped fish, let alone have been suitable for any form of maritime transport. All things being equal, he supposed it did not really matter. The company that owned the place had an angle they wanted to play, so they did. Pictures of various supposedly historical figures had been hung up around the place and framed explanations on faded paper with drop capitals were added into the mix in an attempt to give the place a touch of class. He supposed that no one had the heart, or wherewithal, to tell them that it was all a complete fabrication. Contrary to adding class, those factionalised details detracted from it. They transformed the place from an honest, if admittedly dilapidated, pub into a theme park for casual alcoholics.
The building was at the intersection of a sort of crossroads. The high street leading in one direction, by-pass access in another, a domestic road that went through housing estates and the last route connected to the factories on the edge of town. From where he stood it seemed like all roads led to ruin. The Anchor may have been cheap but it certainly was not cheerful. The facade was decorated in dark blue and faded silver, which in the jaundiced streetlight made it seem as if off-cuts from old bed linen had been draped over a heap of cardboard boxes. It was a breeding ground (literally at times), a refuge and a prison for those who had been callously dismissed as “economically inactive” by the local authorities. Its patrons were men and women who lived, but had not been informed of the fact, for no other reason than to produce statistics for civil servants and politicians to analyse with pursed lips, furrowed brows and on the odd occasion, white knuckles.
Even from outside he could hear conversations that were more like switching between RSS feeds than interactions between human beings. There were snatches of coherent words but in the drunken hubbub they rapidly degenerated into strands of nonsensical yammering. There was a teenage girl vomiting heavily in a drain not far from the door. He glanced at her not really knowing what to think, and as she looked up to take a bile-tainted gulp of air he could tell by her mascara-streaked face that neither did she. As he let the door shut behind him some of her friends were trying to convince her that her condition was nothing a shot or two would not cure. That seemed to be the prevailing attitude at every table, bench and stool inside as well. There was no problem that could not be solved by drowning it in booze. He hated to admit it but to a certain extent it was true, but only until you woke up the next day to find that everything was the same and you could not remember why. The air stank of spilled pints and cheap perfumes; the aroma of what people loosely referred to as a good night. A crowd jostled at the bar. Like all gatherings of pub clientele, it consisted of three types of people: youngsters on the pull, middle aged people trying to convince themselves that they were too, and a few older customers who were just there to watch the show. But no matter what their official reasons for being there, they all wanted to forget what little there was worth remembering of the last week, so that when exactly the same things happened over the course of the next they would not have to feign interest.
In amongst the chattering gaggles of drink-enflamed faces he saw people he recognised calling to him from the family area. It was the only part of the pub that best suited groups which had not yet been cut down to size by the consequences of love, hate, debt and envy. His co-workers had put several tables together and rearranged the gaudy drinks menus so as not to annoy the staff as they prowled around for empties. At the sight of his colleagues he felt comfortable which was strange because he had nothing in common with any of them, just like they had nothing really in common with each other. Except, of course, that they all worked at the abattoir. One way or another and whether they liked it or not, that served as some kind of bond.
At one end of the table sat the veterans; men who had worked at the slaughterhouse their entire lives without ever knowing another occupation. Sean enjoyed their company the most. They were gruff but affable, and their eyes gave away subtle clues as to what happens to a man when he spends decades cutting animals open. There was indifference in their gaze, as though they only looked at you to determine how long it would take you to bleed out. Part of him found that terrifying, another part found that it made him respect them. Further down the table were the younger men, those who would one day end up like the veterans but were not quite ready to completely accept that yet. They were all much like Sean: pasty, hunched and uncertain not of themselves but of how they wanted people to think about them. Their integration into any particular group was slow and their relatives constantly questioned their use of time and money as if they lacked even basic common sense. Then there were the part-timers; kids in their late teens who were still proud of themselves for getting their first job. They had an arrogant bearing and were usually fresh out of school or waiting to go to university, the kind of children who only worked because their parents wanted them to have some kind of “real world experience.” Hints of the future still clung to them, their faces were not weary, and their ambitions had not yet withered under the pressure of having to grudgingly accept reality. They reminded the older men of how they used to be or of what they could have been. As such they were not well liked by anyone.
Sean was not one for talking, a characteristic which had proven somewhat beneficial. Not having to worry about what he sounded like, he was all the more free to listen. Not that there was usually anything of note to hear. That was especially the case at their long table. He had been invited to a celebration, but it did not feel like one. A strange quiet had descended over the company, as though one of them had just been given bad news and everyone else had hushed themselves out of respect and sympathy, although from time to time there were grumbled comments about the drinks. Whatever had happened, if its effects were so dire he was sure he did not want to know what it was. Truth be told, he knew nothing had happened. Nothing ever did. That was just the way things were. Once they had got complaints concerning their wives or girlfriends, children and bosses said and done with, all of them had little else to talk about. Maybe before he arrived they had told the latest hilariously offensive jokes that were doing the rounds as text messages, but there was no point in repeating them for the benefit of just one man. The only things that kept them there were a sense of occasion and a desire to drink. They nursed their drinks and kept to themselves, only speaking or moving when it was their round and they had to go to the bar. After that it was back to their seats and watching bubbles rise through their glasses. An onlooker who did not know them would have thought that they were wallowing in themselves as much as their situation. Nothing could have been further from the truth. They were enduring. Even the young were morbidly tight-lipped; their quiet was a grim foreshadowing of the deeper silence that awaited them in later life when bills were no longer the consequence of voluntary expenditure and more like the constant tapping of a cold, fleshless finger on their shoulder before the hideous echoing shriek of...‘Time gentlemen, please!’
The barman’s voice shattered Sean’s train of thought as if it were possible to reach into an iPod and scratch an MP3. None of them had noticed that it was so late. The night was already over, but then it had never really begun. Mission accomplished as far as they were concerned. Any evening spent without having to dwell on the passage of time was a successful one. Customers had already started to leave. It was a riotous outpouring, as troubling as it was amusing. There were bursts of jocular violence that had all too familiar undertones of a restless hatred barely kept in check by whatever semblance of reason that the best part of a bottle of liquor left intact. Winding their way through the clumps of partly mock-fighting men were couples slinking off to spend the night together; their faces reduced to masks of contented flesh by alcohol and pheromones. They would remain pleased with themselves at first, only to find that their declarations of love would seem too much and unwise in the bitter light of morning when no longer under the influence of beer goggles their tally of delights would be recounted to them by the brutal whining of an alarm clock. Then there were those who simply looked on or held doors open. Their bemused expressions and tactfully indulgent smiles harked back to a time when darkness was a thing only the wealthy feared and good manners were more likely to earn you the kind regards of those around you rather than the distrustful snickering of school kids out on the piss.
Sean had broken the seal too early and waved a noncommittal goodbye to the others as he worked his way through the departing crowd. Several people lingered on the stairs up to the toilets. Some were chatting unaware the pub was closing. Others were hunched over, head in hands, muttering insults to themselves and trying to gather the strength to think about standing up and walking home. Someone had ripped a smoke alarm off the wall. A few customers and a member of staff stood by the gent’s puffing away as if butter wouldn’t melt. He stifled a cough as he entered the toilet and he immediately had to suppress the urge to gag as soon as the door had swung closed. One of the bogs had overflowed. A combination of crap, vomit and tissue had clogged it. The result was smell like the rubbish bins of a chicken shop at the height of summer. He locked himself inside one of the stalls where the floor was not too damp. The walls were covered in the usual men’s room scrawl: anatomically incorrect genitals, phone numbers with lewd adverts penned above them and the odd “4 Eva” carved into the chipboard with a biro.
But as he shook himself dry he noticed something else amongst the knotted graffiti tags and childish illustrations. There was a clearing in the mess of permanent marker as if it had declared mastery over itself and would suffer no crude hand to deface it. And yet within that serene boundary there were indeed words. Not the ham-fisted, mangled jottings that infected every other inch of available space but real words endowed with form and meaning, each made greater by their connection to the one that followed or preceded them. The clanking and clamour of the pub beneath him faded almost into nothing, like the final fury of a high summer’s daylight pressed into a blade’s edge on the horizon before night descended bringing with it the scent of jasmine flowers from over a wire-topped concrete wall. In its place there was a lonely voice distant at first like a scream from within an ash cloud but then it grew immediately closer as though amidst the broiling fumes of the world on its last day, when all had turned to the grinding of tank tracks in a maelstrom of nuclear flame there was a flash of soft silver light and a whisper of reason to hope.
Just as quickly as the voice had sounded it ceased, replaced by the odious noise of someone coughing up their guts in the next stall but the words were still there as much on the wall as they were graven into his mind. He flushed the toilet and fumbled behind him for the latch. As he soaked his hands and face in tepid water he looked at himself in the mirror then back at the stall. The door swayed on its hinges and he caught a glimpse of that patch of pale wall surrounded by tangled swirls of black and blue, like healthy skin surrounded by bruising. The words were still there, the sound they made in his head was almost still audible over the wheezing of the hand-dryer. He took one last look in the reflective wall above the sinks. ‘Pisshead.’ He snarled at himself and left.
The previous night was just a smear of bacterial fur at the back of Sean’s tongue. He spat at regular intervals in an attempt to get rid of what the mouthwash had left behind and also to vent his frustration about having volunteered to work on what should have been his day off. It did not work. He almost found himself admiring the colour of his spit as he crouched to tie his laces by a bus stop. It was one of those flimsy shack-like constructions, all neatly painted metal and sheets of reinforced plastic. The thing was barely wide enough to sit on the seats bolted to the wall inside and not really tall enough to stand up for long periods of time in either. There was only one way in on the pavement side and only one way out on the road side, so passengers getting off a bus had to tightrope walk on the curb or step into the gutter. That was not much of a hardship at that moment during early summer, but in the winter it could mean people found themselves ankle-deep in rainwater or slush. No doubt it had been cheap, but no one except the too young or too old to drive used the buses so it did not matter. There were even gaps deliberately left around the base of the shelter so that it was useless as a windbreaker for any passing homeless people looking for somewhere to sleep that was not a ditch or doorway, but of course they did not matter either. Big society had the big idea of withdrawing anything that could be vaguely considered a helping hand, even if it had taken the form of an extra door or a few more inches of sheet metal on the sides of a bus stop.
Across the road was a patch of wasteland. It ran down from the edge of a housing estate to where the town thinned out as factories and warehouses took the place of betting shops, pubs and supermarkets. It had not been sold off yet so that a property developer could cram as many as houses as they could onto it. Sean knew it was only a matter of time until that happened. The homes would be as small and expensive as the company could get away with, and serve not so much as homes but just as places for the inhabitants to be when they were not at work. As far as he was concerned it was a good thing too. That stretch of dishevelled earth had been there for as long as he could remember. He had played there as a child and at the moment crossing it was the most direct route to work. Most of it was dominated by knee high grass that was brown and brittle even during periods of heavy rainfall. Here and there clumps of concrete and brick protruded from the ground like the fleshless fingers of an automaton. They were the remnants of railway platforms that had been long out of use even when he was just a boy. Each fragment of crumbling masonry was a neglected relic of a better time when people had a reason to come to the town other than because they had failed everywhere else, and a reason to leave other than to escape failure.
Ordinarily it was not much to look at, but that day was different. As he reached the crest of a hill of upturned earth and looked out over the scrub he realised something that he had never noticed before. It was beautiful. In all that time he had never actually stopped and looked. He had always been too busy to really pay attention other than to make sure he did not fall into or trip over anything. Perhaps it was because it had never actually been beautiful before and only then in that moment had it come fully into its own. It was if the crude substance of the world had been replaced with the purposeless glory of a CryEngine landscape. Amidst the swathes of ruddy grass there were outcrops covered with swaying wildflowers which he had always taken for weeds, they seemed to blur as if their colours excited the very molecules of the air around them. Trees that he had always considered to be practically skeletal remains stirred in a soft breeze, their leaves were living smudges of paint. Clouds like animated wisps of breath allowed a soft light to filter through so that arcs of radiant beams seemed to encase the town. At the tail end of his hangover it was though he could hear the words he had heard in his head the night before. He struggled to listen again. But just as he thought he had managed to clutch onto the sounds, as though he were tugging on the sleeves of a woman begging her not to leave him alone, they were lost in the Doppler effect of a siren in the distance.
He waited for a while to see if they came back. They did not. All he could hear was the rustling of an empty crisp packet tumbling across the cracked dirt at the bottom of a dry pond. Yet there was also a mumbling. At first he thought it was a car approaching on the road behind him, but it was too soft and too deliberately hesitant to have been the regimented sputtering of an engine. He strained to hear again and determined someone was talking to themselves. He made his way down the hill of dirt, being mindful of his footing as the surface was treacherously loose when the weather was so dry, and headed in the direction of the voice. After a minute or so of walking he saw a dead bird in the middle of the track through a thicket of Greengage trees. At first he thought that perhaps it had fallen from one of the nests in the foliage above, but on closer inspection it was obvious that it had been killed. The right side of its head had been shredded by claws, its one remaining eye was glazed over like a five pence piece pressed into the tarmac by passing cars. One of its wings had been torn in half. There was a spiral of dried blood around the body, a signature made by its futile escape attempts.
He did not know why the animal had attracted his attention, but the shock of death was universal and no matter how hard he tried he simply could not ignore the corpse. The stillness and the silence of unbeing meant that it could not be the subject of idle thought. It was something he had witnessed uncountable times whilst working at the abattoir but only then in the contemplation of that miniscule body did it seem significant. How terrible it must have been for animals at the point of death to realise that the feeble threads of their consciousness were about to be frayed and snapped. Life was the only thing they knew and only at the end did they finally understand how easily it could be taken away from them. He had seen that countless time as well...a sudden flaring of the nostrils or a dilating of the pupils which signalled the fact that the animal knew that the only thing it had was being taken away from it and there was nothing it could do except wait.
Sean looked down at the bird with its fatal wounds and then at his own hands. Man and beast were not so different after all; both were just collections of flesh and bone animated by forces that were beyond definition. Life had been so easily taken from both of them, but only the bird had had the good fortune of dying. An animal succumbed to that primal fear of the end only at the moment of its happening; a man had to suffer it for his entire existence, clinging on to what the companies that paid his wages allowed him to call life. As he stood there considering the corpse, out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a man sitting on a slab of concrete a short distance away. He was not mumbling as Sean had originally thought when he first heard him, but quite loudly talking to himself. Loud enough for him to be heard a few hundred metres away.
It was Tadeusz, a part time cleaner at the slaughterhouse. They had started work there at the same time and for all intents and purposes were what could have been considered friends. He was hunched over a piece of paper mouthing the words on it as though labouring over each letter. Sean could not quite understand what was being said, but there was obviously some sense to it.
‘Alright, Schleb?’ Sean called Tadeusz by his nickname, one which he said he had always had because of his skin tone and also happened to be ironic given its slang meaning seeing as he had at least two jobs.
‘Sean? Hello.’ Not expecting anyone to have walked by Tadeusz stood up as if he had been caught getting a blowjob and nervously straightened the front of his clothes.
‘Am I interrupting something?’
‘No. Is just letter from home.’
It clearly was not but Sean thought it better not to point that out. ‘Ah, bad news?’
‘Bah, is nothing. You going to work?’
‘Where else? Want to walk with me?’
‘You weren’t in the pub last night, what you been up to?’ Tadeusz like Sean did not have much of a social life. That was probably why they seemed to get along so well, or was at least part of the reason they apparently understood each other.
Tadeusz shrugged. ‘I ate, slept and waited for my next shift. You?’
Sean had always imagined that by that point in his life he would have had a better answer, and for some reason it still always surprised him when he found that he did not. ‘Erm, nothing actually.’
‘Got anything planned for tonight?’
‘After cleaning I go home to wash and then nightshift at supermarket.’ Tadeusz had not yet mastered spoken English and that was an expectation which Sean found a little odd seeing as he had made literally no effort to learn Polish. He knew it was partly out of laziness and partly out of anticipation for his friend’s integration. But in wider society he suspected that people did not want immigrants to assimilate; if they looked and sounded native then few people would have been able to tell the difference between “them” and “us” and there would be no one to blame when things went wrong.
They walked for several minutes before Sean said, ‘You know...I’ve always wondered something. You were a teacher back home, right?’
‘Then why don’t you get a job as one here? Wouldn’t that be a better use of your time than mopping up blood and stacking shelves?’
The air began to turn foul. They were getting closer to work. ‘Is not so easy. Schools ask too many questions, like you. But in shop and factory, no questions...no answers. Much better for everyone.’
‘No you don’t. But I have night off tomorrow, you want to smoke then?’
The change of subject was wise so Sean did not worry about it. ‘That would be good.’
‘Fine, I bring with me.’
They had reached the abattoir. It was a long and low building that squatted on a plot of land that many, many decades ago had been an extension of the wasteland Sean walked through on a daily basis. Perhaps there had been allotments but if that had once been the case then their presence had long since been obliterated, the last local fragments of an England that was an agonising pastiche of itself even at the apex of its glory. In its place was the punch line of another joke, one that no one could have willingly laughed at unless they were being paid. The slaughterhouse seemed to expand and contract in the morning heat haze like a gigantic amoeboid leviathan that had dragged itself out of the primordial ocean to die. Various doors and windows along its flanks opened and closed seemingly at random from the inside as though they were stunted tentacles or feelers, at the very least limbs of some sort caught between stages of evolution. It was as if the whole slapdash construction was a missing link that no one had wanted to find...but did, when they arrived for work.
As usual they were scheduled to work at opposite ends of the building so at that point they parted ways. For a moment Sean watched Tadeusz skulk in the shadows alongside the building, his head down and shoulders slumped like a man accepting a fate that he had no part in determining. It was possible to tell a lot about a man by his bearing as he walked. Tadeusz, like Sean and all their fellow workers, walked slowly with their heads held low. Not because of weighty thoughts but for the lack of them, and because every action felt like the initial stirrings of winter’s first movement. Sean knew exactly what Tadeusz was thinking. After a certain period of time spent working in that place you started to see yourself as if from a distance; whatever it was you had once been was indistinguishable from what you had become in much the same way that a tsunami turns into a gentle ripple on the horizon once its wrath is spent. Your voice fell flat and there was a detachment in your movements as if your limbs were not moving of their own accord but rather forced into motion by unseen hands. In short, you felt like a puppet but there was no star to wish upon.
The slack, axe-wound coloured mouth of the secretary at the reception desk greeted Sean with what he imagined she thought was a smile. He grimaced back in return and she tucked a strand of hair that had escaped from her Croydon facelift behind her ear. A strained gargling wheeze was apparently her attempt at “hello”, but to Sean it sounded like she was trying to decide whether to spit or swallow. He did not hang around to find out. He slipped away into the labyrinth of the abattoir where bestial screams and mechanical screeching hung from exposed I-beams like curtains of black algae whilst plastic-wrapped men, like freshly imported movie tie-in action figures, toiled over flayed carcasses and piles of steaming offal. That nightmarish flash of life, like something monstrous glimpsed in fragments of a broken bottle at the end of a dingy alley, was all that remained of the world for Sean once the doors had closed behind him.
Sean nudged the sliding door of the toilet with his foot and padded lightly across his bedsit. He checked the calendar on his way to the kitchen worktop. It was only when Sean made a point of confirming the date that he even realised that the day had changed. But he was not really sure that it had. That day looked the same, felt the same, and smelled the same as any other as though existence had cast itself into limbo. He wondered how anyone could be certain about the passage of time when all there was to go on was the say-so of whoever it was that kept the clocks running. Men and women in perma-starched coats or suits of prison-bar pinstripes, with vast glass-fronted eyes that projected themselves onto the myriad faces of time in fitful attempts to see what was never meant to be seen by day or night; to gaze into the abyss and let it stare into them. As far as Sean was concerned, light and darkness were only reliable when they were thought of as on and off, as mental and physical switches that determined whether he had to go to work or bed. Time itself was something that involved more than the positioning of celestial bodies, just as blood was something more than a simple liquid but despite their differences the two behaved so much alike. The ticking of a clock matched the pulse of a bloodstream. In fact time and blood were identical in almost all respects, except one. Time was relentless and infinite whereas the pulse would eventually falter, growing weaker and weaker until a man found himself wishing he could trade every dreaded tomorrow for just a few more yesterdays. Time was inexhaustible but the heart, much like its owner, would eventually have to give up.
Sean dumped himself on the sofa and tuned out as he channel surfed. In all it was the same shapeless mash-up of nonsense that was broadcast around the world twenty-four hours a day, every...single...day.
BZZT. An African priest was going into excruciating detail about the motivations behind just one of the latest tribal wars. BZZT. Middle-aged pop impresarios gushed over a second rate dance troupe whilst the dancers’ relatives gasped and clutched their hands to their chests like Victor Hugo heroines. BZZT. Local politicians embarrassed themselves whilst attempting to answer questions about how exactly they had been able to afford to renovate both their homes at the same time. BZZT. A tycoon and his wife bragged to their friends about how they gave money to an inner city family and saved them from that month’s debts without revealing how they were going to be able to pay the same bills four weeks later. BZZT. Newsreaders kept their professional calm whilst not being sure if they should actually follow their Teleprompters because they knew what they were reporting was not entirely true. BZZT. Rolling footage of survivors of a natural disaster in parts of the world that should not have been inhabited in the first place, tailored not to inspire compassion or regret but rather relief. BZZT...BZZT...BZZT...once the channels he had access to ran out there was only static. He kept flicking through the empty airwaves anyway as it seemed just as good a use of his time as watching shadows through the frosted glass vent in his toilet, or staring at the few posters he had kept from his youth out of what he told himself was nostalgia but was actually an attempt to remind himself that things were not always so bad. He had cycled back through the channels and hit mute on the remote to spare himself the repetition of the broadcasts. It was as though networks and stations felt the need to talk to the world like a disapproving adult warning a child about the dangers of playing with fire.
He put the kettle on and prepared two cups. Tadeusz was on his way. Whilst listening to the lady next door shout at her cat, Sean remembered that Tadeusz had once told him that he used to spend his spare time walking through fields picking wild mushrooms. Quite what had possessed him to come to England was unknown. Money was usually the reason given and to a certain extent it was a valid one. But when it came to pursuit of a better quality of life that is where Sean drew the line at the limit of his tolerance. Not for the goal, because it was a worthy one but rather for the fact that reality differed so much from perception. Life had quality only for those who had the time and money to live it. For everyone else it had become a parody of a stereotype, like Phillipe Starck’s accent, in a way that would have been hilarious if it were not taken so seriously.
There was a heavy, insistent knock at the door. Tadeusz had arrived. Sean grabbed the milk from the fridge and let him in. As always his face looked tired like the threadbare elbows of a well-worn shirt, his features were cracks in the surface of a road on the verge of becoming potholes. His presence was reassuring and simultaneously unsettling, as though he were an armed policeman sworn to protect him but if given the order would hesitate only for a second before forcing him to the ground and shooting him point blank in the back of the head.
‘I bring beer too.’ Tadeusz held up a carrier bag and managed to smirk in spite of his fatigue.
‘Nice. I’m making tea. Want a cup?’
‘Please. You watching TV?’
‘Not really, just seeing what’s on. Take a seat, I think I’ve got some biscuits around here somewhere if you’d like some.’
‘Good, good. I’ll roll.’
Sean made the tea as he watched Tadeusz go through the final motions of making a joint. Like auto-writing or scanning barcodes at a checkout it was a process that was as bizarre as it was run-of-the-mill. He tried to think of something to say as he sat down on a footstool on the other side of the table but could only come up with, ‘So have you heard anything from your wife?’
Tadeusz took a healthy toke and tendrils the colour of clotted cream seemed to coil around his irises. He smiled for few seconds as he felt himself fill up with the acrid smoke but then exhaled with such pristine despondency it was as if his breath had been drenched in surgical alcohol. ‘Only that she is not my wife anymore.’
‘Oh, that sucks.’
‘A bit. She not believe me when I tell her me being here is for the best.’
‘To tell you the truth, Schleb, neither do I.’
‘Well, you can’t seriously believe you’re happy here.’
‘That not matter. Is more money. Is best.’
‘Really? Are you any richer? Are you any better?’
‘After this, yes.’ After a second drag Tadeusz gestured appreciatively to the blunt before passing it to Sean.
They sat talking, drinking and smoking. Spending the time together was better than spending it alone. Even though Tadeusz was wary of Sean for his tendency to ask questions and Sean was wary of Tadeusz for his tendency not to answer them, they each knew that without the other they would have been consumed by boredom and loneliness. Such a state of affairs was not as rare as people liked to believe. Men like them were often forced to find unspoken, tacit understanding and platonic solace in each other as they would find it in nothing and nowhere else. The moments they spent together carried with them their own sad grandeur, made almost picturesque by the last of a summer day’s light frozen like bars of bullion in clouds of weed smoke.
When it grew too dark Sean turned on the lights but they did not last for long. He had forgotten to top up the electric meter and his bedsit was shrouded in darkness as though a Kreigslok had just howled into a desolate station. For a brief fraction of a second they found themselves afraid, as if something in the darkness had come for them and they knew they could not escape it. But that was just memories of their lives surfacing through their intoxication. Everywhere that sold electricity was closed and so Sean felt his way over to the worktop and fumbled in a drawer. He had always known there was still a reason to keep candles.
He found a box and moving back towards Tadeusz said, ‘Lighter.’
Sean really should have thought about the electricity earlier but as much as water, heat and light on demand were considered necessities, even luxuries, they were as ensnaring as they were liberating. As with all things useful they came at a price, a continual one and such were the demands of life that not paying was not an option. They were taken for granted as indicators of benign technological progress and indeed that is what they were so as long as you had a wage high enough to ensure a constant supply, like the statisticians and broadloid economists that determined perceptions of poverty. But for those who had incomes that were much less certain, utility bills were a constantly malignant worry that lingered at the end of every quarter. Collectively they were yet another reason not to think but to just do. However mundane it may have seemed, it was a strange thought that at the flick of a switch or the turn of a dial you could command the power of the sun or summon flame into being. Likewise it was thought equally as strange that by flicking another switch or turning another dial a corporation could instantly plunge you back into the middle of the Dark Ages, literally. That was of course after they had sent out several letters in sophisticatedly threatening legal jargon to remind you of your obligations as a functional human being. It may have been an uncomfortable thought but there was a very thin veneer between paint-by-numbers civilisation and the law-forsaken, drug hives on the edges of South American cities. No one liked to be reminded of what could happen when the lights went out; the water stopped flowing and the gas ceased to burn; nor of how easy it would be to turn every town, village and city in England into Paco addicted wastelands. It would be too easy.
Tadeusz and Sean sat together in the dark, cloaked in smoke at the table like a pair of political émigrés discussing opposing definitions of the future. For a while they fell silent and marvelled like Da Vinci at the worlds created and destroyed by solar flare shadows thrown against the walls by the candle light. But in amongst the twitching darkness Sean could have sworn he saw the fragments of the same words he had seen in the pub toilet. He thought he had forgotten. Yet there they were, imprinted on his mind as much as they were on the walls. He knew what they meant but not where they came from or who had written them. They were an oath but also a threat and somehow a little absurd, like a whore saying “I love you.” They seemed like an echo, so faint and distant that he could not quite make them out. He could feel his limbs tingling and tried to shake some of the fuzz off his mind. It worked, the words turned back into meaningless globules of shade and he resumed his hazy contemplation of the wall.
After a time Tadeusz took something out of his shirt pocket and unfolded it. It was the same piece of paper that Sean had seen him struggling with on his way to work, and despite the bad light and his being quite comfortably high he recognized it instantly. Tadeusz wore a troubled expression; the change in his image was so complete it was as if he had seen a sheet drawn back from the face of a dead relative. He placed the piece of paper on the table and flattened it out like he was handling a sacred relic. After taking the joint, dragging heavily on it and exhaling like Atlas weary of his thankless job he said to Sean, ‘Will you teach me to read English?’
Sean had trouble shaking the bud smoke off his mind, and the transition from night to day had been like someone switching the colour of the bulb in a floodlight aimed at his face. In some respects he was thankful that pouring detergent into a bucket and mopping floors required little, if any, brainpower. He had no idea why the whole process was not automated, but he supposed it was so that the owners of the abattoir could feel good about themselves for providing jobs. Too bad the people they hired did not get to share that sense of satisfaction. The mind destroying tedium of their labour was more than enough to ensure they felt, and more importantly thought, as little as possible. It was a situation that the management seemed to enjoy as they strolled around the building in between meetings about downsizing every department except their own. Sean watched as Oliver, a senior member of the human resources team, took his daily constitutional around the production floor. In his grey polyester suit he was a whippet puppy being drowned in fresh cement. He liked to think his presence endeared him to the people he had hired. In fact they just thought he was an arrogant wanker who liked to micromanage things he knew nothing about.
Like a priest of the pagan world holding aloft a still beating heart, Sean drained a mop into a bucket of water that was swimming with scum before he had even started cleaning. His shift had not long started but every minute was an hour and he felt like his brain had been replaced with breeze blocks. But despite that, thoughts which had previously been locked in the back of his mind worked their way forward until he realised he was not cleaning the floor but writing on it in a mixture of bleach, blood and water. They crept from the end of the mop like coral blooms, fragile and delicate to the point of being endangered by the very process of their creation. The words in his head were being inscribed onto the ground, every sweeping motion created a letter that seemed to be part of some arcane prayer. But there was also something vivid and living about them as though they were forcing their way from the silent realm of thought into the polyphonic cacophony of reality. It was not against his will that they did so, but rather like they helped him in realising the truth after a lifetime lived according to lies he was not even aware he had been telling. The other cleaners paused to watch, they were both excited and worried by Sean’s dislocation from their morbid banter just like machines malfunctioning as if someone reached into their cases and ripped out key components.
It was only once people had stopped doing what he told them to that Oliver displayed anything other than a superficial interest in their lives. To break up the curious huddle of loitering cleaners he rolled up his sleeves, grabbed the edge of an offal bin and pushed it over. That sickening tide of putrefying organs was the fuming broth that heralded the manifestation of a demonic beast; the gibbering mass had a life of its own as though at any moment it would coalesce into a hellish hound intent only on sating its unholy hunger. It drowned the ghostly lettering and put an end to all the muttered conversations it provoked as the onlookers dashed out of the path of the steaming filth. Only Sean remained in his place, unperturbed by the disgusting torrent. His eyes scanned the surface of the pestilent puddle but no traces of the words remained. At least not on the ground, but they remained in his mind like beacons suspended across an immense void.
‘You didn’t seem content with your own mess. Maybe you’d prefer to deal with mine? Clean this crap up.’ Oliver deliberately grandstanded.
‘No.’ With that utterance Sean felt as though he had been unshackled, his body and his mind were once again his to do with as he pleased.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear you. Are you going to pick it up?’
‘I’ll pretend you didn’t say that. Pick...it...up.’
Oliver rounded on Sean. He had scented his blood. ‘Third time’s the charm. Do you know what this means?’
‘Yes, but you don’t.’
‘Oh-oh, well I’m intrigued. Go on then smart-arse, enlighten me.’
Sean did not react at first, he simply looked at Oliver. He did not feel any malice or hatred for him; rather it was as if Sean viewed him from a perspective which was vast, cold and indifferent like a government statistician ignoring the fact that every digit they dismiss is a human life. It was not that he could no longer see his manager; it was just that he had simply stopped caring he existed. Oliver did not matter and Sean pitied him for believing he ever had. He found himself smiling in the way that parents indulge the ignorance of their children, but then he felt a spark in his chest. It started in his heart as a faint flicker; travelled down his arm picking up speed as it went, seemingly stripping away the lining of his veins to build its strength; and ended in his hand as though he held an IED in mid-detonation.
With the sheer speed and force that only rage could grant Sean smashed his fist into Oliver’s face. There was a disturbing crunch as gristle and bone snapped and split like a ribcage being prised open. Oliver toppled to the ground; for all his bluster and posturing he did not have the strength of body or will to react in any other way. His cheap suit became drenched in blood and scraps of animal flesh as he skidded and stumbled away from Sean. Clutching his shattered nose he crawled towards the offal bin and attempted to use it to prevent the onslaught that he was certain would follow. But it did not. He crouched like a beaten dog against the bin; he shivered from the pain and the rapidly cooling ichor seeping through his clothes into his skin made him violently gag. With eyes moved to tears by chemicals and agony he saw that Sean was not chasing him as he expected. He stood on the brink of incredulous laughter and watched him cower.
Then in answer to Oliver’s question Sean said in a voice which trembled like thunder rolling over distant mountains, ‘It means that you, and everyone like you, never get to tell me what to do ever again.’
When he realised no one was going to help him up, Oliver let out a bemused squeal like a badly stunned pig as it felt a knife tear open its throat. Some of the workers moved towards the canteen to discuss what had just happened (jokes were already being made at Oliver’s expense) whilst others simply carried on with what they were doing. Sean turned around and simply walked away. The sound of the words in his head reached a crescendo, like the refrain of a stifled hymn given voice after a drought of silence. He felt Oliver’s blood dripping across his knuckles and as he wrenched open a door the world welcomed him. As the real light bathed him, the crude fluorescent tubes in the ceiling seemed to dim as if eclipsed by shame at their pretence of imitation. His eyes adjusted to daylight as he looked up into the sky. There for a moment amongst the clouds he thought he saw the glimmer of white marble spires, a flash of gold and the fluttering of scarlet standards. Even though he saw it for only a second, that was long enough for him to know what it was.
It was the memory of a dream. It was hope given substance. It was the future.