exponent

one who does, who talks about, who lauds, who represents, who stands for, who…

Walking along his street after a hard day’s work, or a day of doing nothing, or a big day, or a hard day, or a long day, or just another day, or the same day as yesterday, Oscar noticed something different about the street, his street. There’s something different, Oscar thought, Oscar hoped, Oscar smiled, Oscar prayed… and indeed there was. Sitting on the street, there in front of him, not five feet away from him, was the rusty yellow bulk of a rubbish skip.

One of his neighbours had hired a skip, one of his distant neighbours (three houses away is distance enough to qualify as distant, Oscar assured himself) had hired a skip and left it sitting empty on the street.

Of course, there’s nothing else for it, Oscar commented to himself, but to fill it to the brim with anything he might or could possibly do without in his house. His mattress would certainly have to go in, as would anything else large, awkward, voluminous and vaguely useless. Wasn’t it an awful shame, Oscar briefly thought, that he didn’t have a series of mattresses stacked up in his house ready for dragging out into the street as soon as darkness fell to pile up in this skip which has been left open to the world, like a… like a gaping mouth screaming to be filled. (Oscar reminded himself to write that simile down, having changed his mind on the use of similies in writing, or even in general conversation, thinking this particular simile worthy of incorporation into one or other of the sixteen or so novels that he had under development in his collection of scrappy notebooks.)

Standing in the half-light of his bedroom, Oscar had second thoughts. His mattress was still firm in places and he could quite easily sleep on several of its extremities for quite a few more years; the centre of the mattress had long since been rendered uninhabitable, featuring a series of sprung springs and irregular depressions. But an empty skip is, Oscar reminded himself, like a gaping mouth screaming to be filled, so he really had little choice but to tear off the bed sheet and drag his mattress downstairs.

Oscar leant the mattress against the wall in the hallway and, sitting at his front window, sitting in the dark, before a gap in the curtains, watched the street, watched the skip, watched the approach and passing of each person, noted how most people slowed down on passing the skip, and a few, after they passed it, stopped and turned around, and wondered, they wondered, these distant neighbours, and Oscar wondered, himself a distant neighbour, how long he might have, how big might the window be, between the arrival of every distant neighbour home from work, and so the quietening of the street, and the point when the last distant neighbour could hoist in their sagging mattress or other bulky item and walk away with a smile on their face, a peculiar smile borne of taking advantage of another distant neighbour’s stupidity.

Helen arrived home soon after the point when the dusk had become sufficiently impenetrable.

“Don’t turn on the light!” Oscar warned, but to no avail.

Only after she switched on the lights in the hallway and the living room did Helen think of questioning Oscar’s warning.

“Thanks.”

“Writing in the dark now?” Helen had adopted, perhaps she’d worn it all day, the bemused face of the world-weary… it wasn’t an expression which suited her, but as she didn’t have ready access to a mirror, she had not considered adopting another.

“Did you not see it?”

“See it?” Helen raised both eyebrows and cocked her head and spoke slowly as one would to someone who is drunk, retarded or both. “Did I see it?”

Oscar shrugged his shoulders, turned his palms upwards as though petitioning the gods and raised both eyes dramatically to heaven, all the time scanning his brain for a witty comment… but none was available.

“See it?” Helen was now impatient with this drunk or retard or both.

Oscar shook his head. What’s the point? his face asked.

“See what?” Helen felt for a moment that she had missed something, something fundamental, something that she really should be already aware of… but the moment passed.

“It’s an empty skip!”

“A skip?”

“It’s empty!”

“And your going to drag that mattress you have out in the hallway down the street and dump it into someone else’s skip?”

“Yes. Finally. You’ve got it.”

Helen shook her head at what was clearly yet another offering from a world which would weary anybody of Helen’s higher mental abilities and at which she could only shake her head.

“Don’t shake your head at me – this is it. This is it. It’s a law of nature. Law of the jungle… if we were in the jungle. This is it – this is what we’re here on earth for, to hunt, to forage, to scavenge, and to…”

“To fill a neighbour’s skip.”

Oscar turned off the lights and walked Helen over to the gap in the curtains in which the street lights could now be seen to be warming up.

“Look out there. What do you see?”

Helen didn’t see anything; at least, she didn’t say anything.

“That’s the world we live in. That’s it. And that yellow bulk fading into the darkness – that’s the object, the focus of attention, of every gap in the curtains from number fifty-three to number one; that Helen is what we are here to do, the meaning of our lives, the centre of our universe, our culture – what it means to be human. This is what it means.”

Helen’s world-weary gestures were now hidden in the darkness, only an occasional sigh could be heard in the room.

“No don’t get up, don’t go – you’ve got to watch this.”

“It’s an empty street.”

“Never have you been so wrong,” Oscar assured her. “Just wait. You will see before you the very stuff of life.”

And with those words Oscar had gone, he had disappeared into the darkness, though his disappearing took some time and effort: having to hoist the mattress onto his back, then falling down when it snagged on the door (as it must have done, being five feet too wide to go through the door), and then having to manoeuvre its bulk through the door frame, and then hoisting the mattresses up onto his back and shoulders, bent over so that his back was now parallel with the ground – and so he had disappeared. Oscar sprinted in this twisted shape beneath that cumbersome weight into the darkness, and then the half illumination of a yellow street light, and then darkness again, until Helen could see him, lit up bright and almost shining, luminescent, one especially bright yellow street light catching the expression of effort and joy on his face as the mattress’s shadow leapt from him and followed it into the skip.

Oscar had done it.

archipelago

too many islands

 

 

 

 

Prison suited Smith. He felt at home. He felt persecuted. It was just as he always imagined.

 

Apart from the noise. It was noisy. And the bustle. And the temperature. And the smell. Smith had never imagined that smell. Nor the hunger. But of course he would be hungry. It was a punishment. And he hadn’t eaten since this morning. But Smith’s deeply ingrained sense that he was right was sharper than ever. He was right, and that was his great comfort in these trying times.

 

Not that there was anything particularly trying about sitting still in a concrete walled cell (There were three walls of concrete, the wall he faced was in fact a wall of metal bars, just as you’d expect to find in a police detention cell.). It could have been boring though. It would have been unbearable if you were the kind of person who couldn’t bear it. It could have been awful. It could have been too much. It could have been it. That’s it. No more. But Smith wasn’t unduly perturbed. As always, he had his thoughts to occupy him, so many thoughts: the shape of a fish, the size of a square mile, his mother’s wrists, the capital of Mexico, the colour and rhythmic movement of water in the ship canal, the eyes of a shark, the sound of a gun shot in the movies, the texture of freshly cut wood, the time it takes to walk to the city centre, the number of players on a rugby team, the way a penguin walks, the colour of her hair, the summer solstice, a table and six chairs, the longest river in the world, the number of dogs in the city, the colour yellow, baseball caps, the shape of newspaper articles, illuminated windows, plastic bags, Venetian blinds, the number of prepositions, medium wave signals, glass place mats, four yucca plants, digestive biscuits, magnolia paint, the amount of bubbles in a pint of larger, newspaper print, light bulbs, silver cars and the number forty-four.

 

Also there were his more abstract thoughts, which intermingled with these concrete thoughts: the essence of existence, the soul of a bird, the nature of morality, the good life, beauty, the square root of twenty four, the meaning of a word, truth, free will, fatalism, evil, determinism, survival of the fittest, perfection, time, nature, the universe, life, the beginning, god, zero, the peak of perfection, gravity, heterodoxy, electromagnetism, fundamentalism, longitude, singularity, monotheism, insight, twenty-three degrees, infinity, death, addiction and the ineluctable modality of the visible.

 

Did any of these thoughts, either concrete or abstracts, originate in his sensory experience of the jail cell? No.

 

The following were Smith’s sensory experiences over this time period: The clinking of something, the colour of naked concrete, the feeling of emptiness in his stomach, the indistinct shouting of a number of words, the manner in which the metal bars cut across his view of the fourth concrete wall running along the corridor, a series of loud bangs, the coldness of the air against his face, the sound of a door opening, it clanging shut, the eerie quality of the pale light, the flickering fluorescent light down the hallway, a faint mumbling from one or other of the cells to his right, an indistinct whispering from the left, the almost audible words now being whispered, the word “you”, the words “yes you”, the sight of a thin hand extended out from the where the bars at the front of his cell left a two inch gap with the concrete wall, the hand waving up and down, the sound of the words, harshly whispered: “Hey! What’s your name?” The thin hand turned upward as though lifting an invisible weight. The sound of a door opening and foot steps on the corridor. The hand disappearing. The appearance of a policeman, from the left, in profile. His disappearance, to the right. The sound of his footsteps continuing. Getting quieter. Getting louder. His reappearance, from the right. The sight of a policeman in profile. His disappearance to the right. The sound of his footsteps continuing. Getting quieter. The closing of the metal door with a bang. The appearance of a thin hand – its index finger pointing directly at him.

 

Twenty four metal bars, each two inches apart from the next, formed the furthest extent of his cell. Smith could look another six feet beyond them at the concrete wall at the other side of the corridor. The cell he was in was square, roughly six feet by six feet. There was a concrete shelf attached to the concrete wall opposite the bars. It wasn’t clear, from the distance Smith was looking, six feet, and because of the dim light, where the bars became the door he had been pushed through three hours before. Smith now doubted the existence of this door.

 

Just as Smith’s thoughts were acquiring this level of coherence, the thin hand appeared again and disrupted his thought process. The thin hand was accompanied by the whispered words “Get over here.” When accompanied by the idea of decay, the recollection of his phone number, the image of the back of his father’s neck and a faint feeling of jubilation, these sensory experiences failed to bed down into Smith’s understanding of the world. With the words “Quick.” and “I’ve got something for you.” also whispered, but with a greater sense of urgency, and with much more force, such that the words were no longer really whispered, but spat out exclamations, Smith reacted as though by reflex, stood up and approached the thin hand.

 

It was empty.

 

It was only when Oscar collected him from the police station early the next morning that Smith began to see how all of these seemingly unrelated memories, ideas, sensory impressions and feelings were related.

 

He told Oscar about the empty hand and the pointing finger.

 

“An empty hand, eh?” Oscar nodded. “And a pointing finger as well?”

 

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Smith dared to ask.

 

“Yes,” Oscar dared to reply. “Yes,” he repeated with more certainty. “Yes. Yes I am. I’m thinking just that.”

 

“What?”

 

“What you’re thinking… I’m thinking just what you’re thinking. You’re right. Whatever you’re thinking. Your idea. Your theory. I think you’re right. It couldn’t be anything else.”

 

Buoyed by having such confidence placed in him, at least buoyed to his normal levels of self-confidence, total confidence in his every idea, assumption and theory, his normal state of unconditional self-assurance, complete absence of self-doubt, absolute faith in his perception of the world, an inviolable picture which could never be tainted by misunderstanding or distortions borne of a faulty or incomplete perspective, so essentially buoyed, buoyed up, up high, crest of a wave, top of his game, up high looking down – Smith put into words the theory which had been coalescing in his mind over the last few hours:

 

“It’s him… the man with the… that man… he’s at the heart of this. It was his hand, his pointing finger, his voice whispering to me, trying to get to me, misdirecting me. The man who looks at clouds. The man who locked us in that room. Who escaped. It’s him. Of course it’s him. It has to be.”

 

“Yes,” Oscar almost shouted out. “It’s him.”

automaton

…it’s human nature

 

 

 

 

What else could Helen do?

 

Nothing. Helen could do nothing else but do what Helen would do, should do, could only do, must do, is about to do, is doing right now.

 

There she is, doing what she had to do. This would be a great comfort to her, if her thoughts were to lead this way, towards self-doubt, seeking absolution of blame, seeking relief from the moral quandaries which can and do plague us. But not Helen. To be caught up in her own nature and have no choice but to do what her nature dictated, was a not welcome break from having to think about what she should, might or could possibly do. Helen just did. Helen was. Helen is. Helen must.

 

And what must Helen do?

 

Helen had little choice but to jumble up the newspaper’s central filing system.

 

“Don’t we keep computer records?” Helen had asked earlier that day.

 

“Of course. But we need to know where certain pieces of paper are. Pieces of paper are still what we always go back to. They’re the beginning and end.”

 

Randomly pulling out files from the beginning of the alphabet, Helen restored them to shelves at the other end of the room. As she busied herself with placing files from “c” into “s” and files from “f” into “r”, Helen realised that she was following a recognisable pattern. If she was to continue in this manner for the next ten or twenty years, she would merely reverse the alphabet. So she altered the manner in which she was proceeding, placing some “b” files in “a” and “s” files in “t”. Of course, she changed the labels of the files, so that the files could not be located. There would be no beginning, nor would there be an end.

 

The filing clerk would have to be fired. There was nothing else for it.

 

Helen might be the slave of her own nature, but she was also the master of the fate of someone else.

 

The filing clerk was a fairly nice, harmless, inoffensive young man. The type of young man you could not find it in you to dislike, let alone hate. This bothered Helen. It bothered her to such a degree that she found herself hating the filing clerk – which was convenient, though not essential. Helen didn’t have to persuade herself of the evil inherent in the filing clerk. She didn’t convince herself. She was just convinced.

 

“Do you have anything that needs filing?” he asked every morning, an innocent and polite smile colouring his features.

 

Helen nourished her hatred of him.

 

“I couldn’t find that file on the Murphy story,” he told her one afternoon. “Are you sure it was filed?”

 

Helen relished the control she had of his fate.

 

What would happen to this inoffensive and jolly young man upon being fired was of as much interest to Helen as what happened to him when he left work every evening. It wasn’t that she didn’t care; it was just that she wasn’t aware of his having an existence at either end of her awareness of him.

 

“I had one hell of a crazy night last night,” he stated one morning.

 

Helen could only look at him with a puzzled face. She didn’t understand what he could mean.

 

But Helen was at the same time a keen observer of her fellow man. She spent nearly fifteen minutes watching him go about his business in the office yesterday. He spoke at length to nearly everybody, speaking longer to the young women than to the men, spending longer with the more junior staff, seeming to be a little wary of older and more senior members of staff – as you’d expect. Helen, as a keen observer of her fellow man, expected this.

 

When he wasn’t speaking to anyone, and paused in his work, hovering between one menial task and another, he let his eyes rest on the features of one or two particular young women. He seemed mostly absorbed by their breasts. Helen noted this.

 

Helen prided herself on her awareness of other people, despite the fact that it was almost non-existent. She treasured the fact that she had unearthed about the young filing clerk – he was an admirer of young women’s breasts. And Helen had breasts. A plan slowly formed in her mind.

 

“I can’t find that file,” he said to a reporter from sport yesterday morning. It was becoming his regular refrain. Becoming more and more frustrated with the missing files and with his inability to meet basic requests for files, the filing clerk seemed to be a little on edge – which was duly noted by Helen: he liked young women’s breasts and he was a little on edge.

 

“Perhaps I could help you find that file.” Helen startled him as he sat alone amongst the shelves of the filing room, lost amongst his thoughts. Helen had a good idea of what was occupying those thoughts.

 

He didn’t have the wherewithal to respond, especially as her breasts were almost touching his face.

 

“The file I requested this morning,” Helen added.

 

“The file?”

 

Helen bent down slightly and arched her back. “The Winton file.” Helen couldn’t repress a little titter. She had no choice.

 

He looked flustered. He eventually caught her eye, but wasn’t sure what to make of the manner in which she was looking at him. The look of confusion, stained slightly by fear, was noted by Helen. She had noted so many things about this young man. She now had as full a picture of him in her head as she was ever likely to get. This was the peak of her understanding of him. He was more real to her now than he ever was or would be.

 

“What’s wrong?” Helen adopted the soft tone and troubled appearance of someone who was genuinely concerned, at least she thought she did.

 

The young filing clerk told her everything. However, after half an hour, Helen had forgotten the majority of his everything. But she retained the fact that he had just been spurned in love. Of course, there was also the fact that he was frustrated by his job: files kept going missing and everyone took it out on him. “Who else could be to blame?” Helen had asked him. It was at this point he walked quickly from the room, tears clearly collecting in his eyes.

 

Helen could have acted out of compassion at this point, but that wasn’t in her nature. Not that she even considered it – acting out of compassion. Nor did she, at this point, consider her nature. Nor did she consider any alternative to what she was about to do.

 

When the office had emptied out that evening Helen went from desk to desk, taking files which had been left out for filing the next morning. She was careful to take files at random, making sure that there was no pattern to her actions. Also, she took no files from the desks of the most junior reporters and staff, whose desks ran along a glass wall beneath the sweep of the close circuit cameras. Having collected as many files as she could comfortably carry, Helen made her way to the filing room at the back of the office. Intent on acting quickly, Helen fell over the outstretched legs of the filing clerk as soon as she entered the room. The files she was carrying spread across the floor.

 

Getting quickly to his feet, the young man was almost all apologies, but he couldn’t get out a single word. Helen was about to explain what she was doing, when she noticed that the filing room was in quite a bit of disarray. There were files spilt onto the floor all the way down the main corridor. There was a pile of files thrown into the far corner. The whole of the “r” section was spilled onto the floor.

 

“Don’t say anything,” were the only words the young filing clerk could manage.

 

Helen had no choice.

camaraderie

…fellow feeling in both directions 

 

 

 

Needless to say, but it will be said, it has to be said, here it is being said: Henry Bridgewater was not a lover of his fellow man… it has been said.

 

Standing at the window in the staffroom, looking out onto the green, Henry would smile on seeing his fellow man in an unfortunate situation, indeed, here he is now, smiling, actually smiling, the smile can be seen from the other side of the room (it is reflected in the glass of the window), so he’s not smiling inside, smiling slightly nor smiling wistfully, but fully smiling, the nearest thing to laughing, his teeth actually showing, his lips stretching over the smugness consequent of seeing his fellow man in an unfortunate situation, Bill Simmons, who was himself smiling, almost laughing, sitting on a bench, leaning back on the bench, so almost lying on the bench, practically lying on the bench, talking with his head close to the head, his lips almost brushing her ear, her perched on the edge of the seat, her smiling, her nodding her head, her laughing, a sixth form girl sitting next to him laughing, and Merryweather standing there staring at them both. This was certainly a situation in which Henry would have to accept a complete lack of fellow feeling with his fellow man.

 

But of course there were others. But of course. Of course. Others?

 

How about the full range of humanity sitting around the staffroom muttering nothing to each other again and again…like some kind of mantra. Was it a mantra? Or were they just randomly repeating inane comments? Wasn’t that what a mantra was? But it wasn’t giving them any kind of metaphysical gratification… is there such a thing as metaphysical gratification? But why else have a mantra?

 

With such questions Henry was to be distracted for a moment or two, but when he regained his awareness of the here and now and his place in it, he was again cheered up by the precarious position Bill Simmons, union man, was in. The sixth form girl was by now giggling in response to Bill’s latest witty remark, her long dark hair tickling his cheek, her hand resting on the seat just behind his back and Merryweather was huffing and puffing at a fierce rate on the other side of the green, pretending to listen to some person talking about some thing. From her perspective this must have looked all very inappropriate. She would be able to make out their laughing faces, probably see the mirth on their faces, the way their eyes met over each terribly funny remark, the manner in which her hair softly touched his face, his hands in his pockets, his whole body laid back, her arm finding support behind his back, perhaps on his shoulder, and above them to the right, or to her left, the beaming face of Henry himself…

 

Yes, he too appeared in this scene, an appearance which was to straight away dent his enjoyment of it. For a moment he saw his smiling face, framed by the window, held a couple of feet to the left of the offending couple, his enjoyment clearly evident, his lack of fellow feeling clear for all to see, his shame, his utter shame…

 

The face which replaced the shamelessly beaming face of Henry was a far more dignified face. It was the face of fear, touched by surprise, surprised by his own discovery of himself, the face of shame, the face of a man caught out, proven to be made of rather shoddy material, a face in which no trace of a smile, no enjoyment, malicious or otherwise, was evident. It was a face, if you didn’t know any better, and Henry didn’t, of quiet dignity. As an experiment, Henry adopted a faint look of disapproval. He liked what he saw. He allowed this faint look to become less faint, more evident, a look which defined his view of the world. It was at once proud and sneering. Relaxing his eyes a little he managed to soften the look and appear more conceited than sneering… it was a look he approved of, a look he could just make out in the glass of the window as the light shifted owing to a break in the clouds.

 

And it was as though this break in the clouds announced something in the world outside of the head and personal space of Henry… there could be seen, at first vague shapes disturbing his reflection, then dark bodies passing across and obscuring the reflection of a proud and haughty faced Henry, dark shapes which took on more definition as his eyes focused on the world beyond his reflection, the shape of Bill Simmons and the sixth form girl standing to attention, and the rotund and generous shape of Mrs Merryweather being very generous with her words and proximity, very liberal with her volume and tone, very angular with her movements, her hands cutting into the air, he shoulders jumping up and down, her jaw falling open and snapping shut, her head twisting and turning in jerky movements, nodding in time to some discordant melody.

 

Just as the words of Merryweather were becoming audible to him, one word must have reached the perfect pitch to resonate with the glass in the window frame, which framed Henry’s haughty and proud look, which shattered for a moment the world outside, rendering it opaque, and when the vibrations settled, what was revealed to Henry through the glass was his own reflection, jutting out over the right shoulder of Merryweather and levitating between the heads of Bill Simmons and the sixth form girl, one of whom was being lambasted on the state of their uniform.

 

Bill Simmons’s face, his round glasses, his neatly trimmed beard, at once revealed a man defeated, caught out, or some such thing. It is difficult to deduce what one face meant as opposed to any another. The sixth form girl’s face was hidden by her dark hair which the breeze had plastered across her face. Merryweather’s face was obscured by the fact that it was turned the other way. But in amongst all these half images and obscured meanings was a revelation. The revelation was the face of Henry, the proud and conceited face of Henry, the face as others saw it, how he appeared to the world, how he was seen. There he was in the middle of this scene looking almost regal, certainly above all of this tittle-tattle and bickering and what not. There his image floated, just a little above everything else, just about looking down, not quite sneering, perhaps a little patronising, certainly calm and sober, definitely reserved, most definitely dignified, with just a little, a touch, a spark, a faint gloss of…

 

That is who I am, Henry said to himself. That is who others see before them. That is the person who could walk out of a room and not hear a word, a titter, a sound… they would simply be without his presence. 

 

classification

to put in a class

 

 

Henry might be completely ignorant of what goes on in the homes of the rich and famous, just as he is wholly ignorant of what goes on in the homes of the poor and uneducated, but he could claim at least some knowledge of what goes on in the hum-drum middle of the road suburban four bedroom semis of the middle-middle-classes. But he doesn’t claim; Henry’s claim to such knowledge has been lost in the whirling of his mind.

 

Henry could say that he is an expert in the area of the behind-closed-doors-middle-middle-classes. Not that he would be at all smug regarding the depth of this knowledge. He would be in fact deeply ashamed of his origins in these middle-middle-classes, so he lives in denial, always lived in denial, and will live there for as long as that state will accept him. This state of denial is the rock on which he built himself – ego, id and superego. Henry is, was and always will be, a self-made man of no particular class.

 

Henry’s middle-middle class upbringing was just as pathetic and embarrassing as any other middle-middle class upbringing. And it was circumscribed by the same hollow values: worship of the self in all its forms; respect for the magnolia furniture covers in the living room; washing your own plate, cutlery and cup; the value inherent in money, cars and bricks and mortar; and the importance of retaining obscure facts through writing them down and filing them carefully… each of which Henry had taken to in turn… not necessarily proving their hollowness, but just taking them for a walk through the shit.

 

At school, where Oscar had watched him from afar, Henry seemed to be quite the middle-middle-class well oiled, well turned out and well-spoken young man in a chunky jumper and sailing shoes. He was full of the jumble of middle-middle-class empty ideas, ideas which he voiced in convoluted sentences which would be dissipated in the thinnest of air. When Oscar made so bold as to approach Henry and accuse him of being an empty headed fool, he got to know the real Henry, the Henry beneath the emptiness and the shirt collars and the squeaky voice, the beating heart of a human being, the raw visceral collection of blood and guts, the breathing, groaning, bag of emotions, the… it is sufficient to say that Oscar closed the lid on all of that as quickly as he could. But this glimpse beneath didn’t fully sate his curiosity.

 

Not wishing to look beneath once again, Oscar satisfied himself with observing Henry’s observables – his violin lessons, his crustless sandwiches and his collection of scarves which were worn year round. Suppressing his only instinct: shouting “you bastard” at Henry every time he saw him, Oscar had to depend on his wits – which usually let him down; should a tiger should pop out of the bushes as he walked across to the cafeteria, and should his instinct not be in working order, Oscar would have been eaten up long before his wits were of any use – perhaps they would be of some comfort to him as he was being digested… but so much for such perhapsings. And as far as sparring with the dull wits of Henry – Oscar’s wits were too scattered and dissolute. Oscar and Henry could do little else but poke fun at everyone else in the hope that they were something else entirely.

 

What they were, or what they thought they were, is less easy to define than what they weren’t, or what they thought they weren’t. Because they were nothing in particular. But they were not, in their opinion, many things in particular. They had no defining characteristics. Though they were, at that point in time anyway, fundamentally the same kind of person – these fundamentals were ineffable. But what they weren’t, or what they thought they weren’t, was of following:

 

Sub-class: the people who lived beneath bridges, in railway tunnels and in foreign countries. Eating squirrels, dogs, cats and their own children, they rarely venture out into even the cheapest supermarkets. Distrustful of other people and of themselves.

 

Lower-lower-class: uneducated, poor and dangerous. Like fighting, drinking and masturbation. Not adept at the art of conversation. Struggle with abstract ideas. Familiar with the sound of their own names, concrete nouns and certain brand names.

 

Lower-class: educated to a very basic level, recognising the shapes of letters and having some understanding of the arbitrary link between these shapes and meaning. Claimants of unemployment benefit. Make up the bulk of the crowds in crowded places.

 

Lower-middle-class: could read and write but struggled with subtle distinctions between words, such as the difference between “sick” and “vomit”,  “ordinary” and “mundane”, “hard” and “difficult”. Metaphors are beyond them.

 

Middle-class: a catch all term for everybody who can hold a pencil, write their name and turn on a television. A term robbed of meaning long ago by its over-application – a danger which should be guarded against in the application of other terms (the terms “wanker”, “bastard” and “writer” are likely to suffer the same fate).


Middle-middle-class: formerly of the afore-mentioned class, this amorphous, straggling mass of easily forgettable individuals is corralled here simply from a lack of interest in their defining features. Drink tea, cup-a-soups and £5 bottles of red wine. Their children eat beans by the bucketful. They have been known to die of apathy. Struggle with long sentences.

 

Upper-middle-class: complete bastards who look down on everyone else, including those above them. Have mastered the arts of reading, writing and watching television. Drink £20 bottles of red wine. Read literature, buy cheap art and fuck each other’s wives.

 

Upper-class: have more money than the preceding class and less money than the succeeding one.

 

Upper-upper-class: own castles, islands, whole countries and bidets. Bathe in asses’ milk. Have sex with close relatives. Don’t know that beans are normally consumed in a watery tomato sauce.

 

Oscar and Henry’s classification of the members of society took up the whole of a double French lesson. They allowed themselves a brief titter when they were done. Henry was the one to suggest that they needed to test their classification system. Oscar was the one to suggest the befriending of certain lower-lower-class, lower-class, lower-middle-class, middle-class, middle-middle-class, upper-middle-class and upper-class individuals. Neither of them knew any people from the sub-class or the upper-upper-class, so those classes were summarily disbanded and wiped from society.

 

Struggling in the application of their classification system to real people, they had given the whole thing up by the end of the school day. However, the exercise did have the advantage of hiding in a fine spray of complete bullshit either’s classification – which would certainly have been that of the middle-middle-class.

alas

pity, grief, distress, concern, disquiet, misery, unhappiness and/or disappointment being given voice to

 

 

 

“This is Barry,” Smith said. “You’ll be seeing a lot of him from here on in.”

 

Barry smiled up at Oscar.

 

But Oscar could only return a look of confusion. “From here on in to what?”

 

Oscar did try to vary how he looked on the world, and he really did try to avoid this particular look of confusion, because he wasn’t confused. Not at all.

 

“Please excuse this look of confusion – it’s not that I’m at all confused by this Barry person.” Oscar finally smiled down at him. “How are things Barry?”

 

Barry looked to Smith before he replied. On receiving a nod of assent, he mumbled something about being alright.

 

“He prefers the name Baz actually,” Smith said. He had adopted a tone which Oscar had heard before, a tone which made him wary of what Smith was saying, knowing that these were words which meant something to Smith, words with consequences hanging off them. This was the particular tone of voice, Oscar was sure, which preceded particularly fraught and momentous events.

 

But by now, owing to these reflections which absented him from the world in which Smith was putting forth, in which his voice was resonating, rising and falling, Oscar had lost his thread

 

“…because it’s more proletarian, isn’t it? Baz? Than Barry? Barry has a ring of… Well, a ring of something else. And Little Baz here is a proletarian, aren’t you Baz.”

 

The child beamed. “I am. I’m a proletarian.”

 

He must have been nine or ten years of age, maybe more if he had suffered malnutrition in his life, which was entirely possible. Because you just don’t know these days. Or any days in fact. You don’t know about anything, which didn’t mean you didn’t know anything. It’s just, well, you can’t discount anything – Baz here could have suffered from malnutrition in the past, or be suffering from it right now – it was a distinct possibility. Distinct, if no more probable than not.

 

“I’m the original noble proletarian,” Little Baz pronounced.

 

“Like the noble savage,” Smith said by way of an explanation.

 

Little Baz was all of a sudden on the brink of tears. His sniffling drew both Smith and Oscar’s gaze back down to his face.

 

“You said I wasn’t no savage,” he got out between rather weak sobs. “You said.”

 

“Indeed I did, Baz.” Smith looked genuinely pained. “Indeed I did. Terribly sorry to bring all this up again. It’ll not happen again. Because I have nothing but respect for my proletarian brothers. Let me assure you of that, Little Baz. Nothing but respect.”

 

“And for savages?” Oscar inquired.

 

Smith was quick to shake his head disapprovingly at Oscar, and then shape his lips into a few harsh words of warning, words that he had rather little Baz not hear, and words which, consequently, no one would hear.

 

But Oscar didn’t feel obliged to watch what he said as far as this Little Baz was concerned; he would speak as he chose within his hearing, within the hearing of a little child of no consequence. But… He looked from Little Baz to Smith and back again, just to be sure, trying to fit everything together, just in case, before he could say something about it. Because something had to be said. He began to say one thing and then another, but didn’t quite know what to say. What was this, this… what had he here before him? What strange convolution of the world had he found himself wound into such that proletarian little boys suffering from malnutrition were being hoisted upon his consciousness?

 

“We are embarking…” Smith was trying to say something to preclude the possibility of Oscar saying anything, what would inevitably be the wrong thing. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re embarking on a journey, a programme of study… Yet, it’s also an investigation, or maybe more of an experiment…

 

“What?”

 

“Are you a proletarian?” Little Baz had suddenly acquired the look of some innocent who might feature in a knitwear catalogue.

 

Oscar didn’t think he could say that he was.

 

“Is this man not a proletarian?”

 

The boy’s tone of voice had now risen into a deeply irritating childish whine. He might have been about to cry. At least, he was succeeding in making Oscar feel that he had done something wrong, something to incur the boy’s displeasure, such as stealing candy from him or tripping him up, or some such reprehensible act.

 

“Focus Little Baz. Focus.” Smith got down on his haunches to the child’s level. “Tell yourself your story Little Baz. Remember your story.”

 

And the boy was transfixed. A preternatural calm over came him, a state in which his gaze seemed to catch out some figure in the near distance, something which wasn’t there – Oscar turned to look just to make sure – and became entranced by that figure and its rhythmic movements through the ether.

 

“What have you done to this child?” Oscar wasn’t particularly worried. Was this now a genuine confusion that he felt?

 

“This kid’s got a story.” Smith smiled down on his little friend. “It just needed pointing out to him, and I was on hand.”

 

“Of course. I understand now.”

 

“It was yesterday morning, was that a Tuesday? I think it was a Tuesday. At Stretford Mall. Beneath the brass sculpture of the humming bird. There he was. He was stood amongst a throng. He was lost. He was no one. But what happened next marked him out and began a story that needed to be told.”

 

“I’ve not been to Stretford Mall for ages.”

 

“There was, for some reason, though I don’t believe in fate, nor the possibility of any kind of divine intervention…” Smith cast a nervous glance over his shoulder before he could continue. “…there was an unnatural calm, a strange quiet which had descended over the little world made up of the intersection of those two indoor avenues of shops. It was the quiet which struck me, as it must have done many of the others who had been there. And out of that quiet came the beginning of the story – an old man, a pensioner wheeling along one of those little trolley things that pensioners always wheel along. And then it happened – the poor man was rent asunder. Such that a moment later he was splayed across the ground, lying on his back, a look of horror marking his features. And his tins of beans – tins of beans Oscar – can you credit that. Oh, those tins of beans. If ever there was a better symbol for the working, striving, honest human being… tin upon tin of economy beans in tomato sauce rolling along that dirty floor.”

 

“Economy beans.”

 

“Now – this was the moment. Because there comes a time, not a time that’s orchestrated by the gods, or assigned by fate, but it comes, if we wait long enough it comes, and here it came to this group of scallywags standing on the benches beneath that brass humming bird sculpture. It was a moment to test them.”

 

The boy was in a daze, caught by the words that Smith was uttering, or still entranced by that non-existent figure a few yards away.

 

“Now some of us might refer to Greek Gods or Lord Jim or some such bourgeoisie learning…” Smith tutted derisively. “But this is knowledge as a barrier Oscar, a barrier rather than knowledge which enables our fellow men – but no, there’s no need for such literary references. Because there stood Little Baz, regardless of literary precursors, ignorant of any Icarus or Aphrodite, there he stood, stood tall, amongst his little friends, all bellowing in unison at this old man’s predicament, there he stood, and though he was no taller, measuring only some four feet as you can see, no taller than any of his friends, even probably smaller, there he stood, and he was standing tall. He was taller by a foot at that moment. He stood tall and he said: “Do not laugh!” Just like that. That’s what he said.”

 

“Do not laugh,” Little Baz now repeated, his eyes still unfocused, his head now swaying from side to side.

 

“That,” Smith concluded, “was the cry of a proletarian hero. That was the beginning of an inspiring story.”

 

springboard

…that which assists one’s springing 

In between bouts of simulated efficiency, hard work, also simulated, and helpfulness poorly simulated, Helen had leisure to consider herself. But she also thought of other people as well. Of course she did. Other people looked at her every day. Other people walked past her every day. Other people spoke to her about this and that, told her to do something or other, asked her questions, offered their assistance, and all sorts of other things. Another person held the elevator for her and smiled too much at her yesterday morning. Another person poked her in the face with an open umbrella this morning. A whole lot of other people filled the bus up with their heat this morning; inhaling their exhaled breaths Helen could feel no bond with these other people. They were other and that was that.

One such other person was speaking to her right now, a man who sat on her desk and told her funny stories about who was who in the office. All these other people who hated each other or fancied Michelle in the post room, or who didn’t like working with that other person, or who couldn’t tell their asses from their elbows, or who were on their final warning for one reason or another… how many there are of those other people, was all Helen could think.

“There are such a lot of you,” Helen said. But the man wasn’t listening to her, his eyes focused on the shadow lurking between her breasts.

Helen liked this shadow as well. She could see why this man’s gaze should dwell there for an instant, a couple of seconds, running on for a dozen seconds before he registered that Helen had said something and nodded his assent.

“There’s a lot of us alright. There’s twenty-six of us in the post room alone. And as for reporters… there must be thirty… and as many secretaries and such like. And then there’s the people in charge… There’s a hundred and ninety four slots in the post room… but all of those slots don’t represent real people and some of them…

Helen was for a moment daunted by this large number of other people. As the words continued to dribble out of this other person sitting on her desk, Helen tried to imagine what a hundred and ninety other people would look like, but her imagination soon faltered. Because all of these people were looking at her, these imaginary other people. The other people at the back of the crowd of other people were straining to look over shoulders and heads. One of the other people in front was blushing. Another of the other people in front was Oscar. How odd she should think of Oscar standing there. But the oddness of it lasted only a moment as she went on to notice other people she knew standing in this crowd of other people. There was Mary, Jane or Susan from her last job. There was her mother and her aunty Linda. There was Smith holding a red file. And there was Henry too. He was staring at her breasts. They were all staring at her breasts.

When the other man who had been sitting on his desk had run out of breath in his inventory of other people working at the paper, Helen smiled up at him and allowed him a generous view of the top of her breasts and the black lace of her bra as she stood up to end the conversation and begin another bout of simulated efficiency, hard work, also simulated, and helpfulness poorly simulated. However, she had nowhere to go but the toilets. So she went to the toilets.

In the toilet Helen dwelt on the difficulty of sitting all day in open view. Her desk was situated at a point where every other person walked past. She wasn’t the general secretary of the building. There were two women and one man who sat downstairs by the door and who dealt with other people who walked in off the street and with phone calls from all of those other people who decided to phone for one reason or another. They always smiled, or at least they always smiled at Helen. But then, everyone always smiled at Helen. At first. At first, Helen was someone at whom other people always smiled. She didn’t question this, so her thoughts soon veered off in another direction. However, after a few seconds her thoughts returned to the problem of always being in view of other people. And what other people saw. Helen stared at her reflection in the mirror.

This is who other people see, Helen realised. This is who Oscar sees. Helen turned to one side and then the other, taking in either profile. Her opinion on the size of her nose changed every day, or at least as often as she thought about it, which was more or less every day. Now it was too big. Yesterday it was prominent. Tomorrow it might have character. However, her opinion on what she now saw in the mirror, and on what Oscar saw this morning, was less difficult to define: she was pleased as well as a little worried.

Helen certainly didn’t love Oscar, and had no intention of loving him. She would have said she liked Oscar if she had to admit to any feeling for him, perhaps out of the guilt of feeling nothing for him, or for anyone else. But the idea of being in love with Oscar was something which she was quite partial to. The idea of Oscar being in love with her was probably the root cause of this partiality. And Helen had decided last week that Oscar should be in love with her, that he would be in love with her by the end of next month and that he would have no choice but to be in love with her when her plans came to fruition.

For it was these “plans” that were behind the recent metamorphosis in Helen. Helen had metamorphosed all of a sudden two weeks ago, metamorphosed not in the sense of becoming something different, someone different, a whole new person. She was still the same person. The metamorphosis was of the nature of a change in Helen’s view of life, but this view did not change her fundamentals. She was still the same Helen.

“I am still the same Helen,” Helen said to the Helen in the mirror.

She stood there for a few minutes more admiring her profile, the manner in which her new suit accentuated the curve of her waist and hips, the bulge of her breasts, the faint shadow lurking between her cleavage, the curve of her breasts, the pale skin of her neck and cleavage, what Oscar saw that morning as she left for work, the way her hair framed her face, her reddened lips, how Oscar attended to her every word on writing for newspapers, how his gaze rested on the shadow lurking between her breasts.