effluvia

…invisible substances which permeate the air causing difficulty to those nearby

They met under a bridge – Oscar and Smith. They might have been escaping the rain, but Smith was already soaked through and Oscar had adopted the look of someone who was unconcerned with such corporeal matters as being wet or dry. Both their faces were in shadow, robbing us, and their respective interlocutor, of either’s facial expressions, which Smith regularly had recourse to and Oscar had been known to rely upon, but also, and perhaps more importantly, though how relative importance is decided has acquired the randomness of a roulette wheel, the darkness consequent of their standing beneath the wide girth of a bridge, a set of tram tracks hoisted up into the air on thick concrete pillars and taken across the ship canal, resulted in their faces appearing somewhat sinister – as though they were plotting something sinister, as though the sinisterness of their true intentions was reflected in the sinisterness of their appearance.

The brief waves of the ship canal licked and sucked at the nether regions of the bridge and provided the background, a sort of sinister backing track, to the following exchange.

“You have the stuff?” Oscar appeared nervous – his face could just be made out to be pale, his eyes just perceptibly wide, his head could be seen to move in brief erratic twists and turns. He nodded several times as though supplying the answer he wanted to hear.

“Three and a half thousand substandard and post-expiry-date nicotine candied gum pieces. They’re in the bag.”

There was no bag.

“I mean I have them…” Smith was quickly losing any sinisterness the darkness had lent him through the confused monologue which he was just now launching himself into. “…they’re in that bag… there’s no bag… I have them at home… but they’re in a bag… in a bag at home… but they’re in the bag too… you know? In the bag. You get it? They’re metaphorically in the bag… I have succeeded in bagging them. I’ve bagged them. They have been bagged.”

“You got them at home?” Oscar’s laconic delivery was much more suited to this type of underhand and shadow lurking exchange, the impropriety of which he must have been relishing.

It was at this point that Smith started sneezing and coughing, a concurrent fit of each variety of rapid exhalation, each instance of which being repeated several times by the acoustics of the concrete bridge surrounding them – it was enough to distract them both from the task at hand and to distract Smith from everything else other than his theory that sneezing was a conscious expression of either extreme disgust or intense anxiety. Once the concurrent coughing and sneezing fits subsided, amongst the echoes of the final fit, the questions, the self-examinations, the incriminations, the thoughtless reflectings, the gut-wrenching-soul-searching began – all originating in Smith’s addled but dreadfully profuse mind.

“There’s something not right about this… about this whole business.” Smith eventually stated, after some time absorbed in his own thoughts, the wounds of the water slapping at the bridge or the screech of a tram slowly grinding its way overhead. He began to stride backwards and forwards beneath the span of the bridge, at either end the dull light of the day illuminating his pained expression. “I’m telling you Oscar. I’ve got this feeling… it’s not right… this feeling in the pit of my stomach…”

“Your conscience is in the pit of your stomach?”

“We’re pulling the strings of a sentient being. We’re playing god.”

Oscar quite liked this idea.

Oscar followed Smith over to the railing where he was gazing despondently into the dirty water, where the currents had trapped a collection of detritus in an alcove formed by the bridge’s supports.

Attempting to understand Smith’s frame of mind, to see things how he saw them, Oscar took the first step of following his line of sight, which seemed to terminate on a punctured cheap orange football bobbing up and down on the water’s surface. Oscar gleaned little insight from that. Not that he dismissed the relevance of Smith’s object of view out of hand; he did think briefly on how the bobbing dirty plastic football could have evoked for Smith a memory from childhood, perhaps reminded him of lost innocence, of growing old, of death, of the sad decline towards old age, when Smith himself will one day be little more than a punctured plastic football caught in the currents around him, before he finally sinks beneath the murky water.

And when Smith raised his head and seemed to focus his vision on a point several yards ahead of him, a point of empty space above the soughing river, Oscar had little choice but to conclude that Smith’s concerns were indeed of the metaphysical variety. Justice? Beauty? Truth? Any of these transcendental concepts could have right then been the pivot around which Smith’s thoughts were turning, and Oscar guessed at the first being the most likely – the notion of justice must have been at the forefront of Smith’s boiling mind, considering he was about to embark on a programme of surreptitiously re-addicting (When had Henry quit smoking?) a friend to nicotine through regularly supplying him with seemingly harmless candied gum pieces, which were in fact nicotine candied gum pieces, encouraging him to chew them whilst all the while becoming more and more addicted to nicotine once again, a craving he will be unable to satisfy, as he would be unaware of the true nature of this craving, even that he is suffering from a craving, and so becoming an unwitting slave to these candied gum pieces which only Smith could provide – and to what end? Well, it certainly would make interesting reading.

“Can you smell that?” Smith asked Oscar, giving him the first direct insight into his thought process over the last few minutes, but the words were seen by Oscar only as a distraction from his current train of thought, which had Smith contending with the morality of manipulating Henry for their amusement.

“I can’t smell anything.”

“There’s an odour… a faint kind of tang in the air…”

“Must be the ship canal,” Oscar assured Smith and himself. “This dirty water has been god knows where. You’ve had people pissing and shitting into it, animals dying in it, hospitals emptying their waste into it… so there’s rotting human limbs… ulcers floating around… then there’s drowned puppies… three or four sets a day by recent estimates… of course there’s people being murdered every day… and disappearing… there’s no better place to disappear a body than weigh them down at the bottom of this mess… and then maybe the odd suicide. It’s a dirty old world Smith my friend, and that water’s soaked in it.”

“I don’t know. It’s got me feeling uneasy… I’m anxious, really anxious… I’m sneezing for god’s sake.”

“Let’s go get you a cappuccino.”

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