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.”

 

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cramp

…a sharp pain consequent of over-exertion or over-speculating or over-whelming     

Helen was in control. She rolled the heavy grey ball of the mouse from one side of desk to the other. This was important to her. To feel in control. Because that’s all being in control was – feeling in control. It was a feeling. A sense. Knowing. How you feel about things happening around you. Knowing that you’re in control. And feeling out of control? – well, that would be disastrous. Helen felt a sharp pain in her stomach.

 

The little ball rebounded from her coffee cup into her hand. The very thought of her having no control over what was happening to her, the thought of her control being undermined by all those other people or processes beyond her control, the idea that it didn’t matter what she did, that whatever she did, no matter what, the outcome would be the same, that there was nothing she could do – such a thought was an anathema to Helen. She always caught the little grey mouse ball just as it was about to roll off the desk.

 

Helen had to be in control, so Helen just worked out what was going to happen, what would have happened regardless of her exertions, and accepted it. Not that she just accepted it; she actually sought it out. Not that she sat around and worked things out; she didn’t go through every possible permutation and calculate the odds, the likelihood of Jimmy the Nod tripping over her foot and falling down the emergency stairs, breaking both his legs so badly that he was confined to a wheelchair for six months, the likelihood of The Chief having a fetish for skin tight rubber and studded collars, the likelihood of the two women working at the main reception spreading the most awful rumours about her, the likelihood of her never discovering the specifics of those rumours… there was never any kind of calm and sustained deliberation on any of these subjects. There was no conscious calculation. No consideration of external influences, the impossibility of overestimating the depths to which other people would sink, the grubby meanderings towards one or other sexual perversion… none of this went on. Helen just knew. She knew how the world worked and she cut her expectations according to it. She was neither hopeful nor hopeless. She was neither realistic nor pessimistic. She strove towards the inevitable with a laudable tenacity.

 

Not only did she accept the inevitable, but she christened it as her goal and she worked towards it. Though this wasn’t fatalism. It wasn’t resignation. It was a way of engaging with the world, of dealing with the world, with the chaos of events and people, whilst retaining a modicum of self respect, as well as a raft of other feelings such as self-worth, pride, arrogance, vanity, confidence, smugness, self-centredness and some other-nesses for which there are no names. It wasn’t that. It wasn’t this. It just was. It is.

 

That Oscar’s love for her had dissolved into nothingness had now taken on the appearance of inevitability, the way that things which have happened tend to do. What could be more inevitable than something which had already happened? Surely such things were the most inevitable. More inevitable than all the cars passing by on the street below, or the sun setting, or those people who die everyday on the other side of the world. She had once played with the thought of Oscar falling in love with her. She had been certain. But looking back on it now, considering how things had turned out, Helen felt the warm glow of having done the right thing – pointing Oscar in another direction, dissuading him. So even though she had seduced him, even though she had devised a plan and put that plan into action to get Oscar to fall in love with her, she could now smile at the way things had turned out, nod her head at the inevitability of things, and smile at getting her own way, and smile. Just smile.

 

Considering that Oscar’s efforts, whatever he might be working towards, would come to nothing, just as her seduction of him had come to nothing, that both were a foregone conclusion, each as foregone as the other, each as inevitable as the already-happened, Helen would commit herself to working towards undermining Oscar’s efforts, ensuring that his ultimate goal, whatever that might be, would be unrealised. His seemingly genuine intention to engage with the world as a normal human being would not be realised. That failure would be ably assisted by Helen. Though that failure needed no assistance (it was inevitable), Helen still looked forward to the moment when she could taste success.

 

That taste of success was sharpest when she reported to The Chief over a lunch of thin sandwiches at his desk on the malicious scheme Oscar had been maliciously scheming, to ruin the newspaper by getting grossly inappropriate news articles into print.

 

That evening, the office emptied to a quiet hum, Jimmy the Nod was sat in his wheelchair at the back of the office, next to the stationary cupboard, almost hidden by a metre high stack of files awaiting his attention. On seeing him lurking there, Helen realised that he would be a participant in her demise. Managing to look over his shoulder, hidden behind the open door of the stationary cupboard, Helen saw the file he was holding – the file of Bill Simmons, or Tommy Kilpatrick, or the man she had no choice but to love, or the man who Smith was obsessed with, or the man that Henry was afraid of, or the man that Oscar was writing about, or the man whose picture Jimmy the Nod was chuckling at. As well as chuckling, Jimmy the Nod was making indecipherable notes on a scrap of paper. Other scraps of paper, carefully laid out on his lap on top of other files, were covered with intricate diagrams, tables, graphs, curious sketches and maps. Helen knew that Jimmy the Nod would get his revenge on her.

 

As well as Oscar’s failure being assured, so too was hers. Therefore Helen had to prove to herself her own connivance in it. It would be unthinkable for her to be fired for a reason either beyond her control or outside of her knowledge. Her incompetence must be a studied incompetence. Her failure must be deliberate and carefully thought out. What better way to gain control over the vagaries of the world and the people in it, than to choreograph your own failure. So this is what Helen had decided to do, after a negligible string of if-then-and-therefores, less than a moment’s reflection and little more thought than made up the shape of the conclusion: I will perform the final scene in this tragedy with great assurance.

 

The Chief was stood smiling at his office door when Helen sat back at her desk. She could leave in fifteen minutes. She would have to, she realised at that moment, there was no other choice, it was inevitable, she must devise her own catastrophic failure such that it dragged The Chief down, and Oscar too, and everybody else, whoever she could drag down with her. It would be a catastrophe. It would be worthy of her starring role. And Jimmy the Nod too. A wheelchair would feature in the final scene. A scene in which she was undone. A scene in which she finally met the man she could not stop thinking about. It would be perfect. It would be just what she always wanted, whatever it was that happened. Everything was perfect. But then Helen felt a pang. A pang of conscience perhaps, guilt, remorse, shame… a pang of something. But it passed.

kink

…a little bit wrong

 

 

 

 

 

Now that he was moving, Smith felt better. It’s all to do with movement. You’ve got to feel that you’re moving. That’s what’s important. Passing other cars. Not having another car in front of you. Yards. The lengths of cars. Many cars. Space opening out in front of you. Empty space. Because you can only move through empty space. Not through something. That’s just crashing. Smith didn’t want to crash. Which is the very opposite of progress. Not going backwards. Because going backwards was going somewhere. And going somewhere is far better than going nowhere. Going somewhere is making progress and that’s what made Smith feel better.

 

And driving gave him time to think. As long as he wasn’t stuck behind a car going too slow on the outside lane. As long as he wasn’t having to overtake one car and then another. Change lanes. Changing lanes was the worst. There’s nothing worse than changing lanes. Apart from the realisation that you should have changed lanes. That if you had changed lanes half a mile back you would now be half a mile somewhere up ahead. There’s nothing worse than that moment of realisation. Apart from not making progress – that’s the worst. How can you think?

 

Which got Smith thinking about what he was progressing towards – the ultimate goal of his epic journey. Up ahead, at the end of Princess Parkway, was Didsbury Girls’ Grammar School, where his arch-enemy worked as a history teacher. Though he was more of his nemesis than his arch enemy. Or Smith was his nemesis. One or the other. But he’d have him soon. Get him. Tackle him. Confront him. Expose him. What the hell would he do to him as soon as he walked up to this Tommy Kilpatrick, the odd man with the slight limp? He had to do something. He would by instinct. Everything was, after all, leading up to that one point, Smith was thinking.

 

And at this point the traffic slowed to a stop, which snapped Smith out of his thoughts, forcing him to once more confront the vagaries of the particular: why was there a traffic jam at six-o-clock in the morning? Where had all of these cars come from? Why were they all stopped? What was the problem? Why weren’t they going? Moving forward? Smith was losing his peace of mind, because there was nothing more peaceful than free flow, the free flow of thoughts, no matter where they were going, going backwards even, but going, not crashing, not stopped, stuck, jammed up behind the back wall of a white van. Wanker.

 

Smith tightly gripped the steering-wheel and emitted a loud and drawn out groan. He knew what was happening to him. It had happened before. It had happened yesterday when he tugged his bag of shopping out of the hands of the Boy Scout at the check out. It had happened last Monday when he had been waiting for half an hour on the council’s refuse help line and had quickly descended from punching random numbers with one finger to hitting the phone’s handset against his own head. It happened. It was his fatal flaw. It would be the death of him. Smith had only limited patience. There came a point when the logical process he prided himself on would just cease. It was shuddering to a halt right now, because of the stupidity of what confronted him: a traffic jam at six in the morning. It didn’t make sense. The world was just stupid. It didn’t obey the rules of logic. It was wrong every day. It went wrong. It went wrong and it was wrong. It didn’t flow. What’s the world thinking?

 

It was because Smith was sure that this flaw running through him was very likely to lead to his demise that he labelled it his “fatal flaw”. On many occasions he had also referred to it, in his head as well as in conversations on his mental processes with others, as a “tragic flaw”. Though properly speaking, Smith would have to add, the flaw wasn’t really in him. At least it didn’t originate in him. It was other things. It was reality. The flaw was running through reality. But he felt he had no choice but to take some of the blame. The flaw would run through him soon enough. He could feel it. A tightening around his shoulders.

 

And anyway, some variety of tragedy was always likely to be consequent of this one flaw in the otherwise flawless reasoning machine which Smith clearly was. And it was such a little flaw. So easily forgivable. Forgotten about. Say nothing about it. I completely understand. So undeserving of punishment. And so, more likely to lead to catastrophe. And so, perfectly suitable for the appellation “tragic flaw”. It was as though, in Smith’s arriving upon this term to describe his own lack of patience, he had known, deep down, beneath the layers of skin, bone and generalisation, that he would be punished severely, disproportionately and unduly for what was more or less nothing or less.

 

But it was without such calm reflection that Smith edged his way towards the next turn off. And it was without such flawless reasoning that he applied all his weight to the accelerator in order to make up for lost time, barrelling down a quiet tree lined road. Not once did he consider that he would still arrive at the school several hours before it started. He had planned to arrive at the school at six in order to check out the lie of the land with plenty of time to spare, and by god, thought Smith, that’s just what he would do, even if it meant racing down narrow suburban streets, screeching around wide curves in quiet crescents, and crashing over road humps every fifteen seconds.

 

It was as he rounded a corner of a particularly quiet and tree lined road, the trees meeting over the road and therefore blocking out the barely perceptible light of the very early day, that tragedy struck, thus legitimising his nomenclature of his only flaw.

 

The headlights picked out the pale face, the neatly trimmed beard, the round glasses, the bushy eyebrows, the weak head of thinning hair, the grey stubble, the eyes magnified by his glasses, the mouth hanging open in shock of his nemesis – Tommy Kilpatrick. It was only a fleeting glimpse. As soon as his face appeared it was gone, swallowed up by the bonnet of Smith’s car with an awful thump. Tragedy had struck. And it was a convincing strike.

 

Shortly after the car rolled to a stop, and with no other intention than to confirm the worst – that tragedy had indeed struck – Smith pushed open the door and slowly got out of the driving seat. Resigned to the worst, he made his way back into the darkness, towards the dark heap fifty or so yards back up the street. And it was at that moment that it hit Smith: how beautiful the early morning is. Filled with the shape of the trees’ boughs, branches and leaves against the pale morning sky, Smith felt the shape of his fingers in his hands, the size of his legs in his stride and the cool fragrant air against his face. But ahead of him that dreadful heap.

 

The pale face of Tommy Kilpatrick was almost buried beneath his arm. It was as though, Smith thought, this was a heap of old carpet, or a piece of a broken sofa. Such is life he thought. Once taken away it leaves behind only a heap of old carpet. Such is life. Such was life. And as he bent down in order to fully realise the dimensions of the tragedy which had befallen him, Smith’s flawless reasoning finally kicked in. In the space of three or four if-then-and-therefores he had worked it all out, felt vindicated, absolved himself of all blame and settled upon a solution. It only remained to get the body into the boot of his car before another car came around the corner.

 

 

 

 

ante

…what’s on the table? Nothing, sir.     

If the world is falling apart around you, what do you do? If the fabric of society is about to be rent asunder, how does one go about holding things together? If the school’s moral fibre is about to be unwound, how can Henry hope to stop the unwinding? Wind it back up again? Tighten it? Pull it until it was really tight? But what could he hold onto? Where was the loose thread? And as the world as we know it is about to…

It was almost obvious to Henry at this point, what needed to be done. It was blatantly obvious. Almost. And in the way that the blatantly obvious slowly climbs above the horizon of one’s conscious mind, like a red sun peeping above the war scarred no-man’s-land of world war one, like an exploding sun flaring above the skyline of a futuristic city, like one of those old red buses turning a corner on two wheels in a 1950’s comedy, like one of those awfully ugly and frightening dinosaur birds swooping down below a thick layer of stratocumulus clouds, like a curious squirrel falling out of a sycamore tree, like a lion watching its prey, like the colour of snow, like the smell of freshly cut grass, like Saul falling off his horse on the road to Damascus, like you wouldn’t believe, like anything at all, like the loudest explosion you’ve ever heard and the most frightening thing you’ve ever witnessed, like an avalanche thundering down a near vertical slope, like nothing you’ve ever seen before, like that, just like that… the dimly lit image of Tommy Kilpatrick and the half formed image of a loose thread slowly came into view, and their half formed images merged into the answer that had always been about to suggest itself to Henry.

Without a moment to lose, Henry stormed out of his classroom, leaving a first year class confused about the true nature of the world around them, their rudimentary theories on causation in tatters, and their fledgling understanding of the intricate workings of human motivation on very shaky legs.

What Henry didn’t seem to realise was that Henry had many moments to lose. He was, if truth be known, as he had always been, since the day he was born, until moments before his untimely death, awash with moments. He could have very easily, just at that point, sauntered across to the gents’ staff toilet in the West Wing. He could have made his way to his car and wallowed in the smoke of a cigarette. He could have jumped into the rhododendron bushes where they swelled out at the corner behind the main school sign, losing himself in their darkness. He could have spent as many moments as he would care to spend sitting in that darkness, listening to the heavy leaves above him softly rustle in the slightest of breezes, until his thoughts would rear up, and once reared up, his thoughts, they would weigh up these moments now dripping away as though they were each indispensable, decide that they couldn’t be spared, that there were insufficient moments for this, for their being thrown away on idle thoughts in the darkness of rhododendron bushes: in short, that he didn’t have a moment to lose.

He had to find Mr Kilpatrick. He had to put a stop to this. He had to do something. And this having to do something was sufficient in itself. There was no need for any kind of specification. Henry didn’t spare a thought for what this something could be. But it was something. And that was better than nothing. And for now he could walk quickly around the school, marching determinedly down corridors and past the windows of classrooms, and across the playing field, and wind his way through all the cars in the car park, in order to do this something. This something was just about pulling him along. And surrendering to this almost imperceptible pull of this most nebulous of somethings, Henry arrived at the darkly stained oak door of the Headmistress’s office, out of breath and brimming over with what he was about to do, whatever that might be.

“It’s Kilpatrick?” was what Henry shouted at the empty tables and chairs – tables and chairs devoid of the truncated figure of the sitting Mrs R P Merryweather, Buddha like, just like Buddha, but a cut in half Buddha, but a not smiling Buddha. A disdainful Buddha. Not like Buddha at all.

But he wasn’t to have time to deflate – the mass of the Headmistress, Mrs R P Merryweather, had accumulated right behind him, her breath on his neck, the fingers of one of her hands touching, pressing down, pulling back, tugging on his shoulder.

Once Henry had accustomed himself with the lie of the land, a process which propelled him across the room and obliged him to emit a high pitched screech, he reminded himself of the something that he was about to do, the something slowly forming a shape in his mind, the something which dropped into the forms of letters and words just as they dropped out of his mouth.

“He’s a malcontent… a misanthrope. He’s…

“Mr Bridgewater please. Take a seat.” The Headmistress would insist upon some kind of decorum – her kind of decorum, a decorum defined by her ever shifting sensibilities and her predilection for unadulterated subservience.

Mr Bridgewater took a seat. He sat on the edge of the seat as though he was someone who had something to do and could hardly wait to do it.

“If this is in relation to our little tête-à-tête yesterday afternoon…” Mrs R P Merryweather smiled.

Unprompted, Henry took a biscuit from the plate on her desk, fancying himself in some other meeting on some other day.

“It seems I’ve overestimated you, Mr Bridgewater.”

Henry’s mouth was slowly crammed full of dry rich tea biscuit.

“I had you down as someone I could trust. A rock. I needed a rock Mr Bridgewater.”

Crumbs fell to the floor as Henry’s mouth loosened into a gaping hole.

“And what do I get?”

Henry could hardly wait to find out – what did you get Mrs Merryweather?

“A louche. A ne’r-do-well. A fornicator. A man of loose morals. No morals. A man who…”

The crumbs were slowly forming into a solid mass of soggy rich tea crumbs which had all but stoppered Henry’s mouth. His eyes wide in either some kind of masochistic expectancy or unbelieving dread.

“I confided in you Mr Bridgwater. I leant on you. And what was I leaning on?”

The only noise that Henry could emit was a variety of whimper, deep and sonorous.

But Henry could see that something now. He could almost grasp it: he would have to offer up the woman he loved, Mrs Julia Madden, the buxom gym teacher, who he didn’t really like anyway, the thought of whom he couldn’t abide. He spat large chunks of congealed rich tea biscuits onto the polished surface of the desk in his urge to betray the woman who loved him unreservedly, the woman who pressed her breasts and stomach and thighs up against him, the woman who squashed him up against the tasselled cushions, garish cuddly toys and freshly laundered grey underclothes on the sagging sofa bed in her ground-floor flat, the woman who declared her undiluted love for him underneath the darkness of the glossy rhododendron bushes, the woman whose smile, whose every syllable, whose eating noises and loud breathing, whose runny nose and sagging breasts, whose every word, her any word, her about to speak, her having to speak, whose final word on any matter…

    

malfunction

…a function which is proscribed or in some way detrimental     

Oscar walked all the way up the emergency stairs to the top floor of the newspaper’s offices. Here the desks were empty. Whole acres of dun carpet spread out towards the floor-to-ceiling windows. In the morning, that morning, every morning, before the distant bustle of the lower floors had even begun, before the noise of the traffic on the streets outside had built up to the dull roar of the day, before the sun had lit up the bare concrete and brick walls outside, Oscar would stand here, standing still in the half light by a dusty stack of tables and chairs. Here he could only begin to take in the splendour of the world. Its wonder. The magic. The beauty of the world around him. Then he would make his first visit to the quietest toilet in the building.

Now, as evening set in, as the bustle in the office below slowly subsided, Oscar had retreated once more to the silence of that toilet. His final visit of the day.

It wasn’t just that it was quiet. Overloud classical music wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem. Or the roar of a gigantic waterfall. Or the chatter of a jungle’s burgeoning life. But quietness denoted the absence of other people. Because there was no one there. There never was. The absence of other people is essential to a good toilet. As it was to an appreciation of the world’s beauty. How could you appreciate the beauty of the world around you when someone was humming an improbable tune? How could you become deeply aware of the world’s majesty when there were six people sitting next to you loudly discussing house prices, as they clattered cutlery and crockery towards a perverse crescendo? And how could you hope to relax into a relaxing piss or shit with someone sitting in the next cubicle but one straining over the sport’s pages?

The urinals were pristine. They shone when the dull fluorescent lights flickered into being. The toilets were still cleaned regularly despite the fact that they were never used. And Oscar never used the urinals. He objected to urinals. There was always a chance, even here, in the quietest toilets in the world, a very slim chance, that someone could walk in when he was just in the middle of relieving himself, or as he was just about to flow, and stand right next to him, cough and splutter, pull out his penis, sneeze, smile, start a conversation, fart, cannon the full force of a mighty stream of piss against the back wall of the urinal, sending a delicate steam of piss vapour up into the air, filling the room. They might look. Listen. They could hear. They would be there. Standing right next to you. Another person.

Standing at a line of urinals, where anyone could stand shoulder to shoulder with you, was not conducive to free flow.

The cubicles, there were four, were also perfectly white and clean. The toilet seats were perfectly white and clean. The toilets’ porcelain was perfectly white and clean. As no one ever came in, Oscar could even leave the door open behind him. He always chose the cubicle nearest the entrance. He had a vague suspicion that one day something horrible would be perpetrated in the cubicle furthest from the door, and he wanted to play no part in it. How could he close his eyes and flow freely if there was even the slightest chance, one in a million, that he could be the victim of some unbelievable crime, a crime so unbelievable that no body believes in it. His body would be discovered by the cleaning lady. His body would be contorted over the toilet bowl and cistern. Much better to use the cubicle nearest the door. Free flow.

“I know your game MacSweeny!”

These words echoed in the toilet cubicle he was stood in. These words were more than enough to cause every muscle in his body to tense and contract, thus putting a stop to the flow of urine, cutting off the long stream of piss skidding off the inside of the bowl, the sudden cessation of the gush and splash, the opening up of an empty space, a crack in the universe, a chasm, that’s what it was, the gaping hole of the dimly lit toilet bowl in front of him, a rent in the very stuff of stuff, the end, the end…

But Oscar shook himself out of that… he pulled himself together. These words that he had just heard, he had heard, hadn’t he, for they were words, words, independent of the sparkings and collisions in his mind, these words were indicative of a large person standing directly behind him, shouting at the top of his voice. Another person. Turning around, there that person was: The Chief. One hand hanging onto the top of the cubicle, as though he was about to swing from it, the other hung against his waist, as though he wasn’t the kind of man who would swing from anything. A kind of a smile or a look of distaste marking his features, the wrinkles on his brow deep.

Oscar had been thinking of this meeting for some time. It was, after all, inevitable. He had, after all, Oscar had, after all, been seeming to be the man for the job for quite a while now – upwards of a week, ten days, maybe even two weeks. He had been determined for quite some time. He had been earnest. He had been waking up in the morning with a spring in his step, had been skipping through days, jumping into bed, writing words that would be read, saying things, actually saying something, people listening to him, nodding, he had been nodding, sometimes shaking his head, agreeing with people, laughing, even exulting, exulting when he should have been, he was seeming perfectly well, he was part of it all, that, it, everything, he was doing things, reporting, writing, making notes, having meetings, meeting people, actually meeting people, and having discussions, discussing things, having an opinion, he had an opinion on everything, anything, he could tell you his opinion on anything, and not as though he was just making it up, but it would have been a deeply held belief, deep, deep, deep, he recalled memories, what his father had said to him, a story I heard, gave advice, wasn’t sure, wouldn’t like to say, I wouldn’t do that, if I was you, if that was me, in the fullness of time, I’d think twice about that, that’s right, when the sun goes down, day after day, I know what you mean, are you sure, I’m sure, I know what I’m talking about, and he was listened to, people nodded their heads, people agreed, they agreed, he had arrived, he had done it, he was living, this was living, and he was living it, and rising, he was determined, he was moving up the ladder, rungs, actual rungs, so it was inevitable after all of that, it had to happen, this, this meeting, this inevitable meeting, this face to face, this creep up behind you, this stand quietly behind you as you piss freely against the rim of the bowl, this meeting in a cubicle in the quietest toilet in the world, which was always inevitable, despite which, despite its inevitability, its always-going-to-happneness, its never-not-going-to-happenness, like The Chief was always standing there, right behind him, just waiting to hear the first drop of piss splash, and then the stream hit the inside of the toilet’s rim, the soft sound of piss against ceramic, it gushing, the first tinkles becoming a free flow, despite him always standing there waiting to hear the first tinkle, despite inevitability, despite the inevitable, the first drop of piss always dropped freely into the splash of the bowl below.

“Jesus, doesn’t it stink of piss in here!”

obtuse

…lacking in both literal or metaphorical acuity     

Henry was not in control. This was important to him. Not to feel in control. Because that’s all being in control was – feeling in control. It was a feeling. How you feel about things happening around you. Or not happening around you. Things can not happen too. And then what can you do? What can you do if things just don’t happen? Sitting in the staffroom as other people did things, went places, answered phones, marked books, talked about students, planned trips… surrounded by things happening to other people, everyone so busy, so caught up by life, carried along with their pathetic little concerns and conversations and time-share apartments, despite being surrounded by these happening things, nothing happened to Henry. Nothing was happening to Henry right now. Though he was assiduously ignored by the raft of things happening in the world at that point, Henry felt a frisson of gratitude in knowing that things were all of a sudden about to happen to him, just about to, in any moment. Any moment now.

Not only were things about to happen to him, horrible things, terrible things, but things, things initiated by him, but things nonetheless. He was about to be routed by them. These things he initiated, things and things and things, things after things, on top of things, so many things, everything, but nothing that was controlled by him. Things would be happening to him all right. Just about to. It was like his phone was about to ring, and it would never stop ringing. How long had it been since something happened to him? Since he had something to do? How long had it been since his phone rang? Since he had something to worry about?

Now he really had to worry.

Henry’s reason to worry was most clearly incarnated in the person of Tommy Kilpatrick of the History Department, whose machinations were sure to drag him into a mire of some unimaginable depths. Or did he have more reason to worry about Ms Julia Madden, whose love for him was terrifying? Or what about the Headmistress, the awesome figure of Mrs R P Merryweather, who had him exactly where she wanted him, wherever that was? Or maybe he had more reason to worry about his good friends Oscar, Smith and Helen, who would smile as between them they would pull apart the fabric of his world, as they crashed through the neatly and intricately embroidered screens of Didsbury Girls’ Grammar School into which he had so carefully entwined himself?

Henry wished his phone would ring. This would be the signal that things were about to start. And once things were set in motion, things would gather such a momentum, things would accumulate, things would attain a critical mass, things would roll down the hill and carry him with them, things would overcome him, smother him, things would rise up, would crash down, would swamp the playing fields, would knock down walls, buildings, would wipe away everything. “Oh things”, Henry blurted out as he stood up to leave the staffroom. Of course, no one even turned, no one even stopped their conversations with no body else, even looked up from what they were reading, even opened their eyes. But it was only a matter of time.

Things had been underway for sometime now.

Henry was already being buffeted about by this and that, by things almost happening, half-things which caused him to variously shudder, tense up, bark out sudden noises. And there was always the deep shame he felt whenever he thought of his relationship with Julia Madden, a deep shame which paled in comparison to the queasiness he felt when she pressed her breasts and stomach and thighs up against him, and the dread he felt as he was squashed up against the tasselled cushions, garish cuddly toys and freshly laundered grey underclothes on the sagging sofa bed in her ground-floor flat; apart from that, there were the unpredictable highs and lows consequent of his sexual reawakening to deal with; the clearly perceptible rise in the hatred felt towards him by all of his students; the mounting pressure the headmistress Mrs R P Merryweather was loading on top of him consequent of their little tête-à-têtes; the paranoia that was sweeping the school at the sudden disappearance of Mr Kilpatrick; the imminent arrival of Helen in search of Tommy Kilpatrick, who she was convinced she was in love with; the imminent arrival of Smith in search of Tommy Kilpatrick, who he was convinced he was in danger from; and the imminent arrival of Oscar in search of anything, which he was convinced he was obsessed with. Surely these half-things, about-to-be-happening-things were enough for Henry?

But he had to be sure. That he no longer had to worry about not having anything to worry about, would prove to be quite a consolation to Henry. He had to move on. Though he was always buffeted about and moved on by the barely perceptible current in the school, a current which was gently meandering towards a calamitous fall, such that he was right then stuffing unmarked exercise books behind an old radiator in an unused Geography room, he had felt the need for quite some time for a more precipitous fall, dragging the river into white-water-rapids. He hadn’t forgotten the acres of emptiness in the past few weeks, where he had nothing to worry about. Though he was now more imbued with feelings of consternation than contentment, Henry didn’t feel aggrieved. Such is the way with life, Henry said to himself last night as he ran to his car as soon as Julia Madden dropped off to sleep. However, such moments of insight are rare for Henry. He was more accustomed to blind panic and short-sighted dread. He only wanted to cling to these familiar feelings.

One of his sixth-form students, a usually quite girl, though not any more likable because of it, sidled up to him in the corridor and warned him about the likelihood of his being overcome in the revolution which was around the corner, that the fabric of society was about to be rent asunder and that he would not survive. Henry nodded in response and didn’t even alter his stride.

The sight of Julia Madden skipping across the front lawn caused Henry to take a sharp intake of breath as depraved and vile pictures shot into his head. Having no choice but to fall to his knees and grab at the heads of the daffodils which had sprung up at the edge of his vision, Henry was surely loosing his grip on the world around him. He was loosing his ability to deal with its insidious twists and turns. These things that were happening to him would surely be the death of him. Why couldn’t the world just leave him be? Things! What do these things want with me?

It was just as he was swallowing this petition to the universe of things that he opened his eyes and noticed Mrs R P Merryweather looking down at him. The look of dismay prominent in her rounded features was more than sufficient to bring him to his senses. This was something. Some thing. But the look of dismay was more down to factors which had, on the surface anyway, nothing to do with Henry.

In the confines of her office Mrs R P Merryweather told Henry that she had little choice but to confide in him, confide some really shocking and upsetting news, news which might very well indicate that the fabric of society was about to be rent asunder, that the school’s moral fibre was about to be unwound, and that the world as we know it…

Mrs R P Merryweather couldn’t continue. She had to sit herself down.

Henry was at a loss as to what he could say. There was nothing he could possibly say. He knew nothing. So he said “I know. I know.”

“Sporadic outbreaks of masturbation?” The Headmistress let out between half smothered sobs.

So many things about to happen, Henry thought, as he nodded what he hoped were nods of understanding and comfort. Too many things.

apocryphal

a beginning, middle and end     

“To plant a seed. Form a seed grows a tree. A mustard tree. A mustard tree would grow. Flourish. From the tiniest seed.”

Father Jupiter was not himself today. He was someone else entirely. He was smiling. He was sitting in Smith’s passenger seat as the car idled in heavy traffic on the M60.

“What a thing is man?” Father Jupiter mused.

Smith wasn’t sure. Or wasn’t listening. All of Smith’s concentration was absorbed by the back of the white van in front of him. Wash me. Wanker. It hadn’t moved now for almost three minutes. Minutes. What were minutes? Hours?

“We’re going nowhere,” Father Jupiter continued, though he wasn’t continuing anything. “Of course, in a way we were going nowhere as soon as we got on the M60. It’s an orbital motorway. It doesn’t go anywhere. A road that doesn’t go anywhere poses many metaphysical problems. How can it be a road? If it is a road, where is it going? Where is this nowhere? If nowhere is a place, what are its properties?”

It was five minutes now. Smith could at last allow himself to release his grip on the steering wheel and alleviate the pressure at the front of his head. He was no longer driving. He was just sitting in a car. Having a conversation.

“You have to stand back and look at things,” Smith offered, as though in continuation of Father Jupiter’s philosophical musings.

Father Jupiter sat back in his seat as though to afford himself as good a view as possible of the back of the dirty white van in front.

“It’s like planets,” Smith announced. “It’s like people are all revolving around. And other things too. Cars and tables and chairs. Everything. Revolving in concentric circles, each with their own speed, at varying distances. And there’s a collision every so often. And sometimes meteors hit.”

“Meteorites,” Father Jupiter corrected.

But Smith trundled along the same path, regardless of correction or any other impediment.

“So everyone’s like hanging off you. They’re spinning around. They move when you move. When you’re travelling through the galaxy so are they. Sometimes they get too close to each other and bang…”

“Bang!” Father Jupiter shouted out the window.

“…they either get smashed to pieces or they coalesce. And they get bigger. And the bigger they get, the more chance they have of hitting something else. Until they get so big, they reach a critical mass, and then they start falling to earth…

“…into the sun…”

“… and a grand collision is inevitable.” Smith turned off the ignition. “What ever happens is inevitable. So everything’s inevitable. Even the most unlikely thing to ever happen was always inevitable.”

By now some people had left their cars and were walking past. Some were making their way to the grass verge. Most were straining to see what the problem was up ahead.

“It’s a traffic jam,” someone said outside.

“It’s inevitable.” Father Jupiter nodded, as though agreeing with something.

“So it’s everyone, it’s Oscar and Henry and Helen all converging on one place, that bloody school. Because that’s where he is – Tommy Kilpatrick. That evil bastard. That’s where everything will happen. Oscar’s there to find a story. He’s looking around for something to write down, so he’s hiding in a bush or something, watching every thing fall apart. And then Helen’s there too. She’s not hiding in a bush. What’s she got to hide for? She’s marching through the main entrance and demanding to know where Tommy Kilpatrick is. She has no choice. She’s in love with him. And Henry’s hiding in his classroom. The last thing he wants to do is get involved in all of this. But he’s involved. That old dragon of a headmistress will make sure of that. And so it’s all closing in on Tommy Kilpatrick. It’s like there’s lines all radiating out of him. Like saints. But dark lines. Like he’s radiating shadows. And even though he’s hiding away his evil intentions, his machinations… he can’t. It’s all too obvious. Everyone knows. Everyone’s coming. It’s only a matter of time. And he knows. Deep down. Or maybe that’s what he’s talking about right now to his class. How everyone’s coming to get him. How the revolution is under threat. How the whole school has to rise up now. How history and the headmistress and mathematics and words on pages and pictures in books and pounds and pence and conjugating verbs and right and wrong and the periodic table and famous people and the longest river in the world and every book in the bible… they’re all about to collapse down on top of them. Squash them. Smother them. Drown them. Let’s rise up now. Throw down your books. Forget everything you know. Tear down the walls of this school.”

“Inevitability. Can’t beat it.”

“So I’m there. I’m there waiting for him. Waiting for all of them. They’re pouring out onto the hockey fields and tennis courts. Hundreds of uniformed school girls. And the headmistress, looking out of her office. Mullioned windows. There’s Henry looking on next her. They can’t believe it. But it was always going to happen this way. The headmistress is like she’s shaking. There’s sweat pouring off her. But she’s angry more than anything else. More than she’s afraid or confused. She’s angry. So that’s why she storms out of her office. Dragging Henry behind her. Because Henry has lost his soul years ago. He’s dragged along in her wake, like he’s a baby swan or an empty crisp packet. And with Henry in toe she’s making a straight line for Tommy Kilpatrick at the head of this ungainly procession. Collision course. But then there’s Helen too. Collision course number two. And Oscar has just leapt out of the bushes. Collision course number three. And they’re all converging on one spot. It’s the grass bank between the tennis courts and the hockey fields, where all the grass is flattened down from the girls sitting on their coats to watch the matches. And that’s where they’re all headed. And the sun is hiding behind a bank of grey stratocumulus clouds. Just hidden behind. And everything gets a little darker. A little colder. And in the shadow they’re almost running now. Some of the smaller girls are running to keep up. Like they’re being drawn there. Pulled along. Because in the future it’s already happened. They have no choice.”

“Inevitability’s going to get ‘em.”

The car behind let out a timorous beep.

“And that’s where I am. Just standing there like I don’t know what’s going on. But I’ve been waiting there since first thing that morning. That’s all I have to do is wait. Things will get to me eventually. And here they come. Like they’re all rolling down hill. The girls shouting slogans. The headmistress spitting anger. Henry crying. Oscar tripping over himself. Helen with her arms outstretched. And Tommy Kilpatrick, leading the throng of schoolgirls, half limping, half smiling, half everything. All rolling down a hill and picking up speed. And now they can’t stop.”

The beep from the car behind was less timorous this time. A hundred yards of motorway had opened up in front of Smith’s car. He turned the key in the ignition.

~