by Edgeworth Johnstone
It’s sad. You wouldn’t even think he’s trying to hide. The company chairman’s looking straight into our carriage from the other end of the platform. I can even see when he blinks. His binoculars flicker white momentarily. His blink rate will drop to less than once per minute. His breathing’s a worry. Even from where I’m sitting, you see the lapels of his coat going up and down. When he sees evidence of us being in the right state of mind though, he’ll make his move. By this, I mean joining us in the carriage to do the feeding. The feeding’s the climax to this whole operation of his. It’s an annual event he added to the company calendar thirty years ago. He arrives with his bucket of fish, but none of this happens if he thinks our lips aren’t swollen shiny rosey red and the floor isn’t already half covered in saliva. He likes to feel his wellingtons are necessary. He’d rather it be a proper abattoir, or one of those goose farms. This is what he’s looking for in his binoculars. Evidence of shiny lips and shiny chins. Swinging heads and whites of eyes bouncing in the background. He won’t move until he’s seen, what he calls, rabies. He’ll be feeding us fish from the bucket he’s holding down by his knees for now. Binoculars in his left hand, bucket in his right. Seeing each others mascara running’s making us laugh. It’s funny because he’s the animal feeder, and we’re all his seals. He’ll be here soon. The train leaves in fifteen minutes. The feeding needs to be over by then. The carriage is near full, with its twenty chosen men, writhing their shoulders and necks independently, going “Ahhurrreww-UuuHhurruhhh. AourruhHhur-oOurAaRrruH” from deep within and to the sides of their throats. Just like seals do. The chairman can’t hear us from where he is, but through his binoculars, he can tell. He can tell when we’re ready. He knows when it’s time. The team have been re-enacting this scenario at every team holiday for the last thirty years. This is my first, and last year. I’m not sure why I’m here, because unlike the others, I don’t work for the company. But the chairman, he won’t move while we’re just pretending to be seals. That’s what his waiting and watching’s about. He’s waits for total immersion. Usually about twenty minutes from first assuming our seating position. It’s no fun for either him, nor us, for this to be just your regular team building role play exercise. With people pretending to be something they’re not. You have to be the seal. Role play is for company away days. This is more. It’s a company skiing trip. Our waddling’s waddling the carriage. The other passengers aren’t happy. In fifteen minutes, our train leaves. By which time, the chairman will be onboard, and we’ll all be satisfied. He’s looking at everyone but me. There’s twenty of us in this carriage. Behind the chairman, with bigger binoculars, is a library desk. It’s taking notes, and its binoculars are pointing in the same direction as the chairman’s. Nineteen of us, here in this carriage, are the chairman’s staff. I’m the only one who isn’t. It’s them and me. I’m just on my way to the library, but somehow got caught up in it. You wouldn’t know, as I’m in team uniform. Just like the others. The chairman knows when we’re ready. He’s hardly blinked since the second mechanic accidentally wiggled off the edge of his seat, before quickly clambering back on. When it’s not just a bunch of lame car mechanics getting into character. When he can see the belief in ourselves as his seals, he’ll drop his binoculars, and start making his way over here. You have to be the seal, or it’s no fun. It takes a while, but the chairman knows when we’re ready. He watches through binoculars from afar. Peering through the carriage windows from the other end of the platform. We’re on the noon train from London to Paris. The chairman reserved a carriage for us. Us being me and his team of mechanics. It leaves in fifteen minutes. Our carriage holds twenty and is already full. Me, and nineteen Formula One mechanics. The mechanics all work for the same team. The team chairman reserved the carriage for their end of season ski trip to the French Alps. He’s watching us through his binoculars with his feeding bucket in the other hand. After Paris, the train goes on to the Alps, then on to Russia. Everyone’s perched on the edge of their red plastic seats, awaiting the chairman and his bucket. He can see when our lower jaws stick out enough, and our hips get that authentic rhythm in their waddles. To the point where a couple of mechanics may slip off, onto the floor.
All twenty of us are in team shoes. Hands on both knees, straight back, if anything, arched inwards slightly, not slouching, ankles together. Once we’ve assumed the starting position, we can start the wiggling and seal noises. You have to shove your chin forward, so your mouth has enough of an underbite to get that raucous throat sound. It’s a kind of ArUhhh-ArUhh-ArUh. It’s not just that we’re all in black shoes, but we’re all wearing the exact same design and brand, bought in bulk, together, from the same shop. I’m also different from the others in that I’m English, travelling alone, and they’re mostly Swiss and are all travelling together. The handful that aren’t Swiss, are Dutch, Belgian, and from Luxembourg. They’re all mechanics at a Formula One team, looking forward to setting off on their end of season skiing holiday, but not before woofing down a bucket load of raw herring and flounder. There’s twenty of us. All looking round at each other, smiling at the thought of our pleasant and extravagant holiday. Laughing even, when you consider he’s the chairman and we’re the seals. Compared to theirs, my holiday’s only relatively extravagant. I’m getting off at the first stop, to go to the library on my own. The seal re-enactment’s a team building exercise, organised by the chairman. He likes to slap us around the face a little with each fish before dropping them, often several at a time, into our slithery gullets. I’m sat on a train. We haven’t moved yet. We’re waiting at the first stop, London. This route only has vague station names. There’s four. London, Paris, The Alps and Russia. The London stop’s in Muswell Hill. There’s twenty of us already in the carriage. Unlikely to be any more before we leave. Everyone, including me, is dressed in identical uniform. To repeat, we’re about to travel, first, from London, where we are now, non-stop to Paris. From Paris, it goes off and up into the snowy mountains of Eastern France. After the Alps, I’m guessing they’re the ones in France, it skips over to deepest Russia. I won’t be on the train beyond Paris. I’m getting off there to go to the library. Everyone else is staying on and going up the Alps. They’re all off on a skiing holiday. All of them together, in one group are going on holiday. Them, and their overgrown blond wavy haircuts with rich kid steps at the back. It doesn’t look more difficult or costly to cut than a normal haircut. But these are all adults, and that a lot of them still have a kids haircut gives the impression they’ve had a pretty easy life. Unlike everyone else, I’m getting off at Paris. We’re all between twenty and sixty. There’s no one else in our carriage, other than me and this ski group. Most people can’t afford to go on this train. It’s the only international train in the world. We’re sat here, perched on the edge of our red plastic seats in our uniform red ski jackets, uniform jeans, uniform grey socks and uniform black shoes. The inside of the train’s all boot scrubbed and polished. Everything to brilliant sterile white, apart from the red seats. The seats too are scrubbed, plastic and dry. The view of the Alps is a backdrop to the main event of the window. Everything other than the windows is plastic, including the red seats. We’re in ultramarine tight blue jeans. Beltless, darker and more saturated than regular Levi’s. The Eurotunnel doesn’t exist. It’s just this one, where instead of having an underground tube, you have an overhead monorail beam. It goes over the water like a ski lift, about the height of an average house above sea level. It’s not like a typical train. Looking back, I’d say “I took some high tech transport, it’s like a train, on one of those frictionless overhead conductor rails.” Our shoes are black and shiny, like a plastic puppet’s. We travel over the channel to the doorstep of this library, where only I get off. Goodbye my fellow seals. I wave them off. They’re still smiling in the silence we’ve been in since the chairman finally accepted he’d run out of fish. Apart from some giggling over memories of the fish slaps. No one, including me, questioned why I was there, knows how I came to be amongst them, how I got hold of their uniform, or why the team chairman paid for my trip in his tattooed face. I’ll never see any of those men again. It’s more like a fast ski lift, but where you have the white fibreglass shell of a train, it might have been fibreglass, not plastic, meaning, unlike a ski lift, you’re always inside, but there’s a foot long ventilation gap between the tops of the walls and the ceiling, taking full advantage of the fresh channel sea breeze. As it picks up speed, in the wind blusters, and you start envying those wavy haired rich boys. It must be a lovely head massage for them. You get the opposite problem in Paris. Paris smells like cack. The seats are suspended mid air like the electronic connectors in the rail above the roof. Static forces and momentum keep everything a couple of centimetres away from anything else, except for you and your seat. No organic matter conducts electricity. The library’s in central Paris. It’s the first French stop. I’ve come to look up an artist. Specifically to this library because in Paris, there’s no time and no one knows you. Everyone in London knows me, and they always have urgent stories to tell. I can’t remember the artist’s name right now, but once inside, I’ll see others like him and it’ll come. The interior, and everyone in it, rolls out before me, like a greeting carpet. The outside stands permanently, as you’d expect. Such an odd thing happens in regular flow and no one acknowledges it. The staircases are a lighter piney wood, lighter, I mean, than the Victorian dull mahogany of the bare floors and bookshelves, and have pinstripe suited men walking up to more in depth books. Everyone in this building’s highly educated. At the front, in front of the reception desk, is a small bookshelf just below where the table top juts out, with 20 or 30 books on it.
“Do you see how my top juts out, like your lower chins?” asks the desk.
The desk shows me.
It’s veneered chipboard, still with all its casters, but only standing because it’s leant back on reception’s panels. It would cost the same to make the veneer look nicer. Like a pine design, or other solid colour that wouldn’t get as dirty looking, like black or burnt umber. But like with their haircuts, the poorer things are depressed and resigned to themselves. The library building’s a single room, but I didn’t realise, entirely dedicated to art. I knew this till I walked in. The unraveling must have grabbed some of my forefront thoughts. I just go through the books at the front of reception, but can’t find the artist I’m looking for. They’re just some kids story books. I leave the library, and from the return train back to Muswell Hill, am taken back to a bare concrete hotel. Off the return train as normal, but from there, once back in London, by a thin African man clutching my elbow the whole way. He grabs it as I step off, and leads me along as if he’s a got a revolver. At some point, between waving goodbye to the ski holiday group, and walking up to the library, my clothes changed back to what I normally wear. When the skiers disappeared, my clothes changed back. We, the gentle kidnapper and me, arrive at a concrete three floor prison complex, like a grey maze. The ground floor must be wider than the ones above. You can look over your walls from inside your room, and over the roof of the building you’re in. It’s an L-shape layout like the flats on Lordship Lane. You’re made to feel you’re always outside. My room doesn’t have a roof you can see from inside, or ceiling, unlike the roof you can see on the other leg of the L. From outside, you can see the entire complex has a roof. Inside, there’s no furniture anywhere. You can see well into every room from the corridor. The only part of each room you can’t see’s the toilet, as the rooms themselves are also L shape. Other than concrete, there’s some decorational metal bars around, or metal gates. It’s grim, and shutdown. I mean, you’re constantly bullied by the interior atmosphere of the building. The architect’s built it in. You can’t see and smash them, like cameras. Then he shows me my room, never saying a word. I see his ear and a grade 3ish cut afro over the back of it. It’s night time. There’s fluorescent mosquito lights and background talking from young sounding people. My room has a concrete single bed, white pillow, two white sheets you can’t tuck in anywhere, and a blue blanket. Bare concrete walls, a light bulb, a concrete toilet, concrete sink. Nothing’s painted. Flat metal plates screwed in with electronic sensors for taps. I don’t know where the water comes out, but it does. There’s no doors on any rooms. There’s no furniture, or much in the way of personal belongings. No rooms are vacant. I’m the only resident who isn’t a student. I’m twice the age of anyone else here. Even the man showing me round can’t be thirty. There’s nothing to steal. Just this constant background murmur of students being drunk, sick, gangs of them plotting against each other. They’ve got no respect for me being new here. They don’t make an effort. No one approaches me. I’m desperately starting to like my chaperone. I sleep there tonight. As far as I remember, nothing much happened. I get back on this high tech transport and go back to the library. This time as I walk in, I remember the second, larger section where there’s more art books. There’s only the one ceiling at the top of the building. Seeing the whole building from the ground floor, you appreciate how many stairs and different types of ladder you need to start a library. The building’s round, the same proportions as a kitchen roll’s inner tube. Only wide because it’s massively tall. A man from television walks past looking like he works here. He’s on some television programme where they recreate things from the Arts and Crafts movement. He’s in a blue all in one outfit, but not like a car mechanic. I remember him from television, but now I see him in person, I realise I knew him from before as well. He must have been someone from one of the pubs round Windsor. As he’s from television, I make our conversation last longer than’s usual by pretending to forget the name of the artist I’m looking for. I needn’t have, as I can’t remember it anyway. But in pretending to, I push the name completely out my head. I’m confident he won’t get it, and I’ll remember soon by myself. Then I’ll get the big applause, and he’ll like and remember me.
“He’s a household name. You know him.” I say.
But the name’s still escaping me, and I think well, I must have been looking at him on the internet. I get my phone out to check the internet history. I type the wrong number for the passcode, and accidentally dial this masseuse I used to visit. The phone shows the screen saver, then back to the normal phone. There’s something wrong with my phone. It’s ringing, and the person it’s ringing is answering. The name’s displayed as STORM. I hang up, but not in time for her not to answer. I just catch her voice. I close the phone app thinking that might properly get rid of her and open up the internet, just to make sure she’s gone. While I’m here, I might as well do what I set out to. So I start looking up famous artists names.
“He’s a Russian.” I keep saying.
“He’s a Russian. You know him. He’s a household name. He’s in Berkshire.”
Lots of wrong double barrel names come to mind, so I think the name I’m trying to remember is probably double barrel. The staff are trying hard. I start looking at the spines of the books. I now realise, I’ve totally forgotten. I go back to my concrete room, but when I get back, it’s overloaded with stuff from my youth. Furniture, loose clothes, old rugby shirts and sports things from my school days. GIRL, and a friend of hers I’ve never met, are there. GIRL must have brought her along. GIRL is an old friend from years ago. We were friends for a couple of years when I was in my late twenties, and she, in her mid twenties. STORM texts me. It reads:
“later?… see me in 3 hours… I’m just hanging out yeah.”
I have to whisper to GIRL because my family are nearby. I leave GIRL standing there a minute while her friend and me climb over a load of bicycles, to get to my art studio. As the friend’s distracted looking round, I go back to GIRL and whisper in her ear. The room that was all concrete, is now my old home. I guess that’s what all the furniture and stuff was. I’m now back at home, and my parents are in earshot. I grab GIRL’s hair, she’s so beautiful. I have to go back to GIRL’s reaction when she first saw me today. When she turned up with her friend. Her friend I’ve never seen before. GIRL said, as soon as she saw me
“It’s so nice to see you.” and pulls me into her fat shoulder, rocking back and forth. Her hand’s on the back of my head. It’s comfort like I’ve never felt. More like relief. I say
“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
She shoves my chest away, pushing my face out in the cold.
“What are you talking about?”
It throws me for a couple of seconds, by which time she’s laid solid on the bed like a wooden doll on its back, gazing up where there’s no ceiling anymore. The ceiling had returned when the room became full of my old clothes.
I repeat “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings”
Saying it twice doesn’t help. From realising I’d been living a lie, these last twenty odd years，I’m now back to where I started in an instant. I don’t know what to say, so I just say it a third time
“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
I know she at least liked me, back when I was in my twenties, but I never, being useless with women, did anything about it. I’ve done enough damage, so look for her friend to talk to. I didn’t resolve it. What GIRL and I remember and felt about each other’s gone now. Thanks to her turning up and STORM’s text.