Getting a free sample of snow onto a website is more tricky than we had imagined. Even if you try to scan it in it just melts in the scanner and that doesn't do the scanner much good.
We cannot afford a new scanner right now so while we figure this one out, here's the first five chapters of 'Nix Ex Machina,' - a book about the history of Snowbrokers.com written by Christian Cook.
* * *
There is a belief that persists during Tuesday lunchtimes that the Eskimos have over twenty billion words for snow.
The English have over 100 words, phrases and blatant excuses for being completely wrong:
Missed the mark.
Missed the beginning.
Missed the end.
Missed the point entirely.
Playing devil’s advocate.
Playing the fool.
Always having been right before.
Proving a point.
Passing on advice.
Stating the obvious.
Awaiting the official results.
Having a unique viewpoint.
Re-examining the situation.
Re-visiting the scenario.
Coming at it from another angle.
Suggesting a valid alternative.
Finding the middle ground.
Weighing up the options.
Awaiting further input.
Having a hunch.
Going out on a whim.
Going out on a limb.
Going out on a Saturday.
Being ahead of your time.
Attempting to see the other point of view.
Sticking to your guns.
Learning from history.
Reacting to the here and now.
Preparing for the future.
Convinced beyond a doubt.
Taking a fresh approach.
Putting it another way.
Taking it as read.
Tormented by small bald shrews.
Speaking as a friend...
This bloke down the pub reckons...
I read this thing in a book that said...
Two shots were fired.
Nobody heard them.
The sound was swallowed up by a vicious Alaskan wind that was rocketing through the valley like a rampant serpent, tearing off loose branches and spewing clouds of earth and snow in its wake.
Fear and anger.
The first shot was fired accidentally in a moment of fear; the second was unleashed quickly afterwards in anger.
The first shot, though unleashed in a moment of stupidity, showed no apathy in its futile quest. Tasting freedom, the bullet thundered through the air, slicing snowflakes in its path and leaping against the torrents of wind like a supersonic salmon. Finding a tree branch overhanging a ravine as the first solid target to stand in its path, it smashed into the frozen wooden limb, shattering it into a thousand minuscule splinters.
Once unleashed by the stray bullet, this cloud of splinters was snatched from falling by a stream of jostling zephyrs that clasped them tight with a consuming jealousy and soared into the air, out of reach.
The grains of soil and wood danced on the shafts of twisting air currents, the moist precipitation layering tiny ice particles onto their rough surface, creating small candy-flossed tufts of perfect symmetrical hexagonal crystals.
As the newly feathered clumps gained fully laden weight, they fell back through the cloud cover, emerging as a vast fleet of earthbound snowflakes.
The second shot thudded into the snow just a few metres from the agent’s feet.
Fear and anger are both emotions that an officer from the Drug Enforcement Agency is not supposed to display while active on an operation. They are certainly not legal justifications for discharging a weapon.
Nobody would ever know.
In his report, DEA agent, Howard Turnes, would lie.
He had encountered a suspect who engaged him in a directly hostile manner, the agent had then shouted a clear warning and had returned fire, shooting twice.
It was neater, it was far more within the confines of the legal requirements governing these situations and, most of all, it had a ring of truth that the reality did not possess. The truth was ugly, and so ugly that his superiors would rather forego the authenticity of the facts in order to hide the truth from any embarrassing airing. But they would never know the truth, he would see to that.
It was difficult, once back in the warm domesticated confines of the DEA operations room, to accurately relay the conditions that had complicated this operation from the outset. The phrases ‘Heavy snow’ and ‘Strong Alaskan winds’ could not ever convey the full weight of nature when it leans upon man. The altitude itself was already intoxicating and whatever basic human sense was employed to gain a better understanding of the environment, this was immediately attacked by some perfectly tailored counter force: squinting eyes were met with a fresh deluge of blinding snow; strained ears were filled with a blast of deafening gale; grasping hands were further numbed by the sub-zero conditions.
Turnes had been standing within 20 metres of the suspect without ever realising it. The clear warning had actually been the agent talking to his gun and the two shots fell outside of the acceptable reasons for discharging a weapon; the initial shot had escaped the chamber in panic and the follow up round had been thudded into the ground in anger.
A second agent, Fernando Gonchanez, approached the scene and shouted a greeting to his colleague. The already nervous Turnes spun round and levelled his firearm at Gonchanez.
“Friendly! Friendly!” screamed Gonchanez, waving both arms in the air.
Turnes grabbed Gonchanez round the neck in a mixture of anger and relief and scuffled them both behind a nearby rock formation. Crouched behind this shelter and holding their hoods near each other, like two halves of a clam shell, they were able to converse if they shouted.
“We were supposed to go east!” yelled Turnes.
Gonchanez nodded. “I know.”
“So where were you?”
“Over that way,” Gonchanez indicated with a flick of his head.
“Why did you go that way?”
“To find the others again.”
“Yes, but we dropped in the valley and headed north, then split off west to cover that ridge while the others went round east...”
“So we need to go east to catch up again.”
“So we should have come over this way.”
“I am not following.”
“That’s what I realised when I turned and saw you weren’t there.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This isn’t east!”
“This is west.”
“Yes, but it looks like it circles round back to the east past the crest.”
“But that way back there is east.”
“But they’ll have moved on from there, if we circle round the top of this ravine it should take us right to them.”
“No, it might not even go down, it could just end in a drop and the trees are getting too thick. Both teams will assume we’re with the other, so if we don’t find either soon then we’ll get left behind.”
“Exactly, I still say this is quicker.”
A pause ensued.
“Why did you have your gun drawn?” said Gonchanez.
“I think I saw one,” replied Turnes. “Appeared out of nowhere.”
“Were they armed?”
“They approached in a hostile manner and I returned fire.”
“So they shot first?”
“They were hostile.”
“What happened?” asked Gonchanez.
“I told you.”
“No you didn’t... look, I’ll back you up, but I need to know what happened.”
“I think I saw someone.”
“You think you saw someone?”
“He was wearing white so was invisible in all this... I shouted and he either turned round or undid his hood because this face just loomed out of the snow. First thing I saw was this face just appear in the air.”
“Wait a second, you said you shouted before you saw him.”
“Well I thought I saw something, but I didn’t, and I shouted and then he appeared.”
“What did you shout?”
“A warning. I said, ‘freeze’... pretty much.”
“Okay, okay… I shouted, ‘don’t freeze.’”
Turnes tried to whisper, but the sound was snatched from the air by the seething elements.
“I can’t hear you,” said Gonchanez.
“I was shouting at my gun!”
“You were shouting at what?”
“I thought I saw a figure move, I pulled my gun, but it vanished... I got spooked... I thought my gun was going to seize up and I panicked... so I yelled, ‘don’t freeze,’ at my gun.”
“And then what?”
“Well, he moved.”
“So you’re sure there was someone there?”
“Yes, this face just appeared out of nowhere... he was all in white. I was so shocked that I accidentally fired a shot... two shots.”
“You fired twice?”
“Yes, I fired twice.”
“Forget about it, we’ll sort that out later. What did he look like?”
“He was an Eskimo!” yelled Turnes, his voiced echoing round the valley, as neither man had realised that the storm had dropped to an eerie calm. All that remained was the steady fall of fresh snow.
“You can’t say that.”
“Can’t say what? I saw him clear enough to see he was an Eskimo.”
“In your what?”
“Doesn’t matter, where did he go?”
“Into the trees.”
Both men peered around from the rock formation and then reconvened in a crouch.
“I just see trees,” Turnes announced, sighing.
“Think I saw something,” said Gonchanez.
“You saw him?”
“No, hang on.”
Gonchanez stood up and took another look at their surroundings and then crouched down again next to Turnes.
“There’s something in the trees,” said Gonchanez.
“It looks like a mini satellite dish or aerial of some kind.”
“Just over to the right, about three metres up in that tree that’s leaning over.”
Turnes took a peek for himself. “I don’t see anything.”
“Okay, I’ll show you, come round my side.”
They both peered round the rock, meerkat fashion, and then bobbed back behind its cover.
Gonchanez gasped. “It’s gone.”
“You sure it was there?”
“It was there.”
Gonchanez tapped his radio frantically, trying to make contact with either of the two teams that were in the area, but was greeted with nothing but white noise.
With weapons drawn, both men edged out from the cover of the rocks and moved stealthily towards the trees. Once at the spot where the dish had been spotted they could clearly see markings on the bark to show that something had recently been attached here.
Gonchanez stood staring at the markings on the bark as Turnes wandered around the scene in an ever-increasing circle, attempting to find any leads, particularly black leads plugged into a satellite dish.
After half a dozen widening circuits he paused and sighed deeply, taking in deep breaths and bowed his head with closed eyes in an attempt to breathe some sense and clarity back into the situation. Upon opening his eyes, he met the gaze of an Inuit crouched on the floor and cradling the missing mini dish. Before he could even comprehend his discovery, the Inuit had leapt up and smashed the agent’s nose with the dish.
Gonchanez turned to see his partner picking himself up off the floor and an Inuit in white sealskins sprinting off through the trees, winding the black cable in as he went.
The terrain through which the chase took them was a thick, white carpet pierced by sharp shards of trees. The only thing visible ahead was the dancing wire as it whipped up into the arms of the fleeing Inuit. As they ran, the blur ahead sent thin tree trunks fleeting past them on both sides. With the trees interlocking at every angle, like black spears in the aftermath of a primeval war, even the wire was occasionally camouflaged. Several times the agents found themselves chasing after what they thought was the wire, only to see the actual cord slithering off in another direction.
Turnes decided that enough was enough and shouted a warning. “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
The Inuit halted abruptly and promptly disappeared like a chameleon standing in front of chameleon-patterned wallpaper.
“Okay, erm, move a little bit… or I’ll shoot!” shouted Turnes, attempting to rectify the problem.
“Shoot at what?” Gonchanez mumbled at him.
“Take off your clothes or I’ll shoot!” This second announcement received the same still silence in return.
“Bet you’ve shouted that at lots of people.”
“Just the white ones,” Turnes qualified.
Nothing stirred around them except the continuous deluge of snowflakes that were deepening the icy sod beneath.
Turnes was reaching a point where all logic and decorum were swiftly melting away. “Right, that’s it, one last chance. Don’t go saying you weren’t warned.” He levelled his gun in the direction where he had last seen any movement and let out a single shot.
“Whoa! Stop that!” yelled Gonchanez.
The bullet rocketed into the blizzard, shattering frozen wood as it smashed through the glassy trees and arced into the dense, white oblivion. Almost immediately, the black chord was up and dancing away from them, much farther ahead than they had anticipated.
Whether it was some newfound determination or just numbness chilling the brain, both the agents launched themselves into a much faster sprint than before, breaking twigs and branches mercilessly as they thundered on. Their pace very quickly slowed to an energetic hop due to the ever-increasing depth of snow building up around their feet.
Just as exhaustion was about to drag them both to their knees and surrender themselves to the blanket of snow beneath, they broke through the last of the trees and fell down a large bank onto smooth ice below. There was no sign of the Inuit they had been trailing.
Standing up they discovered a giant igloo in the centre of a clearing encircled by wooden huts. Gonchanez swept his gun around the area, anticipating any emergence of the suspect while Turnes hunched low and shuffled up to the first of the huts.
Sweeping away an arc shape in the ice on the window he peered into the interior. An old writing desk and a battered armchair were draped with various yellowing parchment and broken trinkets that looked as if they belonged in a museum or a sepia photograph. Each hut they visited, though devoid of any human inhabitants, offered a similar view of a lost past, long abandoned.
Entering the large igloo, they found it to be completely empty except for a single woman sitting in the centre. She was cradling a baby, that was cocooned in a swaddling of skins, and was sitting on a large fur skin rug, looking agitated at the men’s presence.
Turnes attempted a ‘hello’ but was met with a garbled response that was so rapid and high pitched that placing it under any particular emotion was difficult. Every so often, she would free one hand from holding the baby and smooth the rug across its middle. They backed off a little and spoke in lowered tones.
“Do you think we’re in a women’s only area?” asked Turnes.
“I don’t know,” replied Gonchanez, “but this scene doesn’t add up.”
“Yes, but look at the rug.”
“Well it’s obviously dead.”
“It’s a tiger.”
“I can see that.”
“It’s an Indian tiger.”
“But you do get snow leopards.”
“You don’t get Indian snow tigers... certainly not in Alaska.”
“She probably bought it somewhere.”
“Well, I am not buying it for a second.”
As he turned to confront the woman, who was still babbling, he realised that the rug was dipping in the centre slightly and that this was most likely the cause of her concern.
“Where are they?” shouted Turnes.
He turned to Gonchanez. “You speak Eskimo?”
“There isn’t a language called ‘Eskimo.’”
“What do they speak, then? French? Everyone speaks French.”
“What we call Eskimos are actually two different groups — The Inuit and Aleut.”
“You speak either of those?”
“So a simple ‘no’ in the first place would have saved me the geography lecture.”
All the shouting caused the child to yelp though it was more of a loud ‘Oarh!’
Upon seeing Gonchanez’s gaze fixed upon the suspiciously dipping floor and the strange sounding child, the woman screamed and hurled the baby at him.
Gonchanez dived to catch the infant and was surprised at the weight of this bundle. As he fell to the floor the baby cried out another deep cry of ‘oarh!’ and a seal cub waddled out from the unwrapped pile of skins draped across his chest.
Both agents turned back just in time to see the tiger rug hurled aside and the woman jump down through a hole in the floor. Peering down after her they could see she had dropped into a small cavern with a pile of soft animal skins heaped below the hole to enable people to drop down safely. They could hear her scurrying off down a side tunnel and shouting hysterically. In turn, this was awakening other frantic reactions and movement below. They could also hear distant rock music. They exchanged glances across the hole.
“This is it,” breathed Turnes in awe. “This is the way into it.”
“Back up will be here very soon,” said Gonchanez.
“They already know we’re here so we may as well get the introductions out of the way.”
Gonchanez shouted, ‘wait,’ but his partner was already bouncing off the pile of skins below and yelling, ‘DEA, this is a raid.’
* * *
It had first been discovered by some seismologists hired by an environmental pressure group. While tracking the declared oil quotas of local drilling companies and surveying the available oil fields, they had glanced the tip of it and guessed that this was some kind of burial chamber. They were well aware from a running compensation case that one of the oil companies was drilling near an ancient Inuit burial area and so the large underground chamber showing up on the readings was assumed to be an outer catacomb that formed part of this site.
But a later, more thorough, sweep of the area had uncovered a vast underground network of tunnels and chambers and their layout immediately caused bemused questions. A group of cultural experts and engineers joined together with the scientists to study the visual data in close detail.
At first glance, if you looked at it quickly without thinking, didn’t the layout seem to spell something? If you squinted and ignored many of the thinner service tunnels then didn’t it say, ‘HELLO WORLD’? Granted, it looked a bit more like KELLO-XORLB upon closer inspection, but the cultural team confirmed this didn’t match up with anything in Inuit. The seismologists and engineers, after much debate and coffee, concluded that the ambiguity of the text was mainly due to the fact that some of the chambers had obviously been in place before the idea to spell something out had been initiated. The letters were further obscured by a series of additional smaller chambers around the edge that lacked the neatness of the main areas and so had probably been dug in more of a hurry at a later stage. They concluded from this that more space had been required at very short notice leading to this panicked expansion round the edges.
One thing the whole panel did agree on was that, even if this was a burial chamber, it was certainly not ancient at all. This panel agreed to meet again a fortnight later, as there was clearly more to discuss. Clearly, there was not more to discuss, but none of the delegates had any intention of discussing anything else for a long time.
At the follow up meeting, one of the attendees suggested that they escalate this matter to the proper authorities and, although this met with unanimous approval, no-one knew exactly who the proper authorities were and what it was exactly they would be escalating. The Inuit owned the land and if they decided to bury their deceased in an odd-shaped burial chamber then that was their business. So they disbanded that day with the situation at a seeming dead end.
In the following weeks however, many of this panel called up various friends they knew ‘just to run it past them,’ or they dropped it into conversation ‘with some guy who knew someone else high up somewhere.’ Before long the FBI and the CIA both decided that this was worth investigating. Again, they could see that no crime had been committed, but it was all just a little too intriguing to ignore.
Unfortunately for both these organisations, as their investigations widened they discovered that the DEA were already well advanced in their own official intrigue over the site and so the newcomers to the inquiry would just have to get in line at the back of the queue.
At that stage, the DEA themselves had no idea about any weird underground chambers and had only been alerted by the intercepted phone calls where large quantities of meaningless items were being ordered by the Inuit. Why would a small colony of Inuit want 50 petrol mowers? And what was the need for 20 twin tub washing machines?
In the DEA’s mindset these ludicrous bulk orders were clearly coded language for narcotics deals and so if anyone was going to poke around a weird underground chamber where there were possibly hidden drugs then it was going to be them.
* * *
Standing up again from having fallen awkwardly off a pile of sealskins, Gonchanez found that the square chamber featured an arched doorway in each wall. Above each door a tube emitted dry ice that fell to the floor, forming a hazy curtain.
Turnes broke through the curtain to his left and both men almost flinched for their guns before they recognised each other.
“I’m back here,” commented a puzzled-looking Turnes. He looked up to register the entrance in the ceiling and turned slowly to realign his mental compass. He looked at Gonchanez. “This place is unbelievable. Follow me.”
“Many have probably escaped through the tunnels, but the few I did come across won’t be going anywhere in a hurry.”
“You didn’t shoo–”
“No! Of course I didn’t shoot them! Just come and see for yourself. That way’s just dorms and a kitchen, it’s through here you need to see.”
They exited via a different door to the one that Turnes had just emerged from and Gonchanez found himself walking down a small cramped corridor. Halfway along the wall another smoke-screened doorway featured a neon sign above buzzing the words ‘Permafrost’ in pink lettering.
Walking through here opened out into a large bar area with stools and tables scattered around a central circular counter. They found several strange square cutting tools on the bar and, matching these up to marks found in the walls and ceiling, realised that the ice for the drinks were taken from whichever surface happened to be nearest the drinker.
There seemed to be several low, rumbling groans emanating from various points and, as his eyes adjusted, Gonchanez could see a dozen Inuit asleep at the tables or nursing the first wakeful moments of a severe hangover.
Back out into the corridor, and a little farther along, another room featured many armchairs and sofas all focused towards six flat-panel television screens adorning the wall. Along another wall, a whiteboard listed details of various satellite shopping channels and betting stations.
Opposite this room they discovered a casino and games room. This room had its own complement of semi-comatose Inuit.
“Hell-oooooh?” A voice echoed eerily down the iced corridors. It was certainly not that of an Inuit and did not sound like one of the DEA team arriving at the scene. The approaching stranger seemed to be making a lot of metallic clattering noises as he moved down the corridor.
Gonchanez and Turnes flattened themselves up against the wall at either side of the smoky door and began making the obligatory ‘who the hell is this?’ and ‘how should I know?’ expressions.
The noise stopped just outside and the head of a young man, with a mess of dirty blond curls adorning it, wafted in curiously through the smoke curtain. Two handguns immediately extended to meet his temples from either side in perfect unison like some precision machine at a car factory.
“Don’t move!” cautioned Gonchanez.
“I’m not! I’m not! I haven’t got any money... well, I’ve got a bit.”
“Dead on Arrival? The band?”
“Get in here,” growled Turnes, grabbing at the man’s collar and hauling him through the doorway. The stranger lurched forward a few inches, but then seemed to get clamped in the frame. Turnes tried several more frustrated yanks before he let go and the man tumbled back into the corridor with a crash.
“Was he armed?” asked Gonchanez.
“I don’t know,” replied Turnes.
“If we step through this smoke he could drop us before we even see him.”
Gonchanez called out through the smoke. “I want you to step back through into here very slowly with your hands up.”
“I am not coming in there!” came the reply.
“Drop your weapon and face the wall,” yelled Turnes. He turned and whispered to Gonchanez, “I am going out.”
Gonchanez shook his head.
“I haven’t got a weapon,” came the voice back through the smoke. There then followed a slow tumbling sound of shifting metal objects in a bag.
“Where are you going?” demanded Gonchanez. “Stay exactly where you are.”
“I am not going anywhere,” came the reply.
“Don’t move. You are under arrest,” added Turnes.
“I am staying right here,” said the voice at exactly the same volume as before yet clearly the stranger was simply talking louder from a greater distance.
“Stop right there or I’ll shoot,” shouted Turnes.
“I am still right here,” replied the voice accompanied by the frantic clatter of his pace breaking into a run.
Turnes fired a single shot through the smoke at an angle he determined would be roughly in the right direction down the corridor. The shot boomed down the tiny corridor and was followed by a loud scream.
Gonchanez and Turnes jumped through the smoke, weapons poised to follow up if necessary, and ran towards the crumpled heap on the floor. Small wisps of ice curled down from the ceiling where the echo of the gunshot had agitated existing cracks in the roof. Clicks and creaks signalled the structure settling back into place.
They could now see that the man was wearing an over-sized backpack that was filled to capacity with various possessions and featured a few camping implements tied onto the outside of the bag.
The man was crying, though more in fear than any pain. “You shot me,” he wailed. “You shot me!”
Examining the bullet hole in the back of the pack, Turnes could see that it hadn’t penetrated right through into the man himself, though the agent was far more distracted by how accurate his guess had been, as the hole was in the centre of the pack.
They hauled the man to his feet and attempted to cuff his hands behind his back, but the large pack was in the way. They then attempted to remove the pack, but due to some weird combination of straps round the man’s waist it only slid halfway down his arms, so they gave up and let go. The pack wearer slumped to the icy floor, the pack hanging off his arms now restraining him as tightly as any handcuffs.
“Cover him,” said Gonchanez.
Turnes gun reacquainted itself with the man’s temple, causing a muffled whimper.
“Who are you?” asked Gonchanez.
“Barney,” replied the man. “Barney Trenwick.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Just came to have a look.”
“Where are you from?”
“I came here now from Thailand. Hitched here. But Leeds, I am from Leeds in England.” He stretched his chest out and pointed to his sweatshirt where a Leeds University logo accompanied the text ‘ALL ROADS ROAM TO LEEDS.’
“What exactly did you come to look at here?”
“Some guys in a hostel in Thailand told me about this freaky place in the ice, so I thought I would find it.”
Turnes and Gonchanez exchanged glances and then Gonchanez shook his head slowly in conclusion to whatever unspoken conversation had just passed between them.
Turnes withdrew his gun and they stepped back.
“We’ll be back later,” he said menacingly.
“Can you help me up? I can’t stand,” pleaded Barney.
“We’ll ask you more later. Just stay there.”
“This floor is really cold.”
As they walked away, Barney continued shouting. “I want to speak to the British Consul, I have rights!”
As they ventured deeper into this labyrinth the rooms and their contents became increasingly bizarre. It was only afterwards when they had mapped the complex out that they came to the conclusion that the layout seemed to trace the effect of a sudden, large influx of money into the tribe. The farther into this maze you wandered, the more extravagant the scene that greeted you. The rooms nearer the entrance appeared to reflect an increased standard of living, and this passed through into areas of luxury and decedent extravagance, before the outer rooms housed what could only be described as pure reckless indulgence bordering on claustrophobic mania.
One of the luxury rooms housed various exotic stuffed animals and an eclectic mix of erotic sculptures. In its centre a gold-coloured Rolls Royce has been sliced in two with each half being encased in a huge block of ice. Cheap shop mannequins had also been dressed up to look like celebrities and then encased in ice. These blocks had then been cut into a ‘head,’ ‘body’ and ‘legs’ sections, which had then been interchanged with the other figures.
At the edges of the underground site they discovered numerous hurriedly dug out recesses that seemed to have been created to house a sudden influx of consumer gadgets. Most of these could not possibly be put to use in this environment and so still sat, piled high, in their original packaging.
Many rooms simply defied any logical explanation. One very large and mystifying cavern had a line up of brand new petrol driven lawnmowers parked neatly along one wall while the opposite wall featured many of the same model of mower battered and discarded in heaps like a wrecker’s yard. In the clear arena-like space in the centre two mowers were left abandoned in a deliberate-looking, head-on collision.
Standing outside the lawnmower room, both agents felt dizzy with the incomprehensible scenes around them. They could already hear the distant shouts of their fellow DEA agents echoing down the icy tunnels, but both men were reluctant to respond until they had something to respond about. As they had already been here for a while there would be an expectation that they were in a position to explain exactly what they had discovered here.
A blast of fresh air brought some welcome relief and seeking the source of this took the agents round a corner to a long thin tunnel that had the unmistakable glare of daylight illuminating the far end. Faced with the prospect of having to explain their discovery or exploring any new leads offered by the tunnel, they opted to investigate the tunnel and whatever lay beyond.
Disappearing into the ethereal light of the outside, it took a short while for their eyes to adjust to the blinding white landscape before them. Scanning the floor they could see numerous trails of footprints that snaked off in various directions.
“Can you believe we finally found it?” asked Gonchanez.
“Maybe,” replied Turnes. He lit a cigarette through shivering hands, and looked around again. He suddenly froze as he saw two Inuit bent over a hole in the ice, lowering something down on a wire. “But maybe this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
He raised his gun, clicked the safety catch off, and ran towards the newly discovered hole.
As he leapt into the hole, shouting, ‘Freeze! DEA!’ there was a large splash followed by a lot of squealing and thrashing about.
The atmosphere was far from warm and friendly. It certainly wasn’t ‘fall into an Alaskan ice hole’ freezing, but it was frosty enough to warrant a mention this early on. The room itself was abnormally hot, the heating stoked up to hell’s kitchen levels. But, despite this, and the cheap tea and biscuits on the table, the prevailing adjective was still ‘frosty.’
The actual décor of the room was probably listed in some catalogue somewhere as ‘Warm Autumn Gold’ or ‘English Shades of Oak.’ Either way it was very brown. Everything probably began life in the office as the ‘Musty Congealed Filth’ of the curtains until the endless streams of dusty sunshine bleached things down to the more uniform ‘Vigorously Scraped Cold Toast’ of the desk and chairs, before the colour finally gave up and achieved the ‘Old Faithful Smoker’s Fingers’ of the well-trodden carpet.
The bright shirt of the man behind the desk was a two-tone effort that changed colour depending on which angle you happened to view it from. Any angle that actually had the shirt in view was not a good one — neither colour seemed to morph the shirt towards anything remotely tasteful. What with the drab brown backdrop, the man had the look of an animated computer graphic that had been digitally pasted over the top of a moody Turner landscape.
Despite resembling a post-modern clown, the man behind the desk was looking stern and determined. He had a job to do and his current visitor was hindering his achievement of this month’s projected critical personal bonus target.
The other man didn’t have a job to do. At least, his current employment paid no resemblance to the description on the business cards he dished out at the pub, and neither of these matched the expectations as laid out on the form in front of them.
“So, you are Joseph Havens?”
“No, I am not. Friends call me ‘Tarko.’”
“We don’t go in for such informalities here. So your real name is Joseph Havens?”
“Actually, no, you’ve got both my names slightly wrong on that sheet.”
“Oh, are you sure this is your sheet?”
“Yes, I recognise the coffee stain from where she was filling it out last time.”
“So how come it’s wrong?”
“She was deaf, I think. Or maybe there’s an admin errors quota that you have to fulfil or lose all your funding...”
“So what is your actual name?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Hey, I got teased at school over that! If you cause me any emotional trauma, then I’ll sue the DSS for every penny they have.”
“It’s called the DWP now.”
“Changing your name won’t stop the law catching up with you.”
“I am not going to accept that is your name. You can’t mishear ‘Yoda Creamcakes’ as ‘Joseph Havens.’”
“‘Puffcakes’. And it’s Mr. Puffcakes to you.”
“Joseph Havens is close enough for me.”
“That’s how wars start.”
“I don’t know, it just seemed like a good comeback.”
“So, how about you making an employment comeback?”
“I’ve had my time and I accept that. A comeback wouldn’t be very dignified, it’s time for some of the younger faces to have their day.”
“You’re only 25. I don’t have time for this silliness. You studied media studies and went on to a degree in media and communications.”
“And you gained a position as a copy writer. The company unfortunately wound up six months ago.”
“Folded up like the origami piggy bank it was.”
“Quite… and then…?”
“Not exactly. Our records show that you have not been actively seeking employment.”
“Because I have a job.”
He flicked through several pages. “A part-time job. We would be looking for you to seek a position that more readily reflects a realistic weekly timeframe for a chap of your age and physical ability.”
“I already have a full-time job that generates no revenue and a part-time job to feed me the rest of the time.”
“Oh, so you’re working for a charity?”
“I’m a thinker.”
“Creative thinking. Every society needs its creative thinkers.”
“And you’re volunteering, are you?”
“I’m accepting my place.”
“How humble. And I suppose you are expecting the government to subsidise these idle whims of yours?”
“I’m expecting the welfare state to look after the welfare of one of its great minds.”
“And are these ideas ever going to be in any danger of becoming commercial products or services?”
“It’s not all about money you know.”
“Really, then what are you asking me for here? If you want goodwill, then I can give you bucket loads of that.”
“I find that difficult to imagine.”
“So, what are these ideas of yours?”
“Well, I haven’t had them yet.”
“Then I don’t think we can entertain you and these plans any further.”
“You! Entertain me? I don’t think there was ever any danger of that.”
“You’d have to prove you had some viable concept. You can’t just run off with the first crazy thought you have and expect people to jump. Obviously, if you were Vincent Van Gogh, then it would be a different story.”
“Oh, would it really? Think again. He was never famous until after he snuffed it. It would be no different if he was in here… except for the odd smell.”
“You could always apply for an arts grant and pursue this hobby in your spare time.”
“Hobby? Spare time? You think a genius can switch on and off just like that?” He made a snapping motion with his fingers. “I don’t have spare time, I’m always thinking. Do you enjoy stifling innovation? You bitter after you never got the hang of finger painting or something?”
The DWP officer sank back into his seat and sighed. He then made a clicking noise with his teeth that suggested some transition in strategy was occurring and reached for the teapot. “How about another cup of tea?”
“Maybe,” Tarko agreed warily. ‘Just watch him,’ he mumbled to himself. The tea and biscuits — hypno-comfortisers. As soon as he was dosed up, he would get persuaded through some auto-suggestion to agree to some futile interview at Soul-Sapping Incorporated.
“So then, what am I going to do with you? Eh?”
A range of nauseating and disturbing images flashed through Tarko’s mind and he almost projected the tea across the room. ‘So, he’s playing it cuddly now. Do not give in to the syrup.’
“How about we find you a nice job with guaranteed hours, slightly more than now, but still leaving you with enough free time to—”
“Reee-zist the mind poower!” Tarko hadn’t realised that he said this out loud, but the stunned look that was staring back at him soon made this apparent.
The syrupy tone quickly congealed and hardened. The DWP officer plunged his hand into a lucky-dip folder of vacancies and pulled out a crumpled piece of bluish paper. “Here. Doesn’t matter what you do at first, you just need to get yourself out there and further up the ladder. When does this start? Monday the 27th. Today is… the 23rd, so that gives you few days to think things through and sort yourself out a bit.”
Tarko took the page and examined it, his eyes flicking across the surface, searching amongst the myriad departmental codes for some readily decipherable English words. Just above the phrase ‘Do not write below this point’ he found the words ‘warehouse,’ ‘packing,’ ‘children’s’ and ‘shoes’ assault his gaze.
“Have you got something else?”
The question was answered by the file being shut and placed back in a drawer. A top up of tea was offered but waved away. Tinges of syrup were beginning to ooze back in. “Look, maybe you feel you never got the break you deserve, but plenty of people have it worse than you. You just have to make the best of what you have.”
“Not if you give me some more.”
“Sorry, but that isn’t the issue, you need to rethink your views on life and accept your current circumstances, unrewarding as they are. You can’t just go through life blaming the cat.”
“Aha! But what if it actually is the cat’s fault?”
“I think we’ve said all that can be said.”
“Ooh, sussed you, cat lover!”
The man sighed and shook his head, rocking back and forth in his chair as he did so. This had the effect of animating his shirt into some kind of, ‘the whole building is about to explode,’ warning light. Tarko got up and left the room, though he did this far too slowly and despondently to have taken any notice of the flashing warning.
Tarko squinted back the bright rays of June sunshine that were interrogating him, now that he had stepped out onto the pavement, and made his way down Commercial Road towards the High Street. The DWP Office behind him had still not exploded.
He had reached North Street and was already lost. He had lived in Guildford for all of the life he could remember, and he still could never figure out whether the particular shop he was looking for was in North Street or the High Street. Guildford is the only town in the world where evidence of parallel universes is left out so brazenly for ordinary people to prod and pry about in. Whichever of the two streets you happen to be standing in, a creeping feeling that something amazing is now happening in the other adjacent world lures you through the central arcades into the sudden realisation that all the crowds are now surging past you into the domain from where you recently departed. It wasn’t as if the two streets even looked remotely similar, yet they always felt as if they were strangely one and the same.
The local authorities had obviously attempted to counter this problem by pedestrianising and cobbling the High Street. They would have tried to paint it tartan too if it hadn’t been for by-laws from the Middle Ages that prevent such things happening without a pig’s innards being presented to the virgin daughter of a local squire.
Tarko had a genuine fear that he might one day bump into another self in Guildford and be responsible for collapsing the entire universe, and so he always avoided eye contact with anyone who looked remotely similar. It had been during an attempt not to make eye contact with someone that he had bumped into Doghouse.
Doghouse (Doug Haslem to his parents) had noticed the stranger that had obviously avoided him, and who was now staring at him, and had kept staring as he walked past. Doug had walked back and confronted the weirdo. He fired a “Yes?” at him and got a “No” in response, followed by a, “I thought it might be a yes, and then… no.”
Having established that the universe was safe, they then attempted to find as many ways of destabilising it as they could. Most of these involved alcohol, a Vauxhall Nova and a chicken shed just outside Woking. In fact, their first attempt had involved all three, and this was followed by a predominantly alcohol-filled period while they waited for another idea to come along.
In the meantime, Doghouse had moved through various IT jobs, survived the .com boom and bust and come through the other side as a freelance IT consultant. Not that he ever told people that he was involved in IT or worked with computers in any way. He hated the whole geek imagery as painted by the media and so had started out by telling people that he was in IT, but was not a geek in any way. Before long, all the geeks were also saying this and so he became vague about his career. Most of his friends then decided that he was obviously unemployed, but too embarrassed to admit it.
So a new phrase was needed without being pretentious; he certainly wasn’t going to find some clever technical phrase, like when cleaners called themselves ‘hygiene trouble-shooters.’ He eventually came to the conclusion that the phrase ‘working with computers’ was no longer that geeky or indeed that descriptive. Everyone worked with computers now: gardeners, street cleaners, drug dealers, llama handlers — all of them would run their lives on a PC somehow. The phrase ‘working with computers’ also suggested some calm co-operation, which was not the case. Computers that could calculate PI to infinite decimal places seemed to have little understanding that you had no desire to print off three hundred pages with a strange character in the corner that never appears anywhere on the keyboard. Everyone else had to submit to the unbendable will of the hard drive and mould their lives to the whims of a tiny piece of silicon. Not Doghouse, he whipped the PC into line, online, offline, whenever. The PC’s natural urge was to beep lethargically and then crash at some inopportune moment, usually just before the user thinks that it’s about time they saved their morning’s work so far. Everyone else worked with computers; Doghouse, as he now told everyone, worked against them.
While his friend’s meteoric rise and self-discovery had taken place, Tarko had bounced around various junior PR and marketing jobs and was now facing the prospect of packing over-priced shoes for the over-spoilt brat market.
Whatever job he found himself in, he always decided that he was in the wrong place. This had even gone so far that he was now telling potential employers during interviews that the job was not right for him and that he would only complain if they hired him. The next inevitable stage would be to tell them straight in the application letter itself. This would not happen now, as the evil DWP had kidnapped him into the employ of the dark warehouse of shoe doom.
Tarko drifted aimlessly around Guildford, in search of the lost memory of some shop he thought he was looking for. He had wandered through a two-storey Boots the chemist, and was still recovering from the shock of walking into the ground floor, riding down the escalators into the basement level and then exiting this floor out onto ground level again. Why did they build towns on steep hills? Was ancient defence an adequate enough explanation in light of the instability that towns like Guildford now introduced to the dimensions of time and space? Perhaps the architect had been a descendant of M C Escher.
He stopped still and caught sight of Doghouse walking past a nearby shop window.
“Oi! Where you going?” he said, knocking ‘door-like’ on Doghouse’s head. “We were supposed to meet down there.”
“Were we?” said Doghouse, spinning round. “I thought we said we’d meet where we met last time.”
“Right… that was up there then.”
“Oh, I thought we arranged to meet down there last time.”
“Yes, we did.”
“So we… what?”
“But we met up there.”
“We arranged to meet down there, but we bumped into each other up there.”
“Fair enough. So how are things?”
“Well, the cobbles here are wet.”
“That’s correct, and it hasn’t even been raining… anything more Dog related?”
“Still as busy as ever. You still looking for anything?”
“They’ve got me.”
“Them, the err… whatever the DSS is called now.”
“Oh, so got a job then? What is it now, proof-reading the phone book?”
“Think more the patter of tiny feet?”
“Selling advertising space on nappies?”
“No… hmm, not a bad idea, though. Actually I’m packing up children’s shoes in a warehouse.”
“Sounds like fun. I told Lemon we’d meet her for a coffee.”
“Cool. So where we meeting her?”
“I told her we’d meet her where we met last time.”
“What, up there?”
“No, not where we met last time, the last time we met when it was all three of us.”
“Which was where?”
“Over there, wasn’t it?”
* * *
Lemon sat trying to work out whether or not the herbal tea, as listed on the menu, was a genuine herbal tea that her conscience would allow her to swallow, or if this was just another overpriced con-in-a-cup. There must be laws somewhere about descriptions of tea on menus, and so she was re-reading the text through as thoroughly as possible, trying to spot any possible loopholes or guilty vagueness. Being an environmentalist and sticking to your principles was difficult enough in a world where every other product shamelessly attempted to tie itself into the green movement. But being an environmentalist and sticking to your principles with Tarko and Doghouse as friends was a trying ordeal that involved everything she did receiving some form of running commentary.
Her full nickname was Lemonbite, on account of her long, blonde hair and sharp caustic tongue. She was naturally beautiful and wore no make-up. This was a cause of constant debates with the other two, as they insisted that she only took this view as she could afford to. If she were ugly at all or had unkempt, greasy hair then she would soon pour large quantities of chemicals all over her head and plaster her face with trowel loads of cosmetics. She tried to point out that her own lack of need in no way diminished her disapproval of the industry, but the arguments for both sides were equally moot points, as it would never be put to the test.
She was just beginning to forget the noise around her and slip off into a peaceful, meditative state, while sipping the newly arrived tea, when Doghouse and Tarko burst in.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Doghouse demanded.
She fired back a puzzled glare. “This is the café we were going to. See, you’re here too.”
“Okay, but we agreed to meet first.”
“We did, but when I came to find the place we met last time, I realised that I couldn’t remember where it was.”
“Nor could I, so I went looking for it.”
“I thought the most sensible thing to do was to come straight here, as it’s where we were going anyway.”
“That’s exactly why I didn’t come here.”
“Well, I can’t see the sense in that. We arranged to meet somewhere before going to the café, and I couldn’t find it, so logic says go straight to the café.”
“But we arranged to meet somewhere else before the café. So logic tells me to find another somewhere else. You can’t go to the café before going to the café, so, when I couldn’t remember either, I looked for another elsewhere. This is the last place I thought you’d be.”
“The café we intended to come to?’
“I did tell him,” added Tarko.
“Well, we’re here now,” said Doghouse sitting down. “Get me a caffeine overdose Tarko.”
Tarko went off to order two coffees from the girl at the counter.
“Can you drink that?” asked Doghouse, pointing to Lemon’s tea.
“Well, let’s see.” She sipped some. “It looks like I can.”
“It’s vegetarian tea, then?’
“And it’s picked humanely?”
“To the best of my knowledge.”
“How do you know that they don’t wash up with some ozone-eating detergent that is 90% animal fat?”
“I’m sure they don’t. As far as I know, none of the processes involved in this tea arriving here involved any meat.”
“What about them?’
“They are not meat free. You cannot say they contain no meat.”
“As far as I know, I haven’t eaten any of the staff and none of them have fallen into my tea as of yet.” She dragged her spoon through the tea a few times to prove the point.
“The air freshener could be musk rat. You might be sniffing rodent as we speak.”
“The only rodent I smell around here has sent the other one off for a coffee.”
“Speaking of him, he has a job.”
“Really? What is it this time?”
“Packing in a warehouse.”
“He’s very good at packing it in. So how long will that last, d’you think?”
“I’ll plead the fifth on that one.”
Tarko placed two coffees on the table and planted himself in the vacant seat. “Buying a coffee nowadays is like going into a DIY store — unless you know the lingo and come armed with a colour chart you are very much out of the loop. Latte, mocha, err… flamenco, wood chip, minestrone.”
“I hear you’re about to join the land of the employed?” asked Lemon.
Tarko sighed. “Rumours.”
“So you’re not?”
Tarko tapped the side of his nose and lowered his voice. “I’ve sold the photo rights to my first day to some celebrity rag. I can’t say too much, else they’ll sue the pants off me.”
Doghouse laughed. “They won’t be able to put those photos in print.”
“How’s your gran?” asked Lemon.
Tarko shrugged. “So, so. You can’t tell really. Still looks frail, she’s no better, but she hasn’t got any worse in a while. Sometimes she seems to know who you are, but other times she just isn’t there at all.”
Doghouse sipped his coffee. “It must upset your mum.”
“Yeah, it does. But she still visits. Dad finds it tricky because he can’t do anything about it. She likes you a lot.”
Lemon smiled. “She’s very sweet.”
“Does she like me?” asked Doghouse.
“She can be a man-eater; it’s best I keep you well away.”
Lemon looked at her watch and then downed her tea. “I have to get back to the shop. I’m helping out this afternoon.”
“I’ll give you a lift,” said Doghouse.
“You stay and keep the condemned man company. Give me a call and we’ll all go out sometime.”
“Will do. Drive carefully.”
“If you run anything over, make sure it’s a vegetable,” said Tarko.
Lemon rolled her eyes at him. “Bye guys.”
Doghouse and Tarko smiled as she left. Several mouthfuls of coffee were sipped and looks were exchanged, and then knowing smiles stretched across their faces.
Doghouse took another gulp of coffee and then paused. “I wouldn’t stand in your way, you know.”
“Yes, Mr. Sinatra, your way.”
Tarko smiled. “Wouldn’t stand in my way in regards to what?”
“Not that I have any special say. It’s not like I have permission to give or anything, I just want you to know that I’d be cool about it, you know, if you decided to… obviously she’d have to want to.”
“Monsieur Maison De La Chien, if either of us is likely to wind up in the clutches of Miss Bite, rather nice clutches that they are, it will be your good self.”
“And I would be cool about it. I prefer brunettes anyhow.”
“Well, that’s cool, but even though you’ve said that, don’t feel that I’ve got first refusal or anything, because you know, I still think you could…”
“Well, you know, that’s good to know. I won’t act on it. Not that I don’t like her, she is very special…”
“That she is.”
“But I don’t think I would.”
“Me neither. We both don’t, but maybe we would, but we’re free to do other things, people and…”
“As is she.”
“But if either of us ever need to update our understanding, either way, then we’d tell the other one immediately, wouldn’t we?”
“Yeah, of course. In fact, rather than drop any bombshells, it might be best if we update the other one, not just if we definitely need to, but if we just think that things might possibly change.”
“Yeah, good idea.”
“I’m glad we had this chat.”
“Me too. At least we both know where we stand.”
The coffees were finished in silence. They departed soon afterwards and went their separate ways.
That entire last weekend of freedom was a living hell for Tarko. Monday morning was barking loudly at him from a distance and was bounding ever closer. Finally, when Monday morning eventually arrived upon its namesake, it bit him hard, dunked him in a lukewarm shower and then threw him out into the bleary-eyed walk that would lead him to his first day of employed condemnation.
Overpriced shoes in bright, tasteless colours come in children’s sizes that are outgrown quicker than the same children get bored on long car journeys. It is a niche market that isn’t quite niche enough and deserves the same amount of sympathy at its possible demise as terrorism. Indeed, the finances of Durpim Trevors had been slipping dangerously for over a decade and a number of reasons and excuses had been fed to the shareholders. Firing blame at a current news headline was the usual tactic, and so Foot & Mouth, BSE, Y2K, September 11th, Friday 13th, Black Monday and Shrove Tuesday had all been detrimental to the children’s shoe market.
All of this lame pondering seemed to skirt around the underlying truth that the products being churned out by Durpim Trevors were utter crap. It was that simple, and had the directors had an ounce of integrity they would have started off their annual report with a phrase along the lines of, ‘Well folks, looks like we’ve finally reached the end of the road, we’re surprised we got away with it for this long but there you go, we are in dire straits financially, but never mind, we’ll probably all look back and laugh in years to come…’
The buildings had slowly decayed along with any motivation and staff loyalty. The tarnished imitation bronze gates were the only things left that looked vaguely as if they might have been expensive once upon a time. Now even the whine of the hinges screamed, ‘This is the last of the petty cash.’
It was a vain attempt to bring in a bit more cash that had led to Tarko’s current employment. A defunct government scheme to reduce unemployment was still alive and well, thanks to the fact that the admin division in charge of the official logo had not been told of the plan’s demise. The documentation to define a prospective participant’s qualification had also been pulped somewhere along the line and so the current initiative boiled down to an agreement whereby a company would receive an official looking accreditation in return for hiring someone awkward. Tarko was on all the DWP action lists that contained ‘placement challenges.’
The mini road system that attempted to navigate the Durpim Trevors shoe factory failed miserably at every turn. The confusion snaked its way around several unfortunate looking humps of grass, branched off a few times, and finally collapsed in on itself at a central roundabout that was an implosion of understated stupidity. The small besieged spillage of flowers and weeds that draped over the balding mound, along with the roundabout itself, was obviously designed to conjure up the non-existent spirit of community that didn’t gel any of the staff to each other. The landscaper had aimed for, ‘a small village green that would forever be a part of England,’ but had missed the impending reality of, ‘a far too small space to begin with that forever needs to accommodate 18-wheelers turning around each other like an aggressive dinosaur ballet.’
Tarko looked down at the pressed shrubs and imagined it as a conceptual art piece entitled, ‘Flower bed with tyre tread.’ He finally entered the warehouse and found himself in the dark belly of some vast industrial whale. A very dusty whale that had eaten an awful lot of boxes, granted. The dusty drabness inside rivalled the interior of the DWP offices and even attempting to distinguish between brownish grey or greyish brown was awarding the scene with far too much ambience.
For some reason the lengths of racking that attempted to hold the stacked boxes into some form of logical order were set at a diagonal to the room itself. Tarko was sure there was a logical reason for this, but he was too afraid to ask for fear of looking stupid, yet it would bug him all the while he was there.
All the aisles in between the rows went in one direction, apart from a single aisle that split across the centre of the racking perpendicularly. Large cardboard box remnants had been impaled onto nails at the end of each rack with a list of phrases that looked like ice-cream flavours scrawled onto each. Every list veered off at a slant and the final entries had to be squished into the bottom right hand corner. This same problem never seemed to get corrected on any of the lists along the entire warehouse.
At one end of the racks a desk with several charts splayed across it sat next to a large weighing machine. The rest of the space near here was taken up with stacks of boxes that looked to be orders that were waiting to be unpacked or loaded onto a truck. On the end of this wall was a small booth with all its glass missing and this seemed to be the place where a warehouse manager might sit.
The only sound Tarko could hear was a radio that was balancing on the edge of being tuned in. Any significant words would fall into some static abyss, while all those fiddly little words that have their own charades gesture came through with annoying clarity. Every now and then the signal would overbalance itself and sway into another adjoining broadcast before staggering back into the familiar hiss territory.
Tarko looked around for any signs of life — there was the odd tap or mumble, but no movement ever caught his eye. The warehouse didn’t seem big enough to hide even two people and Tarko began to suspect that either this was a huge trick with mirrors or that each worker had been issued with a personal cloaking device.
A set of footsteps suddenly grew louder and a being materialised halfway down one of the aisles.
A shout from behind overtook the figure.
“Where you off to?”
“Is he touchin’ it?” came another cry.
“I ain’t near it,” the figure shouted without turning round.
“I can see you near it now,” the first voice protested.
“Nah, get that crap off. Put it over,” came another voice.
“Don’t nobody touch it. Heggy, git your arse back down here and tidy up those navy nubuck.”
“There’s a bloke,” said Heggy.
“What bloke?” said the first voice.
“Bloke standing near the orders,” said Heggy. “We got anything coming in or ready to go out?”
“Bloke?” shouted someone. “Is he touchin’ it?”
“Shut up a flamin’ minute you lot,” said the first voice. “Can’t hear meself think. Is it that new bloke?”
“It’s just some bloke,” said Heggy. “What new bloke?”
“Got a new one starting today.”
Behind Tarko, out of the dust-smeared windows, a reversing alarm began to chirp its way into the loading bay. Heggy’s eyes immediately refixed their gaze upon the sound and he walked out of the rack, and changed direction, without slowing or stopping at all.
“Stenopps,” shouted Heggy.
Eight people all materialised out of thin air and began to march out to the loading bay. A large balding man in jeans and a rugby top waddled over to Tarko.
“You the new one, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Tarko.
“Don. Warehouse manager. You like to be called Tarquin or summit so they said.”
“Friends call me Tarko.”
“Right, come with me and then we’ll get you kicked off proper.”
Don waddled off to try and catch up with the parade of others that were disappearing round the corner, snatching a crumpled sheet off the desk as he went.
“Hold up lads. Not sure this is us yet.”
Tarko decided to follow the herd out to the loading bay. The coffee he had gulped down before leaving the house had already faded from his system and so he decided it was best for now to accept his place and do exactly what he was expected to do.
Out on the loading bay, Heggy was comparing two sheets of paper with the rest of the crew all huddled around adding their collective brainpower to the cause. From the noise and the shape of the gap that had been forced in the boxes, it seemed the driver had burrowed his way deep into the back of the truck.
Heggy looked up and handed the sheets to Don. “Order numbers don’t match, but the driver reckons he still has stuff on the back for us, reckons the sheets are wrong.”
“We’re not expecting anything till Thursday,” pondered Don.
“Seventy pair of ‘Fairy Dreamfeet.’ Red and navy,” yelled the driver from within the mass of boxes. “All over the back here behind these other things.”
Don clicked his teeth several times and then announced, “Yes, that’s us. Okay, look lively.”
The next twenty minutes consisted of Don standing by the edge of the truck while the others picked up a variety of random boxes and presented them to him. If they were a box of red or navy ‘Fairy Dreamfeet,’ then they would get a nod and be taken into the warehouse. Anything else got a ‘no’ and was put back onto the truck. Tarko started out by trying to hunt out the actual ‘Fairy Dreamfeet’ boxes, but found that he was getting in the way of the others who were searching under the much wider scope of, ‘any box that happens to be near.’
Tarko eventually gave in and picked up a long package that was obviously a garden implement of some kind. When presented with it, Don carefully read the label and then shook his head. Eventually someone had the idea of putting the rejected boxes in a separate pile, rather than back where they were likely to be picked up again, and this seemed to help the process a great deal.
Once they had piled all the boxes inside the warehouse, Don introduced Tarko.
“This is the new bloke… Tar… Tarqu…”
“Tark…” began Tarko.
“Tarka the bleedin’ otter,” offered someone from the back.
It stuck, and Tarko realised that the futility of fighting the change would only add to its perceived hilarity and up its unnecessary usage.
Don waddled over to the radio and twiddled the dial in an attempt to tune it in. He ended up opting for a signal that sounded more crackly than when he had first touched it. “Right, now I’ve got it back again, nobody bleeding touch the sod.”
“I don’t touch it,” said Heggy. “It ain’t me.”
This sparked off a House of Commons’ style debate with each of the self-represented constituents of the warehouse putting forward their own opinions as to who was responsible.
“Shut up!” Don finally bellowed. “I don’t want nobody touching it. Right, now get back to work.”
They all sidled off to where they had been hidden previously when Tarko had first entered. Don put his hand round Tarko’s shoulders. “Right lad, that there is the radio… and we don’t touch that.”
Tarko nodded attentively and was led off towards the desk.
“This box here is the orders, pick up the top one and then look for the shoes you need. Top row on the sheet shows all the sizes and down the left here is the different styles and colours. Numbers in the middle tell you how many pairs of that style and size is asked for. Collect ‘em all and then pack ‘em up over here with the order number written on top.” He turned to point at the collections of scrawl staple-gunned to the end of each rack. “Each rack has a list on the end of it that shows what shoes is in it. Any questions?”
“Just one. Do you realise that I am not supposed to be here?”
“Hmmm, they flamin’ warned me about you acting up. Look, we get a bonus if we can keep you employed so we ain’t accepting any resignations from you, but we can make your life hell if you don’t play ball. Also, bloke at your job place says that if you do something sackable then they will find a way of taking you to court any way they can. So we won’t accept any resignations and we advise against doing something sackable. I want to start you off with a clean sheet so let’s just put all that behind us and get on, shall we?”
Tarko nodded. ‘Keep your head down and wait for the right time,’ he thought to himself. ‘Right time for what?… We’ll come back to that at the right time.’ He peeled the top sheet off the orders and went off looking for five pairs of fuchsia and navy nubuck ‘Fluffy Totters.’
He scanned the rack lists and located the endless aisle of boxes that contained the ‘Fluffy Totters’ in red and fuchsia/navy nubuck. Walking down the passage, he passed the ‘Kitty Paws Jnr.’ range, through the entire seven colours of ‘Jack-in-the-Sox’ and finally came upon the ‘Fluffy Totters.’ He scooped up the first box and fumbled the lid off. A smell of polyester and lycra hit his senses and, even through the tissue paper, the sickly fuchsia glow was radiating out towards him. He peeled back the outer shell and stared in disbelief at the mismatched son-of-chimera/fluffy mess that had died in this small cardboard coffin and taken all sense of taste and decency with it.
They were neither slipper nor glitzy fashion accessory. Tarko tried to conjure up an image of the sort of mother that would inflict these upon her child’s feet. He could visualise a huge woman in a bright wig with clashing make-up and tracksuit who would enter her child into every underage and slightly dubious competition available.
He slammed the lid back on the tomb and the pink glow faded from his retinas. He looked up and scanned the morbid brown boxes in their rows — a cemetery to decency. Behind every one of these size-label headstones was another Day-Glo corpse of the fluffy undead. He vowed to himself there and then that he would never again so flippantly disturb the peaceful rest of any more of these kitsch cadavers.
Nonetheless, from then on, Tarko just kept his head down and pledged to get on with the job in hand. The outside world was safely kept at bay by the thick dust on the smeared windows. The musty air and heaters seemed to regulate a separate climate from the rest of the outside world. Time took on a different feel within the walls; long mornings were abridged to the even longer afternoons by short hour-long lunches that accelerated through at speeds that would impress Einstein4.
Tarko soon became accustomed to the weekly cycle of warehouse life.
On Monday they discussed the weekend just passed.
On Tuesday they discussed the weekend just passed.
On Wednesday morning they discussed the previous evening’s TV or, occasionally, last year’s holiday.
On Wednesday afternoon they discussed future TV viewings (or future planned holidays.)
On Thursday they discussed the forthcoming weekend.
On Friday morning they discussed the forthcoming weekend.
On Friday evening they started the inebriation process.
On Saturday this process continued.
On Sunday they began the long recovery.
Tarko loved his pub outings with Lemon and Doghouse, but this endless ‘live for the weekend’ cycle had no life in it. Monday to Friday was spent on death row until the alcoholic execution over the weekend, whereupon the condemned awoke to find that the sentence had failed and they would have to face another final week of life.
The hopeful anticipation that they attached to the probability of the weekly lottery ticket should have meant they hid in fear from buses.
They discussed ‘reality TV’ as if it was real.
* * *
Another Thursday afternoon arrived and the weekend was under starter’s orders. The Friday afternoon bolt from the factory gates was already revving in Tarko’s head. Maybe he could survive this, if he just succumbed to the routine and thought of the money. The financial input from Messrs Durpim and Trevors could go towards funding his first great concept… as soon as it was conceived. Until then, he would ride this through, building up his economic war chest, while the embryonic seeds of genius lay hidden, yet to emerge.
“See, s’not so bad when you just put ya shoulder to it.”
The thought of Heggy reading his mind was not something that sat easily in Tarko’s perception of the mental pecking order of his current surroundings. Having one of the lab rats condone his new found comfort in the hamsters’ wheel of warehouse work dissolved a bitter pill into his psyche.
Tarko decided to play it cool. “Whatever makes you happy, I guess.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Heggy. “Pays for the other stuff, ya know.”
‘Pays for the other stuff?’ thought Tarko. Wasn’t that exactly what he’d been planning just now? Who was this mystic moron insulting him with this peek inside his own head? Was he now on the slippery slope to arguments about who had been fiddling with the radio? Tarko was through with politeness — it was time to put some distance right where it was needed.
“But don’t you want to be someone?” asked Tarko.
“I am,” replied Heggy. “I’m Heggy.”
“Okay,” said Tarko, “think about this… if you got hit by a bus tomorrow, what would they write on your gravestone?”
Heggy thought for a moment. “Well, it would probably say, ‘Here lies Heggy. He got hit by a bus.’”
“Just for one day I would like to know with absolute certainty that I had left something important behind.”
“I did that last week. Forget me sandwiches.”
“I didn’t mean something like that.”
“I was bloody starving.”
“I just feel that I am not supposed to be here. Like there’s a space somewhere that I fit that’s empty right now.”
“I get that.”
“I am not talking about the sandwich-shaped gap in your gut.”
“No, I am being serious. I often wonder who is real and who isn’t. Listen, right, ‘cos this will mess your head up… how do you know that you are really here?”
“Unfortunately, here is exactly where I really am.”
“No, but maybe it isn’t, see? And how do you know I am really here?”
“Unfortunately, here is exactly where you really are.”
“But how can you know I am really here?”
“Trust me. I am fully aware you are here, beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
“But do I know that you are here?”
“We’ve only known each other a few weeks, but touch my arm. See, I am here.”
“I think you are here and I think I just touched you.”
“Don’t go shouting about that.”
“But… what if I only imagined I touched you. Is it real?”
“Even if it wasn’t real, if a false reality is the only perception available to you then it’s as good as real.”
“I can see I’m getting to you.”
“I won’t argue with that.”
“So you accept it might not be real then?”
“No, I am sure it is real. I am just saying that it’s a pointless debate, as you can’t stand outside the situation in order to independently verify it.”
“But you can’t prove it is real.”
“There is no end to this, so why continue it?”
“It’s an endless mystery. No one can prove if it is real or false. See, I said it would mess your head up.”
“The time my alarm now goes off every week day. That is what messes my head up.”
“But does it really go off?”
“My alarm is definitely real.”
“But just think, you could be completely imagining everything, even me, and I could be completely imagining all of this, even you. You might not be real. Nobody would ever know.”
Tarko suddenly stopped still and a smile spread across his face. “Heggy, you have just made me realise that this isn’t an endless debate at all… the answer is simple… painfully, stupidly simple.”
“But are you just imaging that it’s the answer?”
“Shut up with all that and just listen. Could you fit all the shoes in this warehouse into a single shoebox?”
“Am I allowed to squash them a bit or do they have to be neat?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No, it does.”
“The answer would still be the same.”
“No, but not exactly the same. If they have to be neat then it would only be about four, but if I can squash them in then maybe about eight. And does the box have to stay flat? If I can bulge the sides out a bit then maybe ten or twelve.”
“I am talking about all the shoes in this warehouse. Every single one of them.”
“But I can’t say until I know the rules.”
“It’s a yes or no question.”
“No, but let’s say there’s a hundred shoes in here… I know there’s a lot more, but let’s pretend it’s a hundred to make it easier to work out.”
“Okay, go on then. It’s still going to be a no.”
“But… if I have to keep it neat then I have got four in and left… ninety… ninety-six out.”
“So that’s a no.”
“But if I can squish them a bit then I get ten or twelve in. Let’s say twelve.”
“It’s still a no.”
“But I would get twelve in and leave out… eighty-eight. That’s less.”
“So the answer would still be a resounding no.”
“That’s not my final answer though, as I haven’t tried it.”
“But you don’t need to try it.”
“Ah, well you don’t know me. Other people might just say ‘that’s impossible’…”
“Because it is.”
“But me, I wouldn’t just give up. I would try it.”
“Fair enough, but you still wouldn’t get them all in.”
“Has anyone else done this yet?” Heggy turned and shouted across the warehouse. “Gatesy, can you beat twelve?”
“Twelve what?” came the yelled reply.
“Has Tarka done that thing on you yet?”
“Oh, don’t worry.” He turned back to Tarko. “So when are we doing this?”
“We don’t need to do it.”
“So it’s unproven still.”
“There are thousands of shoes in here. Let’s give you a huge benefit of the doubt and say you got fifty in there.”
“You’d never get fifty in a box.”
“No, I know. So even then you would not fit all the shoes in this warehouse into a single shoebox.”
“Why were we doing this again?”
“I don’t know… Oh yes, I was disproving your impossible thing about everything being in your imagination.”
“Well you haven’t yet.”
“Okay, let’s forget that for now. Let’s try something else… right, coming to work here, what’s the very worst-case scenario that could happen? I mean the absolute worst thing possible.”
“Erm, oh, I know something that really did happen… I forgot my lunch last week.”
“That’s not a catastrophe though, is it?”
“I was bloody starving.”
“Okay, give me a minute… right, how about this… some crazy guy who lives nearby stares at the pattern of illuminated windows on the flats opposite him every night and gets it into his head that the patterns mean something. He thinks aliens are sending him messages. He decides that he’s going to kill someone and picks you at random from the phonebook.
“So he marches in here with a shotgun and some petrol and says he’s going to shoot you and then everyone else and then burn the place down. He shoots you and then goes to shoot Don and Gatesy, but you’re not dead and you throw the petrol can at him. It hits him just as he shoots and he explodes into a fireball.”
“Did I save Don and Gatesy?”
“Yep, you’re a hero.”
“It’s not that bad then. Okay, I got shot, but I am still alive and made a barbecue of the baddie and I’m a hero. They’d make a film about me.”
“The film wouldn’t have a happy ending.”
“The shotgun blast completely minced up your liver and so you don’t have long to live unless they can find a decent match. The hospital check their records and find that someone that lives nearby has the only compatible liver with yours. But guess who it is?”
“It’s the guy you completely carbonised in the warehouse.”
“This isn’t very likely at all is it?”
“That’s not the point.”
“I mean, the thing with my lunch… that really happened.”
“Yes, but I told you to imagine the very worst-case scenario.”
“I was just saying about you can’t prove anything is real and now you’ve gone all weird challenging me to put all the shoes in a box, but you won’t even let me try and now you’re making up that there’s some bloke nearby who’s this alien killer looking to set me on fire.”
“But I have proved the point.”
“You’ve proved nothing ‘cept your mad.”
“You said I couldn’t be certain that I wasn’t just a part of your imagination. Well, I am real. Your imagination could never conjure up me in a million years.”
A silence took the floor briefly.
Heggy snapped his fingers in a moment of realisation. “Even if that was true at all…”
“Which it is.”
“That makes it even more the case that you can’t prove that me, and you being here, isn’t just in your imagination.”
“I credit my subconscious with just a little more taste and decency than that.”
“So if you don’t think you should be here then why are you here?”
“Good question… it’s complicated.”
“So where should you be and doing what?”
“I’m a thinker.”
“S’all very well being one of them, but it don’t put grub on the table, mate. Think on all you like, but it takes us grafters in life to get the job done and keep the cogs whirring.”
“If you were an engineer or a nurse, or something, then I would completely agree with you, but your grafting efforts comprise of lugging boxes of atrocious kids’ fashion around a mouldy old warehouse. If you were to stop what you were doing then the FT index is hardly going to quiver is it?”
“Think of this, though. I don’t work, I don’t get no money to feed meself or me ma or me bird. I don’t spend money in the chippy and the pub so they get less money. So I end up homeless and me ma and… me bird is homeless, too, and me ma is like poorer and might get evicted. The chippy might shut, and the pub, and unemployment goes up and… oh yeah and oh right, these shoes don’t get packed and this place shuts and the kiddies don’t get their shoes and it all goes pear-shaped. One tiny root is what makes the forest grow, from the smallest start there can be an earthquake.”
“Or,” ventured Tarko, “you leave here and your girlfriend dumps you and moves in with someone with a lot more going for them and your mum manages to feed herself for once because her gannet of a son is out of sight and out of mind in some filthy squat eating rats. One less lowlife in the pubs and the chippy opens up the way for new people to try them out, now the smell has gone, and so attracts a more upmarket clientele. This factory goes bust anyway because people finally come to their senses about the extortionate glitzy trash being peddled here and so they buy their kids more sturdy, economical and tasteful footwear. All the money they save they put towards improving their kids’ lives and education. You see, your every breath within these four walls could be the dam holding up so much progress.”
A silence descended over the duo, but it was not a silence that was designed to last. There was a tension of unfinished business and unsaid statements muttering to be appeased.
“There’s nothing wrong with these shoes,” Heggy finally mumbled.
Tarko immediately stared at Heggy’s own footwear before he realised that the shoes in question were the army of hideous Day-Glo monstrosities currently residing in cardboard city around him. Shocked that the shoes were the first point that Heggy sought to refute, Tarko remained silent, attempting to herd together his thoughts.
“I don’t go a huge bundle on ‘em, and not my size or nothing,” continued Heggy. “But if they wants them, then who are we to stop anyone making ‘em or buying anything?”
Tarko shook one of the boxes and shuddered at hearing the objects of discussion rattle inside. “These are probably listed in the Geneva Convention, under the section on chemical weapons and other irritants.”
Heggy opted for silence at this.
Tarko broke his vow and lifted the lid on the nearest box. Averting his eyes, he held aloft the Medusa’s head in red leather with twin buckle combo.
“You don’t find this offensive?” he asked once he had realised that Heggy had not turned to stone.
“Didn’t say I like ‘em, just that it don’t bother me.”
Tarko opted to continue his verbal assault. “They probably aren’t even made by human hands. I bet inbred pixies sneak in at night and cough these up from things they eat in the woods.”
“I’m weird? I don’t cough up congealed shoes after midnight.”
“Jules Ferrome designs all these and he seems alright to me.”
“Jules Ferrome. S’that the halfwit’s name?”
“He is very clever.”
“Oh, no doubt. Sat on his island, carving furniture out of human remains.”
“What have you got against him? You’ve never met him.”
“Of course I haven’t. Like I’d get an invite to ‘the Island’.”
“He works here actually and he looks quite normal to me.”
“Looks normal during the day maybe, but check under the hairline and you’ll find the mark.”
“Sick-sick-sick. Jules Ferrome is The Anti-Taste.”
“You can check yourself, he’s behind you.”
“Don’t try your pantomime mind tricks on me, Cinders.”
“You’re sacked,” came a voice from behind him.
The pantomime was indeed true and the Widow Twankee of the shoe world had just thrown him off the set.
Having set a course for freedom, Tarko had had the wind knocked out of his sails, and was currently dry-docked in the manager’s office.
“He promised me I was sacked,” pleaded Tarko.
“Well you aren’t,” said the manager.
“I can only accept your first answer.”
“I’m not listening to any wisecracks; I was warned all about you.”
“I wasn’t warned about your shoes.”
“We take great pride in our products.”
“I’d have to take something a lot stronger than that.”
“Have you finished with the smart comments?”
“I was just offering some constructive criticism.”
“One of the things we pride ourselves on here is unity behind the brand.”
“Is there a secret handshake? Because no one has taught me that yet.”
“A lone dissenting voice can damage the morale of the whole group.”
“Whatever happened to opinions and free speech?”
“With free speech comes responsibility.”
“Responsibility? To what?”
“Loose lips sink ships.”
“You think me criticising your cobbled-together tat is going to aid a ghost fleet of Nazi U-boats?”
“You need to grasp the vision!” The manager collapsed back in his chair.
“Okay,” said the accountant, taking up the reins. “Let me be candid with you.”
“Don’t feel you have to,” said Tarko, yawning.
“We’re all in a bit of a tight spot here. But, with a bit of give and take, we can all benefit.”
Tarko shrugged to indicate that he was not overly interested in grasping the vision and so had nothing to add to the current dialogue.
“We hired you as part of a deal with the DWP.”
“That’s because I am special.”
“A pain in the arse is what they told us.”
“The word we have from someone on the local authority is that there is a lot of funding locked away somewhere that is allocated to this scheme.”
“Well the details are a little sketchy, as the paperwork has been mislaid. Basically by accepting someone who is a bit more… of a challenge, we open ourselves up to increased funding from this special reserve. Not many people are on the scheme, as they no longer push it, so we have our legal bod working away to see if we can maximise the situation. If this funding has been set aside specifically for this scheme, and we’re one of the only companies still on it, then we think we should be entitled to the lot.”
“But surely they’ll only pay out a certain amount per case?”
“Ah, yes, but as the paperwork has been lost, nobody can say, and if they don’t allocate all their funding, they’ll only get their wings clipped next year.”
“So, I’m the golden boy with all the cards,” said Tarko, beaming.
“Not really. You obviously didn’t read the small print.”
“The terms and conditions you signed with the DWP when you accepted employment here.”
“Well, you know, small print… it is… kinda small.”
“If you resign from here then you will be placed on every credit and employment blacklist available. You won’t be able to earn any money at all as nobody will employ you. You’d be destitute.”
“Wow. That’s pretty heavy.”
“There will be no place in society for Jasper Hovis.”
Tarko looked puzzled at the mention of a name he didn’t recognise and then he realised that this was bureaucratic officialdom’s latest rendition of his own name.
“They’ll probably all be saying, ‘Who the heck is Jasper Hovis?’” commented Tarko.
“Exactly! You see? I’m glad you’re getting it now.”
“So you see,” said the manager, rejoining the discussion, “you need us and we need you… well, to be frank, we’re stuck with you and you’re stuck with us… so we need to all do the best we can to get along.”
“Okay, so once you get your funding, I take my cut and slip quietly out the backdoor.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“There’s a lock-in period and the money is issued in the form of a deferred loan. The way it works is that that the money is allocated to us as a loan, but the amount we pay back diminishes the longer we employ you, until, after a certain point, we are released from paying back anything at all.”
“So I am like the collateral?”
“Sort of. So as long as you stay here, you can earn money and we get our funding. If we all just play our cards right we can all benefit… we can sort out a small bonus, as long as you do your part.”
“You are overlooking one huge problem here.”
“You’re assuming I’m happy to spend the rest of my working life shunting round boxes of absolute… well, shoes that I am not entirely convinced there is a huge market for.”
“There are plenty of other jobs available here.”
“Wow, the warehouse is my oyster.”
“There’s the admin department, there’s the machine room, there’s…”
“There’s always Dubai. A thriving job market and I really doubt that the DWP’s fatwa is going to mean much in Dubai.”
“Look, that’s just silly… do you really want to give up all your friends and family and run off like some train robber, just to avoid a bit of honest hard graft?”
“It wouldn’t be forever.”
“But it wouldn’t be forever here either. After four or five years we’d probably be released from the loan and you could go on your way. You’d have a decent block of continuous employment on your CV, plus you’d have learnt a trade.”
Tarko sighed and rocked back on his chair. He was fast running out of any alternative options and yet he certainly was not going to be the one to concede anything at this point. He decided that if he maintained silence they would be forced to extend the deal or throw some new offer on the table.
Defiant sighing and pen twiddling ensued all round the table.
“Let me have him for the afternoon,” said Jules Ferrome, finally speaking again. “Leave him in my hands and I’ll see what I can do with him.”
Tarko looked horrified at this prospect, but the nods and paper shuffling that erupted around him signalled that all other options were suddenly off the rapidly emptying table.
“Well… as this happened on today of all days, you are a very lucky chap,” said Ferrome once they were alone.
“I am?” asked Tarko, feeling very uneasy.
“I am going to take you somewhere very special.”
* * *
Having spent an agonising hour alongside Jules Ferrome in the latter’s Porsche, listening to the deep philosophy of children’s footwear, Tarko was relieved that their destination involved plenty of other people in the vicinity.
From the snippets of conversation that he had actually listened to, Tarko gathered that he was being taken to listen to some motivational speaker from California that Ferrome viewed as some life-guru-cum-semi-deity.
It felt like he had infiltrated some insular cult. All around him people from all walks of life and from every generation were sat in apprehension, clutching their laser-printed programmes like rosaries.
A man who looked like a geography teacher going to a fancy dress party as a doorstep salesman stood up at the front and, without any introduction, began talking about goals in life and sources of strength and inspiration.
“Is that him?” queried Tarko, drawing disdainful looks from those nearby.
“No, he’s next,” rasped Ferrome in a churchlike whisper.
“Cool, we get a warm up act,” muttered Tarko.
“…So many people make the mistake of focusing on their objectives, but ignore the necessary support mechanisms,” continued the geographical duster salesman. “In all situations, business or personal, you need to find your banisters, and I am not talking about my own wife and children.” The man chuckled heartily at this and several others joined in the hilarity.
Tarko fired a quizzical look at Ferrome, who tapped the front of the programme. Looking at the piece of paper, Tarko found the first name on the list was ‘Geoffrey Bannister.’
Meanwhile, the self-named analogy was explaining his theory in far too much depth. “The steps are the actual process that you are looking to achieve, the focus… it’s the journey and effort you need to put in to reach your goal. The banisters are not what you are looking to achieve, but these are things in place that not only support you, but they align you correctly in your direction and keep you pointing where you should be. And thinking about banisters, these not only stop you dangerously straying off the stairs. But by getting a firm grip on them you can use these to propel yourself towards that sought-after top of the stairs you desire to reach. So, what can be our banisters?”
The room was gripped by a painful silence.
“Well, how about an independent pair of eyes to regularly look at what you’re doing? Or it can be as diverse as quality time at the table with your family at mealtimes.”
A chart fizzled into life on the screen behind him. The chart was a set of stairs and the words for each of the banisters popped up on the step as Geoffrey Bannister clicked through them.
“Stepping back,” announced Bannister. “By stepping back you can become an independent pair of eyes when no other eyes are available.”
“All hail the one-eyed king,” muttered Tarko and a hail of tutting was lavished upon him by the woman behind.
Bannister continued. “To work, you immerse yourself in the task to maximise the effort, but in looking back at what you have achieved you need to gain some perspective and distance. Immersive production. Step back, review.” He paused and stepped forward and back to illustrate the painfully obvious. “Immersive production. Step back, review.”
Tarko drifted into a trancelike state in order to survive the rest of this futile monotony, occasionally nodding when he heard the tone of voice alter in a way that suggested something of purported significance was being uttered.
Ferrome snapped his fingers in front of Tarko’s empty eyes to tell him that the interval had arrived. Tarko saw that everyone was walking into an adjacent room and was concerned that he had been under some form of hypnosis.
“He didn’t have me sweeping up after an invisible elephant, did he?”
“You’re a tricky pony, matey,” said Ferrome, smiling.
“As long as I wasn’t being one up the front.”
“Eyes glazing over a bit?” asked Ferrome, placing a coffee in Tarko’s hand.
“A bit,” admitted Tarko, yawning.
“I know, it can be a lot to take in, but it’s such a rich feast if you grasp it all.”
Tarko was mortally offended at this interpretation of his sheer boredom, but decided that diplomatic silence would save him from further paternal mentoring.
When they had retaken their seats, the previously electric atmosphere among the other delegates had increased to a dangerously high voltage.
“Ladies and gentleman,” oozed Geoffrey Bannister, “it is a great honour to once again have a dear and revered friend and teacher back over with us. A man who I know needs no introduction… Saul Saloux.”
Saloux was short with a balding, round head. Though there was nothing overly gregarious about his appearance, his gestures and mannerisms made him seem like a human cannonball on his day off.
He paced the floor as if taking in a Wembley atmosphere and then stopped dramatically, as if he had spotted a traffic warden issuing a ticket to a hearse.
“En-courage-ise-ment,” he drummed out, like a pre-grapple wrestler.
Tarko had to repeat this phrase several times. When he finally realised that this was intended to be a single word, rather than four, he froze in horror, his ears wanting to vomit.
Tarko gritted his teeth at the rollercoaster ride he now realised was before him, for Saloux was only just warming up.
“Ya know, when you see encouragisement happening in a group environment then you need to draw alongside that group and identify who within that group dynamic are the encouragisers. Because it’s not all of us that can encouragify other people in that particular way that enhances the group dynamic. In a group of ten to fifteen people you might get one or two real encouragisers.
“And as a group leader you need to ensure that outside of the group environment your encouragisers are getting re-encouragised. Because unless they get re-encouragised then they will have nothing more to give and they will become disencouragised. And without your encouragisers encouragifying the group, you get total group disencouragiseification.
“So, what do we do to ensure the encouragisers are re-encouragised? It may be that by spending time with each other at special meetings your encouragisers might well re-encouragise each other. It might be that you get in outside help to re-encouragise your encouragisers.
“It can also be the case that there may be others in the group dynamic that may not be able to encouragise within the group, but might possess the skills needed to re-encouragise the encouragisers. There may exist people in that group already with those skill sets or there is training that can be done to develop and enhance these skills. We do have a video and tape set available called ‘Are you an encouragiser re-encouragiser? Could you be one?’ - full details of that and others available with Mandy after we conclude here this morning.
“Now some people, including some that call themselves experts in my own field, have raised the opinion that if the encouragisers are encouragificating the group and then others from the same group are re-encouragising the encouragisers, isn’t that continuous circle just a waste of time?
“Well, folks, you just need to look at the alternative - total group disencouragiseification. I think you have your answer right there.
“Something you need to be aware of and look out for is where your encouragisers wander off and interact with another group. Sometimes they might inadvertently encouragise another group and have nothing left to give their main host group. That is clearly misencouragisement and you need to disencouragise that as quickly as possible, but be careful. You need to make sure that you disencouragise the misencouragisement without completely disencouragising your encouragiser. We all know where that would lead.
“It takes a special skilled individual to selectively disencouragise misencouragisement and you might find there are already people in your group that possess that ability. Again, we do have a tape set - ‘Being a misencouragisement disencouragiser. Do you have what it takes?’”
Tarko wanted to scream. He gripped the chair tightly as the idiotic onslaught continued unabated.
“Similarly, your re-encouragisers need to be wary of misre-encouragisement and you need to ensure you have at least one person skilled in being a misre-encouragisement disencouragiser.
“Now some of you folks may have spotted a seeming contradiction. Earlier, when talking of re-encouragising your encouragisers, I did say you could get in outside help on that. But we have just shown a need to disencouragise people from misencouragising another group so, on the flip side, how can that work?
“Well, the issue is that a typical encouragiser is like a bomb almost, once encouragisement takes place, it all explodes out and there is nothing left for them to give out at all. That is why we need to disencouragise misencouragisement.
“However, there is a rare type of re-encouragiser that has the ability to compartmentalise their re-encouragisement, so they’ll put nine tenths back into their own encouragisers, but hold back that tenth and kind of build it up like a bank account of encouragisement to re-encouragise another group. That is a highly-commendable ability and you should do everything to encouragise a self-compartmentalising-re-encouragiser.
“There does lurk a danger here though when mentioning this subject. As it is such a respected skill, many re-encouragisers naturally want to enhance their skills to become self-compartmentalising re-encouragisers.
“There are some that sadly will not achieve that goal and yet find it difficult to accept that. They will wander off to other groups and give out all their encouragisement believing they still have enough left for the group, but they have none. That is clearly misself-compartmentalising re-encouragisement and it needs careful disencouragisement.
“What is needed here is careful disencouragisement of the misself-compartmentalising re-encouragisement and a clear refocus set in place for that individual on the host group. This obviously takes a very special ability. It may be that you have an individual in the existing group dynamic with this skillset. We have a tape set about that called ‘Are you a mis-self-compartmentalising re-encouragisement refocaliser?’
With each new level of madness that was spewing forth from the idiot at the front, another stick figure, or curvy arrow, or bounding-area-circle would materialize upon the screen.
Tarko imagined that the daft diagram on the screen correlated to the room they were in and depicted an escape plan of how he should make his exit. He began staring hard at the stick figures on the screen and then attempted to map the arrows and manoeuvres onto his surroundings.
Just as Tarko was on the brink of charging to the front and pushing the irritating parasite through the screen, the target of his loathing suddenly wrapped up and sought questions from the audience.
‘Please, no questions,’ thought Tarko.
A hand shot up.
‘Idiot,’ thought Tarko.
“Yes, lady there,” prompted Saul.
“If there was one thing we should take away with us from this morning, what should it be?” she asked.
“Great question,” said Saul.
“Plant,” mumbled Tarko.
Saul took a deep breath. “I would say the one thing to take home with you is this… That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
The woman nodded and looked satisfied with this. Tarko looked very unsatisfied and waved his hand frantically.
“Young man there,” said Saul.
“But you didn’t say that,” said Tarko.
“I didn’t say?”
“You never once said, ‘that which does not kill me makes me stronger.’”
“Well I haven’t actually said anything else.”
“At no point did you say that anything similar in any way to that which does not kill you makes you stronger.”
“I may not have used those words, but that is the essence of all I have said today... you have to read between the lines.”
“But we weren’t reading anything...”
“Look at this piece of paper, when you’re reading it, if you read between the lines then what have you got?
“Blank bits of paper.”
“No... okay, right, I’ll say something and listen carefully to the difference between the actual words I say and what I mean... listen between the lines... The proposal that you feel will benefit us... I think that this might be something we could possibly take on board to see how it goes... now, my words said yes, but what did you hear between the words?”
“No, I mean inside my head... If you concentrate then you can get a picture of what I am really thinking of.”
“I am seeing a blue triangle,” announced Tarko sarcastically.
“No, that’s not what I meant at all.”
“I saw a blue triangle too!” exclaimed a man elsewhere in the audience.
“I saw a dog playing the violin,” shouted another person.
Saul waved his arms to appeal for calm. “Look, I am just saying that the gist of what I have been saying is that... that which does not kill me makes me stronger... well, obviously you might get a debilitating disease and sometimes that won’t necessarily be fatal, but it will not make you stronger, I obviously don’t mean that at all... there’s a distinction between what I am saying and that.”
A woman stood up nervously, as if at some support group. “I have a rash behind my knees and keep tasting sardines long after I have eaten... could that be a debilitating disease?”
“Madame, I am no medical expert, I cannot comment on that at all... that’s not what I am talking about. I just mean that there are challenges that come along in life and it’s about taking hold of the moment... you need to drop everything and seize every opportunity that passes you by. That which does not kill me makes me stronger... and these are things that you must go after and pursue with all your might, even if you die trying.”
Tarko was now up on his feet. “Hang on... how could you die trying if this something that makes you stronger does not kill you?”
“Son, I hate to say this, but you may as well quit with all that because I don’t think you’re going to see it. I think you may be a lost cause, but it generally gives me pain to admit that... I am sorry.”
“Saying that was painful?”
“But it didn’t kill you?”
“No, obviously not.”
“So, I just made you stronger.”
“I guess you did.”
* * *
The car journey back to the factory began in silence. Tarko was still numb from the scale of hysterical stupidity he had just witnessed and Ferrome was still awestruck at once again having spent time in the aura of Saul Saloux.
Ferrome finally spoke. “Things are going to come of this.”
Tarko was not sure how to react to this. Was he destined to be reprimanded for questioning the wisdom of the great Saloux?
“So, what have you got to say about it?” prompted Ferrome.
Tarko did not feel comfortable admitting anything without talking to a solicitor, but these are hard to come by in a German sports cars.
“I just spoke what came into my mind,” volunteered Tarko.
“You got that too?” enthused Ferrome. “Just being in that room I had a load of stuff just popped into my brain. That guy is infectious.”
“Infectious is certainly heading in the right direction.”
“Like that thing with the monkey and the bones.”
“Was that in his Powerpoint? I must have missed that bit.”
“No, the film with the black bricky thing.”
“So, do you feel inspired now?”
“Well, he did say I was a lost cause.”
“Yeah, there was that, but he also said you had made him stronger.”
“I said that… and he was forced to agree.”
“There you go. Not many people can say they have strengthened Saloux.”
“No one has ever said that to me, I’ll admit.”
“Well whatever potential you have locked in there, we need to get it encouragised.”
Tarko winced at the fresh assault on his ears.
“Maybe I could be your banisters,” suggested Ferrome.
Tarko refrained from vomiting inside the car, as the cleaning bill for a Porsche was probably still beyond his means.
“You need to work for it though,” Ferrome continued. “When you get stuff just handed to you on a plate straight away then that’s never a good thing.”
“Quite good in the catering sector,” suggested Tarko.
“I am talking shoes. You and shoes.”
“As long as it’s not a pair of Fluffy Totters,” mumbled Tarko.
“With solid hard graft you could start right at the bottom rung and go anywhere you want.”
“Well if you’re on the bottom rung then the only way is up, surely?”
“That’s it! The only way is up! I think you’re really catching the vibe now.”
“When you say the bottom rung…”
“You need to get inside the shoes. You need to live and breathe and know everything that goes into their creation. I want you to see the life of a shoe and really become it.”
“Right, and so the top of the ladder would be?”
“If you go the distance and stick with us, I reckon…”
“You could easily end up assisting our marketing director or maybe even join the sales team.”
“When you look at all that I am and sum up my full potential… you think I could be… a salesman?”
“I’m making no promises, but just think of the possibilities.”
“Driving round the country selling children’s shoes?”
“Can you see it?”
“Oh, I can see it alright.”
“You can go home for the rest of the day, but be in at 8:30am sharp tomorrow.”
“We’re moving you to the machine room.”
Tarko and sleep occupied separate beds that night.
* * *
The women of the machine room who delicately wrenched animal hides into shoe shapes were reminiscent of a hen party that had spilled over into a slaughterhouse. For ‘hen’ read big, fat vulturous hen with a severe hormone imbalance; for ‘party,’ just think ‘zebra carcass.’
Tarko arrived amongst the were-hens and was immediately set upon with a barrage of innuendoes. No matter what the subject matter, everything became double entendre. ‘Clocking in,’ ‘Clocking off,’ ‘Waiting for the whistle,’ ‘Sending the next batch down the line’ — all were verbalised with a slimy and disturbing edge that made Tarko’s blood run cold.
The floor manager took Tarko over to a vicious looking machine with an even more vicious creature sitting behind it.
“This is Daisy, she’ll show you the ropes.”
Daisy sniggered at this and had to wipe the saliva off her lips. Tarko felt like a fly being introduced to a Venus flytrap. Daisy’s parents had obviously been thinking ‘flower’ when they named her, but Tarko was thinking large, bovine, eater of flowers.
The machine was a noisy torture device that seemed to have two invisible settings. Daisy would pick up a piece of sheepskin and run a shaved edge through the device. The edge emerged slightly softened and pliable, but, whenever Tarko attempted it, the machine would eat large chunks out of the hide and spit mangled fluff out of its rear.
Staring around the room, an army of people were moving in perfect rhythm with the machinery. It was hard to tell from a distance what were human limbs and what were pieces of machinery. The same thin layer of dust covered everyone and everything.
What people assumed was the rat race was in fact the rat knackers yard. There had to be a way to escape all this, but the likes of Saul Saloux only seemed to encouragise dead rats to feel good about themselves. If Tarko was to make something of himself then the solution logically must be within himself and no one else. From here on he would seek the counsel of no man and trust only his own instincts.
Tarko spent the rest of the day feeding various machines that ate shoe parts at an alarming rate. As lunchtime approached, Tarko fed another piece of material into another machine. It ate it.
“I…” said Tarko, giving the machine its next course.
Grind, whirr, splunch.
‘Where did we go wrong?’ pondered Tarko, feeling lost in the hypnotic percussion of perpetual motion hissing and clunking around him. The early ambassadors of technology had lied. The promise had always been that in the future technology would liberate mankind and bring forth uninterrupted leisure time for all. But those working with computers, the most advanced technology available, were also the ones who worked the longest hours and had no spare time.
Mankind had built machines that ate time. Physical machinery and also business systems and social constructs that consisted of many human cogs, all too intertwined within the workings to be able to stand back and appreciate the futility of the function they occupied.
Entire armies of humans grated themselves into the dust feeding the unceasing appetites of these gluttonous metal beasts. And instead of accepting this error and putting these ferocious dinosaurs to sleep, the solution that gained acceptance was to build bigger machines with bigger appetites, but the promise that these monolithic mouths could ever be satiated was a fatal deception.
The quicker you fed the machine, the more its appetite increased.
Daisy wandered back in at midday with a pile of chips in paper and began offering them to the rest of the squawking brood nearby.
“Ooh no,” screeched one, as if the chips were attacking her, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips!”
“You wouldn’t complain if it was a bloke though!” squealed Daisy. “A moment on your lips and a lifetime on your hips!”
Much cackling ensued.
“Loose lips sink ships,” mumbled Tarko in delirious exhaustion. He looked up at the trough of chips that seemed to be replenishing, despite the best efforts of Britain’s greatest chip removers.
Tarko sighed. “I put chips into my lips. Now my hips can sink ships.”
Over the other side of the machine room Jules Ferrome swaggered into the room like a noble squire doing his rounds among the proletariat.
“Bev’, what’s a bifocal groupie resocialiser?” squealed a woman across the dusty scene.
“A what?” screeched a reply from a machine, out of sight behind a pillar.
“Foamy reckons I might be one.”
They wouldn’t accept a resignation and if he did anything catastrophically sackable then he was likely to have one of these harpies drawing alongside him in order to refocalise him. The prospect made him shudder. Within these rules he was caught in an inescapable catch-22. It was time to re-write the rules.
“Stupid rules,” mumbled Tarko. Just because he had been a little choosy in his employers, now no one would employ him. “Stupid employers too. If I was a boss, I would hire me.”
This revelation hit Tarko so hard that he fed an entire piece of hide straight into the machine’s hungry jaws. It growled and breathed smoke at him in protest.
Tarko wrote out a small note saying ‘PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE MACHINE’ and leant it against the congested metal beast in front of him. Then he pulled off the dusty smock he had been given and picked up his jacket and marched towards the exit.
“Where are you off to hun?” squawked one of the buzzards.
“I have my own destiny in my own hands,” he replied as he walked out of the room.
“Ooh, you can always put it in my hands.”
The rest of the assembled roost all croaked in merriment at this.