The office is filled with the frenetic, glazed yawn of over active, coffee breath, hot air and babble. His colleagues tap and click at their arbitrary moving targets, adding to the great noise of statements, stats and figures to be devoured by the collective, chewed over and spat out before being dissected, cut up with a blunt scalpel. The pieces shared out again to be re-crunched and punched back into machines, filling databases and minds. People hurried by with papers and iPads, phones pressed to ears and pressing matters to discuss. He watched from another state of mind, adrift from the collective and out of kilter with accepted, normal behavior that seemed like a madness, a shared illusion of importance, a conspiracy of denial holding together a thin fiction that what everyone was doing had value, a purpose that validated their existence. He simply did not have the energy to pretend and could not bring himself to add to the noise. It all seemed so futile, so inconsequential. Struggling to keep his mask of professionalism in place he sits to one side hoping to remain unnoticed. But the mask keeps slipping to revel a face full of worry and confusion, lacking in care for anything that is going on in this, his place of work.
There was no joy to be found in the usual banter and jibes. One-upmanship was getting him down, he was in no condition to compete. He attempts not to show any weakness to the circling jackals, who with hackles raised sniff out the runt. But it was all just a bit of a laugh wasn’t it? ‘What were you thinking when you bought that shirt?’, ‘Hairs thinning a bit there’, ‘Belly, belly, belly’, ‘Don’t shit yourself, have another drink lad’, ‘There’s more fish in the sea’. Bubbles rise from the water cooler with a gurgle and pop. He is slapped on the back ‘Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey’. A thumb jabbed in his direction ‘Captain Useless day dreaming again’, a snigger and something he did not quite hear. The bosses frown, account assistants glare. Her flawless skin, his ‘stacked’ upper body. Their laughter strengthening bonds and pushing him further from the collective warmth. The grey dollop and slop of the works canteen, the clatter of knives the sharpening of tongues. Shards of crockery fly, the shrapnel from storms in tea cups. The troops ready themselves with caffeine twitches, bags packed under eyes, red furtive eyes and smiles masking bruised egos, wounded pried bandaged with booze leaning on the crutch of a crafty fag around the back. He pushes away his limp sandwich and walks out into the bright winter sunlight.
The sun bleaches frosted roofs and steam rises from pipes. He draws his coat around himself , feeling the air nip at his toes. He turns right as left does not feel ‘right’. What lies to the right seems warmer, friendly and less hostile somehow like the trees open up their arms and smile. A woman pulls a green checked tartan shopping basket bursting with the weekly shop. Bread, milk, pickles, lemon curd, tea bags, smoked kippers and a little chocolate ‘treat’. It careers crazily over cracked paving slabs broken by roots, burst pipes and vibrations from the HGVs that really should not be rumbling down this town house lined, zone one street. The woman mutters through clacking dentures, her soft, cracked leather face a jumble of ticks and creases.
He walks on passed the newsagents and launderette the sanctuary of warm washing powder air beckoning him in, if only he had some dirty washing he could sit for a guilt free hour watching socks, pants, jumper and jeans tumble over each other, the grubby, stains washed away in a foaming, scented broth. Then at the end of the cycle remove them, heavy and clean to spin then tumble dry, falling over one and other in a joyous dance of cleanliness. He had plenty of dirty clothes but they were at home strewn across his bedroom floor and not with him. He turned the corner, a waft of beer and soup drifts from the opened pub door. The warmth of the fruit machines dancing lights, the clink of glasses and a trickle of laughter. He really should be heading back to work for the weekly planning meeting, another hour of doodling and jaw drooling, glaze eyed tedium. A quick half would soften the blow, a pint would fuzzy up the edges, blunt the angles and enable a gentle doze. There was little reward for turning up sober and paying attention like a good boy. The self satisfied egos needed an audience to witness their wit and intellect. The structure required its masters and servants to give and receive instruction. Without Deadlines, Action points and goals how can you measure performance? He yawned and unable to convince his body to spin on heal and return to work he enters the pub. It is an old, damp, warm armpit of a place. Familiar as any traditional bar with no sparkle or surprise but he fizzed with the excitement of a truant school boy as he ordered a pint of bitter and a whiskey chaser. The scotch rich and firey on his tongue and vicious in his gut, radiated a glow insulating him from insult and injury. He was in the land of ‘give a shit?’ and craved some company. He scans the bar in search of a viable companion. The Old man at the seat across from him mutters something. He looks into his eyes and sees a need that mirrors his own. Emboldened by the beverages that he has just imbibed he offers an opening for conversation not the classic ‘weather’ opener but the tried and tested ‘Did you see the game last night?’ usually reliable to elicit something from an old bloke unless he was one of those rare breeds that did not enjoy the spectacle of eleven blokes attempting to hit a ball between two sticks with their feet.
‘Yeah’ Its a sort of grunt come grown of a response from the Old man who was not expecting to have to speak, his vocal cords were not warmed up. The word cracked in his throat and backfired. He tires again: ‘It was bloody awfu…..’ too much, a cough snaps of the end of his sentence, the excitement of communication forcing convulsions upon him. He recovers himself drawing a handkerchief from his pocket he shakes away the fluff before wiping away the sputum. The younger man looks as if he is about to speak but the Old man is not finished. He wags his finger in the air and bobs his head up and down getting a run up for the next sentence. He was ready for this one. ‘Is Torres ever going to find his shooting boots? Thirty Five Million quid, I wouldn’t give you Thirty Five pennies’. He nearly blows it at the end over excited at his little quip but manages to stifle the coughing with a soundless shaking of his chest and slight watering of the eyes.
‘I missed it. I was out with the misses’
‘You didn’t miss much’ They both chew the air and look around the bar for something to comment on. ‘You on your lunch break?’
‘Yeah, can’t be arsed to go back though. Bloody hate Mondays’
‘All days are pretty much the same for me now. Its up to me what I do.’
‘What did you do for a living then, before you retired?’
‘This and that, I was a salesman for a bit and an accountant’. An accountant what could one ask an accountant about? He rolled the remainder of his pint around the bottom of his glass. The Old man sensed he was loosing him so took a risk and opened up a bit.
‘…but what I always really wanted to do was write. That was my real passion.’
‘Oh yeah? What kind of stuff’
‘Fiction some semi-autobiographical stuff. Observations from life around me. Love, loss, philosophical ramblings about destiny, self determination, choices, why do we do what we do and how much control do we have over our lives…’ He is caught on the wave of enthusiasm being able to talk about his passion. People usually glazed over or made their excuses and left at this point. He remembered himself ‘…nonsense really’
‘I don’t know, sounds interesting.’ He lent forward urging the old man on. ‘Ever get anything published?’
‘Sort of, sort of…’ He tails off
‘How can you “sort of” get something published?’
‘Its a bit complicated.’
‘Well I’ll get us a couple of pints and you can explain it to me if you like.’
‘Well err’ the old man looked about him patting the few coins in his pockets.
‘Don’t worry about that, my treat’. The young man smiled and headed for the bar.
He sipped the creamy head of his of fresh pint then as he opened the crinkly silver wrapping of a packet of salted nuts: ‘Go on then, tell me about this sort of publication’ He began munching on a handful chewing them into a salty paste, a crumb bobbing up and down on his jaw next to a fleck of blue from the packet.
‘Thing is, I wrote a story and lost it, misplaced the notebook. It was quite short but, it was good, really good. The best thing that I had ever written and I wrote it all in six days. Imagine that a whole book written in just six days. It was so real and captured something that I had been trying to get down on paper for a long time but I couldn’t find the right vessel, if you understand what I mean. Then something happened to me, I wrote about it and there it was. A kind of eureka moment’
‘What happened?’ he gulps down a swig of ale washing the salty paste that covered his gums and teeth down his throat beyond where he could still taste it. He pushed what remained around his gums with his tongue whilst reaching into the bag for more nuts. The Old man was staring into the middle distance. ‘What was the thing that happened that inspired you?’ he asked again.
The Old man turned almost surprised to see him still sitting there.
‘I…. don’t, you know it’s hard to explain, you would probably think I was crazy if I….’ he looks deep into his pint, the soft frothy bubbles breaking at the sides of the glass, turning slowly on mass, colliding, popping, breaking and new shapes forming, swirling around and around instantly familiar but never the same. ‘So I was at the theater one night with the girlfriend and we were watching this play and well it was my story from the notebook that I had lost. Can you believe it? Some of the detail had changed but essentially it was the same. I didn’t know what to do. They took my words and twisted them and changed their meaning but it was still my play, you understand? Still my story. I wrote it you see and they stole it and now some one out there is getting all the recognition, the fame, the money, the fancy restaurants and what do I get? A bastard soggy chip butty. Tears welled in his eyes, his jowls shook. The old man took a drink and a moment to steady himself. ‘Then she left and there was the accident and this and that and …I’m broken son, I haven’t got the energy any more, ain’t got the power, just ain’t got the power!’
He had stopped chewing, his jawing hanging slack with tongue resting on one side of his mouth. He stares at the old man from under a furrowed brow. His mind racing trying to put what the Old man said into context. The fruit machine jingle kicks in, sequential lights flowing up and down it’s angled face. The wheels spin back and forth in counter directional rotations. One stops and clicks back two places then the next stops and moves forward one. Lemons and bells aligning, strawberry two barr, no three barr makes the three a sentence of icons ordered for a moment before flashing and spinning on again. The old man chuckles, laughs then starts to hack, phlegm cracking coughs that he cannot stifle. He sucks in a lungful of air during a lull in the fit. The fruit machine jingle plays again, the old man coughs, the wheels spin.
‘Can I get you some water?’ the Old man waves the offer away and reaches into his pocket for his nose rag. Is he laughing or coughing, his body shakes, the jingle plays again. ‘I’m going to the loo, will you be…’ The old man waves him away nodding, coughing, laughing with his handkerchief pressed to his mouth, his red rimmed eyes filled deep with salty tears about to spill.
The flat white light of the toilet buzzes and crackles in a noisy silence. He unzips his trousers and points at the anti-bacterial chunk that rests against the drain. Armatage Shanks white porcelain waits for his splash and jet but nothing comes. His abdominal muscles tense, his guts knotted filled with salty nuts and beer that has mixed to a slow nervous sludge that slops and curdles but will not flow. The pipes gurgle and there is a rush of automatic flush that makes him jump back his penis hanging limp from his flies, resting uncomfortably on the cold snagging metal teeth of his zip. His moth moistens, a lubricating fluid oozes preparing his throat for the smoother glide of chunks. He rushes into the cubicle on weak legs the door, banging back hits him in the side as he drops to his knees on piss soaked, damp toilet roll littered floor and vomits into the shit stained bowel.
It is sometime before he feels ready to return to the bar and when he does he finds that the Old man has gone but left a note with a phone number ‘Thanks for the drink – call me and I’ll return the favor’.
She takes the tube to work as usual looking at the adverts above the heads of those lucky enough to get a seat. Lucky enough so that each time the tube lurches and jolts they do not have another’s hot, odorous body thrust against them. The advert above a particularly overweight and inactive looking passenger is a soft drink advert asking ‘Is your life an exciting journey or a voyage of discovery? Seize the moment, drink the moment!’ She mulls the advert over entertaining a moment of cynicism that seems to fit her Monday morning mood. She struggles to read the paper holding it up with one arm and holding onto the bar to steady herself with the other. The paper brushes against a man’s back it is probably irritating him. A theater review catches her attention.
The Final Curtain – reviewBy Carl Peters
Phil Farris’s Kafkaesque, nightmare follows an ordinary man to a theater performance where his life and potentially fatal road traffic accident is portrayed on stage. He then spends the rest of the play struggling to keep a grip on his sanity, save his already ailing relationship with his long term girlfriend and trying to avoid the fate that has apparently been written for him in the play.
It is a complex staging that includes performers mingling with the audience in the foyer, Note books left in the toilets and a Play with-in the Play itself. Does Farris pull it off? The answer is: barley, it is as confusing for the audience to follow as it is for the main character to deal with. We are left unsure as to what is actually happening, what is occurring in the play with-in the play and what is all in the main character’s imagination. Weather this is intentional or not is unclear but I for one found the effort of concentration detracted from my being able to enjoy the performance. That said some audiences enjoy being challenged and this is certainly one for them.
A seat becomes available halfway down the carriage. She tiptoes between brogues, trainers and high heeled feet brushing bags and umbrellas damp with a perspiration of rain. She drops down bum first into the broken spring seat then pulls her coat out from where it is creased uncomfortably under her thigh and finds where she left off in the review that she had been reading.
It is her stop. She throws the paper on to the seat behind her as she rises and with an ‘Excuse me’ and a ‘Sorry’ or two she exits the carriage and joins the throng of bumping suits, bags and half sleeping bodies up the exit stairs.
* * * * *
It seemed like a dream now, his conversation with the Old man. Thinking about it made the floor seem unsteady. His pillars of reason greased up with doubt as reality slipped away from him. He had lost his composure, panicked on hearing the tale about a story written, lost and witnessed on stage. Thinking on it now caused his breathing to become shallow as he struggled to reach the conclusion of one thought before the next jumbled up and jolting idea pushed it from his grasp. He attempted to untangle their experiences, lay them all out on a time line. The Old man had written what he understood to be a semi-autobiographical piece in a notebook which he then lost. Sometime later the Old man visits the theater and sees his story, events from his life on stage. His notebook must have been found and turned into a play. He, the younger man, had also visited the theater and seen the Play depicting events from his life. Not only did the too men share very similar experiences during their lives but the also shared the experience of seeing them on stage. The coincidences now piled so high that their credibility did not stack up. The story wobbled precariously, about to topple. He did not believe in his own version of events, did not trust his own perception of reality. Suspending, disbelief for a moment he thought on: if the two men did share the same experiences then he must survive the car crash at the end of the Play as the Old man was living proof of that. But if the story was autobiographical how could it also be about him? He reads from the play making notes in the margin: dates, times and places. The ‘when’ and the ‘where’ trying to verify his facts, prove or disprove the theory but there was not enough information there. Looking back at the notes he had made days ago he struggled to decipher his hurried misspelled writing lacking punctuation or any coherent linear idea. He read on in the manuscript of the Play, into a future that described a party, arguments, a meeting in the cafe and then the accident. Could he change it? Whatever the Play stated would happen next he must avoid, change the pattern and derail the chain of events. Logic and reason were no allies at the moment so plan ‘B’: Run away, catch a plane to somewhere, anywhere and start a new life. He could not suffer under twisted metal in the road outside a cafe in London if he was lying on a beach in California. His bones could not be broken on the city’s cold hard tarmac if they were resting on a soft golden sandy beach. He would create his own destiny assert control and write his own future.
He grabbed a bag from the top of his wardrobe and began stuffing in t-shirts, pants and socks. He knocked shirts back and forth before selecting three, yanking each one off it’s hanger. He would not suffer the destiny that the play had written for him. He would be the author of his own life. He could start again, new job, new city, new country. He pulled open his bed side draw and dug deep into unopened post, pocket change, condoms and magazines before pulling out his passport. There was nothing keeping him hear, nothing to stop him changing his whole life on the turn of a penny. Pack a bag, buy a flight on the credit card and go. Leave the debts, the job, the miserable grey skies and live another life. He could be somewhere else, anywhere else. Then the phone rings, it is her.