About This Tale
A take on the horrors of being unemployed in this day and age; looked upon as a below second-class citizen, with no hope of redemption, doomed to sink further down, down, down into oblivion…
The room is dark. A stench of damp and something festering.
A cold light struggles to break the gloom in a thin line, like a suffocating horizon. I lift my head from the pillow and the world tilts back to its more regular form. The horizon is vertical now and I stretch out to pull back the curtain, helping the early morning light to win the battle. To say it floods my room would be an overstatement, but the grey day slowly meanders in and consumes me in it’s dully cold grip.
Walking, I imagine an armed force at my back, marching purposefully at my word. A suburban militia of my own design, in my image. False bravado fails as I open the door and I am greeted with the all too familiar sight of the security guard dressed in black. “I’m here to sign,” I almost say, handing over my little green card. “I’ll let them know, have a seat,” he might have replied.
I’m already off to examine the exciting opportunities on offer. The machines’ bright colours infect my eyes and I clutch them shut, unable to take in the information. Meat packer, warehouse man, IT Analyst. Not for me. I hear my name being called and I stumble into the inner world of officialdom, crossing the line into the main office where I feel on show to the world.
I glance around for a face, someone must be looking for me, drawing me in. A head bobs over the faux-glass panel and motions for me to come. I follow. A robot following a robot. The machines have taken over, in human form.
The questions roll off his tongue and I can predict them without thought. The pointlessness of it all amazes me and doesn’t surprise me at the exact same time. I stifle a laugh at the thought that my answers are just as predictable, just as boring to him. Process. That’s all this is. Procedure and necessity. Nobody deals in emotions anymore.
Something changed then. A brief flicker of the lights, or some unnoticed background noise suddenly cutting off to my ears. Perhaps an echo through space, a reverberation which altered everything I knew to be true. But what do I know? Just another statistic in an unemployment office on a Tuesday morning.
Was it Tuesday? Days of the week are meaningless to me by now. I find myself just saying the first one that comes to mind and assuming I’m right. Nobody ever bothers to question it. Maybe they just don’t give a shit either.
I imagine I’m far off, looking in. I’m sitting in that chair; following the routine I’d gone through 50, 100 times before. Never before had he looked at me with that blank expression, never before asked me these questions. How long have I been out of work, why did I think that was? Questions I wasn’t prepared to answer. In fact, questions I could have prepared for months to face up to and still come back with no response.
My mind wanders off into some long-winded mathematical complication, working out how many times we have been through this before. But then again, it’s primarily to ward off the immediate submission into a boredom-induced coma. Even so, this feels different. Is he saying different words now?
I’d have to speak with an advisor he was saying, it won’t take long but he thinks it will help me. I protest. Loud and abrupt and over the top and all in my head.
I’m following him now, going the back way he says, much easier, save the legs. He’s getting on. In his twilight years and it shows. This place saps the life out of a soul, and I’m impressed this old shell of a human man isn’t completely hollow yet. He leads me through security doors and down a corridor or two, it all blends into one in my brain. Up some stairs and more beige walls.
Security door. Walls. Security door. Walls.
We pass the main office, where I know the advisors dwell. I gawp through the glass in the door as we go by, wondering.
I don’t ask why we haven’t gone in. I’m too transfixed at being behind the curtain. Peering in from the other side. I can’t decide if it makes things more or less scary? Knowing there’s just corridors back here, normal bare bones, cream-coloured corridors, takes away from the dominant illusion in a way. It humanises them. Then I think of all the times I have sat in that room, being grilled under pressure. The advisors, as they call them, were not friendly beasts. They could take away your will to live if you gave them half a chance.
Down now. Down a stairwell so dilapidated I expect its going to bring me out into a bar cellar circa 1860. It doesn’t and I’m aware suddenly that this is not normal practice. Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to be led down a staircase into pitch black on the word of a stranger.
I think of Miss Jacobson, my first primary school teacher, telling me never to talk to strangers. I remember little me, in short shorts and a horrendous Dangermouse jumper, pointing out that she was in fact a stranger to me and that I was hereby ceasing communications until she could verify her identity. She thought I was too young to register her “Cheeky little shit,” comment she released under her breath. But I caught it. And I held it against her till the very end.
We arrive at a doorway in the dark. A pitch black rectangle framed in a golden light, which is intermittently interrupted by black shadow. Bright rays spill out of the keyhole, drowned out by the anonymous official’s frame as he steps forward and raps on the door three times. He turns to me, hands in pockets, a definition of unassuming. We wait.
“See the football last night?” he asks so unexpectedly I jump. “What football?” I reply. His expression is blank in the limited light, and I expect it would be blanker still if I got a good look at him. His shoulders shrug and I await words from this tortured soul, but none are forthcoming.
The door creeks open. A shadow has answered the call. Music emanates from the blindingly bright room beyond and I think of a doomsday choir, voiced by shadow people, signing the world unto its end. “Another one, pal?” the shape speaks. “All yours, friend,” my escort replies and blithely slopes back into the dark. The shadow beckons me into the light and every sinew in my body screams in unison, pulling me away from that door. But my head has come this far and won’t back off now. The unknown has never scared me as much as the known.
Stepping into the room I find myself surprised at its contents. It’s set-up is not unlike the offices upstairs, only this room has a very small waiting area, with space for maybe three people at a push. Advisor desks sit around the four walls, making it seem very square. It was excessively claustrophobic. A few members of staff mill about, looking busy. Genuinely busy? I doubt it but I admire their effort.
A sole customer sits in the waiting area, and you’ve never witnessed such a sullen face. Sunken eyes, hair thinning and barely hanging on to the scalp. He sits, hands in pockets. He’s wearing faded brown Nike’s, which might once have been white, and jeans that could have been patched together from the first batch Levi ever produced. His shirt is speckled with mud and various sweat patches.
I’m relieved when the shadow by the door turns out to be a middle-aged identikit of a civil servant. Although, his face is barely more expressive than the shadow had been. “Please, take a seat, we’ll only be a few moments,” he says with a smile that might as well be painted on. I sit in the waiting area, knowing that I’m not actually sitting.
Ol’ Sunken Eyes turns to me and offers a bag of open Haribo’s he has pulled from his grimy pocket. I shake my head “No” but feel myself reaching for a sweet. The guy smiles a toothless smile except I know that he doesn’t, not really. His presence feels unnatural, his very existence thrown into question by the fact that he exists. I look at him and right through him.
I stand, but my legs don’t stand with me. I tumble but I remain seated perfectly still. I imagine a thousand Uumpa-Loompahs, dressed in muddied Nikes and sweaty tee’s, loading a production line of jelly sweets with something far more sinister than a hallucinogen. Sunken Eyes is practically on top of me, his non-eyes staring deep into mine.
“We’ve lost him,” he calls out in a voice nothing like his own, and the ex-Shadow Servant rushes over, pulls out a little torch as if he’s genuine A&E doctor, and shines it over my eyeballs. It makes me blink furiously. My brain almost shuts down, eyes close to save themselves.
I’m in the trenches and bombs are raining down around me. French voices call out in the distance, mingling with the odd upper-class Englishman’s. With every booming blast I’m blinded by the brightest light and showered in mud, caking my hair, my lips, my eyes.
I struggle to keep them wide, catching glimpses of white shirts and too much movement for my slowing brain to unravel.
I smell the stench of death around me, of blood and thunder. Smoke and soft damp earth, thrown unnaturally far and wide.
I’m in primary school, Miss Jacobson is towering over me. Too tall. She’s growling, slobbering down on me. Her mouth twists and crawls across her face, dragging itself to the right, leaving a smear of lipstick as it goes.
Close. Open. I can’t tell which anymore.
I’m rising up. I feel gravity shift and my home slips away beneath me, but my feet remain planted firmly on solid ground. I feel alone now. Everything is darkening and nobody exists to tell me why.
Something is here with me. Surrounding me, circling. Above, and below. I close my eyes tight and think warm thoughts.
I’m all alone and something is with me.
The room is dark. A stench of damp and something festering.