I just discovered this sitting in my drafts… I thought I had posted it years ago. Oh well, better late than never…
This is something I wrote as a competition entry last year. The rules of the competion stipulated that the story had to contain the lines, “I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room.” Tricky! It didn’t get published in the competition, but here it is.
I dreamt milk had been de-invented. The weather was too tiny. After milk was de-invented, we had to re-invent some things in our lives. Then I woke up.
I took a glass of water and drank the water and it filled me up, I drank some more. You were somewhere in the big fluffy bright white bedsheets. I jumped on, landing with all my free lunch bellyweight. Found you, dug you out, gave you the kiss of life or just a kiss to say good morning.
“I dreamt milk had been de-invented…”
Neither of us knew what time it was, or wanted to look. We were anywhere. Zagreb. Cadiz. Minsk?
Another time – or place – I woke with the… thought… cupboards are to houses what pockets are to clothes! I wasn’t sure what anything meant. I had drooled in my sleep. It was another one of those times when you had come travelling with me. You were already sitting up in those big fluffy bright white bedsheets. You had made yourself a cup of tea.
FatHead was on television, saying something. He looked serious like a grown up, but he was talking like a child.
“I met him once.”
“Course you did,” you rolled your eyes. It wasn’t that you didn’t believe me. “You’ve met everyone.”
“I was at a conference in Hannover. I don’t know why he was there.” This was before FatHead was everywhere. Back then he had reputation, but no heft. “I went for a wee and suddenly there he was, standing at the next urinal along.”
You thought about this for a moment, like you were trying to picture the scene. You smiled, then stopped smiling.
“You should have just pissed on him.”
“That wouldn’t have been very diplomatic.”
“Yeah, well,” you finished off your tea. “Sometimes, fuck diplomacy.”
One of the other times or places I woke up with no idea of what I had been thinking about for the past seven hours. The world was blank with big grey clouds and black flattened text and you weren’t there. I didn’t get up or do anything or even think about anything for a while. Why did anything have to be anything? Outside the window of my room, the streets of Stockholm were filled with people going one way or another. But I didn’t know what any of them were thinking.
I awoke convinced I was being dreamt about – that I was the dreamee, not the dreamer.
I was in Zurich, attending a symposium, Fiscal Tenderness in Hyperbolic Times, and catching up with colleagues from Oslo and Dusseldorf. The subtext was – we had to be ready for FatHead and for anything FatHead might happen to think to do. There would be a need for careful handling of… well, everything. Including Peripheral Intangibles.
We were finished by late afternoon so Erland, Patrick and I went to a bar, where we drank beer and discussed Peripheral Intangibles until we didn’t, then we just talked about the kind of lives we lived – moving superfast around the continent, keeping everything lined up.
It started raining – good, hard European rain, the kind that bounces back up off the stones in well-appointed town squares. I held my briefcase over my head and splashed through the puddles to a phone box. I dialled our number.
“I love you,” I said, before I could say anything else.
You sounded like you had just woken you up. It was only early evening. “Love you too. Listen…” you said. I listened. I listened to the sound of the pause on the phone line. “I’m pregnant,” you said.
A thunderstorm had gone missing somewhere over the Atlantic, just disappeared. “It was supposed to rain in the night,” I told you, struggling to open my eyes. “It must have missed the boat.”
I was home for once, waking up in our bed with the birds singing outside the window and the beams of light hitting the walls of the room exactly in the spots I knew they should.
You snuggled into me. I put a hand on your belly.
“I wish I could stay here with you, like this, all day.”
“Yes,” you said. “You should. That is what you should do. You should do that.”
“I would,” I said. “That is what I would do. I would do that.” But I had to be in Manchester by brunchtime. “I’m so sorry. Really. Really I am. So much.”
“A continent to keep on the straight and narrow. My hero.”
The line Manchester-Glasgow was my watch, when it came to Peripheral Intangibles. Everything had to balance with everything else. Fernando worked Lisbon-Madrid. I knew he liked to sample local cuisine, so I agreed to meet him in the centre of Manchester and took him to a greasy spoon that served something called the Double-Jumbo Fullest Full English.
While we ate, we discussed FatHead, of course, because everyone was talking about FatHead then. He was unignorable. Our world, that of Peripheral Intangibles, was alien to him. If he had even been aware of our work, he still wouldn’t understand a damn thing about what we did. But whilst there was a compulsion to talk about FatHead, there was little to say – he was a blunt object. Blunt objects could do a lot of damage.
After we finished eating, Fernando brought out his map and I took out a pack of cards and some dice. The map had all the points marked on it and all the main lines that connected them – your London-Manchester-Glasgow, your Manchester-Dublin-Glasgow, your Porto-Lisbon-Madrid, your Madrid-Toulouse-Paris-Brussels-Hanover-Berlin-Warsaw-Minsk-Moscow, and so on. They were all thick, black, straight lines. But there were also subsidiary lines, thin blue ones that arced across the map and joined the main lines to other main lines. Lisbon-Madrid—Manchester-Glasgow.
“Ok,” I said, shuffling the pack. “Let’s get going.” I rolled the dice, picked a card. “Twenty three. Athens. Eight of diamonds.”
Fernando marked the map.
“Seven. Warsaw. Jack of Clubs. Fourteen. Kiev. Nine of hearts…”
On we went until the pack was spent.
I would submit the co-ordinates to HQ. Fernando took a stack of reports from his briefcase and handed them across. I clicked through the pages, checked my count against the numbers he plugged into his calculator.
“So, where next?”
“Dublin. Reykjavik. You?”
I rode trains, flashing through fields, forests, seas, fleeting ideas of places where things might grow or live or float, but which passed past too fast to become proper, physical realities. Which of us could explain exactly how to grow which things in the fields, or even which questions to ask about how the seas should be run?
Peripheral Intangibles were all around us. They floated or tinkled or scrabbled just… out of reach of our senses. Only through careful nurture of the network could they be brought under any measure of control. Then there were Abstract Permutations to think about. Invisible Discrepancies. Tangential Deficiencies. Superficial Inconsistencies. All of these subtleties required constant minor adjustments.
They were like marbles laid out on a table, all rolling around in different directions and it was our job to keep everything balanced, to keep all those marbles on the table.
Antal, an old friend, was in Rotterdam, cross-referencing some situation. We found gaps in our schedules and arranged to catch up.
I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. The multiverse looked back at us from every angle. In each one we ordered moules frites and beer and I told him:
“Wow. Congratulations.” His hand was covered in chip grease, but that was ok, mine was too. “Did you find out the sex?”
“No. I mean, we did,” I said. “But then I forgot. I was in Luxembourg.”
“No. No, it was clear. I heard what she said.” I sighed. “I just can’t remember. I keep trying to think what her voice sounded like when she told me – I thought if I could conjure that up, I might be able to hear the words, in my head. But. No.”
There was something about that restaurant. It was on a line between two points, but it felt like an ending.
Antal had worked the Peripheral Intangibles on the Budapest-Sarajevo line for twelve years until he was headhunted by Inscrutable Complexities. Those were beyond my understanding. What I’m trying to say is, he was much smarter than I was.
“Can you feel that?” said Antal.
“Yeah.” There was nothing to feel, but we both knew it was there.
We ordered more beers and a big slab of chocolate gateaux each. The desserts came topped with huge scoops of salted caramel ice-cream.
It was mid-afternoon and there was no one else in the restaurant. We both bent low over our desserts, aiming at losing as little food as possible between plate and mouth.
Alone, and so close that no one else could possibly have heard anything we said, I thought he was going to let me in on a secret. Maybe in the world of Inscrutable Complexities they had a plan for how to deal with FatHead.
“I met him once,” I said. “At a urinal?”
“Who?” said Antal. We hadn’t been talking about FatHead, I had just got confused because FatHead occupied so much of my time and thought.
“FatHead.” I said. Who else should I have been talking about?
“FatHead. FatHead.” He shook his head.
He bent back down to his gateaux and I watched his eyes, watched for a flicker. At that point, I still thought Antal might have all the answers. If there was hope – hope for the continent, hope for its future, hope for my son or my daughter – it was in Inscrutable Complexities. I wanted something that would tell me they were on to FatHead, that they had a plan to bring him down. But Antal was inscrutable, complex.
“I never met him,” he said when he had finished his mouthful.
“Who?” I asked.
“FatHead. What did you do when you met him at the urinal?”
“Nothing? What would you do if you’d known? If you’d known what he would become? Maybe you would have pissed on him.”
“It wouldn’t have changed anything,” I pointed out.
“No,” Antal conceded. “It wouldn’t have changed a thing. But you might feel a bit better now.”
In all the mirrors around the room all the myselves and all the Antals smiled.
I woke again. The bed was covered in salt-sweat, like some kind of mermaid exorcism had taken place. I scrabbled to the surface of the big fluffy bright white bedsheets. This was far away from where you were, wherever I was. I think it was Prague.
My dreams had been tense and furious.
I had seen the demise of FatHead, his power systematically dismantled by his enemies – shadowy forces, maybe they represented Antal and his cronies. But that was too simple – even my sleeping brain understood that. It understood a bargain had to be struck. For the cruel twist in that dream, the part that had made me writhe and sweat, was the hollow revelation that it was all nonsense – Peripheral Intangibles, Abstract Permutations, Inscrutable Complexities. Complete nonsense. None of it existed. I burnt with panic, shame, futility.
But would I take that? Would I have accepted that bargain?
I cast around for the remote control, pressed the on button and waited for the television to get started, wondering what reality was going to look like that morning.