Portable Curiosities (4 page)

BOOK: Portable Curiosities
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‘Given the suffering that appears to be inherent in your line of work, why did you choose to fulfil that initial prediction at birth that you would become a satirist?'

‘I wouldn't say it was a choice.'

‘Well then, when did you realise you were one?'

The satirist falls silent. She looks out towards the back of the function room, searching the past.

‘You know what?' she says, finally. ‘The moment one stops crying and begins to laugh that hard, dark laugh is the moment a satirist is truly born. For some it takes an intimate betrayal, an unjust death, even a full-blown war. It's always the idealist who falls furthest from the state of grace, the one whose pen turns from a long-stemmed rose into a polished blade.'

The interviewer sighs. ‘And on that positive note,' she says, ‘let me open the floor to questions.'

The tweed man gets up from his seat.

He strides over to a microphone in the aisle.

He smiles.

‘Your prophecy states that satire will end,' he says. ‘That the last satirist, wanted by many, will surrender, marking the end of true civilisation. Do you consider yourself to be the last satirist?'

‘I would hope not.' The satirist's cackle, low and hoarse, cuts through the room. ‘Although it's quite possible that I no longer have a function in this society. That in a society beyond satire, my existence is entirely irrelevant. It's possible I'm no longer considered such a threat.'

‘To whom will the last satirist surrender?' asks the interviewer. ‘The secret police?'

‘It's a puzzle yet to be solved. But if I were indeed the last satirist, and if an end really were approaching, wouldn't it be curious if, out of the blue, after all these years in the wilderness, I received an anonymous invitation to a series called End Game, a private farce designed as a ruse to lure me out of hiding. Wouldn't it be fascinating if someone with a unique sense of humour decided to arrange one last interview for me, to be given unwittingly to an audience of actors. Someone who enjoys elaborate schemes has brought me here. Someone who wants to tease me with the prospect of one last captive audience, who desperately needs to indulge in the thrill of the chase, to watch me wriggle in the trap. A hunter raising his rifle. A clear shot ringing through the air.'

‘Why might one accept such an invitation? Could this be interpreted as surrender?'

‘A satirist never surrenders: she only makes practical decisions. Perhaps she wanted to stay in a nice hotel room, to order an all-day breakfast from room service one last time. She might have been seeking the perfect ending to her own story, and the opportunity might have presented itself in an envelope bearing the seal of Curiosity Inn. After all, the life of a satirist must be as tragic as her satire, don't you agree? Her end must be a perfect joke.'

*

‘Ma'am, room service.'

She reties her robe and opens the door. A young man in uniform stands in front of her, carrying a tray.

‘Courtesy of the gentleman in Room 846.'

He walks briskly over to the table by the window, and sets the tray down.

‘Is there anything else I can do for you, ma'am?'

‘That's all, thank you.'

She watches him leave.

She lifts the silver cover. Underneath is a white plate loaded with bacon, poached eggs, mini sausages, hash browns and toast, all topped with a sprig of parsley.

A note is tucked under the plate. In immaculate copperplate handwriting, it says:

A last supper and last prediction.
You will come of your own free will.

She pulls open the paper flaps on a packet of butter, takes a knife and begins to spread the butter over the toast. She cuts everything on the plate into small pieces, watching the yolks spill out of the eggs. She begins to eat. She crunches on a bit of bacon, chews on a bit of sausage.

She lays the note out in front of the plate and eats, reading and rereading it. She works through everything on the plate, leaving the hash browns until last.

Stomach full, she sits back and watches the sun set over the motorway.

She leaves her tray out for collection. The young man is waiting cross-legged on the hallway carpet, reading the
Prophecy.

*

A fire alarm rattles in her ears.

She squints at the bedside clock. Past midnight.

She finds her robe and swipe card, and wheels herself out of the room.

It seems everyone on the floor has left before her. The lifts are out of the question. She opens the door to the fire escape and peers in.

A boisterous line of Curiosities is making its way down the stairs. Still in their white nappies, they throw their arms over each other and laugh. A woman is scatting. Another backflips down the steps. A man with a moustache and creaky limbs dances the flamenco, clicking his fingers and tapping his feet as he descends.

There is nothing she can do but wait and watch.

One of the Curiosities, the man with the sickly white skin and wasted muscles, stops to consider the satirist and her wheelchair.

‘I'm of no use,' she says. ‘There's no reason to save me.'

‘Why would you assume I want to save you?' he says.

‘Right.'

He shakes his head and giggles. ‘I've never met anyone so fatalistic.'

He pulls her onto his back and adjusts to her weight. He plods down the stairs, one landing after another.

‘You were in the exhibition,' she says. ‘Who are you?'

‘I'm the last glass artist in the world.'

After a few flights, he stops, wheezing, and sets her down.

‘I can't go on,' he says. ‘We'll have to leave you here to die.'

‘Fine.'

He giggles again. ‘I've never met anyone so gullible.'

A stout woman ambles down and hoists the satirist up over one shoulder as if it's no big deal.

‘This is the last potter,' says the glass artist.

The potter continues down the steps like clockwork, turning abruptly at the end of each flight.

At the bottom of the stairs, they push through the final exit onto the street. The Curiosities gather in groups, chatting and ignoring the cold. There are more of them than she thought: perhaps fifty or so. One has brought the satirist's wheelchair, and helps her into it. They all introduce themselves and shake her hand – everyone except the Asian lady, who stands apart, staring into the distance.

‘That's the last performance artist,' says the potter. ‘She's exploring internal energy this year, so she has a policy in place of no bodily contact. We think she might actually be crazy.'

The last historian – the one with the white beard – asks the satirist if she is the author of
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
. ‘We heard she's visiting. But it's hard to know what she currently looks like.'

‘Never heard of her, or the book,' she says.

‘It's only the greatest satire ever written,' says the glass artist. ‘Through it, I peered into a new universe.'

‘It's true,' says the last abstract painter. ‘The satirist rises and the rest of us follow.'

The concierge emerges from the hotel. He apologises for the false alarm and announces it is safe for guests and exhibits to return.

The Curiosities turn towards the open door of the hotel.

‘Where are you going?' asks the satirist. ‘Can't you escape?'

‘We're stateless,' says the glass artist. ‘We're possessions, not people.'

‘Surely you can hide.'

The historian shrugs.

‘We're perfectly content in our cells. There aren't any locks. We're no longer dangers to society, just a collective warning about wayward irrelevance. No one bothers us. We're fed and clothed. In the back panels of our boxes, we each have a mat for sleeping, a hose for washing, and a hole for shitting. In exchange for participating in our own public ridicule, we can practise our respective disciplines.'

The satirist frowns. ‘A terrible compromise.'

‘One doesn't always receive the type of freedom one expects,' says the glass artist. ‘The
Prophecy
I spoke of predicted our freak show, but what it didn't foresee was that the landscapes of our minds would continue to flourish. Mighty glass oceans, darting glass clownfish, swaying glass sea anemones. A glass ship that sails forever towards the horizon. My prison is my patron.'

*

The satirist applies another gel sheet to the wound on her chest.

She winds fresh bandages around her torso.

She moves out of the bathroom and over to her bag. She feels around for her best dress and puts it on.

She picks up the phone.

‘Room 846, please.'

‘Yes, ma'am. Please hold the line.'

He answers.

She clears her throat.

‘You are the last collector.'

‘I am.'

‘And I am the last satirist.'

‘You are. The final piece in the set.'

‘Well, then,' she says. ‘Come and collect me.'

She looks into the mirror and chuckles at the thought of a satirist who no longer rises but only rotates – a pig on a vertical spit.

Her laughter rings out, high-pitched and clear, like that of a small child.

Civility Place

Breakfast is last night's leftovers.

You leave your plate in the sink and splash water over it. You brush your teeth. You rub gel between your palms, work it through your hair, and use a comb to arrange a neat side part. You cut Friday's dry-cleaning tags off your suit. You straighten your tie. You pick up your bag, sling it over your shoulder and walk to the train station.

Thirty seconds after you arrive on the platform and walk to the point where you know the first door of the first carriage will open, the train arrives.

You're on your way to work.

The entrance to the tower comprises six revolving glass doors. Their action reminds you of hand-cranked egg beaters, or one of those spy films where the hero is stuck in a tunnel in his battered suit, pitted against wind and gravity and tonnes of water that are bearing down on him and forcing him closer and closer to a giant fan with rotating blades.

You can feel the egg-beater fans sucking you in.

Whump, whump, whump.

You look up for a second at the tower looming above you. It's so tall that you can't see where it stops and the sky begins.

You steel yourself and walk in, preparing to be served as suggested – beaten or chopped.

On the front desk in the foyer stands, as usual, an extravagant floral arrangement. Today it's an immense concoction of birds of paradise.

‘Welcome to Civility Place,' grins the concierge, who is standing to one side of the flowers.

‘Hi, Serge.'

As usual, you stop to ask after his motorcycle.

He once showed it off to you at the end of his shift. As it gleamed in the artificial light of the car park, he told you how he often took it on holidays up the coast to a little shack that looked out over the ocean, and how he was planning to ride it overseas one day – maybe around Japan.

Serge smiles when you enquire after the bike's health. He says it is well. He is, however, thinking of selling the bike. He wants one that's just a bit shinier and louder. The head of the tower's security team has hinted to him that a promotion might be on the cards if Serge continues to demonstrate outstanding commitment to his role. A promotion would give him some extra cash for a new machine.

‘Wow, that's great,' you say.

‘Thanks, I reckon it's almost in the bag,' says Serge. He nods to others passing by. ‘Welcome to Civility Place,' he says, giving them the friendly grin of recognition you had thought was reserved for you alone.

The lift greets you good morning in a recorded female voice, smooth and mature.

Beth from Banking steps in and greets you too. She has a voice similar to the recorded female voice. You wonder if she could simultaneously be a lawyer in your building and the smooth-voiced woman trapped in the walls of the lift.

You are close enough to Beth from Banking to be able to smell her shampoo and whatever expensive scent she has on. As you inhale, you look at her pearl earrings and down at the spikes of her patent black heels, which have those red undersides you noticed once in a training seminar when she crossed her legs and arranged her impossibly straight chestnut hair.

Beth from Banking is a woman made for this building.

The glass of this place is in her DNA.

The lift zooms into the sky.

They say these lifts are the fastest in the country. They're not as fast as they used to be, though. Rumour has it that they had to be slowed down because some chump couldn't cope with the speed and threw up all over the lift buttons.

The entire building, including the lifts, is made of glass. The internal walls are glass, the conference tables are glass, and the desks, doors and shelves are glass.

Even the floors and ceilings are made of glass, and there is an unspoken but unpoliced rule that one must never look up the skirts of the women on the floors above.

You've been told that a middle-aged woman was once found wedged in one of the glass ceilings, her legs hanging down into the lower floor, still in motion as if walking, and the top half of her engrossed in flicking through a file. She licked the tip of her index finger intermittently as she read, unaware of the consternation surrounding her. No one knew how she got there, and the resulting rescue services bill was enormous.

As you are taken up to Level 403, you see the surrounding city. All roads lead to this tower, and all the buildings look as if they were forced to part to accommodate this monolith as it erupted from the ground.

The lift announces your level and you step out. As levels go, it's not a very prestigious one. Your team has a reputation for bringing in less money than others, hence its relegation to this floor, where a view of the outside world is only possible when the whole level isn't engulfed by clouds.

They say that on Level 1200, at the very top of Civility Place, one is able to dictate letters to clients while looking across into the infinite blue and down onto rolling carpets of clouds as if one is God. No one you've spoken to has ever been to Level 1200 but they all suggest that to arrive at that point in your career, you would have to have parted ways with your soul.

You walk through the automatic sliding doors and past the kitchen. Two secretaries are discussing hypo-allergenic varieties of lip balm while hovering over the daily fruit box. You excuse yourself, reaching between them to take a banana.

This would never happen on the higher levels. You don't know what it's like on Level 1200, but you've heard that on Level 1199 the secretaries never utter a word. They don't even arch their eyebrows so as not to cause any disturbances to the flow of the rarefied air.

The day at work begins like any other. Perhaps the air conditioning has been set one or two degrees colder than usual, but otherwise everything is normal.

You settle into your death chair. You call it this because – although it's handsome and designer – it will eventually kill you: first by weakening your spine and then by rolling its five vengeful chrome wheels in starfish formation over your vital organs.

You start up your computer and open your inbox.

A query from a prospective client awaits you, as well as thirteen replies from existing clients concerning urgent matters. There's a joke email about metaphorical flying hippos, forwarded to you by a friend you've been trying to shake. Another chain email appears, courtesy of your aunt, which describes the wonders of a Mayan superfood that can make your hair sprout faster in all the right places and reduce your risk of oesophageal cancer by 43.8 per cent.

You open the firm's time and billing software.

You've already wasted one six-minute unit of billable time imagining a giant hippo falling from the sky onto your unwanted friend, and another two units wondering how the Mayan superfood is able to distinguish between right and wrong places for aggressive hair growth.

You record these three units of time to Office Administration and forward the prospective client's email to your secretary, Mona, asking for a conflict check.

You want to focus like you usually do but somehow you can't. You stare at your computer screen and nothing registers. The words begin to float and rearrange themselves.

Through the multiple glass walls that separate you from the outer offices, you watch two window cleaners hanging in harnesses on the outside of the building, drawing squeegees across the windows. They can't see you – the tower's exterior is all mirrors. It's so high up that they're breathing oxygen from tanks on their backs. The wind is strong and the cleaners swing like pendulums, sometimes smacking right into the building with loud thuds. No one in the outer offices seems to notice them.

Mona knocks on your door, handing you a file you need.

‘Shocking working conditions,' you mutter. ‘Shouldn't they be on some sort of scaffold?'

‘What?' she says, then follows your line of sight to the window cleaners. ‘Oh, they'll be right – they're foreigners. They probably come from some place with super-huge mountains. Plus, where they're from, they're probably used to getting smacked around.'

‘That's outrageous,' you say.

You don't like Mona. She's only been working for you for a couple of weeks. She's the replacement for your old secretary, who accidentally suffocated last month in a room full of files. The firm has since toyed with the idea of transitioning to a paperless office, partly to prevent further losses of human resources.

‘It's not outrageous,' says Mona, crossing her arms. ‘You're just being politico correct, or whatever.'

You turn back to your computer screen and hear one of the cleaners crash again into the glass.

‘I tell you what's outrageous,' Mona adds. ‘It takes them a whole year to clean this building.'

You've heard this before – that once the window cleaners get to the top, they begin again at the bottom, after being allowed to break for two hours on Christmas Day to carve a turkey and wear ill-fitting paper crowns liberated from shiny red-and-green crackers.

One of the emails in your inbox is an urgent follow-up query from a client who is a national distributor of fruit juices.

You don't care about the juice company. Its CEO is upset that another juice company is using a logo of an ugly orange cow with bad teeth, which he believes is deceptively similar to his company's logo of an ugly purple cow with bad teeth.

The slogan at the bottom of his sign-off is:
Everything you could have asked for, and more.

You don't understand how this slogan can be true in any respect. It's not even real juice this company sells. It's cordial, basically, with a barely qualifying squeeze of third-rate fruit.

You open a new email window.

Dear Mr Laing
, you type.
Your cow needs a dentist.

You stare at the screen and yawn so much that tears run down your cheeks. You hold down the delete key until the window is blank.

You call Haline's extension.

‘Coffee?'

‘See you in the foyer. Give me five.'

You watch the time in the corner of your computer screen. One minute. Two. Three. Four.

You grab your jacket and walk to the lifts.

Today at the cafe underneath the tower, the barista is the bearded one with the eyebrow ring. The quality of this guy's coffee depends on his mood, and he's looking grumpy this morning.

Haline looks over her shoulder to check who's in the line.

‘Everywhere I go in the city,' she says to you in a low voice, ‘I see this fucking tower. I can't escape it.'

‘Well, it
is
twelve hundred storeys high.'

‘With a frigging spike on top of that.'

‘You could just not look at the skyline.'

Haline squints. ‘You know,' she says, ‘I closed the curtains last night to get away from it. Then I turned on the TV and it was in the opening credits of that shit spin-off, you know, where that cartoon pen draws the skyline? It took a whole four seconds to finish the spike. I could've thrown the TV through the window and jumped out after it.'

‘You're not going to jump out any window,' you say. ‘Right?'

‘I've worked it out,' says Haline, handing exact change to the girl behind the counter. ‘If you factor in the extraordinary amounts of time we spend at this place, we're being paid six dollars an hour and we're being charged out at three hundred. By the collective sweat of our junior white collars, we are paying for Phillips Tom's boathouse and his third wife's fake boobs and his sons' private school educations and his extended family's annual A-reserve opera subscriptions.'

‘So what are you going to do about it?'

‘God knows. It could be too late to leave. Plus I don't know if I have it in me. They hire masochists like us for a reason.'

‘I don't think I could find another job,' you say, taking your flat white and nodding to the scowling barista. ‘The longer I do this, the more specialised I become. So far, all that my professional skill set amounts to is an unparalleled knack for spotting similarities between pictures of cows.'

‘Speaking of jumping out windows,' Haline murmurs, ‘remember Windy?'

‘Who could forget Windy,' you say.

With coffees in hand, you and Haline wait for a lift. When one arrives, you both make way for a gaggle of winter clerks who strut out, on their own caffeine run. These are the top law students in the city, and over these few weeks between semesters the firm is showing them the incredible lifestyle that they, too, could have if they decide to accept a job at Civility Place pending completion of their degrees.

‘Smug little shits,' says Haline, as the doors close. ‘Did you hear one of their induction modules is Aerial Yoga for Stress Management? One day they'll realise no one here gives a flying fuck about people who can only function properly in Suspended Updog.'

In the Level 403 kitchen, you take a sip of your coffee and realise the milk in it is burnt. You pull the plastic lid off the cup and pour what remains down the sink.

‘I can't bear to start work,' says Haline. ‘Let's go see Pravin.'

You drop into Pravin's office and ask about his weekend. ‘What weekend?' he says. ‘I haven't left since Friday.'

‘That's terrible,' says Haline.

‘It's okay,' Pravin shrugs. ‘I'm getting efficient. Now I spend every waking minute doing work, and I've done an online course on lucid dreaming that's shown me how I can hang out with mates while I'm asleep. So I still have a sort of social life. Wild times, actually, all while taking naps under this desk. Boy, did I dream we got smashed last night.'

Your attention drifts. You stare at the collage on the wall of Pravin's office.

It's part of the firm's billion-dollar art collection, which has been built with the dual aim of Supporting Artists while Creating a Vibrant Office Environment. The initiative not only enhances the mental health of the firm's employees but also satisfies the artistic yearnings of those with an imaginative bent, allowing them to integrate creativity into their working lives without having to sacrifice income or material comfort.

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