Short Fiction by James Machin
Paul Wade was getting married. He had been ‘getting married’ for the best part of a year, but it was only in recent weeks that the actuality of the event had impressed itself upon him with full force. Accompanying this realization was another: he was overweight and could do with shedding a few pounds before the big day. He therefore decided that rather than travel all the way to work by tube, he would alight from the Victoria Line at Kings Cross and walk the thirty minutes or so to Blackfriars, then repeat the exercise every evening on the return leg of his journey. He reasoned that five days a week of thirty minutes brisk walking, twice a day should do the trick.
He found himself enjoying the walk far more than the crowded interchange at Victoria and resolved to continue the practice even after his wedding. The route was a simple one, Gray’s Inn Road taking him most of the way. Just before he reached the Verulam Buildings, he turned left towards Holborn Viaduct, thence a short walk down Leather Lane led him almost to the door of his office. It made Wade a happy man that he could combine exercise with this escape from an otherwise vexatious and overfamiliar commute.
Not to say that his new morning walk didn’t quickly become predictable in its own way. But each day he was delighted to stroll past the eccentric little tailors with its store-front display of two mannequin torsos, one wearing an oddly old-fashioned shirt and the other a slightly moth-eaten tuxedo. He looked with ever-renewed interest at the Tudor ceiling beams of the Welsh Centre, perceivable through the upper windows, and wondered what peculiar Cymric mysteries might be staged in the long hall contained therein. He eagerly anticipated walking past the peculiar Chinese gate, set in a hedge, through which one entered Calthorpe Gardens. By the time he reached Leather Lane, the food stalls were being set up. The air was scented with grilling bacon and coffee. Every morning Wade resisted buying a greasy breakfast roll, amusing himself by elevating the act to one of heroic self-denial.
So, the upshot of all this was that Wade was unusually cheerful by the time he reached work. He was pleased with himself (though not to the point of smugness) that he had discovered a way of starting his day that was far more satisfactory than being jostled on the Circle Line platform. For a while, things went swimmingly. His weight was falling off, and both his colleagues and his fiancé found the lift in his spirits very welcome indeed. One morning, Wade was marvelling as usual at the enrichment to his life gained by something as simple and straightforward as his decision to begin walking part of the way to work. He was smiling, subtly nodding each time he marked off a welcome reference point of his journey when his reverie was interrupted. It was interrupted by the sight of something unfamiliar, and jarringly so. He stopped short, and so abruptly that a woman behind him almost bumped into him. She tutted and swore under her breath as she stepped around him, but Wade was oblivious.
He was standing in front of a building he didn’t recognize. It was set amongst the standard monochrome stone of Gray’s Inn, but was anomalously made of wood: a modest, shabby construction of wooden slats with a wooden portico or veranda encroaching onto the pavement. It wasn’t this that caught his attention, however. Leaning against the steps and one of the wooden pillars of the portico was an upright piece of chipboard, upon which in thick black marker, in an ungainly hand, were written the following words:
ACCESS FOR ALL
COME IN AND DISCUSS AND DEBATE
NO TO GOVERNMENT CONTROL
FREE FOR ALL
And then, slightly lower:
SQUATTING IS NOT A CRIME WHEN GOVERNMENT AND BUSINESS
LEAVE BUILDINGS EMPTY AND ABANDONED AND LEFT TO ROT —
THAT IS THE CRIME
THE ISLAND, NOT YET BRITAIN, BUT ALBION, WAS IN A MANNER DESERT AND INHOSPITABLE
Wade couldn’t remember noticing the building before, but it certainly wasn’t new. He was rather more sure, however, that the sign was new. The door was closed and padlocked, but it was of course still early in the morning. He glanced around to make a mental note of his bearings and proceeded on his way, his mood now unaccountably sombre and vaguely troubled.
From the moment he left the office that evening, he established a far brisker pace than usual on the return leg of his journey. He hardly took in his surroundings as he strode along the pavement, looking down at his feet rather than appreciatively scanning his ever-changing environs in his usual manner. He wasn’t sure why he was in a hurry to reach the strange little wooden building offering “free education for all” but was sure that he was in a hurry. Wade wasn’t usually a victim of strange compulsions, but to the detriment of his work, he had been puzzling over the meaning of the peculiar sign all day. When he arrived, with a sheen of sweat on his brow, he saw that this time the door was open. He paused momentarily, glanced around, and headed in.
The doorway led directly into a medium-sized rectangular room of the sort one might find in a village hall or community centre. A few rows of grey plastic chairs were arranged to face a small stage, standing upon which was a simple lectern. Sitting on the grey plastic chairs were a dozen or so people of varying ages, genders, ethnicities, but all were, it was fair to say, unprepossessing. Several wore tatty, ill-fitting anoraks. There was more than one plastic bag over-filled with old newspapers and notebooks. Many wore glasses, repaired here and there with tape. Oddly-coloured woolly hats and ugly cheap shoes seemed to be another common sartorial selection.
“Welcome, friend, welcome.”
Wade started at the greeting and turned to see a young, earnest-looking man, more dapper than the rest, making his way briskly towards him with an outstretched hand. He had the air of a youth worker or evangelical. He introduced himself to a startled Wade with a firm, confident handshake.
“I’m Geoffrey, Geoffrey Lambert, but please, call me Geoffrey. Welcome, welcome, to our little gathering.”
“Paul Wade, thank you, but I just looked in to see-”
“Ha, yes, but that’s how everyone finds us, you see? That’s the whole point! Now, one thing I do have to tell you in the interests of full disclosure is that we’re not strictly meant to be here. Technically— legally— we’re squatting, so if you have any issue with that then please—”
“Oh, God no, seems to me, better someone make use of the spaces like these than …”
“Exactly, exactly. But please, do sit down.”
“Thank you but I wasn’t planning on—”
Wade jumped slightly at the noise of a chair leg scraping on laminate and looked down to see that an elderly Asian man with bright eyes, had pushed a chair back for Wade to sit on. Wade sat down, thanking the man, and by the time he had done so Geoffrey Lambert was standing at the lectern and speaking.
“… great turnout this evening and I’m really looking forward to what I’m sure will be a very productive and useful exchange of ideas. As is usual, our first speaker this evening will be our newest member, Paul Way— Ha, sorry, Paul— is it Way?”
“Wade, but I haven’t got anything to—”
The whole assembly had shifted in their seats and were looking at him, all smiling, all expectant, a few even nodding.
“Please extend your warmest welcome,” Lambert continued, “to Paul Wade.”
In what felt like an involuntary action, Wade found himself stepping forward and approaching the lectern. However, as soon as he had risen from his chair, he was afflicted by a flickering light in the corner of his eye. He occasionally suffered from ocular migraines and immediately recognized this phenomenon as an indicator of one’s imminent onset: the “scintillating scotoma,” as his doctor had called it, much to Wade’s amusement at the time (“I’ll take the compliment,” he had remarked). The headache soon followed, and by the time he was ensconced behind the lectern and speaking, he had little idea of what he was actually saying. His vision was by now almost entirely obscured by aggressively disorientating flashes of blue, white, and yellow lines and circles, psychedelic mouches volantes strobing and flashing across his entire field of vision. He was aware of his own voice and conscious of where he was, but had little grasp of anything else until he felt a person either side of him support his arms, and realized his knees had gone weak and he was being helped back into a chair.
As if emerging from a dream, he found himself walking past the Water Rats club at the top of Gray’s Inn Road and in a panic, checked to see if he had his phone and his wallet. Everything was in order, and he slept on the train home. He told his fiancée that he was stricken and she quickly helped him to bed. He woke the next morning feeling absolutely fine, although somewhat troubled and embarrassed at his lack of ability to recall a single word he had said when stood at the lectern in front of an audience of strangers the evening before.
He walked quickly past the wooden building on his way to work that day without glancing up, although he was tempted. When preparing to leave work, he considered taking the tube from Blackfriars station all the way home, something he had never remotely considered since he had embarked on his new walking programme. He reluctantly dismissed the thought in the name of ‘pulling himself together’ and set off on foot, although with an anxiety that increased exponentially as he approached the scene of the previous night’s peculiarities. He didn’t glance up and increased his pace. He was approaching the Water Rats again when he heard quickening footsteps behind him. Someone was shouting.
“Mr Wade— Mr Wa— Paul— Paul.”
An oncoming pedestrian muttered, “I think he wants you mate,” to Wade as they passed. Wade felt a hand, gently placed, on his shoulder, and resignedly came to a halt and turned around. He was blushing furiously as he finally looked into Lambert’s eyes and braced himself for the inevitable inquiry as to his mental stability.
“It was astonishing. We’re all very sorry you had to leave so quickly. The headache’s gone now, I take it? But we were just discussing how privileged we all felt to hear you talk. Please, will you be coming back? I’m so relieved the door happened to be open and I happened to look up just as you walked past.”
“I’m sorry, but I won’t be coming back. I really can’t.”
Lambert’s face fell. It was ashen. Wade realized with a shock that the poor man was devastated.
“Well, look, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to upset you …”
“You must come back, you must— we have to hear the end of the lecture— you said there was more, we need to hear it.”
Wade backed away in a state of some confusion and in a tremendous hurry to get somewhere where it would be possible for him to collect his thoughts.
“I’m terribly sorry, you’ll have to excuse me. Look, I’ll come back tomorrow …”
He had to actually struggle to disengage himself from the increasingly vice-like grip that Lambert had on his shoulder.
“Please, Mr Wade, please.”
Wade turned, and half walked, half ran towards the station. He glanced back over his shoulder at Lambert, who with an air of pathetic desperation, was still soundlessly mouthing the words, “please, but please.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow.”
From the moment the utterance escaped his lips he was agonizing over it.
True to his word, Wade went back to the ‘education centre’ the next day. And the day after that, and several more. He became good chums with many of the attendees: there was Julia, with her laughing Trinidadian accent and plentiful supply of cheese sandwiches; Toby, the nervous trainee accountant who blushed furiously whenever anyone spoke to him; Mr Sondh, friendly but laconic, was the elderly gentleman who had offered him a seat on that first night; Tetsuo (‘Tats’) was a Japanese student whose command of English was as expert as his social manners were awkward; Jenny was a clever, kind-hearted housewife whose husband spent most of his time in the pub, and Jenny made sure she was out of the house on the rare occasions he wasn’t. There were more, and each evening they would gaze up expectantly at Wade as he took to the lectern, both welcoming him and thanking him with an enthusiastic round of applause.
At first, Wade’s fiancée had been suspicious of his absences in the evening, but he had reassured her that he was taking an evening class and that no, he wasn’t ‘working late at the office’. She had seemed placated, but an inevitable coolness developed between them as a result of this increasing time apart. She complained that her idea of a strong marriage wasn’t one based on being ‘ships that pass in the night’.
* * *
It was around this time that Thomas Hillyer, Wade’s supervisor at the office, called him in for a disciplinary meeting. Hillyer had never previously had any complaints about Wade, or his work. Ok, so he didn’t make any effort to fit into the team, but Hillyer was of the opinion that forced jollity and comradeship in the workplace is a tedious affectation resented furiously by all but the most vacuous. He liked Wade more for the fact that he simply turned up, got on with things, and wasn’t disruptive.
Wade’s late mornings were very unusual. When he skipped an entire day without calling in sick, with a somewhat heavy heart Hillyer sent him the standard-issue stern email asking him to come to his office in order to ‘discuss things’. Wade sat there with a vacant smile on his face and was clearly having difficulty concentrating on the list of feeble threats and platitudes that Hillyer was unenthusiastically reeling off in order to do his bit as a manager.
“Tom,” he interrupted. “How long have those men been digging up the road now?”
Hillyer glanced down at the street below and registered for the first time that one lane of traffic and the pavement was taped off and workmen in fluorescent jackets were in the process of eviscerating a good deal of the tarmac, revealing about forty foot of gas pipe.
“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t really noticed. A few days perhaps?”
“I’ll email HR with my resignation. I think I’m meant to see out a month’s notice …”
“Oh come on, Paul, there’s really no need to do anything drastic.”
“No, I think it’s clearly for the best. Don’t you?”
“I’m sure we can arrange some sort of compassionate leave or something. Have you seen a doctor? If there’s anything I can do …”
Wade was still looking out of the window and waved Hillyer’s offer away before he had finished making it.
“Nope. Don’t worry. Sorry I’ve let you down.” Wade then looked Hillyer in the eye for the first time. “I really am sorry, you know.”
And with that, Wade left. It was the last time Hillyer saw him. In person, at least. Some weeks later, Wade’s former fiancée, Alice Fajardo, wrote to Hillyer seeking his opinion on a DVD she enclosed with the letter, a DVD she had discovered in Wade’s laptop. She was clearly devastated by the turn of events, but Hillyer also sensed in her tone some relief that Wade had now left: his personality had undergone some irrevocable change and she no longer understood him. Likewise, as Hillyer watched the DVD, while he certainly knew the man standing at the lectern to be Wade, Hillyer didn’t recognize him: the blazing eyes, the confident (aggressive even) posture, the accomplished delivery. Especially the accomplished delivery. Wade was somehow transformed, possessed of a vitality almost entirely absent from the quiet, overweight man with that perennial air of melancholy that Hillyer knew from the office. The front row was in shot and they were visibly inclined forward, ‘hanging on his every word’. Hillyer too listened, similarly gripped, as ‘Wade’ spoke:
… and at the four cardinal points they stand, around this great City. Gog; Magog; Gogam; Gog. The Four Titans. The Four Giants. Our Four Guardians. Fee fi fo fum, yes, they DO smell the blood of English men. And all others in this World City, the great Cosmopolis: this great Cosmos-polis. They hold in their hands the ends of great ropes, ropes which crosswise underpin a great net: THE great net which underlays these streets. In the fable we are told that the streets are paved with gold. And so claims the Lord Mayor of London STILL. But no, my friends, my companions, they are NOT paved with gold. They are sheet thin, like paper. At the slightest tug, Gog, Magog, Gogam, and Gog can send them rattling. But when they YANK, well that’s when the net is raised and will burst through the paving stones, burst through the buildings, burst through the PEOPLE unlucky enough to be standing astride one of the cables constituting this vast net as it is LOOSED into the air with a terrible force and tensile velocity. Ripped asunder many shall be … limb shorn from torso, arterial spray, crimson dorsal division … men, women, not spared no, and no … nor babes in arms either …
Hillyer stopped the DVD at that point. He couldn’t take any more. He was weeping. He resolved to return it to Alice at the earliest opportunity with plentiful encouragement to stick to her plan of destroying it. Alice had found some evidence that Wade was now in … now where was it? Somewhere in the Middle East, … ‘Humanitarian work’, or something.
Hillyer sat at his desk, looking out on to the street below. He was nursing a slight hangover. The pavement was still up and the men in high-vis jackets still involved in their esoteric activity within the cavity revealed. The noise of a jackhammer made Hillyer wince. The desk shook slightly and a pencil rolled onto the floor. Wade understood how precarious things are, he thought.