By Victoria Miguel
David Foster Wallace uses the term «exformation» to explain the humour that exists always surreptitiously in Kafka’s novels, short stories and parables. And humour is what permeates almost every paragraph of this intelligent, lucid, well observed and slightly kafkaesque story by a stunningly original writer
The tips of the last fingers of daylight grasped at my heels as we passed through corridors of industrial shelves: steely, high, dented, dusty, and full. I followed him as he followed her, leading us to our workroom at the back of the warehouse where no natural light could reach. This small room sat behind the forest of shelving, its rectangle laid out along the opposite axis. The overwhelming impression of the room was grey; I had thought the same on the short journey from the underground, but outside, colours brightened against the greys of the sky, pavement, and road: the late summer green grass became more vibrant, and even the chipped, pinking red paint of the playground equipment appeared vivid. This room was airless and windowless; boxes were stacked untidily to the left and scattered across more shelves that covered almost three walls. To the right, visible from the door, was a small worktable containing only a phone and the same thin skin of oily dust that covered the rest of the building: fine, dampish, unmoveable—presumably they’d found a way to keep it at bay where the engineers worked. Two chairs sat parallel to one another, pulled up to the table. The door, now opened, was always open.
We were both, he and I, agency temps and had arrived there that morning to begin a new job. After several minutes waiting in the glass-fronted foyer, we were met by the blonde manager who explained what our task would be. Mobile phones had already shrunk to hand size but were not yet capable of anything other than making and receiving calls; this warehouse serviced ones that couldn’t even manage that. Our job together was the last stop in their chain: to test that phones were now fixed and reduce the backlog of completed repairs that sat on those industrial shelves waiting to be returned to their owners. Panic had caused me to pause, briefly, on arrival at the gates of the building that morning; I felt this effect from the unfamiliar more keenly when I was younger. I would promise myself that I could turn but I never did. Always early, I found the old man was earlier still but, not yet knowing we were about to spend eight-hour days together in the half-light, we just smiled politely and waited in silence until the manager led us both to the back room.
He stood out more keenly in the gloom than he had in the sunshine: he was a little taller than average, thin, and dressed neatly in a short-sleeved shirt patterned with pastel-coloured checks, dark trousers, and brown shoes of coarsely textured leather with rounded edges and larger than necessary stitching. The manager would have looked at home in any office in her neat suit and laboriously-tamed hair. Having delivered us to our workspace, she showed us the section of shelving from which we should retrieve the phones to be tested and the space earmarked on the next bank of shelves for those that passed. Those that failed were to be collected in our room until they were picked up by the engineers. She left us alone briefly to find a post-it-note on which to write the phone number for her sim card so that we could use it to test the phones. I must have been wearing my unease; the old man smiled warmly.
He was pleased to tell me that he had just two weeks of work to go until he could enjoy his retirement and that he hoped this would be his final job. Our pace was decided: slow and steady.
And then we were alone with our tester’s tools: sim card, post-it-note, landline, and the two chairs sat side by side. Anticipating a long day of sitting, I volunteered to fetch the phones. I found these irregularly bundled, some in their boxes, others trussed up with work sheets in aging elastic bands. My first haul was small; better to have the reason to come and go throughout the day. The old man expressed similar sentiments when, having returned to our room and taken my place in the empty chair furthest from the door, he began to introduce himself and explain how he had come to be there. I forget now what work had occupied most of his life but this had ended before he was old enough to draw his pension and so he had filled the gap with temporary jobs through the same agency I had signed up with. He was pleased to tell me that he had just two weeks of work to go until he could enjoy his retirement and that he hoped this would be his final job. Our pace was decided: slow and steady.
As I occupied the chair in front of the landline we began with his taking charge of the mobile phone, and me the first testing call. It soon became clear that this was not the ideal approach, even for people intent on working at a moderate pace. Opening, inserting, and then removing the sim card from each phone was fiddly; the process had not been designed for frequency and ease. We switched jobs without swapping chairs, the landline pushed closer to him, the number a single button away. Our routine thus refined was quickly established; I would retrieve and activate the mobile phones, and, once ready, he would press redial and, sitting shoulder to shoulder, he would call me and say:
And I would answer, “yes,” or, “ok,’ finding no better way to respond. We would then perform the reverse action, to check that the phones could not only receive but also make calls. In this second act, it was I that pressed the redial button and he that answered, but still with the same:
For symmetry, I would echo: “yes,” or, “ok,’ unable to think of a fresh response or deviation from this plain but wearing routine. Apart from occasional pauses when we had to wait to first charge a phone before we could make the call, our day continued in this manner in relative seclusion except for the welcome break for lunch and the occasional curiosity of an engineer that appeared at our door.
The hardest part is never knowing, what, if anything, will help; exacerbated by increasing frustration as each trick, in its turn, fails to bring on sleep. I rarely lay flat, staring at the ceiling, my choices are left, the wall, or right, the room. I often start facing left, my proximity to the perimeter and its relative darkness being more soothing to me at the start of the process but I will, almost without fail, roll over and turn to face the room once more before I find myself close to unconsciousness. Some days the pillows are too fluffy, sometimes too flat— no pattern, no reason. Sometimes the heavy blanket I was given to help, helps, and sometimes its confining leaves me tossing and turning, straining under its weight. Again, no pattern to this. Alone in the dark, suspended in a sadness without tears hung on soft, rolling, sighs; this is where I find and lose myself in reliable rhythm. The sprays, tinctures, candles, and balms though pleasant enough, do not bring me calm. In desperation, sometimes I listen to the hypnotist, and when this works, I can let go in twenty minutes or so, but equally, sometimes I have listened to all forty-five minutes three times over, back-to-back, without the success of sleep. My old trick of distracting myself with documentaries is still the most reliable; it replaced my previous habit of imagining future successes and better days, which stalled some time ago having exhausted the hope that fuelled these pre-dreams. But tonight, today, I fall out of consciousness with unfamiliar ease only to find myself awoken, shortly thereafter, by nothing, by the lampshade beginning to spin, as if connected to my thoughts. The cut-out circles in the shade contract to lozenge-shaped slits and the yellowed-white, harnessed and decorated horses of a lullaby carousel shake off their stiffening Victorian paint, the colours dispersing into the air a lead laden rainbow. The now-blackened horses gallop around the base of the zoetrope, illuminated from the inside, and, as the light flickers out from between their legs as they race and falls across my face, I find myself awake again. And again. But nothing where my thoughts land shines. The time, by now, is close to dawn.
Before descending the stairs to the platform, I stood in front of the diagram weighing up which direction would get me where I was going at the perfect time. Both pass through the same stations, but one train runs clockwise, the other anticlockwise. Being almost equidistant from my destination I had a choice to make, a little more time on the underground or a little more time in the rain. Remembering our cold room at the back of the warehouse and the long day ahead, I decided to spend more time in the underground and walked down to the platform to wait for the train running on the clockwise track. The girl in the shabby green coat captured my attention until her train arrived and obscured her from view, leaving that platform momentarily empty when it departed again. My train arrived only a few moments later. I sat in the middle of the carriage, weary from another night of poor sleep, and let myself relax a little knowing my destination was far enough away to afford me the time.
When I stop like this, resting where I cannot, I find myself gripped by a sudden desire to sleep. I fight it with fidgeting, occupying my fingers tracing the lines of pockets or patterns, I once ‘came to,’ finding myself straightening the scarf of a man standing, holding the rail above my seat, to our mutual embarrassment. Today I focus on the frayed edge of my cuff, pulling at a loose thread. Paused now at our second or third stop, a woman gets on wearing a softly dappled leopard print coat. Her presence in the almost empty carriage startles me at first and then gives way to envy at her appearance of ease and grace. I return my focus to the thread on my cuff, feeling all the more shabby in her presence. I pull the thread, hoping to enjoy drawing it out from the body of the weave but instead it snaps. Having nothing else to occupy myself except a book that I’m not yet ready to begin, and wanting to avoid meeting the eyes of the other passengers that have begun to fill the carriage, I roll the thread in my fingers for the rest of the journey, until, at last, a station or two back in the direction of home again, I arrive at my stop.
Outside the grey sky, pavement, and road were as I had last left them. The swirling monochromatic tones of that short walk to the warehouse were interrupted only by the small park containing the playground with its swings, slide, climbing frame, and roundabout, all in the faded red paint blemished with chipped-open welts that revealed they had once been green, and once blue. After mumbling quick apologies for my absence from work the day before I took my seat at our worktable and waited for the old man to join me. The underground had run faster than I had anticipated and, despite taking the longer route, I had arrived early, just as the cleaners were departing. I could see their work in the shrunken damp squares slowly receding at the centre of each linoleum tile in our little room. The tiles themselves mirrored the colours of the walk I had just taken, their surfaces a snapshot of unmixed paint, more grey, with flecks of brighter white, black, and hints of green and even red.
A short pause followed while we separately and silently considered what to do.
When the old man finally appeared in the doorway he had a sheepish look. We greeted each other, and rather than offer an explanation of why I had missed the day before, I asked him how the day had gone, expecting him to treat the question as a pleasantry. But it was not so. He had spent the day attempting our work without me—I never did ask how he managed the calling and receiving—and managed it all uneventfully until, when he returned from lunch, he could not find the sim card given to us by the manager. He had devoted the rest of the afternoon to searching for it, retracing his steps, and looking inside the phones he had tested that morning, but with no success. At 5pm he gave up and went home. He asked if I would help him to look again. We began, methodically reopening each boxed and bundled telephone he had tested that morning and then pacing the path between our room and the two banks of shelves we commonly visited. Nothing. Being the younger of the two, I got on my hands and knees to check the floor around our worktable, knowing that had it fallen there the cleaners would most likely have swept it away with them that morning. I stood up again with only a thin coating of that greasy dust on my trousers to show for my endeavour—they must have found a way to keep it at bay where the engineers worked. It was lost. I shared this opinion with the old man. A short pause followed while we separately and silently considered what to do.
The manager had not been very friendly on our first meeting. She had no reason to be, we were there temporarily to perform a specific task after which it was unlikely she would see us again. I was not keen to face the consequences of having lost the sim card and rendering our task impossible. It had been lost while I was absent, but I still felt some responsibility, and I didn’t want to draw attention to why I had not been at work the day before. But there was nothing for it.
“They will sack me.”
I couldn’t deny this was a strong possibility.
“They will sack me and the agency won’t give me more work. And what will I do until I can retire?”
I nodded agreement and added a pitying smile
“Could we pretend?”
The thought of passing eight hours a day in this gloomy, damp room not even distracted by a moderately productive, if repetitive, task did not fill me with enthusiasm. But, in the days we had worked so far, we had yet to encounter a phone that wasn’t fixed. Perhaps the difference between authentic and pretend testing was only very slight after all. I agreed to the deception, the old man, visibly relieved, met my acceptance with alacrity, pulling out his newspaper and spreading it across his side of the table. We couldn’t devote full days to pretend testing, but ought to be prepared to give the appearance of industry should anyone pass our open door. Leaving him to his paper, I went out to the shelves and brought in a few phones to give our worktable the mask of productivity; plugging one in to charge to account for any pauses in activity, should they be noticed. The cleaner had returned the landline to my side of the table, we moved it back to where the old man could easily reach it. The scene now set, he gave his full attention to his paper, and I opened my book: a biography. Less bold than he, I read from the book balanced on my lap, where it could easily be hidden from view. When feeling too stiff or anxious, I would get up and walk to the shelves, moving the boxes and bundles around a little for lack of anything else to do. The old man seemed far more comfortable with inactivity. Gradually, I learned to relax and join him in this tranquil attitude.
And so, we passed our days together in this manner, becoming a little more comfortable with our fraud with each passing hour. I made my way through my book apace, routinely pausing between chapters to visit the shelves and shuffle the untested phones to the working section. While doing nothing as productively as I could manage I followed a celebrated life from birth in 1906 to middle age and the outbreak of the Second World War. The old man kept a more austere pace: one newspaper read cover-to-cover each day. We were content enough, surprisingly so. There were twinges. Reading of the subject of the biography’s bravery as a member of the resistance, which he joined rather than fleeing to the relative safety of the country of his birth, prompted many days of wondering if I would be capable of such self- sacrifice. Never having had the opportunity to test it, I wonder about it still. By the time eleven days had passed we had completed a diligent programme of reading and only very occasionally had we been startled into action by the approaching footsteps of a fellow employee, prompting us to push away our reading and take up our phones again, the old man with the receiver of the landline to his ear, dampening the audible buzz of the dial tone, enunciating clearly down the phone, but addressing the person sitting less than a foot away from him: