Monday, June 28, 2010

Switzerland's Seventies Waiting Room


Yes, it was still the 1970s in the waiting room while it was 2010 outside. Decades had gone by, as they should have, streaming past the windows in changing blurs of fashion, technology and politics. The small group inside the room often stood looking out or peered anxiously from their sticky brown leather chairs at the rapidly changing scenery outside, an intimidating aurora borealis of transformation that looked unbearable to them. It was nicer inside, on the sofas, with everything as it was in 1971-1979. Just in case anyone wanted to go outside, wanted to leave the waiting room, there was a coat rack in the reception area, full of 2010 clothing plus a few key gadgets so that the emerging man or woman could pass off into the 21st century crowd immeditately. How they fared a day, a week, a month, a year after leaving the waiting room was up to them. Very few of them wanted to leave.

Occasionally, some risked going outside. They were the ones who took up training, absorbed a bit of briefing on .mp3s and mobile phones and smoothies and Ikea and the multiple types of espresso-based hot, iced or frappe drinks that were acceptable to drink on public transport and on the streets. Some embraced the idea of 2010, got snobby about the grey and brown food that was regularly served up in cut glass serving bowls and shuddered at the array of savoury food in aspic that were the party pieces each Friday evening. These rare characters grew impatient with the phone that didn't display the number being dialled, had no text service or message retrieval system. They didn't like the manual typewriters and ribbons and paper and correction fluid, whining for a bigger screen, automatic spelling correction, cut and paste witthout any actual glue or scissors. These were the ones who clawed at the waiting room door, just dying to get into the world that delivered mail
electronically.

They were few and far between, these types; they were not missed when they did eventually leave the waiting room. The remaining women would sigh and return to cutting their dress patterns, the men would go back to studying their Haynes manuals, and once the door closed behind the exiting 1970s person, everyone remaining would settle more comfortably onto the sofas, relaxing after the anomaly had gone. It was always the 1970s in the waiting room. There was nothing wrong with that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wipe Clean Surfaces

Photo courtesy of Will Wiles.

Maria kept wiping the plastic cover on her armchair with a damp sponge, until the repeated application of diluted washing up liquid wore through the seat cover. Rather than stop with the sponge, Maria simply added a second plastic cover directly on top of the first. There was, by this point, a third sheet of wipe-clean PVC on the coffee table and dining table. And she was so afraid of soiling her bedsheets by touching them, there was a clear plastic dustsheet over the bed, on top of which she laid newspaper and her second best blanket, so she could sleep without spreading her biological contamination to her precious soft furnishings.

She was taking things too far, her son and daughter agreed at Christmas. Maria had served them Christmas dinner in compartmentalised plastic trays, the kind schoolchildren and prison inmates are given as a sort of aesthetic and culinary punishment. When Margaret tried to combine turkey, stuffing and a scrap of charred bacon onto the same forkful, Maria burst into tears and accused Margaret of ruining the meal. Rob accused Maria of becoming a mad old woman who no one wanted to visit. It was an unfortunate cue for Maria to blurt out what she had wanted to say to her two disgusting children for years: "I don't want you to visit me, you horrible, filthy, dirty people!" So they stopped visiting Maria and Maria continued to wipe all her wipe-clean surfaces in a gruelling daily regime.

Five years passed. Rob had two children. Margaret moved in with her boyfriend. It was time to make peace with their mother, who deserved a place in their lives, no matter how mad and difficult she had become since that calamitous Christmas. They agreed to visit together and support one another through the usual traumatic, exhausting cleaning ritual Maria insisted on each time they came; multiple hand-washing, a shoe then foot inspection, two different types of mouthwash, a complete change of clothes, hairnets, face masks, goggles, and absolutely no contact with any furniture, walls or undesignated areas on the linoleum floor. They stood at the door, nervously debating who should press the doorbell and subsequently have to endure an extra cleaning exercise around the fingernails.

The door opened without either of them pressing the doorbell. Maria had clearly been standing in the corridor for a while. She lowered the extending arm she had used to open the door, and remained in the perfect centre of the hallway, exactly halfway between all the rooms in the flat.
"Mum? Can we come in?" asked Margaret tentatively. Maria mumbled something in reply. Rob looked at the plastic sheeting on the floor, the walls and over each doorway. "Mum, are you okay? Can you... can you move?" asked Rob. Maria again mumbled something in reply, her voice seeming to rise slightly. Margaret and Rob began to panic. Whereas she was infuriatingly mad before, this was scary and creepy mad, and her muffled voice was indicating something drastically awful had happened since they last came to visit. Fearing a stroke or other paralysing medical malady, Rob rushed forward into the flat towards his mother, feeling a sudden burst of filial duty towards the impossible old woman. "I'll take you to the doctor, Mum, I'll make sure you get better!" he cried. Maria shot out the extending arm and caught Rob full in the face with an antibacterial spray, making him drop in the doorway in spitting, pine-scented agony. Margaret recoiled in horror, from her hacking, wheezing brother and her horribly still mother who was standing in the middle of the hallway, unmoving, unmoved by the surprise attack on her own boy.

Forgetting every stringent rule in the house, Margaret strode angrily into the flat, batting away the extending arm and antibacterial spray her mother was brandishing at her, determined to reach the old cow and make her speak up, speak clearly and explain herself. Margaret was strong; she had lately taken up military fitness classes in the local park and was proud of her new resilience to the mud and the sweat and the grass stains of her training. An old woman with a cleaning obsession was not going to upset her, and she ruthlessly wrestled the old woman down to the shiny plastic sheet covered linoleum. "What are you doing, Mum?" she screamed as she got Maria onto the ground. Maria gave off muffled, incoherent cries and Margaret lost her temper: she pulled the face mask off her mother's face and felt her fingers slide, almost frictionless across a smooth plastic surface. She saw her own spittle on a piece of heavy plastic sheeting, beneath which her mother's furious face glared at her. The plastic sheeting extended into a tight seal around her neck and continued down her body underneath her lab coat and tracksuit bottoms. She rustled and squeaked as she tried to get away from Margaret. Margaret backed away as best she could from this horrible wipe-clean hybrid her mother had become. Wordlessly, she tried to get up and get out of the flat but the floor was covered in plastic sheeting and she slipped, again and again and never made it to the door.

Rob, through his streaming, stinging eyes, watched helplessly as his mother donned a third pair of rubber gloves and dragged his sister across the hallway into the kitchen. He could see four or five bottles of bleach lined up by the sink and a neat stack of scouring pads on top of the fridge. He cried out hoarsely at his sister but she had been effectively knocked out by Maria's combination of brute force, toilet wipes and a heavy blow from a steam cleaner nozzle. "Don't do this Mum! Don't do this to Margaret! Let her go!" Maria turned to Rob in the doorway and shook her head, almost sadly, then turned away. As the door closed, Rob heard the faint squeak of plastic on plastic as Maria trudged into the kitchen to begin her new cleaning project.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Door To Door To Door


Photo courtesy of Will Wiles.

The local authorities couldn't have anticipated it but they were rather shortsighted to heap all the doors together in the car park like that. Doors are trouble; they slam, they trap hands and break fingers, they get broken down, kicked in, locked up. They remember.

Doors are like mirrors: if you think about them too long, have too many of them together at funny angles, take them at a metaphorical level, they cause trouble and can twist the even the most sensible, steady mind. They really should have paid a little money for a wood chipper, or at the very least, a man with an axe. The unfortunate incidents of Wednsday night could have been avoided entirely.

Graham Barker was the first to notice something odd. He was returning from the park where he had just walked his dog when he saw the old woman five doors up from him emerging from one of the doors heaped by the main entrance. She was carrying a tea tray with three mugs of tea balanced on it and she clearly hadn't expected to serve up to Graham and his growling Staffordshire cross 12 floors below her living room. "What are you doing here?" she shouted at Graham, unreasonably, he thought. "What the fuck are you doing here?" he shouted back. She merely huffed, turned around and went back through the door, only to reappear at another door, mugs of tea rattling on the tray. She glared at Graham, clearly blaming him for this strange turn of events. "I'll call the council on you!" she snarled.

Another door opened and a small child ran through, screaming with laughter. He toppled over in surprise at finding himself outside, by the main entrance instead of in his bedroom where he was intending to hide from his brother. He looked up at Graham from the ground, bewilderment making him stammer: "Did... did... did I d-d-die?" he asked. Four grown-ups, unknown to Graham suddenly appeared at four other doors: a woman in a towel, fragrant and steaming slightly from her bath, a young man eating toast and wiping a butterknife on his trouser leg, an elderly man squinting at a Chinese newspaper and a teenage girl somehow managing to paint her nails, text a message on her mobile phone and eat a chocolate bar at the same time. They all looked around in confusion and then the shouting and gibbering started. Graham decided to go upstairs to his home, where he was going to smoke an extra strong spliff and pretend that he hadn't seen anything. Luckily, his ex-girlfriend had tried to set fire to his flat only the week before and she had managed to torch off half his front door. As he ducked through the gap into his flat, he was quite certain he wouldn't accidentally end up back at the main entrance, and he was gratified to find himself in his hallway with his five new shiny council refurbishment doors around him. He started assembling his spliff right there, next to the kitchen; it had been a strange afternoon and he didn't want to remember any of it.

For the rest of the day, the shouting, gibbering and crying continued by the pile of doors left by the main entrance. More and more residents were coming through the doors, expecting to be in their living rooms, bedrooms, toilets and kitchens but finding themselves by the main entrance with dozens of other confused and scared residents instead. Some were too scared to re-enter the building, others charged back into their homes defiantly, others blustered and screamed obscenities at the pile of doors, believing that somehow that would fix the situation.

One particularly dramatic neighbour proposed burning the doors, suggesting some of voodoo curse was upon them. By this time, half the building's residents had teleported through their doors to the pile outside the main entrance and having had no better idea themselves, they agreed. Petrol was brought out, a lighter was found, the blaze began. Residents stood around the fire, silent and fearful until the last door crumbled into the ashes. Then they began to drift back upstairs to their homes, only to find they couldn't get in. And the ones who stayed inside found they couldn't get out. They had burned their doors. No exit, no entrance. Graham leaned against the doorframe to his kitchen, looking longingly at the Jaffa Cakes next to the sink, his spliff now down to a soggy half-inch in his fingers. He couldn't go in there; he tried but how ever many steps he took, he'd find himself back in the doorway again like on an infinite, futile loop. The same with the toilet and his bedroom. He sat down in his hallway, surrounded by doors he couldn't walk through and dragged deeply on his spliff. His last thought as he drifted into uncomfortable sleep on the floor was that he was going to have to call the council in the morning... the new doors were rubbish...

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