Monday, August 24, 2009

Lip Service

By A.J Kirby

The cubicles in Mason and Bell are so modern as to make the stashing of anything inside them a virtual impossibility. Movie-style set-pieces are a no-no. The future Godfather wouldn’t have been able to pull off his most audacious move. Here, there is no tank in which he could have secretly deposited the gun which would kill his first wise guy. The guts of the flushing system are contained within the tiled grey walls. All there is in the cubicle is the throne and the transparent toilet paper dispenser. Anyone would think that the powers that be didn’t trust us drones.

Everyone knows that the people who work in firms like this like – need – to engage in recreational drugs to get through the stresses of the day. But in here they’ve removed any trace of a properly flat surface onto which you could chop up your lines. Unless you wanted to use the toilet seat… But even the seats seem rather too ridged, and are comprised of this gritty material which would hoover up all of your powder far quicker than it would get snorted up your nose or rubbed in your gums.

It would be awkward to engage in sexual relations in the cubicles too; there’s not enough room to swing a cat, let alone a tasteful bra and knicker set from Marks and Sparks or La Senza, depending on which rank of female you are cracking away at. But the temptation’s there; many a time I’ve heard the muffled sounds of strained gasping from the cubicle next door and found myself getting hard, imagining sex faces and sweaty marks on the sleek plastic doors, only to discover that the girl next door is actually voiding her bowels.

Unisex toilets leave very little to the imagination. I know for a fact that most of the women don’t go for a shit in the fourth or fifth floor toilets for example, preferring the old-fashioned anonymity of the concourse cafeteria’s bogs than here, where the boss or the hot bod in accounts might somehow stumble across them.

But circumstance, or dreaded physical necessity dictate that I must make these toilets which seem like those of a swanky wine bar, my hidey-hole. Everywhere else is camera’d-up. Anywhere else requires entry via an access pass; bods in the security hovel are tracking our every move like we’re walking time-bombs.

So, here I am, standing on the lip of the throne, thrusting my hands up to loosen the ceiling tile above the cubicle three doors to the left. Every time the automated air freshener pumps out its scent of summer flowers, I feel my legs begin to shake, confusing its muffled sound for that of somebody else in here, who’ll see me hanging from the ceiling like some frustrated pervert.

When I discover the item – all wrapped up in a zip-lock bag like a piece of evidence from a crime scene – I can breathe again. Here are the tools which will enable me to keep that sheen of arrogance, that gloss of wonder-stuff, which mean that I’m called into the board room for these interminable meetings with Mason and Bell and whichever client they are trying to woo. I’m the bright, young face of the company, they say. I’m the kinda go-getting feller that will be managing their potential account with us, they say. I’m the man that will put them on that great big 3d lunar map which takes up most of the table in the board room.

Only, right now, I can feel my bottom lip starting to bubble up like its one of the ridges on that very map, or a milkshake. I can feel the staccato rhythm of my heart drumming inside the bubbles, like the skin isn’t able to contain the pus that lies within. The cold-sore already feels as though it has taken over the entire bottom half of my face. The face of Mason and Bell. It was all I could do to talk with my hand over my lips, before dashing off to the sixth floor loos, all apologies.

I can hear old fat Mason’s words as though he’s in the room with me now.

‘Never trust a man with a cold-sore, Paul,’ he told me, his great fat arm clamped around my neck, his clammy hand massaging my shoulder. ‘Because a cold-sore implies that the man has some degraded past that no matter how hard he tries to hide, keeps popping up and giving him away.’

In six years at the company, I’ve managed to keep my own affliction a closely guarded secret from the powers that be. But only through my own pig-headed stubbornness and often downright illegal methods; many’s the time that I’ve had to fix the monthly medical checks by acquiring the hair and urine of a small perfect-child from the school opposite my new flat.

And over the past few months, the testing has got worse. There was an awful incident when Rachel in the call centre was discovered as a herpes-sufferer and the complaints of the others in her pool had shaken the top brass into action.

‘There’s an epidemic in this building,’ Bell yelled at us in his company Winterval dinner speech. ‘And until we’re populated by the perfect-children, and we’ll know that nobody’s hiding anything, we’re going to be monitoring all sexual activity undertaken by employees. We’ll also be asking for regular medical reports. We know that somebody here was playing around with Rachel in the call centre. She told us as much herself, before she took the cowardly route out.’

I remember the guilt I felt right then. It throbs out at me from my own sore now. Poor old Rachel. It had only been a bit of fun. But I left my mark of Cain upon her forever. Or, at least until she chose to defenestrate herself through the thick-glass of the board-room’s panoramic window.

The first item that I pull out of my crime scene bag is a mirror. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre; I always perform this heavy ritual as though I’m the most law-abiding driving student in the history of plant-powered cars. I stare at my face. Hate the man that looks back at me. Hate the maternal weakness that made my mother lean over and kiss me one day when I was in the crib despite the fact she was one of the damned.

She cursed me. She cursed me to this eternal life of worry. A cold-sore can come on at any time, but generally at times of stress, or tiredness, or after a heavy night. All of which are staple parts of a life at Mason and Bell. I have to sleep all weekend, just so I can be bright-eyed and bright-lipped throughout the week and hence pay for my nice new flat and the nice new plant-run car and the company pension scheme which will be tied in to property on the new lunar base.

Lunar bases, lunar faces. I’m always surprised by how small a cold-sore actually is. It’s not taken over the whole bottom half of my face at all. Doesn’t look as angry as I’d envisioned it. Looks nothing more than a pimple in the harsh light of the bathroom. But appearances can be deceiving. Given the right circumstances, or untreated, the bubble will eventually pop of its own accord, leaving in its place the terrible sore of destiny. Which will last for a week, before finally lapsing into its third stage, when it looks like you’ve been drinking too much red wine and your lips are stained red.

I pull out the lance. Depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full person or a glass-half-empty kinda chap, lance can be a good or bad word. Glass-half-full person will think of the knight in shining armour connotations; glass-half-empty miseryguts will think of other, more down and dirty medieval things like ‘lancing a boil’.

I carefully position the mirror on the edge of the toilet bowl and hunker down onto the cold floor of the cubicle, taking care not to lance any other part of my body as I position myself. I try to jut out my jaw and work my hands around the bubble like a surgeon massaging a heart. And it is a tiny heart; still beating like it has a life of its own. But a stray finger always seems to get in the way of the mirror’s full view of the cold-sore. How do surgeons attain such a level of dexterity?

Concentration and practice, that’s right. Concentration and… I move the lance into place, willing the tell-tale trembles in my hands to cease. It reminds me of how Rachel was so nervous when she first grabbed onto my cock out by the smoking shelter and the bin store. How at first, she touched it like it was some electronic instrument which she feared she would break, but soon was joy-sticking it around like she was playing in an old-school arcade. In the end, I’d shoved her off me and continued of my own volition, only letting her back in on the act when I reached the vinegar strokes so I could shoot off into her gaping, senseless cavern of a cake-hole. And in that very act of forcing her head down on me, I’d spunked the story of her death all over her lips.

And she’d been grateful, the sappy bitch. Grateful that I’d deigned to look at her amongst all the other identical moon-faces in the call centre. Now she had a story which would elevate her up the ranks… Was there anyone in that monstrous department that I now had to bribe?

My anger lances the bubble. I swear I hear it sigh as it pops. I hold my breath and watch. And there’s no confusing clouding of the mirror to blame when another bubble suddenly pops up, right next to the first one that I’ve lanced.

I jab the lance into the new bubble. Watch it pop. Watch as my lips start to return to normal. And then it happens again. Another bubble…

Now, bubbles are popping up on my bottom lip quicker than I can pierce and drain them. They are positively flinging themselves up from the flesh of my lips and onto my face like lemmings. In fact, it reminds me of that terrible game that they used to have in bowling alleys – back before the perfect children always got perfect scores – where some rodent or other pops up from one of the holes on the board and you have to smack it with a hammer in order to win points. What was it called? Cleaver Beaver? Mole Mash?

My cold-sore is becoming uncontrollable. It’s becoming an arcade game. But this is no laughing matter. What the hell is happening to me? Surely I’m dreaming.

There was a scene in Gremlins I think – I’m a sucker for those daft golden age movies – where the furry creatures came into contact with water, and suddenly started to chemically react and turn into the scary lizard-things that threatened to run rampage through the town. Now that’s happening on my face. It’s some kind of chemical reaction. Somehow, despite the scientific integrity of the crime scene zip-lock bag, something’s got in and infected my lance. Or else it’s something that’s about as far from science as you can possibly get. Good old-fashioned what comes around goes around. I’m getting what I deserve. This is Rachel’s goddamn revenge or something.

I’m starting to panic now. And with panic comes fresh bubbles. My bottom lip now looks like a bunch of grapes. I’m diseased. Nobody who looks like I do now would ever be let anywhere near the Ravenscar Apartments, let alone the new lunar base.

‘Shit!’ someone says.

‘Shit!’ I discover that I’m saying, over and over again.

I can hear Mason’s blubbery voice in my head, too. He’s telling me all about how much I’ve fucked up and how there’s no place in the company for someone like me.

Suddenly, I realise that there is a third voice, and it is accompanying the gentle knocking on the cubicle door which has been going on for some time now.

‘Sir,’ buzzes a steady, robotic voice. ‘Are you in need of medical assistance?’

The way he takes time to say the words ‘medical assistance’ instead of simply ‘a doctor’ tells me all I need to know. It’s one of the janitor-folk, here for his hourly check where he’ll lick the bowls clean and polish the taps.

‘Sir?’ he continues, in that annoying, unable-to-take-a-hint way of theirs.

‘Leave me alone,’ I growl, through a mouthful of bubbles and sores and pus. It hurts to talk, as though the gift of the gab has been lanced along with that very first bubble I popped.

I lever myself up onto the toilet seat and start depositing the remnants from the zip-lock bag about my body. Think about flushing the toilet to drown out the noise of the no-mark on the other side of the door.

‘Would you like me to alert your department head of your predicament?’ asks the janitor. I hear his steely nails scurrying across the smooth plastic of the door; he’s searching for a way in here.

‘I do not have any predicament,’ I moan. Even I struggle to understand the meaning of the words that are spewing from me, so I have no idea how this pre-programmed shit-brick will be able to decipher them. Usually, they need to be able to look into your faces and read the signs…

‘Department head,’ repeats the janitor, nonsensically.

‘I am the department head!’ I scream, as cold-sore grapes burst, as my face starts to fall apart. ‘I am the head of sales!’

Something in my garbled scream must make sense to the janitor. He stops scratching at the door like a cat looking for scraps. He must be thinking. Or whatever those things do which is a replication of thinking.

‘Mr. Paul Ferry. Sales Manager. Thirty-Four years of age. Blood type O,’ spouts the machine in such a machine-like way that it makes my blood boil. When does a machine ever have to worry about physical imperfection or about ill-advised sexual conquests? When does a machine ever have to go through anything as soul-destroying as the lancing of a cold-sore?

I click back the lock on the cubicle door; face-down the robot. He’s a great, hulking mass of numb metal and sterile subservience. More like a small vehicle than a man. I dare him to say something about my face. About the sores. But he doesn’t seem to have noticed the sheer scale of the horror which is right in front of him.
I try to push past him, to the sinks.

‘Sir?’ he asks, once again. He’s creaking back and forth on those little trolley-wheels of his in a manner which seems to suggest nervousness.

‘Would you like a fresh hand towel?’ he continues, voice purring away.

And suddenly, I can bare it no longer. I reach out; feel the electric charge as my fingers brush against the janitor. I start to push.

‘Sir?’ cries the robot, as he starts to tip back on his wheels. There’s a twist of panic to his voice which makes me push harder.

When he finally does topple over, he makes an almighty crash as he hits the tiles. I see the dim light starting to disappear from his eyes.

And now the janitor’s panic alarm is starting to reverberate throughout the room. So loud that security must be on their way here. So loud that Mason and Bell will hear, back in the board room.

What the hell have I done?

I crouch down next to the fallen janitor, tracing my fingers across his carapace, searching for some kind of off-button. Can’t detect anything. They’ll find me in here and realise the truth about me. I’ll be out on my ear; won’t be able to go back to the apartments.

Before I know what I’m doing, I lean over the janitor and clamp my lips over his. Start trying to share my breath with his. Madly, I think that a kiss of life will bring a robot back from the dead…

And amazingly, the kiss does do something. I see the dim light starting to return to his eyes. I feel the metal creak and shift below me.

He speaks:

‘Mr. Paul Ferry. Sales Manager. Thirty-Four years of age. Carrier of herpes.’

I feel the colour drain from my face. The knowledge itches at me. I’ve been discovered. Crying with rage, I smash my face down into his over and over again. We’re now both of us a mess of blood and pus and gore. Mindlessly, I stagger to my feel. Plant a well-aimed kick square into the janitor’s bottom lip. And then I’m outta there, crashing against the windowed-walls of the corridors on the way back to the board room. Workers pause from their relentless typing to stare open-mouthed at me.

I pay them no mind.

Mason lets me back into the board room with a quizzical look on his round face. The clients nudge each other and one of them stifles a laugh.

‘What in hell happened to you, Ferry?’ roars Bell.

‘Got into a fight in the toilets,’ I mumble, noting that half of my lip has just slopped onto the white shag-pile. So this is how it will all end? Me literally falling apart in here, like so many before me…

Evidently not, it seems, because now Mason and Bell are all smiles.

‘Nothing wrong with a bit of rough-housing,’ chuckles Mason.

Bell slaps me on the back: ‘I like to see a man enaging in physical activity,’ he says. ‘Proves you have what it takes to be one of the very best!’

Utterly confused, I stare at my reflection in the polished glass of the table. And suddenly understand; no matter how bad my appearance, at least you can’t see the cold-sore any more. Not under all this blood.

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