Robert

Ann Matthews

The old black tunnel took him from the narrow cobbled streets out on to a concrete thoroughfare. Rob blinked and shivered in the sunlight and paused to get his bearings. He’d been persuaded to not use his trusty GPS app, but that’s a long story that Rob won’t be repeating to anyone even if they were interested. His brand new A to Z would just have to suffice. He flicked through the pages, turned the book upside down, traced his route with a finger and repeatedly scratched at his left ear. A young woman pushing a buggy came towards him humming a song. He smiled and caught her eye.

‘I’m trying to get over there.’ Rob pointed towards the city centre. The woman removed her headphones and he repeated his question.

‘To town?’

He nodded in reply.

‘Go up through the car park.’  She pointed to a dirty corner. ‘There’s a door.’ Rob couldn’t see anything in the heavy shade. ‘Take the lift up to the very top . . . there’s a bridge . . . you’ll find your way from there.’

The car park is dank – the lift forced in between two wet walls doesn’t look in working order. Rob presses a rusty button and wipes his finger on his jeans. There’s a creaking and shuddering – Wait. Green doors open – a bent old lady steps out and around him slowly without a word.    Pause.    He enters – the doors close noisily. A musty smell– rot – invades – the lift shrinks. Press open. Press all options. It judders and scrapes –and starts ascending. His Adam’s apple hits hot breath awkwardly. 

Count    onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelve..................hundred-and-five seconds

The lift creeps to a standstill       a lull            one       two       three        four          five seconds    doors slide open. Fifty feet up. Five large strides and prickling armpits –glaring sunlight bounces off dusted cement – Rob squints. A sweep of pavement floats in an arc above a triple carriageway. Exhaust fumes linger. Statically-charged cars race – atorrent of coloured blurs. Rob squats with his back to the sun-heated railings and takes a bottle of water out of his bag – gulps a swift draft – retrieves a notebook – scrabbles for a pen. He looks at his watch and scribbles:

1pm. somewhere in Newcastle. dizzy and thirsty maybe brought on by vertigo or tiredness.Feeling worse than yesterday. trying to take a shortcut failing. I’m not sure if it is me or that it is this city’s planned to be confusing. Disorientated. doing my breathing exercise I think it’s working. Rating experience 5 out of 10. 1 mark less than yesterday. But yesterday I stayed at home.

Rob reads his words once, twice, five times – nods to himself, pulls out his phone and texts the same words to Jennifer up in the university – includes his reference number  –234692. He volunteered, but isn’t sure how any of this helps him. In fact, he could have easily buried all this – detached himself and just got on with things.

Bleeps and flashes this message will be sent as two texts. He deftly edits the message. 1pm N’castle centre. dizzy thirsty vertigo tired disorientated. done breathing. 5/10. 234692 and presses send.

Rob looks up at the sky. It stretches so blue – a big northern sky – pure – far reaching. Northwards across the city, windows and mirrors from office blocks and multi-storey carparks catch the sun.

count     the

sparkles

lose track.

blank out      the number of

cars  fifty sixty         the

number           of steps       from

my         front door.     The

number       of      pigeons,  the

32 left    turns      the

56        right turns

the 365      diamonds            of blue air

the 360      dark diamond frames

on the bridge’s pale           walkway

and   how many           clouds

none today

Rob looks back down at the traffic – scratches at a patch of eczema on his left forearm –picks up his discarded notebook, adds a list of numbers and feels satisfied. He stands,brushes spent matchsticks and fine dust off his backside, throws his bag over his shoulder, whistles half-heartedly and traverses the vibrating walkway – forty-five strides along – way above the traffic. Descending three tiers of yellow-edged steps he ends upon a dead end street and winds his way to a Greek cafe around the corner. Sitting at a small round table out on the pavement he orders a coffee. He stirs it slowly – ten clockwise rotations – counts  101 grains of sugar, pours them into the dark vortex and waits.

 Hazel dumps a gadget down on the table.

 ‘You’ll like it. Was thinkin of, you know, loud songs you might like more than any of that stupid whale music.’

‘Must’ve taken you ages. Thanks.’ Rob fiddles around and places earphones in his ears and laughs.

‘Get some real big headphones and you’ll be all set up.’

*

Jennifer sits in the canteen with a colleague, sips her coffee and reads out her report.

‘An interesting case.’ Colin asserts.

‘Rather. There’s no childhood trauma to report. No learning difficulties, no bereavements, no abuse –’ 

‘No ADHD?’

‘Nor on the autism or Asperger spectrums – just a teenager with OCD – adamant that his obsessive behaviour stops him feeling anxious. “Stops the rush and pull” all around him.’

‘A recent development?’

‘Yes, since he moved to Newcastle. He equates his problem to his new urban environment. He says that he can’t cope with the noise and that counting gives him a sense of peace. I don’t know, filling his head with numbers and equations? 

‘And the cbt, is it working?’

‘Yes, wonderfully well – down 0.5 points on the Yale-Brown OC Scale.’

‘That’s a significant decrease.’

‘But the results also confirm that his anxiety levels are increasing.’

‘So?’

 ‘I may be curing his obsessive behaviour, but exasperating some other underlying condition that I have been unable to diagnose.’

‘So what is your conclusion?’

‘Well according to his GP, he has refused SSRIs.’ Jennifer looks at her watch and rises from her seat. ‘Either we empty the city of traffic, machines and people, get him to move to a desert island or render him blind and deaf  . . . none of which is feasible.’ Colin frowns at Jennifer. ‘I know, I know Colin. But he’s just sensitive to hustle and the bustle, nothing more, and if counting helps, it helps.’

‘So where does that leave your controlled-study?’

‘If I stop his treatment he can’t be included in my research; I can’t see that I have any other choice.’

‘Yes, I concur.’ Jennifer retrieves her vibrating phone. She reads the new text message, smiles and shows it to Colin.

4pm. got MP3 player filled with music. In Eldon Square. It’s working. 9/10  234692

 

The Grinder

Marie Lecrivain

"What dollar amount did you have in mind?"

"I'm not sure."

"If it helps, I can utilize some promotions and specials to help maximise your purchase."

"I want what you advertized."

"As I explained, sir, you'll need to have $400,677 to afford the whole experience. If you don't have that, we do have financing options with low interest rates."

"I know that. I just thought since we've been talking that we might be able to work something out."

"I'm sure you're a nice man, sir, but this is my first time speaking with you. If you're expecting empathy instead of sympathy, then there's a $5,000 administration fee included with your purchase."

"I know. I read the literature you sent me."

"We believe in transparency, sir. Now, since five minutes have passed, I'm going to have to start charging you a conversation fee."

"What?"

"Sir, it's in the pamphlet we transmitted to you. And may I remind you, it's in the fine print."

"I know."

"Would you like to continue?"

"But I'm a customer."

"Sir, with all due respect, you're a potential client. You've not yet placed an order, and now that we're at five minutes and seven seconds, I'll have to charge you for this conversation."

"I can get what I need from your competitor."

"Sir, may I remind you that we are the leader in this industry. Our competitors are no longer allowed to sell transactions that result in massive loss of bodily fluids. Of course, we've never allowed that to happen with any of our independent contractors."

"When did that happen?"

"Last year, after an Acme client complained that the measurements of his purchase were not exact. He took matters into his own hands. He amputated the poor girl's feet and left her to bleed to death in his basement. Remember? It was in the news."

"Oh... yeah."

"Sir, we've exceeded the free time to prepare your order. From this moment, you'll be charged $1,000 for every 1/10 of a second of discourse."

"Oh, shit! Really?"

"Yes."

"Damn! You really do go for the throat."

"No, sir, we prefer to remain professional. It's in the pamphlet. Naturally, we know you'll have questions, but we expect our existing clients, and potential clients to be prepared when they call us. It's why we send you specific information to your initial query. Time is money."

"I see."

"I'm glad, sir. Now, what dollar amount did you have in mind?"

"Well, I would've told you, but you've wasted my time with this inane conversation."

"Sir, may I remind you that our conversation is being recorded for quality assurance? That's for your protection as well as ours. I did ask you, more than once, what you were looking for."

"Yeah, I know. But I'm still not sure that this is a good idea."

"What's holding you back?"

"I'm on the fence."

"I understand. What can I do to assauge your concerns?"

"I just want to make sure-- Hey, wait a minute, did you just empathise with me?

"Yes, sir, I did. But that is automatically included once you use up your first five minutes. In this case, it's free, at least until you reach the seven minute mark, which, in the course of a normal transaction is where I would be giving you a confirmation for your order."

"What?"

"It's stated in the pamphlet, sir. Page four, paragraph six."

"Hang on... Oh, yeah... damn!"

"Sir, did you actually read the whole pamphlet?"

"Well, I started to, but I got distracted by work."

"Sir, as we stated in the introductory letter, we believe in an honest pricing model. Time is money."

"Shit! I wish I'd known that."

"It's explained in the brochure, sir."

"I see that now!"

"Sir, I also need to let you know that you have 20 seconds left before we hit the seven minute mark, at which time the $1,000 1/10 second fee will increase to $2500 for every 1/20 second."

"Really?! Wtf! You're still charging me?"

"Yes, sir."

"Crap."

"Sir, let me get back to the important matter. What's holding you back?"

"How do I know that your company won't rob me blind? I've never done this before."

"That's an excellent question, sir. The answer is on page 25, paragraph two of your pamphlet. It takes six months for an independent contractor to go through our hiring process. All our independent contractors are put through a deep background and drug screen before we grant them an interview. They are then subject to a two-week long psyche evaluation to make sure that they can successfully implement the delicate nuances of the job requirements. They’re genetically screened to match your physical specifications, and put on birth control to avoid accidental conceptions. Each one comes with a 30-day money back guarantee."

"I need to think about this."

"Very well, sir. Give me a call when you're ready."

"Hey, I have a question."

"Certainly. You have eleven seconds left."

"Doesn't it bother you? I mean, what... I mean... who you're selling?"

"No, sir. Our company operates from a place of complete transparancy. No one is coerced or unduly influenced. Our independent contractors are free to terminate their employment with us, as we are with them, at any time. It's specified in their contract."

"I see. Well, thank you."

"You're welcome, sir. I'm going to send you over to confirmation now, and they will go over your payment options for this conversation. If you change your mind, my extension is 4343. Have a good day."