By Simon Barget
For a moment he wondered where he was because he couldn’t entirely remember how he got there. Only for a moment, because the blurry apparition in the opposite corner approached to initiate contact and this disturbed his thought. All unfolded in slow motion, but despite this, or because of this, he felt hurried, fearing that, as usual, he didn’t have enough time to assimilate everything. Nevertheless he wouldn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed by the situation. He would block out this person out so as to be able to concentrate on where he was even if it might be considered rude.
Bleary-eyed, he surveyed his surroundings, as if he’d just woken up from a deep sleep. Pushed up against the corner of the room from which the man had approached was a narrow single bed, just a basic metal frame with a mattress on it, though it was freshly made with a greyish-brown woollen blanket folded neatly over a starched white sheet. Both were tucked in tightly under the mattress, and a white pillow, plump and fluffed-up, rested on top, creating a simultaneously quaint and antiquated impression. On the left hand side of the bed was a small brown wooden table and an old wooden chair touching the wall. There was nothing on the table but a lamp and a coffee mug on a circular piece of cloth. Also abutting almost the entire length of the left-hand wall was a long thin glass table, not at all in keeping with the remainder of the room’s decor. Scattered upon it were all sorts of loose scraps of paper, index cards, old pencils and a number of lever-arch files.
Absorbing this in a matter of seconds, he could still sense the exacting and burdensome presence of the other man. First he noticed the man’s breathing; there was a marked wheeze to his in-breath, as if he were suffering from some chronic lung condition, or had smoked heavily for several years. Then he became conscious that he had not breathed, and when he did, he took in the bitter odour of congealed bodily sweat. The smell was uncompromisingly strong, and now he’d noticed it, it became impossible to ignore. He looked up again, observing the man as unobtrusively as he could, feeling invasive and an unwanted presence. He was tall, gaunt and rangy and wore a stained white vest top and a pair of black underpants to cover his legs; no shoes or socks, just barefoot.
‘Why am I here with this filthy repugnant man?’ he thought. ‘I’m going. I should go now. If I don’t, I’ll never be able to leave’. And he turned around and stretched his hand out to the point where he thought he might find the door handle, fully expecting to be met by hard, concrete matter, but his hand flailed around in the air in vain. He tried again, but still nothing.
“Oh, hold on, Rubin, where are you off to?” It was said without a moment’s hesitation and also with genuine interest, as if the man really didn’t know, and as if he would receive Rubin’s response with an open mind and be greatly edified by it. This pretence angered Rubin, as it was obvious that the man knew the answer to the question.
“Pardon?” he managed to force out abashedly although attempting defiance, in the face of his obligation to account for himself and realising that any derogation amounted to blatant dishonesty. He was supposed to stay in this room, this much he knew. But this man was nobody and his shoddy appearance proved it. Yes, the bed and the desk were neat, but the files were in a mess, and no one of such lacklustre organisational habits could be clear-headed and therefore a potent force. So what was so imperious about him? He spoke well, with no noticeable grammatical errors and a clear accent. His eyes were bloodshot yet he had a determined look about him, a degree of pointed scrutiny in his eyes, as if it were understood by both men that Rubin would be unreservedly examined. And there was something measured in his physiognomy, a sort of defiance that challenged Rubin to match it. Where did this composure come from? Not just the eyes, Rubin wondered. Rubin wanted desperately to understand but didn’t want to allow him the satisfaction of evincing curiosity.
“I’m, I am err…..” was all that came out as all his force deserted him.
But then, Rubin thought, what did it really matter if he was composed or self-assured? In what way should this affect his own state of mind, his impulses, decisions and inner feelings? ‘I’m an independent being of equal value, what about my right to be here?’
The man came nearer and stopped only a few inches from Rubin’s face, so that both were close enough for that unexplained magnetism of human contact to exert its pull. This proximity was excruciating for Rubin, not least because he had to remember to refrain from breathing or else be overwhelmed by the pervasive body odour. Again he took a closer look at his face, the pallor now displaced by the subdued orange glow of the table lamp. His coarse stubble was patchy in places, interspersed with small scars. He had a small gold ring pierced into his left earlobe which seemed slightly misplaced and out of character. Was this man a somebody or a nobody? If he were somebody, why would he have no shame in his appearance? Or perhaps this was intentional in order to deceive people into thinking he was innocuous. Rubin didn’t want to come to the wrong conclusion because this would surely have grave consequences, so he thought he would suspend judgment.
“What’s preventing you from going? No one’s stopping you but yourself, but I suppose you know that.” He placed a bony hand on Rubin’s shoulder while a supercilious smile spread across his thin, anaemic lips. “It’s not that difficult.”
Then he let his hand fall from Rubin’s shoulder, looking inquiringly into his eyes. He stood rooted as if he could wait for ever for an answer and would never tire of standing and waiting. There was a facetious overtone to everything this man did, and this both disgusted and angered Rubin. His eyes glimmered with a precocious energy, but instead of invitation, his manner came across simply as conceit, and self-satisfaction. So there was no pressing need to reveal anything to him. After all, he was just a complete stranger, an irrelevancy, someone to whom Rubin owed neither loyalty nor trust, nor even the obligation to tell the complete truth. He hadn’t yet proved his credentials. And wasn’t this Rubin’s enduring error? To reveal his private thoughts to undeserving bystanders? To people who professed to receive all in good spirit, but who were really just hungry for confidentialities? It was giving something away which should usually be earned. What was this ugly habit, what were the ingredients of this automatic mechanism?
He had a thought; an inspiration into, what seemed to him, such a slow-moving, inflexible brain. He would answer the question with a question. He would divert the attention from himself. But he didn’t know exactly what he could ask. This man was so unapproachable and difficult to relate to, you couldn’t just ask him how he was since it was impossible to initiate normal conversation. More significantly, it ran counter to the innermost yearnings of his soul to concoct some superfluous question.
“Can I ask what you’re doing here? I don’t think I know you.”
“I live here. I suppose I work here too.” And the man started to laugh. “Isn’t that obvious? More importantly, what are you doing here? You came to me, didn’t you?”
The man burst into a fit of spluttering and then smiled, as if to acknowledge the stating of something very obvious but also to acknowledge Rubin’s simple failure in acknowledging it.
“I did, but I didn’t mean to. But I thought you just asked me why I don’t leave. You said I’m free to leave. I’m sorry but that doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“I didn’t say you could leave; we know you can’t leave, I was just pointing out that you’re the only one that’s stopping you from leaving.”
“So I could leave if I chose to?”
“Of course, if you can manage it yourself, but you won’t.”
Rubin looked all around to find the door, but couldn’t. “But there’s no door.” He said this as if confirming to the man exactly what he had just told him.
“There doesn’t appear to be, no.”
The man shuffled on his feet, and then walked back to the bed and sat down. He motioned to Rubin.
“Look, have a seat.”
“I don’t want to sit, I-II…” But Rubin did sit down at the other end of the bed, even though he didn’t want to.
“I’m sorry I can’t offer you some, just black coffee, but I ran out last week.”
He took a large gulp and accompanied by an audible swallow. Rubin monitored the hideous protuberance in his neck as it moved up then back down.
“I don’t think it’s very difficult to grasp. You’re in this room, so I wondered why you’re here. I understand that you want to leave, but this doesn’t extinguish the very real fact of your presence here, nor the reason.” He paused. “I don’t mean to talk in such a contrived manner, you know what I mean, but you are here aren’t you?”
It struck Rubin once again that he didn’t know why he was here at all. In this intervening period he had just been consumed by his present predicament. Could he venture that he had walked in out of curiosity just to see what the man said? And suggest that now that his curiosity had been satisfied, he was ready to leave? But he was afraid to tell a lie.
“Look, Rubin, only you know the answers. I’m not trying to put words into your mouth at all. You have complete free will.”
To Rubin this was the ultimate insult, highlighting and mocking his perennial paralysis, lethargy and chronic intransigence. Was this man suggesting that Rubin could have done whatever he he’d wanted to in his life all along, rather than be curtailed by all sorts of influences? No, surely not. These influences were real in some way and actually acted upon the physical world and his body in the same way that he exerted his own limited will. There was no free will, it was all much more complicated than that. When you froze in fear, there was a good reason; you just couldn’t move because the body didn’t allow it. There was no override switch. Or when he couldn’t phone Sonia and ask her to come back after she’d just walked out. Something had legislated that act, otherwise he would have done it. No matter how many times his mind said he could have picked up the phone, it just wasn’t possible. And what about involuntary spasms or people that blurted out swear words? Rubin didn’t believe he had ultimate control even over his own body, so how could there be such a grandiose concept as free will?
Then he thought about his life and how it would be if he just did whatever he wanted to do. And at no time previously had he ever seen with such clarity that it all would have been different. To not care a jot about what others thought, to be completely free to think, feel and do for himself. It didn’t matter what he’d do. He would certainly not be here in this room, that’s for certain. Her might be climbing a mountain or floating in the middle of an ocean or just dying, simply dying…
There was a loud thud. The man turned round immediately. The expression on his face suddenly changed to one of alarm, but only momentarily. He turned back and resumed his smug attitude.
“What was that?” Rubin asked.
“It’s something to do with the pipes, it happens now and then.”
“It must really bother you.” Rubin was surprised at his boldness and expected a reprimand.
“No, not at all.” And the man was even more at ease. “Does it bother you?”
Rubin said nothing.
“What were you thinking just now incidentally?”
“Oh, nothing, it doesn’t matter.” Did the man not know, or was he toying with Rubin?
“If you’re wondering Rubin, I don’t know what you’re thinking, that would be ridiculous.”
“No, no of course not, I mean, I know that.”
“As you can see, I have a few notes on you.” And he motioned over to the table.
“You’re not the only one, but I thought you’d be interested. I have cards and records on a few of you.”
“What do you mean cards?
“The records on all the people that work here.”
He went over to the table and picked up what was presumably Rubin’s card, held it up and then put it down again as if to tease Rubin. He caught some writing on it as it flashed past his eyes but nothing was intelligible.
“Of course, you don’t work, but you’re still here for a reason. I’ve always lived here, that’s all. Then, one of the people here delivered all these cards to me and asked me to read and understand them. I felt delighted that I was given something to do, a job, a purpose, so I said yes. As it happens they didn’t really ask for my consent and I don’t think they would have accepted ‘no’ for an answer. I’d never met any of the people here as I've never left this room, but I can imagine what everyone was like. People are generally very much alike. You’re no different to the rest, although you think you are.”
At this, he flashed some of the cards towards Rubin as if to prove that what he was saying was true. Rubin tried to read but nothing was intelligible let alone familiar.
“Apart from the cards. There’s a lot of information on the cards, but it doesn’t necessarily give you any idea about the person. Now the interesting thing is that whenever I go to sleep at night, the cards are updated. I don’t know who does it but whenever I wake up, the work is done, there are new dates, new information such as relationship status, or of course they’ve left the company, which is rare, anyway all these things would be updated on the cards almost automatically. I have no idea who does it and I don’t inquire. What do you think, Rubin? Interesting isn’t it? Anyway so I don’t really know why you’re here or how you even got in.”
Rubin shuffled and stared straight ahead into thin air.