19 Jun 2017

To Kill a Ghost (Excerpt)

Context (ignore at your pleasure):
  1. first draft of the final chapter from a book unfinished for about five years and has developed some kind of unnatural life of its own
  2. it's the end of the story but the narrative arc is held together with duck tape so it doesn't matter to me and shouldn't to you either
  3. sorry in advance but I need to finish this to a) satisfy a largely apathetic friend and b) sleep at night
  4. it's darker and more offensive than what I usually write, so blanket trigger warning
  5. and longer than 140 characters or even 500 words, and yes, I don't know what I'm doing with my life.
***

Sisyphus


Alex likes to shoot.

To be precise, he likes to shoot and kill living things. His only accessible opportunity in this country that is to his mind okay, but not exactly right, is foxes.

I reckon he would take down a defenceless human if the mood struck him and circumstance favoured it. I think what he really pines for is an island upon which he could hunt his own species. I know if I were on that island for any other purpose, he wouldn’t give third thought to gunning me down. I wonder if this is part of the reason I associate with him. Danger to me is this vivid snakelike thing that’s alluring at a distance and choking close up. I don’t know which end of that spectrum it is that gets me off, and I’ll only know for sure when it’s too late, but then that’s what’s most exciting.

Alex’s hunger is such that once in a while he’ll mention he’s heading up north to take a weekend and do his part for the ecosystem.

A clear-as-day fact of life: foxes go after chickens. Nothing is fox-proof, and if you keep chickens, you have to deal with foxes one way or another. The foxes are getting bolder. I’m convinced an especially vivacious turkey could take on a fox one on one, but poultry are simply easy prey. The ethics of it check out in my head, so please accept my aside.

I take Alex’s word as invitation and tend to go with him for a free ride to quieter places, because I have this impression that relative solitude and dramatic scenery does something for the creative mind. As his Mercedes gets muddier, I’m convinced I become more content. This is a self-fed lie I maintain right up until the engine stops, and then a little afterwards just for good measure.

We stay the night in a draughty room above a farmer's house up a track which is itself off a back road with no name or number. Alex would only settle for this lifestyle as long as he knew there was game to be had. I never worked out how he came to know the farmer, who’s mute. As if in compensation, his wife talks at great length on the topics of immigration (oblivious to the Russian expatriate in the room) and the global economy in her own humbly confused terms as she grills us some bacon before we set out about as early as the fucking sun itself.

The air is all the clearer here, that much crisper, that I don’t mind spending the better part of a day following a second-rate psychopath around a highland estate. My mind wanders on its own as he pisses in the wind about evolution and natural hierarchy in some reprise of the farmer's wife's drivel. Sometimes the mute joins us in a half-arsed attempt to act as guide or assistant or supervisor, but on this occasion we’re alone while the happily simple man is back at home tending to the bottle of half-decent whisky Alex had brought up for him. Wifey, meanwhile, is kindly certain we’re just good and honest lads from the city doing a fine day’s work out of doors.

We’re following a scant trail up a muddy bank to reach the muir when Alex speaks to me for the first time today.

– You should get a job.

– I work already.

– Then proper work. You know, I could get you a job, a bit of money, no more writing. You can't do that forever.

– I’ll to work something out.

– Right. I'll call someone. There'll be a job for you, serious.

It’s no good arguing. I can’t find it in me to care either way, but lack the farmer’s wife’s practised ignorance.

A sliver of orange and white bares itself against the darkening autumn pine by the tree line on the other side of the field from where we’re perched. Alex spends a good half minute eyeing it through the rifle’s scope before his head tilts back to me, one eye reserved for prey, the other for something all too similar.

– Karl, you get this one.

– Mm?

– He's like you. You take him. Easy shot for you.

Half shrugging, half nodding, I accept the rifle off him. It’s heavy and foreign, but I know the gist: point, then squeeze the trigger, hard. Through the cloudy scope the fox becomes tangible, a scruffy dog thing grooming forelegs in between surveying a field it sincerely believes is empty. I study it for a moment too short for anxiety to take hold. Yes, point, squeeze. The coarse ricocheting cry of a gunshot in the open bounds over the roughness of the ground, and that’s that.

I keep the butt of the rifle against my shoulder for a moment as I continue peering through the scope. There’s nothing up there now but the grey green, and the slightest orange tuft lying still behind long, raw grass.

It is in itself an uneventful weekend.

When I make it home, I find Frank sunk deep in the armchair. The cretin's mouth hangs open as if basking for plankton, but it’s his jaunty angle that asserts yes, I am indeed swaddled in the exceedingly warm blanket of opioid reverie. A tattered paperback—Mishima, if you had me guess—lies on yellowed open pages on the floor in front of this mess.

– All right?

– Nn.

– It’s funny being on the other side of this.

– Going b… London.

– Right.

(He did.)

– Is there any left?

– Eh?

– Codeine.

– No.

The prospective job Alex mentioned is no piss take, no misremembered sliver of conversation. The next Wednesday, I’m up early, wear good shoes and pretend to be the better man I’m not. This day is less an interview, more trip down a conveyor belt for an untested and unneeded product. Where I end up is fairly certain, but the specifics of where, that’s what’s potentially interesting. As fate would have it, with the human resource situation at this particular point in time and with Alex’s questionable sway in middle management at the company, I have disturbingly little difficulty landing the gig.

It also just so happens that stability and tepid purpose in life change nothing for me. Rhythm finds me urinating at eleven, one, three and five o’clock. An unambitious exercise regime and a balanced, dissatisfying diet keeps me lean. Still I find myself scuttling through empty, tedious hours to the dark corners of the day, and here is where I indulge in my codependent, self-destructive habits of art and substances—but then where, really, is the shame in nine to five, eight to six, souls exchanged for competitive benefits packages, to be a cog in the machine rusting with no oil in sight? This is the first stage: consent, all reservation AWOL.

Day one, escorted from reception and parked at my station by a stone-faced woman who seemed deeply doubtful of the presence of the K in my name, Ross wastes no time.

This man is a lit match held above an oil spill if only when he isn’t absent for hours, days at a stretch. He is a battle-scarred drone who owns this part of the nest and cracks the whip at every available moment to remind us of the precious fact. This isn’t a facsimile of Alex, which you’d be forgiven for thinking, but please believe me when I say he's something else entirely, just of the same breed.

I begin making allusions to social insects such as ants or bees, but in this instance let me break to describe dogs bred for and who know nothing except the fight. Their tails were amputated in puppyhood; they express no subtle emotion; they exist only to remind us of our own irrevocable drive to assert dominance and draw blood.

– Right, he says, before gently leaning down to my ear. Let’s get straight to it. You’ve come at an important time here. First off, whatever it is, I don’t care, but that’s not the point here. I’m the only god you need to believe in. Here’s to start you off, he goes on, laying a small, faintly wrinkling hand on a fair pile of fresh paper pushed up my desk. Find Callum if you need anything.

With that, he’s gone, but as it happens, Callum finds me before I do need anything.

– So, you probably have a fair idea of it by now.

That much is true. Etiquette for internal communications amounts to thirty-one pages; code of conduct, eighty-five; procedures for data control, two hundred and twelve; consent, signature, any form of acknowledgement, a cleanly flat nil.

– You get stuck right in to that. I’ll swing by in the next while and we’ll get you started.

The second stage is immersion. So slowly and steadily that I don’t recognise it until well after the fact, I’ve been subsumed, reduced to a mere facet of the infinity-sided jewel of absurdite that is the hive mind. Resentment was lost somewhere along the way. What remains now is only unjustifiable calm rubbing shoulders with the suicidal.

In the beginning this means understanding the convoluted bizspeak, the needless and conflicting acronyms, utterly asinine and abstract phraseology, strings of words put through a mincer until they express the slightest sense of the situation. The first-person pronoun had been eliminated at some point during the emergence of the hive mind—to be I was to be a flower, sweetly eye-catching but no more than a distraction. This is Orwell served cold in company colour scheme.

Then I start to speak it myself, first cautiously and self-consciously before totally naturally, unwillingly. I am seduced to the Culture until I accept it wholly as my tribe and cause. Here is a dialect of my beloved mother tongue evolved in a matter of decades within a sterile microcosm, and I can only appreciate it and everything it represents.

Yes, the slightest movement has a knock-on effect—the strong drones see this almost visually, anticipating, calculating, adapting and self-reconditioning. We swerve in chaotic arcs around the all-devouring vortex of the Mission. It is nout but absolute truth that everything we know, everything we do and know and love is in service of the immaterial Customer. We will spill blood if necessary, and even if not, if only to exercise the blade.

One week, three months, half a year, and I’m snug as a bug in a rug in the mould of this matrix of fuckery. Now comes metamorphosis, true realisation of my eventual form.

Resources long since expended are demanded by departments that officially no longer exist. Managers, such as they are, disappear into the nether before others emerge from it, and I can smell their larval reek. Countless thousands of drone hours are devoured by work too meaningless to elaborate even in among this veritable tripe.

– Berlin is falling, I say to myself, but at which point exactly, I can’t say.

Callum improvises his appearances, and his support is limited to aphorism.

– What’s that now? (Is that him, or do I ask myself?)

– Nothing.

– No, but you’re on to something. I see the gust of papers flying like crippled birds out of windows whose buildings are burning tall into the sky. Bootprints etch them with blood and filth into the cratered concrete beneath before the fire erases it all.

– What? Who are you?

– Callum.

– Are you sure?

– Absolutely.

He would flit by like a bird, certainly a member of the crow family, perch on the back of my seat for a minute, then be gone. Regardless, an anchor is an anchor is an anchor.

Ross’ arrivals, meanwhile, are hailstorm, something perceived coming farther off and then hitting full in the face, impersonal but assertive. First is the sound, and not long after the sensation.

– Why don't you come by here and pound me over the desk? You'd be fucking me less that way, I hear him yell down a phone. We’re facing an incident here and you have no continuity? Don’t bother calling until you’ve come up with something.

In black-feathered flurry, Callum pauses by me.

– You know, I used to serve in the Forces—sixteen years, Afghanistan, three deployments. Of course I remember the heat and the fear, the stench of death and death and death, but then there are the soldiers sick in the head before they ever even enlisted, one in a hundred, I swear. They aimed to maim just for the opportunity to move on up and see another human suffering. None of them were as much the creature our Ross is.

I go on. I’m one car in the train, but I can’t tell you what I carry or why I’m there, what the route ahead is like, whether the rail will give up on us or if that track was ever even lain.

At some point amid this haze I go to the toilet to take a mental leak. The place is empty except for one cubicle, and I take the next one to begin silently motioning mentally in a yinyang of some panic attack of yore coupled with a novel kind of crisis, all while pretending my purpose there was simply to expel piss and shit.

– There’s no way out, you know, a voice comes from my neighbouring cubicle.

– Sorry?

– You don’t just get out of this. It’s like a one-way door.

– What?

The voice says nothing, but exhales deeply, laboriously.

– What was that?

I resolve what I can and then leave to find my neighbour’s door ajar. I nudge it open to find my only witness indisposed. A needle still hangs out of the gentle curvature of his arm, a slender, erect metal finger prodding the limpness of his body.

– Mate.

There’s nothing. Well, if stillness is something, there’s everything.

– Mate.

I leave this as is to return to what I’ve been given the impression of was of more significance. Reality, the sly bastard, comes into focus for a moment, sharp.

The correct lens clicks into place in front of my eye, and then I can make out not just the detail of the nonsense on the wall facing me, but appreciate the fineness of every line, the clarity. I am overpaid for a job that can’t be described in any humanly intelligible way, and the only thing for it is to make words. With this, in this moment, I believe the ghost has come to the gallows, phantom wrists cuffed, fate accepted. This will take a certain noose.

I begin staring at the lifeless white of a blank document on screen for several minutes before the typing begins, and when it finally does, there’s no stopping, at least within my contracted hours. I would slip with subtle satisfaction into the farce of getting paid to write.
I dream I’m flying thousands of metres above the ground, skimming along the cloud base like a smooth stone across a placid lake. I feel the water droplets on my face, clear and real and so simply affirming as walking barefoot on grass beaded with dew as dawn breaks before anyone else is awake.
Up here, I can still make out every detail, leaves on trees lining fields where birds rest before they all take flight and move in their wave-like bands over the towns and cities that, though grey and inorganic, have their own motions pulsating along venous roads and streets, each a beating concrete heart.
Only, I’m not flying, but falling. I can barely tell, but that’s what’s happening. The surface of this world I seem to know every fibre of will become all too real when I collide with it, no longer weightless, every bone shattered, my insides shredded. The earth and everything that crawls across its face will consume me indiscriminately and won’t think once to acknowledge me after the nuisance my existence has caused it.
I try calculating the exchange rate from convenience to clear conscience, but the figures only disappoint.
Happiness is elusive. Happiness can wait—will have to wait—until I achieve some modicum of success in something, anything. Need to find something—again, anything, because if beggars can't be choosers then the desperate sure as hell can't be either—to do, just for the sake of doing.

Need to apply, commit and devote self, even if on the worst days only to keep the aching self-consciousness, haunting memories and existential dissatisfaction at bay. There’s a goal in itself, and I’ll have to ingest it as such, being this bag of shit.
Oh, how observant of me. Leave the appropriate awards by the door, please.
Re-evaluate my individual situation, I remind myself, my place in the world, every time I assess someone else's set of problems. Some people have money but want more—I say some people, I mean bloody near everyone. They want to get paid to do what they love and for half the hours, pouting almost as if reality is incompatible with their idle desires. If this is the standard, I’m gold, and if not, what a waste of bloody time.
There’s some improvement, but still I remain a slave to instinct, that filthy old man of the psyche.

My ancestors survived an ice age and only kept going from there. I feel that this idea alone should be comforting enough and push me upward and onwards and beyond to that hill always on the horizon, the one from which I can see the sunset, but the real view there is of the people who made it with apparent ease and simply bask. I launch myself from a cliff, and ‘I am a waterfall’ is my final thought.
Still, I like to imagine a more mundane end, the toe tag on my gently cooling corpse reading only my name, and then in doctor's scrawl, 'auto-asphyxiation due to gross incompetence'.
Some people try to leave that dreamlike city of Ignorance in the sun-drenched country called Bliss, making sure they drag everyone around them along, too. They want to leave it! They clearly took a souvenir with them, because Christ, have they seen the rest of the world? Ignorance is where people retire to, and I can't get there soon enough. I attempt the journey with every swill of drink, exhalation of smoke, pill popped, silken line rushing up vacant nostril. There’re my routes, and thank fuck all roads lead to Rome.
That being said, the set of problems with which I present can be successfully treated with this particular drug. However, it should be said that its side-effect profile may require me to take an additional drug. It in turn is not without possible issues either. Is this something I’d be comfortable with? At the end of the day, what is it more than another’s free-form psychopharmacology? The difference lies between education informal and formal, but all said and done, I trust in doctors of medicine and spin. Everything is fine. Everything is fine.
Every combination of the overeducated and underemployed is told to sit tight by unelected powers too busy playing cute power games in oil-rich shitholes, making problems in order to superficially fix those caused by the initial ones their designated predecessors made, but please, stroll out in tailored suit and gesture cleaning your hands of it and do your best to look truly clueless as to why the state of affairs is categorically royally fucked, because there will always be more tax money to chase your tail with, and all the time in the world, since your corporate sponsors will do the legwork of actually running a country with hand slick in honey pot, which if you missed it means cock in mouth.
We’ll only accept the brave new world drip-fed, diluted one part per million, at every turn grabbing at sights, sounds and words, pulp and obscure, meaningless and transformational, all to satisfy a gaping hunger, this lack of priorities or career procrastination or just truant dopamine—but does any of it matter?
We talk about the disappearance of cancer in the next century while self-proclaimed forces of justice murder one another's children for the One Way the Right Way heavens they have never known and war has been perfected because every fear every threat and target has been boiled down to TERROR and government has never been so happy to fight it out because an enemy that can never be defeated justifies all means
because ignorance is unique in that it doesn't discriminate. In that way, at least, it unites us. Meanwhile

children are taught fact filtered through a hundred layers of political correctness shameless apologism and hazy intention the end result being a freeze-dried ration in vibrant packaging dubiously labelled KNOWLEDGE yet for its own sake rather than any common sense we still possess we ask ourselves why all of it is the way it is but it’s because it is and that’s the way it is and
that state of being I’m after, growing wild like the sweetest indica on exotic, unreachably distant mountain slopes—it seems like a desire for less, but it's actually more. In that simplicity is its complexity. Oh, amn’t I just a clever fucker? Let’s
debate whether or not the centre can hold as it collapses in on itself feminists tell other women how they can and can't be empowered deserts are cold in the shadow of the mile-high skyscrapers that modern-day slaves build in cities with expiration dates the next generation is to take the rein of civilisation and with it the sins of its father because in this culture of zero accountability blame is constructed analysed duplicated televised archived lost found reassigned recirculated and swallowed with the grimace of sour milk
and I could just put it all down to faulty neurotransmitters. That’s the closest I’ll get to really taking the blame, after all,
and in a world branded a global village with a multinational council built on the hope of peaceful tomorrows leaders bicker like schoolchildren about yesterdays spineless pond scum wave the flags of ill-advised principles and prejudices as long as or only up until the media has something to say about them they themselves revel in this perverse exchange but you already know how I feel about journalism so that’ll be that it amounts to nothing just trite buzzword occurrence to word count ratio in among smugfuck stock photo bastards posing all
while I wrestle with the Frankensteinian beast constructed of advice, anecdotes and aphorisms from certainly great minds, questionably great minds, minds still living and minds long dead. It becomes clear I’m still missing something. So what is left but to
lay out the reality of our shared problems and common goals and every inflection of the human condition and watch regardless as we take to screaming curses and tearing one another apart each individual would rather go at it until everyone including themselves is dead if it means not having to live on the same planet as someone the slightest bit different than themselves oh the thought of it
—and now resolution, the final act, reconciliation!—
of course none of it is new or even remotely irksome in fact it bores you to tears because for all the obstacles the human ego has overcome it just can't bear to get over itself the game is up and the score makes for a tidy zero-sum game unless you're poor coloured or otherwise inconvenient to the power structure in which case how far backwards can you count even broadcasting has done away with the fa├žade of integrity so we’re done done time to think it over from the ground up and I don’t mean grassroots I mean core mantle and crust

tabula rasa
ta-bu-la ra-sa
TA BU LA RA SA
I forgot to mention the third stage. The best name I have for it right now is acceptance. How did that story go again?

Randy steps into the office and puts his hard hat on a wall hook. Blake is seated at the table and sips coffee.


BLAKE
Hey Randy. How's the little guy?

RANDY
[Sitting down, sighing.] Ah, he's doin' all right… You know, we saw this therapist Tuesday. You know what she told me? That Gordon is “highly situationally aware”. What's that supposed to mean? What does that mean in real life?

BLAKE
Those folks, doctors and all them folks, they speak another language. Gordon is a good boy and that's all that matters.

Pause.

RANDY
I mean, Jesus, man, the kid's already smarter than me—what am I gonna do in a few years’ time? It's not that I'll never get to go to his baseball games. I just—

BLAKE
It's always the little things. You ain't bad for feeling that.

RANDY
And you know what else? We all know the oil is drying up. Dries up about as soon as the company moves site.

BLAKE
There ain't much else going.

RANDY
Well, ain’t much is gonna have to do.

—and we're back in the room.

That's the room I repeatedly wonder how I ended up in, the room with the people I spend my life with for one reason or another, the room that just isn't right but is by now too familiar to leave. Still, the door is jammed, or at least it was the last time I tried it, and a door jammed in the mind is a door jammed regardless. Happiness will come along eventually and open it from the other side, to be sure. I buy what you sell the people.

I digress. I tell meaningless tales to avoid truths, hide in fiction from reality, and I know full well I'm not the only one.

Days pass amid this mire, by the way.

I hardly notice the flash of steel, already so zoned out as I remain disconnected, trying to make sense of it all. The blade is unnoticed until it begins dancing with flesh indiscriminately, tearing cloth and painting crimson strokes amid scream, shriek and sob.

The building is more or less empty by now, so I just slide down a stairwell and take a back door out the building to escape it all, no more steel, no more slashing. I hear distant sirens as I turn onto the backstreet.

The lights go red, amber, green.

I wander along by the road in that dreamlike amble of the drunk, uncertain feet carrying the body above it somewhere, the head on top willing to be anywhere. A limousine speeds past, red-faced women out on a hen night screaming mangled words, one flashing her ageing breasts at me in a fleshy blur.

Soon afterwards, I pass by the rectum of a club where a pair of bulimic banshees shrink-wrapped in polyester teeter on heels as they fumble for cigarettes. Adjacent is a murder of immaculately metro lads slavered with the latest fragrance for men in desperate bid to convince me they are in fact such, and I grant them the feint. It mingles with the sweat and filth of it all in a cloud so I can catch the scent even at this distance despite my diminished sense of smell. I am altogether unimpressed, and as they ignore me, I give them the same courtesy.

The lights go green, amber, red.

Soon the brisk air is almost a vacuum, noiseless, the last drunken wails, car horns, revved motorbikes and droning urban hum fizzled out, sweetly faded; I can’t tell if it’s because of the time of night or the miles I must've covered by now. I’m still sleepwalking, brain space nebulous, travelling what seems glacially down a tunnel I'd dug for myself just to call my own.

It could well be both an ungodly hour and a certain distance. I see a plane lift into the void above the orange haze of the skyline at an odd angle, and then another. I realise I haven’t seen another face in some time and was now close enough to the airport that I could hear the low drawl of jet engines passing in and out like the tide.

I reach a ditch by a chain-link fence protecting the runways from such vagrant creatures as myself. There’s a cold, dewy niche that in the lighting provided looks like just the right shape and size for me, so I slink down for the jagged long grass to caress my scalp as it must have done that fox. I start feeling my heart beat in rhythm to the flashing jewels on wing tips winking down at me in the strange little makeshift bed.

A night can only be so long. Stories, too, come to a point at which they ought to end and be done with themselves.

This will just have to do.

As for the ghost, it never was alive to begin with, so to kill was out of the question.