Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Office Castaway (2003)

This story was inspired by J.G. Ballard's superb fabulist novel CONCRETE ISLAND. The idea of that short novel is so excellent that I kept wishing I had thought of it. The only way to stop feeling the pangs of an absurd regret was to take the idea and manipulate it. A simple reversal did the trick. The subtitle of the following story is 'A REVERSE BALLARDIAN BALLAD'.

The story begins on an island inhabited by a man called Friday. Whether he gave himself this name or had it forced upon him is unknown but he is happy enough in his solitude and the absence of companions does not trouble his waking moments. Only in dreams does he experience a slight unease, a sense of undefined longing, but this is how dreams affect everybody and no special conclusions should be inferred from the fact. Friday likes to patrol his territory each morning but he never ventures down to the sea because he has a fear of drowning.
     The sound of surf is constant in his ears and he has grown accustomed to the rhythm of the tides, the daily increase and decrease of the dull booming. He dines on wild plants and the animals which dart in the undergrowth and his aim with spear and sling is excellent. He can no longer remember who taught him the use of such weapons, but questions of this nature are mere amusements in the rare lulls between the serious duties of hunting and keeping warm and dry. In summer the island is an agreeable place but the rainy season is relentless and bitter and his clothes have long since crumbled away to unwholesome dust.
     Friday sometimes thinks about leaving.
     But how would this be possible? He cannot swim and has no idea how far away the next island might be, if indeed there are other islands, nor in which direction he should go, nor how to keep to that direction, nor why anywhere else should be better than here. It is certainly not loneliness that bothers him, but mostly the chill, the clammy rain, the absolute greyness.
     One winter it is so cold that the water in his drinking vessel turns to ice and the biggest fire he can build is still inadequate to keep him in comfort, for though it roasts one side of him nicely the other side is still exposed to the freezing air and so he must revolve constantly to maintain an even spread, which is exhausting and annoying. Now he understands why true happiness will never be his if he remains and he stands and starts to run around the island as an alternative method of generating heat. Although he has never approached the sea closely he knows what it looks like from a distance and now he observes that it too is coated with a layer of ice.
     He stops and hugs himself tightly and wonders if this surface of solid water will take his weight but in accordance with most stories of this nature he hesitates for no more than a few seconds before rushing forward and testing the concept in a practical manner. The ice holds. There is no sound of surf at all, only the cries of birds high above and a crackling behind which might be shifting ice or the death throes of the fire he has abandoned. He slides and loses his balance more than once but manages to avoid falling and now he begins to suspect that the world is not quite the place he always assumed it was, far from it.
     Those are not clouds on the horizon.
     Previously the range of his vision was limited by the vapours he has never before questioned, the tumbling steams which roll over the sea and smother his island, though without choking him, for they are not quite that thick. Grey and bland mists.
     Now he is a witness to strange scenes. In silence.
     He shudders and perceives that there are vessels in the vicinity, boats stuck in the ice. He searches each in turn. At last he comes across the aftermath of a collision, two vessels jammed together, metal plates dented and crushed, lanterns and portholes smashed, a pool of frozen blood around them. One of the boats is empty but the other contains a man with a broken neck, a man not dissimilar to Friday in general build and appearance. Icicles have formed on his shaven cheeks and chin, giving him an old sharp beard, and Friday's own beard is spiky and hard, so they regard each other, fevered eyes locked with dead.
     It is too cold for profound thoughts at this meeting and Friday quickly strips the corpse of its clothes and uses them to cover his blue flesh. Nakedness has been exchanged. He is on the point of congratulating himself and maybe even making plans to return to his island when a roaring noise fixes him in his tracks. Is the ice giving way? No, it is something else, the approach of another vessel, larger than the boats already here, an object moving over the ice, breaking it up but without plunging through, spitting white crystals from a long tube in its side. Behind it, following the channel it has created, comes a vessel adorned with flashing lights.
     Friday staggers under this onslaught of sensation and the second vessel stops and lets out two men with a stretcher who run over and catch him and carry him back to the rear of the ship. In the hold it is warm and white. The men lean over Friday and speak and he understands a few of the words but not the meaning of what they are trying to tell him and he is intrigued by the mystery of his recognition of language and the deep memories it stirs within him. Then they jab something into his arm and he is overcome with the weight of sleep and when he finally awakens, with no dreams to disengage from, he finds himself no longer in the ship and no longer moving.
     There is a window and it shows a lawn and trees and a wall and beyond these comes the sound of surf or rather a sound which he knows well but no longer has the same meaning as before. He lies still on a bed and after an hour he is visited by a man who seems pleased he is conscious and mumbles something to which Friday nods because he knows it is expected. The man leaves and returns a long while later with a companion and they are both dressed in white coats and they talk to him but many of the words they use are incomprehensible. Friday rubs his chin and realises they have shaved off his beard.
     They tell him he is in a hospital and that he has suffered an accident because of the freak weather conditions. His memory has been affected and he does not know who he is, an assertion which strikes him as absurd, but he makes no protest. For one thing he is curious. It seems they have taken the liberty of going through the pockets of his suit to ascertain his identity and that his wife has been contacted and will be here soon. Eventually a woman arrives and sits on a chair next to his bed and her pinched face regards him with doubt and hostility but she says nothing and he makes no attempt to talk.
     A few days later he goes home with her.
     He has no physical interest in this unknown female and she reciprocates his apathy but they become companionable enough and spend the days sitting in separate soft chairs watching the televised news bulletins, many of which are concerned with the recent plunge in temperature, a climatic anomaly now fortunately over. He even stops thinking of himself as Friday and the new identity he has been given no longer feels inappropriate.
     One morning he is visited by a figure exuding an aura of authority and competence who rings the doorbell and is led to his side by his wife. This figure is his boss in the firm where he is employed. Friday is informed that the company has made a decision to welcome him back to work despite his amnesia. He pretends to be grateful and stands to shake hands.
     He returns to the office the following day.
     He is lost in this unfamiliar environment but his colleagues show him the place where he used to sit, the desk groaning with papers, the telephones and filing cabinets. It is the far corner of a dim narrow room without windows and he instantly realises he is truly stranded for the first time in his life, a castaway in a cheerless box, marooned without adequate nourishment for mind and heart, stranded without hope of rescue in an eight hours a day, five days a week job, not counting compulsory weekend training courses. There is no way out and his prison is bounded by the sighs of his colleagues, the surf of despair.
     As the months pass he begins to accept his role as normal, though it never becomes more welcome nor does he ever really understand the meaning of his daily tasks. But it does not seem to matter what work he does provided he turns up punctually and remains there all day. His colleagues gradually become confident enough in his presence to openly joke that he is not the man he once was. His wife has not quite reached this stage. He is informed that because of his mental condition he will have to retake his driving test and so he arranges for lessons. In the meantime another worker offers to give him a daily lift from his house to the office and back again.
     Sitting in the passenger seat as they accelerate down the urban motorway, he turns his head away from the driver and stares out of the window. Where three busy roads intersect there is a large piece of wasteland, isolated and overgrown, littered with wrecked cars which recline like boats on an exposed reef. He briefly wonders how the waters receded, how all this land was reclaimed from the sea, how the surrounding flyovers and buildings were erected so rapidly. It is a mystery beyond imagination, but for some reason he does not yearn to know the answer.
     The story concludes with this image and the observation that changes are inevitable, every day in any life, and that they should be welcomed.
     But for Friday it will always feel like Monday morning.