Men in Lines
Updated: Sep 14
As artists, dreamers, musicians, poets - or whatever type of creator you fancy yourself to be - we all share a dependancy on the power of imagination and our ability to find mystery in the mundane. (I.e. - we see Narnia where simpletons just see a bloody wardrobe.)
How can we respond, then, when the world suddenly beats us to the test? What stories are there to tell a society in crisis? And what is fiction's role when reality already is sort of... strange? Should we all turn to writing Biographies of Boring people and make tasteless bake-well tarts on the Great British Bake off? ....
No - of course not! This is an invitation for us to up our game. Get a little bit out of your comfort zone. Rise up to the weird emotions being in isolation or lock down probably give you. Explore it! Strange times require stranger stories.
MEN IN LINES
14 months and 12 days.
That’s how long I had been waiting.
Three blocks, or roughly half a mile, how long I had gained.
This might seem like slow progress, but I counted myself as lucky. The queue had, after all, grown out of sight behind me since.
I’ll admit it was a strange existence at first. But, like anything, it eventually became routine. Sure, I wouldn’t have gone so far as calling it ’home, sweet home’. A big a fan of jar-peeing and multivitamin-pill-eating I was not. Yes, I could still remember the high-risers, the well-lit washing rooms, and restaurants with seasonal food that had taste and, more importantly, did not cause your skin to glow and your head to ache. Sometimes I caught myself daydreaming about holiday meals back home, surrounded by lovers and family. These idealistic memories grew all the foggier with each day. Now, the gents on either side of me had faces more familiar than that of my old man.
Terry, behind me, was a young clerk who didn’t really impress with his intellect, but I did enjoy occasionally glossing over his resume, showering him with praise - knowing fully, all the while, that mine was better.
The man in front of me was called Terry, too. I think all of us were called Terry, except that rough sleeper who harassed the line from time to time, but I can’t be sure. This Terry was older. Between push-ups he used to tell amusing anecdotes from his time in the navy. I got the feeling that, if it hadn’t been for our great Empire’s demise, he would still have been out there, cruising the stars from space battle to space battle. The abs wouldn’t do him much good on this planet of course, but he seemed to find some pleasure still in their maintenance. He was funny that way, Terry; always the over-achiever.
”Do you think it’s too late to swap gender?”, Terry behind me said, on that 12th day of the 14th month.
”Why do you ask?” I said.
”Well - have you seen the receptionist line?”
I had a quick look around, and said, no.
”See? It must have disappeared into the Complex days ago. Receptionists must be highly sought after, that’s what I’m thinking.”
The other Terry turned back at us.
”Are you stupid?” he said,”There is no receptionist line - yet - all the girls are still stuck by the restrooms.”
We looked away, as it was his turn with the bottle. I was next, and in that moment glad I hadn’t decided to name myself Terra.
Ten days later, exciting news came our way - murmurs of seeing the gates of the Complex, of hope waiting for us just around the next block. This would happen from time to time, and we tried to restrain our excitement until the rumours could be properly confirmed or, more likely, debunked. The rough sleeper, awoken by the spectacle I assumed, lured in the shadows, idly laughing at our high-strung state between hope and cynicism.
Terry in front of me, ignoring the madman, shook his head and sighed.
”If only some people,” he said,”could realise their lack of qualifications - this would be over a lot quicker. For all of us.”
”What makes you say that?” the other Terry said,”I heard they need a lot of man power, clerks with different skill sets, and mind sets, and computer sets, and so on…”
”What ’different skill sets’? Look at you all! You are the same. Few of you have anything at all to offer.”
”Shouldn’t we let Them be the judge at that? And have you seen a lot, or even any, people return after rejection? If it is like you say, one might think that half of these men - at least - would get unlucky, and I think if I were in that position, first thing I would do is walk down the queue and tell everyone about it, so…”
”That’s not what I heard,” I said.”I heard the Complex have a high staff turn-over, because, you know, the ones fit for the job stay, and those who don’t move on to, uh -”
”Beyond the Complex?”
”Exactly, and with that new experience and what-not they build a new life there, get some other job. It’s a long process to go through, that’s all.”
”Well, I for one hope it’s gonna be worth it,” said Terry, looking down at his grey suit behind me. ”And I really need a shower. I hope I’m still gonna look presentable enough when the time comes…”
”I think that’ll be the least of your worries,” said Terry from the front, stroking his own blazer subconsciously, I think. To the untrained eye, like those of that rough sleeper, their suits must have appeared downright identical - but I knew to appreciate Terry’s special, silver buttons. Almost as much as I appreciated my own, slightly wider, cuffs.
”Oh, don’t say that!” said the other Terry, ”You’re making me nervous. But the wait isn’t futile, it can’t be, it really can’t be - right? - Oh, don’t give me that look…”
We waited in silence for the rest of that week. The lines calmed back down, and the rough sleeper returned to whatever dark corners of the city sleepers idle. We advanced a few steps, and got one fleeting highlight when the blue men came to refill our water satchels.
I shared Terry’s anxieties more than I would let on. Sometimes that bleak street and yellow fog came creeping inside my shimmering skin, too. But, I tried to calm myself, would thousands of respectable men really wait in line for a futile, pointless future? That’s mad thinking. The Complex simply must be.
I had found comfort in counting the days, like a small rope of tangible progress I could hang on to, but eventually my accuracy ceased. Time seemed to be floating together in one, continuous, continuum, until I no longer could separate the hours from each other.
There were no seasons to help out, either. No light, no dark; just dusk. Never was it warm, and neither did we freeze. Above passed clouds of smoke, gas and dust, keeping us dry and pleasantly numb.
Navy-Terry would complain at the lack of wildlife and things growing on this planet, but as far as I knew cities had always been this way. And why not? It did match our clothing, if nothing else. Terry must have simply been suffering nostalgia concerning his army adventures. I, for one, had heard enough horror stories of toxic jungles, cosmic monkeys, and psychic martians that could kill by making you merely imagine the abyss, to know I didn’t much fancy getting to know this ”nature”-business, or indeed the endless oceans of space, any closer. Wildlife is for beasts; Work is for men.
Each time the rough sleeper passed our section of the line, he seemed to have grown a little more mental. One day I watched him approach from the north, mumbling to himself whilst glaring at the lines, rubbing his beard and nose - you know how those people are. Anyway, I must have drifted off in thoughts, because next thing I knew was him howling from two meters in front of me, and, startled, I stared. My mistake.
”You - ,” his crazed eyes met mine. ”Hear me out, man!”
”Sorry… I, uh - don’t have any change…”
”What? Listen - you must listen… You’re heading into a death trap! Get out of the line, man. You need to get out.”
”So I end up like you?”
”So you end up not dead,” he grabbed my arm. His grip was much heavier than his skeleton arms and reputation gave credit too.
”The suicide queue is over there”, I said and pointed.”See, I’m not going to die. I’m just between jobs.”
”Between jobs, eh? And what is it you do?”
”I am an accountant -”
I was about to tell him what a brilliant one I was; how organised, how efficient; how I file my papers in perfect lines, and can work an Excel sheet in my sleep - not that I ever sleep - without, of course, ever losing that work-life balance and get me off my tits on a coke addiction, but the rough sleeper cut me off. Rude.
”Accountant?” he practically spat the word,”And who were you planning to account for, then? Look around you, man. See any office blocks still standing, any banks?”
”He can account for me”, said Terry ahead.”I am an entrepreneur.”
I bet Terry was about to go on saying what an exceptional entrepreneur he was; how his navy days had given him an unique perspective on things, how he was a visionary, an enigma, equally skilled as leader and as team player; how the Complex would never even consider rejecting him. But the bastard interrupted him, too.
”If you’re so clever, mister entrepreneur, then tell me this; why do they need so much man power? Where d’you think all the clerks disappear too, eh? The world only needs so many plumber folks and science folks, and you lot we can do without”
”Nonsense! It’s like Terry here said earlier”, meaning me,”the place beyond the Complex is filled with opportunities. Save your crazy-talk for another time, pal.”
”’Beyond the Complex’ - hah!” the nameless man said, ”Beyond this line waits you nothing but death. I may be a sleeper, and a little crazy - but hey, at least I know it. You are expendable. Cattle.”
He brushed the tip of my nose as he stabbed a thin finger towards the three of us. His rant may have caught my interest for a few moments there, but enough is enough. I pushed him away, with navy-Terry’s help.
I had always taken the rumours about non-academics carrying their own set of diseases with a pinch of salt; but one can never be too careful. Wouldn’t surprise me if this one even slept his way through high school, and that can’t be healthy. If he’d looked younger I would have blamed the parents, if he’d looked greener - discrimination, but this was just sad.
”We’re not fucking expendable,” said Terry. ”Except for that one Terry behind Terry here.”
”Listen to yourselves,” the nameless man shook his head. ”The delusion lies so thick I wish I’d brought goggles. It’s all very clever; keeping you lot occupied. If men were let loose — like me - he would see this world for what it really is.. Hah! The Complex… I know He is dead - but, God help us!”
The scene had, finally, attracted the attention of the blue men. Once summoned, they were always efficient.
I watched them casually drag him out of sight, that rag of un-glowing bones. They might as well have discarded the rubbish.
Part of me was relieved, part of me - a small part, mind you - wondered if there was any truth in the crazed words. I had seen in the sleeper’s eyes that he, at least, believed it. But believing does not make being. Especially not when coming from the mind of a madman.
I don’t think the blues were the kind of blues to ever bother with recycling however, because they didn’t go far. Me, Terry and Terry could all clearly hear the gun shot.
”That poor man,” said Terry, shivering I bet, though I didn’t turn around to check.
Navy-Terry was already back to doing squats.
”He had it coming, sooner or later. They all do.”
I said nothing, but thought there was a clear reason why one Terry was ahead of me, and one behind. The blue men must have noticed them talking, because one came up to us.
”Sorry for any inconveniences,” he said.”I see you’re all nice, awake, keeping it together Terry’s, and so deserve better. Let that nameless one be a reminder why it is vital to stay calm and in line.”
The blue man was about to turn, but hesitated.
”Oh, and -,” he said,”Merry Christmas.”
He flashed us as stealthy smile, and was gone.
”merry christmas, merry christmas, merry, merry christmas…” I heard the words again and again as they drifted off, slowly, through the line; the message spreading like an echo through our mouths and souls. If it was Christmas today, that meant it was soon New Years eve and, following that, a brand new year.
Next year - that is when it’s all gonna change.
I smiled in confidence as the thought struck. From afar I know I must have looked as inconspicuous as a single pearl on a necklace - stretched in a narrow line, towards infinity. But, at least for that moment, the necklace was not of pearls, but of diamonds, and I was the one shining brightest.
Ahead and behind me, Terry and Terry stood smiling too.
She is also a South London musician, barista, and proud union member. Check out her psychedelic rock band here
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