Open Boxes – Part One – NaNoWriMo 2016

Open Boxes – Part One

open-boxes_coverA spray of crimson across glass, a gory rainbow splattered across the world. That’s a great way to wake up – with a start, leaping halfway to wakefulness still seeing the nightmare sloshed across reality. It’s worse when bouncing upright results in a sharp smack against the lid, and you lying down once more, unsure if it was the bloody rain or banging your head that was the dream which jerked you out of the best part of life: sleeping through it.
As I say – a hell of a way to start the day. Seems to be what we’re stuck with though – a life so thoroughly mundane that it’s only night terrors give it colour. That doesn’t mean red is the only colour in my mental palate, oh no. There’s a whole spectrum of red, from scarlet slashes on through to the rustier browns, still clinging to their rosy memories of freshness. Then there’s white (which is all of the colours, of course) to be despoiled… and on. I blame the environment; doesn’t everyone? It makes us who we are, on top of whatever bred-in gifts or curses our forebears ejaculated into the future. My environment –  our environment – is limited.
My wake up smack in the head left a mark I think, maybe a thin dent. That’s waking up for you. I think about the gap between sleep and waking a lot, perhaps too much. Maybe that’s why the dreams are so vivid and the waking time so transient. You have a chance at setting up the day the right way, but it’s so heavily informed by what came before that unless you’ve set all the conditions for success up correctly you’re likely still doomed to failure. Fail to prepare… it’s one of a number of laminated posters that mar the otherwise creamy smoothness of the walls. Like all good platitudes it carries a tiny amount of obvious truth packaged so that only idiots could feel the benefit of them. Any right-minded soul should be irritated and dismissive by such self-evident tautology. This is exactly what I mean about waking up properly.
There’s only so long one can delay getting up, once you’ve gone through the violent awakening I’d suffered. My cranial impact had prompted the semi-opaque ovoid lid to gently hinge open above me. The webwork of cracks in the lid are dreadfully familiar, speaking of its past trauma and hinting at a future of slow decay and system failure. Just like the rest of us. Still lying in my bed I could see the gleaming ceiling above me, which slants across the room at half a right angle. Almost randomly, chairs, cables, the ragged bases of cabinets and desks project from the ceiling like an ill-conceived child’s mobile. Occasionally the chairs squeak round, having reached some threshold of their fittings and sometimes plummet. I’ve charted their descent so far – we average a chair fall every thirty-two days.  Windows are set into the walls, thick diamond shaped portals into the outside, each four feet from the ceiling. The ring of them is disturbed on one side by vanishing into a mountain of junk and on the other by a wide door, its two doors jammed open with by tortured metal spokes forced into its corners. Leading down from the door towards me is a gentle incline of yet more junk, forming an unreliable carpet of metals and plastics. Home. A long black hose is drawn taut from the ceiling to just behind my head. Its casing is slowly shredding, bleeding multi-coloured wires. That should probably get onto my to do list, but to do list management comes later in the day – never start the day with planning, it gives you a set of unrealistic expectations to fail at later on.  I have learned.
I’ve also learned to not just stay in bed, even if that’s all I really want to do, or if there’s nothing else I want to do more. Those aren’t the same things, but they do look the same from the outside. I haul myself out of the pod, its formerly shiny edges worn down by days of my gentle caresses, scratched and dented by the motion of a thousand impacts, and slapped it shut. No matter how hard I try to slam it closed, it will only take that initial force so far before internal gears kick in and it softly hisses itself into sealed bliss. It’s a minor frustration, but a recurring one, which makes it all the more vexing. It’s insouciant disregard for my annoyance only makes me more determined to slam it, which will probably turn out badly for both of us, and most certainly for the frame which holds that crazed web in place. The underfoot junk here is packed quite tightly, dense enough to support my weight without sucking me into some sharp edged quicksand pit. I have a small table next to the pod, on which I’ve stored all of the vital night and daytime things: sunglasses, my small makeup compact and Spongebob Squarepants pencil case, a chain of rings, a neat over the shoulder bag (for toting about assorted screwdrivers, plugs, levers, heavy duty tape, sticky-backed Velcro), media tablet, the all-important to do list, the manual, and some private things it doesn’t feel right to simply leave among the wastes. All of that gets bundled up into the bag, over the shoulder and on into the day.
After that it was off up the sloped heap of boxes, piping, crates, foam packaging, rubble and detritus to the door. It’s not exactly a princess’ bedroom, but it is mine. By the door I’ve stacked, or ‘heaped’, if you consider ‘stack’ to be precise a term unsuited to my systems, items that might be of interest to my companions. We operate a kind of swap shop; frankly there’s little for us to do, so all we really have left is what we can create for ourselves. There are countless shattered, brutalised objects and items of potential interest mired in the slag heap, some of them will prove useful, vital and possibly fun. All we have to do is unearth them, without avalanching the whole mess. It’s somewhat tricky, but we have all the time in the world. For that day, which I’ll call a Tuesday for the sake of sanity – applying order to the universe is essential – without at least a crude calendar one’s sense of time, self and place swiftly erode. Tuesday. Tuesday was a partial file day. While that may not sound exciting, partial files are a lot more interesting than blank, empty, missing, corrupt or non-existent files. If you rank anything right, something is better than another thing. Categories, rankings, basic set theory – it’s all good fun. It also contributes to that sense of existence and place in the universe.
With my stack of semi-fried hard disk drives shoved firmly into my bag, I was ready to move into the rest of our home. Home is where the heart is after all, and if our hearts weren’t here then I guess that would mean that either we didn’t have any, or this wasn’t our home. In quite important ways it was the only place any of us had ever known, so this had to be home, otherwise we were more lost than we thought. I’m sorry, that’s a bit more cryptic than I’d intended – we’ll get to it, I promise. The key thing is, it was Tuesday, and that dictated a set of activities which produce normality. Having climbed up to the doorway I then faced a crumpled corridor of accordion folding, snagged and twisted, so that walking was replaced with crawling, climbing and stumbling while leaning at extravagant degrees from what gravity determined as down. The fluted walls were heavily patched with crudely sprayed epoxy and primly applied strips of seriously heavy duty tape. The next chamber along from mine was the other way up, the corridor having flipped entirely so that I entered on the actual floor.
Charlie’s dome was pretty much intact, structurally. The furniture was the right way up, which was a good start. Unlike the wide open space of mine, Charlie’s was subdivided into a series of pods, separated by the kind of waffly baffle boards beloved of open plan offices, creating the impression of privacy while spoiling everyone’s day with everyone else’s. Each section had had a desk, or a long flat table, a charming assortment of stainless steel drawers, cabinets, shelves. It was all very fancy. Evidently there used to be a set of large, complex devices which had been bolted to the floor or ceiling. Since their original placement they had pinballed about the room, demolishing anything fragile, leaving only the steely corporate maze behind. The machines themselves, probably official science things had ended up in a compacted mass of shattered glass and crippled curves on one side of the space. They possibly extended through one of the windows. It was hard to be sure – the windows were a different shape to those in my room, their outsides were occluded by what might be mud, or sand. In case of puncture, the whole mass of twisted metal had been liberally sprayed with epoxy as in the corridor, as well as what looked like very poor quality welding, and hope. You could tell it was hope, and Charlie’s room, because paper butterflies had been painstakingly taped over all the most serious fissures. If a butterfly can’t fix it, well, there’s probably little hope for it. Those repairs would have been done on a Thursday – structure.
Charlie had made a nest for himself, as I had, though he (and the others) had to drag his pod out of my room and plug it back in here. That was a lot easier as all of the sockets were at shin level instead of fifteen feet above your head. The selection of our spaces left a lot to be desired. The pod was dead centre in the room, in the middle of the open plan labyrinth. I’d woken early, so I figured Charlie was likely to still be enviously deep in slumber. I was wrong. His pod was empty, closed and charging. The lid was nowhere near as scratched up as mine, but then mine had probably taken the most beating. Another reason why it’s remained where it began. Our pods are unique; they are our bedrooms; our places of privacy; attuned to us both physically and, in Charlie’s case, artistically. He had decorated, which was a step farther than I’d felt the need to. Perhaps in his otherwise soulless environment he had felt the desire to make it more individual, more personal. My giant pit of carnage had quite enough personality for me. Charlie had wreathed his pod with ribbons of every colour you could strip off inessential cabling. It resembled either an egg being devoured by tiny squid or a satanic nest of wickerwork, depending on your outlook. He liked it, that’s the important thing.
Anyway, he wasn’t there, so I didn’t hang about, other than to scan for potentially handy scraps. He was a lot tidier than me, and had salvaged many of the metal bins and drawers from the science stations that surrounded his nest. They were full of what had once been precise delicate instruments, mounds of broken glass, bits of rubber and tubing and a small tub full of name badges. We ritually ignored those, but my eyes never failed to alight on them. All I could see of them was the Velcro backing, but those little white rectangles just scream to be noticed – “read me!” they shriek, “know me!”. “Be me”. I shoved that tub to the back of the shelf and hovered for a moment over the box of enamel chips, the residue of ruined tiles or heat-proofing. It’s good to get a heads up on what someone might have for trading, and Charlie’s habit of sifting his junk made it a lot easier.  I had some ideas.
After Charlie’s room, through another corrugated corridor that takes a rather sudden upward bend, which necessitates a belly crawl, I reached the first of our communal space. Another dome, this tipped onto one end, forced up against Charlie’s. The entrance had been painstakingly excavated by all of us – it took weeks – as we had to completely empty it into Charlie’s (a nightmare) in order to safely pass through it. Once we’d cleared it of course, we could refill it. It’s probably the oddest space we’ve got, ringed with shelves and lockers which in their new configuration became nooks to sit in, staring across the central space. Once it contained a kitchen and galley fittings, but again, empty it was a broad dish that we could sit in the bottom of. I’d hoped to find the others here, but again – there was no one. That was annoying for a couple of reasons. One, routine, dammit. This is a Tuesday – we meet, we exchange, and this was the place. Two, going further meant a much more arduous climb up the vertical floor of the chamber. All I could see through half of the windows were the outside of Charlie’s room, pressed together as they were. My favoured route was to go halfway up one of the window sides, and use the nooks to climb up. That only works to the mid point obviously, and then I switched to the dish and used the ladder we had painstakingly drilled and nailed into the floor. I ascended into darkness.
The accordionated hallway that took me up has no lights. We’ve tried to re-establish connection with the network, but it just won’t have it. There’s a persistent sense of wetness which makes the blackness gleam in ways it shouldn’t without light to reflected off its curves. It was like the inside of a perfectly black skull. Or a spine perhaps. It was not a journey I enjoyed and I took it quickly, that horrid crawling sense creeping up the back of my neck and massaging my head with its clammy toes. I found that I exited it faster than I intended, bowling out onto the floor of our only truly whole space: the garden.
Faintly blue light cast animal shadows across the ground and walls, the greenery adding its shadow puppetry of softly waving fronds and leaves, animating the penumbral beasts. It was captivating. There is something about the eruption of green in a place devoted to metallic greys and inoffensive beige. It subverts, perverts the otherwise functional sense of a space and makes it feel like you’re in a flower pot, the roots extending far below and the sky an imaginary construction to frame the foliage. It’s how I felt anyway. An oasis of shaded peace, miraculously perfect. Except for that day, that Tuesday. Flames danced up the boughs, annihilating the delicate leaves, smoke billowing upwards while being sucked away into overworked extractor fans and fitful rain spat out of the ceiling. And in the middle of the smouldering bushes, in a patch of scorched earth, sat Charlie’s head.

Open Boxes – Part Two – NaNoWriMo 2016

Open Boxes – Part Two

Read Part One first (it may make slightly more sense)
open-boxes_coverPrioritisation is a serious business. It’s another ranking system – which thing is more important than the other. I had a pair of pressing issues – one, my buddy’s head was on the floor, cradled in the semi-natural filth of the garden, his body nowhere in sight. Two – said garden was on fire. Now, although there are very many things that are not functional in our environment, that we have declined to repair or investigate. The garden however, is not one of them. It’s the only living thing we have. It’s a place you can walk into and be surrounded by aliveness. It’s a clear link to a real complex world where the sky isn’t dented metal and the walls aren’t covered with beige foam. That matters, at a deep level. The room was naturally well-endowed with sprinkler systems and massive extraction fans in the case of such fires as I was then witnessing. It’s likely it could take care of itself. Already the twisters of smoke vanishing into the ceiling were evidence that it was under control at a high level. But the plants were still getting fried at my level. Charlie on the other hand, well. He wasn’t on fire, put it that way.
I scrabbled for the near empty extinguishers which studded the sides of the door. I guessed by weight which would be most likely to help and sprayed the flaming foliage with gusto, extinguishing the fire and painting Charlie’s head a smoky white. With the flames gone the extraction system wound itself back down and only a reluctant dripping pattered down on me and the garden. The damage wasn’t as severe as I’d feared. We had lost a big chunk of the thorny red and orange rose that wound around the frames inserted into the garden to enable a more efficient distribution of the plants over the three dimensional space. That made me sad. I was very fond of a plant which appeared pretty and delightful until you reach out to grab it. It’s a living demonstration of look with your eyes, not your hands. So is acid. Roses are safer, and apparently they smell nice. I like their petals: thick, meaty things like the inside of an elbow or an eyelid. They remind me of material things. The spread of pea blossoms that had run away with themselves seemed to have taken the fire higher and paid the price. I cared less about that, pretty but insubstantial flowers. I know that might seem a little judgmental, but in limited space you’ve got to be picky. Charlie liked the pea blossoms.
Charlie. I stood over his head as it sank slightly into a muddy puddle of emergency water, ash and extinguisher slime. Fuck. What are you supposed to do when you find someone’s head? It wasn’t in the manual. I checked. That’s the first rule: check the damn manual. It’s the first thing, always check. It’s unreal what gets put in manuals, from a careful listing of things to not do with a toaster (apparently unusable once fish have been toasted, never mind yoghurt, or wood), where not to place it (underneath, on top of, behind, next to – what pattern of adjacency can be achieved where a toaster cannot destroy the world?), never, ever to leave it in operation alone. Toasters are lethal. Or they would be if people didn’t follow the manual to the letter. So I checked. Heads are supposed to be attached to torsos, that’s their thing, it’s where they belong. A head without a body is presumably surplus to requirements, which leads to either disposal, recycling or, and much more interestingly, investigation.
There were a number of steps I could undertake, now that I had a grasp on the situation. Inappropriately detached head. The two final outcomes were a bit premature, so I had a lot more leeway with investigation. That’s a huge section of the manual. Lots of steps. We’ve done a lot of investigation: that thing’s hanging open and fire is jetting out of it. Step one – what is it? Step two – if you can’t tell what it is, stop it being on fire, so you can tell what it is. After that you get to work out what it’s for, and then fix it. That’s where the epoxy spray, tape and my satchel of salvaged tools comes in. If you can’t hammer it closed, glue it closed. If glue won’t take, tape it up. If tape can’t hack it, lean something heavy against it. If that doesn’t work, are you and your companions struggling to function? If yes, leave, seal the place up and hope. If no, it’ll do.
I applied the same procedure to Charlie. I plucked his head from its rapidly drying puddle (we took good care of the garden’s systems) and wiped off the ash and gunk with a cloth from my bag. The buttons on the cloth made a gentle clattering sound. Now I could be certain that it was Charlie. He had tiny stars and hearts stencilled around his eyes, and a spray of something (possibly ivy, or bad wiring) emerging from below his ears, wrapping around his jaw and then around the back of his. The ivy was clearly done by another hand than his own as it went round the back – I’d have to cop to that. My artistic skills never were up to Charlie’s standards, but since he never could see it, I supposed that it didn’t matter. I liked Charlie, we were neighbours and he was a good sort. It seemed strange to have his head in my hands without a neck and torso dangling off the bottom. I flipped his head over. Ah, that was much worse. I’d hoped for a neat separation, but Charlie’s head had sheared off his neck at a bad angle, ugly tubes and dark liquids welling up from the angry torn skin. That ruled out a whole range of activities – recycling is a lot harder when you’ve got to fix and recondition things first. I was reluctant to just pop his head into one of the many bins marked ‘disposal / irretrievably broken’. I think that’s because I’m naturally optimistic about the value of things. You really never know when something will come in handy, and it’s only once you’ve consigned it to outside that you realise you needed it and now can’t get it back. That goes some way to explaining the state of my room… My contemplative moment was broken by a loud cry from behind the domestic jungle.
“What the hell happened in here?”
I recognised the voice immediately. There are only four of us, so it wasn’t anything to boast about. Charlotte. She appeared a moment later, brandishing an extinguisher of her own.
“There was fire,” I confirmed, “but that’s all sorted now. We’ve taken a hit to the rose and climbing plants, but the blackness will fade and be replaced with fresh growth in time.”
Charlotte stared at me. She does that, sometimes. I don’t know whether it’s because I naturally provide her with all the necessary information and she then needs to process it, and the staring is a kind of ponderous gaze, or if it’s something less positive. If I had to choose one of the two, I’d say it’s the dense information, because that makes me feel better. A further disturbance in the foliage behind Charlotte heralded the arrival of Chelsea, or less likely, Charlie’s body. I waited patiently for Charlotte to rejoin our conversation or for the approaching individual to be confirmed. It was Chelsea. She started out much the same way.
“What’s all this?”
“There’s been a fire, but it’s out now.” I recapped.
“I can see that. Why are you holding Charlie’s head?”
“Ah, yes. Um. I found it.”
“You found his head?”
“It’s definitely his,” I confirmed, “look, you can see the little hearts he did with that pink marker pen.”
Chelsea and Charlotte shared a look. I’ve seen it before. Again, I’m not sure if there’s a difference in our perception of information. To me, it was quite straightforward, but they always made me feel that I was missing something.
“I’ve checked,” I held up the manual, “basically, if it’s not attached to someone then it’s not a lot of use. I’m probably going to give it a rinse and stick it in my room in case we need it again.”
Chelsea lunged forward and snatched Charlie’s head out of the crook of my elbow.
“What the hell, Chelsea?” I spluttered, “I’m on this.”
“Christopher!“ she exclaimed. I stepped back, retracted my suddenly outraged arms.
“Fine. If you want to follow the manual for yourself, that’s fine,” I said, “but I’ve done it right. I looked it up – go on – look up head.”
Chelsea was doing much what I’d done before, rotating Charlie’s head in her palms. I was confident she would reach the same conclusion and hand it back to me.
“Christopher, come on – it’s Charlie’s head,” Charlotte said.
What was I supposed to say to that? I’d already identified him. It was my turn to stare for a while. I rather admired Chelsea’s features, she had chosen a bold alternating colour pattern of diamonds dissolving into cubes as they came over the crown of her head and grew increasingly tiny towards her eyes and mouth. Far neater than I could have done it; it had, of course, been Charlie’s work. Charlotte and I had painted each other’s faces that same night. It was, I guess, because it’s a while ago now and before I instituted my calendar system that gave some shape to my life. But it was what we called night, as most of the lights routinely failed. At the time we assumed that was because of some power leak – as it turned out it was a lot more simple than that, but at the time we were reduced to using wind up lanterns and glow sticks to get around until the generators started up again. I remember that it was the four of us, lost, rather frightened and both together and alone at the same time. It was a time of fragility, stress, panic. We didn’t really know each other, and certainly didn’t know ourselves. We did what everyone does – we drew each other’s faces so we could have something to hold onto. A shared identity, a bonding of souls with Sharpies, masking tape and box cutters. It was the first thing we all did together. It was when I felt we started to feel less alone, and more a family. It made me feel real, and made following the manual worthwhile. If there’s no one to do things for, then why bother? Those were the kinds of thoughts that afflicted me on waking, ideas I shook off by getting up and doing Tuesday, or Wednesday, or even Sunday.
I dimly realised Charlotte and Chelsea were talking again.
“He doesn’t get it,” Chelsea said.
“He will, give him time.”
There are layers to problems and discoveries. On the surface this was a straightforward case: identify relevant section of the manual, enact the steps to achieve a resolution. A resolution that would benefit us all, and in carrying those actions out continue to establish that happy sense of community we had so carefully fostered. Ah.
“Charlie needs his head, doesn’t he?” I asked
Charlotte did that thing where you rub the heel of your hand into your eye, and it looks like you’re tired, but really it’s to stop you making a fist and seeming aggressive. But if you recognise that’s what it is, then it still looks aggressive.
“You – you don’t think I – that I did this to Charlie, do you?”
Their faces were masks to me.