Open Boxes – Part Two
Read Part One first (it may make slightly more sense)
Prioritisation 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.