The Eight Hour Prison Sentence
“This is like an eight hour prison sentence,” my colleague said about the job after the third or fourth day. I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember peoples’ names. Just the things they say.
Some time during the second week, the same guy said, “I feel like I’m on death row. I’d rather be on death row...Hell, I am on death row.” Then he said, “I’m losing the will to live. I want to hang myself.”
I liked him. I think I was the only one he ever spoke to properly. He had a narrow and worried face and his chin pointed right down towards the ground as if it was aiming down to Hell where he knew he’d surely end up, where we’d all end up. He was older than me. I liked him because he was miserable. I understood him and what he said and I agreed with a lot of it.
When we found out we lived near to each other, he started picking me up and we’d drive into the city for work. He lived about ten minutes from me. Often, we’d sit for the whole journey in complete silence, as if with the knowledge that some invisible God-hand from up in the sky was pushing us into the city like it was playing some kind of sick game of chess with us. Or maybe the city was extending its huge arms and picking us up with its fingers and shoving us towards its mouth from where it’d regurgitate us eight hours later, after it’d made use of us, after it’d had its fun with us.
He said he was a writer and that he was only working the job for a while until he could get enough money together to self-publish some short stories he’d written.
“Actually,” he’d say, “I don’t say I’m a writer. I say I’m a maker because all I do is make things. It just happens to be with words. It makes me laugh when I see writer listed as an occupation or portrayed as a career choice. Writing is only a fraction of the overall process of making something with words. I do write. But I type as well. I re-write, re-type, edit. I think, I reflect, I realise, I agonise, I curse, I panic, I rejoice, I lose, I find, I forget, I remember. I lose my mind.”
“I’m interested,” I’d say to him. “How do you start to write a story?” He’d look at me. “Does the idea come first?” I’d go on. “Do you plan it all out? Do you just start with a sentence and go from there?”
“My stories don’t begin or end,” he’d say, looking out into the distance somewhere. “They’re just accidents which follow un-predetermined paths and they flow and spin and bounce beyond their material conclusions.”
I wouldn’t say anything. Just let him carry on, explain himself some.
“The process of writing,” he’d say, “...it’s similar to the beginning of, say, a football match. Think of the ball. There are so many different directions, different courses it can take from the first minute through to the last. Its path is never predetermined. It can change direction in accordance with where a player passes it to, where the player receiving the ball is stood. It can change direction and can take more or less time to reach a target according to how much force a player kicks it with.” He’d pause. “What I’m saying, what I’m getting at is, my mind is like the ball in the football match in that it travels in different directions from start to finish and has no set path. I don’t usually know what the ending of one of my stories will be until I actually write the ending. I get to a point where it dawns on me what the ending should be and I get it down as I realise it.”
“What are your stories about?” I’d say.
“Everything,” he’d say.
Eventually, he showed me some of his work. I liked it. I saw a story which was about 3,000 words in length about a character who takes a job at an insurance company and on his first shift gets stuck in toilets because of a dumb plastic sign on the door which reads ‘Wash your hands’. The man is leaving the toilets, eager to get back to his desk and create a good impression on his first day, until he sees the sign. He smiles to himself and goes to a sink to wash his hands. Job done, you’d think. The man’s washed his hands. He can now leave the toilets and go get back on with his work. But then, after he washes his hands and tries to leave, he sees the sign again: ‘Wash your hands’, and feels compelled to go back and wash them for a second time. He goes to leave again, but sees the sign still on the door, and he starts to think he’s trapped. Even though he keeps washing his hands time after time, the sign remains in place.
It’s as if some kind of imbalance has occurred in the character’s brain whereby he can’t recognise the sign as the courteous reminder about personal hygiene that it is. Instead, he sees it as some kind of unyielding dictator he must obey. He spends a few minutes washing his hands in different ways – with soap, without soap, drying them with hot air from the electric hand dryer, drying them with paper towels – in the hope that the sign will disappear or appear less commanding. But, of course, it remains exactly as it is. The character seeks refuge in a cubicle and proceedings go on with him figuring out how he can escape from the toilets while the sign remains on the door.
The story concludes that the sign is merely symbolic of life itself and the reader is left with the thought that each problem or struggle in life is not too dissimilar to being stuck in a set of toilets and that even if you do escape from one set of toilets, you can just as easily become stuck in another set.
“I liked your story,” I’d say. “That character, I could really imagine him stuck in those toilets like that, you really brought him to life.”
“I’m sorry,” he’d say. “I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s an amazing thing,” I’d say, “a real gift, you know, to be able to create something, to make something out of nothing like that. I don’t know how you do it, really I don’t.”
“I don’t particularly like making things with words,” he’d say, and he’d stop and think a bit before going on. “I don’t enjoy it. It’s just that I make things with words because I don’t think I have any other option. I’ve tried not making things with words and I like that even less.”
“Don’t you want to make a living out of it, though?” I’d say.
“Not necessarily,” he’d say. “It’s all just one way of filling the time I find myself with. What else am I going to do? Whatever anybody does with their days, however they fill them, they come to the same black end.”
Another of his stories I liked was a novella, about 15,000 words in length, about a retired civil servant who begins walking down a country lane somewhere near where he lives. On this one occasion he can’t progress beyond a certain point. He hears something or sees something – I don’t remember which – but he becomes convinced there’s something in the distance which blocks his path to where he wants to get to. The man retreats to his house and begins trying to figure out just what the mysterious, unknown obstacle is.
He embarks on a campaign, warning other locals that there’s something in the vicinity of the lane that’s perhaps deadly, and that the lane ought to be avoided at all costs. Of course, most people scoff at his warnings and other locals continue to use the lane, not least because of its convenience – it serves as a little known but useful short cut between a residential area and a road leading to the roundabout of a motorway junction. It’s also a pleasant place to walk, especially during evenings when the weather is warm.
The man tries to solicit the support of the authorities: the Police, the Council and the local Member of Parliament. He writes letters, he distributes leaflets to homes in the area about this thing he’s come to call ‘The Distance’. His persistence in the matter earns him a reputation as the local oddball. Frustrated, one day he finally plucks up the courage to confront ‘The Distance’ and sets out from his house very early in the morning with the aim of finding out once and for all what it is that lurks there and worries him so much. But from that day, he’s never seen or heard from again.
“You have two levels of thinking,” my colleague would say to me. “You have standard thinking which is thinking about things which occur, about situations, about events, thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow, where you’re going to book your next holiday to, about what your friend or relative said to you last night. Everybody thinks in this way. Nobody necessarily wants to think in this way. We think in this way because thoughts pop into our brains, our minds. We don’t actively try to think in this way. It simply happens. It’s the same for everyone. We don’t think because we choose to think. It’s something we have to do because thoughts come to us. Who would think if they didn’t have to?
“Then, on the other hand, you have band two, if you will, of thinking, a separate dimension of thinking which relates to thoughts you can generate for yourself. Here, you might contemplate your own existence, the existence of everyone and everything, why we’re here on earth. Heaven and Hell, even. This is quiet, independent, individual thought about the world, the non-world, and the possibilities relating to them both. This is the band of thinking that not all can do. If everybody did think in this way, the world would just be full of a lot of people wondering why they are where they are and how they got there, while they go running for the safety of the noose or the gun or the pills.”
One day I asked him how he was able to write thousands of words about concepts which were fairly simple – about being trapped in a set of toilets, about being afraid of something that lurks in the distance. He smiled – it was the only time I remember him smiling in the three months I worked with him – and he said, “I do often wonder to myself, when I look back on a story I’ve written...I do often think, Where did all the words come from?”
True enough, the time came a few months later when he quit because he’d got enough money together to get some of his stories published. He took me home in his car after our last shift together.
“What do you want?” he said to me.
“What do I want?” I said.
“What do you want?” he said again.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You don’t know what you want?” he said.
“Well, what do you want?” I said.
“I want to find holes in the sky and climb up inside them,” he said, as he dropped me off by my door and I got out.