The Beach Boys

Beach is the wrong word, but we’re on a stretch of sand bordered by a large body of salty water. In the grandiose fashion typical of this scenario, my opponent sits in stony silence, veiled and garbed in black from head to toe. The gameboard rests heavy between our crossed legs. My right hand trudges solemnly from piece to piece as I contemplate the next move. I’m trying quite hard to strike a thoughtful, statuesque pose, befitting the gravity of the situation, by resting my chin atop my left fist. In reality, I’m holding my head up to keep awake, wits failing and eyelids drooping.

The beach, as I’ll noun it for simplicity, is perpetual and void of landmarks. Upon its blank, greying canvas our little game constitutes the only blotch. The water ripples to the steady rhythm of the breeze song, gentle and interminable. I glance inland toward the barely discernible brushstroke of dull greenery where the sand reluctantly relents. The sounds and sights of people and things beyond the distant green are memories and daydreams now.

I always imagined that it’d be louder. Chaotic even. Blasting sirens and an overcrowded hospital, a flash of broken glass and dirty tarmac, maybe even a blaze of selfless heroism. Everyone always prays for the calm and the silence, neglecting the true nature of that silence – protracted and weary. The comfort of family and friends by the bedside is often underpinned with trauma and regret.

My trudging right hand halts and forms a pincer, clamping the chosen piece between my thumb and forefinger. I make my move and I don’t know if it’s a good one or a bad one or if it even matters a single iota. Across the gameboard, my opponent is blank and expressionless as the sand beneath his feet. Sitting this close, I finally begin to understand the fascination and impossibility of the looming shadow, after all these years.

He’s quick and methodical as ever, playing his next piece immediately. The lack of regard or consideration isn’t ruthless or cold, it’s just business. The cumulative experience of eternity behind a flick of the wrist. Direct and urgent without even the merest hint of reckless bravado. The tension crawls all the way up my torso from the pit of my stomach to the back of my throat and the talons sink, likely for the last time. He’s not fazed.

Everyone plays the game and, in turn, reaches their last move eventually. An oft-repeated, and not even remotely comforting, mantra for the masses. The wind is strong and silent, the man in the dark garb too. I am silent. As he continues to play his moves with dull, routine certainty I grow further racked with doubt and indecision, temporarily halting the inevitable conclusion.

Victory is an abstract concept, an unattainable delusion. The odds of survival higher than the number of grains of sand on this dreary beach. I rest my hand flat on the ground, letting the displaced sand rise up between my fingers. It’s coarse and cold and I feel no attachment to the world or nature or anything around me other than the game. A strange affinity grows for the man-shaped void sitting across from me.

I’ve been slow and deliberate in my movements all this time, the game remaining fairly stable since my opponent opened up proceedings all those decades ago. I see now that I’ve been on the defensive side of things since the very first move. He strikes clean and true, while I cling desperately by calloused fingertips and fading will. The infantilisation of death in the context of a game is comforting really, a cyclical collapse back into the happy daze of childhood when all the nonsense of adulthood is said and done. To fight for one’s life is scary, to play is simple. Morbidity and absurdity walking off into the sunset hand-in-hand.

There aren’t many possible moves left now. I lift the biggest and boldest piece available to me, bright and red and garish. It’s oddly light and it feels warm in my hand. I’ve been all the moves up to this point and this move is the punctuation of all the moves before. When I was young they seemed infinite and I used them recklessly. With the late blooming of hindsight I see that the moves were only ever finite and I squandered a great many. I dwell on those that I did not squander before playing the final piece.

All those climactic encounters between life and death bear the same aesthetic, sombre old battles between black and white. The game isn’t so serious really. Indeed, I’ve found it to be quite the opposite. Colourful and absurd and full of random moves, in spite of our best efforts. Bracing myself for the climax, I take one last look around. The water is placid, the breeze gone and the sun long since disappeared over the smudge of green on the horizon. Meeting my opponent’s gaze directly for the first time, I place my final piece upon the mule’s overloaded back and Buckaroo’s legs shoot wildly into the air, claiming another soul.

buckaroo

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Bananarama

Pegsy pulls a splinter from his thumb. He’d been told to wear gloves on innumerable occasions but his subconscious entwinement of masculinity and pain tolerance has led to a standing belief that gnarled, dirty palms will contrast the soft femininity he desires in a potential mate and make him minutely more attractive. This splinter is tinged with a royal blue, born of a pallet crafted to carry fruit into the store. Pegsy despises fruit, with a particular contempt reserved for bananas. His own father had held an ill-fated dream of opening a local store dealing exclusively in the trade of bananas and, perhaps in time, the sale of other banana-related products and merchandise. Alas, it was not to be.

 
Little Pegsy, not that he was ever truly “little”, had wholeheartedly supported his father’s fructose-soaked dream, gorging himself with bananas on a daily basis to prove this support to Papa Pegsy. The man took little heed of his son’s support, considering it an insultingly juvenile act and lambasting his son for such a childish approach to the whole banana business. It may have been negative attention, but it was attention nonetheless and the young Pegsy must have internally correlated banana consumption and fatherly attention on some subconscious level because each critical comment would only drive his daily intake of bananas higher and higher. Undoubtedly, this gluttonous childhood indulgence, coupled with the implied daddy issues and internalised importance of food consumption have contributed to Pegsy’s considerable volume today, and all the health issues included therein.

 
Generally, Pegsy would dispose of his multiple banana peels each day by adding them to a crude compost heap he had unintentionally created in the small back garden behind the family’s semi-detached house. The pile grew higher by the day, as did a simmering resentment on the behalf of Mr. Pegsy Senior. Still, they let Pegsy off with it because the compost heap, the countless bananas and the desire for attention all bore the hallmarks of a potentially excellent child, in an entirely conventional sense. An inclination toward appeasing the patriarch of the three-piece family unit, a desire to eat ostensibly healthy foods and a conscious head with regards to environmental salvation. Realistically, the appeasement of Pegsy Senior should have flagged burgeoning psychological issues, the bananas alone didn’t constitute a balanced diet and the recycling basically amounted to a huge pile of rotting yellow shit in the back garden. The dire condition of the back garden drew the ire of many neighbours but the rectangular green space mattered little to any of the family, given that Pegsy displayed no tendency toward physical endeavours and had no siblings with whom to traverse the outdoors.

 
Eventually, the council had been contacted with regards to the unsanitary nature of Pegsy’s makeshift compost heap and Mr and Mrs P decided that it had to go. Young Pegsy was tasked with disposal and the parents turned a blind eye as he loaded plastic Tesco bags with foul, decaying bananas and promptly fucked them into the canal. After this point Pegsy had begun to develop a sense of awareness with regards to the effectiveness of his exponential banana intake and the attention extracted from his father. One week, in a fit of potassium induced madness, the considerably-bigger-than-little Pegsy switched out the bananas for apples in a fit of prepubescent rebellion. Again, Pegsy’s father reacted with a sort of dull weariness akin to that which greeted the excessive banana consumption. Despite the essentially unchanged reaction on his father’s behalf, Pegsy swore he saw a glint of anger behind his father’s loveless eyes and mournfully returned to the bananas within twenty-four hours.

 
The compost heap having been consigned to its own figurative compost heap, Pegsy reeled his consumption down to one banana per day. He resolved to diversify his approach by leaving his single stray banana peel on the arm of his father’s regular chair in front of the sitting room’s battered television. Alas, this approach yielded a response of complete ignorance on the behalf of Pegsy Senior, and so a more drastic approach was taken by the young Peg himself. Having indulged in his customary post-breakfast banana, Pegsy left the peel sitting pretty in the white tiled hallway, just before the front door, ensuring that his father would have to encounter the yellow symbol of paternal adoration before he left for work. Sitting in the shadows at the top of the stairwell, Pegsy watched on, silently willing his father to bend down, pick up the peel and finally grasp the extent of his son’s love.

 
As Pegsy the Elder strode toward the front door to carve out a path to his banana kingdom he never even glanced downward. His stride was long and fierce, covering two tiles in a single step. So careful was the placement of the little yellow trophy, growing browner by the minute, that Pegsy Senior, with such an immaculate stepping pattern, was destined to land heel atop peel in a moment of wondrous symmetry. And so it played out thusly, Pegsy watching through the vertical bars lining the staircase, his father slipped with such comedic verve that Pegsy still half-believes he heard a cheesy sitcom VWOOOOOMP, unlikely as that may seem. One sound effect agreed upon by Pegsy Jr and Mama Pegsy, in the adjacent kitchen at the time of the incident, is the sickening crack of Papa Pegsy’s skull upon the shiny white tile. Perhaps solace could be taken in the fact that Pegsy Senior died doing what he loved – rapidly losing consciousness.

 
The funeral passed in a haze of potassium-soaked guilt and in the wake of the incident, Pegsy, understandably, kicked his banana habit cold turkey. Futile attempts by Mama Pegsy to distract her son from the almost unfathomable recurring guilt that would characterise the course of his life were regular and ineffective in the weeks and months following his father’s burial. A particularly unfortunate attempt involved upgrading Pegsy’s battered old Super Nintendo Entertainment System to the three-dimensioned glory of its progeny, the Nintendo 64. Alas, the games bundled with the console, Mario Kart 64 and Donkey Kong 64, served only to remind Pegsy of the comical near-manslaughter of the man whose approval he would now never receive. He never managed to win many races on Mario Kart owing to his paralysed refusal to press Z and utilise the item whenever he received a banana, or bunch thereof, with which to thwart his opponents. He did, however, in some sort of sordid sadomasochistic penance, manage to 100% complete the notoriously collectible-saturated Donkey Kong 64, picking up every last banana, gold or otherwise, along the way.

The Call Centre

Cavernous and void of character, the call centre, in an aesthetic sense, offers little in the way of comfort. Imposing walls bear down from a tremendous height, painted an empty white which serves only to amplify the migraine fluorescents suspended above. In a sort of distorted stab at open plan affability, the centre consists of a single room, dizzyingly tall and split down the middle by a strip of carpeted walkway. At one end of the walkway stands a lonesome water cooler, at the other a key-coded door. Windowless, permeated with dead air and littered with blank eyes, the centre does not appear conducive to providing the kind of comforts it ostensibly offers to its callers. Dead air and an oddly disconcerting humidity imbue the workers with a heated claustrophobia. Relentlessly whirring, the ever present air conditioning unit provides a sonic backdrop against which a chorus of toneless chatter plays out. Over and over, from dawn to dusk and back around to the next breaking of distant light.

Four swift, barely audible beeps are succeeded by the click of an opening door. Mark trudges down the walkway, bearing the countenance of a man condemned to walk the plank. He plops into the ocean of cubicles at the sixteenth row, swimming slowly across to the empty space six cubicles in. His desk, like all the others, is sparsely decorated. There is a phone, a notepad and a digital clock. All three items have been chained to the table. The worrying around the edges of the clock would suggest that it has attempted escape at some point in the dreary past. For now, it remains captive at the table, the time reading 07:59. As the phone chimes into life with a jarring ring, Mark waits and watches the clock with sunken eyes. Unfortunately, the phone is still ringing when the clock rearranges its red LED lights into an 08:00. Mark drops his eyes and lifts the grey phone to his ear.

Good morning, this is Depresco and you’re speaking to Mark. How can I help you today?”

This sentence pervades Mark’s psyche at all times. Even when he manages to settle his mind enough to halt the relentless repetition of the phrase, it lurks, obscured, in the background, ready to pounce. The events of this first phone call of the day are uninteresting in their standard issue depiction of mental illness. Mark sometimes throws a glance backward into the past and sees an empathetic man obfuscated by the enduring sound of ringing phones, whirring air conditioners and quietly cacophonous chatter. Struggling to see clearly, his eyes strain and he quickly reverts from idealised past to apathetic present.

Good morning, this is Depresco and you’re speaking to Mark. How can I help you today?”

Caller number two continues in a similar vein. Indeed, so repetitious is the content of the first two customers of the day, that Mark cannot ascertain that they are different people. The two calls peter out in similar fashion. The customers attain some false semblance of connection to another human being and Mark, as frequently happens, fails to make the sale. You see, the sale is the point of the call. Again, looking backwards with dull nostalgia, Mark can almost remember the days when these kinds of services operated on the basis of that empathy which now seems lost. Empathy, having bravely withstood the slow numbing of contemporary society for so long, appears now incapable of awaking from its induced coma.

Despair is big business and Mark is a cog in the machine. Past Mark may be looking forward with disgust, but present Mark cannot see clearly through the fog of medication – self-prescribed, illicit and societal. A third phone call passes with a vocal fluttering of the eyelashes, an imperceptible flicker of improved mental health and the inevitable lack of closure on the part of the salesman. Mark considers that his ruthless streak may be on the wane. For a time he closed often and quickly. He could perceive the core weakness of a person’s mind and needle it. Once he had pinpointed this key piece, the rest would fall into place and he would proceed to the next caller, and then the next, with ever-growing confidence in his callous ability.

Today he felt the weakness within himself. Though he could not locate it with such cutting accuracy, another sign of his waning talent. They say that a man can only work this kind of job for so long before running out of steam and crashing hard. The ideal of easy retirement and a soft landing, like Mark’s sense of self, got lost somewhere along the journey to this point in time. As a man ages, he grows less capable of carrying the individual pieces that comprise his sprawling identity. The years roll past with exponential haste and the self must discard those characteristics which do not serve the current situation. In the poisoned work environment of Depresco, Mark found himself shedding anything that impacted his ability as a salesman. Empathy gave way to apathy and conscience grew clouded.

The emergence of depression as big business was no surprise. In a sense, depression had always been business and it had just recently become so direct. The line between finance and ill mental health had been well established in the years of Mark’s youth when advertising, largely unconscious to the public eye, operated on the basis that broken men and women could fix themselves with relentless consumption. Then, in Mark’s burgeoning adulthood, social media had sunk its talons forever. Advertising became unavoidable, penetrating every inch of existence. No longer did people merely consume products. They became products. They were to be advertised and sold, consuming one another until the world had eaten itself alive from the inside out. Like the rest of Mark’s past, he could look backward and see the outline of this shift in humanity, though he could not clearly determine the individual components. It had washed over him, forever staining his soul with dark residue.

In the role of alchemist, Mark had moulded this residue to encase his heart. This nifty contraption safeguarded Mark from all those dangerous feelings that often corrupted others. Love and hate and those other big words with the sharp edges. Far more than a simple shield, this internal craftsmanship had allowed Mark to hone the necessary skills to become one of the first great salesmen of the Depresco era. Mark’s early success with the company established his position within the firm. He required neither flattery nor promotion, not that there was much potential for career growth anyway. These early successes had alleviated the pressure upon Mark’s employment when his sales began to wane.

Mark had reckoned little of his declining ability. Slumps were a natural part of life’s rhythm and age had undoubtedly chipped away something of the old drive. Being a man with great disdain for emotional hysterics, Mark simply plodded along as the days ticked past in the fashion of a metronome. On this particular morning, however, something rather odd was afoot. The nerve endings tingled with electricity and that internal armour was succumbing to rust. A chink had appeared and for the first time in many years, Mark felt exposed as he picked up the phone to speak with caller number four.

Good morning, this is Dep… This is Mark. How can I help you today?”

In that brief stretch of seconds before the caller responded, Mark’s sense of self dissipated into the dead air and he felt himself begin to float toward the monstrous ceiling fans. Suspended in some officious limbo, tight chested and overwhelmed by the relentless monotone chatter of his colleagues, Mark watched the whole horrific call unfold. Deaf to the voice on the other end of the line, straining to even make out his own words, he watched with disgust as he began to shake and blubber like some overgrown man child. The bellowing weeps of the greying middle-aged man cut above the droning hum of the call centre. The faceless worker bees in the adjacent cubicles stood and watched. The drones surrounding Mark betrayed no signs of genuine emotion, more the rubbernecking fascination of those passing the scene of a car crash.

The wretched, empty sobs rattled out into the wretched, empty room. All the chatter was nothing and all the faces belonged to nobody. Mark remained suspended as he watched himself feebly place the phone back on the receiver and press his wet face to the desk. Those in the surrounding cubicles soon grew tired of their colleague’s ostentatious display of grief and returned to grinding down the callers. Shortly enough, two bland men in bland suits arrived behind Mark, hooking their arms under his pits and dragging up. A limp Mark, scrawny and unresisting was lifted without difficulty or hesitance. The men pulled him from the sea of cubicles and let his dangling legs scrape against the carpeted walkway. Mark hung in the air above seat six, row sixteen. He summoned all his might to crane his neck and watch himself leave, but his might was little and his will even less. His head bowed low, Mark’s eyes grew fuzzy around the edges and the monotone chatter gave way to an unrelenting squeal. Squeal escalating, darkness descending, Mark gave himself over to a dullness beyond even the nothingness of his last few decades. Nothing flashed before him other than the fading of fluorescent lights. Cold swept through every inch of his being and Mark expired with the memory of a smile.

The Doctor’s Office

I enter the doctor’s office with all the energy of a bag of paraplegic snails. I incline my decaying body forwards, approaching the sickeningly chipper receptionist at a forty-five degree angle. Leaning in close, I offer up my name, hushed and afraid. I’m told to sit in the waiting area. I’ll be called in due course. I spin around, proceed forwards and manage to lower myself, unscathed, into a dirty plastic chair. This takes a disgusting amount of time and just as my arse greets the plastic with a gentle kiss I am immediately called forth to the lands beyond reception.

Passing through multiple hallways, each decorated like a low-budget film set, I arrive at a second waiting area. This additional waiting area is a clinical hallway. Huge, foreboding and full of bloody sick people. I feel the eyes greet me with disdain as I enter and pirouette into the nearest seat with the casual grace of a swan driving an articulated lorry. None of my fellow hall dwellers are below the age of two hundred and I can see into their skulls, revealing dark thoughts.

“What’s he doing here? He’s far too young, white and male to be sick. He probably just wants to immigrate to my country, steal my pension and engage in terror attacks so he can afford to buy heroin and then sell the heroin to fund his gay marriage. Then him and his foreign partner can open that abortion clinic with the trans-friendly bathrooms and illegally claim the dole at the same time.”

I just know that every single person in the room is having these caustic, contradictory thoughts. Especially me. I’ve just thought them there, you’ve read them. Regardless of who the thoughts belong to, they’re irrelevant given my current predicament. These people may not see the signs of illness upon my visage, but I assure you that a dark plague is eating me from the inside out. Lifting a newspaper from the oaken table beside me, I note the headline – “Shocking Statistics: 100% Of Those Who Read This Headline Will Eventually Die”. Taking comfort in this heartfelt reassurance from the red top, I feel temporarily weightless.

Soon I realise that my weightlessness can be attributed to the fact that I’ve stood up and am entering the doctor’s actual office. She extends an arm and greets me with a threatening, cartoonish handshake, presumably to assert her dominance as a leading political figure in Western society. I consider this action somewhat unusual for a GP in a small Irish town, but I shrug it off and take a seat. She eyes me with utter contempt. I imagine she shares the feelings of her patients out in the hallway. The ones with the real illnesses. Not like me, I’m just cracked in the head, I reckon.

“So, you’ve not been feeling the best lately?”

I tell her that she’s correct, I’ve not been feeling the best. I proceed to tell the doctor, that far from feeling the best, I’ve been feeling possibly the worst I’ve ever felt. Beginning to explain my issue, I acknowledge that it often centres around alcohol and the reckless abandon of a night on the town. In particular, trips to the local nightclub seem to be key triggers, in my own unqualified opinion.

“You say the problem often rears its head during, and following, a night’s drinking? Maybe if you took me through the average night out, I could begin to develop a feeling for some of the underlying causes here.”

I concur and begin to lay out the usual sequence of events with regard to my nocturnal escapades.

“Let me see, what would I do? Well, usually I’d make a quick dart for the bar and commence intoxication, so as to build up a liquid tolerance for the events which are laid out in front of me. After procuring a beverage from the harassed bartender, I’d locate those contemporaries of mine, wherever they may place themselves within the dark walls of the club. Generally, I’d find them amidst smoke and chatter in the halfway area between the inside and the out. At this point I’d slobber and yammer relentlessly. Of course, in my own eyes, I’d be displaying urbane wit, not shouting obscenities at strangers and begging for rollies. After I’d baffled my contemporaries with a barrage of wholesome anecdotes, procuring a few more delicious pints along the way, I’d head to the dance-floor and see out the night in a sweaty haze of poor decisions and instant regret.”

The doctor leans back, eyeing me with a queer tilt of the head. Bearing the countenance of a person on the cusp of some minor revelation, I sense a diagnosis dancing on the outskirts of her mind, threatening to emerge. Intently, she leans forward and we lock eyes.

“So, let me surmise your standard night in the club and outline the behaviour involved. I see three core components at the root of your condition – Alcohol, dancing and nonsensical conversation.”

“Yes, that sounds about right.”

“You usually drink, usually dance, usually bubble?”

Suddenly, it’s happening. No longer confined to the nightclub, my illness has followed me into the daylight hours. I don’t know how it’s happening, but it is. I’m promising the world to a brand new girl I don’t even know yet.

I look to my wrist. Of course. She’s wearing my rolex. I’m a party guy and she knows it. NEXT THING SHE’S WEARING MY ROLEX. NEXT THING SHE’S WEARING MY ROLEX.

Chaos descends upon the small doctor’s office. Walls collapse to reveal that the office, as I’d suspected, is enclosed in a town-sized nightclub.The room is submerged in darkness. Lights begin to strobe. The ancient pensioners from the waiting room are merking each other left, right and centre. In vain, I try to retrieve my watch from the woman across the desk. I suspect that she may not be a licensed physician after all. I’ve been duped. It’s relentless. Will this nightmare ever end?