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TWO HUNDRED AND NINETY MILES

290 MILES TO GO

 

I am on the train now. There are 290 miles to go. From the window I can see people watching me from the streets and fields as the train speeds past. They all appear to be wearing tight white tennis shorts and occasionally, when I look closely, I can see a deep red blooming at their crotches, spreading out across the tops of their legs. They wave their arms very high in the air but for no real reason that I can discern. There’s no panic or pleading on their faces, they aren’t crying for help. All I can assume is that it’s some sort of dance, favoured by the people living in this part of the country. Perhaps a ritual associated with the passing train, a means of protection against its speed and bulk. After all, talismans do drip from their stiff cotton cuffs, mystical symbols are scratched into the dirty sand by their platformed feet.

 

I see animals too of course. Cows and sheep. Horses with chestnut backs as reflective as mirrors. They move along with the train like a pack of estate agents let loose, finding that their legs stretch much further than they thought. Until they reach their limit of course, they hit a fence or a hedgerow or their lungs contract impossibly. Then the train speeds away and I leave them behind. Goodbye herds! I whisper. Farewell beasts! I’ll probably never see the same set of sheep and horses and cows again.

 

I am going to be 290 miles away for some time.

 

WHEN I FIRST ENCOUNTER THE TRAIN I HAVE ALREADY BEEN EXHAUSTED BY THE STATION

 

I had waited to board the train next to a dusty crowd of people. The platform stretched for two and a half miles and the sun maliciously heated the bleached concrete below us. I hopped from one foot to the other to prevent the rubber soles of my plimsolls melting and sticking to the ground and most of the other people around me did the same, avoiding eye contact as we soundlessly pranced and waited. The heat had killed all the sound and our ears strained from trying to hear. The heat was coming from the colourless sky, pushing all the noise into the ground and there was just so much silence, so much stillness. That is until, inevitably, we felt the vibration of the approaching train. It rattled up through our feet, ankles, calves and thighs to settle pleasantly somewhere around the genital region.

 

Before the platform though, of course, there was the station. The major station of the major metropolis has been carefully designed so the description ‘gleaming cathedral of metal and glass’ pops into your head as soon as you walk through the elegant frosted panes of its automatic doors. In fact, if you look carefully enough, you will see these words projected around the station in hidden crevices and pipes that serve no obvious purpose. Even the muzak that plays everywhere sounds like privately educated children whispering  ‘gleaming cathedral of metal and glass’ over and over and over until you forget the station’s purpose as a transport terminus and become convinced the very musculature of the building should be deified.

 

And of course central to this cathedral there’s the vast altar of shops you must pass before there’s even a hint of a train. On one side there are aisles and aisles of tiny travel cosmetics and toiletries and on the other oversized sandwiches and troughs of organic salad with optional pomegranate dressing released through a sluice. Carefully I selected a bottle of shampoo the size of my fingernail and a sandwich the size of my leg. The platform was announced and the automatic drawbridge lowered to reveal miles of white concrete and the faded crowd.

 

I clutched the sandwich and shampoo to my chest and made my way through the curtain to board the train.

 

TOWARDS ZERO

 

Very abruptly I had stopped working at the arts organisation in the major metropolis. My job had not been artistic in nature and my most demanding duty was to look busy without actually doing anything of value. Moving a pile of paper from one location to another, typing an endless stream of unconnected numbers into small boxes, picking up and putting down a telephone receiver the colour of a prosthetic limb. I’d found an excruciating comfort in this monotony and had supposed that it was a fair existence. But of course there was a profound psychic damage at work, some low level erosion that did not become apparent until it was too late.

 

It started with concealing a smirk when my line manager Rebecca veered off topic in the team meeting to tell us she knew the identity of a famous incognito graffiti artist and ended with sitting on this train, clutching a sandwich in a lovers’ embrace. Somewhere in between there was the complete severance of my temporary contract. It was not much of a contract in that, although I worked 40 hours most weeks, the arts organisation were only legally obliged to give me zero hours of work.

 

SIMPLE MATHEMATICS

 

The journey of 290 miles may take 17 hours or more given the service provider I have chosen. This service provider has a reputation for being below mediocre but only ever so slightly and therefore, given today’s climate, they are actually quite good. For example I am sitting on plastic and foam blocks fashioned into a seat instead of standing or being held up by the taut bodies of the other passengers and, although the window is covered in a harrowing dust whose colour I would best describe as ‘brown’, at least there is a window.

 

I had used the last of a massive overdraft purchasing the ticket for this journey. I have no savings and I’m hungry all of the time. Every day I cover my skin in a thick layer of plasticky make up in order to cover acne scars but still, despite its density, it never quite hides that I was raised on cheap margarine and frozen foods filled with now banned toxic additives. After moving to the major metropolis I had begun to sweat excessively, an uncomfortable heat radiated from me in damp waves. I never knew what to do with my hands and I was scared of mispronouncing words I’d read in books but never heard before. The thick weight of their unfamiliarity filled my mouth until my swollen tongue could push out only an exhausted mumble.

 

In this way existing in the major metropolis had become a kind of torture. I had hardly realised it but over a number of years I had become very lonely. It was a loneliness that felt like I had travelled far away from myself, that I had become a stranger who had surrounded themselves with other strangers. Our faces contorted into similar shapes when we saw each other but we hardly knew the meaning of this. The moving of a person’s brow in a certain way was as indecipherable as hieroglyphics to me and yet I tried to mirror their movement, hoping they didn’t realise I was lost.

 

But yes it is true that in order to travel 290 miles you have to first travel 145 miles and before that 72.5 miles and before that 36.25 miles and before that 18.125 miles and before that 9.0625 miles and before that 4.53125 miles and before that 2.265625 miles and before that 1.1328125 and before that 0.5664062 miles etc etc etc etc etc etc…

 

ESTABLISHING A SKIN CARE REGIME

 

On arriving in the major metropolis many years ago I had quickly found a romantic partner and our relationship took the usual progression from drinking heavily before we could have sex to signing our names next to each other on a tenancy agreement. After he left me I spent some time daring men in shiny suits and pointed brogues to murder me. I consumed recklessly, stuffing endless meals into my mouth until I could no longer taste anything.

 

And I wished deeply that the dirt covering my skin, the dirt I was born with, could somehow be painlessly washed away or, at the very least, become invisible. From afar my skin looked like everyone else’s but up close there were tiny pockmarks  – little holes filled with black dust that were impossible to remove. So in hidden places I had begun to trace the lines of my failing upon my skin using various sharp or hot instruments. The top of my thigh, the sole of my foot, the place on my wrist where my watchstrap sat.

 

I found myself bored with and vaguely hated anyone who cared about anything, especially my colleagues. People with a passion had begun to sicken me. Yes, I hated Rebecca and her insistence on the importance of the incognito graffiti artist, by Gemma and her wedding plans, by Nadine’s love of music festivals and, although he had died some months before, by Richard and everything he did.

 

RICHARD

 

Why didn’t Richard haunt the beautiful women in the marketing department? They spent their lunch breaks combing their thick dark-blonde hair and stretching out their tanned limbs in nearby parks where the sun always shone. Slowly eating tiny pieces of the salads they’d prepared at home and transported to the office in fashionable containers. Surely that would be more entertaining to Richard than watching me pick out a sandwich of vindaloo meat product from a leading pharmacy and once again crouching in the toilets to eat it in small, quick and unenjoyable bites?

 

But of course I knew Richard enjoyed the cruelty of haunting me. He’d often tell me that he didn’t know much about art but he knew a lot about administration, as if my problem was not knowing rather than not caring. He loved to comment on the way I filed the invoices or updated the database in order to make me feel guilty about the sloppiness and inconsistency of my work.

 

The work was so dull and required so little effort I felt catatonic for a large portion of the day and yet I was still exhausted. For a number of months I wondered if I was suffering from a serious illness, a result of my poor diet as a child, before I inevitably realised that inactivity and apathy had drained me.

 

And so I’d make cup after cup of tea whilst Richard quietly criticised me. I didn’t even drink them, just let them go cold and made them again. Cups of brown liquid gathered around my desk as I mashed the bulbous tips of my fingers into a keyboard and watched a line of gibberish appear on the screen in front of me. All the time Richard was standing over me, scowling.

 

HORSES

 

Sometime after Richard’s death but before this train journey I was sitting in a corner of the arts organisation’s largest meeting room as a collection of other pale skinned people tried to decide which artwork would be funded for exhibition in the major metropolis next. Rebecca read the applications loudly and quickly, discarding the papers in a messy heap until she reached the one marked FUNERAL HORSE FUNERAL.

 

The artist, a late born son of a bloated aging rockstar, had had difficulty funding the project, despite being unburdened with the shackles of major metropolis rents, bills and living expenses and we, the arts organisation of the major metropolis, could give him the credibility he craved simply by transferring a vast amount of cash into his bank account. Rebecca read with solemnity the proposal, impact statement, budgetary requirements. The late born son of the bloated aging rockstar would record everyday people, just the average man on the street, talking about their feelings for and relationship to, funeral horses. An undertaker, chosen for his love of horses both professionally and recreationally, would transcribe their words which the LBSOTBAR would cut up and rearrange into a new script to be read by attractive actors wearing masks that depicted average men. The masks would be made of a very special and expensive kind of paper obtainable only upon successful application to an obscure embassy. Once the masks were donned the actors would be filmed reading the script in a dull monotone and the film would be projected on to the flanks of the horses themselves. Following the exhibition the horses would be let loose, free to roam the major metropolis as nature intended.

 

There was a hushed reverence before a single tear fell from Rebecca’s eye and splashed on the table. The whole room pushed back their chairs and started clapping – giving a standing ovation to the piece of paper she’d just read from. Rebecca wrote done a figure on another, smaller piece of paper, more money than I was ever likely to earn in my lifetime and FUNERAL HORSE FUNERAL became the latest artwork to take the major metropolis by storm.

 

LOST IN THE SANDWICH FACTORY

 

A group of passengers sit opposite me talking in a low hum, their hair is styled in a multitude of crispy waves that have not been fashionable for some time. I turn away from these outmoded styles and I look through the dust streaked windows at the buildings, the fields, the so called trees. The wind outside has a colour, a hue like the backs of pale insects. The sky itself is a very dirty white and behind the clouds the sun is a silver disc. It’s not like childhood I think. The sky and the sun were different colours then, although what colour exactly I can’t remember.

 

The train passes a vast and almost abandoned industrial estate. Deep inside a large obsidian cube powers a sandwich factory producing thousands of sealed bread pyramids every hour. The situation is replicated every 20 miles or so along the journey. Another empty industrial estate housing only a refrigerated factory where a man or woman clothed in layers of papery white garments – from the elasticated cap to the elasticated booties – presses a button that flips triangles of bread and squeezes out a variety of delicious and almost identical fillings. These fillings are manufactured using an opaque process which the employee never fully understands and which involves an alchemy of edible glues and powdered flavourings.

 

I hold my own sandwich tenderly as we travel past warehouses containing fields of fluorescent lit baguettes, wraps, rustic sourdough etc etc. The train crawls through the scorched fields, the barely functioning buildings, the abandoned sports venues. I take a bite from the sandwich. I chew bread and indeterminate filling into a smooth viscous paste that I press against my teeth. Eventually the gathering dust obscures the windows and I am forced to observe my fellow passengers and their antiquated coiffures. They pass boiled sweets to one another but do little else of interest. I try to close my eyes but there seems to be some sort of grit under the lids, making it practically impossible.

 

ULTRAMARINE GLASS

 

The arts organisation was housed in a small skyscraper of ultramarine glass. A beautiful receptionist called Hillary was employed to greet people and direct them to the correct floor. She had been selected for the sculptural nature of her body, she was statuesque, unreal. During her commute and working hours she was contractually obliged to wear a minimum of 7 (seven) different items of make-up.

 

This policy was swiftly re-thought after Hillary purchased expensive lash lengthening mascara that promised to increase the length of her eyelashes by 7000%. But soon after she applied it the weight of her lashes tore her eyelids from her face and they had to be surgically re-affixed. Doctors strongly advised her not to wear eye make-up during the 14-month healing process and the arts organisation, fearing legal reprisals, reduced the items of make-up required to 4 (four).

 

After passing Hillary at the front desk you can take the lift to any one of 8 (eight) floors, containing departments with vague and unnerving names, filled with people whose job titles were equally vague and unnerving. The corridors are decorated with art such as: a portrait of someone’s father painted in menstrual blood; a photograph of a lush natural landscape pockmarked with once cutting edge, now defunct, electronic products; a sculpture made of lumps of reclaimed cement daubed in neon paint.

 

The middle-aged women from accounts are hidden in a forgotten corner that has remained in its original state despite the 12 (twelve) renovations the rest of the building has undergone. They have a special table set aside for cake that they offer to anyone who deigns to visit them with a financial query. The cake is never cleared away. New slices are piled upon old without the accounts women ever touching them. Mounds of rotting cake are left to fester because they are being ‘good’. Pam, the alpha clerical assistant, watches the icing slide into a puddle as she licks the residue from the lid of her low fat apricot yogurt. It has been many years since she has eaten solid food and her jaw mimes the motion involuntarily, longing to have something to chew.

 

SOMETHING BREAKS

 

The condensation on the window has formed uncomfortable rivulets. I loosen my grip on my sandwich, I have long ago lost my shampoo. I take a book from my paper sack. I open it to a certain page and let my eyes look over the words but my lids begin to droop. My jaw slackens, hangs open, moisture gathering at the sides. A tired heat creeps into my limbs. The book drops from my hands on to the floor of the train. The cover is a black and white photograph of an old fashioned locomotive edged by a muted silver spine. The title and author’s name appear in a very tasteful font. I would like the book to stay where it has fallen, to never have to touch it again but a women in a denim smock picks it up and hands it back to me. The smock is undoubtedly expensive and it is obvious from its rough-hewn quality that it cost more than I was paid in total for 26 months of working at the arts organisation.

 

Unbeknownst to myself or the denim smocked women deep within the intricate and indecipherable mechanics of the train’s engine a taut rubber ribbon has been stretched until it snapped. As a result the train begins to overheat very quickly. The boiled-sweeted hairstyles opposite attempt to open the windows but they are sealed shut to prevent the harmless but pungent gas from a nearby leisure centre blaze from entering the carriage. We become restless, clothes are discarded more quickly than is decent. That is until little bottles of complimentary water appear in our laps to cool us down. They have little to no impact on the temperature but the very idea of receiving something for nothing creates a superficial calm.

 

DON’T LOOK AT THE CARPET

 

The air in the arts organisation had begun to smell like uncooked dough and mysterious ailments had begun to haunt my body. What’s that throbbing at the top of my arm? A sudden loss of breath, difficulty swallowing, my eye swollen shut for half an hour. I scratched at sore dry skin on my arms and legs. Hairs began to appear where they shouldn’t be. Unusual coloured vaginal discharge. Strong smelling too.

 

Before I could make it to the toilets a bright bile leaked from my mouth onto the threadbare carpet. Something soaked through my underwear on to the spongy pad of my swivel chair.

 

I had become most bothered by the expanding sore redness under my breasts, a swampy wetness that had begun to smell like rot. Richard commented constantly on my odour. In a rare moment of taking responsibility I visited a doctor who advised I take daily baths in Epsom salts, followed by rigorous towel drying and an application of talcum powder. To this I said, “Doc, no one in the major metropolis can afford a property with a bath. The best I can hope for is a hose tied to the wall of a windowless cupboard. And also, what is talcum powder? Please doc, I implore you just give me the strongest ointment available on prescription and maybe throw in a course of antibiotics and some opiate based painkillers too.” But of course I didn’t say this though. I just said thank you and inserted my money into the slot, leaving in tears and heading to the nearest shop to never buy Epsom salts and talcum powder.

 

FUNERAL HORSE FUNERAL

 

The private view of FUNERAL HORSE FUNERAL took place in an exclusive gallery in the centre of the major metropolis. I was required to attend but strictly in an administrative capacity. I was absolutely forbidden from expressing an opinion on the art on display or in fact any art at all. My instruction sheet stated that if questioned on art, artists, artistic movements or the arts I was to giggle softly or better yet excuse myself in a quiet voice and stand in a corner. My accent, the way I wore my clothes, the sturdy architecture of my body – they all conspired to make my opinions a worthless joke.

 

The LBSOTBAR an exquisite combination of humble and proud. He arrived with a coterie of beautiful women so pale they were almost see-through, their eyelids seemingly made from an iridescent blue prophylactic. They were as delicate as consumptives with wrists so thin they couldn’t lift the expensive wines supplied by the arts organisation. The LBSOTBAR escorted this entourage through the gallery and of course they had quite an affinity with the horses.

 

Unfortunately several of the beautiful actors suffered allergic reactions to the special paper and it’s thought they will require on-going counselling to deal with what is sure to be a life long disfigurement.

 

And of course in the end a number of people were killed by horses during the evening. The projectors heated the rumps of the horses forcing them to buck and kick in order to demonstrate their distress. Assuming this was all part of the performance guests approached them to in order to immerse themselves in this interactive experience and suffered fatal kicks to the face. The LBSOTBAR filmed their demise and the footage will form the basis of his next work, tentatively titled FUNERAL HORSE FUNERAL FUNERAL.

 

A PYRRHIC VICTORY

 

Following the private view the whole arts organisation was in a state of heightened excitement. Despite the deaths and disfigurements the event had been deemed an unmitigated success. The LBSOTBAR was tipped to secure the major metropolis big art prize and certain undertakers were reporting a 200% increase in demand for funeral horses

 

For myself it was a day when the usual dissatisfaction and boredom had hardened into a specific kind of madness and a lightheaded dizziness gave me a sense that nothing was concrete; I was somehow floating and drowning at the same time. Unmoored but suffocating. A balloon covered in slowly dripping cement.

 

I deposited the filing I had avoided for 18 months in a number of bins across the arts organisation’s 8 floors as Richard looked on in disgust, telling me my whole body was just a machine for making a ghost.

 

That was the last time I saw Richard and by afternoon the dizziness had abated.

 

But the reprieve didn’t last long and I began to do things unheard of in an office setting. A danger to myself and to others, the beautiful marketing women called the middle-aged women from accounts who in turn called the authorities. Rebecca stood by uselessly until deciding to pick up the phone herself and call the famous incognito graffiti artist whose waning relevance she hoped to resurrect by pitching a piece called “WE JUST CAN’T GET THE STAFF”. And all this time I softly whispered under my breath I win I win I win I win I win I etc etc until inevitably I was taken away and forced, eventually, to board this train.

 

290 MILES TO GO

 

I am on the train now. There are still 290 miles to go. The sides seem to close in on me in miniscule increments. I have been watching out of this window for a number of hours, days or weeks. Could it even be months or years that I have been sitting on this hot damp train looking out through the dust, straining to see the animals, the people, the factories and fields? I close my eyes to the noise and smell outside rising upwards, to the wet stars dripping downwards and in between, really, just blackness.

 

It’s so dark outside now and I imagine settling in the hard narrow bed of my childhood room. The pine clad ceiling slopes sharply above the bed and I can float up gently until the tip of my nose touches the wooden panels. And below me there will be one thousand people in expensive paper masks projected onto the shiny smooth rumps of muscular horses.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer from County Durham.

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