When he looked at his alarm it was 2:55. AM. He had told himself to wait until at least three o’clock. He would still be early then. He decided to spend a few more moments completely conscious of these old and all too familiar surroundings. He stretched his legs, his hip cracked; he alternately flexed his left and right leg, and then pulled his knees towards him, closed his arms around his legs. He stayed in that position for a few moments with his eyes closed. A ball. A human ball. A round and circular thing, no beginning, no end, head on foot, foot on head. He could feel his heart beat on his thigh. Baboom. Baboom. Baboom. Regular. Maybe a little faster than usual, but regular. As if it was a normal day. As if nothing was going to change. He had stopped believing that body and mind were in any way connected. They both seemed to be leading a life of their own. One could be healthy whilst the other was in agony; one could be tired while the other could not come to rest; one could be exhilarated while the other was ready to shut down. His body did not seem to understand what his mind had long ago comprehended; his body was unaware of what his mind had long a go agreed to. And this was probably a good thing too. He was relieved his physical instincts did not decide to battle a decision his mind had made. Instincts. He was convinced that the human race had been deprived of instincts a long time ago. Every step we take is a decision that is consciously made. Or a decision that is made for us. Or an impulse we follow. But impulse and instinct is not the same thing. Animals are lucky. They follow their instincts which are poled in a way to protect them from harm. Impulses, on the other hand, often lead us towards the opposite end of the spectrum. The chances they lead to a negative outcome are around 50/50. Would you want to trust somebody or something with your life knowing the chances of survival are but mere luck, unpredictable?
He noticed his thoughts were digressing again. He breathed. Slowly. Inhaled. Exhaled. Inhaled. He. Had. Thought. This. Through. He did not want to feel the need to justify himself anymore. He stretched again, rolled over onto his stomach, spread arms and legs, and buried his face in a pillow. He felt his warm breath against his cheeks. The darkness surrounding him was complete. The warmth was soothing. He waited another twenty seconds, listened to the clock’s regular tick, tock, tick, tock, and then unhurriedly sat up, his feet flat on the floor, his back straight, his arms left and right resting on the soft fabric of the duvet. He wondered why his hands were still able to feel such tenderness. A soft touch comforting his battered palms. He thought he would have forfeited the right to kindness, thought he had lost the ability to experience sensitivity. He almost wished he had, but maybe this was the final test, the ultimate torture he had to endure.
He stood up, stretched his arms above his head. Feel, feel, feel, everything and as much there is. He switched the light on in the bathroom. It was bright, almost blindingly, and hurt his eyes. He slowly stepped into the shower. The water changed from freezing cold to boiling hot back to freezing cold for the first few minutes. He endured. He had been oscillating between the extremes his entire life, so why try to avoid it in the shower? Why wait for the moderate middle? Moderation. Everything in moderation. Food, drink, sleep, fun, sex, work. Moderation is the key to happiness, isn’t it? Don’t get too excited, you might get disappointed; don’t get too sad, you might not be able to get out of it; don’t eat too much, you might feel sick after; don’t drink too much, you might make a fool of yourself; don’t spend too much money, it’s wasteful. You have to do it just right, moderately, have it under control. Fiery passion will burn you, warm affection will keep you comfortable. No, you have to do it just right. Remain calm, remain quiet, remain moderate. Don’t be too adamant, compromise. Don’t be too assertive, be considerate. Don’t be too ambitious, be motivated. Don’t be too excited, be enthusiastic. Just right. Just moderate. Be moderately moderate. Love thy neighbour. Honour thy father and mother. Do not steal. Do not envy. Do not sleep around. And most of all: do not fucking kill.
He slipped into the freshly ironed shirt and trousers he had laid out the evening before, put on his shoes and picked up his bag. It was 3:30. It would only be a short walk to the agreed meeting point where someone would be waiting to collect him. He did not know the address, for obvious reasons. He looked around his apartment. It was quiet, calm even. He closed the door behind him, but did not lock.
The air outside was damp. His breath left little patterns as he hasted along the abandoned streets. Baboom, baboom, said his heart. Tick tock, tick tock, agreed the clock. Clink clonk, clink clonk, replied the soles of his shoes. A taxi driving past him complemented the constant rhythm, breaking the regular pattern of this composition. He increased his pace. He had left his phone behind – again, for obvious reasons. The location was to remain secret. Instead of being alarmed, this assured him of the professionalism of the people he was dealing with. He had never talked to the person in charge. He did not know the name. He did not know the age. He did not know the methods. But once you have gone down that dark road, you will suddenly find yourself surrounded by people who can point you towards even darker paths that lead towards yet even darker alleys. Someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone. You need to trust. But it’s easy to trust if you have nothing to lose.
Under the dim light of a lantern he saw a small woman leaning against a car. He walked towards her. She looked up.
“Are you here for the will?”
“Yes.” He noticed his mouth was dry.
“Please, get in the car.” She opened the door for him. She walked around to the other side and sat behind the wheel.
“This might seem a bit unsettling, but I have to ask you to cover your eyes.” She handed him a blindfold.
“Oh. Yes. Yes, absolutely, no of course. That’s no problem at all.” He took the fold from her, wrapped it around his head and knotted it in the back. It was a soft silk. It felt nice. The darkness was complete, it was comforting.
“It will be a 45 minutes drive, approximately. There is nothing to be concerned about. If you experience nausea, this is quite normal.” She handed him a plastic bag. “Please do not be concerned. If you need me to stop the car and get out, please let me know. I will make sure to pull over as soon as the circumstances allow me to. But please, Sir, do not remove the blindfold.”
“Are we ready?”
“Ok, let’s go then.”
She started the engine and made what felt like a u-turn. After a few minutes he stopped trying to sense which direction they were going.
The car came to a halt and the vibrating humming of the engine suddenly fell quiet.
“This is it. You can remove the blindfold now, Sir.”
With trembling fingers he fumbled around the knot at the back of his head. He couldn’t open it. His hands were damp and slippery. She watched his clumsy and helpless attempt to regain his eyesight until his nervousness started to make her impatient.
“Let me,” she said and leaned over to remove the blindfold.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry. Thanks.”
“Not to worry. We’re here. You can get out of the car. Do you see that red door over there? It’s unlocked. Just go in and follow the corridor all the way through to the back. Turn left, and on your left-hand side you’ll see a door with the number 1995. Knock before you go in. You’ll be expected.”
“Ok. Ok.” He took a deep breath. “Alright then. Thank you. This is it, then.”
“This is it,” she replied. “Good bye.”
“Good bye. And thanks again.”
“Not at all. Bye now.”
She restarted the motor to hurry him out. He undid his seatbelt and got out of the vehicle. The moment he shut the door the wheels of the car started moving. He turned towards the entrance door. What had just happened there? Why had his fingers started to tremble? Were these his physical instincts suddenly starting to come back to life after all? Had his body suddenly decided to be perceptive of his mind’s signals? He did not like it. He took a moment to screen his whereabouts. Not that it mattered, but he found it hard to break with old habits. Dark back alley, overflowing containers, graffiti on the walls. Almost too stereotypical for his taste. He looked up at the night sky – it was dark, and if there hadn’t been the orange-red cloudy fog reflecting the city lights it would have been pitch black. Everything is black behind the light. He had to smirk about his simple, almost banal, logic: it would have been dark if there had not been light. He was glad he was regaining his confidence and could laugh about his own idiocy. He walked towards the door, pushed it open and walked through. He did not look back.
Even though it was only dimly lit he could see it was exceptionally clean. The light was warm, almost inviting. The dark red carpet added to the homely atmosphere. If there had been any pictures on the wall it would have resembled a private praxis, only that it was a lot colder. He walked to the end of the corridor and then turned left. There it was. 1995. He took another deep breath and then –
“Please come in.” He heard a woman’s voice. She must have heard his steps; he had not even touched the door. He pushed down the handle and walked in.
“Good morning, Sir. I see you made it here alright. Please have a seat.” She gestured him towards a chair at the opposite side of the desk where she was sitting.
“Thank you.” He sat down. The woman was dressed completely in black. Even though there was no window that would have allowed any sunlight in during the day, there was only one poorly installed ceiling light that barely illuminated the room, and it took him a while to adjust his eyes to the darkness. The woman across the table was wearing sunglasses, which made it difficult for him to make out where she was looking. Her black hair was falling down her shoulders in waves. It was shiny and dispensed a heavy sweet scent.
“Now I am sure that you have a million questions. Believe me, they will all be answered soon. You will get the opportunity to ask as many questions as you like. But before I lead you to her, you will need to sign some papers for me.”
“Papers? What papers?”
She stroked the surface of the desk with her palms until she reached the readily laid out copies.
“Just the usual forms of consent.”
“So you are not -?”
“Oh no, I am not the person you are here to see.”
She handed him a document, which again resembled one of those that had to be filled in at a surgery. “Please state your name, age, occupation, current address and all the rest, tick the boxes and sign at the bottom when you’re ready.”
He quickly read through the papers and ticked all the boxes. Again, he was impressed by how professionally things were handled. He handed the forms back to her. She smelled the paper and handed one of the copies back to him.
“Could you please sign down here for me as well, Sir.”
For a moment he felt ridiculed. But then he looked at the form and noticed he had in fact forgotten to sign at the bottom. He signed and moved the paper back across the table towards her. She picked it up again and sniffed. “Thank you, Sir.”
“Now, there are a couple of things you need to know before you meet her. First and foremost: do not introduce yourself, and under no circumstances tell her your name.
“But did I not just give you my full name and address anyway?”
“Oh you sure did,” she replied. “But you are still the only one in this room who knows your name.” She smiled, and he finally comprehended why she was wearing sunglasses. “And we would like to keep it that way.”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes. Yes of course. I will not tell her my name.”
“Very good. Secondly: Do not ask her for her reasons. It is none of your concern.”
“I assume I am not to ask her her name either?”
“You assumed correctly,” she smiled. “I cannot wait to hear the story. You appear to be an interesting client. I do not smell fear on you. That is good. Or not. You never know these days.”
She got up from her desk and walked towards the other end of the room. She pulled aside a curtain that revealed a back door. “Now off you go. You won’t need directions. You will find her easily.” He stopped for a moment to close his eyes and take in that soothing smell of her hair when he walked past her through the door. Take in that sweet sensation. “It’s coconut,” she said. “Nothing else. Simple and pure coconut.”
She was calmly walking up and down the room. Her boots were firmly tied, her jeans fitted tightly, her loose shirt did not reveal much more than a hint of her collar bones. Her hair was held back in a tight ponytail which made her face appear open, clean and somewhat austere. She had carefully chosen her guise this morning. There is a right occasion for everything, a right colour to complement a moment, a right smell to emphasize an action, a right sound to accompany a movement. She had learned to predict her clients’ response towards different types. People are superficial – you need to feed their eyes first and allow them to label you according to their own perceived reality if you want to get through to them. You need to get into their comfort zone, only then can the real work begin. For her previous client she decided to dress completely black, for the one before that she wore a bright red and quite revealing suit with matching stiletto heels, for the one before that a conservative costume with pearl earrings. She personally could not care less. Just another mask. Just a different voice. Just a different set of questions. She has always been convinced that there is no such thing as personality. We do not have a personality, even less are we one. With each person we interact our personality changes. We are different people, all the time, depending on the day, time, weather, location and encounter. She has always thought people take themselves much too seriously. All these self-proclaimed searchers for truth, all these questions “Who am I?”, “What am I?” are irrelevant. One day we are this, the next day we are something else. Does it matter? The Ego is just a concept we hold on to because otherwise we would feel we are dissolving into a million particles and disappear into thin air. I am not. I do not exist. But we. We do. And we are many. We are whoever you are creating us to be. We are just a reflection of your ideas. And since we don’t want to confuse you even more in such restless times, we try to match our outer image with your expectation of us. With whatever you deem appropriate. With whatever you wish to see. With whatever makes you the least uncomfortable.
She went to her desk and took out a framed picture of a man in his late forties. She looked at it for a moment, contemplating, then almost tenderly stroked over the frame and put it back into the drawer. She carefully locked it and put the tiny key into her pocket. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sharp ringing of the phone.
“Yes,” she answered.
“He is on his way.”
“No disruptions whatsoever. Slightly nervous, but it should be interesting.”
“I’m sure it will be.”
“Call me if you need anything.”
Click. She hung up. They had been working together from the beginning. If there was, after all, something like an Ego, her ego would be extended through her. She was the only one who had no preconceived image of her. She was not reflecting anything. She was like a sponge, absorbing everything that was presented to her, she was part of her, almost like an external extension. She knew her inside out. She knew all of her hers. She could detect the single grain that was innate to all of them. And she made sure that this little grain was protected, sheltered, cared for, so that maybe one day it could grow again. For her, she did not need to dress up, she did not need to put on a mask, she did not need to put on a disguise.
She positioned herself on the armchair behind the desk, crossed her legs, leaned slightly sideward, grabbed for a pen, started flicking. No. No this wasn’t it. Not the right position, not for this occasion, not for this client. She got up, closed her eyes and walked around the room. Where should she stage herself? Sofa. Yes, the sofa maybe. She sat down and leaned back. She looked around the room. There was an armchair across the couch table for her client to sit. No. Too soft. Too low. Too comfortable. Too homely. She looked around again, screening the possibilities. No, this room was not suitable. She’d be facing a man of great vanity today. She needed a setting that allowed her to be eye-to-eye. Not too intimidating, but unkind enough to crack the shell. She heaved herself up from the couch.
At the back of the study, next to the heavy bookshelf, she drew a curtain that revealed another door which led to a small kitchen. She usually kept this place private. Offering food or anything nurturing was not part of the agreement. It would give a wrong impression. She was not here to offer compassion. No, her clients were all here for a reason, and what they were seeking was not compassion, nor did they deserve it. Yes, this one would be better: small table, two chairs, stove, fridge. Simple, but not sterile. Intimate, but not familiar. Inviting, but not homely. Just enough to make him feel safe, but not cosy. The right environment for a man who does not allow himself any luxury and yet yearns for comfort, who has lost his sense for beauty yet appreciates the little things. She needed her client fully awake, so she put up a pot of coffee. She took out an ashtray from one of the cupboards, sat down, both feet on the ground, legs slightly parted, and lit a cigarette. Yes, smoking would be right today. She leaned back, deeply inhaled and savoured the taste. The nicotine gave her a slight rush, she wasn’t used to it. She closed her eyes, inhaled, exhaled, inhaled the smoke, puffed it out, inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, exhaled, as if on repeat, nothing else, and waited.
…to be continued…
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