I finished reading the message just as the train entered the tunnel. The windows blew open and the carriage filled with confused, displaced air. Most of the lights went out. For a moment, it all felt like a shift in reality. Not for the first time with this tunnel, I wondered – did we hit the wall this time? Am I floating in space?
I looked around at my fellow passengers, as though they might reflect my own feelings about the tunnel. Had we entered a new kind of space? Were we still physical things? They looked at phones, of course. There was no indication from them that we had lost physical form.
I turned back to my phone and reread the terrible news. The message had been sent to me more than a month ago, and had been sitting in that unchecked inbox all this time. News of a death should not be ignored like that, I thought. Now that I’d opened the message, they would know. A reply was urgently needed.
My attempted consolations were treacherous. It was easy enough to remember my friend, or rather, the girl I had known at school. I could see her looking quizzical in a French lesson, or adoring satsumas in the common room. The charismatic girl who had always laughed with her whole hand over her face, who had understood perfectly the simple pleasures of walking around the corridors, seeing friends, engaging with everything all at once. I could see her, but what I wrote was horribly formless. These big, goofy memories that were all about me.
I’m in a tunnel, I wrote at one point. I wish that I could emerge from it in the past, and see her again. And make more of an effort to be a real friend to her. We lost touch, you see, after school. I have no idea how long I’ve been in here, in the dark. I have no scale, no sense of time. I feel a contortion in my physical form, which might even be a connection to her, here in the void. In this space my memories are more than memories. I can see her again. I can sense her charisma, her generosity –
I had to delete all of it, obviously. The tunnel ended, and I cut my message back to: I am thinking of you all, followed by a curt paragraph break. I will drink a toast and remember her. X
I closed my eyes and tried not to chastise myself for being so banal.
I came out of a brief doze to discover that my carriage was now completely empty. I hadn’t noticed anyone leaving, but then I had been asleep.
For a moment I panicked. Had I missed my stop? I started feverishly gathering my things together, but then I saw that Big Andrew’s belongings were still draped all across his table. Big Andrew always took that table, and made sure the whole space was dominated by his expressive teal leather luggage. Big Andrew’s stop was before mine. Watching him shout bugger at the doors as he tried to shove his way through was a regular cue for me to start mentally preparing myself to get off the train.
I felt relieved. But then I remembered that my friend was no longer alive. Then I remembered my feeble condolence message. Then I remembered I had to run a workshop later. I thought of my workplace, and the situation with my performance lately. I thought about how my feelings on this journey into work would be considered to be yet another case of me ‘thinking too much’.
Then I thought of Big Andrew, whose loud, sulky voice interrupted my thoughts. ‘Cut it loose,’ Big Andrew whined. ‘Cut it loose, I can’t stand it. I can’t bear it. I won’t abide those things. Something has happened. Something has happened.’
His voice was extraordinary. I’d heard Big Andrew talking on his phone many times before. He was a regular phone shouter on this journey, but now he sounded as if he was in pain. Or like he needed the toilet.
Like he was being tortured and needed a piss.
Another voice responded to him, tried to soothe Big panicky Andrew. I could not exactly hear what this soother was saying, but it was a deep, placating voice. A voice that worked for the train company.
I got out of my chair and turned to look for Big Andrew. He was only just visible behind a small crowd gathered at the internal doorway, just inside the next carriage. He was sort of crouching behind people, biting his bottom lip.
Imagine a huge man. A man who would’ve captained the rugby team, a kind, deep-voiced man. At school, he would have been marked out as reliable and honest from a young age. If he was a car, he would be a very expensive but practical car with a roof rack for bikes. He’s older now. He’s been married a while. But he has the same friends he’s had since he was in his teens. Imagine this man. Grey now. He’s had maybe one cautious, short affair but that’s in the past. He’s switched up his wardrobe recently. He travels in the carriage he likes, whether or not it’s First Class. You have just imagined Big Andrew.
And here he was hiding behind a crowd of people who were tiny by comparison. People who were, until very recently, sitting in my carriage.
Quite self-consciously, and with a vague sense that the rear carriage must have been evacuated for some reason, I stowed my phone, grabbed my bag and my jacket and headed towards them.
As I was about to cross over the threshold into the next carriage, the guard appeared, stopping my progress. He seemed to be putting himself between me and Big Andrew specifically, keeping me in that ribbed, limbo corridor thing that connected the two carriages. I could feel my feet being manipulated, rising and falling, tipping and pointing as he spoke to me.
‘Sorry, you can’t come through,’ the guard said. He was young, and had a puffy mid-twenties face, with patches of mid-length stubble. I ignored his words and continued forward. The guard didn’t move, so I ended up pressing against him. Our chests and, because of a jolt in the train’s movement, the tops of our thighs touched. We both grunted in a non-dignified way.
‘All right,’ I said, backing away, trying to show I wasn’t going to force my way through.
‘You can’t come through. Just stay there,’ the guard said. He actually seemed very flustered. Perhaps from the thigh-touching.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said, trying to add an amused inflexion into my voice. ‘Why has everyone else left the carriage? Why can’t I come through?’
‘There’s a situation we are reviewing at the moment,’ the guard said. He was leaning against the door way. He seemed to be doing something with his right arm, which I could not see. At first I assumed he was steadying himself in an attempt to exude an air of authority and stillness. But then I wondered if there was some kind of weapon or control panel concealed where his arm was.
He seemed to have finished speaking – as though no further explanation was necessary. Was he waiting for me to attack?
‘Tell me why I can’t come through, please,’ I said.
I had the rising sense of being trapped, the flood of adrenaline weakened my voice. When I tried to protest, I sounded like a leaflet about an obscure man, unjustly alone in a train carriage.
‘I’m sorry,’ was all the guard said. ‘But there is an issue with this carriage.’
‘What issue?’ I asked, very softly.
‘It’s a difficult situation, I’m afraid. Very complicated. There are certain objects in the carriage which are causing problems for us.’
‘Specifically, those bags.’ The guard gestured with a flat-handed chop towards Big Andrew’s luggage.
‘But those bags are his!’ I said, pointing at Big Andrew. He bit his lip as our eyes met, then recoiled, dipping between the shoulders of a couple of other passengers. As if he was afraid of me.
‘Andrew!’ I said. ‘Mate! Tell him they’re nothing to do with me.’
Big Andrew whispered into the guard’s ear, assuring him that we did not know each other. That he was shocked to hear I knew his name.
The guard spoke soothingly to Big Andrew before turning firmly back to me.
‘Yes, the owner of the bags is the one who reported the problem. He says that he came into this carriage to talk on the phone. Leaving his bags in that carriage, the rear carriage, with you.’
‘He didn’t leave them with me. He left them. You left them, mate, that’s all.’
‘All right then, he left them alone with you. And then when he returned, he saw that they had been altered. He felt unable to cross the threshold into that carriage –’
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘I mean. Sorry, I’ve had a bit of bad news just now. What do you mean, altered? Andrew, what the fuck is going on?’
The guard and Big Andrew consulted again, and this time when the guard spoke to me he seemed more serious.
‘What happened was he went away and returned to the threshold of the carriage and felt unable to cross into the rear carriage, because the bag, or bags, were in an altered state. He couldn’t approach them at all. The entire space around them was altered.’
‘But altered how? Like tampered with? Like a bomb? Oh Jesus, I don’t need this! Is it a bomb?’
‘No no no no,’ said the guard. ‘No no no no. Not a bomb. This is difficult to explain, but believe me, I think if you were on this side of the threshold you would see it more clearly.’
‘So let me come over there then!’ I demanded, but the guard, Big Andrew and various other gathered passengers steeled themselves against my approach.
It’s hard to get across just how weak I was feeling. I had no fight in me at all. The adrenaline made me feel sick and shaky. Being in the rubbery threshold area wasn’t helping. My legs were entirely at the mercy of the shifting space that controlled the ribbed corridor. The pressure coming from the void below was like a horrible and perverse foot massage. I was unable to gather any strength at all, and backed down at the faintest sign of opposition.
The guard, I was sure, realised he was in complete control of me. He continued in a serious, professional manner.
‘Firstly, rest assured, your life does not appear to be in immediate danger. We simply have a feeling of immense concern regarding those bags. An existential feeling, it’s called. Like, you could say it’s a bit like radioactive decay. Something resonates in the bones when we look at those bags. I should urgently point out that we do not literally mean radioactive. We are not considering this to be a terrorist incident of any kind. But the bone-level sense of doom emanating from the bags, and from this carriage space generally, does mean we have to decouple you.’
‘Don’t decouple me!’ I said.
‘We may have to.’
The guard moved his body in a barely perceptible way, setting himself more firmly in the doorway between our carriages. Making his body into more of a physical structure – a hard frontier between the trustworthy, honest world behind him and the zone that I was in, with the bags and their negative isotopes. Behind him, the other passengers also set themselves against me. Their faces were subtly altered, as though they were now confronted with an unpleasant cleaning task. Say, a dead and half-rotted pigeon, discovered behind a voided fireplace.
I felt sure that if I rushed them, they would grimace and groan as they collectively pushed and fingered me away. It would be a traumatic but honest undertaking for them, to shove me away. I had no power against them.
Hopelessly, I resumed pleading with the guard, but I was incoherent, unconvincing, as though my language had been degraded by this emanation that everyone else could understand, but I could not.
When my voice finally found traction, the tone was well off. I had now adopted the pitch of the hopelessly infected, ‘Please don’t decouple me!’ I grovelled. ‘You don’t understand – I’ve got to run a workshop. Eleven people have said they will attend! Please!’
‘I’m sorry, no,’ was all I got.
‘Why? Just tell me why can’t I leave the carriage. Why must my day, my job, my work – you understand? Why is that suddenly meaningless? Why is this happening? What is this? I mean – what the fuck?’
The guard sighed and shook his head, as though by saying ‘fuck’ a second time, I had condemned myself utterly. Any chance of escape was gone now.
He persistently used abusive and foul language, the guard would say to his superiors. Specifically, he said ‘fuck’ multiple times. Unfortunately, that confirmed it for me: I had no option other than to decouple him.
‘You have been alone with the bags,’ he said. ‘And so you are now, perhaps unwittingly, connected to the bags. You might not be, but we can’t take any risks.’
I was about to protest, to thrust myself forward, when Big Andrew popped up behind the guard, pointing in my direction.
‘He stares at me!’ he blurted. His voice full of spit. As he said it, a wave passed through the gathered crowd, as though they had received confirmation of some awful suspicion. Big Andrew grew bolder, he rose to his full height. ‘Every time I get on this train, he stares at me! It’s horrible. It’s like he’s assessing me. Like he’s undressing me with his mind. It’s perverse!’
‘I don’t undress you with my mind!’ I said, but I didn’t sound convincing. The truth is I did stare at Andrew. He was just so massive. He was physically fascinating. His ears, for example – those two fleshy, cauliflower ruins. I had stared at Andrew a lot. I had even pictured his naked body. But I had pictured it as an artist would. The garish colours of his private area. The hair in his cracks. I had stared at him. I couldn’t deny it, but could harmlessly imagining someone’s massive nude body really be punishable by a decoupling? Surely not.
For a second, there was no change, we all stood exactly as we were, and all at once the reality of what was about to happen gripped me. I pleaded with renewed vigour, trying to appeal to some sense of reason, staring into the guard’s tired eyes. ‘They’re not my bags. I don’t see why those bags have any bearing on me. Why should I be blamed?’
The guard only shook his head, sadly. ‘You’re right. You’re right. You haven’t done anything wrong.’
As he spoke I could see that he was doing something with his hidden arm.
There was an unsettling clunk.
‘Step back,’ the guard said, quite forcefully. I obeyed.
The doors between the carriages closed. I was alone in the rubbery airlock.
The guard pointed to his right ear. I didn’t understand at first, but then he started pressing his ear against the window, looking at me to see if I had caught on.
‘You want me to press my ear to the window?’ I said. ‘Like this?’ I moved my ear towards the glass.
‘That’s right,’ he mouthed, nodding.
With my ear pressed against the glass, the guard’s voice felt close, free from the jagged sounds of the train. It was as though we were in a small, still room together.
‘Just stay in the carriage,’ he said. ‘The decouplement process has started. Stay calm, and you will be absolutely fine. It’s actually a very peaceful process. A gradual slowing, then stopping, and then it’s over. In a moment, I will ask you to sit down. When that happens, take your seat, facing back towards the rear of the train. Remain seated. You will begin to slowly reduce speed. Gradually, your carriage will be unable to continue to move forwards. It’s very important that you do not try to exit or move about at this time. The carriage will come to a stop, and then it will begin rolling back down the hill we are currently climbing. It will gradually accelerate, before losing momentum on the opposite incline. After some adjustment, you will come to a natural stop in the trough of the valley. At that point, you should wait for a member of staff to come and help you disembark from the carriage.’
I took my ear from the glass to shout a question at him, ‘What if another train comes?’
‘Oh, that’s very unlikely.’
‘But what if it does?’
‘Listen, I appreciate this is all rather worrying, and you have been very cooperative. I will write to my line manager and ensure your understanding and patience are acknowledged. You said just now that you had received some bad news? Perhaps this would be a good moment to spend alone in quiet contemplation. The natural landscape at the trough of the valley is really superb. You may find it brings you perspective.’
‘What if nobody comes?’
‘Between you and me, we can’t prevent you from leaving the carriage after it has stopped. You will be alone. Between you and me, you will be free to explore the surrounding area. Unofficially, you understand this is off the record, if you were to leave and travel west on foot, you would find a road. Goodbye. Please take your seat.’
I was in shock, I realise that now of course. But at the time I felt like: oh well. I suppose if they think it’s all right for me to just roll away like this, then it must be safe.
It went just as he said. There was a loud clunk, and immediately I felt a decrease in speed. Air rushed into the carriage. I saw the faces of Big Andrew and the other passengers gathered at the window of the now departing train. They looked stoically at the animal they had decoupled, almost reverential now that they knew it was too late for me to fight them.
They vanished from view as the rubber ‘corridor’ that formed a gangway between the carriages fell away from the rest of the train. It drooped down, flopping just above the tracks. It looked somewhat like a long loose foreskin. It was hard to imagine that a few moments ago, I had been standing in that now-collapsed threshold. I watched the sloppy corridor for a while, but as the speed of my carriage reduced, I decided to move about among the seats, in open rebellion against the guard’s advice to remain seated. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster, being manoeuvred into position before a big dip.
I was surprised by how long it took for the carriage to stop moving uphill. A minute or so passed before it came to a stop. There was a moment of stillness, and then came the descent.
Accelerating back down the hill, I took my seat. The carriage felt ghostly, totally uncontrolled. I tensed myself against an impact that never came. I felt the darkness of the tunnels as a series of serene clouds, darkening the journey almost in silence. No other train came. The air through the windows and the gaps around the connecting door was sweet and warm.
I rolled gently to a halt. I was in the trough of the valley. Outside there were lushly-coloured fields I did not recognise, even though I must have passed them every day on my way to work.
I have often considered that there is a period on this journey when I completely black out. Every day, after ten minutes or so of worrying about work, and another ten of drifting in and out of whatever I’m reading or listening to, I have a sense that something has passed me by, unnoticed.
Was this what I had been missing? These yellow fields, maybe flax? Lines and lines of little yellow flowers under a blue sky.
I hauled down the window, unlatched the door and stepped out of the carriage. The road mentioned by the guard ran parallel to where I was standing. I had to nip across a deserted track to get to it.
It was hard going with Big Andrew’s luggage, but I managed by strapping the two smallest bags across each shoulder, and then stacking the smallest suit case onto the medium one. I took the largest suitcase in the other hand. After getting across the track, I walked along the centre of the road, enjoying the sun on my back. I could hear birdsong. I could see a tree. I had no idea if I was heading in the right direction. I felt quietly uplifted by the whole thing of being on the road, burdened and a bit hot, but generally all right.
After about twenty-five minutes, coming over the crest of a smallish hill, I saw an unexpected building. Its angular walls were painted fresh white. Architecturally it was in the style of English Riviera interpretations of Modernist beach houses. A square, white cube with sly windows, black glass glinting out. There was a sign by the roadside: Hotel.
The hotel porter greeted me, I have to say, with considerable professionalism. She did not seem surprised to find someone looking as bedraggled as I did, carrying quite unsuitable luggage, turning up at the hotel completely unprepared and without a reservation.
‘I came from the road,’ was my totally inadequate explanation.
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘Welcome to the Hotel de Satnav.’ She gestured to the luggage. ‘Can I assist you with those bags?’
It was at that moment that I wondered why I was carrying Big Andrew’s luggage. I don’t know why I picked it up. Something automatic. Before accepting her help, I hesitated.
‘You’re not afraid of or disgusted by these bags? At a bone-level, I mean?’ I was very relieved that she had so far shown no sign of experiencing disgust.
‘Ah, no?’ she said. ‘Not in the least. It looks like normal, fairly expensive luggage to me.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘Just some bags. Sorry, I know it’s a strange way to introduce myself. Only there was a bit of an incident earlier. Some people felt that these bags were, ah, altered.’
The hotel porter just looked at me, smiling in a strong, carefree, youthful way. When she leaned in, seemingly to confide something, I was struck by the air around her. That cleanness that some people have, that naturally sweet and healthy breath.
‘My experience,’ she said, ‘is that those feelings generally fade from an object once it has been removed from the context in which it became altered.’ She said this matter-of-factly, as though bone-level emotionally disturbing objects were common place occurrences.
‘Do guests often describe luggage in this way?’ I asked.
‘Really? And. Ah, the ones that do – do they arrive by train? Or I should say, by train carriage?’
‘Sometimes,’ she said again. ‘But sometimes it’s been in other settings altogether, not at the hotel. Not even at work at all. For example, in my house, there appeared a coat that none of us could abide. It ended up in the cupboard under the stairs after, I think, a party. Nobody knew who’s it was. Nobody wanted to touch or wear that coat. But we weren’t into throwing stuff away that had a use. Even a great big waxy thing like that. Well, I say great big and waxy, but really nobody could get across any true physical details of it. It just lay huddled there, under a few bags, giving off this terrible vibe.
But then one day it was raining, and a guest, I don’t remember who, but one of us had a guest who needed to get home in a hurry, but had not expected rainfall. I said, fetch the waxy coat. Someone fetched it, and it turned out to be quite stylish actually. As soon as the guest put it on, that woeful feeling it had been giving off just went away. We were left looking at our guest wearing what was actually an incredibly glamorous coat. We almost regretted lending it to her – even mourned a little bit as we watched that coat flooshing out of the house, draped around our guest. It never came back.’
‘What about your guest?’ I asked. ‘What became of her? Was she not contaminated somehow?’
‘Hmm. No. I think she got a job in Wales.’ I realised that while the porter had been telling me her coat story, she had expertly gathered all of Big Andrew’s bags and was leading me deeper into the hotel lobby – which was vast and sleek. There were the squeaking noises of footsteps on polished concrete, echoing unseen from behind a distant partition.
Seeing the desk unattended, the porter sighed and put all of the bags down again. She went behind the desk. She quickly logged on to some system behind the desk, then whipped up her head as if she had been waiting there all along.
‘Do you have a reservation?’ she asked.
‘That’s no problem. We have a room, but it’s amongst the most basic in the hotel, I’m afraid. A simple en suite. A three-quarter sized bed.’
‘I don’t know that I need to stay here. I was just on my way to work, you know? I can’t be too far from home, so I should be able to – I . . .’ My voice trailed off as I realised it was impossible to explain my morning.
‘Look, you don’t have to stay the night if you don’t want to. But, do you mind if I ask – if you were on your way to work, why do you have all these bags?’
‘They are your bags, aren’t they? You haven’t stolen them?’
‘Haha! No. No no no, I haven’t stolen them. More like a loan of them. I borrowed them.’
She blinked once, and tilted her head to one side.
‘I see. Do you want to take a look at our modest room? I can reserve it now, and then you can see what you think. There’s no charge if it turns out you don’t want to stay.’
I didn’t want to make any commitments regarding the hotel room, so I backed away and took a breath. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Do you think I could get a glass of juice or something? I could do with a sit down. Is there a, a bar or something? Or a lounge?’
‘Oh yes, there is a bar and a lounge,’ she pointed towards the distant partition where the squeaking sound still echoed occasionally.
The partition was more of a screen. A kind of chevron-shaped screen, pointing towards us. It was actually the separation point of two corridors.
‘Choose left for the bar, or right for the lounge,’ the porter said. ‘Just along there.’
In the corridor to the left, there was half a photographic portrait visible. It seemed to be a portrait of Dominic Speiglemann, the noted formation scholar. But hardly anyone knew who Speiglemann was outside of certain circles. Even I only knew about Speiglemann because of a few wasted weeks at university, when I had to give a presentation on Form and its Formlessness, with reference to the work of Speiglemann and his Los Angeles based Stateless Research Mass.
‘You can leave your bags with me. I’ll have them taken to the room for you,’ said the porter. ‘There’s no charge if you decide not to stay.’
‘Ah, okay, that would actually be great, thank you.’
I walked towards the left-hand corridor. The photographic portrait turned out to be a poster for an event:
M.A. Googan. 3 p.m. Sackler Lounge.
M.A. Googan, not Dominic Speiglemann, I thought. And I actually thought, Hmm. This M. A. Googan looked like a mid-twentieth-century figure, which Speiglemann had been too, of course. The portrait was heavily shadowed on one half of the face. What I could see clearly was reminiscent of someone, not Speiglemann after all, but someone else I had studied. I had trouble placing the name.
My interest in the picture was cut short by the porter, who sort of gusted past me in her energetic way.
‘Hello again!’ I said.
‘See you in a sec,’ she said, smiling. Although her smile was a little more strained than it had been earlier. A very faint grimace as she went, heading at speed towards the bar area.
The corridor inched round in a long, irrepressible arc. As I followed the line of the wall, unable to see more than a metre or so ahead because of the curve, I became aware of a change in the atmosphere. The wall colour too had begun to change, from sterile white to a funky kind of taupish yellow. And the polished concrete now had lush orange and rust carpet growing out of it, like sulphuric moss. The hard foot sounds of the lobby mellowed back into a soft, easy chew. Soon, a kind of fibrous music reached my ears and I felt my walk go slack, more free as I continued blindly down that tunnel, which was becoming like a kind of lovely ear canal.
It was no surprise to find the porter behind the polished black teak bar, polishing a glass. She had a sort of laugh to herself about what she was doing while she poured my orange juice, which I had not yet ordered.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘You look like there’s a question on your mind.’
‘Okay. I guess I was wondering who M.A. Googan was.’
‘Oh. Him! Don’t talk to me about him.’
‘Wow, really? Why not? I was only wondering if he has anything to do with form and formlessness? I think I may have studied his work at university.’
‘No. I don’t think so. He was meant to talk about skills gaps or something, but he cancelled. The audience are going to be furious.’
‘They’re generalists. They come every week to see a different speaker. They get grumpy if we don’t have a replacement when people cancel. Even when it’s at the last minute.’
She stopped polishing the glass for a moment. ‘Between us,’ she said, ‘this hotel relies on generalist audiences. Events, you know? They not only bring in immediate trade, but the audience all have friends. They’ve all got contacts and they recommend us. Conferences. Training weeks. Away days. Hotels like this rely on that sort of thing, so looking after the generalists is hugely important.’
‘When you say generalists . . .’
‘They just come and listen to any speaker we put on. It barely matters what the topic is. Just general stuff.’
‘You’re really interested?’
‘Come with me.’
She solemnly put away the glass and the cloth and stepped out from behind the bar. She headed towards the stage area at the other end of the room. It was a low stage; rigged more for music than for business – a mike stand, amplifiers, space for a drum kit, all dressed in gold and brown staging panels, like a variety television show.
‘This way,’ she said. She sounded excited. She was half-skipping as we crossed the stage and turned left into a small backstage area, where she opened up a low cupboard in the wall.
‘This way,’ she said.
I followed her through the low cupboard into a kind of negative version of the bar we had just been in. It was like a cathedral, but also like a horror loft.
‘This is the neutral space of the hotel,’ she said. ‘One of our very first speakers came to talk about the difference between a neutral and a negative space.’
‘But surely this is just a room?’
‘Technically not. This is like a crawl space, you know? But bigger. There’s no access except through that little cupboard. And it can’t legally be treated as a room. It’s got to exist, but only in a neutral sense. Walk around,’ she said.
As I shuffled around in the dark, the porter told me that the architect who designed the hotel was famed for accidentally ending up with these monstrous caverns of negative space. No matter how hard she tried, the architect would always end up needing to include walls that faced into one another, creating secret, pointless uses of the building’s footprint.
‘The speaker who came to talk about it came all the way from Sydney. She begged us for access to the neutral space. It was beautiful, we brought in candles and she cried five or six times while she talked about how the architect had eventually gone insane when the negative space of a business park she designed in Madrid was actually spatially more substantial than the surrounding, usable building. She gave up in the end, and now works as a sound engineer in a small semi-professional theatre company.’
I continued to explore the neutral space. There was just enough half-light to see there was nothing on the ground. It was smooth, only slightly grainy underfoot. The walls that loomed above were a mess. They were cluttered and flapping with loose insulation wadding, the dark foamy corners lurking like a flock.
‘It goes up a way,’ I said. The ceiling was not visible, save for a few specks of light, way up above us.
I noticed that the porter was standing next to me. She was sort of febrile, like my friend had been. The girl from school, who never stood still, and who was always about to laugh. I had a strong physical memory of being in the presence of her strange athleticism. A strength that felt at once focused yet utterly unpredictable.
I was weeping pretty openly.
‘I remember her so vividly. She was there at school, bobbing next to me with this exaggerated goofball walk, and a smile that encompassed her entire head. She was an athlete and a clown. She was a comic genius.’
‘That’s a nice memory.’
‘Yeah. With the sun on our backs, walking from the classroom to the field, and the blue sky, laughing at something plainly unfunny. It’s nothing. It’s all I have of her. I wish she was here.’
I wept more. It was pretty ugly really, but in the dark it didn’t seem to matter.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I’ve had the weirdest day.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said the porter. ‘Some things happen that just don’t make any sense. But afterwards, everything carries on.’
We stood in the dark, and I told the porter that I had a workshop prepared, if her generalists could cope with hearing about form and formlessness as a way of understanding API documentation.
She said that sounded fine.
‘Do you think we could do it in here? In the dark?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ said the porter. ‘They’re always happy to sign the insurance waiver and come back here.’
Before I ran my workshop, I put on some of Big Andrew’s clothes. One of his shirts and a pair of incredibly soft trousers. They felt all silky and wonderful against my body.
It was a good session. One of my best, conducted with the generalist audience politely standing in a row, in the dark, each sensing the movement of the person next to them, like friends, and in this way we all came to understand something new about form and formlessness and how actions and interactions can be recorded using simple documentation methods.
Image © Barkar B