Rachel reached out to Theo, and then she waited.

Theo was supposed to have come back to her days ago, but he had not come back to her. She was now virtually begging.

 

Me again!

Hi Theo,

Are we still doing the retrograde testing? Only I have to complete this high-level for Paul L and Retrograde is the only thing still outstanding, I’m afraid.

Sorry to be a bore. And also, Retrograde – Is that even the right word!?!? I can never remember!

Come back to me quick, yeah. :p

Rach

 

She hit send and sighed as the email-whoosh came through her headphones. Theo was sitting at his desk less than six metres away, but she couldn’t just go over because he was on a call. Theo was always on a call. He’d been given a lot more responsibility since the shake-up in May, and now everyone in the whole of SME/APU wanted a piece of his ass. She would just have to wait.

There was a ping from Paul L:

 

Rach, just following up, are you able to send over the actions for QR team?

Hi Paul! Sure, np. Just sending now.

Was waiting for Theo to come back to me about some test lag

but I can actually complete the actions without his input, if that’s ok?

And then

Sure. Do you want me to lean on Theo?

No no – it’s fine. Can finish actions, then add Theo to chain.

Great ☺Lucky theo ; )

Lol – I know. We need like ten of him! ; )

Lol.

 

She finished the actions document. It was only three actions, but it had taken her more than a week. She wondered if Paul L noticed that he had to chase her for every tiny thing these days. He probably did. Of course he did. So why didn’t he mention it?

She wondered if he was bottling it up. Then she wondered if he slagged her off to his wife.

His wife was very Christian, apparently, but she would need an outlet. Rachel imagined her name being cursed in the Paul L family kitchen. Over the butter? But she couldn’t see it. Maybe they didn’t slag anyone off at Paul L’s home. Paul L was probably really not like that.

Whoosh. Actions, gone.

Next, a clear hour before anyone was going to trouble her for anything so Rachel got out her Paperchase notebook and a 0.7 mm mechanical pencil. She drew a quick sketch of her idea for a clothing brand that she had come up with. It was basically just blankets. Or sleeping bags. But shaped so they could be worn as clothes – and the brand name was going to be SLUGS. People had all sorts of stupid names for things, was her reasoning. And she could imagine really raw, no-make-up people wearing their SLUGS clothes outside in the city at sunset.

They would be in this kind of hazy, post-apocalypsy light. And looking at the camera in a way that implied, maybe they were dead, or a new genus or something – a shade of human that did not need to rush around in an emergency, anyway.

She wrote SLUGS in a number of different ways. Then she carefully outlined a male model with zero body fat, swathed in a SLUGS blanket. She spent twenty minutes shading him. She felt quietly guilty for wasting so much time, but Theo was still on his call. Nobody gave a single fuck about her, or anything she did, was the truth.

After another ten minutes, she gave up on the drawing, which had become unwieldy and over-detailed. By the time she slung down her pencil, the male model’s lips and eyes were inhuman, or like a bad skin graft. She worried it maybe was also slightly racist-looking.

She put away her Paperchase notebook and scanned through the rest of her emails. She touched in with a few people regarding meeting rooms that were confirmed as booked for some meetings she was down to chair. Only one thing of interest came into her inbox.

 

Firmwide Announcement

Dear colleagues,

I am delighted to announce that after thirty years with the firm, Jocylin Haggus has been promoted to head of IT SEC and TET in our New York office. Jocylin will be replacing Dan Shanks, who is leaving us after 10 years in senior management.

We want you to join us in wishing both of them well in their new roles, both inside and outside of the firm.

With warm wishes,

Glen Crooke

CEO

 

Rachel took a little breath.

 

RE: Firmwide Announcement

Dear Jocylin,

Congratulations! I’m sure you don’t remember me, but we met a few years ago when I was out doing training in Shanghai. I think it might even have been seven years! Gosh, how time has flown.

Anyway – I remember you gave me some really good advice when we met, and I think it’s just wonderful that you are being given a broader leadership role in the firm.

You’re an inspiration.

With fondest regards,

Rachel Payant

London SEC

 

At the whoosh, Rachel made the sound of pretending to be sick.

Time slipped. She sat and just stared at the top of her screen for a bit. Then, since it was already eleven o’clock, she decided to go and get ready for her gym session, which was at twelve thirty. She was determined to go to Zappa Spin today. She was determined, for once, to attend the session she had paid for. It did not matter who else was going.

It did not.

She pressed refresh on her emails one more time. After a few moments of silence while nobody emailed her, she grabbed her rucksack and headed to the toilets.

In the toilets, she looked at her skin in the mirror. She had been drawing her skin recently, during meetings. A kind of landscape of herself, the cross sections of skin that you get in textbooks. She liked that the layers of the Earth’s crust look basically the same as layers of skin, until you add labels and detail. When it’s just lines, human skin could be anything.

Rachel didn’t know the names of the layers of skin, so it was like, hair, but also fronds. Fronds, hairs, hilly area, porous zone, lymphs. She drew squiggles here and there to represent bacteria; these she drew with great, seething motion.

While looking in the mirror, she pulled at her cheek. She rolled her fingers around on her temples. She was breathing, she was breathing fine. At Zappa Spin, your breathing will be so even, she told herself. This time, you are going to do exactly what Xavier tells you to do. You are going to Zapp-app-app-app to the fucking absolute limit.

‘Hi Rachel,’ said Jane. Jane was from the QR team. Jane was crushing the ends of her hair in her fist whilst looking at her reflection.

‘Hi Jane,’ Rachel said.

‘Rachel! Look at my hair. Are you coming to spin today?’

There was a short pause before Rachel said, ‘No.’ She bit very very hard until her teeth hurt.

‘Oh,’ said Jane. ‘That’s a shame. I thought you were definitely definitely coming this time.’

‘Yeah, I know. I definitely definitely was. But. I know it’s stupid. Stupid stupid, but I just don’t feel like I can do it today. I’m just going to do my normal circuit.’

‘Oh that’s a shame,’ said Jane again. ‘I was hoping. Because then I’d have someone. I find it so intimidating!’

‘Ha. Sorry. I know what you mean, but I, I can’t. I need to take it easy, I think. I think I have a slight chest infection coming on. There was an atmospheric event, in one of the other buildings where I live. Quite a bad one actually, and a lot of trouble got into my maisonette. So.’

‘Oh gosh!’

‘Yeah, so.’

‘So, and that’s given you a chest infection? Shouldn’t you be resting? Rachel, I’m worried about you.’

Jane was now looking at Rachel with a kind of contempt. The culture was, if you’re sick in any way, or infectious then you stay at home and recover quickly.

‘No no. Jane, seriously. I mean, the doctor said there’s nothing at all to worry about. No reason to keep away from work.’

‘No, but.’

‘But, you know, my hair seems to have the smell in it.’

‘Oh God. OK, yeah.’

‘The smell of . . . whatever it was? And I just feel like. I’m fine, but. You know. I’ll just do my plod on the treadmill and then a few sit ups and then just squats maybe and crunches. Sorry!’

‘No, don’t be!’

‘Going on!’

‘No, Rachel. I mean something like that, even nearby. It’s. I understand.’

‘It’s nothing, really.’

‘I mean, it sounds very non-specific, but it sounds dreadful.’

Rachel said a few more things to Jane and then left the toilet. She had a quick stare at her motionless inbox. Nobody was around. Theo wasn’t at his desk. Nor was Paul L.

At the gym, Rachel crushed out 6K on the running machine, incline at 3.0 and speed 9. She watched her face degrade in the mirror as her vision greyed and blotched. She could smell burnt wood in her sweat.

 

*

 

She was still vaguely panting and aware of the faint smell of smoke when she got back to her desk and refreshed her emails again. There was something from Paul L.

 

Serious Matter

Rach,

Need to talk urgently if poss. Theo wants to clear a few things up, if that’s cool. We are in 701 Green.

Regards

P L

 

RE: Serious Matter

Sure – of course, Paul. I’ll be right there.

Best

Rach

 

Paul L was sitting in the central seat at the long boardroom table in 701. Theo was on Paul’s right, looking at the wall. Rachel took a chair opposite them both. It was the same set up as when they had done a team huddle in here, and everyone had laughed at Theo’s withering critique of the enormousness of the table.

Paul L was one of those men who cycled everywhere. He went to church and he had two kids in a good school near his village. You imagined that Paul L could probably kill someone with his bare hands, because of all the exercise he did. And because of the veins in his wrists, and the moon-crater radii of his temples.

Theo was just Theo. He wore a shitty shirt that was either once white and was now grey, or had always been grey but was such an ugly grey that nobody normal would buy it. He wore black jeans even though it was meant to be business casual firmwide. Theo had a patchy black beard and black spectacles and a fucking unnecessarily high level of sexual appeal.

On the table between Paul and Theo was a printed email.

‘Rach!’ said Paul, smiling broadly. ‘I am avoiding saying anything official because this isn’t yet official, but if you want us to go down any official channels, then, you know, just say so and we will stop and get in the appropriate people et cetera swiftly and move things in that direction.’

‘Ok. I don’t really,’ said Rachel. ‘I mean, this is fine. I.’

‘So, Theo showed me the email you sent him, and he feels that it might not have been appropriate for the office. He’s agreed that we should check with you first, before taking anything to the next level? Just to see if this was a mistake or an, erm, I guess typo would be stretching it . . .’

Theo didn’t look at Rachel, he was staring at the wall opposite him, so all Rachel saw was his profile. It was hard to tell for sure, but he looked like he was shaking. Physically shaking.

‘Well,’ said Rachel, ‘I don’t know which email. So I.’

‘You called me a retard!’ blurted Theo, still staring at the wall. ‘You called me a flipping RETARD!’

He sounded so wounded, Rachel thought he might cry. She felt a sudden and all-consuming surge of rage towards Theo and his emotions.

‘I. What? What? Paul. I didn’t call him a. I would never. I would just never use that word.’

‘Mmm. Yeah. But, here is the email,’ said Paul. He pushed the printed email along the table to her.

 

Tardigrade

Hi Theo

I am a Tardigrade.

Love from

Rach

 

Paul watched her reading over his steepled hands. ‘It says you sent it this morning, just before we spoke.’

Rachel read the email again. ‘I didn’t send this.’

Paul nodded, ‘I checked with the server guys and it definitely came from your machine, when you were sitting there, so.’

‘But I didn’t write this. Or. I mean, even if I did, Theo. This doesn’t say “you’re a retard”. Does it? It says “I am a tardigrade”. So I mean.’

‘Yes,’ said Paul. ‘That was my feeling too. Theo, do you think you could see it like that? That Rach actually was calling herself a tardigrade, and not calling you a retard?’

Theo didn’t move. He just stared straight at the wall.

‘What is a tardigrade, anyway?’ said Paul.

‘I don’t know,’ said Rachel. ‘I really didn’t intend at all to write this word. I did send Theo an email but it was much longer and –’

‘I might just look it up,’ said Paul.

Nobody said anything else for an entire minute. Paul L had to dismiss a couple of messages on his phone before he could do the search. Eventually, he looked up at Rachel. ‘Oh, it’s like a kind of insect or something. Or, no. It’s a water bear. Wow – look at that thing!’

Paul L held up his phone so that Rachel too could be fascinated by the close-up image of a tardigrade. It looked like a giant, vampire maggot. It had about a million teeth. It looked like an alien.

Rachel tried to marshal her thoughts. She cleared her throat and sat up as straight as she could while she spoke. ‘Anyway, I don’t know how my email ended up saying anything about tardigrades. I am sorry, Theo. I was actually writing about the retrograde testing. Which you are very late getting back to me about. Maybe, somehow. Tardigrade is similar? I don’t know. Anyway. I would never use that word, retard, and I didn’t call you anything, so. So. Actually, could you please look at me?’

Theo didn’t look up.

‘Theo, please look at me!’

‘Theo’s pretty busy at the moment, actually Rach,’ said Paul, interlocking his long fingers. ‘In fact, I think he’s probably on a call now.’

Rachel noticed for the first time that Theo was wearing tiny headphones. He was nodding absently, as though listening to another conversation. After a few more seconds, Paul stood up and ushered Rachel back to her desk. Then he pinged to send her home for the day.

 

*

 

At home, Rachel watched a television drama in which hundreds of people were crammed into a hospital corridor in various states of incineration. There had been some kind of major event in Bristol, was the premise. There was a constant sound of sirens, and the voices of doctors and nurses screaming urgent information to each other.

Rachel found it hard to look at the TV light, her eyes were sort of aching. Possibly because of the negativity that had found its way into her maisonette, and possibly because she had slept in her contact lenses three times this year.

Whatever it was, looking at the light gave her a headache, so instead, she stared at the space just above her television. She imagined that she was in a dream and in fact everything she was watching, and everything she had ever watched on television, or read in a book, or seen in a gallery or at the cinema, all of it was something she had created herself, inside her dream.

Every fashion statement and every song and work of architecture were all in the palace of her imagination. And soon, she imagined, she would wake in an asylum in some soft and boring reality and she would be able to create the world’s greatest work from scratch.

Her mobile phone rang. It was Ben P.

‘Rach! What the fuck is going on? Why haven’t you called me back?’

‘Hi Ben.’

‘Seriously! You silly slag, what are you like? Why haven’t you called me back? I’m worried about you. Rachel? Can you hear me? Rachel?’

‘Jesus, Ben, shut up. I’m not in the mood.’

‘Rachel do you remember the atmospheric event? You’ve had everyone so worried, Rachel.’

‘I said I’m fine. It was in another block. I’m fine.’

‘Rachel? You’re breaking up.’

Ben P was gone, but a text arrived a few minutes later.

 

Sorry, bad signal. Just worried about you,

but you seem fine, you massive Tardigrade!!!!!! ; )

 

Rachel screamed a bit, and tried to call Ben P back, but it was just his voicemail. He had one of those voicemail messages that is just heavy breathing. Ben P was in fact disgusting. At university, where they met, he was always asking her about her sex life. As her housemate, Ben P’s first ever present to her was a kind of comedy vibrator. The whole memory of him made her turn off the television.

In the kitchen, she took a good handful of her pills, which were absolutely essential for her health. As she returned them to the fridge, where the pills must be kept, she tried to remember what it was like before she had started using them. It was a hard life, before the pills. Hard life, soft everything else. It seemed she had occupied a kind of haze, on the periphery of things with her soft puppyish flesh. Her fat face. Her doughiness everywhere and her awful bowels. Yeah, the pills were the greatest thing that had ever happened to her.

She had a shower, applying her special body scrub liberally, along with scorching hot water. Long after she was dry, even after applying her cream, she felt flushed with heat – as though it was emanating from her bones.

Naked on her clean sheets, she checked her work emails.

 

RE: Firmwide Announcement

Hey RETARD! WTF? – of course I remember you!

“You’re an inspiration”

Are you finally pitching something to me, now that I have even more power?

J

Ps. You better say, yes I am pitching something . . .

 

RE: Firmwide Announcement

Yes, I guess it was a pitch. I don’t exactly know what for.

It was also true – you are an inspiration. So there! ; )

Best

R

 

Whoosh. Then nothing. Until a calendar entry from someone she has never heard of.

 

Roger Chu has invited you to ‘Sniff of the big time. NY OFFICE’ on Friday at 11:00 UET

Do you accept?

 

Rachel reached out and clicked ‘I accept’.

As she fell into her sleep, millions of tiny, microscopic, vampire alien worm-like creatures emerged from the dietary pills she had swallowed and joined their family who were already there, happily alive inside her gut. Together, they squelched and burped and languished in her digestive system. Waiting.

 

*

 

On the inside, the Broadway New York office was painfully similar to the Bank Street London office. Rachel had been driven in a staff Chrysler from JFK directly to the Broadway site, there had been no chance to explore. From the little she saw, peeping from between the groaning traffic, and standing briefly on the street before entering the building, she had to agree with what everyone said about New York. It was exactly like on TV. It was yellow cabs and lights, and friendly people using their whole body to move the air as they passed you on the street. It was hotdogs and Comme des Garçons and the sound of shoes, somewhere, thousands of shoes trotting out jazz lines under the traffic.

Rachel had been directed to take the elevator to the executive office suite on the 23rd floor. Now she was looking at the Joan of Arc face of Jocilyn Haggus. Looking at the Debuchy silk of Jocilyn Haggus’s shirt and the Calcutta Des Amores Gecko necklace that slugged languidly between Jocilyn Haggus’s two breasts.

‘Jesus. You look younger than you did in Shanghai,’ said Rachel. ‘That was like seven years ago! Sorry. I seem unable to edit myself.’

Amazed and dazzled by the youth of this woman, and the luxury of her executive office, Rachel took a step towards Jocilyn, to look for flaws in her skin. There was nothing. She was like an infant made out of percaline.

‘You look so young!’ she said again, now beginning to sound more than a little bit like an idiot.

‘I feel it!’ said Jocilyn Haggus. ‘You know what else? I’m going to pay you a compliment now, Rachel. Come with me over here to this mirror.’

Rachel crossed the office and now she was looking in a mirror that had been handmade by the renowned Venetian glass-blower Cosmo Benetolli in the late eighteenth century. Rachel knew this because it was included in the VP pages for Jocilyn Haggus on StafBoard, the HR system. Everything about Jocilyn Haggus’s StafBoard page was devastatingly impressive.

Jocilyn walked behind Rachel, she rested her hands on Rachel’s shoulders. Rachel saw herself in the mirror with Jocilyn behind her, putting her lips very close to the skin on Rachel’s neck.

Rachel was looking sweaty, but also glowing. She was not degraded like in London mirrors. She was not blotched.

‘This mirror is incredible!’

‘It’s not the mirror, Rachel,’ said Jocilyn, touching Rachel in different places. ‘It’s you. It’s you in New York. This town loves you!’

‘I’ve only just got off the plane,’ laughed Rachel. ‘I’m wearing long johns and compression stockings.’

‘Yeah, and look at you. Have you ever, be honest, in all your life felt so much like you want to fuck yourself?’

‘No,’ said Rachel. ‘But I have sort of never felt that way.’

Jocilyn laughed a huge New York laugh. ‘Rachel. Shut up for a minute. Tell me, what do you want in life?’

‘Well –’

‘No. Don’t do it straight away. I don’t want your blurty Britsy bullshit, kay? I want to know what you want – right down in the burn of your heart. Can you hear me? In the fire of your heart.’

Rachel took a deep breath and said, ‘I want to create a line of designer blankets that are also clothes? And I want people to wear them in the most achingly young and cool places in the coldest corners of the world. I want people to look at the kids wearing my blankets and I want them to wish they were dead because they will never, ever be so damned sexy and young. I want it to be called SLUGS and have a logo that people cannot think about without sighing.’

‘Jesus fucking Christ, you’re ridiculous. Come on, I’m taking you to the Hot Plate.’

They went across town in another firm Chrysler. Rachel forgot about her compression stockings and looked out of the window at the glinting lights of Broadway, then Wall Street and then places she did not know or understand, but recognized from films and television programmes.

‘Hey. Have some of this. It’ll help you out,’ said Jocilyn. Rachel was about to decline, when she noticed that she was not being offered drugs, but just a hand full of her normal diet pills. Only these looked slightly different, they were blue. The insides seemed to be swirling.

‘Ah! You don’t remember, then?’ said Jocilyn.

‘Remember what?’

‘The advice I gave you all those years ago. It was the pills. Take these, take them and you will stop being such a saggy fuckface.’

‘Oh! I do remember!’ said Rachel, and then they were eating pills and sitting right next to each other, which was fine, and the leather on the chairs was fine too, and all of it was fine, just dandy.

It was wonderful until Jocilyn leaned over to her, across the table in the restaurant and said:

‘You really are a tardigrade, you know that? That’s how come you’re such a successful designer now. We put tardigrades in those pills, and they control you now. Is that ok?’

They were in a restaurant, and Rachel did not remember going inside, but everything was very black, except she could see candles at all the tables, but no faces, only Jocilyn and the candle lighting her.

‘What did you say, Jocilyn? What was that about tardigrades?’

‘I said, don’t worry about it! Let’s get some air!’

They were outside on the streets of New York, in a place called TriBeCa and Rachel saw that there were people, young people, sitting outside in the warm evening drinking beer and smoking, a lot of them were smoking, and drinking coffee. A lot of them were unbearably beautiful.

‘Don’t they look smoking hot?’ said Jocilyn.

‘They are seriously hot,’ said Rachel. She felt drunk. On a billboard was a huge sign that said slugs.

‘Jocilyn,’ Rachel said. ‘How long have I been here?’

The answer, Jocilyn explained, was eighteen months. She had secured financing for her design company, and now she was pretty much running an entire department in the firm, while also putting out fashionable wearable blankets for young sexy people.

She was a tardigrade. The tardigrades were operating her life for her. She no longer needed to do anything. Except, said Jocilyn, coming into focus, and somehow, now she was screaming at Rachel.

You do have to speak, Rachel, she was saying. You do have to speak to us, or we can’t help you. She was saying.

She was back in the office on the phone, and the tardigrades were going insane in her stomach. Picking up the vibrations of her bones. The headset of the phone was almost too much to endure, her new nervous system was rioting. She was an exposed gland.

 

Hello?
H h h h
Hi, have we got you? Who’s on the call?
I’m here.
Hi Paul
We’ve got Oli
Hi Oli
And Rachael.
Hi Rachel.
H h hi who’s that?
It’s Theo. sorry to be so long coming back to you. So, shall we move towards the retrograde testing?
Theo?
Rachel? Tell me how are the infest tabulation margins coming along?
The infest?
The infestation, Rachel. The retrograde.
Come on, Rach. You’ve been so formal recently. All through this call.
Can you describe how you feel?
I’m trying to reach out.
Yes.
There has been a strong need for me to, I don’t know, diversify?
Yes, just reach out when you feel something like the need to diversify.
I feel something like the need to diversify.

 

And she was surrounded by gold light, forming baubles and floating, peacock tailing through the open plan air.

And then there came a cold sensation, within her gold blindness as she reached and squirmed and froze and atrophied, the feeling of someone saying, maybe very very distantly:

‘Wrap her up. Get her in a blanket she can wear this blanket. She is terribly, oh, I mean look at her. Be careful, she’s been voted One to Watch recently. But, for God’s sake. Just look how she stands there with her mouth open, like she’s at a spin class.’

 

Image © Jasper Nance 

Felix Culpa
Best Book of 1996: The Lost Lunar Baedeker