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The Plaster Room

My first death was way back when I signed a contract for the job as hall porter in the Happy Valley Refrigeration Company. Reserved and cool in my brand-new uniform, I waited every morning on The Bridge Corner for the bus. 

Every morning for two months she passed me as I waited for my bus at the Bridge Corner. When the lights changed, she bounced across the road, flowing, flaxen hair defrosting the icy air of January and February, eyes alight, lovely, slender neck, long, slender legs, smiling, cut a beam through the rush hour. She would trot right up to where I was standing, flirt a sensual smile, one word would set the ball rolling. Most of the time the bus was full. I had to stand, it bounced and rocked, swept with electric power around the Coliseum Corner, shortly after which I descended. If I had time, I had a black coffee and apple pie with a slice of melted yellow cheese in a dairy. One morning I thought I noticed the girl there having a white coffee and a fruit salad dish. If I had been a little bit surer, I might have remained reserved and cool as I sidled up to her to say you know you can have anything you want, like a scene in a film, I forget what, and actually there used to be a cinema where you pass me every morning to which she might respond that she was well aware of the fact, her parents met there during a showing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and what do you do, it might not then be remiss of me to enquire, where are you running off to every morning, looking radiant and wonderful? It could turn out that she was a nurse in the Blood Room of the University Hospital, or maybe the Plaster Room, and you, it’s getting a bit tedious, me, I work for a market research team, in a mansion in Tivoli, we sit in different shaped rooms, you wouldn’t believe the colours, futuristic units in every corner, we either sit or run around waiting for inspiration. If we don’t feel in the zone, we need not turn up. We are all top graduates from the College of Art and Design, our imaginations primed at an eighty per cent higher pitch than the norm. Her long, flaxen hair, her white teeth, that killer smile. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like you, she might say, or maybe, is the uniform part of the process? Damn, the uniform, with the crest reading Happy Valley Refrigeration Company. Damn. In any case as I finished my coffee, I began to doubt if it was her which was quite a possibility, given my limitless capacity for self-deception. 

The lights changed. I barely made it across the road. An impatient driver beeped sharply at my trailing ankle. When I reached work, I had to help some decorators carry gallon cans of turps and paint into the building then back out for sheets of felt and bags of plaster and nails after which bout of activity it was just another morning grey and dull in the doorway. Traffic ran up and down the quays. I had vivid dreams of moving. I thought of my grandmother’s place in St. Luke’s into which she said I could move at any time, huge bay windows offering views over the bridges and the river, her easel waiting in a corner with a canvas, all her old records neatly stacked on shelves, old-fashioned cd player and turntable, art books, novels, poetry collections, a ship on the river, trains leaving Kent Station, and all that we will not miss when we slip away, given that there will be nothing to miss when we slip away. 

I remember a dream I had which still makes me laugh, I went up on the roof with the girl and sat in a hot air balloon that can rise to a height of 2,000 metres, as you know, I said, elevation enhances imagination. She was wearing a yellow dress. Of course, she said, let’s go, let’s rise together out of this filthy mess. 

Doorman was the loneliest occupation. January, the little city covered with an icy fog, February, the cold, gloomy fog upon the river. The day deadened the glass, the concrete and the lead, energy sapped from every morsel of existence. I was a human being, not a Martian or Cyborg, as far as I could make out. I possessed certain mechanisms, that’s the word that occurred to me, there were triggers being pulled, setting crucial aspects of existence into motion, times when I almost self-ignited or pulled the trigger to endure the recoil. Sometimes you must face the universe alone. There were days, under duress, I finished early and walked up town, a troubled soul on the edge of infinity or at best in Limbo. I would face the wrath of my boss, the next morning, he was a bad man all things considered, once when I fell off a ladder and broke a wrist, I spent six hours in the accident and emergency reading medical leaflets to pass the time, ambulances arriving into the heart of the action, then, after x-rays, a nurse gave me a paper for The Plaster Room with vague directions how to get there, and of course, I lost my way again, it happens every time, far from reserved and cool, I can’t ever remember how to find plaster rooms or blood rooms, stymied every time by the different corridors leading off in every direction, green clad medics and blue clad nurses in loose ass scrubs, porters and attendants shuffling here and there, beeping machines in an airless dungeon stymied by funny people with funny faces, surrounded by them, made dizzy, turning in circles, far from reserved and cool, a young technician, stepping out of a lab, upon realising that I was lost led me through the labyrinth to the right place where I took a paper number from a red device upon the wall, the same as in a butcher’s shop or at a fish counter, took a seat and waited my turn, which I calculated would be quite some time, my number being forty nine, twenty seven showing on the digital clock that clicked from number to number at regular intervals of about two minutes, my funny face among funny faces all along the row, funny shapes of silent people, little or no talk, watching without comment the constant procession up and down, doors opening, doors being shut, a mind spinning, teeming chaos of constant motion. My eyes drifted to a window at the end of the corridor and to my astonishment and confusion it looked like the roof of our building outside which I knew it could not be as our building was about eight miles away. Everything looked the same, down to the little shed with the red door, assembled from timber lathes that had been carried up the stairs. I kept the information to myself for obvious reasons. It could not be our roof, and if it was our roof, I had no idea how it got there, all of which was beside the fact that the plaster room was on a ground floor or even lower. 

Noting my address, the Plaster Nurse asked could I see the water from our house? I wanted to say I could see the roof of our house outside the window of the Plaster Room but said yes, I could see the water from our house and once I had seen snow in Seville, I wanted to add but also kept that to myself for similar reasons as to not mentioning the roof. A cleaning lady in light blue overalls leaned against a radiator. It must be very cold down the harbour now at this time of the year, unless as they say the sea keeps us warm, the continental drift or something, I always think that’s funny, the sea that is so cold keeps us warm. I had nothing much to add, reserved and cool on the exterior despite the disintegration and chaos within, despite the depth of The Atlantic, The Pacific, the point at which they meet, despite the darkness of the universe, the point where we disappear, infinity, despite everything conspiring against us, time gone, time to come, existence, a simulation but of what, I have no idea? Of what went before, history, all we know is that it is a slaughterhouse from which we learn as much as a rabbit learns from being dissected, an image I read somewhere but forget where. In short lessons are not learnt and of what is to follow, we know nothing at all except that it will probably be more of the same.  

The next morning reserved and cool, I would face the little, everyday fascism of my boss, a short, sardonic man, who would be disinclined to believe that I had a broken wrist, even with a plaster cast up to my elbow. 

It is not difficult to conclude that I was like a bad mathematician incapable of distinguishing the real from the imaginary, much as I have always longed for a sense of calm, to be less human, able to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in my stride. A sense of achievement, a sense of calm, to be less human, that’s what I groped around in the dark for, to have knowledge enough not to fear humiliation, to remain at all times reserved and cool with the end at hand, for I have seen things and I have touched things that I can never describe.       

The other day an image popped into my head of the girl, now an elderly lady, alone in a dark room, with her knees drawn up and her head in her hand, long, grey hair falling over her face. I tried my best to repel this image though I have to say I am not in control of the funny faces that pop up from time to time, feverish, oneiric visions, some from the past, some from nowhere I know anything about, as I never grow used to the creepy sounds I hear in the dead of night, a burglar maybe rummaging around outside, a psychopath with a bludgeon.

Edward Mc Whinney of Cork, Ireland, is a regular contributor to Contrary. Read our interview with him.