There was a fellow I worked with back then who reminds me of you, I said to Watson. I was working in a travel agent’s office, at the time.
Well, now we’re getting somewhere, said Watson, if it’s true that is.
Yes, it’s true, I was studying philosophy in the university at night and working in a travel agent’s by day. On my first day in the Travel Agent’s office, a very pretty lady with a nice smile leaned across the table and asked me was I nervous? No, just a little dizzy, I said. Is there a smell of gas? It wasn’t the right answer because she looked taken aback and twitched her admirable if a little pert nose as if trying to smell gas. Besides, it made two male operatives snigger into their instant coffee. From then on I was known to them as the Canary. They didn’t call it to my face exactly but neither did I need to have extra-sensitive auricular powers to hear it being used when I was half-present. It shows how clever they were. They could have simply called me Gas, or the Gas Man, it’s not such common knowledge that Canaries were used as a warning system to detect levels of methane gas in coal mines. The miners had to evacuate if the canary died. No, these fellows I worked with in the Travel Agent’s were a cut above the norm. They were much too clever for me and may I say that at times I felt as if I was trapped in a cage gazing out at beings from a distant star, strange creatures making strangeness normal. They spoke about shopping and things they collected and people they knew in foreign countries.
You know I said to Watson, I have to laugh when I think back on it, this fellow who reminds me of you was a chain smoker and his brand was Windsor. He spent much of his time in a room called the Printing Room, standing in the open doorway of a fire exit, smoking and staring into a narrow laneway.
Name, said Watson, what was his name?
His name was Lannion and the others were inclined to make fun of him or else dismiss him with an air of indifference. Everyone called him The Nutty Professor. He didn’t communicate very well with people. I recall standing in the printing room with the printing machine heaving and shuddering when suddenly Lannion, whom I hadn’t noticed, addressed me in an intimate tone from his spot by the open fire exit door.
When you said you smelled gas what did you mean, he asked?
I meant perfume, I said. I’m allergic to the secretions of the civet’s anal gland.
He sucked deeply on the last of his cigarette before flicking the butt out into the lane.
I’ve been meaning to tell you, he said, I used to be interested in astronomy and I was a philosopher in my adolescence.
He pulled the pack of Windsor, attractive bright blue and yellow, flipped a fag out and lit up another.
I wanted to be an explorer when I was a young man, I end up working in a travel agent’s office helping others to explore. I still want to be an explorer. You’re probably asking yourself is there anywhere left to explore?
Actually, I was brooding on an incident that had just occurred.
That same day a lady in the office was forty. They brought a cake with candles alight into the room. A man named Brush, John Brush said; Life begins at forty and I thought what a strange thing to say. The candles lit up her face, everything in her life lurking in the eyes sparkling in the flames. Her husband had given her a bicycle to cycle around the world. Laughter. She’d be lucky to get as far as Cuskinny. Where would we be without wheels, said Brush? General cackling. John Brush opened champagne. Two of the younger girls became tipsy instantly. I became uneasy. Like Narcissus, the nymphs made me uncomfortable.
I decided to make my escape from the birthday party, under the pretext that I had to collect something from the printing room, though no-one had any interest whatsoever whether I stayed or left and no-one paid the slightest attention to my explanation. On my way along the corridor I stumbled on a girl crying inconsolably with the bathroom door open and another with her arm around her, upon observing me passing screamed, fuck off you little faggot, before slamming the door.
An enormous photograph of the founding father of the business hung on the wall of the corridor that connected the outer offices to the printing room and file rooms. His benevolent features and bushy, white locks seemed to move gently when I passed along, as though he was shaking in sympathy.
That’s when I had the strange conversation with Lannion, The Nutty Professor. I should say a one way conversation as I couldn’t respond very well to him at the time. Something inside felt very close to snapping as I leaned against the printing press shuddering and thundering, brooding more intensely than ever on my uselessness in the world. I can look at a cantilevered building and appreciate the dignity of the architecture, the magnificence of its construction. I can enjoy the idea of a man trekking along the crevasse-ridden coastline of Berkner Island on a 1,800 mile journey in an effort to be the first man to cross Antarctica on foot, alone and unsupported. I can imagine the glory but also the treacherous danger of the fissures and the crevasses. Somehow it doesn’t feel half as treacherous as eight weeks working in a travel agent’s office. Fuck off you little faggot.
Then a strange calm began to descend as if all of this was happening to someone else. That girl had addressed someone else. I wasn’t a faggot. I wasn’t very little. Someone else had been passing at the wrong moment, in the wrong place at the wrong time, though, I must admit, that rather sad expression was still ringing in my ears as I looked at Lannion smoking in the doorway, gazing into nothingness. It rang in my ears with more than an objective meaning. I felt a strange affinity with Lannion, The Nutty Professor, and had a sudden impulse to share my plans for the future with him.

Edward Mc Whinney lives in Cork, Ireland. He is neither all that young nor all that old. Find more of his work here.Edward-Mc-Whinney.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0
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