This is Not How You Become Free

1.

Those attending in the theatre wear latex gloves that give off dunes of talcum when strapped on. That the skin is already alive and fresh from the prescribed anti-bacterial wash that is mentholic and tingles means that the talcum power sticks to the skin on the hands and forms a slick kind of sand that gravitates towards the wrist the longer the gloves are worn. As well as the gloves, each person in the room has their face partially covered by a blue pastel mask. The mask is papery and thin and crinkles like wrapping paper whenever the person behind it inhales. What movement there is the room seems incredibly swift and seemingly brief. There is a great deal of purpose to what is going on. It is almost worthy of grace. When things do go wrong, everybody manages to focus even more on what is happening. The room falls intensely silent. When the woman at the centre of the theatre looses enough blood that critical is not an exaggeration, there is no one who feels the need to verbally acknowledge this. Everyone knows what is going on and what it is they should do. While the woman is dying on the table, one of the nurses finds herself questioning, if the woman would want to know, be told if she could hear and take account, of what was happening to her and all that was being done to stop it. The room is incredibly bright, and all of the surfaces shine with a brilliance from the reflected beams of concentrated light. There is Dettol in the air.

Sarah Lyn Hale was a member of the 4% minority of fourteenth floor employees who vocally preferred to spend their time firmly rooted in the Beijing central office of Oburst & Shyam, looking out as it did over the complex strip of mirrored glass that was the financial district of Ruihai, the street with its leaning architectural structures often heating the pavement to such a boiling temperature that fragments of the asphalt would break off and attach themselves in skewered clusters to the stilettoed feet of those passing overhead, rather than taking the paid and highly reimbursable outer-regional contracts as did so many of her peers. For most of S&O’s north east regional personal translators would prefer not to stay cooped up in the city, especially during the greenhouse months of June and July but instead travel at the companies expense to any of the four rented office spaces situated in Changchun, Zhongzhou, Jinan or their most northerly and tundra-esque frozen locale of Harbin, with its Russian Orthodox churches and borsht/vodka dining options, never mind the elaborate ice sculptures that brought throngs of domestic tourists each year, a winterly festival that always ending up killing at good couple of migrant workers, crushing them under falling blocks of ice while trying to build a homage to 1970’s era apple computers out of frozen bricks 3 meters in density.

ultimately insignificant kind of delay that found you sitting on the plane in your own allocated seat only for the vehicle to taxi endlessly around the tarmac, making you feel somehow infantile and high-chaired, unable to resolve your seated pangs of discomfort and increasingly indignant rage.

Trips to these destinations were also prized by most for although the subsequent journey to & fro Beijing was almost certainly guaranteed to contain mind numbing delays that would become arduous and intellectually taxing, the airport staff remaining inexplicably vague as to why the delays where occurring (S.L. Hale remembers jotting down her own personal favourite answer as seen displayed via a wall of frozen monitors that the delays were happening because of some reasons, and for the following month would use this as a byword around the office, forgetting that she had never explained the genesis of the joke to anyone and so aptly quit interjecting it into conversations and then laughing less than mutedly to herself) as the delays naturally rolled into the third and then fourth hour, keeping you locked in the airport waiting bay with little more than a snack dispensing vending machine selling boxed versions of instant noodles with no sign or boiling water in sight, or better still the kind of middling and ultimately insignificant kind of delay that found you sitting on the plane in your own allocated seat only for the vehicle to taxi endlessly around the tarmac, making you feel somehow infantile and high-chaired, unable to resolve your seated pangs of discomfort and increasingly indignant rage. And yet they were so prized for they offered for any employee of O&S feeling the psychological endurance of familial life the safe refuge of an internationally recognised five star hotel bedroom, with its various amenities all emitting comfort and individual value/worth via the attention to bodily pampering. For some, the promise of a plush bed, whose sheets were pressed and tightened by hands that were not your own was enough. Others felt drawn to rainwater celling mounted showers in which you stood in a block of carved granite made to look and feel like marble and allowed body temperate steam to surround your soft and increasingly tender skin. It was the promise of an evening to yourself, spent laid serpentine or spread out legs flayed, dressed only in the complementary hotel bathrobe, being free without guilt to eat a whole sidecar of pre-bought junk food in front of premium access television that was enough for some of Sarah Lyn’s peers to actually lie to their significant others about the required number of mandatory days allocated per monthly quota so as to run up the overtime spent servicing corporate clients for weeks on end.

Yet for S.L. Hale, the Beijing office granted her certain comforts that the business funded excursions couldn’t match. It wasn’t so much the knowledge that her own private, non-hot-desked cubicle would be there and unused and that everything it contained, from her personally stocked cabinet drawer of Gel-Rite Obsidian brand roller pens to the single roll of scotch tape that she used to quickly remove ill-conceived notes from off her notebook (hating the use of liquid paper for its thick and obvious corrections that if anything drew more attention to themselves than covered any errors up from attentive eyes), it was more that the office’s ideal location was situated safely two subway stops away in opposing directions from fairly important locations in her current, daily life. Line 10 to the right took her back home, the subway almost spilling out onto the doors of her gated and severely exclusive residential complex, and two stops on line 1 from the same interchanging station would place her at the doorsteps of the McKerry’s International Healthcare Centre, where O&S had commandeered a fairly sweet deal on international level medical coverage for all of their fourteenth floor employees.

Miss Hale had, after the first tentative year, felt no discernable qualms about subsequently maxing out her annually designated maximum expenditure, employing O&S swift direct billing service in streamlining her near weekly membership to those faces regularly seen at McKerry’s. She had pre-booked and attended a great deal of general and/or specific body checks with their dedicated staff of general practitioners, EMT specialists, cardio consultants and neurologists, many of said check ups she would confess were, if being truly and sincerely honest with herself, known to be before calling to arrange them, wholly superfluous and entirely unnecessary.

The real draw however for Miss Hale, was that treatment at McKerry’s really did live up to the overused abbreviation of treating you as if you were very important to them and a real and actualised person whom they wanted to take care of and look after in all sorts of small but meaningful ways. S.L. Hale had fairly quickly realised that more than the treatments themselves, or the reassuring memos emailed off to the offices of O&S immediately after a check up had been completed, reassuring her that everything was fine or that nothing was found, occasionally using S.L.H.’s near favourite word clear (beyond the word clear, Sarah Lyn more frequently enjoying including the words broil, incapacitate and capillary though she could not accurately tell you why nor justify beyond the unadulterated enjoyment of their phonetics as to why she liked these words as much as she did) it was in fact the personalised experience of having a dedicated nurse dressed in what looked not unlike Shanghai turn of the century nurse’s uniforms, decorated timelessly with starched corners and a pointed white paper hat, walk you from comfortable seat to sofa, offering you dispensable paper cones of cooled, hyper-mineralised water that she found so incredibly warm and satisfying. She knew by now all of the nurses by their individual, non-badged names and liked to think that should she show up without prior-appointed arrival, they would not only be able to pull her own title from the either, but would do so with a welcomed smile to their otherwise inconsequential afternoon.

following on from the famously catastrophic missteps such as Li Hong’s Premium Sorghum Wine being labelled as able to “Strip the skin from off your ancestor’s insides” to the widely published campaign by Song, Yau, Meng who promised to instil “Stronger foundations into national orifices”

Since the 1980’s expansionism of the Chinese domestic market, a full on nepotistic scramble had taken place in one of the primary few near untouched economic resources that could be said to be worth of global status. What had previously been not only domestically inward facing, but also nationally monopolised, suddenly found itself open to export any given number of minimally regulated products overseas, paying little in the way of production overheads, labour fees or surplus costs. And so with this there came a need for brand names and logos, adverts and marketing pamphleteers that read with the same kudos and conviction of the original Chinese text line. During this early and highly explosive period of international competition, the vast majority of companies in an ill-conceived vein to save a little yuan, shipped out their translations to in-house individuals who may/may not have embellished more than a little their own L2 English language proficiency. So, following on from the famously catastrophic missteps such as Li Hong’s Premium Sorghum Wine being labelled as able to “Strip the skin from off your ancestor’s insides” to the widely published campaign by Song, Yau, Meng who promised to instil “Stronger foundations into national orifices”, many tabled CEO’s began realising the apparent need for someone a little bit more in the linguistically technical know how, and so turned to outsourcing their commercial translators for major international campaign lines.

The second flaw in the story however, came due to the fact that a great many of these translators also didn’t have the real-world skills to do that much better of a job and so looking to account for what were steadily becoming rather favourable pay checks at the end of each month, they began to scour the academic field’s journals in search of a means to justify what it was that in the end was all they were capable of producing. Most agencies therefore fell back onto the popular Germanic 70’s Skopos; a theory that essentially summarised meant that solid ends thereby justify the means (go see: Vermeer, go see: Nord). This gave said translators a blunt sword to lexically hack away at whatever the original source text included so long as the translation brief given by the client was loosely adhered to. No longer did it mater that the original domestic brand name cited “confusion ideals” and “filial virtue”. Knowing todays American youth-orientated market, why not slap on some cut + paste plagiarised lyrics from an obscure Chuck Berry B-Side in order to (in) correctly acclimatise it to its new 1st world target audience? However, this still lead to a pretty heavy dose of socio-cultural brand miscommunication, with toothpaste brands unintentionally citing the feminist black power movement of a bygone era (“Black sister has the power”) to a non-amphetamine synthesized diet pill promising to make you “Not quite as fat as obese” if you persisted with its recommended daily dosage.

And seeing how this market was ostentatiously shifting from Japan to China in the early 1980’s, Karl K. Oburst decided partnered up with George Shaym, whose own South Indian translation firm had been making keen mafioso killings of its own domestic competitors, and set to wooing a collective drunken and well-fed entourage of mid-to-high level Chinese bureaucrats in the industry heavy north end of the People’s Republic of China. But it wasn’t until K. K. Oburst happened to stumble across a newly accredited theory of translation that the firm really lifted themselves stellar above the shoulders of their rivals.

A slightly perverse and not too secret a known fact about Karl Oburst (see: both the male and female toilet cubicles of the fourteenth floor of O&S, the graphic illustrations in the men’s room stalls being of a more detailed nature, while the punch lines in the women’s are inarguably better), was that in order to be able to complete his mandatory 6 a.m. ablutions, he had to be actively (see strenuously) engaged in reading aloud to himself one of several university press restricted publications, namely The Modern Translator, Translation and the Act of Transformative Equivalence or most likely, if the previous evening’s meal was protein heavy and rich in poly-saturated animal storage: Translation as Transcendental Enlightenment and the Lexis of the Soul (which carried by far the least committed readership and so had to spend a good third on their pages in appealing for academically sincere charitable donations) in order to complete the purpose of the visit and so go about his day.

It was, while scanning the pages of January’s TTELS that Karl Oburst came across the newly postulated theory of Ecological Transformative Non-Equivalence, which initially at its intellectual genesis was little more than a mishmash of the various contemporarily popular approaches to objective real-world translation studies (if there can ever be said to be such a thing) by a post-grad student located in Hong Kong Normal University, who rather than formulate his own mastery thesis, had simply taken the key buzzwords from three of that semester’s lectures and ploughed them roughly together, figuring that he could work out later what it all meant and what it was that he was actually saying.

And arguably the post-graduate succeeded, for K. K. Oburst was extremely taken with the holistic approach to translation that the article proposed. It suggested, that in order for any act of translation to be deemed authentically valuable, then the translator must act as meditative vessel, rather than composer, between the agent (see: paying client) and the intertwining spheres of a) the decreasing sphere of influence (the source text’s socio-cultural lexical content) and b) the arising sphere of affirmation (the translated text’s own lexical/cultural connotative meanings). That the translator should do this by being in the very presence of the instigator (see: agent/see: client) but should understand their translation brief not only through a series of detailed interviews with pre-tested questioners and a detailed algorithmic decompartalisation of the company’s previous advertisement audiences, but rather through a weekend of lower-back pain inducing, intense group meditations, along which the required Taoist monk might be required (or your most monkish looking staff intern who doesn’t see posing as a holy disciple as too demeaning to any sort of principles that he/she might affirm to), in order to truly understand not what the instigator thinks the translated campaign should contain, but what the product itself wishes to say.

While mockery did of course arrive in spades to the spam laced inbox of O&S during the initial proposes of this approach, it was only after the successes of Promod pharmaceuticals, Litchi Delicious beverages and Mei Yao Software Solutions did others really start to take note of O&S and watch them with an increasing distrust towards this new spiritually washy take on what had previously been thought of as simple language acquisition. This is not to say of course, that any of the fourteenth floor employees of O&S actually, sincerely believed in what they were doing. Most had been drafted in from other various sectors of language testing, expat English teaching or international business schools and came to O&S with limited to zilch translation experience, held a brazen understanding of Mandarin Chinese (enough to perhaps order a pizza and get only half the toppings wrong) and were then trained and dolled up through O&S’s notably surface/appearance obsessed training program with the savvy gleam of international prowess. But these were the brave few that Karl and George decided would be best suited to this new ostentatious venture. In part directly because their lack of translatory experience and therefore any given respect for the doctrine, the new employees of S&O took to their new positions as syntax gurus and lexical mystics with ease and were soon sitting lotus posed on office room floors throughout the four stations in the north east region, the new offices having been purchased so that the instigator (see: client) might be more easily able to meet with their vessel face to face.

Each week there ran a poll, a running collection to see who could incorporate that week’s word of the moment into their current ascribed project. For the week of July 23rd, which once again found Sarah Lyn Hale siting in the waiting room, this time in line to see Dr John Stallman, McKerry’s very own EMT specialist consultant, the word was tarnation. The chosen word was selected at random from Eric Mascari’s Madagascar Madness theme park gift shop souvenir coffee cup that contained thin slivers of paper on which every member of staff allocated to work that week should write a particular word in the hopes they might be selected (S.L. Hale had punted for incapacitate for what seemed like sixteen successive weeks and had as of yet had no such luck in being plucked from the offensively garish mug whose sides where detailed with goggle eyed animals atop a phallic looking log flume). That the method of delivery was so very childish party game-esque in its nature was intentionally conceived by the staff, who believed that should they ever be caught in the act, they could simply claim that they were following moral No.3 of Mr Oburst own personally crafted manifesto, which he had blown up and blasted across the south facing wall of the fourteenth floor, the third rule of O&S being:

“Remember the child in you who stared at the TV during commercials, and knew that if he could not and did not immediately have that thing and only that thing, then the world would cease to love him and he would reject it evermore.”

Mr K.K. Oburst would never have claimed, he later stated when being interviewed alongside G. Shaym for a small-time industry brand periodical, that he particularly valued succinctness when it came to delivering his company message.

The word tarnation had been written on one of the tiny slivers of paper and deposited into the coffee stained mug by Eli Hickman. Not only could he honestly state that he enjoyed the word and that it gave him great satisfaction to say it quickly, elongating the stressed consonant, but he did so also for when it came time to select the word for the week of July 23rd, Eli had found himself thinking of his parents dilapidated town house in Ohio state, and of the local electrician (though perhaps not originally qualified by trade) who found it impossible to cease talking while working on whatever electrical fault it was that you had asked him all the way out for. When the first of many non-lethal shocks would enter his body, the octogenarian craftsman would leap back from the socket and inadvertently shout tarnation. He would then return to the socket with minimal/no recognition towards either the shock or the expulsion of the word and the spell, young Eli found, was captivating.

“You see, the problem with turning up the soil too much is tarnation it doesn’t retain any of its natural lustre. So that when you come to seed it the following tarnation don’t nothing grow there till its too late, you see?”

And so the gauntlet had been set and the twelve translation vessels scheduled to work that week had gone out into the field, balling the world around in their skulls, pre-empting how they might figure it in to whatever sort of mindless mid-level plastics factory floors they were about to spend a weekend on, lighting incense and asking about target revenues. This was the task that Sarah Lyn Hale was also internally debating, while she sat and waited for Dr J. Stallman’s previous patent to finish up and stop eating into her valuable lunch hour before she had to return to the fourteenth floor and run copy for an online video hosting network that had chosen the overly cutesy name ShoSho.

The reason behind Sarah’s visit to Dr Stallman, was that she had, over the previous week, developed not a ringing in her ears, but what might be described as a rumble, not dissimilar to that of a dense electrical storm, heard someplace far off in the horizontal distance. The sound wasn’t piercing or loud and didn’t affect her at work or at home the way she’d read similar conditions had affected others. Not one to listen to loud music via headphones, nor swim in non-five star hotel pool water, she was less inclined to believe it to be an infection, or tinnitus, or any sort of damage to the drum or inner ear. And yet there it was; this low, gently reverberating sound like a baritone voice being sung two hallways down.

“Miss Hale, good afternoon once again. Sit up here will you please. Is it the sound again Miss Hale?”

“Yes”

“Still drumming away is it?”

“Yes”

“Well now, lets take a looksee shall we.”

Dr Stallman leaned Sarah’s head to the left and began to inspect her ears. She closed her eyes and gently exhaled as she felt his breath, not distastefully on her neck. She considered for a moment that if she thought how he had seen other patients before her already in the a.m. and would see more in the hours of the afternoon, long after she had returned to her own office and therefore was not here to sit in this chair and be inspected so closely, the thought would have left her feeling somehow hurt and slightly cheated. And so Sarah L. H. decided not to think, and instead allowed her fists to unclench on the arms of the plastic coated vinyl chair. Before he turned her head clockwise to peer into her right ear, he paused and rested himself on the edge of the vacuum table beside her.

“Miss Hale, would you mind if I told you what happened to me this morning?”

“I guess. Yes, I would like that.”

“Well you see, this city for all its size, gives me the privilege of being able to walk from my domicile, that is my house, my home, to my work, here, where I am with you now. Here. It’s a short, fifteen-minute walk, along a single road, a rather large one really, with bridges of a more complex nature than I care to understand. And yet there is always such a large amount of, well…”

“Please, amount of?”

“Of Shit, Miss Hale. Lets call it what it is, shall we? Shit. Faecal matter. Defecation either from one significantly large dog or that of a very well fed infant. But there it is, every day; shit. Outside, there in the sunlight, immovable by the strongest of downpours, lying hidden in wait under soot coated snow. But it’s there, it’s always there.”

“I see,”

“But the thing is, the damned thing, is that it moves every day. It can never be counted on to be in the same place twice. It’s like a chessboard that every night gets violently shaken and then the following morning all of the pieces are in different and unexpected places. How am I supposed to play, Miss Hale? How I am supposed to compete?

“It sounds unfair.”

“Exactly Miss Hale, unfair is exactly the word. But then so you see, the only way that I can avoid all of this…this shit, is to constantly stare down at the ground, bent over like a crane inspecting the waters. Walking like this and being as tall as I am, I look ridiculous Miss Hale. I look absurd. A joke.”

“And this upsets you?”

“No, not at all. Life throws us all our own amount of shit to duck and weave past; I know this as well as anyone who has managed to survive this long. No what upset me was that yesterday, while I was walking (neck bent down, face almost inches from the pavement) this motorcyclist, one of those eclectic Vespa-type things, he was driving on the pavement and had to swerve violently to avoid colliding with me.”

“Jesus. Was he angry?

“He was Miss Hale. Incredibly so.”

“Did he shout at you?”

“Loudly, in many ways that I did not understand.”

“So this is what upset you? The driver, shouting at you?”

“No Miss Hale, that didn’t upset me. As I said, a man of my age has been shouted at many times before. It’s not something that comes to bother us anymore, the world of others, things said in haste.”

“Then what was it?”

“He just seemed, Miss Hale, to be so…so sure of himself in the world. So confident in that ah, what’s the word? That solipsistic view. That the world had done in wrong in placing me before him. And that I, hapless an inconvenience, was easily understood as different to him and as alien and not part of the whole damn thing. I envied that. His being apart from me. I envied his confidence that he mattered, mattered more because he saw it so. I wanted to be that sure of myself as being there and being present. I wanted to be him, at that precise moment, I surely did…”

“Dr Stallman?”

“There are so many things, Miss Sarah, that I don’t think I want to learn,”

“Sarah?”

“Yes Miss Hale, your ears seem not to be blocked and there’s no damage to the inner ear nor the drum, so I’m going to prescribe some B12. Rest, and come back in a week and we’ll take it from there. I know that Dr Julian (See neurologist) would be happy to see you again if we have to progress further. It’s been a pleasure Miss Hale, as always.”

2.

Lattanzio-6To alleviate the intense boredom that comes with near chronic insomnia, Sarah L. Hale
has found that she enjoys writing emails under fictitious addresses to previous clients in the guise of international diplomats and foreign dignitaries. Conducted either at night or primed and then picked over in the early morning, these messages are long and often purposefully unyielding so as to leave the addressee feeling stranded and strangely bewildered before they’ve managed to reach the end. This is not by accident. The central goal of Sarah Lyn Hale’s covert emails is to leave the reader in the self-same state that she is that through the act of writing them trying to escape. That after the editing and sending off of one of these pieces of ill-informed and seriously misleading texts she feels ever so weightless and free and able to breath in a way that is clearer and more rewarding than any other point she can recall within her adult life is a notable feature as to explaining what makes this habit so increasingly dominant within her free and private time. She has, over the period of just the last six months alone, allowed herself to be many other people. In consideration of the tone, S. L. Hale has discovered that she predominantly likes to assign herself the textual voice of men, often in their late forties, as this allows her a briskness that might not be condoned unless it came from a well-stocked, wide shouldered male who had reached the crescent peak of his working career and was comfortable enough with his large physical form, believing that his wife would never fail to find him if not attractive then at least sturdy and that invaluable quality “reliable” and so doesn’t really give a damn anymore about what he says or whether the rest of the world chooses to accept it. It has also not gone without Sarah Lyn Hale’s attention, that this is the persona that allows her to be least like herself in almost all available respects.

Besides the portly middle-managerial type, Sarah has also staged herself as a journalist, fact checking for the Washington Post who inquired at a local TV station if they had managed to secure any more accurate figures as to the swarm of espa mandarini that seemed to have absconded to mainland China, tired of its idiomatically associated pray of Mongolian Yaks in favour for the well-fed dignitaries of the nation’s capital.

Have you noticed in increase in necrosis, cardiac arrests or other forms of public haemorrhaging?

what was the embassy’s literature suggesting its expat’s should do when met face to face with a curious but perhaps possibly lethal pig?”

The reporter had asked, amidst a 2,000-word explanation as to why the insects had bypassed other nearer Southern cities in favour of the Capital of China (Virulent anti-Sinoism? She has postulated). She also often favoured emails sent from the correspondence of a Mr G. Lea, a public heath expert dividing his time between working the college lecture circuit and performing heroic acts of civic duty in terms of pre-emptively warning those are risks of national outbreaks. It was Dr G. Lea who had recently asked a local (country’s) embassy high-ranking official for the procedure on how to distribute information on protecting their country’s expatiate population from the resent outbreak of Zoonotic diseases. The email drew attention to the experimental introduction of HEV (See: Hep E) to swine in Russia in the 1990’s. Lea noted that similar following studies conducted by both the US and Nepal had found a good 33% of the pigs in the Kathmandu Valley had retained the condition and though differing from previous strains of the disease, the newly introduced version was not incompatible with HEV US-1 and -2. While the risk was still technically sub-clinical and required a great deal of contact with the animals, given the lack of subsequent analysis as to how transportation of the virus could technically hop into the larger human population, what with the overall lack of meat-industry safety/hygiene standards generally practiced, what was the embassy’s literature suggesting its expat’s should do when met face to face with a curious but perhaps possibly lethal pig?

Lea’s own personal advice was to execute the animal in order to minimise the risk of further, more far reaching infection, but that the brave individual willing to risk his own personal safety for the protection of others, needed to be:

Far enough away from the animal should any ensuing bloods splatter or bacterial off-spray reach their clothes or skin or godforsaken be ingested

And so it was here, somewhere towards the end of yet another excessively long email, that Lea suggested the best and most minimal re: personal risk method to exterminate the possibly lethal domesticated farmland animal, was to:

Lure it underneath a large multi-lane bridge, possibly via a trail of offal or perhaps even salted dog treats would do, and then climb the stairs of the bridge while the animal gorges itself on the strategically positioned pile of said meat snacks and drop a significantly large and seriously heavy block of concrete onto the animal’s masticating face.

Just two nights prior to June 23rd’s midday consultancy with Dr Stallman, Sarah had again awoken the voice of G. Lea, who this time had sent multiple emails, a risky first time venture, for with every additional contact address CC’d in (all stolen from O&S intra-net system of company contacts) there grew exponentially the chance that one of them might happen to call and ask another as to where and how they had first heard of a Dr G. Lea, and with a quick (non) firewall guarded search would have found little to indicate that there had ever been such a person in existence. It could however, also land on the other side, towards Miss Hale’s favour in that seeing the extensive lists, on which there was guaranteed to be someone more important or high-ranking or possibly more in the know than the one reading the email and therefore the individual might treat it with greater importance and less like irrelevant spam that if it had been sent to them alone.

On the evening of July 21st, Dr G. Lea’s pertinent distress call was to warn all of those relevant, that a vast cloud of opportunistic pathogens was approaching the capital. Originating in the killing sheds of Beijing’s outer regions, the aggressively militant form of Psudomonas aeruglinosa or Psudo a. for short, as G. Lea referred to it throughout the rest of the extrapolating email, was a highly resistant pathogen, multi-drug strong and one that brought with it all kinds of hospital over-crowing symptoms such as pneumonia and various unpleasant sepsis-like ilk. With the nearby locations of Hebei, Shandong and Henan providing a good 21.6% of China’s overall pork production, G. Lea suggested that the resulting tide of sickness, ill-health and child/elderly death could be catastrophic. The real concern, he continued to state, was that the pathogen seemed to have become increasingly resilient to all the usual forms of decontamination and now the domestic and international medical community (of which he considered himself to be a pillar of) had little to no real idea as to the true limit or array of side effects that infection might lead to. It is, in essence, he stated via line 206 of the increasingly distressing email:

A very dangerous grey zone to be in,

If reaching the kidneys, lungs or other bodily tracts, the effects could be lethal, concluded Dr G. Lea as Sarah Lyn Hale breathed out with a deep sigh of relief, feeling the chair already begin to drift from out beneath her as she pressed send and watched the email dissipate freely away from her control.

“And you’re still not sleeping?”

Diane Reed asked as she and Sarah listened to the fountainous spray of a municipal truck, as it slowed down to douse the street’s central line of Robina bushes, her question lost under the churning sound of the vehicle’s emptying tank and so not heard.

“And the sound?”

“The sound is still there.”

“What’s it like, exactly?”

“Like something very far away and still very near.”

“Stallman is good,”

Diane added, while examining the length of her own cigarette to that of Sarah’s, the internal calculations of how much more time they had left to spend outside visible behind her expression.

“Did you tell you about the accident he had? The motorcyclist?”

“He said that the driver nearly hit him.”

“Ah, so it’s become a near miss now. I’m sure by tomorrow the driver won’t even make it up onto the concrete?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Stallman, John rather. He and I share the idea of reductionism in our daily life. I’ve been doing rather well lately so it’s not surprising he has to out do me. Competitive son of a bitch. I managed to redact last week’s horrific presentation with Lagra plastics and so of course he goes and makes a whole near-catastrophic ‘questioning of self-type event thing’ just slowly sink back into the either. I’m sure the cocky prick won’t even be able to remember telling it to you in a week.”

“You talk to Dr. Stallman, privately?”

“Its more like we try not talking. Talking leads to the exposition of details, emotional mapping, plotting out territorial states of being. We both attend these group meetings, he and I, where the whole purpose is to try and put all of those things behind us.”

“I had no idea,”

“Good, that’s a start. Now, take your condition for example. I’m really breaking the whole code here by going into it but what the hey. So, sleeplessness, palpitations of the heart, impeding hypochondria, it’s not good. Would you say that you’ve been feeling anxious?”

“Anxious, yes. Maybe,”

“Anxiety, this is not good. It carries with it implications. Implications of mental unrest, of medication, of coping strategies. All of these things are undesirable yes?”

“I would rather not feel this way, yes.”

“So Anxiety, the word itself; get rid of it. Retract if from your internalized lexis, your own personal dictionary. Gone. It never existed. Now, if the word is not here, then neither are all of those things above. Do you follow?”

“So, what am I feeling?”

“Say ‘ill at ease’, or better yet, oh yes say weltschmerz, god yes say that.”

“Isn’t that just as bad?”

“Oh honey no, it’s just a stand in, just for now, for while you’re getting anxiety out of the world. Weltschmerz is currently neutral, a newborn word from your lips. Have you told anyone that you’re suffering from weltschmerz?”

“No,”

“And when you do, it’s time for that word to be extinguished too. And then another and another, until life becomes incredibly simpler.”

“Then how to describe to others what you’re feeling?”

“I’m sorry honey, I don’t understand. Tell them what?”

Diane’s cigarette had long since been extinguished, and now along with Sarah’s too being stubbed out against the side of the building’s wall, she took her arms intertwined back towards the lobby entrance hall towards the fourteenth floor.

“Most people, they spend so much time trying to grow and improve things, speech especially. They want to sound confident, certain, the master of their own thoughts. But really, how can that ever be achieved? Let it go, just one little word at a time. It’s so much simpler in the end.”

Lattanzio-5

On the morning of July 25th, the local district officials for all major districts of the metropolitan Beijing area went into action of an immediate kind. They closed schools, placing helmeted security guards by the entrances and staffing additional areas with non-certified volunteers (mostly reaching the end of their fifties) to whom they gave arm bands that safety pinned onto their shirts and allowed them to stand outside and smoke like they would do any other non-critical day only this time with an additional sense of purpose and self-worth. Admittance to all hospitals were limited, with many being turned away at the gates, limping to the roadside to hail taxis that would never arrive, their drivers having been forced to stay at home under penalty of lost licenses, leaving all inter-city roadways eerily empty like the track before a race. Personal cars were allowed accessibly on the street only if accompanied with sufficient documented ID that declared the driver to be resident of the city limits and only then if the individual could prove they had reason to be there, which of course many could not, and after the first dozen or so public arrests went viral on various networks of social media, those already out in their cars with their children in tow, quickly u-turned back home, not wishing the privilege of driving to be revoked. Children wore facemasks for the first time indoors and ate only instant food that was hermetically sealed in plastic before July 2017. Said food was consumed quickly, before the masks were hurriedly slipped back on, the elastic over the ears leaving bruised red track marks that the kids would compare at school the following day. There was a noticeable absence of persons in the street. Those of a more conscientious nature sealed the rims of their windows with reels of blue duct tape, while others took the day to stay at home and watch TV, or better yet play with their phones for hours without interruption. For Sarah Lyn Hale, the day was most forgotten. She spent over half of it asleep, finally having rocked herself down from the high and tense feelings she had been having the previous day by sending off yet another two emails, this time as the representative from an insurance agency informing her client, who happened to be a prominent Capital news broadcaster, that his claim had gone through and he would be soon awarded absolute and total damages. The central thrust of the email had no so much this time been about the details of the case, of which Sarah had spent little time recounting to him (for surely he would already know) but it was more concerned with being slightly unprofessional in inadvertently telling the recognizable broadcaster that she was sorry, that she could not imagine what it was to have gone through such terrible loss. That it was, in her words, only unimaginable to then continue and to find ways of maintaining and of coping after such an ordeal, all of which was geared to hopefully make the local journalist query and internally question what it was that the real/intended recipient of the email was supposed to have gone through and then perhaps leave him with a gnawing, sickening discomfort of having been via Munchausen’s proxy a part of this person’s whole emotional upheaval and stolen moment of release.

Sarah L. H. ended up sleeping so late that after she had woken and washed and eaten a little of what was cold and already cooked stored in the fridge, it had already begun to grow dark, and while the curfew had been lifted, the absence of people out on the street was in nowhere near as profound as it had been around midday, when apart from the turning over of traffic lights, there had been little movement outside at all. After opening her inbox and finding there on the top of the list an email from her father checking in for a call via Skype, Sarah connected and waited for her father to pick up. She dressed herself from the waist upwards, so as not to upset her father, but left her hair disheveled and pulled back, as this was how he had seen his teenage daughter most often when just awoken and still half asleep and so she did not feel like trying to come across as any more presentable.

“Daughter of mine, are you there?”

“I’m here. You can hear me?”

“No. The connection’s fine.”

“What?”

“Good, things are good. There is news and things are progressing. I’m thinking of removing the carpet from the halls,”

“You said in the email that it was important, the reason for the call”

“When is there not something important? All the time, everyday, I see importance all around me. I sense it. Yesterday with the carpet…”

“Dad. I mean with me. To talk to me,”

“You’ve not been outside today have you? Keeping indoors, windows closed and all that?”

“I’ve been indoors. Working. Why?”

“I don’t know but maybe if I’m six hours behind on other side of the planet and I saw it, I thought maybe you’d know what I was talking about. This inattention to the details of your own life, it makes me worry sometimes…”

“Dad,”

“The news. It said the whole of Beijing; shut down, just like that. It’s incredible really, that the people would listen to their government so completely, to such an extreme. It’s impressive really, impressive but terrifying perhaps.”

“It’s nothing. It’s a mistake. The government does this sometimes, checks to weigh its sense of control over things.”

“Well, it worked! Very well I’d say. What is the view like from your window? Tell me.”

“It’s the same I guess. Cloudy, street’s a little empty, its nothing.”

“It looked serious on the TV”

“It’s the way they describe it. It’s nothing.”

“I remember being locked inside during the demonstrations of 82. Bunch of far right fascists, brutes really. Marching and marching. They threw Molotov cocktails made from beer bottles in the streets. Half of them never went off. Poorly made things. It felt so good the next day, being out of the house, so freeing, like being released from a cage,”

“You told me that story. But it’s not really the same, it’s nothing like it.”

“I just don’t trust what it is people say.”

“That maybe is not so unwise.”

“And then so you’re sleeping better? More rested, being inside all day? The anxiety is getting better?”

“Yes. I mean, no. Not anymore, I mean it’s getting better. That’s what I meant to say.”

“The doctor told you that?”

“No, he… he said weltschmerz.”

“Come again?”

“weltschmerz. It’s called weltschmerz. That’s the word for it.”

“Weltschmerz, I used to know this word. Hang on, I’ll look it up.”

“No, dad, don’t, don’t worry. It won’t last very long.”

“You can do this on your phone now,”

“Please. Don’t.”

“I was always impressed by your use of language. Being able to locate yourself in the word, express yourself. A lot of people struggle with it,”

“It’s late, I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t worry now, not now, dear daughter of mine.”

3.

The scheduled client for July 26th was set to arrive at 9:00 a.m. meaning that Sarah L. Hale should be preparing individual meeting room AB, giving her a good fifteen minutes with the authentically stitched tribal blankets, the floor cushions, the un-scrolling of the quasi-non-religious/non-lamaistic Tibetan ceiling to carpeted floor scroll, and finally the lighting of much incense around meeting room AB, more commonly referred to as the blue room (each room’s interior decorating was ultimately the same and so what defined the blue room as ‘blue’, and the adjacent individual consulting room as ‘mauve’ remained a mystery to all but Orbust and George.

By ten, after several concealed micro-packets of wasabi-coated peas (concealed not because of any official non-consumptive office policy, but purely because Sarah L. H. didn’t like other people to watch her eat, less the phobia being tied to her actual eating but more the voyeuristic attention of having someone else actually in the room, there with her, having to masticate with all of the sounds produced, the inhalation and stomach sensations and all that came with it just being too much), it became clear that HeiTian Air Purification Systems were either delayed beyond reason or had never intended to come, both of which Sarah thought about for as little time as possible, before cleaning up the ‘blue’ room and positioning herself once more at her desk, scrolling the months’ previous submitted proposals for further campaign strategies, seeing if there was someplace where retroactively the word tarnation could be inserted.

By 11:30 a.m. the slow drumming inside of Sarah Lyn Hale’s head had so increased, that the Gel-Rite Obsidian rollerball pen on the left-hand corner of her own private cubical seemed to be vibrating in resonance to the bass tone that only Sarah L. H. could possibly be hearing. Diane Reed had dropped by Sarah’s proposing the possibility of a cigarette and an iced, branded coffee, one with lots of cream and refined sugar served in a tall and domed plastic glass and Sarah had been forced to dismiss the conversation, trying to explain that the noise in her ears was making it not only hard to hear, but also to actually get speech out herself, given the impossibility of hearing her own voice over the drone.

“Honey, see Dr. Stallman again. Your appointment this morning cancelled right? He really is so very good at disappearing.”

“Come again?”

“Making these things disappear.”

So it was that Sarah scrolled through her contacts and once again made an emergency appointment at the McKerry’s IHC for that afternoon, and soon was sipping mineralized water from a paper cone outside of the office of Dr Stallman. The hallway contained only two chairs, on which sat Miss Hale and another woman who held beside her a stroller, though the infant child was out of the chair and highly active, entertaining himself with a newly discovered game. The game was to steal, or just maybe to take, the potted geranium from the table next to the receptionist’s desk and run around the corner, out of sight behind the intrusive wall of Stallman’s narrow corridor office. Then when she, the receptionist, stood up to come over and return it, the boy would run back and place it before the table where she would have to bend down, pick it up and place it back next to the rack of company info-magazines and glossy bejeweled tissue dispenser. Sarah watched the boy run back towards the table again, the drum in her ears eclipsing everything but the complaints of the nurse at reception and the dull thud of the boy’s trainers on the carpet as he ran once again out of sight. The nurse said something to the boy’s mother and Sarah watched as the mother mouthed something inaudible, her face seeming exhausted and drawn with thick lines of sleep, and so when the boy returned once again to steal the plant pot, Sarah considered jutting her right foot out and placing it accurately in front of the boy’s trainers to trip him up, hopefully catching the terracotta end of the potted plant, perhaps not someplace fatal, but certainly scaring and memorable. The office door of Dr. Stallman then became open as he appeared, guiding a gentleman out by a hand on the shoulder.

“If these things don’t seem to be real, why let should we let them trouble us, hum?”

The man pointed to his ear.

“Yes well, that either will get better, or it won’t. Either way yes? Miss Hale, or should it Sarah by now, please come in,”

Sarah Lyn Hale lay back on the familiar examining chair and exhaled a sigh of genuine relief. She was glad that she was here, not still in the office, and felt welcomed and once more again in a familiar and recognizable place.

“The ear yes?”

She nodded, as Dr. Stallman began inspecting the inner corridors of her ear.

“Not that good, I’m afraid. If indeed the drumming is still there. It is still there, isn’t it Sarah?”

“What? Yes.”

“What about if I talk this loud? Can you hear me now?”

“…”

“Not just something we want to be wrong is it? A little hypersensitivity? No? Damn. Oh well. Worth a try.”

“I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

“My fears are here being realized my dear. It’s not good, not at all. Psudomonas aeruglinosa. Big P, little a, that’s how I always remember it. But it’s really not good I’m afraid.”

“I haven’t done anything to it. I haven’t even touched it since last time. That I’ve a good patient, perfectly complicit.”

“Yes well you see, that’s all good and fine. But the issue is, is that the last time we were here for a whole different set of problems, weren’t we? Calling it something entirely different now I shouldn’t think. You went out yesterday no? Ignored warnings and the like? Most probably yes?”

“No. Not a step outdoors.”

“Sarah, I think we both realise now that that can’t be true.”

“I didn’t go out yesterday.”

“This condition (lets call it what it is) can be contracted numerous ways, one of which is intrusions into the otitis externa, that’s inner ear to you, by unclean apparatus, but I hardly think that we need examine the root cause any further,”

“Yesterday wasn’t anything. I know this”

“I’m afraid it was Sarah, it was almost definitely was. Because it’s the cause behind what looks to be some permanent damage to about 90% of your hearing, yesterday that is, the alert and all. Saw the name of it, P.a. right there on the news. I thought, ‘I know what that is’. It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it? Feeling informed before being told. Still, we all have our own areas of personal expertise, I’m sure you have your own too.

Dr. Stallman looked down at Sarah, still in the chair, who stared back at him, not saying a word.

“I feel that I am, how shall I say, unequipped now to answer your questions from this point on. We do have a grief councilor here, newly appointed. She’s very good. I go to meetings with her all the time.”

“I just want my ear to be fixed.”

“Not really an option anymore, I’m afraid. But these things happen, don’t they. What’s best is just to move on. Get on with things. Maybe I can tell you something that might help. Last week, I forget the day, I watched a man walking along the side of the road, just staring at his feet, not looking where he was going at all, eyes fixed rigidly on his shoes, or thereabouts. Strange, frightful really, that he could be blocked out, so isolated from the rest of the world. I believe that he was so confused that he had to stare straight down at his feet just to maintain. Think of all the things that he’s missing. Life, just passing him by. But my point is Sarah, if he can continue, to press on, then so can we can’t we? By which I mean you, whatever happens. What do you say?”

4.

When he inhales, the sound is papery and thin. Things move swiftly and are incredibly brief. There is Dettol and pastel blue. Light can be seen, gravitating towards the centre. For approximately twenty-five minutes afterwards, your hands will still smell like mint, no matter how much water you use to rinse, and you rinse well, as you’ve been trained to do. The smell of blood can be metallic and somehow crisp, an astringent. I am worthy of grace, a person in the room might have uttered under their breath. And there was brilliance in the air.

 

Artwork by Micae Lalattanzio.

Author: jameskramerblog

James Kramer is a fiction writer currently based in Beijing.

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