The Life of Henry Fuckit
43 Driven to distraction
In the winter months, when the sea turned dark and vicious, and the clouds came in low and the squalls of rain swooped down from the mountains and charged across the bay to attack the harbour, it was impossible to get out and about. Then, for the sake of physical exercise and to keep warm, Henry resorted to pacing the aisles of Central Store. He also did it to exercise his mind and hone his acting ability.
Running the length of the second floor were eight rows of high double-sided racks containing the multiplicity of stores needed in the running of a naval dockyard. Henry had been attracted immediately to the walkway provided by the nine aisles and had undertaken a thorough study of the layout. Armed with clipboard, paper, ruler and pencil, two labourers with measuring tape at his command, he spent many hours mapping the terrain. After a week he had produced a scale drawing with exact measurements and he was ready for his first full, uninterrupted tour. On the tennis-court-green concrete floor he had a labourer paint two yellow lines, one at the beginning and one at the end of the promenade. Standing to attention, toes just touching the first of the lines, he made a careful note of the time and set out at precisely 10:10 one morning, 380 minutes before the end of the day, hands clasped in the small of his back, head up, gazing into the gloom ahead. This was the start of a journey, he sensed, that would be as long as a piece of string.
Each day he strode the aisles, counting, measuring, calculating. He perfected the smooth left turn, the effortless right turn, the half pace at the end, the little tricks of the trade that would eventually culminate in mastery. Twenty-nine, left two, left. Twenty-nine, right two, right. Twenty-nine, left two, left. Sixty-six, right two, right. Sixty-six, left two, left. Sixty-six, right two, right. Sixty-six, left two, left. Sixty-six, right two, right. Sixty-six. And a final half pace to attention - that was the most difficult of all. Four hundred and ninety-nine steps. About turn to make the half kilometre. Three short aisles and six long aisles; six long aisles and three short aisles back. One kilometre. Fourteen minutes to the kilometre, four kilometres to the hour with a pause of one minute and twenty seconds between each kilometre. Each step in the kilometre acquired its own number, its exact position in space, and its exact position in time.
For many weeks he was content. Contrary to Whitehead's assertion that he did not understand the crucial importance of time he had actually seen to the heart of the matter and devised a method of survival superior to anything the older man had dreamt of. Or so he thought. With a sense of calm assurance he was able to deal with every second of the day. Admittedly the Sirens gave their assistance and it was comforting to hear them and see them and know their infallibility ten times in the day. But what of the moments in between? And anyway, they spoke to all men who chose to listen. He was actually setting up his own system and acquiring a degree of independence. His pace was light and springy and he even hummed to himself or broke into a tuneless whistle. Until he met Schroder.
Ivan Schroder was Henry's predecessor and had been driven out by Alf Whitehead on the pretext of an allergic reaction to the smell of Morgan's Pomade, with which gunk Schroder was wont to plaster his greying hair in the hope of arresting depigmentation and alopecia. Henry encountered him one day whilst filing past the Atomic Clock where it lay radiating and pulsing in its glass sarcophagus.
"Aren't you the imbecile Whitehead's trying to dispose of?"
"That's it. Henry Fuckit. You must be Schroder, the bloody idiot he got rid of before me. Howzit?"
They stood with bowed heads for a moment longer and then passed along the corridor and out into sunlight.
"I suppose he's told you some of his crackpot theories. Drivel. Cracks himself up to be the greatest authority on the subject in the Dockyard. Got the intellectual acumen of a hospital porter."
"Oh? Is that bad? I don't know any hospital porters. What's distinctive about a hospital porter?"
"You've never been to hospital? Consider yourself most fortunate. Two years ago I was in Groote Schuur for an appendectomy. Nearly gave me a hysterectomy their anatomy was so bad. Anyway I was wheeled about by porters and a porter was sent to shave my nether regions prior to surgery. First struck me a blow with a rubber mallet, then nearly amputated me and finally stole my comb. And blind drunk too. The lowest form of life on earth, these porters and orderlies, barely recognisable as human."
"Lower than Stores Officers?"
"What! Far lower. That's why I make the comparison with Whitehead, who I consider to be of subhuman intelligence when it comes to the heart of the matter. Can you believe this? He is of the opinion that time can be controlled by measuring it! I was at great pains, out of the goodness of my heart and in the interest of Truth, to explain to him the folly of his ways. To no avail. He has discovered an opium that soothes and calms but will eventually leave him a miserable husk of a man. Yes, the days may pass in a kind of slow oblivion to pain but in fifteen years, when he must retire, he will look back on the days and hours and find they have disappeared. His life will have disappeared. Now the moments linger, plump and full. But then… Then he will be a man without a memory. Twenty years of his life will have been shrivelled into nothing - a blankness."
"You're from a different school of thought?"
"I am. And when he manages to get rid of you, and if you come to be a Verification Officer, I shall educate in the correct management of Time and Existence. Until then, beware your soul."
The conversation with Schroder had a strange effect on Henry. He began to make mistakes. He would suddenly find himself lost among the aisles, not knowing where he was or what time of day it was. Panic clutched at him and he had to rush blindly up and down the passageways until he reached a landmark and was able to orientate himself. Then, sweating with anxiety he hurried to the office, checked his watch with the clock and gazed out at the Sirens, desperate for their next call to reassure him that all was well.
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