by Mark Keane
It was my penultimate year at university. The exams had ended. I felt I had done enough to scrape together the requisite marks and should not have to face the indignity of re-sits. This assessment was based on nothing more than gut instinct and optimism.
The Inorganic Chemistry paper on space group theory was a worry. I had spent the first twenty minutes drawing water molecules in the margins before I could think of anything to write. I regurgitated what I remembered of my lecture notes in the hope that it coincided with what the examiner was looking for.
Better to stay put for the time being and wait for the exam results. I was annoyed with myself. A summer spent in Dublin was the ultimate failure. There would be no jaunt to Düsseldorf or Camden Town to supplement my depleted coffers with the Chancellor's mark or the Queen's shilling. I had bothersome debts to repay, and there was the expense of my socialising.
I scanned the Situations Vacant columns in the newspaper. There was little that was promising. I had no interest in serving as a hotel receptionist. My interpersonal skills were rough at best. I could not pass for an experienced head chef or even an inexperienced greasy-spoon cook. Manageress of an up-market boutique left me unqualified. I lacked the muscles to try labouring on a building site. Security work remained the only feasible compromise. My heart sank. Was this the best I could expect?
Then my eyes alighted on an advertisement nestled in the corner and surrounded by a thick black border. Companion cum factotum. Candidate must be male, twenty-two years of age and in excellent health. Preference given to a university student in the latter stages of an undergraduate chemistry degree. Evidence of academic achievement not a consideration.
The job description could have been written with me in mind. It seemed odd, if anything, too good to be true. I was due a piece of good fortune after the cock-up with the exams. I should not subject this gift horse to needless examination but seize the opportunity.
Interviews were to be held the coming Friday between 2.30 and 3.30 pm in the back room of The Asphodel. A small map with an arrow located The Asphodel off the quays. I had two days to prepare for the interview.
* * *
I scrubbed my body with citrus-infused soap and stood under a cold shower. The invigorating pings of icy water would get the blood flowing to my brain and focus my concentration. I followed this with ten jumping jacks and five press-ups to generate a healthy glow. Recalling the wording of the advertisement, I should appear to be in fine fettle at the interview.
I examined my face in the mirror. My skin was clear, no unsightly spots or blemishes. I traced the outline of my nose: aquiline, a prominent bridge with the same curvature as my father’s and his father’s, too. It was an inherited characteristic.
I dressed as formally as I could. White shirt, dark trousers and polished brogues. I had to roll up my sleeves to conceal the stain of spilled red wine on one cuff that I had never managed to remove after repeated washing. This was a sizable discoloration, its shape approximating the island of Cyprus. I decided against wearing a coat as a means of concealment, for the day was muggy. Any extra garment in the heavy heat would cause me to sweat, and that would not stand in my favour.
I washed my hands vigorously, applied moisturizer, clipped my nine fingernails and filed them to a smooth roundness. One piece of advice from my father was never to underestimate the importance of a good manicure. I felt a familiar dysphoria at the asymmetry caused by the missing half of the middle finger. It was the unhappy consequence of a childhood accident with a lawn mower that could not be undone.
I thought of my father who was now in his seventies. He had sown his wild oats and reaped many harvests, married late and had a store of hard-earned wisdom to impart as maxims: “Never get old. Live each moment to the full. Take what you can from life. The future will take care of itself.”
It was a philosophy that appealed to me and one I decided to live by. I was twenty-two years old, the age given in the advertisement. Staring at my reflection, I experienced a surge of excitement, a sense of unbound possibility.
Before setting off I ate a lunch of tinned tuna and broad beans. Brain food, I told myself.
* * *
I left plenty of time to get to The Asphodel. A leisurely stroll in the humid early afternoon. I avoided the milling crowd, stepping around aimless tourists and steering clear of blinkered business types as they marched to their urgent appointments.
A funeral hearse heaped with blooms passed me on the quays. It was followed by two limousines with impenetrable dark windows. These were trailed by cars bearing cheerful and laughing passengers, enemies or even friends of the deceased.
Three girls skipped in front of me. One ran ahead and called to her two friends in a foreign tongue. I felt a sudden uplift, a rush of optimism. I was looking forward to the interview.
Nearing my destination, I turned onto a side street. A figure stumbled past me and hit against my shoulder. I looked behind to see him slumped against a wall. Before I had an opportunity to check if he required assistance, he moved on, walking unsteadily. I noticed he was dressed like me, like someone on his way to an interview or from an interview. It was a silly notion. I was feeling uncharacteristically giddy.
The Asphodel was an unprepossessing two-storied establishment at the end of a narrow thoroughfare. To reach it I walked by drab stone boxes with low hung doorways in sombre colours of bister and malachite green. A discreet metal sign showing The Asphodel in Gothic lettering extended above the lintel.
I dawdled at the entrance and felt a phantom tingle in my damaged digit. The exhilaration I experienced earlier had dissipated and was replaced by disquiet.
I was having second thoughts. The advertisement was peculiar. I could no longer ignore that. The exams had just finished; I should take a break before looking for work. I was run down and in need of rest. But there was the issue of money, I was skint, and time off without hard cash was not leisure in my book.
The sun emerged from behind the clouds, its rays warm on my face. I had come this far and should press on. It was simply a case of nerves, which was to be expected before an interview. What had I to lose?
* * *
I pushed open the front door, which was ajar, and entered. I walked into a shadowy vestibule. A man was standing behind a wooden counter. He wore a maroon velvet waist-coat over a cream shirt with a bow tie obscured beneath the folds of fat that fell from his chin. His large face was featureless and looked like a partially deflated balloon. I noted the Brylcreemed scant hair and sunglasses that were redundant in the gloom.
I cleared my throat, which had become unaccountably dry and scratchy. “I am here for the interview.”
Before I had finished speaking, he raised a hand and pointed to my left. A black armband was visible, drawn tight on his plump arm. I turned and saw a door that was open. I went inside and stopped short, as the darkness within was impenetrable. I formed an impression of a large room that may have been square or hexagonal or even oval. I was unnerved by the surroundings. The door shut behind me with a sharp click.
I was sightless, isolated and off-balance. A light flared below me from a lamp, weak at first but the flame grew stronger. I could make out tables and chairs scattered about, walls with dim rectangular outlines that I surmised were shuttered windows. A dull thud and then another came from the table that supported the light.
“Come closer.” A male voice that was raspy, possibly a damaged voice box, or the speaker suffered from laryngitis. I moved forward.
“Take a seat.”
The legs of the chair scraped against a stone floor. I was aware of movement at the other side of the table. The seated figure appeared to pick up a slim cylinder. This he directed into his open mouth, pressing on the top with an accompanying hiss.
“The aerosol aids my throat.”
It was difficult to make out his features. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, possibly a fedora, and a thick, three-piece suit of tweed or wool. His neck was not visible as it was covered by a voluminous bow or cravat.
The face was unnaturally pale in the light of the lamp. I searched for his eyes but there were none. No, they were hidden behind dark glasses. These surely served less purpose than those worn by the concierge. He looked away and I fancied his hidden eyes were seeking figures seated at the other tables. I felt the arc of his search return to me. A trickle of sweat ran down my back.
“What is your age?”
He took a flat metallic object that he raised above his head with more spraying. His hands were not visible; the shiny rectangle moved in mid-air as though part of a conjuring trick. I was struck by an overpowering scent of musk, cloying and nauseating. I registered a second underlying smell, sweeter than musk but cut through with mustiness and something else, a putrid meatiness.
The air in the room was moist and dense. I took a handkerchief from my pocket to dab my eyes, which were welling with tears. I patted my damp forehead. It was then I noticed the vase on the table containing star-shaped flowers.
“And what is the state of your health? Do you have any lingering illness?”
“None whatsoever, I possess a clean bill of health.”
He sprayed an abrupt shot of musk. “Unfortunately I suffer from a medical complaint, a disorder of the pancreas.”
“I am sorry to hear it.”
“My sweetbread is no longer so sweet.”
I was not sure what to make of that. His head began to loll and he stared at the table for some time. There was something about him that seemed familiar, something that resonated within me. Somehow, I felt I knew him.
The stillness in the room was uncomfortable, the darkness alienating. He looked up, the sudden movement suggesting surprise at my presence. He took the aerosol and sprayed perfunctorily into his mouth.
“What of your spirit?”
This enquiry seemed ambiguous and most likely loaded. I decided on a noncommittal response. “I have no spiritual concerns.”
“And your life force?”
I had no idea how to reply. The interview was running away from me. I was conscious of more spraying.
My interrogator continued. “My body is weak but my spirit remains strong. More so now, more than ever before. My taste for life has not altered.”
“I am pleased to hear that.” I was dismayed by my trite response. That would go against me; I needed to make a greater effort with my answers.
“Twenty-two years of age, you have lived for nearly two hundred thousand hours, more than eleven hundred Tuesdays, as many Fridays, almost two dozen Junes, the equal of Novembers. A long time.”
“Perhaps, when presented in such terms.” I felt some conceit at this rejoinder.
“All that time spent in a healthy body. A careless body, unaware and uncaring of the time passing. The time that has passed and will pass.”
I waited, expecting that this was a prelude to a statement, even a question. After all, this was meant to be an interview. It was not what I expected. I heard a hiss and smelt the musk.
There was a sudden rattling behind me. I looked around. One of the shutters had opened and cast a dusty light into the room. I heard insistent tapping on the floor and turned back to face my interviewer. He was groaning piteously.
In the vague illumination thrown from the window, I saw a blistering on the exposed white cheek, flaking skin around the chin. The door to the room was opened, and the large concierge stomped clumsily to the uncovered window. He banged the shutter closed. I could hear the fitting of pegs and hooks, heavy breathing from the concierge. He left the room bowing obsequiously.
My interviewer continued a low keening that faltered and ceased. Silence.
“So difficult, so very difficult.”
“And yet I must continue.”
I took this to be a reference to the interview.
“Do you require my personal details and academic scores?”
“I know all that.”
“Should I provide references?”
Did I detect a snort of derision? My senses had become skewed in this damnable room. More spraying, a sickly film coated my tongue. I looked at the vase of flowers. Had they wilted? How long had I been here, being interviewed? A bell rang. The sound sent a shock through my body.
“We must end now.”
“Is that it?”
He raised his arm, one hand peeling away the cover from the first. A dark glove was removed and allowed to fall onto the table.
“We will part.”
A hand with long tapering fingers was extended towards me. The fingernails were immaculate. I saw the middle finger with its missing phalanx. I hesitated. My hand was clammy with sweat. It was grasped and held tightly in a grip that was at the same time insubstantial. My hand matched his. I was shaking my own hand. Every nerve in my body was instantly hypersensitive, my guts roiling with alarm. It was impossible. My brain rebelled. I banished the abhorrent thought. It was intolerable.
I felt him shudder. He turned his face towards me. I instinctively looked away but glimpsed his curved aquiline nose. I felt his malevolence. My hand was released. It was dry. He lowered his head and I could hear again quiet keening. I had the sense that he was stronger, more vital. I was drained, drained and despondent. Enervated, I backed away from the table.
“When will I learn the outcome of this interview?”
My question was ignored. I knew then there was no position to fill. The advertisement was fiction. I heard the sound of deep inhalation.
“Energy.” The word was whispered. “The breath of life.”
I was losing patience with this masquerade but was too tired to deal with the ambiguities. Too weary to think clearly, I left the room in search of the concierge. There was nobody behind the desk.
* * *
I could stay no longer. I felt myself slide from my body as though skidding uncontrollably on ice. A girl waited outside. She was younger than me. Eighteen or less, a schoolgirl. Was she here for the interview? How could that be? What about the job description? She looked up and smiled nervously. I turned away.
My mind was fractured. I felt feverish, my breathing was shallow. At the bottom of the street, a male figure approached me. He was about my age and was wearing an ill-fitting suit. Hand upraised to attract my attention, he appeared harassed. He held aloft a newspaper that I recognised immediately.
“Can you direct me to The Asphodel?”
“What do you want there?”
“I am attending an interview for the post of law clerk.”
He shoved the paper under my nose. Situations Vacant: receptionist, head chef, boutique manageress. He indicated his advertisement and the map within the black border. I was nauseous and close to collapse.
With an enormous effort, I pulled myself together and directed him to his interview. Why had I not warned him? It was not my concern. My interview had ended. Let him find out for himself. It was too difficult to explain and I was spent.
What did I witness in the Asphodel? What had I experienced? Was it a glimpse into the future? That was ridiculous. It was a nightmare or an aberration, some trickery in the hellish heat and oppressive atmosphere of that room. I had been out of sorts since the exams and was not thinking straight.
I should put this behind me. It had been a mistake to attend the interview. All that was unimportant. I must get home immediately, take a taxi and hang the expense. I needed to sleep. A long and restful sleep. Tomorrow or the day after, I would start again and resume my search for a job.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Keane