Stephen found he was looking at his hands. They looked strange, they looked, well, sticky, wet? He was back in the room with files, the dust and the grey walls. He touched his hands together, they were sticky. He looked beyond his hands to the floor and saw with growing horror a mass of orange peelings. He felt a taste in his mouth. The sharp taste of ascorbic acid, the sticky hands, the taste, the dismal rind laid before him. The terror rose rapidly up his spine as he came to see that somehow in whatever absence had happened to him, he had peeled and eaten ‘chief’.
He now noted further that there were still a couple of carefully segmented pieces line up on nearby table. He began to sweat and hyperventilate ‘fuck fuck fuck!’ he swore through his perforated breath. But then in a horrible dissonant state looked again at the remaining pieces of chief. He’d liked that orange, he’d taken quickly to accepting its sentience, its warmth, its humour. Now though, the orangeness of the orange began to assert itself. Stephen’s throat was dry, his blood sugar low, surely it was actually a waste??
Calmer now, he carefully reached over picked up one of the remaining segments and put it in his mouth. Pressing down with a variety of teeth he felt the sweet juice ripple through his mouth. Man, chief was a tasty orange. Hungrily he at the last piece and feeling somewhat refreshed he turned his attention to what next. He looked down again at the eviscerated integument. ‘I won’t let you down chief…’ he half muttered as he scooped up the peel and put it into a nearby waste bin. He stood up, exited the room and headed for the second left as he’d been instructed.
In the well-stocked good sized cleaning room, partially guilt riddled, the first thing he did was to wash his hands in the sink (noting the difficulty of the tap, which he wiggled as instructed) until the orange juice was entirely removed. Then, taking a cloth soaked in disinfectant he returned to the grey files room and wiped down the table, the floor and the door handle. He glanced furtively at the evidence in the bin and considered it too incriminating, gingerly, using cloth as a kind of makeshift glove, he opened the bin lid and removed all the pieces of chief’s outer layer. He then wrapped the cloth around them, went back to the cleaning cupboard, unrolled an extra bin liner and deposited the cloth (with chief’s remains) into the bag. This he rolled up tightly, twist tied the end and put it back in the bin in the files room. ‘So far so good’ he said to himself, ‘Now to work’.
With a real sense of duty Stephen went back to the cleaning room, filled the bucket with hot water and disinfectant, armed himself with a variety of cloths and a mop and went back to tackle his allotted task. Chief had been right, it was a big job. It was a good-sized room and the floor was actually filthy in such homogenous manner that it disguised this. But Stephen was determined not to let chief down. At one point, feeling something sharp digging into his leg, he reached into his pocket and located the badge that chief had given him. A small steel insignia with a classic pin back, it was inscribed with a weird looking filigree pattern that formed the backdrop, in bold letters at the front in simply said ‘Poc’. With a confused rush of pride and guilt, Stephen put the badge on. It would least help legitimize him if and when anyone else came along.
He returned to his labour and after about 2 hours and 3 floor moppings, he looked with satisfaction at the near gleaming off-white floor. Turning his attention to the desks he felt with some consternation he hadn’t thought this through properly. The tables were really dusty, but if he cleaned the dust he might get some on the floor and then he’d have to mop again. Oh fuck. He could see now he should have done the mopping last. He looked up. The entire ceiling edge (and part of the ceiling itself) were covered with old spiders webs as was the ventilation grille. ‘La couleur tombée du ciel’ he thought to himself, the ceiling, the sky, caelum, recalling the etymology of ceiling and for some strange reason the French for that old tale of HP’s. Callum? Who was Callum? Another random(?) thought.
Pull yourself together Steeplton. Think man, think! If the floor has to get dirty again then so be it. Start at the grille end, get the ceiling clear, then the walls, then do the tables, then the floor again… Stephen’s enthusiasm was beginning to wane. If only he hadn’t eaten that fucking orange it would have been serving him coffee by now. Reviewing this insane thought in his head he burst out laughing, before pulling it in sharply to a kind of snorting noise lest he attract attention. Still tickled by the absurdity, he went back to the store grinning to himself. There he retrieved a fresh cloth, clean hot water with disinfectant, a long-handled duster and a step ladder. These things he hoped to utilise to properly clean the ceiling and grille and the table end of the room. It was tricky. The tables were pushed near flush to the end of the room making access hard. Stephen figured though, between standing on the tables for some parts and the step ladder for others, he would be able to reach to corners to get the job done properly. To facilitate this he placed the bucket on the table in between boxes so he could reach it to wipe walls and grille down. The system in place, he made start. Everything was going well and he had a whole corner de-cobwebbed and wiped. Unfortunately, the still slight wetness of the floor, the structural instability of the stepladder and the poor angle at which he had placed it meant that when Stephen reached to get a particularly recalcitrant cobweb, the ladder gave way backwards as Stephen fell forwards off it, crashing into the tables and files as he did so. In the fall, a kind of automatic response of preservation, he grabbed at a box, dragging it with him as he bounced off the table onto the floor, knocking the bucket as he went. His shoulder took the force of the landing with his head receiving a secondary kind of blow. The box, he kind of pulled on top of himself in the process, covering himself in dusty files. The bucket of cleaning water joined this assault, soaking himself and the dusty files in an appalling mess.
Half unconscious, half propped up in the detritus by an arm, Stephen could hear approaching voices and footsteps. Unable to stand, he lay there as the sounds grew louder. Eyes blurredly fixed on the doorway he watched as three weird characters entered. The first was of near giant size and looked more beast than human. Massive goat like horns adorned its almost demonic head, yet its smile was bent in a congenial expression of humour. Next was a man in a yellow jacket, he had neat combed brown hair and a bland looking face, which on this occasion looked somewhat surprised. His trousers had legs of different colours and materials, one was green corduroy and the other a pale plaid slack. Lastly was a what seemed to be an insect headed lady with a long purple smock dress that went nearly to the floor. Her antennae were twitching wildly.
In wretched confusion, Stephen looked at the bizarre gang and somehow seemed to make sense of them ‘Henri! Derleth! Cantaloupe? Sir, you’re alive?!’ The beast-man looked more concerned than amused now, and made his way over. ‘Hey Lily, Odd-legs, help me get this guy up!’ The three figure swiftly went over to Stephen who seemed fixated on the insect lady. ‘Derleth? Is it really you? Did we win?’ Krampus (for that was the beast-man) sat Stephen upright against the wall ‘You alright pal?’ then glanced at the badge ‘Poc? That you’re name, you alright Poc? You’ve banged your head, this ain’t your lady friend Derleth, this here is Lily the Midge.’ ‘Henri?’ ‘Wrong again pal, I’m Krampus and this is Odd-legs, take it easy Poc. Hey Odd-legs, get Poc some water!’
So Odd-legs is back with the water in a moment. Stephen takes a sip and slowly the world seems to return. He sees Krampus, looking over him, he sees Lily the Midge and Odd-Legs hovering in the background. ‘I… I was trying to clean the grille and ceiling, I must have slipped.’ ‘You got that right pal, look, now you’re back with us, can you tell me, you haven’t seen chief around at all have you Poc?’