Ruairi MacInnes

The March Editor's Pick Writer is Ruairi MacInnes

Feel free to email Ruairi at: macinnes1@hotmail.com


by Ruairi MacInnes

For some weeks at work, there had been muttering in the break area that some of our jobs were going to be axed at Perusal. I edited academic textbooks, and I worried there wasn’t a lot of that sort of work in London other than Perusal.

One morning our line manager flicked a plastic cup backwards over her shoulder into the bin behind her without having to turn and look, a trick she had perfected. She addressed us with a growl in her voice and explained that the new owners were downsizing our company. She had to cut the team and several of us would be free to “explore new opportunities.”

I was one of the recipients of this unexpected freedom but I promised myself I would hold on to a positive mental attitude. I was young enough to find another job, right? Wasn’t there other lines of work besides textbooks?

As we were leaving the office, the line manager presented us all with a copy of a glossy, free magazine called Where to Now? She smiled in a manner that may or may not have been sincere and said this publication would help us to adjust to our new situation.

On the tube train home, I scanned the magazine’s classified ads, feeling as if I belonged to a vast and hidden community of searchers in the metropolis, trying to evade chaos in order to create form and meaning in our lives. The struggle to survive was not going to threaten the sense of who I, Benedict Pace, was and would remain to be.

In the back pages of the magazine, there were several positions that I felt offered potentially interesting work, at least as a stopgap until I found something more purposeful.

I spotted one advert for telephone salespeople that seemed a bit different from the rest. It said, Could You be a Clot? Be part of our team!

I believed in teamwork.

I learned that Clots was the name of a company that sold clown costumes and related paraphernalia. I had always enjoyed jokes, comedy and larking around and recently had performed my standup material at an ‘open mic’ at a pub nearby to where I lived in Holloway, North London. Clots might give me inspiration.

Two days later I was en route to their training day. I was feeling anxious but that was normal when I’d lost my job and needed a means to pay my rent and feed myself. If the job didn’t pay too much, it would at least give me experiences with which I would regale my mates while we supped a lager or two in some atmospheric watering-hole in Soho.

This was Clots’ emailed description:

We are a boutique telesales company, working in a specialized field. We know our market inside out. We understand our customers and they love being entertained. So we want happy-go-lucky, upbeat telephone salespeople who aren’t afraid to let their hair down. As one of our team, you’ll be energetic and engaging and perhaps just a wee bit crazy!

Here’s how you’ll spend the training day:

1. Helium Voice Training
2. The Clots Costume
3. Party Time
4. Makeup Masterclass
5. Moving Up the Ladder

East Acton Station was a lot further out from London’s center than I’d realized and by the time I stepped out of the tube train, there was a slow drizzle and a foreboding sense of further inclement weather. Despite all that, I set off to find the address.

Strangely, the GPS on my phone led me to a run-down industrial area of dilapidated warehouses. I remained buoyant by envisaging the lively bunch of colleagues I would meet. We’d be sure to have a whale of a time.

But when I found the building, I had to double-check the address. It sure looked different from my expectations. Clots described itself as ‘fast-moving and progressive’ but this cuboid warehouse of chipped and crumbling red brick looked semi-derelict and deserted. There was no nameplate in sight and the high and tiny windows were criss-crossed by iron bars.

I went to the door and pressed a metal button that was hanging from exposed wiring, reminding me of an eye dangling from its socket. I ran one hand through my hair to smooth it down, remembering how crucial first impressions were. Somewhere in the premises’ depths I heard a jangling to signal my arrival.

The drizzle was unrelenting. Nothing happened for some moments until the door swung inwards and a baritone voice within the murk said, “Step on in.”

The room was a brimful of shadow and I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I crossed the rusting threshold. The darksome interior was claustrophobic but once inside, my eyes became accustomed to the subdued lighting. The ‘reception area’ was as dingy as the outside of the building and contained stacks of scuffed furniture that one might find in a junk shop.

“Awfully glad you made it. We’d have been so very disappointed if you hadn’t dropped round today.”

I turned toward the voice and saw my host slumped on a shabby sofa from which protruded a couple of springs. His countenance was obscured by his acutely folded posture and a gray woolen nightcap pulled tight upon his head. The homely headgear was incongruous with his brown nylon suit, a tea or coffee-stained white shirt, and brown polka dotted tie.

Did he live and sleep here? I feigned unawareness to the eccentricity of my greeter’s apparel and surroundings and said, “Where are all the others, mate?”

He made a whining sound, that I took to be a weary, jaded laugh. “It’s just you today, young man. Everyone else has, uh…phoned to cancel.”

I glanced around the shadowed corners, verifying there were no accomplices lurking there. He continued, “The others may have had…misgivings. However, you should be—”

At this point he looked me up and down and I saw his face. It was an almost crescent shaped, leering visage of indeterminate age with jagged teeth and no eyebrows, dominated by large, sad, grey eyes.

“—ideal for our purposes.”

I turned around, thinking to forget the whole dubious affair and said, “I’ve made a mistake. I have to be somewhere else.”

But somehow, without a sound, the door had closed behind me. It fitted snugly in its frame and no light squeezed round its edges.

The contorted figure said, “Relax! The trainers will be here soon. You’re going to have to see this through. No one bails out when I’m at the controls…mate.”

Fear crept over me. A vapor curled around the feet of my host and I could have sworn the tendrils of mist were flowing from beneath the sofa.

The odd man said, “Just count to ten now, nice and slow…”

The last thing I saw were his black winklepickers, footwear from a bygone era.
I stumbled sideways and into darkness.

I awoke sprawled on the floor of a cubicle with metal walls and floor and ceiling. A console inset on one wall contained a screen (currently switched off), a speaker grille and some dials and switches. Beneath the console was something reminiscent of a postbox slot. A camera was attached to the ceiling. The gleaming environment seemed suggestive of a laboratory for experiments on specimens rather than a welcoming environment for trainees.

I was really scared now. Had I been kidnapped? Oh, I should never have stepped into this run-down building in a derelict neighborhood! I sat up and shouted, “Let me out of here!”

A sexless voice, distorted by crude amplification, seemed to come from the ceiling. “Training schedule starting shortly.”

I tried to calm down. “Okay buddy, joke’s over now. I’m outta here and offski, pronto.”
And then I realized that this must be the initiation ritual. Clots supplied the entertainment industry so of course their interview experience would be a tad ‘theatrical.’ All candidates would undergo the same procedure and in no time at all I’d be joshing about it with the other trainees. In all likelihood they were watching me behind one-way glass, with peals of laughter. Later on we’d have beer and pizza, bantering about our day.

The voice said, “Please stand up. Let’s get started.” The asexual tones offered no emotions that I could read. However, it clearly was an order. I didn’t really want to obey but I rose to my feet.

“Task number one. Helium voice training.” There was a hissing sound from an unknown source. I supposed this was a jet of helium, a gas I knew to be invisible, odorless and, luckily for me, non-toxic. “Tell us in your own words why you really want this job.”

So it wasn’t a kidnapping. I kept quiet for a few seconds. I wasn’t keen to submit perform for my observers without the support of others doing the same task and I knew my voice would be raised in pitch by the gas.

“Don’t be shy.”

I decided it would be best to go along. “I’d just like to progress my career, build my CV, improve my teamworking skills.” My voice was a graceless squeak but I finished my presentation in order to satisfy my captors, as I was rapidly coming to perceive them. The sooner I finished this stupid interview, the sooner I’d be released.

The metallic, distorted voice said, “Good. Well done. Task number two. The Clots costume.”

Something damp and stinking of decay dropped across my face, blocking out the light. I scrabbled frantically to pull it off my head.

As I held the object out in front of me, I realized it was just a piece of plastic clothing, but smeared with a putrescent slime of indefinable origin. I thought to myself, they could have warned me what was going to happen.

“Put on your costume as quickly as you can. There’s a good lad.”

I unfolded the garment, a baggy, silver-colored, plastic jumpsuit with a ruff around its neck, outsized red and blue and green buttons and a multitude of voluminous pockets. I unzipped it and pulled it over my own clothing.

“Good show. Now for task number three. Party time. “

A metal tray emerged on a hinged arm from the slot in the wall. The tray held a tumbler of amber liquid. The voice said, “Cheers. This one’s on the house. Get it down you.”

Desperate to complete all the tasks, I picked up the beaker and knocked it back. The hot liquid tasted like tea but with an unidentifiable chemical tang. I placed the empty glass on the tray and it slid back into the slot.

From somewhere outside the room, a snare drum and crash cymbal began an uptempo disco beat.

The voice said, “Dance.”

I yielded to the order, hoping obedience would lead in freedom. The floor felt slippery and I glanced downwards at a film of grease, previously unapparent. Never having been the greatest dancer, I knew the slimy floor wouldn’t help my cause.

As I began to awkwardly gyrate, the floor seemed to ‘give way’ slightly as if it had become more flexible. The drum and cymbal proceeded with their relentless rhythm. The floor was now almost elastic in its pliability and I wondered if the drink had contained a chemical that was altering my perceptions.

The voice said, “Impress us with your efforts. Then you can go home.”

So I hopped from one foot to the other and threw my arms up in the air and kicked my legs in a ‘can-can’ style until I slipped on the greasy floor and fell. I stood up again and continued dancing but repeatedly lost my balance and bruised my elbows, back and knees.

Despite my best to control my emotions, I began to sob. I said, “Let me go home. Please.”

The voice said, “Task number four, the makeup masterclass.”

The control panel on the wall crackled and a video appeared on the screen, showing a close up of a solemn male. Behind his head was a metallic wall like those that enclosed me. He was about my age but in contrast to me he was prematurely bald with frizzy clumps of hair sprouting from behind his ears. He was using sticks of makeup to apply the face paint of a circus clown and a timer on the screen showed the speed at which he worked.

The example video finished, leaving just the timer ticking round its dial. From the aperture in my metal dungeon, the tray on the unfolding arm reappeared, this time bearing a mirror and some crayons of greasepaint.

The voice said, “Copy him. Don’t stop if you want to beat the clock.”

The timer reappeared on the screen. I tried to be rapid but the mirror displayed the smudged grotesquerie of my exertions.

The voice said, “Appalling effort, but we must press on. We’re running out of time. Task number five. Moving up the ladder. Please return the mirror and makeup to the tray and then turn around.”

A rush of optimism pervaded me. I had got through almost every stage. Everything was going to work out fine. But my hands were shaking with exhaustion and as I went to place the mirror on the tray I dropped it on the metal floor and it shattered into pieces. These I picked up carefully, ensuring not to cut myself, and placed the shards back on the tray along with all the greasepaints.

I surreptitiously placed a mirrored fragment in one of the pockets of my costume…just in case.

I turned around and saw a door behind me that had not been there some minutes ago. It was formed of the same metal as the rest of the cubicle and displayed a blue, neon sign that said ‘Promotion.’ How the wall could have altered itself to include this door was beyond my rational understanding.

The voice said, “Go through the door marked ‘Promotion.’ Wait inside and someone will come and get you. Do not open the curtains in the room.”

Still wearing the stinking plastic garment with its large, multicolored buttons and my face remaining a mayhem of ill-applied greasepaint, I shoved open the door and gained entry to a room full of broken furniture, as squalid as the initial reception area. A pair of floor-length, tasseled velvet curtains, suggestive of the fittings of a previous century, draped one wall.

Curiosity overwhelmed me and I ignored my instructions. I parted the curtains and found myself overlooking a darkened theatre auditorium from the vantage of a private box, the murk in front of me pierced by a solitary spotlight focused on the center of the stage below.

The cone of light illuminated a figure in surgical mask and gown. He was hunching over an operating table to which someone was bound by leather straps. Even from this height, I recognized the ‘patient’ as being the subject of the makeup training video. His frizzy clumps of hair sprouted from behind his ears and the greasepaint remained on his face. He wore a baggy, silver-colored jumpsuit with a ruff around his neck, suggestive of circus apparel, as I still did as well.

The victim seemed to be unconscious. Chained to the balcony ledge in front of me was a pair of opera glasses and I picked these up and tilted them downwards at the stage to get a better view. To my horror, I saw that the surgeon was guiding a tattoo gun’s bobbing needle along the contours of the makeup, rendering it a permanent mask on the unfortunate wretch’s face.

At this point I turned and fled.

I swept through the velvet curtains, back into the room full of broken furniture and pushed against the door to the metal cell which now seemed like a sanctuary. But the doorway opened onto a new and unexpected scene.

I stumbled out into a desert of slate-colored sand and scattered clumps of towering, monochrome bushes with winding, thread-like branches. Something slammed behind me and I turned round to see the door I had emerged from was no longer there. There was only sand and warm air and the eerie foliage. Embellishing this odd scene, here and there, were ‘ornamental’ ponds of various sizes, encircled with misshapen stones and containing scum covered muddy water.

From behind one cluster of the bushes, a shock-headed face peered out and snarled. The creature had a ruff around its neck, suggestive of the circus costume. Its face was heavily inked in lines and shading reminiscent of the makeup of a clown but these lines were blurred and faded, perhaps by time’s passing. Somewhere from the tomb-grey sky came floating, echoing laughter and some vigorous clapping. A hastened, heavy breathing seemed to permeate the landscape.

The creature with the radiating hair moved out further into view, moving on all fours across the sand. It was unclothed apart from the ruff around its throat and a ragged strip of silver-colored plastic wrapped around its loins. The pale, wrinkled skin of its body was decorated with crudely inked numbers and letters that evoked the jottings of a drunken accountant. Although I knew it was human, its fatless, wiry arms implied decades of proceeding on all fours, as if it had adapted to an unnatural regime while held in captivity.

The thing inhaled noisily through skull-like, flattened nostrils and recessed, beady eyes, which combined with the tattoos on its face to nightmarish effect. It snarled again and bared a set of sharpened teeth. The circus ruff around its neck fluttered jauntily in the breeze that wafted through the desert landscape. And from behind the same assemblage of trees ambled, also on all fours, two of the creature’s cohorts both bearing similar facial decorations.

Alone I faced these enigmatic enemies. I wondered if once they had walked upright? How long had they been in this place? In their youth, had they also arrived with good intentions at a training day?

The job for me at Clots had been accurately described, at least in one respect. When their promotional material had said We understand our customers and they love being entertained, that was correct. But the whole scenario was a trap. My so-called induction and whatever came after was merely a means to titillate the company’s odd clients. Somehow I knew the clients were watching all of this, watching me, right now.

The three sharp-fanged entities growled in unison. In one of the spacious pockets of the clown suit that I wore, I found the shard of broken mirror that I’d salvaged. I ran one finger along its sharp edge and then across its polished surface, sensing two possibilities for defense. The fragment of the looking glass was capable of both injury and reflection.

As the three creatures approached, I knew I had to make a choice: to use the piece of mirror to mortally wound my assailants or, more realistically in terms of my survival, to show these damaged beings an image of what they had become and break through to their humanity trapped within. And then perhaps together we would flee from this place.

However bad things seemed, I still believed in teamwork.

Ruairi MacInnes is from Scotland and lives in London.

His short fiction has been published in Murky Depths, Bewildering Stories, Planet Prozak, Eunoia Review, MicroHorror, The Cynic Online and The Rusty Nail. He is currently working on a dystopian novel with a redemptive ending.

He plays electric guitar in the band Johnny Mode.