Chapter 1 here
Back inside the terminal, he knew his next move would have to be to find a bathroom and take a proper look at his features. He lacked a mental image of his face, and this blank space where his thoughts were lodged unnerved him so much that he was reluctant even to touch it. But he had to look – if anything at all could jog his memory, it was surely his face.
Nothing, it turned out, was easily found in the peculiar geometry of the terminal. The persistent curvature of its design made him feel like an infant orbiting a new kind of womb which had been designed by mathematicians and sculptors. All its lines were curvilinear, and all its structures nestled neatly into the whole in a manner which suggested an aesthetic abstraction of the beehive or wasp's nest. Here and there, long corridors branched off from the main building. Their carpets were a rich, fleshy red, and the smooth, white arch of the ceilings gave the whole the appearance of a whale or shark's famished gullet, through which the people moved like snacks fleeing the digestive track.
Finally, in the atrium of one of these corridors, he found a bathroom. The bathroom was long and narrow, and smelled of a citrus disinfectant. The people at the basins all seemed to pause in their ablutions, and regard their reflections with a melancholy warmth, as though the images in the mirror were people to whom they were bidding a fond farewell, after long, tumultuous shared adventures. A jaunty, repetitious melody was piped into the bathroom, but he found that there was a peculiar sense of irresolution or absence in the culmination of the figure, such that the melody created in his mind the looping image of a beautiful face slowly brighten to a wide smile, only at the last to reveal a toothless and cankerous mouth.
Having paused for some time at the cubicles, he edged nervously to one of the wash-hand basins, and regarded his appearance in the mirror. He was, he guessed, about thirty-five. He had brown curly hair, short and untidy, and large blue eyes which he thought were the colour of a declining evening sky, reflected in cold water. Besides the slightly piercing quality of the eyes, his appearance struck him as unremarkable. He was pale and slender, with the look of one of those introverts who strike most people as passive and emotionally neutral, an impression owing not to a lack of passion but rather a certain waxen, inexpressive quality about the physicality. He knew that type of person vaguely in his own memories: the type who smiled detachedly and kept their own counsel, having seemingly resolved that life was a boisterous party at which they knew nobody.
It was not mere disappointment in his looks, however, which troubled him so sorely. It was that his reflection stirred neither the slightest memory, nor inspired in him any discernible emotion whatever. He knew that the reflection in the mirror was his own, that the appearance which returned his searching looks was in some vital sense himself, only by a logical necessity of spatial correlation. Beyond that, his physical body was a stranger to him, and looking at his face elicited no greater connection than that of a passer-by on a busy street. Had his reflection abruptly turned its back, and proceeded towards the door of the bathroom, it would have had engendered no great shock of dissociation.
This estrangement from his body filled him with a sorrow which felt unprecedented to his dim recollections. They had taken everything from him – his entire past, and any connection to his physical selfhood, was utterly lost. All that he had to hold onto were his present stream of thoughts, knotted as they were in the unravelling of a pervasive nightmare logic. In the mirror, his body was convulsing slightly, and tears streamed down its face. An elderly Japanese man, dressed in a funereal suit, patted his shoulder gently – that gesture again. He turned and glared at him.
He made his way up to to one of the elevated footbridges that spanned the perimeter of the terminal. Observing the scene from this particular vantage point, it was clear that the crowd broke down into two separate groups. There was a smaller minority of people like himself whom he called “New Arrivals.” The New Arrivals all exhibited varying symptoms of extreme disorientation and anxiety. He had to assume that they were all in the same position – that their memories had been wiped and they had no idea where they were. The second group he called the “Departees” and the “Comforters.” The Departees had come to be at peace with the circumstances of their abduction and were now leaving Intermundia Airport – back to their old lives? They all had that peculiar, almost mystic placidity which they tried to impart on the New Arrivals, by way of reassuring glances and that insufferable petting.
Clearly, there was some kind of process at work whereby frightened New Arrivals were gradually transformed into contented Departees. Their minds were first wiped clean, and then remade so as to completely acquiesce to the process whereby their identities had been stolen, and remoulded as self-effacing model citizens. Perhaps Intermundia Airport was a kind of re-education camp were everyday people were indoctrinated, and then sent back into the world as the hidden operatives of an ideology or agenda so vast and esoteric that their activities went everywhere unnoticed. Whatever the case, he had now at least acquired a goal and a purpose: to resist this process with every fibre of his being. They had made him forget everything, and that fact alone he would not forget. To have found a goal and a provisional plan, even one composed entirely of rage and opposition, brought on a mild cessation of his churning nerves. A fire which had blazed in his nervous system cooled to to a more patient simmer.
He then felt yet another pat on his shoulder, this time with a considerably less friendly import. Turning from the railing, he found that he was accosted by two security guards. The guards were an odd couple indeed. One was middle-aged, small and paunchy; the other youthful, tall and lean. The middle-aged guard was balding, with grey, wet-looking hair. The sides had been scrupulously combed back, and the remainder on top formed a near perfect rectangular peak at the dead-centre of his forehead. His face, closely-shaven and filmed with perspiration, was plump, boyish, frog-like and endearing. He had the air of a perpetually harried yet good-humoured uncle.
The younger man had a shaved head, tanned complexion and handsome Latin features. He looked sleepy and arrogant. They stood facing him for a moment, the older shifting nervously, the younger man's body immobile, his eyelids flickering as though he was falling asleep.
'Hello, sir', the older one finally began, 'if you'll excuse me, sir. My name is Eddie. This is my colleague Giacomo. Your case officer, sir, would like to see you now, and it is our privilege to accompany you to his office.'
'What if I don't want to go?'
Giacomo edged closer to him, his manner more languorous than insistent.
'You'll see your case officer,' he said, 'one way or another. Don't want to go now is fine with us. We get to take an hour off. You wanna make life difficult for yourself, and easier for us, you're welcome to.'
Eddie cast a reproachful glance at Giacomo.
'What my colleague means to say is that you can see your case officer any time you please! There's no obligation, none whatever. It's up to you! The thing is, though, it's really better – better for you – if you see him sooner rather than later. It's like – like the dentist! Nobody really wants to go to the dentist. They put if off! And the rotten tooth, the pain, you see, it just gets worse. So eventually they have to go. And then – just a little prick, a bit of yank, and all the pain is gone! And then they're kicking themselves, saying “I should have to the dentist ages ago!”'
'I don't have a toothache.'
Giacomo seemed to approve of this remark. He looked at Eddie with a smirk.
'You see? He doesn't have a toothache. Why would he want to go to a dentist?'
'That's not the point. I didn't say he should go to a dentist, I was simply drawing an analogy - '
'You and your analogies, you're just confusing the issue! The man is disorientated, he needs to get his bearings, and you're telling him he has a rotten tooth, he needs to go to the dentist - '
Eddie turned away from Giacomo, and looked at him imploringly.
'You see what he's trying to do? He doesn't want you to go! He just wants to take an hour off. I'm only trying to give you good advice! I have your feelings at heart. He just wants to have a drink.'
Eddie and Giacomo continued to bicker in this farcical manner, eventually wearing his patience to the point where he submitted to attend the interview. Eddie beamed. Giacomo shrugged and gave a little yawn. They sauntered off briskly and he followed them down the steps. They seemed to forget about him instantly, becoming absorbed in their own conversation.
'Did you know,' Eddie was saying, 'that dentists have the highest rate of suicide among all the professions?'
'They do. Its a very strange thing, if you think about about it. I mean, it's a respectable middle-class profession, well-paid, secure, steady. Not as respected as the doctor, but less pressure! The dentist never has to tell anybody they've got a month to live, or that they'll never walk again. So why do they do it?'
Eddie glared at him.
'All the bad breath seeps into their brains?'
'You make a joke out of everything, but it's an interesting conundrum. I have a theory about the whole thing. There is something, I suspect, in the mouth, that only dentists see. Think about it, how often do you actually look into the inside of your mouth? Nobody does! It's like this undiscovered country, you know, that we carry around inside our faces, this landscape of pink flesh and naked bone and rotting chunks of grizzle and the calcified residuum of an endless stream of words, a lifetime of words that flow profusely out like bile but never really say anything at all. And nobody looks into this world for any sustained length of time, nobody except the dentist. But he looks! Day in and day out, he wrestles with the ungovernable tongue and probes the private parts of a thousand faces, until humanity becomes in his dreams a single gaping mouth! What does he see in there?'
They were passing the bench where he had woken up. The old woman was awake now, sitting up and shaking with a piteous expression of terror on her face. Two other New Arrivals, a man and woman, sat either side. The woman cradled the older woman in her arms like a child, and whispered close to her ear. The man looked like he had suppressed his fear in deference to the older woman's worse plight, but his eyes, wide and bird-like, darted frantically. Both looked at him suspiciously as he passed with Eddie and Giacomo. It occurred to him that he must already look more acclimatized to Intermundia Airport, a change in his appearance perhaps brought about by his first concession to the security guards.
Giacomo regarded Eddie with a look half indulgent and half exasperated.
'Do you say this shit to your wife?'
'No, no, of course not. She's a wise woman in her own way, but not intellectual. She likes her creature comforts, and no noise or stress. That's wiser than most women, I can tell you. But this stuff would be far too deep for her. I only share this stuff with you, Giacomo, because I sense that there are deep, deep currents hidden beneath your boorish veneer.'
'Nope, no currents here. Please don't.'
They turned into one of the corridors that branched off from the main terminal. The corridor was empty, and its peculiar acoustics seemed to amplify the absurd conversation of the security guards.
'There are currents, yes, I can tell. You are a thoughtful man. Now – where was I? Yes, what is it that the dentists see? It seems to me that there could be something in the mouth – some hideous asymmetry – that points to a greater truth about the human condition. Perhaps the mark – the scrawled initials – of a cruel or senile creator. And the dentist, by virtue of the nature of his profession, is forced to face this mortally dispiriting truth every day of his professional life, along with a rouge's gallery of misshapen and rotten molars, swimming in a dank miasma of the halitosis. It drives him to despair, you see. He begins to question the whole premise of his profession – that one should fix that which was designed, after all, only to give pain and yield to decay.'
'Your brain is a hideous asymmetry.'
'Did I ever tell you my theory about why plumbers and pipe-layers tend to be extremely fertile?'
They paused at a stairwell. Eddie turned to him. “We're going out to the Central Command Complex, so we have to get a train.” They proceeded down the first of several stairwells. A crowd started to mill around them again, like a tumbling stream. He glanced at the posters on the wall while they descended. They were advertisements composed of a mishmash of religious, historical and commercial iconography. A jolly, rotund Oriental sage demonstrated the virtues of a water-resistant wrist watch. A benevolent, bearded youth enjoyed a carbonated beverage after he had been scourged by a group of soldiers. A collapsing tower emphasized the importance of comprehensive life insurance. Others suggested political and militaristic themes: mobilization of war efforts and nationalistic projects, fomentation of xenophobic panics, evocations of the transcendent power of vast crowds, or a single, abstracted fist clenched in the manic idolatry of an idea. Some of the posters were more abstract or elusive in intention. “TODAY IS TOMORROW'S YESTERDAY” announced one, over an image of a family of skeletons enjoying a summer picnic.
Finally, they arrived at the concourse of a vast underground rail network. As they descended a stately granite staircase, his senses were once again overwhelmed by the scope and bustle of Intermundia Airport. There were five separate train tracks, linked by a system of overpasses. People ascended to the footbridges on escalators, and were then carried smoothly across on mobile walkways, giving the overpasses the appearance of relentless conveyor belts. The tracks moved to a similarly breakneck pace: it seemed as though there was always a train either departing or arriving at each track, producing a vertiginous feeling of panic like that of the old variety show gimmick of spinning plates. He noticed with a kind of sickening jolt that a huge percentage of the crowd was made up of New Arrivals accompanied by one or two security guards. They were hundreds, perhaps thousands of these groups in the underground.
He was momentarily stunned. 'Are all those...?'
Eddie nodded, grinning with fond awe. 'Yes, all new-comers, just like yourself. It never stops. The turn-over is amazing.'
Giacomo regarded him smugly.
'Not so special now, eh?'