By Jon Crout
Otto staggered to the toilets, as much for shelter as to answer a call of nature. Those recently reformed, sing-along baldies were coming to the end of their over-familiar set, and he was quite keen to get some respite from the persistent drizzle that had been soaking the crowd on the common pretty much since they got there.
He had left his friends and made his way to the furthest toilets he could find, feeling a little the worse for wear after a long afternoon and evening in the cold and wet listening to a lot of live music by bands that either were not really his thing, or else too blown about by the wind to really hear properly. He had got to a point where he had had enough. The Beatles could have come on with AC/DC to play a set of ABBA covers, with Tina Turner and Freddie Mercury on backing vocals, and he would still have wanted to go home.
Pulling the door on the plastic cubicle shut behind him, he got on with the half-hearted business of relieving himself. As he splashed the loo and seat in equal measure, slumped against the wall, he fixed his eyes on the logo at eye level.
‘Portal Double Zero?’ The words rolled around in his head, fighting for space at the front of his brain with the cider for which he had somehow justified spending half this month’s salary.
Otto sighed, grateful for the quiet and absence of rain. He realised that he could not actually notice the pitter-patter on the toilet roof. He could not even hear the music any more. Had there not been an irresistible clamour for an encore? He adjusted his dress, and opened the door.
It took him a while to fully appreciate what was in front of him. He could see the field. He had a lovely view of the castle. The entertainment complex with swimming, gym and venue facilities was unmistakeable to his left. What he struggled to come to terms with was the fact that there was absolutely no trace of the Abcestival, sponsored by the school of dentistry. There was no stage, no beer tent, no girls handing out fluoride information leaflets and no throng of weather bashed party goers eagerly absorbing the latest opportunity for overpriced food and drink outlets that the council had secured for the seafront.
Otto’s mind reeled, and when he stepped away from the toilet, his legs did the same. His tipsy feet were unexpectedly falling on hard, dry earth, not the sucking mud that still clung to his DMs.
It was getting dark now, and his disorientation was giving way to a mild panic. There were people walking by on the pavement and he lurched over to them, waving an arm.
‘Hey!’ he accosted them, ‘where is Abcestival?’
The kindly looking couple stopped, bemused.
‘Hello,’ the middle-aged woman greeted him, ‘are you one of our eastern European friends?’
‘What? No, I came out of the toilet’. Otto turned and gestured to the small plastic box he had just vacated, only to find that it, too, had vanished.
‘Can we help you?’ the other middle-aged woman asked him with pity in her eyes, looking his damp form up and down.
Otto did not know what to say. He backed away. Something was clearly not right, but he did not know what. Had he passed out? Had he drunk something he really should not have? He had no idea what was going on, but he had just one over-riding instinct, and that was to go home. He made his way out onto the road. Here too, things were not as they should be. In the gathering gloom he could see that the tanks were missing from outside the war museum. He stumbled on across the common, desperately hoping that once he was safely indoors that things would somehow sort themselves out.
It took him more than half an hour to reach his flat. His key did not work in the outer door that led in from the street, and even though on some level this did not surprise him, Otto tried quite a few times before giving up. The doorbell that was supposed to coMPnnect to his first floor flat had not worked since he moved in, yet with an inexplicable tingle he found himself pushing the button anyway. With a scrape and a squeak, a young woman stuck her head out of a window above.
‘Hello? Can I help you?’ she called down.
‘Er, yes, maybe. You see I live here’.
‘Did you just move into the basement flat? You need to go round the side’.
‘No,’ Otto called back, ‘no, I live there, in number 3’.
She did not answer straight away. He could see her straining to make him out properly in the monochrome half-light. He felt self-conscious and conspicuous as he was examined by this strange silhouette that was examining him from what should have been his own lounge window.
‘Do you need the Assistants?’ called down the voice.
‘Eh, assistance from whom?’ he replied. His mind was foggy, and he felt he should get away. He had already started to turn and walk down the street.
‘Wait, please!’ the voice called after him. ‘You don’t need to leave. Let us help you!’
Otto was already around the corner.
He meandered through pseudo-familiar streets, lost in a world of thought, rather than connecting properly with the world of sense experience. Without any conscious plan, he ended up in the Guildhall Square. The large TV screen was still on at this late hour, and was showing just one, still picture. A face. The female visage that was gazing down at him was very familiar, but the name written large underneath was not.
A tap on the shoulder made Otto jump.
‘You’ve come to give thanks to Muriel?’ The old man was short, hairy and wearing a yellow hi-vis jerkin with the word ‘ASSISTANT’ written in big capitals on the front and back.
The uncanny feeling that had been bombarding Otto’s brain since he had emerged from that mysterious toilet seemed to be building to a crescendo. He recognised the woman in the picture; she was not someone he knew personally, and he had no warm feelings for her whatsoever. The very idea that he might be wanting to give thanks to her was ludicrous. This was someone that was responsible, as far as he knew, for appalling decisions affecting the lives of countless people both home and abroad. He had so much going on in his head, yet could only manage a short echo in reply.
‘Muriel?’ he said.
‘Muriel F.C. Diamond!’ The old man was beaming. Otto looked between him and the screen. He pointed up at it, and the man nodded vigorously.
‘I think I might know what the ‘F.C.’ stands for,’ Otto mused.
‘Fayn Calixte,’ came the reply.
‘That’s not what I was thinking of. All right, I give up,’ said Otto, shaking his head, ‘where’s the camera? Who’s the joker, is it Gibson? I’ll chin him’.
‘Come, friend, let me show you how we do things here. You could do with dry clothes, and I dare say some hot food. Let’s get you some shelter for the night’.
Otto was led to a small rickshaw, and bundled into the back. Before he could adjust, his well wisher had grabbed the handles and set off at a brisk pace.
‘No, wait, you don’t have to carry me,’ Otto tried to protest.
‘ I am here to Assist you,’ came the shout back, ‘please try and relax, this won’t take long’.
Otto could not believe it when his ride brought him back to the seafront, and right to the door of the D-Day museum. Except all trace of the memorial purpose of the building had disappeared. They stopped, and Otto dismounted.
‘Where are the tanks?’ he asked.
‘This is the Shelter’.
Without any further discussion, Otto was led through a reception area where he was met with a succession of smiles from everyone that he passed. The building had been adapted and added to since he had seen it last. But that was just last week, surely? He was taken to a storeroom, and his companion arranged for him to be fitted out with a whole new set of clothes. He was told that some were donated, and that others came through a scheme that Muriel had instigated whereby clothing stores and supermarkets would pass on unwanted end of line stock.
Feeling much more comfortable as he left the changing cubicle, he found it hard to conceal his delight when he was taken to the dining hall. It was a very busy place, much like a canteen, with people queueing for food as others sat at numerous tables. The Assistant left him alone to enjoy his meal. As he sat, he was able to hear the sound of people conversing in native tongues from all over the continent. Otto was no linguist, but he was able to tell that the menus were available in a selection of different languages. This multi-cultural support service took him by surprise. He had friends that had worked in support services, but he had never known of anything of this type, or on this scale. Someone plopped into the seat beside him.
‘Great, isn’t it?’ Otto looked up into the smiling face of a swarthy, stubbly man in a long robe. Ever since he had emerged from the strange toilet he had met only nice, friendly people. He started to give full credence to the idea that had been growing in his subconscious, the notion that he was somehow in some parallel version of his own reality.
‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ he replied. His new dinner partner had spoken in a thick accent that Otto did not recognise, and was naturally curious about. He was not quite sure how best to bring the subject up. ‘You’re not local, I take it?’
This comment caused great hilarity. When the laughter subsided, and tears had been wiped away, his new friend spoke again.
‘Ha! Stan is a local! Stan travelled all the way from my home country, and I have settled here, so now I am a local. I would live nowhere else. Here is beautiful. Muriel makes it so’.
That woman’s name again. She was clearly not the woman he thought he recognised, but he felt he had to try and check.
‘This Muriel, she is the local M.P.?’
‘Yes, or course!’
‘And she didn’t vote to bomb Syria, I suppose?’
Stan looked shocked. ‘Let me tell you, my friend. Let me tell you! This woman was part of the human shields, she spoke out when no one else would, she gave speech after speech in the cause of justice and fair treatment for all. Every man, woman and child here owes their existence to the efforts of this champion, this saint! The clothes on your back, give thanks to Muriel. The food on your plate, give thanks to Muriel’. Stan gave Otto’s plate a little shove with his hand. ‘I only wish my wife and children were here for this’.
Otto felt a tightness in his heart. ‘They didn’t make it?’ he asked quietly.
‘Ha! Of course they made it, but they are staying at The Mansion tonight, all ten of them, and it’s falafel night here! They love falafel’.
Their discussion carried on well into the night. Otto heard how Muriel Diamond had brought back from America many ideas and philosophies that had radically changed her outlook and political standpoint. She had gradually wrought swathes of humanitarian changes that had impacted all over the world, but nowhere more so than in her own constituency. The thing that Stan found most emotional to describe was how she had challenged her own government over the child refugee issue, and had fought for and won them the right to be brought in their thousands to a place where there were people willing to provide shelter and resources to ensure that they were looked after. Muriel had even vacated her own luxury property, affectionately known as The Mansion, so that refugee children could be housed there and cared for.
‘Can I ask, is Stan your given name?’
‘No, it’s just what they call me’.
‘Isn’t it a bit, well, you know, racist?’
‘There are no racists here,’ was his answer.
Photography by Moshe Tasky.
If you enjoyed the first installment, Part II of Portal Double Zero is coming next week.