Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Strong soap, pumice, and plenty of hot water

I hate Denis. I don’t dislike him: I hate him. He and I have to share an office and a laboratory, for five days a week and sometimes also on Saturdays. He is short, a bit baldy, with lank, grey, greasy hair round his ears. He stoops. His arms dangle, as if he is deliberately trying to be funny, but he isn’t. He wears the same clothes every day, and he smells. On cool days, you don’t get it unless you have to go near him, and then it grabs you by the back of your throat. He smells like cold vomit which has been on the floor for so long it has gone mouldy.

He is the noisiest person I have ever worked with. When he is in the lab, he keeps up a never-ending torrent of tuneless caterwauling. He must know fifty songs, but none of the words or the melodies to any of them. His favourite seems to be a kind of parody of the signature tune to the Cornetto advert. Every time I hear it, I get so embarrassed that my teeth start to ache.

Complex subjects of conversation gravitate towards him with a hideous inevitability. Other people talk about the weather, or football, or holiday destinations, or gardening. Denis talks about rubber fetishism, the European Union, and whether it is legitimate for van hire companies to charge more from young Asian men because they are (in his opinion) a bad insurance risk. “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” or “It is political correctness gone mad” are stale cartoons in my world: things that one only hears from the mouths of alternative comedians. Denis says them. Denis means them. Denis thinks they are good things to say.

He is a snitch. In the six weeks I have been here, he has reported me once for poor time-keeping, once for eating in the office outside of normal meal-times, and twice for wearing my lab coat while I was at the computer. The last offence, I admit, is against the rules, but the coat was straight out of the wash and was spotless. I have to go from the experiment to the computer about thirty times a day, and having to take my lab coat off every time is a real pain. He is not even a permanent employee of the company. My boss could not care less. Yes, Denis. Of course Denis. Yes, of course. of course, you are quite right Denis. Yes, I’ll look into it. Well, he is only young, isn’t he. What can you expect. Yes, I know, they are all like that, nowadays, aren’t they. I don’t know, Denis, maybe it is their parents. And the universities, of course, are not as strict as they used to be.

I want to strangle him. When I can’t cope any more, I go and sit in a toilet cubicle, and I close my eyes, and I imagine my hands around his throat. I have thick, red, PVC gloves on so that his slime can’t contaminate me, and I have a respirator on so that I won’t gag on his stink, his pollution, his toxins. I start to grip. My hands are possessed of a terrible strength. I grip, and squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze. I can see his watery eyes, like little globules of fat on a pan of cheap, boiling meat, racing round in insane circles of confusion. I can feel the cartilage around his trachea start to crack. As it cracks, I feel waves of satisfaction welling up inside me. I am watching him die. I want him to die, but I don’t ever want it to end. I want him not to be alive, but I don’t want him actually to be dead yet because, when he’s dead, I won’t be able to kill him anymore.

I am never going to see him again. I have applied for a new job: a new location, new company, new industry. I am leaving this chemical plant and going to work in the IT industry. Denis congratulates me. He hates our employer: hates everything about this place. He never stops complaining, and he never lifts a finger to do anything about his situation. He thinks they should pay him more money. He thinks they should replace his temporary contract with a permanent one. He thinks they should “top up” his pension. Why? No-one knows, not even Denis. He just thinks it should happen.

Before I go for the last time, he offers to shake my hand.

I reach out. I can’t stop myself. I don’t want to do it, but somehow I am doing it. His hand grips mine, harder, harder, harder. I feel sick. I feel violated. Let go! For goodness’ sake, let go of me! He is still talking: still rambling on. Good luck, yes, fine. Best wishes, yes, fine, anything. Sure you will face up to the challenges of the future. Whatever. Let go of me, you shrivelled, malodorous, little clown.

I run to the washroom.


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