, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Pippa was rampaging down a EUSA corridor and her two handlers, Clive and Bea, were racing after her. These days she wanted a cigarette all the time. Often her fingers were throbbing with such impatience that Clive would have to roll them for her. But there was this morning’s meeting first.  

She knew that the meeting that they were about to arrive at would be as featureless as the last eighty. And as soon as they had bundled themselves inside the conference room they were deep in that pool of bureaucratic nothingness.

Already seated at the table was a figure from the top of the university. He could have been just beamed down from a flying saucer, an eminent visitor from the stars. After the most spectral of greetings, he waved their attention over a printed copy of the email that he had received from Pippa. She could not remember when she had sent it but by now she was used to these long gaps between her requests to the university and their insolently languid answers.

The manager began. It had been a very interesting email and there had been so much to say in reply that he had preferred to say it, rather than to write it all down in a formal document that would be, he feared, wearisome for Pippa to read through. He smiled cautiously. May he call her Pippa…?

“Miss President” she snapped. To anybody who shouted after her in the street – to anybody who fastened onto her whilst she was passing through the Potterrow building – even to the writers of those amazingly obscene DMs that she would receive in waves on Twitter – she was “Pippa.” To Clive and Bea and this manager and anybody else from the university’s administration, however, she continued to stand on “Miss President.”   

The manager nodded and then he started to detail what in her email could be done. As ever, Pippa could perceive through his managerialism a doctor who is briefing a dying patient about what to realistically expect.

No, she could not sell the McEwan Hall, the manager said flatly. Only the university as a whole could make such a decision. She was welcome to suggest it and the university would display an interest in any proposal that she submitted. Of course, this proposal would have to be audited by professional accountants and the university was, regrettably, unable to commit to financing this itself.

By now Pippa was radiating an open hostility at him. Didn’t he know she was elected by the students?, she pulsated. On a bigger mandate than anybody had ever been before?

There was a silence and then the manager resumed his speaking. As the students’ special representative, the President naturally had access to the leadership of the university. But Pippa’s job wasn’t to run the university. The manager had stopped to smile although nothing would meaningfully awaken in the tomb of his face. Besides – and he here hazarded a kind of sickly, blinking friendliness – her salary was significantly lower than those of the university’s top executives. So it was hardly fair, was it, that she volunteer for this extra high-level work?

 “How long is this going to go on for?” Pippa raged. “I want a cigarette!”

Clive was already alert for the signal to start rolling one.

There was more to speak about, the manager dipped in quickly. For example, her plan to transform the McEwan Hall into student flats would not be doable, legally and according to the current planning system. There was no building of such architectural importance anywhere else in the country. It would require an unprecedented coordination of multiple levels of bureaucracy to make even tweaks…

Pippa glowered; all that she could hear was a lot of double-dutch being buzzed at her. She spun around to Clive. “What is his name?”

Unexpectedly, there was a pause. In fact Clive had sat back clean from the table, his normal paperwork abruptly orphaned, and next he was looking straight over Pippa’s head at the manager. It was clear to Pippa that Clive was finally breaking cover and that he was now hanging on the issuing of his real, salaried instructions.

Pippa waded on alone across the battlefield. “Hey, I asked you a question. What is his name?”

She intuited that, for a second, Clive had been thinking of turning back to her and saying that he did not know. But he had evidently decided that this could not be got past her. In his perplexity, he was looking again at the manager, who now sat as freshly impassive as something that was playing dead at the feet of a housecat.

I am going to lose my temper, Pippa thought. She scrunched her fists into balls, as though her temper would not be able to slink about within these hot spaces. Her head swam but she managed to bring out the words lightly and in a careful order. “Are you refusing to tell me who you are?”

It was Bea who spoke. Pippa always felt that Bea showed her more fairmindedness or credited her with more intelligence than the others did. At the same time she knew that all managers are manipulative and performers and that Bea’s insincerity just had a bit more of a lifelike spring to it than that of her colleagues.

 “Miss President, you will be aware that there have been recently several complaints of bullying against you. And that you still have to answer these complaints, to the university’s satisfaction.”

Pippa did not say anything.

“Recently, Miss President, the university has decided that EUSA employees will be granted automatic anonymity during their meetings with you. This is so their names and the things that they say cannot be reported in the Student newspaper, that there cannot be hate incited against them on Twitter, that they will be protected from the pressures that are placed on mental health by being so publically conspicuous, and so on.”

An infinity of contemptuous rejoinders had leapt to Pippa’s mouth but then, startled, she found that they were all jammed and that she did not know which one to pick out. She had pushed her chair back and suddenly she was standing, alone and at a great height, with the three others looking up at her. Nothing sounded in her head. Then at last the silence had cracked and she had bleated in a small voice that, “I’m going for a cigarette.”

Clive did not offer to roll her one. Bea had sat back and before it was gone Pippa might have seen a tell-tale hint of gloating dart in her eyes.

Oh God, I am going to cry, Pippa thought at once. Her face had grown weirdly relaxed and her lips seemed to be being tugged in strange new directions. Once outside, she bolted down the corridor. They cannot see me crying, she fumed. Nobody can see me.

I’m not rampaging anymore, she realised miserably. Instead, it was as if she was some twisting wild creature that had gotten trapped in these corridors and that couldn’t get out again. The President was now trying to trickle away, unseen, under any floorboard.

Around the next bend, a load of students were trooping up the corridor. Surprised on this carpet, they somehow resembled a party of mountaineers. In a mass, they looked up at her and she turned and fled hopelessly back towards the meeting rooms. It came to her that it was virtually lunchtime. Soon EUSA’s workforce would be all emerging from their offices.

By now, she would hide almost anywhere, she would be grateful for any low table to duck under.

With relief pealing in her ears she recognised a familiar disabled toilet coming up. Then its square, clunky door had swung open and she had squirreled herself dexterously in behind it.

The light was already on. It was hot in here, full of bodily warmth, and a tall young man whose face was flushed and pallid was standing in front of the mirror, his feet apart. His gaze swung blankly over his shoulder at her. Then wonder had flowered in his eyes.

“Reggie?” she shivered. She burst into tears.

Later she understood that his penis had been erect before she had entered. It might have been even circulating in the open air, in front of the mirror, though at that time she had not especially noticed it. He had held her and pawed at her and his hands had travelled around her and then, without a word, that machinery that is always ready had slipped noiselessly into its lovemaking.

On the other side of the toilet door, everybody had erupted from their offices and they were each off on a bright adventure, looking for that panini deal, that flavoured latte that they liked, to be greeted in a booming voice and fussed over, to wallow in their staff-card discount. It was thus that the university building daily quaked with its lunchtime.

“What’s wrong Pippa?,” Reggie inquired finally. “When you came in I thought you were looking for me.” They were now standing side by side, studying each other’s bodies in the mirror, before these lingering animal shapes would disappear again, tucked away back into their dormancy.   

She shook her head. “I was going to kill myself. I’ve had a really bad morning.”

“You want me to roll you a cigarette?”

The solemnity of the cigarette. “Yes please,” she answered gravely.  

He glanced at the door. “Are we leaving together?”

For the first time that morning she fetched a smile. “We’ll pretend I was combing your hair or something. In the mirror.”

“Lunch?” he was calling as he gingerly probed outside. He turned back and smiled. Of course, the coast was clear.

“Maybe. But I want a cigarette!”   

[Previously on Tychy: “Shenanigans.”]