My name is Johnson. I hate it. It’s the most commonplace, hand-me-down name you could imagine. Our little high-powered PR Firm is rife with savvy, ethnically-diverse, symmetrical people. Good for sound-bites. The open-office space is peppered with cool names. Azuma, and Wong, and Dipali, and Ngozi. I got Johnson, Johnson the Environmental Law specialist. Sometimes I wish I were black.
“Did you say something?” That’s Philippe Henri, with the double Ps. Born and raised in London, like me, doesn’t speak a word of French. When I’m not feeling sociopathic I call him PH and sometimes ask if he’s feeling alkaline; he doesn’t like that. “What was that about being black?”
I spoke to myself out loud, again, saying something wholly inappropriate. Again.
“No, I said blue.” He smiles, raises that trimmed eyebrow. His eyeball leaps out at me, sprouts little legs, scuttling across my desk. It makes me stutter. “So, yes, so, um, the minutes from the blue chip meeting, upstairs, we got them. For the oil spill, thing… We’re missing, um, EPA approval on clean-up measures, for one. Client’s going for a not-guilty message but they don’t have a leg to stand on. Big Boss is having a seizure. It’s a PR nightmare, I think that’s a legitimate phrase, here.” I chew my nail, taste blood. “We can’t spin this, it’s too dirty.”
“Nightmares is what we do, Johnson! God, what a mess. Righto. Yep, gotta fix that, let’s have a quick meeting after lunch, sort it out.”
“I ate a sandwich.” I say, nausea settling in my stomach, in it for the long-haul, just like every day. “It’s 1:30, almost…”
“Great, let’s do lunch, Pub. See you in ten. Righto.”
“Sure, fine.” But what I meant was, “WHY ORGANISE A MEETING… I’M RIGHT FUCKING HERE.”
Lunch is lunch, a sacred tradition. Except for me, too busy, the new guy. Who needs lunch, I can just drink my own nervous sweat. Electrolytes. I lick my palm where damp has accumulated from resting on the mouse for an hour. If I’m lucky the bacteria will kill me.
Invoices. PR packages. Lunch at the pub. Or not. More invoices. Interviews. EPA advisory meeting summaries. Nightmares. Drink at the pub. Or not. Sleep. Or not.
This wasn’t the plan. Gestating here in my soft-beige, skin-coloured cubicle, I dream I’m a caterpillar scheduled to burst out in a riot of colour. I know there is some calling, some destiny, just lurking nearby. I dream of strange robots abducting me, tentacles and extinction-level events. Some dreams turn into nightmares.
“Why the crazy-person face? Don’t tear your hair out, Johnson.”
Melanie. Always makes me think of Melanoma. She’s in the skin-cubicle alongside mine, gestating. We could be lovers, so thin is the separation between us. She is the international liaison; she liaises all day on the phone in five languages. We specialise in PR nightmares, and nightmares are global. She has a mole on her hand with hairs that seem to move on their own, even in no-wind conditions.
“I’ll be fine, Mel, thanks for worrying.”
“Lunch at the pub? Was that Phil?”
I pause. “I have this meeting with him, just a thing, about the disaster,” I say. This is a mistake.
“Phil! Great news. Good things. I’ll be there. Toodle-oo.” Why did I say that? Of course, because it’s Melanie. Self-sabotage. I sicken myself by dreaming of liaising with her hand-mole, sucking on the alien nipple.
Now to pull out the fake-smile, dust it off, assume the position. Nod and smile. Nod and smile. Everything will be fine.
The pub smells of deep-fry and egg-farts. Melanoma’s mole is lactating. Bone-white droplets coalesce, dribbling onto the polished teak table-top. Phil is talking to her about Corporate Responsibility; they want to make a public announcement, about the oil thing. A YouTube video.
“We need someone for the voice-over. You have a deep, sexy voice, Mel. Don’t you think she has a sexy smoker’s voice, Johnson? You don’t smoke, do you?” He licks his Tipp-Ex teeth.
“Johnson is my family name,” I say, watching his eyeball crawl across the table, puncture the yolk of my egg as it crosses my plate. “Jericho was my nickname in school.”
“What a weird nickname. You didn’t hang with the popular crowd, I imagine. Jericho, echo, echo. Haha.”
When she laughs, milk spurts from the hand-mole, arcing high like arterial blood after a jugular Katana slash. I feel the spray on my face, swallow my mounting horror. Her eyes are half-closed. Phil’s eyeball, trailing the optic nerve across my food, has crawled up her chest and is sucking at the base of her neck. I push my plate away. “Spurt, spurt,” says the mole.
“I used to imagine I was an environmental super-hero, murdering people for the greater good. You ever watch Captain Planet? Like that, but with violence. It kept me going. Jericho was a code-name. Like Alpha, Tango, Charlie. Charlie is what they called the Viet-Cong, back in the day.”
“You like films,” PH says accusingly, his eyeball clamped over Mel’s mouth, thrusting, pumping those little articulated spider-legs. “Do you make videos? You should make the CR video.”
“Mmm,” Melanoma says.
“Mel can do the voice. We should all make it together. I’ve got a script, some footage of a spill-clean-up crew; they use bacteria to break down the oil.” The thrusting eyeball is frenetic, Mel’s whole head shuddering from the intensity of the assault. “It’s not the actual clean-up, it’s another one. You see, sulphate-reducing bacteria break up the oil into water-soluble micelles. Mmm. Amazing, really, but the client can’t afford that so they’re using Corexit – it’s supposedly toxic, makes the oil sink, kills bottom-feeders, might be banned, soon. Not yet. Mmm, yes.” The eyeball seems to spasm, reaching some sort of climax. “Client stock-piled barrels of Corexit after the last apocalyptic spill, so you see, they might just dump it all over this one. Two birds, etc. Problem solved.”
I have to mentally block the content of his message. It’s too much. Too layered. I stab at the optic cable on the table, trying to sever it before she is impregnated, but it keeps wiggling obscenely.
“How about it, make the video, Johnson? Echo? Echo? Jericho?”
“STOP FUCKING HER FACE, YOU MONSTER!” I say, but I don’t, it’s just my head-voice again. “Sure, sorry, I was elsewhere. I’ll make the video. Sure.” I look up at them. Melanoma is wiping her mouth with her napkin. “Don’t you guys… I don’t know. Don’t you sometimes feel like we’re on the wrong side of something? Like, I mean, it’s transforming us.” The eye-ball reels back in to Phil’s face angrily. It makes a slapping, sucking sound. He blinks.
“What on Earth do you mean?”
“Johnson,” Mel says. “Jericho? If that’s what you want to be called, just go for it. Better than Johnson anyhow. New to the game, aren’t you? Can’t be so sensitive. It’s just a job.”
“Gotta pay the bills,” Phil says, raising his eyebrow. He winks. I shudder. “I’m off. Jericho, at your desk in ten, chop chop. Mmm. Mel, walk with me?”
They stand, leaving me holding an uneaten sausage roll, the table a mess of blood and milk and yolk. Melanoma puts a hand on my shoulder and the mole is pulsating. The hairs brush my face delicately.
“Roger roger. Sure thing boss. Let’s make a video,” I say, staring at the nail I’ve been chewing. It’s growing back as I watch, visibly darkening. Curling, clawlike. “Let’s ride this nightmare.”