Yellow Mama Archives

E. K. Krafft
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medcabinet.jpg

Quentin’s Tailored Policy

 

E. F. Krafft

 

Your move, Cal

 

I

Another morning, another failure under his belt. It was like a drunken tryst, all heat and sweat in the build-up, then goose-pimpled and limp and grubby and grim at the crisis. Where was the ginseng for a close encounter like this?

Quentin knew he’d done everything right. Indeed, at one point, he’d become absolutely certain that he would die in about one minute and twenty seconds. This would be a couple of miles up the road, at that sudden bend that got the girl who used to live round the corner. The hatchings were marking a mad countdown, falling like the last grains of sand through an hourglass, crossing the reflection of his grin in the windscreen, splitting his ghastly joker smile in half. He was finished.

Everyone knew that corner was deadly. They took it slow. They were sensible, careful. But their reproachful looks across the office floor were nothing to the frightened cat’s eyes glowing in the blue light of the tarmac dawn, the timid tail-lights of crawlers in tree-branch shade, or the mad glances of his headlights reflected in rear windows. He was the last real man left on earth and he knew it.

Faster. Kill me, he told the passing trees. The road like the shimmering ribbon gift-wrapping him for the devil. A head in a parcel with the imprint of a dashboard tattooed across its features, speed dial circling one eye and rev counter the other. Oh God yes.

But at the crucial moment his legs kicked back, he braked hard, and he cried out. The wheels spun but the car came to a stop and shuddered into a stall. One hand twisted the key and the other grabbed the gearstick, but it was too late. He sat, limp and quivering in his seat.

The climax came later. As he sped away from the scene, a deer came across his path; it seemed to look straight at him. A furious look.

Oh God, he found himself thinking: oh God, no, please not like this.

The airbag blew up in his face. He’d adjusted his steering wheel too low and his legs flew forward into it as he stopped, bruising him right up to his groin. And through the cracked windscreen he saw the deer give a final backward look as it bounded away, scarcely injured. It had destroyed the front of his car.

Jesus. So that was what a car crash felt like. He hadn’t liked it after all.

II

So he got the train to work.

Quentin’s co-worker Stephanie sat across from him: she always got the train, reminding him with delight that morning that one hundred and forty-three thousand car accidents had been reported to the police in Britain in the past year. This, she said, worked out at roughly six hundred per day, and (she produced her phone and opened the calculator app at this point) twenty-five per hour. This, in turn, worked out at (she did a few finger-tapping calculations) about one every two-and-a-half minutes.

‘Just think,’ Stephanie said, beaming. ‘One bump, scrape, head-on or death taking place within the time it takes for Rihanna’s latest to play.’

Sure enough, Quentin felt an obscene stirring at the idea—but then the deer’s gaze, its sudden bound and backward look, came back to him: oh God, not like this. When he replied, ‘that’s breath-taking,’ it came out a moan.

Stephanie nodded, glowing.

‘Shit,’ Quentin said. ‘Steph, you’re not supposed to look happy about this stuff.’

He grabbed his workplace’s lanyard like a crucifix, but Stephanie’s smile just widened.

‘Every death means those clowns need to keep us on,’ Stephanie said. ‘Besides, the perms know we don’t give a shit. Especially you.’

His felt as if he were two feet tall, and for the life of him he couldn’t answer her.

So, in silence, they got off at their station, which sat near the offices of a regulatory body for British highways.

III

At a special whole-department luncheon that day, they were told ‘you should all, every single one of you, be delivering cost savings. Otherwise you’re failing the organisation, failing us, failing the nation’s drivers, pure and simple.’ The seated ranks of the department began to chorus over their coffees, in whispers: ‘failing…’ or so Quentin liked to think. He and Stephanie were contractors, kept on at a premium, and therefore smirked.

Afterwards Quentin passed the afternoon by sending out four press releases, compiling a media monitoring report, responding to twenty-three emails, checking a further thirty-eight, updating a news rotator on the staff page, thinking about how his steering wheel could cut him in half in a crash, preparing three communication items for internal distribution, making a cup of coffee, and, on the way to the station, smoking a cigarette.

Leaving an hour or so ahead of Stephanie, Quentin rode the train home alone and spotted a hidden community of shanties, between the river and the railway, peopled with figures that convulsed like insects. And he thought: what a good place to die.

Outside his flat he came upon the lady who always sat on the wall of the yard with bagged booze in a clawed hand. She stared out from her rags and asked him absent-mindedly: ‘if you died now would you want to be woken up?’

‘That would depend,’ Quentin said, fancying a drink himself. Perhaps he could kill the woman for hers.

He made tea, listening to the usual screaming of the psychotic who lived up the street, and got the mail. No personal letters. Just the insurance company telling him they weren’t paying out because he hadn’t stopped at the site of the collision: an undercurrent of reproach, like the angry final look of the deer as it fled the wreck.

They’d have paid out if I died, he thought. And then it occurred to him.

Insurance. Of course.

He was too frightened to die. But living—the prospect of living indefinitely longer—was crushing. It made him feel anxious, powerless, vulnerable. You could insure against death, but not that other sentence: living, going through this grim repetition, slow decay, disappointment, storm, stress. And if you could, he thought, imagine that profound peace of mind.

Could you insure against life?

Someone could.

But no one sane.

Quentin thought of the shanties he’d seen and strode down to the river in search of his death.

The places around there were forsaken. Fishermen sat surrounded by empty beer cans, and huddled groups of teenagers eyed him hungrily as he passed. It smelt of gas around here, and the air rang with the hum of idling trains at the stubs of the terminus nearby. It was like he’d wandered off the great film set where he normally acted, a lost extra. He was hidden from the gaze of the director; the boom mikes wouldn’t pick up his whispers, his breathing, his cries.

He was looking for someone to sell him something lethal. A gun. Drugs. He hadn’t quite decided which when he came across one of the huts. It was three sections of garden fence topped with a corrugated iron sheet.

But the people had flown. Perhaps he’d imagined them. He found wrappers, remains of a fire, condoms. Damn. He was out of time. It was getting late; work beckoned.

Work. Life. Without insurance against its continuation.

Blue lights winked somewhere behind a mesh of spidery trees, pylons and barbed wire. His screen-burnt eyes searched for hidden faces. But there was nothing here but weeds and insects. Perhaps there were stashes of lethal drugs or guns hidden here, and he just needed to look. But it was too dark. And how many ragged-breathed agents watched him from the undergrowth?

He ran, defeated.

It was time for wheels to start turning: camomile, valerian, his bed and his alarm clock.

IV

On the train Stephanie asked ‘have you ever had a scotch—you know, like just on the way in? I mean have you ever been tempted?’

The words came as if through water to Quentin, whose own voice sounded like a slowed-down record: ‘not on here. Branch line. No refreshments.’

‘I mean they serve it at the station from seven AM, so I mean, like, it must be a thing, you know?’

‘I wouldn’t know.’

‘Well neither would I. Of course. You know. I just saw it offered.’

Quentin found himself making a thoughtful sound, like the workplace perv always did when an attractive co-worker became single or otherwise available.

Stephanie picked up on it: ‘You sound…’

‘Tempted? No…but it’s interesting. Have you ever seen anyone from ours there?’

‘Like a manager? No. You think they do then? Like quite a few of them? Do you reckon they drive afterwards?’

‘Either way,’ Quentin said, ‘it would explain a lot.’

They disembarked.

‘For God’s sake!’ he said. ‘We’re a pair of walking clichés. There must be office workers who like their jobs.’

Steph’s smile was tired. ‘You were amazing because you loved it so much when you arrived. I remember. You just had so much vitality, so much enthusiasm. It dragged us all up. You had a completely different way of coming at things. You didn’t defer to anyone, either.’

After a pause she added: ‘you were even saying you wanted to stop contracting for a while. Go perm. Even on lower pay. For the love of the work.’

Quentin gave a laugh that sounded like a sob.

He left early for the second time that week, leaving piled emails behind him.

V

As the week went on, each day in a martial sequence of piss-coffee-train-work-cigarette-readymeal-bed, he thought: I am going about this the wrong way.

He couldn’t negotiate a tailored policy, Quentin realised, by scouring the riverbanks for drug dealers and discarded pistols.

No one ever did anything in person anymore, even arranging their own deaths. He needed to go online. The internet had made talking so unnecessary that Quentin doubted that he had really spoken to anyone for over a year, outside of work and his train rides with Stephanie. Even then, how much had any of them spent talking outside of the awkward gaps between notifications and messages?

No, there was no sense in doing this differently—none even in trying to. So Quentin opened his laptop and did as he knew best.

 It still took him months. He had to work patiently and methodically, first spelunking in disreputable forums, then getting a browser that hid his movements, then learning where specifically to look. He learned how to spot stings and undercover operatives—at least those inept enough to make it obvious. He got into long conversations which served to probe every faceless talker he came across. There were no details shared. Here, in the beginning and ending were words, and the words meant nothing. This nothing composed the people entirely: they were not glances and smiles and obsessions but merely streams of words, broken sentences left in threads to be picked over by wanderers and narcs. An end to words, to this stream, meant a death, an arrest, or a scattering at the scent of a pig in the fold.

At last he began to make progress.

He drew up his tailored policy, which draft-by-draft became more like a formula: The policy protects against n. In the event of n, x will come into effect. In this way, this policy protects against n with x. x will only come into effect in the event of n.

n was anything. x was nothing.

VI

Two stories told and retold themselves to Quentin as his policy came together. They became so vivid in the retellings that he found himself mouthing lines spoken by the key characters in the middle of meetings. His commutes were narrated by a voice in his head, telling these stories in every way it was possible to tell them.

And yet, there was nothing to either story.

One started at the end and worked backwards. This was the story of the happiest person Quentin ever met, who’d died a few rooms down from Quentin while the two were at university. There had been nothing else to it. Death had swept down into the debauched halls of the students and seduced one of them. Quentin had made the mistake of trying to understand. The happiest man on earth: but his happiness had irked people, made them uneasy as if they knew he had caught death’s eye. His jests were met with deliberate silence. After a honeymoon period, social circles began to turn on him, offended at his cheerfulness. And then they attacked him, dropping stray comments here and there, worming their way into his various enterprises. Quentin remembered that this man had once gone round the hall brandishing a fiver, asking seven people if they had change for the laundrette, and had been refused every time. Then Quentin himself had asked to borrow some change for the same thing, and practically had money thrown at him by the first person he asked. But the happy man stayed happy, and because of this, Quentin noticed, every barb stuck in him. He wanted to be liked, wanted a reason to be cheerful. Quentin had pleaded with him to calm down, to stop caring. But the man had kept on smiling and trying. And then he had simply died one night, sat at his computer, like the effort had finally overwhelmed him. Or that the man and death had finally come to some agreement: it was n, and x had come into effect.

The other started at the beginning and worked forwards. This was the story of the saddest person Quentin ever met, who had spent her days surrounded by cooing loved ones and people dedicated to her survival. She was in terrible pain, and lived an undignified, comfortless existence. Out of the loving throng, one conspired with her to end it, and went to great personal risk to get her the resources to allow her to do it herself. The person who did this had been an old friend of Quentin’s who told him the whole thing one evening over wine and cigarettes. The lady was moved to a residential facility but knew she’d be back in hospital soon, and instructed her helper to come when none of the cooing crowd were around her, when she was alone, and give her barbiturates, and an old painkiller called co-proxamol, and something to stop her being sick, for this was combination she’d learned worked best. So her helper had sat with her while she imbibed the substances, grew calm, then drowsy, then was gone. Quentin had never felt able to talk to this old friend again, but had neither betrayed the secret nor forgotten the message. It was the same formula: n was the event, and x was the insurance against it.

And so Quentin and death came to an agreement.

The barbiturates proved the biggest challenge. The seventh contact he made on the Dark Web arranged a delivery. No return address. Spread out so it resembled a chubby letter when it arrived. And there they were: a scatter of deadly pellets, multi-coloured capsules ready to slam into him like dum-dum bullets.

The co-proxamol was easier; a contact in a foreign country sent over their prescription for him, again without a return address. He found out that it used to be given out here, but was pulled after so many people used it for suicide.

And lastly, from his local pharmacy, travel sickness pills to stop him throwing up the mixture.

A tailored policy, insuring him against life and all its eventualities.

VII

‘Oh God sorry, I didn’t realise that this was the case.’

‘Sorry about that, I’ll do that now.’

‘This must have gotten buried, sorry. I’ll deal with it.’

‘Sorry.’

‘I’ve noticed it, yes. Sorry about that.’

‘Sorry this wasn’t done.’

‘Yes, there’s an error, sorry.’

He swept in, cold air and rain at his back, grasping for the e-cigarette on the counter (it lay across a packet of paracetamol, and he took this in his icy grip too), and tried to hurl the ephemera of the day away from him: his lanyard to the bed in the corner, his car keys and wallet to the one chair (they bounced to the ground). He glanced about wildly for reproachful faces and found none, stared at the dead eyes of the computer and the TV, let out a breath, put his hands to his eyes and grabbed at his wet hair, and closed the front door.

Jesus. The blare of a lorry’s horn rung in his head. It had nearly killed him. He’d felt fear. Actual fear. Yes – he really had feared for his life, for the first time since the deer. What a novel experience this fear was.

He dragged at the e-cig. It had been a mistake to leave it here, hoping he’d be able to go without. Sorry. I apologise.

Nicotine. A burst of pleasure held back the sorrys. Heart and breath quickened, his body tensed and his stomach fluttered – like the physical response to death-fear, a lorry with its headlights blazing, inches from his side, but good, so good. I love you, he said to the fake smoke.

The pleasure passed. He balanced two paracetamol on his tongue and the bitterness of the tablets made him wince. Then he washed them down with water and they went slowly and painfully down his throat.

God. Where was the gin? He should have tried harder to get a script for diazepam from that tight-arse locum GP. He needed something stronger than nicotine to travel into his head and explode and with its shockwave sweep him out.

Jesus. Sorry. I’m so sorry. He had to stop apologising. But the impotent rage of his fellows rained still, like a thunderstorm, suspended under the ceiling, travelling about the house, following him.

We are really disappointed that

On behalf of my colleagues I have to say

Why hasn’t this

We needed this

We need this

An update please

Could you

Today

‘Fuck off!’

But wait.

He smiled.

If it all went pear-shaped, he was fine—he was insured. Oh yes.

And, remembering this, he became completely calm. He put the gin away again and sat down happily to read a book.

His insurance measures sat in his bathroom cabinet next to cold and flu remedies and the plasters. The very thought of their possibilities and their protection from life’s disasters untethered him, at that moment, at last, from an unhappiness and dread that had lingered like a bad cold for what he realised had been a very long time indeed.

He was insured. He relaxed yet more. A long winter was ending.

He was insured. He looked out of the window, saw the alcoholic old lady with the bottle in the bag looking around, perpetually sad and confused.

He was insured.





E.K. Krafft is an author from the UK. He writes whenever he can, which because of everything else, tends to mean late at night. He has been published in several online magazines and does press work during the day.

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