Alison has read at Story Shop 2014, the daily showcase at the Edinburgh International Book Festival of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today. You can find the short story she read on Mon 11th August 2014 below.
Alison Summers lives near Inverleith Pond where she keeps a benevolent eye on the ducklings. A former Writer in Residence at Theatre Royal Newcastle, she completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University and has just submitted her novel about early onset dementia, Temporal Sentence, as part of her PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Alison teaches creative writing for the Adult Education Programme and has her own company Wordstore Workshops which designs and delivers bespoke writing workshops.
The Short Story she read on the day
The Department for Recycled Men
a short story by Alison Summers
The plague that swept through the computer industry damaged all of its employees but men were particularly badly affected. When I first started work in the Department for Recycled Men, I used to process about twenty donations per week but after the plague, the numbers increased so much I had to employ two assistants. The work isn’t arduous, just time consuming and you must have an eye for detail. In pre-plague days, customers were less fussy. They would hand over their donation and say things like “Would you just check to see if he’s still alive? He hasn’t said anything for weeks.” Occasionally they just sent a donation in for a bit of rehab. If we weren’t able to separate the donation from his mobile phone by the end of the week, a customer would usually let us keep him and we sent him to charity. The charities were ruthless. They used our addict donations for spare parts so it was always a hard decision.
I take a great pride in my work. At the end of a day there are few things more rewarding than a room full of recycled men. No day is ever the same. You wouldn’t believe the variety we get here. Of course sometimes people abuse the system. I’ve had people turning up with bag ladies and tramps, pretending they found them slumped at their computer desk in the office. It’s the reward system that makes things difficult. When plague inflicted workers have no family or friends (more common than you might think) the government gives a small cash bonus to the person who donates them to us. It keeps the recycling flow regular and can add up to a nice little earner in large cities. But I can’t do anything with a bag lady or a tramp. They just don’t fit into the system.
The best donations come into us a wee bit stunned and usually non verbal. The first thing that happens is we pop them under the power shower for about ten minutes. Then, depending on what the customer has asked for, we give them a haircut, a waxing if needed and my assistant sorts out some new clothes for them. I’ve seen men who’ve come in with beige cords six inches above their ankles, a harlequin tank top over a green and brown striped polo shirt and sandals with ribbed grey socks transformed by the application of proper fitting jeans, white shirt, black socks, loafers and a nice leather jacket. Obviously we can’t do much about the body that’s donated but it’s fascinating watching the donation’s posture and facial expression change when they see their new coverings. That’s all just cosmetic though. The recycling begins in earnest in the basement. It’s soundproofed down there.
We work on re-establishing eye contact first. They’re terribly shy at first but once they understand what we ask of them, it only takes a bit of practice and we’re exchanging looks like there’s no tomorrow. Takes a bit longer to teach them opening gambits though. Especially since they are used to having a screen in front of them for cues. Poor things, some of them get panic attacks. You can see them searching the basement for electric sockets, desks, wires, anything that might lead to a computer, ipad or mobile phone’s whereabouts. There’s nothing to find. All our records are compiled in a separate building. So no infections ever get through to our treatment rooms. After a period of cold turkey they stop fidgeting and eye-rolling and listen to what I’m saying.
“You’ve been brought here for recycling. Your wife/daughter/girlfriend/colleague want only the best for you. No harm will come to you if you just relax and enjoy the process.”
There’s very seldom any aggression. Years of sublimating their testosterone reactions with computer games have numbed their fight or flight responses. Occasionally I have to deal with the odd one or two who have their own ideas about how they would like to be recycled into; say an astronaut or a deep sea diver. I have to make it clear that this service is customer driven. They get a bit huffy after that but eventually they come round. After all none of our customers want anything but the best for the men they donate. They want the men to come home as reasonable, functioning human beings. And useful. Of some use. So no, it’s no good begging me to make you into an Olympic bobsleigher when your wife has specified she’d like someone who will take her to the opera and converse nicely with her relatives at Christmas.
When I employed my assistants I warned them of the dangers of becoming over involved with the men. We do work so closely with them that it’s not surprising we react a wee bit emotionally when after a hard day in the basement someone who presented as a catatonic non verbal gives us a hug and tells us we have nice hair. But these men are spoken for. We are only processors. It is tricky when someone you know is donated. The official guidelines say you should refuse to process them and should hand them on to a colleague. One time I was looking through the donations and recognised a name. Bill Henderson. I checked to see who had brought him in and what kind of recycling they had ordered. His colleague at British Gas had found him wandering up and down a street punching numbers randomly into his tablet. He was supposed to be taking meter readings but the plague had taken over and he was out of control. At least he was found in the open air. God knows what might have happened if an unsuspecting customer had let him into her flat.
The last time I had seen Bill was at the school leaving ball. He was excited about going off for his gap year in South America. Six months helping to build an orphanage and then six months exploring and painting. “When I come back, Helen, I’ll have a huge exhibition.”
And now here he was twenty years later. Sunburned, unshaven and in anorak and ancient jeans, he looked like a tramp but his colleague had assured me he was a bona fide employee of British Gas and had shown me the paperwork. We started the process. It was only when we got to the eye contact part that Bill recognised me. Yes, I know I should have handed him over to someone else but my curiosity—well you’d have done the same I’m sure. We had unfinished business, Bill and I. Also, when I saw what was written as “preferred outcome” on the application form I couldn’t bear it.
“I never thought I’d see you again,” Bill croaked.
Plague victims voices take a while to regain their normal level.
“Nor I you,” I said trying very hard to keep my voice steady. Now that he had been cleaned up and dressed in a suit, he was just as attractive as he had been when twenty years ago he had kissed me in the art room supplies cupboard.
Bill raked his newly manicured hands through his short dark hair. “I tried to find you but they said you’d moved.”
I raised my eyebrow. “Two years I waited to hear from you.”
“It was impossible to get a message out during the revolution. I was locked up along with the rebels. I escaped when someone set the jail on fire. It took weeks to find my way to a city with an embassy. All I could think of was coming home to you. And then you weren’t there.”
My heart was thumping like a sixteen year old’s. “What happened to your art?”
Bill shook his head. “I’m no good.”
I couldn’t bear to see him so dejected. “I can recycle you differently if you want. You can try again. That’s the whole point about recycling. Making something successful out of a failure.”
For a second I could see that Bill was considering it. Then he slumped in his chair as though someone had let all the air out of him. “No, there’s no point. Just do what you have to do.”
What choice did I have? Would you not do the same if your loved one looked like that?
I told the man from British Gas that the process had been unsuccessful. He signed the release forms and I took Bill to the room for charity donations. Just as I was about to leave him there, he took my hand and stroked my cheek. “You’ve still got such nice hair,” he said. So I fixed the paperwork, smuggled him out and enrolled him in an adult education class: “Art for the Terrified”. He’s doing so well they are thinking of employing him as a tutor soon. Me? I’ve just won an award: Public Service Recycler of the year.
(c) Alison Summers, 2014