An Inside Job, a short story by John Miskelly
She willed her fingertips to extend, urged the tendons in her arms, hands, and flanks to elongate and the cells in the marrow of her bones to climb over themselves, multiply, build forwards and upwards like a BBC time lapse video of a magic beanstalk.
She stretched with her left arm, then her right, then she twisted onto her front and tried it all over again. She stretched so hard she felt the skin on her flanks might split, pulled apart like a cheese slice, and her bones might pop out of their sockets like parts to a cheap plastic toy. With the tips of her toes, she pushed against the arm of the sofa’s cheap cotton fibers. Finally, breathless with effort, her fingertips met metal. Still too far to form any kind of grip, they barely brushed the smooth surface, serving only to push the can an agonizing quarter of an inch further from her grasp. She exhaled, capitulated, recoiled back into shape, and returned to her primary business of passing the afternoon’s ever lengthening seconds, minutes, and hours. Time swaddled her like soft, warm pizza dough—malleable, changeable, stretching and contorting, and only ever what you make of it.
It could have been four minutes or two hours; any time-telling device was in a room other than that one and thus a universe away.
“Hey! You awake, shit stain?” barked Sharon, standing in the living room doorway, still wearing her helmet and red in the face from riding through the winter winds.
Kat heaved herself upwards and flopped over onto her back like a basking walrus. “I am now.” Suddenly, conscious again, a former priority resurfaced in her mind. She stretched her arm towards the luminous can of energy drink on the coffee table. “Hey, can you pass me my drink? It’s just right there.”
Sharon looked from Kat’s puffy, pasty face to the can on the coffee table not two yards away from her housemate’s grasp. She picked up the can between the tips of her fingers and inspected it as one might a fleck of something unidentifiable on the handle of a greasy-spoon coffee cup. “This?” she said.
“Yeah, can you pass it here?”
“You know only scooter-riding adolescents drink this stuff?”
“And motor cross riders and BASE jumpers.”
“And which of those things are you doing today?”
“Haven’t decided. I might also go cliff diving.”
“Why don’t you just drink coffee like an adult?”
“I had a cup of instant this morning.”
“We had that last night.”
“They were different brands, though, and one was square.”
“Your guts must look like a George Foreman drip tray.”
Sharon sat down on the coffee table with her back to Kat. “I may have an opportunity for you,” she said. Kat could smell the odor of the urban work day on her housemate’s clothes, as she began to shed first her helmet, then her shoes, HiViz, and hoodie.
“A job, in fact,” said Sharon.
“Oh, yeah?” said Kat, with all the care of a bus stop acquaintance acknowledging a change of umbrella.
“The word is, ‘Thank you for undertaking basic life responsibilities on my behalf,’” said Sharon.
“So you know Sarah’s mate who works in the bar underneath the offices where Steve works? Well her friend—I can’t remember the name right now, Kerry? Mary?—she works in the gift shop at the art place, the one near where I lived with Other Sharon in third year. And there’s a job there, apparently.”
“Okay, I was with you until Sarah, I know who Sarah is.”
“Sharon played drums in that band you had.”
“Had for a week. Also, if she played drums, she was sitting behind me the whole time—I’d have barely seen her.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter, because I just emailed you the application form. Also, I’ve already filled it out for you. And drafted the email. With your CV attached. You literally only have to click send.”
“And it’s where?”
“The gift shop at the art place.”
“So selling ten pound pencil sharpeners and shit?”
“It’s an art gallery; there will be shit.”
The gallery consisted of what every New Labour pre-crash municipally-funded gallery in every second rate town consisted of. A converted factory, or mill, or workhouse, or some other variety of disused eyesore in the part of town parents from the better parts of town made their kids swear to keep away from, those same kids who, come adulthood, would work on those same local government marketing contracts conceived to “rebrand” urban decay into something, if not visibly functional, then at least publishable on council websites and election material.
“Clear out the tramps and junkies, paint the walls white and put a bit of forged metal in it, and boom—it’s officially a re-generation project,” said Wayne, smashing his palm down hard on the stapler.
“So, what do we actually have to do, like, should I have signed something by now?” asked Kat, her hands buried in her pockets for want of something to do with them.
Wayne eyed her for a moment as one might a weirdo on a bus. “You watch people browse around and look disgusted at the prices, and then either leave or buy something with a Banksy thing on it.”
“But he’s not even from—”
“Probably never even been here either, but he’s seriously bankable. Tea towels are quite popular, too, around Christmas. Did you hear the rumor he’s the bloke from Massive Attack?”
“Has anyone thought to put a Bansky on a tea towel?”
“You’ll go far. But yeah, they’re over there, by the giant novelty pencils. Basically, this job is really easy, especially during the holidays when the students are away and the kids aren’t forced to come through on school trips. Sometimes some bored local teens will come in—then you have to watch out for shoplifting and general teenage assholeness.”
With a shake of the head Kat folded her arms. “Teens are assholes these days.”
“It’s all those radioactive energy drinks they live off; over stimulates the asshole glands.”
Kat gave a vigorous nod of the head. “Yeah, I’m always saying that. I mean, why don’t they just drink coffee like everyone else?” she said, adding an incredulous laugh.
“Why do they need caffeine at all?”
“Well, yeah, exactly,” said Kat, and bore a hasty retreat to the table at the far end of the store, invisible under the pile of patio slab-sized coffee table art books.
“Hey, there’s one on zines here,” She shouted across the empty shop to her new co-worker acquaintance, “I do—did—one of these back in the day.”
“Check the price,” Wayne hollered back.
Kat heaved the tome off the table and flipped it over. “Fuck! Thirty quid.”
“Kind of missing the whole point, right?”
Kat let the book fall back onto the display, enjoying the deep thud of hardback on hardback.
And then they stood at the till and unpicked their overlapping network of friends, exes, workmates, classmates, loves, grudges, bosses, bars, and personal urban gentrification-based anecdotes, Wayne punctuating any lulls in the conversation with a sharp downward slam of his palm on the stapler, adding another layer of scrap paper to the growing pile.
“Look, my own zine,” Wayne said, finally, holding up an uneven multicolored sheath of rag-tag paper scraps—mostly heavily doodled receipts, invoices, and leaflets—lacerated up one side with staples and paper clips.
“Pretty… abstract? Or avant-garde? Or something? What’s it about?”
“It’s obviously some kind of metaphor the likes of you wouldn’t understand.”
“It’d fit fairly nicely on one of these walls then,” said Kat.
“Funny you should mention that,” said Wayne, and he reached under the counter to produce a battered cardboard box of old promotional postcards from a previous exhibition and a roll of cling film. He tipped the contents into the bin and started positioning the mess of paper in the center of the base of the box.
“Needs a bit of sprucing up,” he said, grabbing this time a roll of sticky tape and going to town on the ragged corners of the box.
“This is some next level Blue Peter shit,” said Kat.
“And now to display it,” he said, and walked out of the gift shop and into the gallery entrance lobby. He’d already reached the stairs by the time Kat came scurrying over.
“Shouldn’t we, like, close the shop or something, or put a sign up, ‘Out to lunch, back in 5’ kind of a job?”
“Not necessary,” Wayne replied.
“But won’t our boss be—whoever our boss is—or security or something—”
It occurred to Kat that other than Wayne she hadn’t seen a single other soul in the whole place.
“Well, I guess I’m your supervisor. There’s only one security guard, Nick. He’s pretty sound, actually, must be in his eighties, though. He’s our ‘boss’ officially speaking, but I’ve only ever seen him in the cinema room on the third floor. I think he likes to sleep there or just hang out in the dark or whatever. I’m pretty sure he actually lived there for a bit. He doesn’t bother me and I don’t bother him.”
“So it’s just you and him?”
“There used to be four of them, but since the cuts, there’s just him. Personally, I reckon they secretly want the place to be robbed or burned down so they don’t have to pay to keep the place open anymore.”
“Should do fine here,” said Wayne, pressing the ends of the sticky tape-fashioned hangers against the white wall. The zine sat in its makeshift cardboard frame, with the cling film acting as a crude glass frontage. The whole structure was a bedraggled mess against the pure white of the wall and the neat, minimalist curves of the sculpted ornaments that sat on plinths throughout the room. Scanning the room, Kat saw other examples of Wayne’s contributions hanging off the wall—gaudy, irregular stains against the ordered elegance of the gallery’s sanctioned works.
“It definitely adds a bit of color,” she said, and they both stood and stared around themselves for a moment.
“You want to see the most offensive thing in this place?” Wayne said.
“I have a friend who puts mayonnaise in his homemade guacamole.”
“Okay, not that offensive.”
Above the gift shop’s collection of posters, slightly to the right of the third shelf of exhibition-themed mobile phone covers, were five skate decks, hanging at irregular intervals and painted in bright, complex designs.
“They look pretty good to me,” said Kat.
“’Course they look good, they look awesome, they’re the best looking, most professional thing in this whole place. That’s why they cost two hundred quid each. But they’re also an abomination.”
Wayne stared at Kat’s blank, open-mouthed face as she stared up at the decks.
“Think about it,” he said. “Those are basically toys—they’re designed to be played with, enjoyed, you shouldn’t even be able to see the art for all the scratches. Doesn’t that piss you off, the waste I mean?”
Kat stared at them for a moment. “I guess if they were commemorative or belonged to someone that did a thing, or something…” She trailed off.
“How can anything brand new and unused commemorate anything? They’re just a novelty canvas for an opportunistic, albeit talented, artist whose agents twigged that skateboarding is a socially approved… thing now, like vinyl or graffiti. They’ve… bourgeoisied skateboarding.”
“I don’t think that’s a verb, but I get what you’re saying.”
“And now they’re chained to a wall gathering dust.”
“Metaphorically. It’s a metaphor. The whole thing is, I mean, a metaphor for how everything gets polished and cleaned up and put on walls to look nice and never get used and fucked up; those decks have been Invasion of The Body Snatched.”
“Did you ever see that film, if…?”
“I may have heard of it.”
“Umm,” Wayne bounced on his toes as he racked his brains. “You know the Dementors in Harry Potter?”
“Okay, now I’m with you.”
“These skateboards have had their”—Wayne threw up some air commas—“‘souls’ sucked out of their ‘mouths,’ okay?”
“Ah, okay, right. I see. A metaphor, of course.”
They stood staring at the boards for a moment longer.
“Did you ever skate?” said Wayne finally.
“Sure. Who didn’t skate? By ‘skate,’ I assume you mean I owned a skateboard and kind of sat around the town center hoping boys would talk to me.”
“Then I skated,” said Kat.
Another moment passed wherein Kat wondered whether it would be rude to walk off, or ruder still to stay and intrude on what seemed, observing Wayne now from the corners of her eyes, to be some kind of reverential observance.
“No, I can’t stand it anymore,” said Wayne, suddenly. “Today’s the day.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’m getting the stepladder.”
Wayne turned and strode purposefully back towards the counter. “Do you know where the scissors are?” he called over a moment later.
“I’ve literally been working here less than two hours, I don’t even know where the toilets are.”
“No matter, I’ll use these.”
Seconds later he was atop the stepladder hacking away at the plastic zip ties with a children’s pair of scissors, price tag still attached.
“Err, is this wise?” asked Kat, standing with her hands in her pockets with one eye on the gift shop entrance.
Wayne was breathless with the effort of balancing and chopping. “Wise? Not sure.”
“I mean stealing—”
“Liberating,” he corrected. “Freeing these decks from an eternity rotting on some yuppie’s living room wall next to his limited edition Fender that also never gets used.”
Moments later they stood together, holding a deck each.
“Oops, doesn’t look like they have any grip tape. Or trucks. Or wheels. Shame. I guess we’ll have to put them back,” said Kat, doing her best disappointed sigh of resignation.
“I know the guy that works at that skate shop, he can fix us up with some old stuff,” said Wayne.
“There’s also the small matter of our jobs.”
“I’ve been here over a month, I’ve earned some days off,” Wayne replied. Then, waving the deck: “And maybe a two hundred quid bonus.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever robbed a place of work in my first shift,” said Kat, not sharing Wayne’s triumphalist mood.
“I mean, I get it if you want to stay,” he said more seriously. “You can put that one back and I’ll just take this one. I just thought it’d be a cool gesture for your first afternoon, a kind of team-building exercise slash heist slash liberation kind of thing.”
“I guess no one saw us take these? Aren’t there cameras and whatnot?”
“I doubt anyone’s even going to notice they’re gone.” said Wayne. “And there’re no cameras in here.” For a second the smile returned to Wayne’s face. “I mean, no working cameras, anyway, but there is a camera in the cinema room on the third floor, with a shit ton of footage of Nick slacking off, eating, sleeping—we’ll make up a story and get him to play along or we’ll slip him some cash or whatever.”
“Blackmail an old man?” said Kat.
“I’m just saying it’s not foolproof, but if the worse comes to the worst, it’s salvageable.”
Kat continued to look grave.
“Also, do you actually have anything better to do today?”
“What in God’s green ballsack are you doing here? Did you even leave? Have you even moved since yesterday?”
Sharon collapsed into the armchair a panting sweaty mess, her HiViz jacket already half off.
“I went. Then my boss and I bunked off the afternoon,” said Kat, curled up on the sofa.
“You and your boss?”
“My supervisor. We went skating.”
Sharon eyed her for a moment, a puzzled look on her face. “Are you having some lucid dream? Is that what people mean when they say ‘lucid dream?’”
Kat propped herself up on her elbow. “That’s what happened. We stole some skateboards and went skating. It was a team-building exercise.”
“You went skating with your supervisor on the first day of your job like some kind of Blink 182 video? Did you also trash the principal’s office and egg the jocks?”
Kat shrugged. “But hey, thanks for the job. If I still have it tomorrow I’ll definitely continue to go in every day, except when I don’t have to.”
Sharon plonked her helmet down onto the coffee table. “I don’t suppose you managed to steal a giant novelty pencil?”
“Sorry, no. They’re good ones though; they have giant novelty rubbers on their giant novelty ends.”
“What a time to be alive.”
John Miskelly lives in Gijón, Asturias, Spain. He is thirty-one. @JohnMisk