Initially, in this story, I wanted to try and write loosely about work; or at least some aspects of my experience of work at points in the last ten years. On the way it took in a few more metaphorical elements. Sound grippingly exciting? No? Well, it has some weirdly attentive little gnomes in it too.
Gil stood at the entrance to the tall stone tower and shook his watch in anger. It rattled in response and emitted several token jangling noises, but the hands remained obstinately stuck at the same hour and minute. What a nuisance! To have finally made it all the way here, only to have no knowledge of the time – to be unable to put a mental marker upon his arrival.
Standing back, he surveyed the full height of the tower in all its glory. The initial basement body was rectangular and spread across a great area of the field; it was upon its flat roof that the spectacular column stretched uprights towards the sky, disappearing at its peak into the clouds.
Tightening the straps on his backpack, Gil took a last look at the overgrown, untended garden outside the entrance and made his way in. A sharp, ascending spiral staircase began creeping its way up the tower as soon as he ventured inside, and step by step he followed its twisting path. His shoulders brushed damp stone walls, and his feet caused clouds of dust and dirt to rise up from the steps beneath. With leaden shoes he trudged along, stopping intermittently to drink long drafts from a flask of water clipped to his belt. The effort of the journey was catching up with him, and the relentless, rising blocks of stone afforded him no respite.
His legs were beginning to ache and shake by the time a tiny little old man scurried past him, heading in the opposite direction. Dressed in garish green dungaree shorts and a pointed red hat, he was impossible to miss despite his extremely diminutive size. A bushy white beard lined his cheeks to complete the slightly festive image. The little man stopped for a second on his downwards journey to stare with intense scrutiny at Gil, who froze stock still in surprise. Then, muttering in a squeaky, high-pitched voice, he was off down the stairs again, leaping with nimble bounds across each step.
Gil lingered momentarily himself, gazing after the departing urchin. Still, perhaps that was what happened when you didn’t eat right, out here in the wilderness. Perhaps also, you didn’t care what you wore when you were as isolated as the little man was. Pulling himself together and banishing the swirling, confused thoughts that circled his mind, he began storming with renewed vigour up the monotonous stairwell. Occasionally he would lose his balance on broken or potholed sections of stone, and his hands would clasp at the grimy slabs around him. Cursing, he would wipe his hand across his chest, check his watch, curse again, and barge onwards once more, propelled by ever rising annoyance. Twice more, pint-sized old men in ludicrously colourful dungarees skipped past him, shooting suspicious looks in his direction. One man inexplicably carried a miniscule plastic fishing rod, shaking it with aggression at Gil as he wandered past.
Finally, just as Gil was feeling he could go on no longer and was wrestling with the idea of trying to grab some sleep on the rotten stairs, a rectangle of light signalled the tower’s summit, and an open door beckoned him towards the finish line. Staggering through it, Gil was greeted rudely by a stern-faced woman, sitting cross-legged at a desk near the door, twiddling a pen in her hand.
‘Do you mind?’ she squawked in irritation, her pale face crumpling into a frown. ‘l’m trying to write! Oh, of all the ghastly plights to befall me, just as my muse was aligning, just as my internal compass was directing me towards the most profound sentences. Oh, how my pen would have flowed with elegiac revelations!’ At this she hid her face behind her hands with a dramatic flourish, peeking at Gil through the gaps in her fingers to see what kind of response she had elicited.
‘Elsa! Elsa, quiet now, please. It’s a long time since we’ve been blessed with company, control yourself!’
Gil’s attention turned to another pale, sunken-eyed face. A tired-looking man lay on his back, tucked up in a bed in the opposite corner of the tower. He extracted his arm from under the duvet and waved a clenched fist in the woman’s direction.
‘Don’t mind her,’ he said, addressing Gil and smiling softly, ‘she’s just trying to write one of her letters.’
‘My letter!’ bawled the woman, throwing her face down on the desk and weeping amidst a fit of histrionics. ‘My poor, ruined letter! All those hours transmitting my soul, sending it coursing through the tip of my pen, wasted! You bastard! You heartless cretin! You despicable monster!’
Rising again, she waved sheets of scrawled handwriting in front of Gil’s face, her face an ugly mask of resentment. Then, wandering over to a thin window in the tower wall, she cast the crumpled sheets out into the air. They fluttered downwards, performing serene pirhouettes in the gentle breeze.
‘Oh, I feel as though my aching heart is going to explode through my chest!’ She cried.
‘Elsa, please! This is the last time I’m going to warn you! Exercise some decorum, won’t you!’
Sniffing through her wrinkled-up nose, Elsa sat once more at her desk. Immediately she began scribbling again at furious pace, with no apparent form or order, upon the fresh sheets of paper scattered in front on her. Her pen moved with rapid precision over different sheets on various parts of the desk, at certain points etching words in large, looping fonts, and at others jotting in tiny lettering in the corners of a page. Sometimes she would simply stab the pen downwards repetitively onto the same area of paper, her eyes burning with delight as little black dots manifested in clumps on the sheet.
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ offered Gil, ‘My name is Gil. I’d heard there was an old stone tower out this way, and had wanted to have a look inside. I didn’t mean to interrupt your work.’
‘My writing,’ Elsa snapped as she scrawled at her sheets, ‘my writing could define civilisations, and you talk of it as if I were baking a cake!’
Gil raised his eyebrow as she looked back down again. The man in the bed waved a dismissive hand at Elsa, and turned his white face sideways atop the large pillows to get a clearer look at his guest.
‘My name is Hans, young man,’ he drawled, ‘I’m sorry myself that I am not up and about just now, but I must get my rest in between shifts. What do you do yourself?’
‘Do?’ Wondered Gil out loud. ‘What do I do at the moment? Well, I suppose I do quite little. I’ve just finished studying, and have plenty of free time, so I thought I’d come out here. Only I didn’t realise it was quite as far away as it was, I’m really not sure where I am now, and my watch seems to have stopped working…’
‘Do quite little?’ queried Hans, pulling the covers up to his chin and frowning. ‘Well, that’s not so good. Have to do something.’
‘Yes, I suppose I do,’ replied Gil. A blank mask spread over his features as he stared back at the bed, but his head was spinning with interweaving thoughts.
‘Anyway, lunch-time for me, I think. Are you hungry, young man? Elsa, are you hungry?’
Gil nodded, but Elsa swung round and threw her arms open wide, enraged.
‘Do I look like I have time to eat, now? After my life’s work was interrupted? Do you know how much time and focus I must commit now, to rediscover my golden thread? To link these wondrous strands in my head together, into an expression of art worthy of-‘
‘Yes, yes, on you go, on you go,’ said Hans, cutting her off and reaching for his bedside table to shake a small gold bell set upon it.
As soon as the sound of the bell filled the air, swarms of tiny, white-bearded old men, similar to the men Gil had seen on the stairwell, came flooding into the room. They breezed past Gil, skipping joyously, and several of them aimed sharps kicks at his legs. Clambering up the sheet edges onto the bed, they divided small items of food between themselves and began feeding them to Hans, still laying flat out on the bed, with his mouth wide open. They laughed and danced as they hurled blocks of bread through his lips from various corners of the bed. Several scrambled up on his chin and dropped lumps of cheese and meat down the receptive black hole; one little man, standing precariously on Hans’ nose, hooked segments of food onto the end of his plastic fishing rod and lowered it into the waiting mouth.
Throughout the whole feeding process Hans did not move a muscle other than to open his mouth wide and chew appreciatively. At one point he spluttered crumbs of bread into the air and barked ‘Milk! Milk!’ Immediately more little men in colourful dungarees came piling in, hoisting a pitcher of milk above their shoulders, which was transported to the bed and spilled carefully down Han’s throat. After he was suitably refreshed, a final little man scurried up, wrapped playfully in a white handerchief. Holding it over his face and pretending to be a tiny ghost, he danced up to the bed and with a bit of help, cleaned Hans’ lips and chin.
‘Ah,’ sighed Hans, ‘and our guest, fellows. Don’t forget our guest, he has travelled far and is hungry aswell.’
The chattering little men turned round on the bed, and en masse began hurling lumps of food at Gil, pelting him with the remaining blocks of cheese and bread. The missiles bounced off him onto the floor, and reaching down, Gil dropped as many of them as he could into his own mouth.
‘Er…thankyou,’ he nodded, waving a segment of cheese at the little men. They screeched curse words at him in response, dancing and waving little balled fists, their white beards bobbing up and down in tandem.
‘Fellows, fellows!’ Berated Hans, laughing at the disorder unfolding atop his stomach on the bed. ‘So much excitement over a visitor! We don’t have many, you see. It’s too much for everyone to handle.’
‘Who are these people?’ enquired Gil as he chewed on a piece of bread. He thought about expanding his question and being more eloquent and conversive, but even after only several minutes in the towers’ peak, he felt drained of all but the most banal and basic of conversational techniques.
‘These are our gnomes. They were all in our garden down below, and we used to go down to see them often, and to tend to the garden. Only time passed, and we couldn’t make it down so often, and the garden grew unruly, the grass overgrown, and these fellows, well, they must have decided they didn’t like it down there anymore, and they didn’t like being ignored. And above all, I suppose they must have decided they were fed up with being inanimate objects!’
At this he chuckled and patted several of the old men’s heads as they frolicked on the duvet.
‘So one day they all came rushing up here, eager for attention, like obedient dogs. Now they look after me between shifts, and they pick up Elsa’s letters when she throws them out. She gets interrupted so easily, bless her.’
‘Argh! You cretin!’ shouted Elsa on cue, suddenly aware the conversation had turned to her. ‘Oh, and just as my words were spilling forth luxuriously, like liquid honey, spread tantalisingly over the butter of my paper! Once more it has all gone to hell! Oh, you imbecile!’ With this she flounced over to the window again, and thrust her left arm out to send the sheets of paper spinning out in the wind, covering her eyes with her free right hand. A group of the little men went dashing off down the stairs after them, kicking Gil in the shins as they ran past, giggling at their own mischievous deeds. On the bed, Hans brushed off a gnome who was trying to clean his ears, balancing a cotton bud like a giant pool cue, and finally pulled the bedsheets aside to sit up.
‘Well, well. Time to get to work! Everyone has to do something, you know,’ he mused, staring pointedly at Gil.
Accompanied by much groaning and stretching, he heaved himself upright and opened a drawer in his bedside table. Piles of small red guns were stacked up inside it. Pulling one out, he lumbered over to the window and fired a single flare out into the sky around the tower. At the desk, Elsa screamed and threw her papers up in the air, before dissolving into a mass of wildly gesturing obscenities. Ignoring her, Hans threw the used pistol into a large black bin in the corner, and ambled back to the bed. Soon he was tucked up inside again, and gnomes were flattening the sheets and fluffing the pillows underneath his head.
‘Oh my. I am always so tired after work these days; it’s getting harder and harder to summon up the energy.’ His eyes closed and a smile spread over his face as he relaxed. One of the little men laid a cool handkerchief over his forehead.
In the sky outside the window, far, far away in the distance, bright flares exploded at various points in response.
‘Why do you do that?’ asked Gil, entranced by the sky full of bursting lights.
‘I don’t know,’ yawned Hans. ‘I’ve done it for decades. Got to do something, haven’t I. I think I knew, maybe, a long time ago. But I’ve forgotten now, anyhow. I know it’s important, though. If I don’t fire my flare, the other ones don’t go off. I am so desperately tired, though. All these years of work are finally taking their toll. Elsa, too, she cannot write properly here.’
‘Oh, of all the ghastly plights to befall us!’ wailed Elsa again in her chair.
As the light started to fade, there was a glimmer in Hans’ eyes as he stared up at Gil from his bed.
‘You, young man! You need something to do! Would you not take it upon yourself to allow an overworked man the retirement he so richly deserves? To allow a talented writer to find the creative environment she needs to flourish? Think of the kindness you would be bestowing on us! Oh, it is fate indeed that has brought you here!’
Elsa spun round in her chair too, upon hearing this. She joined him in staring at Gil, holding her sheets of paper imploringly out in front of her. The gnomes were suddenly in a tizz, shouting squeaking objections and slapping Hans on his head as he lay gazing across the room.
‘You want me to stay here?’ Murmured Gil. ‘To fire the flare? Where would you go?’
‘Oh, who cares! We could travel, we could see where the other lights came from! Anywhere! Just to not have this awful tiredness, to know that I served my time, that I was free to do as I may!’
‘I don’t know…’ said Gil, shaking his wrist and looking at his dead watch. A forlorn cloud hovered over his consciousness, and desolate stretches of cold, empty territory unfolded in his mind’s eye. He was trying to think of home, of his family, but nothing was coming to mind. He could remember shapes if he really tried, but not faces, places…Why had his watch stopped outside?
‘But you must, young man. Don’t you see? That is why you came! Everyone has to do something!’
Once more Hans cast off his sheets and gestured in invitation to Gil. Elsa fell to her knees from her sitting position, and held clasped hands aloft.
‘Oh, my writing! My precious writing! My awe-inspiring words! Let them be free also!’
Gil screwed his eyes up and looked at his watch again, but when he looked back up he found himself at the bedside, clasping a duvet edge with one hand. Glancing round suspiciously, he saw nothing but an empty desk. Something dark and wretched flickered across his vision as he fidgeted with the sheets. Slowly and reluctantly, he clambered into the bed and pulled the duvet up around him, allowing his head to rest back on the pillows. He felt shattered. Staring out the window, he saw a single flare explode in the sky. Was the tower here not always responsible for firing the first flare, then? It hadn’t been explained properly to him.
Looking towards the door, he saw the gnomes gathered in a row at its base, shuffling around and staring at him with malevolence. Something else was behind them, too – some lingering shadow spreading over the dank stone walls as night set in. Reaching out to the bedside drawer, Gil pulled out a flare gun and held it close to his chest. He would have to fire a response any minute now. In the glow of the pale moonlight that stole softly into the room, his face looked much paler, as if someone had scrubbed it furiously clean, but too clean, chipping off remnants of his being as they toiled.