By Toria Akin
Globules of sweat secreted from the trenches of his pitted forehead, flowing along the network of creases. He burrowed his eyes deeper into his book, fixated on each line. The wavelets of his abdomen lapped towards his ribcage as the carriage jolted forward, pulling away from the platform. It was becoming harder not to notice the additional weight that had crept on. It had been eight months since he had stopped attending the Hospital tennis club, it was just another reminder of his mortality, he felt. The closest member to his age was in their early forties and it was apparent that forty really was the new thirty. They ran laps around him in the warm up alone, leaving Stanley in a bronchospasm-like state before the game had even begun.
The Book Club however, required no physical prerequisite other than the facial theatrics needed whilst enduring a member’s inflated rambled tale about the adventures of their pet. He was determined to maintain the impression he had made on the group so far. Already reading ahead of everyone, he made it his mission to finish this chapter before he reached his stop, sure to guarantee the maximum outpouring of praise to bask in.
‘I don’t know how you do it!’’ Where on earth do you find the time?’ or his personal favourite- ‘You are one supersonic reader, lightning speed!’
The choreographed routine would end in his head bowed and arms raised in supposed surrender as he attempted to convey humility, not daring to let on just how much the acknowledgment from a dozen past-it strangers meant to him. Their fresh eyes adoring him, their open ears, he yearned for it. People here were not trying to climb up the ranks of his field of work, they were content and just living. Although he longed for this veneration, the come downs of the fast-fleeting dopamine hits from these ego massages, exhausted him. Pathetic is how he would feel when retiring at night that a man of his age, accomplishments and perceived prestige was reduced to this unquenchable thirst for validation. With each day came the same performance, with that, came the increasingly inescapable evidence of his emptiness; it chipped away at him. However, all of the fickle encounters he endured during the week, were made bearable by the prospects of five minutes of freedom with, Her. What he got from Her was the real addiction.
‘Two kids, Chief Lecturer of the National Society of Periodontology, Chief Officer of the National Dental Authority Charity and, Head of the exam board for the undergraduate students!’
All he saw was a failed marriage and two self-sufficient teens he touched base with sporadically between university semesters, the realities of his life he didn’t feel was how many imagined it. Furthermore, for someone of his great grandfather’s generation, these accolades may have really meant something, but the world was different now. The new world order had flipped everything on its head. After the Great Global War, every kingdom vowed that it would be the world’s final battle and the sole global principle from then on was ‘PRESERVING LIFE’. Merit and reward was now solely based on how much one contributed to this notion. No more were the social influencers, sports stars and musicians the rock stars of the world but those directly involved in the preservation of life.
Commanding salaries starting in the millions were the elites: Fire Fighters, Ambulance crew, A&E team. You will find them plastered front and centre of any news bulletin, wellbeing magazine and rich list, boasting of how many lives they had saved annually.
Serving staff, supermarket assistants, cab drivers, were all deemed essential to the function of daily life. Carers, support staff and teachers aided in growth and development. Cleaners and Porters were paramount for infection control. Thereby all of these roles being vital in the preservation of life and carried a high social ranking. Someone of such occupations residing in an area was capable of increasing an entire neighbourhood’s property value.
Being involved in some form of auxiliary healthcare was considered okay though the aim was to be as general as you could be. The more parts of the body one could treat, the more you contributed to the ‘preservation of life’. Due to this, specialism held less value. Now only those who performed worst in their class were required to do further training into a specialism.
Stanley struggled his whole way through dental school and was shattered when the Dean had informed him of his requirement to specialise. During this period he discovered his rock bottom. Night time insomnia, the heavy weight in chest that followed him around, the constant anxiety of impending doom, the feeling of worthlessness, his mind traveling to the depths of darkness he never knew existed. He vowed to make something of himself and dedicated his life to climbing up the ranks, never to return to such a state. Now fifty two years old, he had achieved it all. Though not a Billionaire fire fighter, he had climbed as high as he could in his field. Of all his many accolades, his teaching fellowships on the undergraduate course held the most significance and was the only way for specialists to redeem themselves. Those who held teaching positions were deemed to be aiding physical and mental growth of their students and therefore aiding in preserving life. Though Stanley didn’t care much for that, he saw it as his way of giving back. He thought maybe the universe would reward him for this selfless act.
Stanley had worked himself into a white heat of determination to get to where he was and yet, still felt so empty. Tired of the fickle complements that followed him, he longed for genuine connection, for something real. Not people being around him just for the sake of improving their own social standing or a way into the system to one day make it as a hospital porter. Nor a specialist grovelling to land a fellowship as a teaching professor. He had worked hard, attained and yet now this status had become a burden.
He would always arrive fashionably late to the Book Club, finding Nick standing to attention to open the door in a flash whatever the weather, he was just honoured to be there. Nick was a Surgeon, but considered the worst kind, a cosmetic surgeon. Every failing medical student’s worst nightmare. Those required to specialise in cosmetic surgery would dread the dooming news. Some would even opt to abandon the profession completely and the ten years of study that had gone towards it. You see, only those who came from old money before the new world order would utilise cosmetic surgeons in their attempt to revert back to their natural form. The harmful ideologies of beauty standards they had reeked on the world for centuries, coupled with the risks associated with these cosmetic procedures all threatened the preservation of life. Nick was only able to hover around the book club meetings as the community centre manager took mercy on the outcasts of society. She had reluctantly given him a volunteer role handing out weekly flyers, the only role that stopped him being spat at on the street. Most members of the book club barely acknowledged his presence and yet, she gave him the time of day. She saw people, not through them. Though Stanley felt the time wasted with Nick could have been better spent with him, it was this very nature that fuelled his drive to her. The feelings that their brief encounters evoked in him were compulsive. He would find himself in a daze for hours at night replaying them over and over.
The train reached a sharp stop as it pulled into Cresence Station just in time as he came to the end of the last sentence of his chapter. The five minute walk always seemed like miles as he marched along, panting with every step. He rehearsed how he would downplay just how far he had read before casually slipping out that he had gotten to chapter 17, seven chapters ahead of what was the agreed stop point. He ploughed through the double doors of the community hall, met by everyone congregated in a circle. The plastic backs of the chairs glimmering under the flickering LED lights. He faux-sheepishly walks towards the group, and like clockwork, the routine begins.
As the meeting drew to a close, he is stopped in his tracks by a figure in the corner of his eye. By the refreshment table, a distance from the group, where she stood. He could recognise those luscious coils a mile off. He found her incredibly refreshing. She didn’t hover like the others; she was a recluse. When they would speak, she would pause before responding, making him feel like she was present and truly listening. Stanley excused himself from his flock of adoring fans and made his way over to her. Feeling the presence towering over her, she sharply turned around to investigate. Her eyes were met by the rounded silver haired man.
Tabatha was a child blockbuster film star. For most actors, this would seal their doom in an acting career before it had even begun, but she fought her way up until she was comfortably in the circuit of backstreet shows and home streaming platforms dramas. She chose her acquaintances wisely, engaging only with people she chose to after robust vetting. Most would lose interest before any type of relationship could be formed though she didn’t mind, believing this weeded out the ones not meant for her journey. She came from the struggle and knew how dangerous human nature was, something the new global principle couldn’t change. Her sole purpose at the book club was to broaden her literature library and observe the groups’ connections with different characters. This she would use to enhance what she brought to the characters she played on screen.
Stanley was one of the only people she had broken her silence with. He was not the usual companion a beautiful young woman of her creative nature would be paired with but he intrigued her in spite of his showman pretence that would usually repulse her.
‘You seem sad’ she muttered, swiftly turning back around, vacantly inspecting the shortbread biscuit dumped on her polystyrene plate. Stanley loved her no nonsense aura, no false flattery and above all, saw past his dissembling. He was indeed sad, he always was, though today he could tell something was odd with her. It wasn’t like her to mutter and be swift in movement. Everything about her had meaning, every movement she made had purpose, and everything she spoke was her pure truth.
Stanley walked around the table looking down at her unengaged face as played with the scattered crumbs, he had never seen her in this state.
‘I got the news that the film that I just finished filming is not going straight to DVD. It had been selected to go on the big screen’. Just a few decades ago, this would have been every actress's dream but the new world order had changed all of that. Unlike attending the cinema, TV series and straight-to-DVD films enabled viewers to watch them in the comfort of their homes, sometimes at their most vulnerable. This in turn, created a more perceived meaningful relationship between viewers and actors. Conversely, the bigger the mainstream exposure, the less relatable actors seemed, the less perceived meaningful connection and hence the less they attributed towards the pillar of ‘preserving life’. Now, underground gigs were what actors longed for and it was next to impossible to work your way back up into the underground scene.
Her voice faded off into a whisper as she fought back tears. The ice sheet barrier seemingly melting away before him. Did she feel warmth from him? Their eyes met for what seemed like forever. He felt honoured to be sharing this moment, a real moment. For him, time stood still, everything zoned in on this connection. He felt his heart beat slowly and forcefully, realising this feeling he hadn’t felt since childhood was in full force. Frozen he stood, lost for words.
She suddenly broke free from the gaze. He saw anger grow in her eyes, she had caught herself. She felt fury that she had allowed herself to crack. She forcefully wiped her tears away, eyes darting around the room avoiding eye contact as she fought to regain composure.
‘Soon I won’t be welcome here and you won’t want to be seen dead with me’. She threw her limp plate on the table, grabbed her cardigan and rushed towards the door before Stanley could find his words or reach out to stop her. What had happened? How could such a beautiful moment be shattered so quickly? Did she feel embarrassed? Disappointed that she wasn’t met with comforting words? He questioned himself. Did she read pity in his eyes that she despised? Could she not read that he was simply taken aback and lost for words?
Stanley, the well composed man, was distraught.
Next week, Stanley raced to the book club abandoning his fashionably late stance, arriving an hour early. He waited around long after the meeting drew to a close, shooing off any attempt to engage as he kept a look out for her. To his dismay, there was no sign of her. Weeks turned into months. Stanley grew more and more disconnected with the book club. He soon realised without her, there was no incentive to be there. The members’ meaningless flattery did not make a dent on his ego nor arouse the rise it once did. The only thing keeping him coming back was the prospect that maybe she missed their interactions too, she may come back for him.
His thoughts were disturbed by the chatter of the book club’s discussions, he looked up met by the group staring at him with expectancy. Had he been asked a question while he was lost in thought? He had grown so concerned with trying to track her down, searching every Tabatha within a 20 mile radius on every social media platform, he had forgotten all about reading the chapter and quite frankly didn’t care. Who cares?! He thought. What did this even all mean? Their expecting faces infuriated him. They were grown adults after all, seeking approval from him. Why couldn’t they find something better to do with their time? The disappointment of the realisation that she was not coming back coupled with the menial discussions boiled his insides. He could feel himself imploding with internal rage. He abruptly excused himself from the group, rushed to the bathroom where he fell into a slump on the floor.
Flooded with thoughts, he questioned: If she saw him so well, why couldn’t she see he wasn’t like the others? Why couldn’t she see how much their encounters meant to him? That he didn’t care about her potential social decline. That what he truly longed for he had found in their interactions. He cried and screamed himself into a ball of scatter on the bathroom floor. He wracked his mind as to how he could possibly feel again, he couldn’t learn to live without what she had brought out in him.
‘Why despite my best efforts and pure heart, no one truly wants me?’ He wondered.
What was life? What was achievement? What was true success without these basic human needs met?
He let out a scream as he pressed his eyes shut and began to sob. He threw his head into his fists, the heat from his burning eyes warming his frosted hands, soggy stubble scraping against his chapped palms. Forcing his eyes closed and wishing with all his might he commenced professing the desires of his heart.
‘I’m tired of the loneliness, I don’t want to be strong all the time, and I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I want to feel seen, listened to and heard. I want to feel needed and important, for who I truly am, in a way that’s meaningful. I want to not feel stupid for wanting these things. I want to be vulnerable, I want to feel safe being vulnerable. I want to scream and shout. I want my pain to be someone’s and theirs mine. I want to feel understood. I want to feel something real. I want to breathe new life.’
He began to catch his breath. A weight had been lifted off of him, like he were floating.
‘I KNOW I deserve more than this.’
He wished and prayed from the pits of his core that this would be his reality. He wished to be transformed to his younger fitter, taller, confident self with effortless charm. He repeated this over and over again as if it were the memorised spell to freedom. Longing for it to be true, rocking back and forth against the cobbled floor. He felt a tingle peppered on the soles of his feet, working its way up along his legs until he could feel the sensation on the tips of his scalp. His muscles tensed, jaw clenched. A boiling throbbing pain erupted from the base of his abdomen, rippling through to every inch of his core. He let out a loud wail sounding against the tiles on the wall.
Immediately, it all subsided. He jumped to his feet, terrified. An energy like he had not felt in decades buzzed within him. The ground looked further down than usual, feeling like he stood a good few inches taller. He looked down at his thighs, he could have sworn they didn’t have this much definition. He noticed tears down the length of both trousers legs, had the new apparent bulging thighs caused this? He inspected his forearms through his finely pressed shirt, they appeared to be significantly snug against him.
Had it worked? Was this a physical transformation he had experienced? Had he manifested himself into a new person? He gathered himself and paced out of the building. He had to get home and see. This was the type of things seen in Superhero origins stories, it couldn’t possibly be the case with him, could it? He ran up the hill towards the station, each stride feeling like a smooth glide. This same hill that would usually need a snail-like pace and two rest breaks for him to get up, now felt like a breeze. What was happening?
Stanley was on such a high, he didn’t notice the man that had crossed onto the pavement in time, knocking him down. He helped him up onto the adjacent bench, apologising profusely taking a seat beside him. While checking he was bruise-free, the man began his unsolicited tale of how he was on route to collect his pet tortoise from the vet. Stanley paused. Usually tales of people’s pets would automatically summon a mind glaze. He would simply say a rehearsed phrase within his repertoire every so often to convey interest while his mind was miles away. Stanley however, this time decided to take genuine interest and listen.
‘What made you get a tortoise for a pet?’ Stanley asked.
‘Well it all started when my wife passed, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands’. Though Stanley’s wife had divorced him and not died, Stanley could relate. The additional time he found on his hands was more painful than the feeling of failing at his marriage. Before long, they were engrossed in a lengthy conversation each sharing tales and feelings they felt only they experienced.
The street light above the bench flickered on haloing over the pair, time had escaped them.
‘Well young man, I better be off. It was lovely speaking with you, stay youthful’. The gentleman gathered his belongings and headed off down the hill. He felt the warm buzz in his chest, the type last felt with Tabatha. Was this possible simply from a pure honest conversation with a stranger? All he had done was allow himself to be unguarded. And, ‘young man’? Stanley questioned himself. He could have sworn they were around the same age. He then remembered his experience at the community hall. Had he really transformed?
He continued on his way to the station, determined to see for himself. As he put his ticket through the train station barriers, he caught a reflection in the automated doors of the platform. The familiar wrinkle-faced podgy middle aged figure stared back at him. He took a long stare, examining him from head to toe. To his surprise, the usual instant self-loathing sentiment did not overcome him but rather, a feeling of empowerment swept over him. For the first time he realised that all he needed was within him. He smiled at the man he saw staring back, looking forward to discovering him and the adventures that awaited them.
He had indeed, transformed.