"The Marginals" (2013) by Steve Duffy
"You off, then? Aren't you going to give me-laddo the talk or anything?"
"Talk?" Barry was halfway out of the back door before the car had come to a full halt. He had to stoop to Howard's wound-down window to reply. "What 'talk' is that, then? You mean tell him about the job, what he's signed up for? Tell him what goes on, like? Where's the point in that? You tell him now, he'd laugh in your face. Even when he's done it, he won't understand it. Look at me. I've done it the best part of six months and I still don't understand fuck all, I don't. I can tell him that if you'd like." He thrust his head into the passenger window, causing Howard to recoil slightly. "Get that, did you, mate? Fuck, all. There you go, consider yourself up to speed."
It's Howard's first day, and his orientation is sketchy at best.
Some of the material in the handbook binder sheds light, but seems to raise more questions than it answers.
LEARN TO RECOGNIZE THEM
You WILL have come across them, even if you didn't realize it at the time.
In the motorway services, for example, at off-peak hours of the daytime, or through the lonely stretches of the night. In the cafeterias, the Happy Chefs and Costa Coffees. They're drawn inescapably to places like these: the margins, the places in between. They can pass for businessmen, commercial travelers, middle management, representatives. Cups of tea grow cold on the table in front of them as they sit, hands folded, apart from everyone. Other customers come and go while they remain—if you stayed long enough, you would notice it, you'd have to.
You will never see them arriving, nor will you see them leave. Their eyes will never meet your own.
....Once you learn to recognize them, try this exercise: look very closely at the people around you in the Underground carriage or the bus. The law of averages is adamant on this point.
....In their ones and twos they came and went, though never while Howard was looking, it seemed. He'd developed a kind of anxiety compulsion about checking both windows, front and rear: there was something going on, he felt sure, along the course of the stream, but the banks were just too high for him to be able to make it out. Perhaps it was nothing more than a black post, uncovered by the tide. A black post, that's all. But every time he turned away, satisfied or otherwise, from the tidewater creek, it seemed that through the other window there were one or two more of the men, or one or two fewer, over by the trailer.
Where they came from, why they gathered there, what they were doing . . . Howard could work none of it out. The notion they were coming out of (or going back into) the trailer had occurred to him as the most likely explanation for the first part of it, and he spent several hours trying to catch them in the act. By lunchtime he was only half convinced this might really be the explanation. But even if so, what did it actually explain?
....These are different. Nobody grieves for them. The majority are not even missed.
....What these unfortunates have in common, it seems safest to say, is the experience of lessening. The drip-drip-drip of psychic diminution. The attenuation of the psyche. Call it what you will. They are drained, one and all, at the most profound and fundamental level. Months, maybe years of unremitting reduction . . . till the day, long after they'd become oblivious to the whole process, on which they reached the tipping-point and passed over, unnoticed, unmourned. A day on which they did not go home.
....inhospitable thresholds they're forever on the verge of crossing....
....Some, the newly translated perhaps, are drawn to certain houses in the night. While the occupants are asleep they move in close, position themselves outside the unlit curtained windows and press their faces to the panes, as if—though it's pointless to ascribe to them any motives we would recognize—some memory of refuge, of belonging might move in them still. Why these houses? Why these feelings? Who can say? We could assume the houses evoke in them something like nostalgia; probably we'd be wrong. All we really know is that there they are, leaning in against the glass, resigned, unwearied, still and noiseless in their vigils.
Duffy is here merely sketching the strange interstitial and liminal zones of social abstraction that have come to be called Aickmanesque. It is populated by strangers, outsiders we only see by chance from the corner of the eye.
30 November 2019