By Titus Green
As Peter and I headed towards Building 22, the jarring noise of a fighter jet ripping through the sky at low altitude stopped us. Our ancient ancestors would have thought the gods were furious had they heard something so unearthly. They’d have been clamouring in their rush to the caves or forests to shelter from this brutal, wrathful sound. The piercing echo of the death plane’s engine lingered and then receded as the sleek green and white fuselage of the craft, with the contours of an arial dolphin, hurtled into the distance and far away from our mundane, terrestrial attention. I’d forgotten that the university was located next to a military air base and my exhaustion must have been so great that I hadn’t heard the racket of the jet sorties during the night. Less than a kilometre from our little faculty housing favella was the Prince Salman Air Force Base where the kingdom’s sky warriors were trained by British Airforce pilots and equipped for the practicalities of war by British Aeronautical Systems, the leviathan of the military industrial complex that had enjoyed a lucrative monopoly of the Saudi arms contracts for decades.
“I forgot that BAS had the joint venture base here,” I said as we both looked up.
“Yep. You’ll see and hear a lot of them,” Peter said peering through his Ray-Ban shades. Colossal, clandestine arms deals brokered by British politicians had kept the bloated teat of this huge, lethal cash-cow spurting money at the company’s anonymous but powerful stakeholders for generations.
“Yeah. I guess they’re carrying some high explosive punishment from the House of Saud over into Yemen I shouldn’t wonder,” I said, wanting to gauge Peter’s knowledge of this ethically troubling topic.
Peter deflected my remark, turning his face away and saying: “I wouldn’t know about that. It doesn’t interest me to be honest.”
The prickliness in his response showed that this topic had a high, imposing wall around it that he’d topped with a spool of barbed wire. Most Gulf expatriates had this cold indifference towards the cruelties and injustices common in this peninsula, whether it was villages being toasted by the UK military’s state-of-the art human grilling equipment, overseas maids suffering dreadful abuses from their sponsors or unfortunates condemned to death for witchcraft, the majority of western expats weren’t concerned by such harrowing narratives. They remained pragmatically lip-sealed for the sake of the tax-free rewards. Head down. Say nothing. Ignore the issues and just bank the money.
“Are there many ex-BAS teachers here?” I asked. Peter nodded.
“Many. After they are retired by the company at 60, they come here. They regard it as a kind of pension supplement. A way to make some extra dough and wind down their careers.”
BAS was also in the English language teaching business, providing native speaker instructors to teach the Saudi Air Force cadets on their bases. It was part of the package from the company that came with the planes, tanks, helicopters and missiles: Military English and the lexicon of deadly euphemism. I’d known several people who’d been unable to refuse the enormous salaries and benefits used to lure English teachers onto their programs. At £47,000 tax-free pounds sterling per year, British Aeronautical Systems paid the highest contractual English language teaching wages in the ELT business, which was notorious for low pay, lower stability and unpredictable career directions.
We entered Building 22, which was another bleak, uncompromising structure that emitted depressing vibes. Like the mall, there was an atrium within with staircases, glass walls and austere corridors. Barriers, both literal and psychic, dominated this space, filling it with contained frustration and a residual resentment seeping out of the concrete. It was Fengshui from hell.
Students came and went through the doors. One of them greeted Peter, and he stopped to chat with him as he passed.
“Mr Peter. Mashallah! I am so happy to see you.” He was a lad of about nineteen, and from the ethnic group of Saudis with darker complexions. He and Peter shook hands.
“Hello doctorrrr!” said one of his associates with the elongated ‘R’ typical of Arabic English. He was obviously another student or ex-student of my new colleague.
“Are you doing the Academic English program now?” Peter asked.
“Yes Mr Peter, of course,” gushed the first boy. “Because of you and the good grades you give to us! Inshallah we will finish next year.”
Surprisingly, this expressed gratitude ruffled Peter. He half-smiled, and the expression betrayed a certain complicity. I wasn’t interested in his secret scams or hustles: this was the Gulf where the up-front and honest got burned. Whatever he did covertly to advance his interests here wasn’t my business. I just wanted to do the job and save the wages, preferably in living conditions that wouldn’t put me in hospital. I was introduced to them and then we said goodbye and headed towards an elevator. and they headed towards the glass door of a student cafeteria. We stepped into the elevator, and I saw squiggles of graffiti in Arabic and English on the wall panels. FCK PSUPS and FCK BRD FULTON caught my eye as Peter pressed the button for floor 3. We were going up to see Program Director Brad, the target of these misspelt insults. Clearly, there were unhappy campers among these students. I asked Peter if Brad had been in the Director post for long.
“About a year. His predecessor Dean Guthrie, a British guy, had to resign. That was quite a story I’ll tell you later,” he chuckled.
The managerial offices of the university’s Preliminary Year English Program were located behind a glass wall with doors that opened inwards. We walked through them and there was a door directly ahead which was closed and one to its left which was open. A moustachioed Asian man sitting at an orderly desk outside these offices registered our entrance with a lopsided smile.
“Hi Paul. This is Henry, one of the new teachers. Henry, this is Paul. He’s our department secretary. If you want a classroom unlocked, a cleaner found quickly, or have any classroom issues then this guy’s your man. He’ll get it sorted!” Classrooms unlocked? I was beginning to like the sound of how teaching was conducted here less and less. The Asian man took the hand I offered him.
“Nice to meet you,” he said in an Indian accent. With a name like Paul, he probably wasn’t from Kerala, which was predominantly Muslim.
“Is Brad here?” Peter asked. An ambiguous smile broke out across Paul’s face.
“Brad is attending a meeting with Dr Al-Qahtani now,” he replied, adding that it was concerning something about the coming semester. At that moment a large, hippo-shaped man waddled out of the office that was next to Brad’s. He was dressed casually in khaki trousers and a t-shirt tucked in. His trousers struggled to contain his massive girth. They were obviously extra-large size already. He looked to be at least two hundred and eighty pounds and only about 5 feet 6 inches in height with a body-mass index to alarm doctors. He had a swarthy complexion, glasses and a corpulent, piggish face on which a superior, dismissive expression seemed fixed.
“This is Ishmael. He’s our Program Manager,” said Peter. At this time, these job titles meant nothing to me. When Ishmael shook my hand, there was a subtle strengthening of the squeeze from his side: deliberate pressure intended to remind me he had authority here and this was his territory.
“When did you get in?” he asked curtly with American English pronunciation. I told him, omitting the details about the sewage invasion at my housing. I also said that I’d worked in Saudi Arabia before and added, to appear enthusiastic, that I was looking forward to starting my work. His eyes darted back and forth behind the thick lenses of his black-framed glasses. I was being scanned: there was an evaluation taking place within his managerial mind that clearly wasn’t coming up with any favourable impressions.
“I’ll be giving an introduction to the norms of Saudi Arabia and what you shouldn’t do here. Remember you’re not in the U.K. now,” he said officiously, as if he hadn’t heard what I’d just said about having taught in the kingdom before.
“They’ll also be briefings about the program, the students, the exams, conducting yourself in an Islamic classroom and your proctoring duties,” he continued in the same style, ending his statement in a frosty smile. To establish some kind of rapport with the man and show that I had at least some interest in the detail of my new position, I asked him how long the semesters were and how frequently the assessments were held.
“That’ll be in the information briefing for new teachers. I haven’t got time to go into it now,” he replied. “Peter, you’ll get the placement test info. Soon. I can’t think about forming the groups until the testing cycle is complete. I’ll be sending the level coordinators the details shortly. I’ve got to go now.” With this Ishmael plodded off in the direction of his urgency, sparing us any expressions of goodbye. As his elephantine thighs carried him away, the top of the cleft of his buttocks poked out above the strained waistline of his trousers.
“A busy man not keen on conversation,” I remarked as the shape of his Michelin Man physique retreated into the distance.
“He works very hard does Ishmael. He has a massive amount of work to do and lots of responsibility. Puts in a lot of hours too. I wouldn’t envy what he has to do: schedule the testing, deal with endless complaints and appeals from students.” I just nodded at Peter’s character reference, not wanting to challenge it with any criticism of the Program Manager’s abruptness since he was clearly a respected ally of my guide. I wasn’t relishing the prospect of working under Ishmael. I’d worked under Ishmael clones before in the Gulf Training Enterprises job. Petty, humourless, authoritarian micro-managers encouraged by their cheap, flimsy authority and the desire to do things to people with the ‘ize’ verbs: patronize, organize and criticize. Paul was at his desk typing. A Saudi approached him and asked where Brad was.
“Brad’s a popular guy,” I said. I wanted to prompt Peter about the promise he’d made to contact Faculty Affairs and sort out my apartment’s disgusting plumbing mess. I couldn’t get the image of the sewage swamp out of my mind. I didn’t think this was the moment to start pressing the issue with Peter, however. There’d be a time later to take it up again. I just needed to go with this plan.
“Yeah, we’ll catch up with him later. I’ll show you around the faculty offices. Classrooms too if there’s time. Then we should really make our way over to Dr Al Qahtani for your introduction. Then we should head back to Building 15 and get your ID card sorted—have you got passport photos?” I told him I had a supply in the folder in my shoulder bag. “Then we should head over to the IT Building to get your university account configured. We can get some lunch after that.” Lunch was the best-sounding part of that schedule. We headed across the tier of the atrium connecting with the adjacent building and turned down a corridor of classrooms. The walls had posters packed with homilies about studying English and lists of commandments about seeking out native speakers for conversation, noting down new words and reviewing grammar exercises. I didn’t see any that encouraged students to read. The corridor led to the right and off to the corridor of teaching faculty offices. We passed a toilet that had a TEACHERS ONLY – NO STUDENTS ALLOWED notice pasted on its door. It greeted us with a foul smell as we passed it.
“Ahoy there!” The sailor’s greeting of old came from the end of the corridor. A short, fat man in late middle age with a disorderly cap of grey hair and glasses was striding towards us. He was dressed in the typical uniform of an aging EFL teacher: navy blue slacks and a sky blue short sleeved shirt.
“I’ve just been up to see those bastards in payroll. Do you know those fuckers haven’t even started to process the overtime yet? It’s been eight months already,” said the man in a thick Irish brogue.
“Hello Donald,” said Peter grinning. “Just before you get going, this is Henry. The new teacher I’m helping to get set up. We’re just sorting out his reporting, iqama, ID and other stuff.”
“Hello young man,” said my new colleague taking my hand and giving it a vigorous shake. “Where are you from?” I told him, adding that I’d worked in the kingdom previously for Gulf Training Enterprises.
“Ah! I’ve heard about them. Pay good money but real bastards,” said Donald, who articulated the final word with additional energy. My first impression of this uncouth man was of a wily, hustling survivor: a crafty creature expert in maneuvering through the treacherous swamp of this institution.
“Have you taken him to Faculty Affairs for reporting yet?” he asked. Peter told him that we’d visited Majed’s empty desk up at Building 15.
“That fucker’s useless. Spends most of his time running his hotel businesses in Al-Khobar.” Peter’s grimace suggested he didn’t support the assessment of Majed, but Donald continued regardless.
“He’s got to do the reporting before anything else, or he’s not going to get paid. The guy you need to see is Joseph. You know, the Filipino in 309? He’ll get it sorted.”
Peter nodded and then asked Donald about the payroll conundrum that was vexing him. Donald had been teaching overtime classes in the evening for most of the year and hadn’t been paid yet, along with other instructors who’d put in the hours.
“Not a single claim has been processed. I went to see them just now. They said they need the signature of the Deputy Dean to get it started. It’s that bad. I’m going over to Al Qahtani’s office to see him about it. I’m going to talk to Saeed also.”
“Remember Jim Garlington? Waited over a year for night-course payments?” said Peter. This conversation was not inspiring any confidence in the payroll reliability of my new employers. Would I, in fact, actually get paid for doing any work?
Donald glanced furtively left and right, took a few steps closer and leaned in, trying to create a little conspiratorial huddle.
“Have you heard about boozer Bagshaw?” He looked at Peter with this question, on whose face a crafty, cagey grin appeared.
“He didn’t turn up to his morning classes on the summer school program– twice I heard!” Donald’s face glowed and his tone was elevated. Excited.
“I heard he’s been summoned to see Al Qahtani.” Donald looked as though he was immersed in his favourite sitcom and re-telling a memorable episode. Glowing, grinning enjoyment was all over his face. “And do you know also—did you hear?” Donald leaned in again, resetting his gossip posture. He swivelled his head right and left like a motorist at an intersection, as if making sure that human traffic passing in the corridor didn’t hear the sensational morsels he was about to steer into our ears.
“I heard he turned up for work drunk as a lord last year. Staggering around the corridor he was and cursing. You know, his office mate Jones was there at the time.” Donald paused, to assess our interest in the story, and then continued regardless. “He picked up a chair and started shaking it at Jones when Jones said he should go home, you know, and not teach with the state he was in. You should have seen him!” Our storyteller stepped back and smiled with satisfaction.
“I heard about it. Yeah. What a situation that was!” Peter glanced at his watch just after saying this, but Donald wasn’t going to be denied another telling of this tale of unedifying expatriate behaviour. When Donald looked at me, I shook my head ruefully and sighed, but this was only pretend shock. In my long EFL overseas teaching career I’d witnessed the full spectrum of EFL teacher pathological behaviour. I’d seen teachers get even with language schools who’d fired them in Japan by teaching final classes wearing only underwear, multiple reprobates deported from South Korea for teaching illegally, trafficking narcotics and committing sexual offences. I’d seen teaching couples whose relationships had soured turn the reception areas of language schools into deafening, expletive-filled battlegrounds. I’d witnessed mental breakdowns, unscrupulous lechery, covert poaching of language institute students by teachers, corridor fistfights between instructors and students at the grim Gulf Training Enterprises plus teachers who’d ended their lives either by suicide or overdoses in sleazy Thai motels when the money had gone, and nobody loved them anymore. I’d even heard of Brits so cavalier about their welfare in Saudi Arabia that they had actually started selling drugs. The TEFL profession was a theatre of unhinged characters, self-delusion and self-destruction that was constantly churning out unedifying melodrama. A belligerent alcoholic unable to control his behaviour in a highly conservative country barely registered on the scale of the remarkable.
“So everybody on the corridor can hear Bagshaw bawling and cursing and they come out to see what’s going on, you know, being curious like, and that angry drunkard starts telling them to f off and when he sees me he starts calling me a two-faced bastard and other names and then tells everybody who’s come out to see the commotion that they’re losers for coming to work here and other nasty things bound to put people’s backs up you know? He tells us all to back off and goes into his office to get his textbooks and stuff for class. He said: “I’m going to teach them some funny grammar now you bastards. You can all get me a beer and I’ll see you all at the bar or brothel in Bahrain on Friday and you can tell me what a wanker I’ve been.” Donald attempted a change of accent for this foul-mouthed quote that just didn’t come off. He was clearly a self-styled raconteur but no mimic. “So, somebody calls Guthrie up in his office.” Donald had so far referred to all his colleagues by their surnames in a military style. “And he comes down and he starts talking to Bagshaw, trying to calm him down. You could tell he was worried that some Saudis would come down the corridor at that moment like and see this boozer making a commotion—would have been sacked immediately of course just like that fellow McGregor a few years back—and he’d really be in the shit with Al Qahtani and the rest for allowing this to happen on his watch.”
“So, what happened?” I asked.
“Guthrie and a few others had to restrain him. Physically stop from going to his classroom. They hauled him upstairs to the one of the back offices out of sight. Guthrie then drove him back to Old Shabab so that he could rest and sober up. He got somebody to cover his classes.”
“Wow! That’s pretty wild” I said.
“Can you imagine if they’d let him go into his class like that?” They way Donald shook his head and sucked in air he looked disappointed that they hadn’t.
“Well, he’s on his last legs this time. I heard he got so drunk in Bahrain one weekend that he missed his taxi back. Just stayed in his motel room.” Donald was grinning like a betting shop punter watching a backed long-odds horse approaching the home straight.
“Probably get a written warning,” offered Peter.
“He already has a verbal one,” enthused Donald.
A non-Saudi appeared at the end of the corridor. He was a tall, tense, gaunt looking elderly man. He had close-cropped hair, dusty grey in colour, and staggered towards us. He looked stern and on the verge of a breakdown, as though working in this place was a battle and he was a reluctant mercenary suffering combat fatigue.
“Ahoy there!” Donald boomed in his foghorn voice. The man reached us and stopped.
“Have you heard? They still haven’t paid the overtime. Haven’t started processing it even?” said Donald, recycling his conversation. Hearing this, the man sighed heavily. It was the prolonged, despairing groan of a near defeated spirit.
“If they don’t pay it by next month then I’m never, ever volunteering to do it again,” he said resolutely. “I’ve got bloody bills to pay back in Thailand,” he added. His sagging eyes were full of heavy burdens and private torments. There was a vast, heavy, invisible cross he was bearing. He was gnashing his teeth and his right hand, which held some books, was shaking.
“Henry, this John,” said Peter. We shook hands. “He’s ex BAS. You did quite a few years over on the airbase didn’t you John?”
“I served my sentence,” he replied without enthusiasm.
“Good money though. The package is good. You know Evans? Had the missus who conned him out of his house in Bangkok? Remember? Died of prostate cancer after he couldn’t pay his medical bills? I heard he got fifty-five thousand per year plus pension back in ’95!” Donald rubbed his thumb and forefinger together when mentioning the late Evans’ salary. I wondered where this unfortunate man was buried, who’d been paid so handsomely but clearly hadn’t enjoyed the fruits of his hard work and self-sacrifice made to the military profit monster. And what abnormality in Donald’s character compelled him to constantly broadcast these unfiltered grim stories about other teachers?
“Thanks for reminding me of that Donald,” muttered John in deadpan style. “Such a cheerful topic.”
“But he did okay with the old green stuff,” countered Donald, thumbing the imaginary riyals with his stubby fingers again.
“When you get to my age Donald you learn there’s more to life than slavishly chasing the oil dollar in this godforsaken country,” said John angrily, as though guilty for contradicting the principle. “Just look at us, squandering what’s left of our lives here like greedy dung beetles!”
Donald frowned at the simile while Peter chose to stare at the ground. It didn’t feel great to be part of the dung beetle fraternity.
“And talking of money, please excuse me but I’ve got to get to the bank. We’ve just got paid for the summer school and I’ve got to get to the bank to wire my salary back to Thailand, as you do.”
“Nice meeting you. A sense of humour will help you to survive here,” he said, shaking my hand. He walked away from us with the painstaking steps of a man confronting the health alerts of later life. A gloomy aura followed him, as though he was cursed by a special kind of jinn that tormented burnt-out EFL teachers. Donald waited until John was out of sight and then turned to us.
“Have you heard? His son’s had to be admitted into a special hospital in Bangkok—something to do with the disability—and it’s going to cost, or at least that’s what his missus said. That’s why he’s done the summer school and he’ll be trying for the night-school overtime next semester. He’s got to make the money and keep it flowing to Thailand or he’ll be in deep shit.” Donald obviously invested so much time and energy in investigating the woes and intrigues of his colleagues’ lives that I wondered where he found the time to concentrate on his own job. And where did he get all his information? “But I don’t know if his evaluations are high enough this time,” he said doing his precautionary right-left head swivel to check for unwanted listeners coming into earshot. “You know—he got some complaints this time. Shouted too much at the students. Threw them out of classes too. I heard he even grabbed one in the corridor and marched him out of the building, and they went at it outside for a while—you know how loud his voice is and all—and this disrupted the class. Held it up for twenty minutes. The student tells John that his father has a lot of wasta. That he graduated from here in the Engineering department and knows a lot of people. John tells him he doesn’t give a damn about the wasta and that he’s banned from the class. The student goes to Al Qahtani and Al Qahtani lets him back into the class. He wasn’t happy about that I can tell you. Then Fulton calls him into his office and tells him he’s not to eject students from the class again or he’ll face disciplinary action.” The position of teachers here sounded even more precarious than at Gulf Training. Control the classes with discipline and get threatened with the sack. There was nothing quite like the paralyzing double-binds faced in this kind of work to make you nervous. “So, I heard he only got a 6.8 average, and you know they demand 8+ to teach the night program.” Donald sounded so delighted with this outcome that he may as well have been popping a champagne cork. “But this is a top man I can see,” he said pointing to me. “Ex British Council I hear. Knows his IELTS exams,” said the garrulous gossiper with a fiendish grin.
“What? How did you know that?” I spluttered, almost too shocked to speak. “Oh, Donald doesn’t miss anything,” said Peter, his wry semi smile conveying his experience of the man.
“Have you got private investigators working for you or something?” Although light-hearted, my question’s humour bypassed him, and Donald just looked at me blankly. I asked him about these evaluations that he seemed so obsessed about.
“If your evaluations are low, “he began earnestly, “they’ll look at it at contract renewal time and you probably won’t get renewed. You also need high evaluations to get the money,” said Donald giving his pocket a tap which caused the faint clink of a few coins. Hah hah! Isn’t that right Smith?” His habit of addressing people by surname was discomforting: the usage made us sound like prison inmates.
I was suddenly eager to get out of Donald’s eccentric, tiring company. He was a man to be taken in small doses, with a ration of no more than one meeting per week being bearable.
“I know a man who’s going to get high evaluations when I see him. You’ll be getting tens soon I can tell. Getting the overtime.” I couldn’t tell if this was banter or an oblique notice that I could somehow be in competition with him. A threat. A rival money-making animal sniffing around his long-marked, jealously guarded territory of overtime. Finally, Peter hinted strongly enough that we needed to get going and we told Donald we’d see him around. As we did, another target for the Irishman’s news, rumours and probing came into range. It was another haggard looking, middle-aged individual traipsing down the corridor. He wore scruffy slacks that looked like default teaching uniform that hadn’t been changed for years, along with ways, opinions and lesson-plans. His greying hair was lank, and his face was lined with craters.
“Hi Jeff,” said Peter nodding at him, but not stopping him to introduce me. Jeff acknowledged me with a tilt of the head.
“Have the TOEFL scores come out yet?” Donald stopped him with the question. “Mine were fuckin’ useless. Their average is 69%. Half of them are going to be repeating I know it. Fuckin’ useless. I taught them the grammar again and again. Even did extra office hours.”
“Oh. Yeah?” The man didn’t have the will to push past Donald and avoid the conversation.
“And one of the fuckers gave me a 4. After everything I did! If I ever see that ungrateful bastard, I’m going to give him the what for. And another one of the fuckers told Al-Qahtani that I didn’t do grammar or check homework!” The resigned sigh of Donald’s new captive listener was audible.
“And have you heard?” Donald’s head swivelled left and right to scan the corridors for eavesdroppers. “Monk got low evaluations for the summer school and he’s not going to get his contract renewed. And Boozer Bagshaw was found passed out by a drain near Old Shebab at four o’ clock in the morning by the campus security guards. He’s also been summoned to Al Qahtani because he missed lessons on the summer school…” Donald’s frenetic, excited spiel trailed off as we excited the corridor, soon becoming nothing but an indistinct murmur.
“Well, quite a character that Donald. A ‘larger than life’ personality for sure,” I remarked, figuring it was the best summary of this walking repository of colleague calamity tales.
“That’s one way of describing him,” agreed Peter. “Obviously NEVER tell him anything in confidence. Share absolutely nothing!”
We went back to Peter’s 4X4, with its leather seats now hotter than scalding rocks in the Nevada desert. We returned to Building 15, this time to an office in a lower floor occupied by men inhabiting their seats with a spirit of determined languor, as though industriousness was a vice and to appear busy was shameful. I completed some forms and handed over some passport photographs. While the swarthy men in thobes took my photograph with the enthusiasm of drivers filling petrol tanks, Peter attended to his phone messages. I didn’t hear him make any calls to remedy my sewage-packed accommodation. The staff told us to return later to collect the identity card from the Security Office, which was situated on the other side of the campus. Everything we did spawned another errand, another tiring journey deeper into this arid desert of unforgiving bureaucracy. It all started to feel like the worrying phase of a dream when the sleeper knows something he needs to do will never be accomplished. As we drove back to Building 22, I thought I saw Sisyphus reappear from behind a tree and look at me reproachfully, but it was probably a tired hallucination. Peter said we should go and say hello to Brad Fulton, who was now back in his office and to my growing irritation, decreed that we were also going to visit His Highness Dr Al Qahtani. My near-empty stomach groaned for sustenance. The lunch break promised earlier was clearly off the list, not that there was much edible food here. My mouth remained shut on the plumbing strife: it was clear that nothing was going to be done according to my idea of priorities, so what more was there to say?
As Peter’s 4X4 approached the mall car park again, I ruminated again on the possibility of escape. Of pleading sudden sickness and creeping back to the sickening swamp of faeces allocated to me as a home, packing rapidly, hailing a taxi, getting to King Fahad Airport’s check in and either blagging my way out of the country without an exit visa or calling the British Embassy in distress. But it was all too challenging and besides, the embassy could have cared less about a solitary citizen sending out a rescue S.O.S. It wasn’t interested in a non-royalty, non-celebrity, non-visiting career politicians kissing the ass of the Saudi state for more defence contracts.
Soon we were approaching Building 22 again, ready to be embraced once more by its grim, depressing vibe and cast of misfits. When the elevator doors opened, we were met by a gaunt, unshaven guy with a sickly jaundiced complexion. He’d shaved what remained of his head hair, which was unwise because it left a gruesome scar which ran down the side of his skull exposed.
“Alright John? Things going OK then?” Even though my concentration was wandering, I noticed that something in Peter’s greeting didn’t ring true. This was acting. A necessary pretence being maintained.
“Yeah, I guess. Considering things. Huh, huh.” His grunted laugh revealed crooked, yellowing smoker’s teeth and allowed his death breath, a cocktail of nicotine and residues of home-brewed booze, to pollute the proximity. Grime was smudged into the collar of his creased shirt. His trousers were crumpled and looked stained with indeterminate substances while his black shoes were heavily scuffed. Whoever he was, he was falling down. Abandoning standards, and it seemed his self-care, to serve a liquid master determined to colonize his organs and monopolize his cravings. Peter told him who I was, but the information barely registered with the listener, who was in some kind of stupor. He looked at us with glazed eyes.
“I just been up…up to see Brad. I’ve been a naughty boy lately.” Peter just smiled. “Tarah! Laters,” he said and slouched towards the main exit door. As the elevator doors closed, I asked the redundant question.