When he pictured himself drafted into some hopeless future war alongside every other able-bodied young man in the west, he looked forward to the level playing field this equalizing circumstance would put him on alongside the podcasters, musicians, and minor writers who were not household names but who had influenced his aesthetic sensibilities and his way of expressing himself more than he was letting on. He looked forward to the chance to meet them. He imagined entering some dugout rendered funereal by the tinnitus and coming upon a Vice writer whose Twitter account he had lurked long after having deleted his own Twitter account, or encountering the singer from a local band whose lyrics shaped his affection for his hometown to the extent of keeping him from ever moving to London (but who he never looked in the eye when they passed in the peacetime Norwich streets). He imagined encountering these ghosts of a more frivolous age and not initially recognizing them because of their being in the same uniform as him.
Perhaps the real point to take away was that none of his heroes were famous enough to dodge a draft. It was therefore unusual behaviour for him to admire these podcasters, musicians, and minor writers quite so much. He admired them in the way that people had once admired, say, Elvis, whose duties in Vietnam were only perfunctory. But it was a lonely time. He had started at the company after Christmas. His new co-workers had asked what presents he had got for Christmas, probably as a way to get to know him. He replied about having received the biography of the writer B. S. Johnson. He would come to suppose this was misheard as a reference to some kind of hypothetical biography of the man who is now prime minister. Such a book probably existed even back then. In this mishearing, which he didn’t piece together as the thing that had happened until well after the moment had passed, the idea that he was the kind of young economist or right-wing gun nut who would ask for a biography of Boris Johnson for Christmas had been irretrievably delivered. It would chime perfectly with his already-established shyness misread as aloofness, interchangeable with the idea that he was above it all. No amount of references to his own social conscience was going to cut it. Those were just the kinds of things that the people of the type he was now mistaken for said in order to pass and pander, or because they hated themselves.
He got into the habit of unconsciously putting his work password into his home laptop, sometimes not understanding what was going wrong in his attempt to get on to his laptop for up to a minute. It usually occurred after the first few stressed-out beers on a Friday night when he and his girlfriend wanted to watch a film. “knausg4rd!” “knausg4rd!” “knausg4rd!” Home was his girlfriend’s first name and then his first name and then the year they were both born, with no spaces. Work, which had to be changed every month, was the surname of whoever wrote whichever book he was reading at the time but with a four instead of an A, or with a three instead of an E or a nought instead of an O, and with an exclamation mark on the end and no repeating characters in order to meet the regulations. The lesson was that no amount of trying to imitate the examples of his favorite bohemians — men with more carefree lives (and that was probably what was at the heart of it) — could absolve him from the reality that he was becoming something very different to them: an uptight working stiff, and starting to drink like one.
The draft would teach the podcasters, musicians, and minor writers, though, bring them down a peg — a level playing field.
He took to hanging out in front of industrial estate burger vans on Saturday mornings and flicking through the betting guides that had been left there. These struck him as the trappings of a freer kind of life. He liked the names of the horses. There was always an implicit story in the best horse names, often conveyed economically across just three or four syllables. It struck him that the horses were named for passwords, or the passwords you imagined of other people who were better at passwords, though how could you ever know someone as such?
He had inherited his Uncle Liam’s bender suit — a light-brown situation cut in accordance with the rebellions of its year. He had worn it to the interview and been offered the job. Saturday afternoons, after the burger van and the betting guide, he would put on Uncle Liam’s bender suit and lay down on his bed wearing it, trying to decide what he should do with himself, the short-term version of the inquiry soon giving way to the long-term. Tried to take in a couple of pages of a book — the only books he could take were defined by a lack of plot. Anything other than the poetic drift of the non-event felt like it had been shaped by an artificial and unwelcome imposition from beyond the naturalistic world of the characters — chucked the book across the room. The presumed stories behind horse names were about as much story as he could take. He realized that his lack of ease about plot was part and parcel of a broader lack of ease about work. Both plot and work were the stuff of aim instead of aimlessness; of a get-up-and-go which resulted from some external apparatus’s designs on you, and your obligations to those apparatus. He committed himself to a life of seeing how far he could get with the most glancing possible concession to all of that.
He hatched a plan for rectifying the issue with the people at work who had interpreted his politics wrong. He would leave some note around for them to discover, and then explain that it was a note-to-self he had made upon having had to change password at the start of the month. The crux of the plan was that the nature of the phrase written there would imply that he took a less than approving view of our class’s oppressors. A password was always taken as a truth communicated in private between the walls of the self. No one ever lied in the medium of password. His co-workers would finally be convinced of what were, after all, his actual political leanings.
He began to jot down some possibilities, starting with “killthemall.” This one struck him as too violent, too scattergun in its anti-authoritarianism. The point of the exercise was to make friends. He immediately took off the bender suit, put it down outside, and upended the lawn mower over it with the intention of setting the bender suit on fire, but then caught himself in the act of doing such a thing. Rolling the lawn mower back into the shed, he thought about going instead for “leveltheplayingfield,” a phrase which, at its best potential, could be taken to bear a more positive, redistributive implication. He proceeded to take the petrol-soused bender suit to the laundrette, where he eventually became so restless that he just abandoned it there with the machine still churning redemptive water through it. Another Saturday was nearly over. There were no numbers and no punctuation marks that looked like the letter L, or at least not in a way where the result was at all distinguishable from the letter I. IT regulations stated no repeating characters.
I met him out past where the shop windows are papered on the inside with the tissue scrappage of old circus posters bearing the names of canceled clowns.
“Yeah I had one of those,” I said. “Or something like it. It was a case of my misspeaking rather than their mishearing. Basically, I accidentally referred to a prestigious external partner at my firm in a mass email not by that external partner’s correct full name but by the full name of a — pass me that? — American pornographic actress who happened to have the same first name as the external partner. I was tired after having just come back off a slothful week of annual leave. I was used to typing the American pornographic actress’s name having just come back off a slothful week of annual leave. I didn’t realize what I had done until, the email sent, an older female colleague who sat across from me began to intone repeatedly with her voice filling the now-otherwise-silent twenty-strong open-plan office, “Who is…” and then the American pornographic actress’s name. No one said anything back. None of the other young men present were going to answer the older female colleague’s inquiry because, in so doing, they might reveal that they too knew the porn stars’ names. Note that this particular workplace was a bougie, uptight kind of place. People sat there most of the time afraid of each other. Someone laughed. The older female colleague was church people, by the way; the reed crucifixes given to her three children on Palm Sunday were slotted behind her monitor, implying some reluctance about the whole thing on the children’s parts, I always thought. Eventually she relented with her inquiry, and I wonder now if this was because she had worked out the exact shape of what had happened for herself, intuiting purely from the atmosphere of the room the probable occupation of the person mentioned in the email whose name she didn’t recognize. I slouched down so that the slats of the cross of the bandit to the right hid the older female colleague’s embarrassed features from me, but then she herself leaned back, causing me to have to adjust my position to obscure her now behind the slats of the central cross of the three. Anyway, upon entering unemployment I decided that I would finally write my novel on the subject of the bandits who smash pay-and-display terminals by driving their cars into them, gathering up the outwardly-exploded coins. I decided that in order to be able to actually describe such a spectacle I would first have to go so far as to bring it into being from behind the wheel for myself, not understanding back then that the pay-and-display terminals actually come off better than the cars in such a transaction. Cut a long story short, I was left in the final analysis with a totaled rental, a busted rib, and a novelistic premise devoid of any credibility.”
The singer from the local band whose lyrics had shaped his affection for his hometown passed through the street ahead, beating an intentional line for the drug woods. Sometimes in this life the name of the horse is horse. Sometimes that’s not the case — we reasoned with ourselves that the whole conjecture was probably inaccurate.