The security camera makes short, jerky movements as it scans the room. The receptionist is watching him watching it watching him. It has crossed his mind that this might prove to be the initial stage of assessment, an unmentioned part of the review of his personality. He keeps his face dispassionate. When the camera pauses in his direction he meets its blank gaze and imagines he is making eye contact with whoever is checking the screen in the back room. There is no need to smile, so he doesn’t. Eye contact can be a powerful weapon, especially in a war of this kind. Against the world. One of his contacts is slipping, a faint irritation to the side of his eye. Brown over brown, just the smallest difference he could find between his iris and the colour the package promised. He has twenty-twenty vision, these are cosmetic only. He isn’t supposed to wear them every day, but he doesn’t normally go out every day. This week is proving to be an exception and his eyes are rebelling a little; inflaming slightly and this contact keeps trying to migrate. He can twitch it back into place easily enough, but wants to wait until the camera has changed direction. There –– an opportunity taken.
They make his eyes slightly void of expression, harder to read. His hair matches; made uniform. He is erasing traces of his personality systematically. Secretly. Nobody knows he has the contacts. Nobody knows he dyes his hair. They know he takes ages in the bathroom, washes his own towels. He cleans the place thoroughly each time, through the haze of steam, then puts the empty dye packets inside a bag inside a bag inside a bag in the bin in his room. Which he empties himself, once a week, on bin day. His hair hangs heavily over his neck. Not hippy long, just in continual need of a cut to neaten it up. It hangs over the tattoo that nobody knows about. One thick black line half an inch under the hair line. No colour, no words, no pattern. It is there simply to prove a point. Same as him.
The room is as much of a blank canvas as he is. Pure white, minimalist. The receptionist is moving piles of paper around on top of the counter, her white uniform contrasting with the white of the counter, with the white of the documents she displaces, with the white of the seat he is waiting on. The lights must be kept this dim to stop clients being dazzled he thinks. He is dressed in shades of grey. Black would be too much of a statement. He is not some teenage Goth utterly lacking in imagination. They are trying to be impressive, it must take a lot of effort to keep it looking this clean and fresh. White is clinical and probably calming. They are trying to neutralise his emotions. He is one step ahead of them there. No angry teen music. No music at all, actually. If he listened to music they would use it as a clue. No music, no posters in his room. Doesn’t read anything except school books and whatever is given to him for a present at Christmas or for a birthday. Polite but not forthcoming. Like the receptionist. She is impressive. Very white teeth. Welcoming smile without a hint of compliance or caring. Part of the very white, very crisp uniform. She hasn’t even been looking at him out of interest. It seems she looks at everything in the room periodically, checking it is still in its allotted place.
It is warm in here. He never rolls up the sleeves of his shirt. Not even in high summer. It would look too casual is one thing, but also then they would see the piercings in his wrists. An inch back from the bony bits which stick up where his hand rotates from. Long surface piercings that his body is still struggling to reject, despite the rigid schedule of cleaning. They will heal properly, given time. One on each side; symmetrical. Plain grey to match the rest of his outfits. The main thing is to keep them unexpected. To keep himself unexceptional in presentation. He had wanted to get his bellybutton pierced, but it had seemed a bit trite. Too obvious. These were much better. Hardcore. He paints his toenails sometimes, but not at the moment. It was starting to get a bit hackneyed. There was also the concern that the blood-red might show through his socks, were he to take his shoes off. He hasn’t found anything to replace the painting. That irritates him; a part of his secret life is missing. Perhaps a toe-ring. Worn on a different toe each day to signal to himself what he is really feeling. To show that he is angry, lonely, unhappy on the left foot. Five toes. He needs two more emotions. But it wouldn’t fit the big toe. And it might fall off the little toe. One ring can’t fit all the different shapes and sizes. So keep it to three options. Then for the right foot, three more. Three emotions for good days. Smug, satisfied, ecstatic? They are for moments, not a whole day. He can’t be bothered with having to move it from toe to toe continually. Bored, tired, miserable. Maybe not a toe-ring. Maybe he will go back to painting his toenails. Yes. But with clear nail varnish. Thus displaying the utter pointlessness of the action; all about the doing and not the result. The means and not the end. Perfect.
He had made one mistake. One small gesture of cynicism, and here he was. Art class. Art and Design Technology. He should have stuck to the rules. His rules. The establishment was not supposed to be aware that he was sticking his middle finger up at them. An unexpected mistake. He hadn’t even realised that they had called his parents until the knock on the classroom door and he was called to the office. There both of them were, together again. United in his defeat. So, so terribly concerned and so, so terribly worried. Pathetic. But, of course, it is all fine because the most expensive psychiatrist in town just happens to have an appointment available this week. Rushed here before he has a proper amount of time to think. He will be expected to talk about it to this stranger who, he assumes based on their taste in interior décor, will most certainly be wearing a white coat. And, of course, they feel so, so terribly disappointed in themselves. Hushed words. The divorce, of course. But he had seemed to be coping so well. Such a nice boy. Thank you so much for letting us know. How are his grades? Average? Good, good, no change there. Exactly average? As if he had studied the statistics and set out to achieve absolute mediocrity? But they didn’t pick up on that. They weren’t supposed to. This sudden outburst of creativity? Not from my side, not from my side. Perhaps one of the teachers is a bad influence. No, not here in this school. He hadn’t actually been asked any questions directly. Nobody had even asked him why. He had just sat there and witnessed the hurried interchanges between his parents. Both of them, same room, same time. And the qualifying comments from the headmistress. Anxious to avoid losing a set of fees. Driving home (best he takes a couple of days off) they had sat in the usual silence. So, so civilised.
The receptionist coughs quietly, clearing her throat. He looks in her direction again, but she is only preparing to make a phone call. He can hear each tap of her fingernails as she dials, but then she turns her chair a little and he can’t lip read, and can’t make out the words without studying her face because her voice is a low, soft purr. Just a short phone call. Probably confirming an appointment. Something like that. The security camera moves past him again, pauses to observe the other corner of the room. He hasn’t discovered a pattern to the pauses and the jerks. Not yet. If he has to come back again he will be able to make a comparison with the patterns. He will have to note it down in his head for the moment. It would be too obvious if he wrote it down while he was here. If he is under observation then they would want to know what he was doing and why. The fewer starting points he gives them, the better. He had rather enjoyed it, the miniature rebellion. The results, not so good. Being noticed, not so good. Being here, not so good. Presumably everything was going to have to change from now on. Unless he could be so utterly convincing that they thought there had been some mistake. Some small aberration. An explainable blip on the radar. He was good at helping them smooth everything over.
The assignment had been in textiles. The idea had come to him, and he hadn’t been able to resist it. It was an out-of-hours piece, or he would not have been able to pull it off. They were given the materials, and the long holiday weekend. He had stopped at the corner shop on the way home, bought the rest of what he needed. The banana had been easiest; such pliable skin. The needle had gone through easily, no problems with tearing. The apples were the worst. Under-ripe. Difficult to stop the thread from pulling through. It had taken several attempts, several discarded to the snack pile. But he was pleased with the finished result, with the shading of colours over the contours. The grapes took ages because they were so small. The juices ran everywhere and soaked the thread, but that was pretty much what he had expected. He had done them individually, tying them back onto the stalk each in turn. It was ambitious, but he had reined himself in, stuck with just the three types of fruit. It was all the colour contrast he had needed. Plus, he didn’t have the right coloured thread for the couple of kiwis he had briefly considered adding. Didn’t want to raise suspicions anyway. Then when it was finished he had washed most of the stickiness from his hands and spent the remainder of the final afternoon arranging them in the bowl. He had checked twice, and he had followed the assignment to the letter. Class, we will be studying still-life this term. Embroider a bowl of fruit.
The camera is staring directly at him again. Without meaning to, he has started smiling. The receptionist is watching him too. He freezes his expression, tries to make it into a look of absent contentment and pleasure. He doesn’t know where to look. Call their bluff. Look into the camera, look away again. Pretend not to have noticed. Look at the receptionist. Look just past her head. Let the smile fade back into obscurity. Make a mental note, does the camera look in the same direction as the receptionist? He’d like to check his watch, but it feels too soon. He doesn’t want to be seen to be doing too much at once. This waiting feels like an interrogation. He thinks they might be breaking him. Cracking under the pressure. Another half hour and all they will have to do is ask one question and everything will unstitch and come pouring out. He needs to pull himself together, find the strength to carry on. Carry on just as normal.
© Viccy Adams