I lived in the Green Zone where freedom was a given, but I didn’t always feel free. I felt condemned to a life of solitude because of the simple fact that my father was supposed to live in the Red Zone. To be honest I wasn’t even sure if that zone actually existed in a geographical sense.
One thing I knew for certain was that there actually was an Orange Zone, because I’d been there. In the Orange Zone there are bars and clubs where alcohol and drugs can be purchased – and girls too at a price – but not a mate. That’s something altogether different, something that cannot be bought; a sacred relationship that can only be legitimized by the imprimatur of the state.
I often wondered about my father and the Red Zone. Could I go there freely if I so wished? There was no border between Green and Orange so perhaps it was the same for Red. It bothered me that my sister had been allowed to marry, earlier in the year – a senior official in the Ministry where I work. One day I worked up the courage to ask her new husband how this came to be.
‘She is a good person,’ he replied. ‘Do you think she should be denied her sexual and maternal rights because of her father’s recalcitrance?’
What could I say? As a low level functionary in the Ministry I have numerous tedious duties, the main one being the ordering of business suits for the staff. I hate this aspect of my job. There is nothing but complaints about the suits I order and the cleaning services I employ.
One night in the Orange Zone I met a man in a bar who was very interested in my work. Technically I am not supposed to talk about it, but I like to think that this rule applies only to more senior officials. He was peddling a product called Creasefree™ which guaranteed to maintain a suit in new condition when applied before first being worn.
I was naturally sceptical.
‘How can I be sure it will work?’ I asked him.
‘I’ll give you a free sample, then you can decide for yourself. You can’t say fairer than that.’
He was confident of his product, but I noticed that he was sweating, and when he raised his hand to order another drink I could plainly see where the stitching underneath his jacket sleeve was pulled and a tiny hole was forming.
I asked him why he was selling it in a place like this, if it was such a good product.
‘Think about it,’ he said. ‘We’re a young company with a revolutionary new product. The formula is lodged with the Patent Office of course, but we know that the minute we go to market one of the big corporations will want it, they’ll make a version of their own and then they’ll offer us peanuts.’
I still did not understand. The man smiled at me, looking over his shoulder quickly.
‘Don’t you see?’ he said. ‘One big order from the Ministry and suddenly we’re on the map. If the competition wants us after that, then they have to pay top dollar. That’s only fair isn’t it?’
The next morning before work I took my new suit from the wardrobe and sprayed on the Creasefree ™. I wore the suit all day and night, sleeping on the faux leather easy chair in front of my iScreen. The next morning when the ambient cock crowed I was amazed to find that the suit was unblemished. That morning at work I by-passed the procurement rules and placed a bulk order, imagining the praise I would receive from my boss.
Now I personally see that all new suits delivered are sprayed with Creasefree ™ before being allocated. I wrote up a report outlining the amazing properties of the product and the savings I’d already made for the Ministry in terms of buying replacement suits and laundry bills.
A few weeks later my boss summoned me to his office, shook my hand and called me by my name for the first time in the five years I’ve worked there.
I was uncomfortable receiving praise. I wanted to leave but I knew that I had been given a rare opportunity.
‘You may know that my father is in the Red Zone,’ I said.
‘Is he?’ My boss’s eyes opened wide.
I explained how I had applied for a mate but my application had been rejected, and how I was sure it was because of my father.
He stood up, indicating the door. He said that he would see what he could find out.
Two days later I was called back in.
‘Your father died two years ago – natural causes,’ he said.
He pulled at the cuffs of his suit jacket. He went on.
‘So you see it had nothing to do with him. Your application being rejected – it had nothing to do with your father being in the Red Zone. He was already dead by the time of your application.’
I was distracted. There was something wrong with his suit. He pulled at the cuffs once again but the top of his shirtsleeves were still visible. I looked down at his legs now, the right crossed over the left as he sat, and I saw that the bottom of his trousers did not reach to his socks. I was dismayed to see the pocked white flesh of his calf exposed.
He stood up. I wanted to laugh. What was it? He continued to speak, but I was no longer listening. It was the suit. The trouser legs were too short and the sleeves revealed shirt cuffs over fat hairless wrists.
He asked me to leave.
Back at my desk I thought about my dead father. I remembered a story he’d told me years ago, before he abandoned us; a strange tale told to frighten me and my sister last thing at night before we slept. It was set in the dark days after the earth had over-heated and the people lived underground, excavating a new world inside the old dried-up planet. They devoured the earth from the inside like a worm eating an apple until there was very little left and many physical laws including the law of gravity became capricious. Parents had to tie strings around their children’s ankles to stop them floating off into space forever.
I admit it was a strange story for a father to tell his children. It must have meant something. He had always been intense; a man who was not afraid to speak his mind, no matter who he might offend. I was not at all like him, but perhaps I could be if I only things were different – if I had a mate or a child of my own.
I went back to the bar in the Orange Zone, but there was no sign of the salesman. A woman approached me. She was not young and far too expensively dressed for the dive we were in.
‘You looking for the guy from Creasefree?’ she asked.
‘You won’t see him around here again!’ She laughed.
I could smell her halitosis behind the smoke and whisky breath.
‘How much you get stung for?’ she asked.
I told her it wasn’t my money.
She laughed again, saying how I wouldn’t be too popular with my boss right now, and how it would be the end of the line for me. She’d seen it all before, she told me; first you lose your job and then your woman.
I told her I didn’t have a woman.
‘No you don’t, honey, do you?’ was all she said.
For some reason I liked her. She seemed to know me. I bought her a drink and asked her how I could get to the Red Zone.
‘There’s more than one way to get into the Red Zone honey, but there’s only one way out!’ She laughed her whisky breath all over me.
I begged her. I opened my wallet and showed her my cash.
‘Alright then honey,’ she said.
She got up and I followed her out to the back stairs and on up to a room on the next level. She closed the door carefully behind her.
‘I don’t want nobody listening in.’ She winked at me.
That was the last thing I remembered until I was woken by the cleaning staff hours later. My head ached and my wallet was gone.
Every day my suit shrank a little more, and I watched with horror as my boss’s suit and those of my other colleagues did likewise. Soon it would be apparent that something was wrong, that I had made a grave error of judgement in wasting the Ministry’s money on an untried and spurious product.
Last night I went to see my sister, to tell her that our father was dead, but she didn’t appear to care. When her husband came home I noticed how his suit seemed far too tight around the shoulders. I made my excuses and left.
I lay awake all night worrying about the future. Eventually I slept just before the ambient cock crowed. I struggled into my suit, which was now so small I could barely close the buttons of my jacket.
When I arrived at work I went straight to my boss’s office.
‘I have something to say,’ I told him.
I noticed that his suit fitted him perfectly. How could that be?
‘I want to know more about my father and the Red Zone,’ I demanded. ‘Where is it and how do I get there?’
He stood up from his desk and shook his head wearily.
‘This is always the way it begins,’ he said. ‘A dim-witted young man gets an idea in his head and can’t dislodge it. I told you, your father is dead. Now go and change out of that ridiculous suit and go back to your desk.’
I took a deep breath. I could feel my hands shaking; the muscles in my legs going into spasm.
‘How do I know you are telling the truth?’ I shouted.
‘You don’t.’ He smiled. It was not a warm smile. ‘We both know what you’ve done, don’t we?’ he said quietly. ‘But there’s no need to dwell on it, is there? Everything can be as it was. Those old suits will be destroyed and no one will say another word.’
I was unable to move. Something inside me – that mechanism that propels me through this interminable life, whatever it is – seemed to have jammed.
He continued. ‘Okay, so you made a mistake. You’ve wasted Ministry money; you’ve been seen in the company of prostitutes in filthy bars. You are not mating material – you must see that? Now go back to your desk and stay out of my sight.’
‘No. I want to know what happened to my father.’
He shook his head vigorously.
‘You’re not listening!’
‘Where is the Red Zone?’ I demanded again.
‘You really want to know where the Red Zone is? Is that it?’ His voice became loud and shrill.
‘Yes,’ I shouted, standing up, ‘tell me!’ This sudden burst of anger acts like a shot of cortisone and I felt stronger than I ever had before.
He sighed. When he spoke his voice was even, without animation.
‘You’re in it. The moment you walked into my office and opened your dumb fucking mouth, you stepped into the Red Zone.’
I felt the pull of a tiny thread, and then a moment of tension before it snapped under the strain. Every muscle in my body flexed, and then relaxed. Soon I was high above my boss and myself, looking down on the Ministry and the whole city as it grew smaller and smaller. I was soaring now, drifting. I no longer cared.