Short story: You Are Not Machines! You Are Not Cattle! You Are Men!

He oozes from the dusk on his bicycle at two minutes past, eliciting hums of recognition and the odd wave from the waiting cluster. Though you’ve never met the man before, you feel you know him already, having sketched a mental picture on the basis of a few emails. His name is Risteard. You’ve surmised he’s some manner of Gaeilgeoir. A drama-school Gaeilgeoir: you imagine him smelling of talcum powder and Arts Council funding. He’s shorter than expected, barely five feet, which only accentuates his yogic mystique; clad head-to-toe in black, he resembles an effete security guard, the dirty-grey plimsolls in his hand a sole splash of almost-colour. ‘Sorry I’m late, folks,’ he says, jabbing a code into the door, breath swelling from his mouth into the evening chill. He turns his head sideways and dark hair swishes to make way. ‘How are we?’ he asks, and the crowd responds with an indistinct buzz.

You stand adither in a deconsecrated church hall – one of the minor Protestant branches, you figure, somewhere on the Calvin-Wesley axis. What was once an austere assembly room has been tarted up for midweek decadence. A long wall is slathered in pornographic floor-length mirrors for the benefit of salsa dancers and spin cyclists, but tonight they are curtained over like remains at a cremation, so that only cracks at the sides can be seen. The old building is not as cold as it looks from outside. It is fit for t-shirts and leggings and strenuous exertions: all things bright and beautiful, and then some.

As Risteard processes payments you overhear a bubbly, peroxided young woman introduce herself as the Sanitary Pad Girl. She’s been in adverts for them, she says: the ones with blue liquid and pink butterflies, no mess and no fuss. An older man scoffs that all girls are sanitary pad girls once a month, but is met with disapproving silence. The Cranfield Thespian Training School is a byword for probity in recreation – that’s why you’re here. For most of the others this is a New Year’s resolution, booked in January to start in March. A frothy bit of self-improvement – a nice way to meet people. But you have enlisted with a mission in mind: to graduate cum laude into a quietened self. A mere six lessons from now, there will be more ads: glittery, prime-time spots for a shiny and contented and almost insufferably average new you – with a hundred percent less angst, guaranteed. Where once there was gloom, soon all will be blue liquid and pink butterflies. You have abandoned self-improvement in favour of self-manufacture.

Lesson one. You contort yourself to O Superman with the taste of ready salted crisps in your mouth: remnants of a dulcifying packet nibbled at on the train over. Your warm-up movements are neither graceful nor functional, beaten as they are into an unforgiving wooden floor, but they betray an authenticity, you feel. The truest forms of humanity, after all, are neither practical nor aesthetic. You twist like a small mammal awaiting perishment – in throes, not of death or pain or pleasure, but something else entirely: unearthly paroxysms of existence. Your feet pull you anti-clockwise in a pretended pirouette, which you garnish with another full-body twist, until it comes over you with a scratch that you are following rote: doing the same soft-boiled moves and not even doing them well. And you hear Laurie Anderson through the Bluetooth speaker: ha ha ha ha.

Now the group sits in a circle like tracksuited schoolchildren about to throw beanbags. Risteard asks for names and details, and you listen intently. The man who told the period joke runs a furniture shop in a Finglassy bit of Glasnevin. Some are students: drama, law, business. One of them is a botanist. You aspire to reverse-engineer yourself into their fierce agreeableness, but they seem cast-iron already – their joins and rivets are invisible. When the spotlight falls on you, your conscious implodes like a condemned building and you speak but you hear nothing. Then Risteard asks everyone what they’d like to get from the class, and you slop out a half-truth: ‘I wish to develop my voice, because I feel I’m too quiet.’ In response he commands you to stand and state your name repeatedly, louder each time, then some personal details, louder again, until two minutes have elapsed and you are hooting the answers to your online security questions across the hall – ‘My car is a Volkswagen Golf! I was born in Holles Street hospital!’ – to spots of ruffled laughter. Finally, Risteard raises three sage fingers to silence you, and says ‘You don’t have a problem with your voice.’ He carries himself with the conviction and empty wisdom of a faith healer. You remain unconvinced but thank him for his service.

The full short story appears in Issue No. 2 of The Liminal Review.