Friday, 15 February 2008

No teeth

I was standing within a group of people at a street corner close to dilapidated buildings downtown. Dusk was fast approaching. The smell of imminent rain in the fetid evening air was somewhat conducive to the heavy cloak of darkness descending slowly over the tall buildings in this part of town.

I couldn’t really say how many people were in this group.

At a guess, there were several men and women all young and seemingly carefree, like a bunch of college students on an outing. I was curious about these people whom I had only just met. I tried to study their faces. But they were all curiously indistinct as if their profiles were imbued with magical qualities which thwarted positive identification. The only exception to this rule was a fiendishly beautiful woman in an outfit which reminded me of a safari attire. On her head she wore a red beret which sat at a jaunty angle as if to emphasise her rebelliousness. Her face I could clearly identify. I rather liked the dimples which appeared on her cheeks when she smiled. Red beret woman was doing much of the talking in our group.

But I couldn’t really follow what she was saying. But by dint of speaking more than anyone else, she seemed to have earned herself the right to be our spokesperson. The more I tried to study the faces of the rest of the people in the group, the more inconspicuous they became. It was like trying to make out faces on a crumpled fading photograph, long exposed to harsh sunlight. But I knew one thing for certain; we were waiting for something to happen; precisely what, I had no idea.
Suddenly, the door of a building just in front of us opened, throwing out a harsh pool of light onto the pavement. We all turned towards it. The door was so huge a jumbo jet could have slipped through without difficult.

“Well, let us all get in,” Red beret woman said. This was the first clear sentence she had spoken.
We started moving towards the door in a tight unit. Anyone watching us would have been excused for thinking that we had been roped together; so bunched together we were! I noticed as we neared the doorway that it led to a flight of steps. I fancied that the steps shot up a long way up this rather grandiose building.

We started climbing the stairs. I looked up to see how far the staircase went, but I couldn’t see the top end. Red beret woman was right in the middle of our group seemingly orchestrating our movement; like a queen bee, I thought. She was all smiles as if she alone held the secret of our mysterious outing. Now and then she cajoled the group to move faster. But that was not possible since we maintained the strapped-together position which slowed our movement considerably.

Finally, we reached the top end of the staircase. Just ahead I could see a reception area, such as the type you see in hotel lobbies.

A tall bearded man in a sort of official uniform stood behind the counter. He eyed us wearily as we emerged. He had the sort of disgruntled facial expression you might see on a man kept waiting for too long by his shopaholic wife. We shifted slowly until we were right upon the reception counter. The man appraised our group, studying each face, it seemed to me, with a disapproving eye.

He looked bemused by our presence. Then from the side of the wide arching counter appeared a young clever looking woman. She was dressed in a neatly pressed business suit. Her stilettos resounded like the firing of a staccato gun against the wooden floor. She strode purposefully towards our group, her sharp features and hurried steps seemingly in keeping with her business-like outlook. She came to a sudden halt, swung on her heels and addressing the bearded man she said:
“Are they all here?”

The bearded man nodded.

She shifted the clipboard she was carrying from her right hand to her left. Then she reached into her jacket pocket and drew something from it.
“Okay, let’s start,” Clipboard woman said. To my utter surprise, she walked straight up to me and said: “Open your mouth please, Sir.”
I was rather taken aback by this strange request. “Why?” I asked.
Instead of replying me, Clipboard woman turned to Bearded man and said: “Do they know why they are here?”
Bearded man shrugged his shoulders. “I presume so,” he said. “Otherwise why did they volunteer to come here?”
“I didn’t volunteer to come here,” I said rather surly. “In fact I don’t even know why I am here. Can someone tell me what is going on here?” I was voicing an urgent concern at the back of my mind to recall the reason I had joined this group. Just what had prompted me to journey across town to meet up with these people? Who were they? Again I tried to search their faces for an explanation.
But even in this well lit lobby the faces of my group members remained so vague as to trash any hope of identifying them; except for Red beret woman of course. Never have the facial features of any person I have laid my eyes on been so sharply etched in my memory as the face of that woman. She was not a classic beauty. She was beautiful in a manner which declared her own individuality. Her eyes, her mouth and her nose all presented a trick of their own in sculpting a face totally bereft of any fault. She now strode out of the centre of the group where she had been cocooned and eyed me with the beseeching eyes of a little girl. If anything she now appeared more beautiful than when we were standing outside.
“Please do as you are told, Brian,” she begged. How she knew my name I will never know. But I was very flattered.
I found myself opening my mouth without further ado. Clipboard woman started examining my mouth with the aid of a small torch in her hand. I stood still, my eyes locked on Red beret woman who was watching me like a proud mother pleased with the exemplary behaviour of her normally recaltricant son.
I could feel the lukewarm beam of the torch dancing around the corners of my mouth.
“Not enough teeth,” Clipboard woman said stepping back. She looked somewhat puzzled as she noted this fact on the pad on her clipboard.
“How many teeth did you expect me to have, then?” I asked.
Clipboard woman didn’t bother to answer me. Instead, she turned to the girl next to me and asked her to open her mouth. Her torch went to work and within a few seconds she declared: “Not enough teeth.”
I was mystified by the meaning of it all, but one look from Red beret woman warned me to keep my mouth shut.
Within a few minutes Clipboard woman had examined everyone in our group and declared all of us to be short of teeth. Each time she announced her findings, Bearded man nodded wearily as if he was hearing a verdict he had long predicted or suspected. After examining the last person in our group, incidentally Red beret woman herself, Clipboard woman walked wearily over to Bearded man at the counter.
“Well, this has turned out to be a marvellous waste of my time!” she protested sourly. “Just who recommended this lot to be sent up here?”
Bearded man rubbed his hands, looking sheepish. He was evidently in awe of Clipboard woman even though he was twice her size. There was an apologetic note in his voice when he replied: “Clearly there has been a mistake. But wait…I can see another group coming up the stairs. Perhaps that is the right group.”
We all turned around. Indeed, a group of people were coming up the stairs. Without counting them, I somehow knew that they were the exact number as in our group. And just as in our group there was a balanced mixture of men and women. But instead of progressing up the stairs in a tight silly unit as we had done, these people were walking up in a single file. Sensible, I thought. At the head of this group was a woman in a green beret. She was tall, slim and pretty but not in the same class as Red beret woman. She was nearly at the top of the stairs when she raised her angular face and our eyes met. She stopped abruptly almost as though she had walked into a brick wall. Her face clouded and I saw recognition jump into her eyes, practically the same moment I recognized her. Zowie!
Although I hadn’t seen her for ten years or so I knew it was her.
“Brian! What are you doing here?” she asked pointedly.
Before I could answer, Zowie waved her hand urgently and said: “Get out Brian! All of you. Get out before it is too late!”
Never in my life have I heard a voice filled with such tremendous passion nor seen fear so nakedly stamped on a human face, as it was on Zowie. She was in a state. Yet quiet why she was being so dramatic was unclear to me.
“Don’t listen to her!” Clipboard woman shouted. Then turning to the bearded man she said: “What are you waiting for? Move them into the hall quickly!”
Bearded man reached for something under his desk. He must have pressed a gadget of some sort because a door, hitherto inconspicuous, slid open behind his desk, revealing a hall of immense proportions.
There was music in there, chandeliers were dangling from the ceiling casting a swathe of multi coloured lights across the floor. I could make out shadowy figures, men and women, dancing amid a clatter of voices and laughter. People in there seemed to be having a good time.
“Please Brian do as I tell you!” Zowie screamed. “Leave before it is too late!”
“What is the matter?” I screamed back at her.
Although at this point Zowie was struggling to hold back the people behind who were trying to force their way past, her eyes were unwaveringly fixed on me.
“You will die if you go into that hall!” Zowie screamed prophetically.
“Don’t listen to her!” Clipboard woman screamed. Resolving to heed Zowie’s advice, I broke from my group and started edging towards the staircase. I decided to challenge Clipboard woman. “Why should we go in?” I asked. “A moment ago you condemned us for not having enough teeth!”
“Never mind that! Just go into the hall!” Clipboard woman shouted back. She edged towards me. From the corner of my eye I saw bearded man vault over the counter. But he wasn’t coming for me. His priority, it seemed was to head the rest of my group into the hall. His task was being made easier by the complete acquiescence of my group; not a single person attempted to heed Zowie’s warning.
As I backed towards the staircase, I kept my eyes on Clipboard woman. Suddenly she threw her clipboard on the floor in exasperation. “You can’t go back!” she screamed lunging at me. Her eyes were on fire. I pushed her back. But she came right back, her fingers clawing wildly at me.
Behind, I could hear desperate voices screaming at Zowie to let them through. I peeked over my shoulder and saw Zowie struggling valiantly to keep her group pinned back. I shouldn’t have taken my eyes off Clipboard woman, because in that split second of diverted attention she struck. She dived at my legs and brought me crashing down when I was less than a foot from Zowie. She got both my legs in a vice-like grip and with amazing strength started dragging me towards the hall.
“You are going into that hall!” Clipboard woman hissed between her clenched teeth. I tried to kick out but my legs were firmly held. My arms were flaying about in a vain attempt to make a grab at anything to stop my dispatch to the hall.
“Brian, don’t let her take you into that hall!” Zowie screamed behind me. Her voice was receding. I twisted around and caught a glimpse at her. She was still holding her own, struggling against the maddening surge behind her. Her bulging eyes were filled with tears and terror. Suddenly, I jerked myself awake. My heart was thumping madly and I was relieved that it had only been a dream!

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