Another bright morning, just me and the jungle, the fierce sun penetrating the thick luscious canopy, the call of monkeys and birds of paradise. I’m alone here at the research centre, yet again. Someone was meant to come and relieve me, but there’s been no word of a replacement. I eat cereal on the porch of the old wooden building, feeling the intense heat and humidity rising from the forest floor. Sometimes the humidity is so high that my glasses steam up the moment I step outside. Often, I don’t even bother wearing clothes, though they put a stop to this because they reminded me about the live-feed web-cam.
Occasionally, schools tune in to see what I’m up to. They’ve instigated a dress code.
As you may have guessed, I’ve been out here quite some time, extracting certain mucus elements from a species of frog which only lives in this exact geographical area, for the construction and understanding of the technologies which go into the production of masking tape. There’s nothing I don’t know about masking tape. I’ve got so much masking tape lying around that I’ve started to use it for other things. Last week I made a hat out of masking tape, but when I put it down, thousands of ants somehow got stuck to it. I’ve still got the hat somewhere, decorated with all these ants. It’s really quite disgusting.
I spend most of the days out and about, telling myself how lucky and privileged I am to live here, while looking for frog mucus. The only way to get the frog mucus, – once you’ve found the frog – (and it can only be the male of the species) – is to show it photographs of female frog, and within seconds, you’ll get a healthy supply of the stuff coming out of their mouths. I’ve mastered the art of wiping frog gobs. I’ve got a whole fridge filled with the stuff.
The phone rings. It’s my boss.
‘Just checking in’.
‘Anything to report?’
‘How’s the company doing?’
‘Let me be frank with you, Bob. Masking tape isn’t selling like it used to. There are so many alternatives these days. There’s talk of restructuring at the higher levels of the company. Now I don’t want you to worry, but they’re talking about budgets and there’s been murmurings – just murmurings, mind you – about research and development. Why should we be developing a product which isn’t selling as well as it should? Anyway, keep this under your hat, for the time being’.
‘My dead ant hat?’
‘Anyway. All the best, and keep up the good work.’
It was good to hear from Jeff. But I could tell that there were things going on which worried him. Ominous, looming, like the daily afternoon thunderstorms. The times I’d spent in the city, beavering away at the technological forefront of the masking tape industry, were some of the best of my life, and it pained me to think of those poor masking tape technicians in their white lab coats, demoralised and filled with existential dread.
Mid-afternoon, I pause amid the test tubes. I’ve got a swab of frog gob in one hand, a test tube in the other, and the thought suddenly occurs that what I’m doing is completely meaningless. The whole time I’ve been out here in the jungle, the viscosity of masking tape has only ever improved by 0.06 Chatwins, (a Chatwin being the unit of measurement of masking tape viscosity named after my predecessor’s pet tortoise). With a lot of hard work and effort I could improve the viscosity to perhaps as much as 0.08 Chatwins, which equates to masking tape sticking for an average of six minutes longer under certain climatic conditions. Nobody, I tell myself, will ever win the Nobel prize for that.
I put down the test tube and I put down the frog gob swab. I take a deep sigh and I run my fingers through my hair. I then open the door and go out onto the wooden porch.
The jungle seems alive. Through the canopies I can see the dark clouds looming for the daily afternoon storm. There are rumbles in the distance, booming, reverberating through the heightened air almost fizzing with expectation. Behind me, of the ten test samples of masking tape I’d stuck to the wooden wall of the hut, seven had already given in to the humid air and fallen from their place, an eighth was hanging limp. Hopeless, I tell myself. Absolutely hopeless. How aptly they seemed to symbolise the fortunes of the MccLintock Masking Tape Company.
The clouds darken further. There’s a flash of lightning, accompanied by the furious hooting of monkeys who, all things considered, should be used to it by now. But it always takes them by surprise. Then a boom, a ferocious boom which shakes the peaty earth, rattles the boards of the wooden porch. And that’s when the rain starts, intense, pelting arrows of sheer rain clattering against the corrugated iron of the shack roof, the fleshy jungle vegetation, rivulets of water cascading from the gutters and sides of the shack. The last lingering strip of masking tape falls from the test wall, gets carried away by a sudden stream of water which snakes across the wooden floor of the porch. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me. The thunder booms and crashes.
Hang on, what was that?
I blink as the water runs down my face. But it’s not a mirage. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me.
‘Give me your masking tape’, he shouts, above the wildness of the storm.
‘I . .I . .’.
‘I admit it is hopeless. The only meaning in our lives is that we eventually die. But before that happens, give me your masking tape’.
‘I’ve got loads of the stuff. How many rolls do you need?’
‘Depends on their viscosity. Are we talking anything approaching 11 Chatwins?’
‘How do you know about Chatwins?’
‘Often, during my many years as a clerk working for an insurance company, I would require masking tape of the highest viscosity that Prague could offer. Now, are you going to give me those masking tapes, or am I going to have to shoot you?’
‘You’d better come inside’.
The air is heavy, humid, oppressive. Franz Kafka, in his business suit and tie and a very formal looking long over-jacket, approaches me warily, the machine gun still trained in my direction.
‘I had plenty of masking tape. But I gave them all to Max Brod, and he destroyed them. Do you know for how many days I’ve trekked through the jungle, just to find this place?’
He clambers up onto the porch. It’s just me and him, surrounded by the forest. If he shot me now, I tell myself, nobody would ever find out. Well, not until the next person logs in to the live feed webcam. Sees my body on the porch. Sees the door open, the jungle beyond.
‘I’ve got loads of it. Help yourself . . Take two rolls, three. It doesn’t matter. Just . . Just don’t shoot’.
‘The joy of masking tape is not the ownership of masking tape, it is the fear of existing in a world without masking tape, and from this emerges all self-torment on account of that fear’.
‘Just don’t shoot’.
‘The notion of an endless cosmos is at once nullified by the dread which comes from contemplating eternity without masking tape’.
‘I’ve told you, take as much as you need!’
‘One of masking tape’s most efficient means of seduction is the challenge to contemplate a world in which nothing sticks’.
‘True . .’.
He looks at me with that famous deep stare. It bores right into the very depths of my soul.
‘Why are you pointing that weapon at me?’
‘Do you know what it’s like to live a life of complete hopelessness? I, more than any other person who ever lived, can truly claim to be Kafkaesque, in every action I undertake, every word I utter’.
By now we are inside the cabin and I have backed myself as far into the corner as I can. The work surface is littered with test tubes, frog gob swabs and spare bits of masking tape.
‘I’m going to turn around’, I tell Kafka, ‘And reach into this cupboard, OK? For inside, I have masking tape aplenty’.
Franz raises the machine gun, ready to fire at any second.
‘Do it’, he says. ‘It is only our conception of masking tape which lets us call it by that name’.
I turn, reach into the cupboard, grab several rolls of masking tape, then turn back and offer them to him. He smiles, puts down the gun, and, with his delicate, long fingers, takes them from my hands.
‘Cheers’, he says, and he turns, and leaves.
The storm rages as I watch him depart, his black jacket merging with the gloom at the heart of the jungle, the wet branches and fleshy leaves bending, dripping as he makes his way deep, deep into the foliage.
‘To be honest, we disabled the webcam as soon as you started walking round in the nude’, Jeff says, the next day. ‘The last thing this company needs is a big scandal’.
‘So there’s no way of checking the footage?’
‘Afraid not, Bob’.
‘You know what the silly thing is?’
‘If he’d have asked nicely, I’d have given him as many rolls as he wanted. Why did he need a machine gun?’
‘You know, those rolls are property of the McCLintock Masking Tape Company. That’s going to have to come out of your wages’.
‘Are you OK out there? We could find a replacement, you know. Sharon down at the South Pole research centre says she’s getting fed up with the cold. You could always swap, you know?’
I look around the cabin. The test tubes, the scientific equipment, my bed in the corner with its mosquito net.
‘I think I’ll stay. I feel fine here, Jeff. You know that? I feel pretty fine out here’.
I put the phone down and go out onto the porch. It’s another bright, warm, humid morning. My glasses steam up. I put on my dead ant hat, gather my swabs, and go wandering off into the jungle.
Robert Garnham is a comedy performance poet. He has performed at festivals and fringes and comedy nights. A joke from one of his shows was acclaimed as one of the funniest at the Edinburgh fringe. He has made some TV adverts for a certain bank.