FICTION: 'The Professional'

THE PROFESSIONAL 

Driving home from work one evening our man sees the jagged peaks of a middle finger flashing around in his rear-view mirror. Adrenaline comes: he feels the grip of his hands tightening on the steering wheel, his lungs open up, he imagines his pupils expanding like a sponge. But he’s just spent 6 hours of his working day going over Hazard Awareness Training™. Our man’s never been better equipped to drive in his life. This guy is flipping off the wrong man. He’s come for a professional.

Now the car pulls up alongside him and our man starts to mouth an exaggerated “sorry”. The driver starts to beckon, with the same middle-finger he had just been gesturing with, over to a lay-by that is coming up on their left. Now our man calculates — with help from his recent breaking distance training — that they will be at the lay-by in the next 15 seconds. That is ample time to rationalise this properly, to get a proper look at the guy and make an informed decision. He glances over his shoulder but he can’t get a glimpse of the driver’s face, he has his sun shade down and the inside of the car is shadowed. All he can see is that finger waving back and forth like its on a spring. He’s driving a Land Rover, of course. That should be reason enough to get out at this lay-by and have it out.

Wait, he thinks again. When did measuring myself in violence become a natural condition? Was it somewhere between the first fight I’ve never had and the most recent fight I’ve never had? But he’s a professional delivery driver and he’s doing this on behalf of all the oppressed and the needy; on behalf of the thousands of peaceful people who have been forced into violence all round the world. He is going to pull over at this lay-by and fight this man.

Well, I’ve pulled up now, he thinks. I can’t drive off and look my wife in the eye tonight. My wife, he thinks again. She was worried this morning: about her sister or was it about money? Well, I have this delivery job now. And what about my own sister?

He thinks back to every entrance he has made to a room in the past 30 years: can anyone explain to him why the second he walks in anywhere he has already started assessing his chances? Which of the blokes in there he could have in a fight? Which he might have to talk out of it? Which he could scare away with some empty bravado? Which he might have licence to patronise?

And now he is in the lay-by and the driver has just pulled up behind him. He feels his heart racing and his shirt sticking to the skin under his arms. Then he feels an uncomfortable wave of heat and focus and his eyes are sprinting about the inside of the car. Finally, he slides over to the passenger side and gets out (the driver’s side door hasn't worked in weeks) and he watches the other driver climb down from his Land Rover. 

Our man doesn't say anything. He isn't going to speak first. Then the driver starts; “You fucking cut me off.” 

Calm, calm, our man thinks. Don't make the first move. 

“No I didn’t. I was trying to get in lane. There’s traffic. It’s busy.” There is a pause. “I drive for a living,” he adds. “I drive all day. I know how to drive.” 

“I’m not saying you don't know how to drive.” 

“It sounds like you are?” our man presses on, he can feel the sweat dripping from his armpit down his ribcage. “You better not be saying I don't know how to drive.” 

“I’m not saying you don't know how to drive.” 

“Good — what are you saying then?”

“You cut me off. Back there.” 

There is a silence. Our man stands up straight. Then the driver mutters something, turns back and climbs up into his Land Rover.  Our man watches as he switches on the engine and pulls away into the stream of traffic. 

Our man gets back into his Hyundai, opening up the passenger side door and sliding over again. But he doesn't care. He is in his chariot. He is a professional. He can barely contain himself on the drive home. How is he going to tell his wife. How might he set the scene. He pulls up into his driveway and gets slowly out of the passenger side seat. Strutting up to the door. Turning the key. 

He finds his wife in the kitchen. “Sandra,” he says. “I stood up for myself today.” 

“Well done.” She rushes past him to their bedroom. “But I thought you liked your new boss?” 

“This was after work.” 

“How was driving today?” she asks. “Can you set the table please? I need to go and help my sister this evening, she’s had a horrible time at work again” 

“No, you’re not listening. I won a fight today. Someone swore at me when I was driving home and I told him off to his face in the lay-by.” 

“I can’t hear about your fighting right now. I need to eat and then go to my sister’s.” 

Our man feels the sweat cooling under his shirt. “I can drive you,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

He hugs his wife and then he gets out the cutlery and sets the table. Finally, he goes to the bathroom to wash his hands. He looks down at his fists and chuckles. He sees himself in the mirror and brings his hands up into a boxing guard. Then he lifts his own middle finger to the reflection and laughs again. He punches out at it. He dodges and comes up with a right upper cut. The figure alludes him so he dips and weaves back round into a straight, then a jab, then a left hook. “Why I oughta,” he says to the reflection in a mock-Boston drawl. One more punch, straight down the eyes. “You’ve made your mistake now fella,” he says. “You messed with a professional.” 

FICTION: 'The Moderator'

THE MODERATOR

I usually arrive at the Campus five minutes before the working day is set to start. I walk the short distance from my apartment to the bus stop in the thickening heat and arrive there damp with sweat. The final moments of my commute are spent cooling off in the employee bus. The bus drives from the edge of the Campus towards the Hub in the centre, transporting those of us who live locally and don't own a car: it passes by the bay, stopping every half a mile and picking up three or four of whatever crowd has formed in the shade of the bus shelters. By the time I get on it is crowded so I usually try and find a place at the back where I can stand, gripping onto one of the rails above my head, closing my eyes and feeling the air-conditioning pass over my face.

I have often wondered if there is some kind of codified directive within the company which dictates that every employee must approach work with a sense of lively anticipation. The people that sit around me in the morning speak to each other like children returned from their summers, with smiles on their faces; turning over their shoulders and adjusting themselves in their seats so that assemblies of four or five emerge in each section of the bus. Occasionally, in more muted tones, they talk about what they are going to be working on that week; a new advertiser, sometimes a new feature. I look at them and think to myself about what we might say to each other if we met in a bar. One morning I remember a small, dark haired man introducing himself to a group — it was first day. He was sat down and welcomed into the conversation. They said how lucky he was and that they wished they could live through their first few months again. It was a time when work started to became life, they said. When they had experienced their first few moments of collective achievement. It was thrilling, they all agreed. I remember one member of the group saying to the man, “Don’t be afraid,” then there was a pause, a couple of seconds in which he started to smile through the window, it was as if he was remembering something of terrific depth from the past: “Don’t be afraid to draw meaning from the work that you are doing.” 

It was a mentality that on the milder mornings even I found quite appealing. I would grip onto the rail above my head and smile in the same way as they did; feeling my weight shift with the gentle turns of the bus and enjoying the sun coming harmlessly through the windows. By the time the bus had arrived at The Hub and I had stumbled down past the various conversations and out into the sunlight my feeling of solidarity had usually faded. By the time I had reached my desk, as the air got heavier and began to rest on my chest, that feeling had always left me. 

Today, I walk in past reception and take out my phone to scan myself through security. Then I walk up the stairs to the third floor, wiping the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand as I go. Once I’ve climbed the stairs I walk through to the back of the office and sit down at a desk nearest to the window; the office is close to empty and there are three unmanned desks to my left. 

The atmosphere of our particular office is always peculiar, like that of a kind of family reunion: there is the stale air of familiarity, the faint sense of shared interests and beyond that a blatant feeling of obligation. The desks are lined up in rows like a library with thin, white partitions between every station, meant to protect us from whatever our neighbour is looking at. The desks are largely undecorated, there is a pair of wireless headphones and a large, flat-screened computer that has its wiring passed back into a piece of plastic skirting that runs under the partitions all the way along the row. 

Today, the blinds are drawn to keep glare off the screens but some light has still made its way through and is illuminating the dust hanging about in the air above my desk. I drop my bag underneath my chair and go to a get a glass of water from the cooler in the corner of the office. Not feeling in any way refreshed I walk back, sit down and start to work.

***

It has been explained to me that the system for moderating was designed to maximise the speed and efficiency with which we can pass through the content. The screen itself is divided into two sections; there is a large box which displays the offending image(s) or words and below it there is a drop down list with three options: ignore, remove or escalate. Once you have made your evaluation you move onto the other section of the screen where there is a clock, a tally of how much content you have moderated that day and a small arrow which leads you onto the next piece of material. We aren’t given access to any of the personal information of the people who have posted the content: there are no photos or friends, just words and images.

By 9.05am I have gone through 10 pieces of content. There are three swastikas: two to be removed and one to be ignored — superimposed cartoonishly over a politician and classified as satirical comment.  There are five instances of racist language (****** four times, **** once) and then two comments which had no reason to be reported at all. 

At 9.30am our section manager comes through the door and gestures for us all to take off our headphones. 

“Right, everyone,” he says. 

I watch the dust moving around in the air and feel sweat forming under my armpits. “You will be left to your own devices today. I’m doing interviews until five," he says.  

A few people mutter back something in acknowledgment. 

“Any problems come and find me.” He swivels round on his toes and starts to walk back towards the door. Then he pauses and says loudly and to no-one in particular— “Keep doing what you’re doing. " — 

I remember my interview with him at the start of the year. He met me at the front of the Hub, wearing shorts and a button down shirt, waving me past security. He was recognisable, almost instantly, as the kind of person that might be described in very vague terms as ‘friendly’ by the people that knew him well. The more I spoke to him the more he seemed to be alarmingly without character. Inside the interview room I sat across from him, wearing my borrowed suit with a smile fixed on my face, and there was a moment when I shook his hand in which neither of us seemed to know what to say. 

Eventually he started: “Tomorrow’s technology depends on the imagination of the people we hire today, which demands genuine intellectual curiosity. This kind of work often involves risk-taking and resilience and it isn't always easy to find,” he paused and I gestured with my hands thoughtfully. 

“We want to hear about your blunders as much as your wins, we want to know what you learned from those experiences.” He looked up at me and then clarified, “Talk to me about a great idea you had that ultimately didn't come to fruition.”

I gave an example of a website my friend had designed in school, remembering him telling me the details of his business model at the time and now passing those same details off as thoughts of my own. The website itself, I explained, was for the promotion of local food trucks. It classified them all into a database: they were split up based on the type of food they sold, their prices, how good a deal you could find, companies uploaded their own menus and then I (my friend) would would go round and evaluate them, noting them down on my (his) map and judging their quality. 

“It ended up being quite a success,” I said and then remembering his question was really about blunders I quickly decided upon a failed expansion plan. “I wanted to expand internationally,” I said with an air of intense mourning. “I wanted to take restaurants into account too but then resources started to dry up. At first I started struggling for money and then eventually I had none. In hindsight I regret not monetising the site through advertising sooner.”

The section manager looked up at me once I’d finished, noting something on his clipboard.

At the end of the interview he lead me out of The Hub and back through security. 

“Is there a particular reason you want to stay and work in the US?”  

“Living here in Menlo Park is where I want to be. The US part is only secondary.” 

“Is there anything else you want to ask me about the role or the company?”  

“Why do they call this area ‘The Campus’?” 

He smiled and took my hand into his. His palm was damp, I was reminded of the feeling of touching raw, skinless-meat. Finally, he answered: “It is all about fostering a collegiate atmosphere.”

***

After the section manager leaves the room I go quietly back to moderating. In the first hour or so of work there is an alarming concentration of dick picks. They are mostly shot from a low angle, the faces obscured in the background by the silhouette in front. Some of them are taken in front of the mirror: they are defined by the incriminating jewel of light that reflects back from the glass when the flash is on, the person’s face usually frozen in concentration.

There is a lot of porn that morning too. Conventional stuff, nothing particularly sickening. Men with tattoos and big bellies fucking disturbingly loud girls. Step-fathers seducing daughters. Teachers delivering their punishments. There is a video of a man masturbating slowly into the camera: at one point he turns around to get lubricant and reveals a rat’s tale. His mouth hangs open and his eyes stare blankly below the camera lens. 

I stop for a minute and get another drink from the water-cooler. Looking out into the quad I find myself thinking strangely of someone I knew in college, I have an image of him masturbating into a camera that has stuck itself firmly in my head. Then I remember why: when I had known him the friend in question had been talking to a South American girl on the internet. After a few months he had plucked up the the courage to send photos; after a few weeks he started to receive some back too. For a while he was very satisfied with the arrangement: his sexual desire was given a more tangible fix and the girl was never especially demanding of his attention. Then gradually the girl started getting more specific in her photographic requests — “sit like this, wear that, say this” — a week later the South American girl becomes a Turkish man and he is demanding $1000 dollars be transferred to his account or a video of him masturbating will be circulated round to all of his friends. I walk back from the water-cooler and sit back down at my desk, then I flag the video of the rats-tailed masturbator to be removed. 

I am often surprised by the amount of illicit content that reappears again and again. Of everything that exists on the internet, of all that is horrifying or sordid, the same things resurface like the common cold, circulating wildly for a day before dying off, only to reappear the next month. There’s the conveyor belt of chicks, riding unknowingly towards a funnel and dropping through a hole towards a pair of rotating blades. Then there’s the one with the horse — a naked woman squatting beneath its legs. Handling it. The horse looking off camera, blinking impassively and shaking off flies.

I flag a video of an old man fucking a younger woman and then feel a tap on my shoulder. I look up to see a colleague who had been sitting at the end of the row. 

“Do you mind if I open the blinds?” 

“Sorry?” 

“The blinds — to get some sunlight in here?” 

He goes over to the window and tugs gently on the plastic sidewinder and the blinds shuffle open until sun fills the room. I start to sweat again and sense my mouth going dry. I can feel my legs are damp and my trousers sticking to my skin. There is the sound of cars and people outside.

“Is that alright with you?” he asks. 

I want to tell him to fuck himself but with my eyes half-shut and distracted by the light I can’t think quite how to phrase it. 

“That’s fine.” 

I go back to work instead. There is picture of a pile of guns: ignore. More hate speech: remove. An hour later and the video of the masturbating man reappears: escalate. Another hour and it’s almost lunch. 

At 11.22am a grainy video buffers on the content box. It looks like CCTV footage. There is watermark on the bottom right hand side of the video and the date and time are layered in the bottom left. The picture is of a dusty street: on the far side chickens are scouring the floor near a grass verge. Opposite the verge there is a building and below and out from the building’s base there is a worn away, stone pavement. A man is standing there, leaning against the door and looking down at his phone. After twenty seconds a car pulls up across the verge and the chickens scatter, the man looks up and returns his phone to his pocket, then he gets up from the door and starts to walk along the pavement. Three men jump out of the back of the car and then another appears from the passenger side. Just as the man on the phone disappears from the picture he is dragged back by two of the men and kicked to the floor. The driver emerges from the car now and with the choppiness of the CCTV appears to float over to the man on the floor. He reaches behind him and pulls out a machete from a tattered leather bag. The man is being held down onto his knees by the group of four. The driver of the car looks up and down the street, kicks some dust into the man’s face and then brandishes the machete like a baseball bat. He swings down and cuts through his neck. Two of the men holding the body jump back to avoid the sprays of blood before stepping carefully back into the picture. The machete has only made it halfway through so the driver dislodges the blade, pulls it back behind his head again, this time a bit higher, and then severs the man’s head completely off his neck. More blood spurts upwards and now all of the men who had been holding the body lurch backwards; one of them stumbles and then they all stand there for a second and watch the body stay strangely where it had been knelt, as if it were moored to its position on the ground. After, they throw the machete back into the leather bag, return to the car and drive away. 

There is a minute left of the video but I stop watching and report it to be removed. The sun comes out again from behind a cloud and shines onto my screen. I peel my trousers off from the skin on my thighs and feel another drop of sweat trickle down the side of my ribs. As I stand up my vision blurs slightly from the heat. Instead of walking along the window I go down my row and across the centre of the office to stop at his desk. 

“Hey.” He is wearing his headphones and watching a piece of content so I tap him on the shoulder as he had done to me. “Excuse me.” 

He takes off his headphones before he turns around and I think about grabbing his neck and digging my nails in until I reach his windpipe. Then I think about smashing his teeth against the corner of the table until he inadvertently swallows some of the shards.

“Can I help you?” 

I look down at him. “After lunch we can swap monitors if you want, I’d rather be out of the sun.”

“That would be great actually,” he says. “Works better for both of us.” 

He smiles and puts his headphones back on as I walk over to the water cooler. I decide I’ll take lunch early: work until the tally gets to 500 and then go to the canteen by myself. As I walk slowly past him back to my desk I start to notice all the dust again, drifting about in the beams of light coming through the window, seeing the movement in each corner of the office reflected in the clouds of the dust, the clumsy power of computer fans. 

Then I’m back at the computer and looking at a picture of the Klu Klux Klan, then some spam, then more porn, then a video released by Wiki Leaks showing an American plane bombing Afghan civilians. Then more spam. Now another porno - a woman fucking a woman - then I am up to 496 pieces of content reviewed and I feel my stomach rumble slightly from hunger so I click the arrow to take me on. 

After a moments pause the screen re-assembles itself and there is a bare, white room with a production spotlight shining down from behind the camera and onto a wall. There are two children - the boy is maybe twelve and the girl about eight or nine -  they are standing facing each other. They aren't wearing any clothes and after a few seconds standing on opposite sides of the room they move towards each other and put their hands on each other's bodies. There is the sound of someone instructing them from off camera in a deep voice. I keep watching for a while and think mostly of how easy it is to tell that the video is real. Then I move the mouse down across the screen, avoiding their bodies, onto the drop down box. I click escalate, log out of my computer and go for an early lunch. 

I pass him walking out of the office and gesture back towards my computer with a thumbs up. He gives me a perfunctory smiles and lifts his thumb slightly off his mouse in response. Stepping out of the Hub my chest feels the heat first: I take a short, stiff breath and walk on towards the canteen, my body inching forward like I’m facing a strong wind. 

***

Most days there is a small, American man who mans the sandwich bar. He has a wispy beard and thin, round glasses. We chat when I’m ordering, him joking about my accent, me sometimes doing an impression in return. He’ll usually spit out a laugh at whatever I say before he asks me whether I want ranch on my sandwich, or maybe chipotle instead. He is there again today and as I walk in filmed with sweat I catch his eye. 

“Look who it is,” he says. 

“I’m back.” 

“Well, hello there.”

“The same as usual please.” 

“Oh, certainly good sir.” he says with a faux-received-pronunciation. He smiles to himself and lays out a sandwich with a ritualistic sleight of hand before filling it with meat and salad and cheese. He looks up at me as if anticipating a joke and I can see sweat on his forehead too: it isn't much cooler than outside with the heat of the kitchen. He picks up the sandwich with the same rushed efficiency as before and carries it along the counter. The oven starts to beep from behind him and he turns around to it, balancing the food in his hand, and bending his knees in a strange pirouette. 

As I wait for the sandwich to be heated up we look at each other across the counter. 

“When are you going to deliver on your promise?” I ask.

“How about today?” 

Another customer approaches the counter behind me, wearing sports shorts and a grey, college vest. The sandwich man scuttles back down the counter to serve him and as he starts to speak he loses the ambiguous caricature of my accent and returns to the voice that he must use the rest of his day.

“What about sauces?” he says as he comes back to finish off my order. “Ranch or chipotle?’ 

“Ranch.” I say, putting on my American accent. 

"That was bad" he says, stretching out the a. “Closer to French than American.” 

“Have you ever visited France?” 

“No, I haven’t.” He pauses as if deep in thought and then goes on — “But I’ve been reading a lot about it recently.” He closes together the sandwich and swaddles it in serviettes. “It’s elections there next week. They’re going to have someone to deal with their problem in the same way that we have.” 

“What problem would that be?” 

“You know? There are bits of France you cant step foot in.” 

“I don't think that’s true.” 

“Oh, believe me, it is. There are no-go-zones.” He hands me the sandwich to take to the cashier and as I take it from him I feel an uncomfortable flush of heat from the open oven.  

“I have been to Paris. I don’t think that’s true.” 

“We’ll see how the elections go next week then, the people will speak.” He looks at me through the shrinking frames of his glasses and I feel the months of our vague acquaintance refiguring in his mind. I imagine taking his head in the palm of my hand and forcing it into the oven, scraping it again the side of the metal and shutting the door down on his neck. 

When I reach the cashier the sandwich man shouts something over from behind the counter. The cashier looks up at me from his seat, “What he say?” 

He shouts over again. “Give him the sandwich for free. I promised him.” 

“Okay then,” the cashier prods at his computer and waves me away. 

I walk towards the exit with my lunch and decide to eat it at the office instead. Out the door the prospect of a hot sandwich becomes less tempting and I check my watch and think about what I could do for the rest of the hour. I start to walk along the side of the pavement, in the shade of the building, my left foot stepping onto gravel and my right foot straddling the grass. Then I become aware of someone shouting behind me, a noise I had noticed a few seconds ago but only just figured to be a voice. I turn around to see the man that had been stood behind me at the canteen, wearing all grey, running towards me, his food rocking from a bag in his left hand. 

“Wait a second, sir,” he reaches me and quickly catches his breath. “I’m sorry about all that at the canteen, which sector do you work in?” 

“Sorry about what?” 

“That man. If you don't intend on reporting him then I will.” 

“It’s okay — I will report it when I’m done with lunch.” 

“We don't tolerate hate speech here so you have to make sure to report it. It breaches our employee contract rules, you realise?" 

“Oh, I will.” I say. 

“Great,” he says, smiling. “As long as it gets reported, I’m happy. We can't stand for that stuff.” Then he jogs ahead of me in the direction of The Hub with his sandwich bag swinging at his side, as I walk on in the shade and remember that I recognise him from the bus. 

FICTION: 'Xabia'

Xabia

It was the early evening and still very hot. The path we'd been taking had come to an end and ahead of us there was only the brown quilt of shrubs on the hill and the maze of rocks leading to the top. We stood for a second in silence, he sipped on his water, and then we began to climb.

“Is this the way you came last time?”

“Not exactly. I took a longer route around to the left of town and there was a footpath that led all the way to the windmills.” 

"Is it long from here?"

"I have no idea.” he said. “I didn't think there was any rush."

The boulders were hot to the touch and at first I stood back and watched as he tried to run up. He soon missed a step and his leg plunged into the mass of bushes. After he had regained his balance he untangled his shorts from the undergrowth and his leg re-emerged scratched and bleeding. I decided to go on all fours and move up the hill from stone to stone, making sure I had my balance before jumping to the nearest rock and grabbing on to the ridges with my hands and kicking out until I found traction with my feet. 

After a few minutes I slowed down to rest, sitting on one of the larger rocks with my legs hanging off the side. There was something especially exposed about being on the hillside looking down over the town. The feeling of all the space still above us and the heaviness of the air gave a sense of being between two worlds.  I took out my bottle, held it above my head, and tried to squeeze some water into my mouth. It came out quicker than I expected and spilt over my face and onto my shirt. I wiped the water away with the back of my hand and then I held the bottle at my hip and squirted some water towards him. 

“I’m not in the mood,” he said without looking back 

We climbed in silence for a while after that, moving upwards in broken spells of activity. Every couple of minutes I would pause and look down over the expensive houses nestled on the hill; they were all painted white and had swimming pools and large gardens. Beyond the town there was the vast plane of olive trees and beyond that more towns that looked similar to Xabia.

“I'd like to buy one of these someday,” I said to break the silence, gesturing towards one of the villas below us. I could see clothes drying on the washing line and the wrinkles in the surface of a pool. 

“Start investing, I can sort you out with our entry level package.” He stopped climbing and perched himself on a rock with his elbows rested on his knees.

“What does that entail?” 

“Get an account on our website then transfer some money to it. Tell me when you're done and I’ll put the package on for you. I get commission. You might get lucky."

“Do I really stand any chance of making money?” 

“With the entry level package, not a chance.."

“Give me the full pitch.” 

He started climbing again, quicker than before, and I followed his path from stone to stone. The hill was beginning to flatten out and there were less rocks now. I grabbed on to a tree trunk and levered myself up the final couple of meters to a kind of plateau. 

“I’ve done it for you before,” he said finally.

“I still find it entertaining.” 

“Unfortunately, after reciting it 9 hours a day, I do not.” 

We had reached the top of the hill now and were able to rejoin the path. All the bigger rocks had cleared and to our left the trail we'd lost earlier continued down round the back of the town, past the motorway and cheap holiday complexes. At this height, above the crest of the hill, there was a light breeze and the sun was lower in the sky. 

We walked over to our right towards one of the first stone windmills; it was about ten meters high and looked down imposingly over the plane. Along the trail towards the sea there were four more windmills roughly the same size, none of which seemed to be functioning.

“What were they for?” I said.

“I’m not sure.” 

He walked towards the base and started to feel around the gaps where the stone had fallen away at its joins. He found a ridge with his hand about two meters up and then he started to dig around with his foot for a hole to push up from. I watched from a distance. 

“If you get all the way to the top I will purchase every sales package there is until you get a bonus,” I said. 

He didn't respond and I felt a wave of heat flush over my body as the breeze died down, I thought to myself how I could aggravate him further. 

He had made two moves up with his hands and lifted his right foot up near to his waist. He would have to make a move now; lift up his other foot and hope he could find some traction. He flinched as if he were about to lunge upwards but then hesitated and lost grip with his left hand.

“Fuck it,” he said and jumped back down. “Where's the water?” 

I threw him the bottle and our little confrontation was over. 

The breeze reasserted itself now and walking along under the tree cover I shivered pleasantly. We headed towards the next windmill and he tossed the water bottle back towards me and said, as if assigning blame, "It's too fucking hot." 

We reached the next windmill, this one was sightly larger and had a thick iron door and barred windows.  As he investigated I turned around and up towards the actual mountain behind us -- Montgo -- we had only made it to one of the foothills. We had said earlier in the week we were going to climb it but I presumed we wouldn't find the time now. It would have been tough, I thought.

“Come and look at this,” he said.

I turned back round and walked over to where he was stood, looking through the window of the windmill with his hands on the iron bars. 

Over his shoulder and through the window there was a circular room taking up the interior space of the windmill. The room was small and looked like the set of a play. There was a desk, a wooden chair, a bed, a battered looking stove, pans hanging on the wall, tools and a small toilet in the corner. Every aspect of life; so obviously placed it seemed fictional. 

“How old do you think this stuff is?” I asked.

“Maybe it’s civil war era.” 

“Franco stationing people in windmills up here?” 

“I don't know. Maybe there were rebels in the mountains.” 

“Does the door open?”

“It looks pretty impenetrable.” 

We walked over and he pushed against the door, it rattled slightly and some dust from the stones above it came off in flakes and fell to the floor.

“Let me try,” I said and I grabbed each side of the metal frame and shook it. I could see it straining where the hinges were built into the stone. He pushed past me again and tried the same shaking motion, the iron started to rattle and built up into an unpleasant ringing sound. I turned around to rest and drink more water. As I drank I saw a man and a dog emerging from behind the other windmill. They were jogging towards us, the dog on a lead, and the man shouting something in Spanish. 

“Stop,” I said, hearing my voice competing with the sound of the metal ringing in the door frame. “Wait, stop doing that. There’s someone coming." He stopped and turned around. I stood up and we both waited for the man to get closer. 

“I’ll talk,” I said. 

“We both can.” 

The man and the dog slowed down and walked the last few meters up to us. He had something in his hand that he was gesturing toward to us. I couldn't understand all of what he was saying, it wasn’t helped by his heavy breathing. This.. I think… my dog… here… Spanish? 

“Sorry, our Spanish is badly. Speak slow,” is probably what I said. 

The dog barked and the man pulled back on the leash. He stepped forward and opened up his hand. Resting in his palm was my inhaler. 

“Oh." We looked at each other. "Muchas gracias.” I took it from him and he said something back in Spanish too fast for me to understand and then he laughed and pulled at the dog’s leash and walked on in front of us to the next windmill and towards the sea. 

“I must have dropped it when we were climbing onto the trail,” I said.

“I see,” he replied and we continued walking in the direction the man had gone with his dog.

***

The next two windmills stood just ahead of us, back slightly from the edge of the path and smaller and less well maintained than the first two. He was pouring some of the water over his face in an effort to cool down, and watching him do it I felt some kind of coarse feeling, like familiarity, or guilt.

“What are you doing to do next year?” I asked as we moved into the shade and onto a more defined gravel track.

“I am going to leave the call centre by the summer." 

“To do what?”

“Tour guide. It’s easy money in comparison. And I cant last much longer where I am.” 

“I've always admired how long you've been able to stand it.“ 

“You know the trick to being a tour guide?" he said, ignoring my remark. "There is no salary, it’s all paid by tips. So by the end of a tour, let's say you've built up a bit of a crowd, made some jokes, alluded to your own life in the city in some way. Then, when everyone is grouped round just as it is set to finish, you mention that it’s your first day and that it also happens to be your birthday. Then you announce that the tour is over and that all tips are greatly appreciated. You can make 100 euros a tour."

"Everyday is your first day, everyday is your birthday?”

He looked up at me and tapped his temple -- then he did some kind of dance where he swung his arms around in a circle in celebration of all the money he would make and I laughed. We walked around the base of the first windmill, looking for any windows or perhaps a clearer route in the worn away stone for our hands and feet to climb up with.  I jumped up at a ledge that jutted out about 3 meters up from the ground but missed it and quickly stumbled back onto the path and we both walked towards the next one as if it hadn't happened.  After that a silence came about and we walked on for a while, past the final two windmills. 

"You know, we should talk about William -- at some point," I said. 

"Why's that?" 

"At the very least I wouldn't mind hearing where you think he has ended up."

"I can't tell you anything with any certainty. I think he has gone back to England. Well, last I heard he has.  A week before he left, or disappeared or whatever it is he has done, his girlfriend rang me up asking me to come round, it was an emergency she said. I got there and he accused me of launching some conspiracy against him, spreading it around to everyone. He was paranoid." 

"What did you say?"

"I assured him that I hadn't, which was futile of course. And then I left because it felt like he might be about to attack me." 

"What did his girlfriend say?"

"Nothing of any substance. I haven't heard from either of them since." 

"He's deleted any way in which I can contact him." I said, feeling some remnants of sweat trickling down the inside of my arm.

"He's done the same to everyone."

He was looking away from me and I didn’t feel the need to try and catch his eye. We had begun our descent towards the sea front now and I could see the port ahead of us -- a maze of white boats and their masts. It was starting to become cooler; the sun would pass behind Montgo at some point in the next hour and I shivered in anticipation. As we had got closer to the sea the trail had begun to change from gravel to a rough concrete before progressing finally to a tarmac road. Now a car came past and we shuffled onto the side to let it pass. Looking down at my feet I could see that the tarmac at the road’s edges had melted away slightly in the heat. Then I looked up the road ahead of me, and a few meters away, resting next to a lump of molten tarmac, there was a worn away tennis ball. I bent down to pick it up and peeled away some of the grass that had become stuck to the tarmac and then in turn the fibres of the ball.  

“What is that?” he asked.

I showed him the ball. “Maybe the man with the dog dropped it,” I said.

“Maybe.” 

He moved over to the other side of the road and gestured at me to throw him the ball. I obliged and he caught it theatrically with one hand. He threw it back to me and I copied the same one handed catch.

"Wait a second," he said and then he ran down the road in front of me until he was twenty meters away.

I threw him the ball again but misjudged the distance so it bounced twice before it reached him. 

"You've got to give it a bit more height," he shouted.

"Yes, I know." I said. "I've gotta get used to the weight of the ball." 

He took a couple more steps back down the road and then launched the ball up towards me. It looked like it might end up going into the trees but it came dropping back down and I caught it at the edge of the road. 

"Let's go down a bit from the trees." 

I ran along the road towards where he had been standing and he jogged further down, stopping at the junction which led down to the sea. We were out of the hills now, there was one of the vast, white houses to our left and a worn down stone wall to our right. We could see the town more clearly from here; the beach, the white buildings at the sea front and the church and old town just beyond that. 

I stretched my shoulders in a rolling motion, took a couple of steps back and then threw the ball as far as I could. I watched it move through the air, half blinded by the sun, before it landed safely in his hands. He held it up and then repeated that same dance he had done earlier.

We carried on for half an hour as the sun began to set. By the time the ball had ended up in someone's garden I was sweating heavily and we went and sat on the wall to drink some water and roll a cigarette. 

I rubbed my hands against my shorts to dry them off but my fingers still struggled with the thin papers. Eventually, not saying anything, he took over for me, shaping the tobacco with ease and then handing me back a finished cigarette. 

"I've worked out what that room in the windmill was by the way," he said. 

"Go on."

"My dad told me that the windmills are somewhat of a heritage sight for the town. I am guessing that the room was some kind of museum display."

"A display documenting how they used them?"

"Exactly, although we still don't know who they are." 

He handed me the lighter and we smoked in silence for a while, I could feel the sun beginning its final slide behind the mountain. 

"Another thing my dad told me," he said. "Apparently the sea used to come up way further onto the plane. So 2000 years ago, when it was a Roman port, the sea would have come up to the old town." He pointed over towards the church spire and the disordered cluster of buildings that made up the historic centre. 

"It makes sense I suppose. All the beach front will be modern, on account of the tourists." 

He agreed and then paused mid sentence, we had both noticed the vague sound of someone breathing heavily next to us. We turned around to see a cyclist struggling up the hill, he made a small gesture towards us with his hand and we nodded back. 

After putting out our cigarettes against the wall he finally finished his thought, “Shall we head into town?”

“Sure," I said. "We've got plenty of time to kill."

He smiled and I felt the gentle flush of the sun one last time before it passed behind the mountain. Looking up the hill the cyclist was turning out of sight, round the corner towards the trees and the windmills. I looked back down to the port and then to the old town; then we got up and walked down to the beach to find a restaurant, drinking the last of our water and talking wildly of all the things we could get to eat.