Ronald’s teeth had gone numb. He crouched by the front door in the gloomy hallway of his flat, staring up at the cornicing three meters above him. It was very, very dusty. His flight was in two hours and his keynote speech for UNESCO’s World Humanities Conference was in sixteen. He had yet to write it.
“I’ve got to land that fucking plane on the fucking mountain. That’s all.” He said to himself.
“That’s all.” His voice dropped off. His eyes unfocused. He turned inward.
Ronald sat there for ten minutes before bursting into tears.
He was two bumps from running dry. The little Tupperware container that he kept in his fridge now lay on the kitchen floor. For the umpteenth time he licked his finger and ran it around the small plastic oval. Ronald tried not to think about the reserve; a little foil wrap in the inside pocket of the suit jacket he used for black tie events.
He would get into that just before the taxi to the airport. The evening flight would cheese-grate his soul otherwise. In the next hour Ronald was determined to land that plane right on top of that snowy plateau. He would write that keynote. This was the plan. It was meant to be.
Fifteen minutes later Ronald tore apart the lining of his dinner jacket hunting for the wrap. It had fallen between a seam. He could feel it. His fingers burst the inner pocket trying to reach it, fraying the Bemberg silk. Ronald caught the packet between two fingers and held it up. There was no wrap. Just a paper clip around a small plastic pouch containing a spare button.
Jet engines screamed in his ears. The plane in his imagination swooped down low over granite peaks. The undercarriage perilously close to the jagged seracs of a huge glacier. It was losing engine power.
There was nothing else for it.
Ronald went into his kitchen and opened the third drawer down. It was filled with dead batteries, empty lighters and Prosecco corks. In the very back was a scuffed cassette case of the Bee Gees greatest hits. Inside that was a folded silver baggy labelled ‘Plant Food: Not for Human Consumption’.
Ronald rolled the bag between his fingertips. He could feel a hard crystalline knot inside it. Last time it had felt like salt grains. Last time hadn’t ended well either. That was why it was still here.
On the flight Ronald had a window seat. A family embarked and stood over him.
“Hey! HOWYADOIN?!” Ronald said too loudly. The father took one look at him and changed seats with his wife.
For the rest of the flight Ronald could feel the tightness in the man’s jaw and he nodded and nodded and nodded and nodded.
Down in the hotel reception Ronald felt like he presented a clear and concise case as to why he should receive a room upgrade. Beforehand, as Ronald strode off the aircraft, he had been a well oiled machine. His suitcase whirring by his side. The wheels thrumming out a staccato rhythm as though it were a snare drum announcing his presence through each domain; arrivals terminal, shuttle, hotel. Only upon entering his hotel room had grit been flicked into the bearings and Ronald raged all the way back down to the lobby.
Ronald held up his phone to the receptionist yet again. She looked nonplussed.
“There! Right there! Do you see it? What is that?”
He pointed to the photo he had taken of the vague smear on the wall next to the bedside lamp.
“I don’t know, sir.” The receptionist monotoned.
“Exactly! Exactly! You get it! Right?” Ronald stepped back, lips quivering.
He noticed the time.
“By the way your clock is fast. I can’t have been here two hours already.”
The receptionist shot him a black look as she pushed a new key card across the marble counter.
Ronald spent the next three hours leaving scathing one star reviews of the hotel on every travel website he could find. He made a point of mentioning the receptionist by name in every one, along with an obscene description of her coupling with the hotel chain’s corporate mascot. They all finished with the phrase “Needless to say I had the last laugh”.
At three thirty a.m. Ronald sat on the toilet in the bathroom of his suite. Now he could finally write that damned keynote that he was due to give in four hours.
And write he did! A brilliant call to arms about the current state of the social sciences concerning the unequal relations of power between researchers and their subjects. It would set the theme for the conference. It would be referenced at every plenary thereon and mentioned in every workshop. It would, Ronald felt, affect the very fate of the Humanities as a scientific endeavour. He couldn’t believe it. It just flowed out of him like magic. A tour de force.
The engines of the plane roared as it circled around for another pass over the massif. This time it would land. He could see the runway lighting up on the high plateau. It was clear.
Just after seven a.m. Ronald collapsed for roughly half an hour and woke up screaming.
At quarter to nine the doorman held the door to a taxi open for him. Ronald did not say thank you because his hair felt too wet.
The words of the chairperson of UNESCO’s WHC committee blah-blahed through the PA system. Ronald heard his full name and title and stood up to applause which echoed around the auditorium. The hall was at capacity. Roughly eleven hundred sets of eyes watched him. A tech clipped a microphone to his lapel and a transmitter to his belt. Ronald drank it all in. The theatre hall was a beautiful space. A modernist take on La Scala in whirling strips of undulating wood that flowed seamlessly over the walls and ceiling. Juxtaposed decorative panels marked the staircases that travelled Escher-esque between the galleries and balconies. People were still filing in. Some had to stand against the walls.
A videographer filmed him as he made his way across the plushly carpeted stage to the lectern. Ronald riffled his papers as he placed them just so. As the committee head took her seat, Ronald inclined his head in gratitude at the panel. All well respected Stone Head professors. The finest minds and shapers of the fields of sociology, anthropology and psychology. The applause swelled as he mumbled his thanks and then Ronald stood back and smiled as he surveyed the room yet again.
This was is it. He had made it. The high point of his career.
“Excelsior.” Ronald whispered under his breath.
Suddenly there was a huge explosion overhead. Ronald ducked and grabbed ahold of the lectern, clinging on to it tightly for dear life. He looked up, startled and bewildered. But there was nothing there. The wooden mosaic was still in place on the ceiling. Everyone was still watching him. Hadn’t they heard it? He looked over at the panel. They had not. A droplet of sweat dripped onto his notes. Where had it come from? He wondered. He felt cold. Someone coughed loudly. Then silence.
Ronald smiled, took a deep breath and looked down at his speech.
“You’re all a bunch of fucking parasites, studying fleas in a circus..” read the first line.
“SHIT!” Ronald almost shouted. Instead he coughed and brought a balled fist up to his mouth. He dimly heard a second explosion as the aeroplane’s wreckage impacted the stony slopes of a non-existent mountain valley. Trying hard not to flinch this time, he bit down on his knuckles.
So many faces all looking at him. Waiting.
Ronald looked up to the heavens.
From the auditorium ceiling a giant flea dressed in a singed airman’s uniform drifted gently down, swinging from a parachute harness. Their eyes met. It saluted him.
Ronald looked back down at his notes and began to read his plenary speech.