I have started a new job as a receptionist for a firm of solicitors in Keynsham. Keynsham is a strange place; a village located in the nothingness between Bath and Bristol. It has a fairly rundown high street, a Cadbury’s factory, a large church, and apparently, although I haven’t seen it, a marina.
During my lunch-break, I walked to the memorial park behind the solicitor’s office and took a seat at a bench. Two teenagers, listening to tinny drum n’ bass on a mobile phone, were sat across from me. Whenever I looked up from my pasta salad, I found them staring at me with cold, grey eyes. This is not odd in itself. However, there was hostility in their eyes, not general contempt at the world but hostility specifically directed at me – a stranger. Before I went back to the offices, I took a brief stroll along the high street and was met with similar looks, varying in intensity, but undeniably the same look.
It was with a feeling of relief that I returned to my desk and the constant ringing of the telephone. Through the gaps in the blinds I could make out the faces of the locals, doughy with familiarity and complacency; softened without me amongst them. The rest of the day passed slowly but inevitably towards 4 p.m. when it was time for me to catch my train.
I walked quickly along the high street with my head down. Only when I reached the church on the corner was I compelled to look up. In the churchyard on a wooden stake was a poster depicting seven wind turbines set against a brooding orange sky. The words ‘More to Life’ were printed in black lettering across the poster, along with a symbol I didn’t recognise:
Slightly confused by the poster, I carried on around the corner onto Station Road. It was at this moment that I noticed the air was heavy with thick cloying moisture. I wiped my face with my hand. When I opened my eyes I could see nothing due to the impenetrable fog. I took two cautious steps forward before bumping into a tree. At the foot of the tree on a small placard was that strange symbol again and those words: ‘More to Life’.
Not remembering there being any trees along the path to the station, I decided to turn around and head in the other direction. With arms outstretched I walked on.
Everything was eerily quiet; my footsteps on the gravel, the wind which had been howling earlier, even the occasional grunts that escaped when I connected with a rock or a fence post – it was as if the fog was dampening every sound. I couldn’t hear the usual noise coming from the train station – the shunt of the engines, the guards whistle, and the crackly announcements. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the symbol and that odd phrase: ‘More to Life’.
I came to a sudden stop when I came across a large iron gate that was seemingly positioned right across the path I was taking. I pushed at the padlocked gates, and then rattled them out of sheer frustration, knowing that the sound would be deadened by the fog anyhow. As I was shaking the gates, the fog momentarily cleared and I could just about make out a sign a metre or so behind the gate. And on the sign was an ornate guilt swirl – yes, there it was, that symbol again.
Then I felt someone tapping me on the shoulder. I span around, startled. In front of me as clear as anything was Mrs Hitchins, an elderly lady that I had dealt with earlier in the solicitor’s. She had come in asking to see a senior solicitor about a nuisance neighbour. Strangers had moved in – she had said – and that was a problem. They were disturbing her, making her feel uncomfortable in her own home.
I recall quite clearly her saying, “We managed to get rid of the Italian but new ones keep coming… from outside you see.” The conspiratorial tone she used had struck me as odd.
And here she was speaking to me again –
“You want to be going in, not rattling the place down,” she said flatly, before steering me through a side entrance. I felt compelled to follow.
After five minutes or so of walking in silence, the fog began to thin. In front of me, I could see a large factory, with chimneys billowing out an unusually substantial plume of smoke. The smoke seemed to thicken as it descended, carpeting the surroundings. It wasn’t fog after all but smoke.
It wasn’t until I was inside and on the factory floor that I became conscious of where I was – I was inside the Cadbury’s factory. Mrs Hitchins had left me now. My head was reeling – why was I here? What made me follow her so unquestioningly?
The machinery on the factory floor was being operated by figures dressed in white overalls with their faces covered by surgical masks. Nobody was speaking; without making a sound they pressed buttons, turned dials, or stirred powders into huge bubbling vats.
“Our chocolate is too sweet to even be considered chocolate. We are forced to label it con-fec-tion-ary,”
said a nasal voice from somewhere behind me. I turned and saw an elderly man in a tweed jacket sat at a round office table in a conference room. Two middle-aged ladies were sat either side of him – smiling, with pursed lips and matching silk scarves.
“I see,” I mumbled.
“No. Now, you see,” one of the figures in overalls said, appearing at my side and passing me a square of chocolate. On the top of the segment was the same symbol I had seen all around the village.
I said nothing, placing the chocolate in my mouth.
“They presume it’s the sugar of course – the sweetness…..”
said the man in his nasal rasp.
“But it is not sugar. We have access to something far sweeter. After all there is more to life than sugar.”
Then in unison, all the figures in their overalls removed their masks and began to chant,
“More to Life”
Over and over again.
I felt fingers grasp my ankles and then a sharp pain as the top of my arm was pinched in an iron grip. And still they chanted as I was dragged over to the largest cauldron and forced to climb the ladder…..
“More to Life. More to Life. More to Life.”