The man on the radio wants Barnabas to wake up. He wants to pour cold, insistent sound into Barnabas’ brain. He wants to play Barnabas all of his favourite songs, but first he wants Barnabas to hear a message from our sponsors. It’s time for Barnabas to stop dreaming and just dream of what his life could be like. The man on the radio wants Barnabas to know all about his friends at Wellspring and Sutcher. Our friends at Wellspring and Sutcher. Our personal friends who have come all the way to the radio to deliver us a personal message. The man on the radio has important things to tell Barnabas about Wellspring and Sutcher, the livelong range of mortality solutions and the life everlasting.
But Barnabas is already awake and he’s already taken his Livelong pill. Barnabas has been waking up at four for so long that he doesn’t even need his radio alarm. Barnabas is in his tiny bathroom brushing his teeth. But the man on the radio is not deterred. He’s going to tell the fucking bed about Wellspring and Sutcher. He’s going to tell the walls. His voice is everywhere and everyone is his friend. It’s time to wake up with Livelong: Your personal provider of bespoke immortality. Livelong comes with a health warning from the Director General. Livelong will fuck you up. Livelong will give you cancer. But who cares? Livelong users never die (immortality may vary. Livelong will cure 99.9% of all known human deaths. Wellspring and Sutcher cannot be held responsible for, et cetera, et cetera). Livelong now comes in a range of plans to suit your needs. The Elysium Plan, the Limbo Plan, or the Value Plan.
Barnabas switches off the radio. He pops two Livelong Value Pills into his bag along with the sandwiches he made last night.
Even with the radio off his brain can fill in the familiar ending to the advert: Three Livelongs a day keep the doctor at bay!
It’s time to go to work.
The stadium doesn’t smell. Not of anything that it shouldn’t. Let’s establish that for the sake of clarity.
No, it doesn’t smell. But try working there. Try going six days a week every week. Try washing amoung the discoloured tiles and sitting on the plastic furniture. Eat suspicious food from the vending machines and crowd into the foggy smoking room. Do that for nine years and then imagine it. When you imagine it, it smells. It’s a smell that’s not-quite-there. A lingering wrongness. Like milk that isn’t off yet but should be so you get a second opinion from a friend.
The smell is non-existent and pervasive. Never mind that it’s being cleaned 24 hours a day. It doesn’t matter that every surface is still damp with disinfectant. Sometimes a stench is just in the nature of a thing.
As Barnabas approaches the staff entrance he takes one last breath through his nose. He’ll be breathing through his mouth for the rest of the day make no mistake.
There is a sign above the coffee machine in the break room. It wants Barnabas to know that he mustn’t abuse the free coffee. The Stadium isn’t made of coffee. The Stadium is happy to provide employees with one free coffee per break and (although the sign does not say this directly) that is clearly more free coffees than anybody could possibly deserve. The coffee machine is from a bygone age. It dispenses tea, coffee, hot chocolate and soup all from the same nozzle. But if you want a soup you can pay 10 pence like everybody else. The Stadium isn’t a soup kitchen. The owner Mr Jarl would love to be able to give a free soup to every stray that came in but this isn’t communist China. Someone has to pay to fill that machine with soup powder and who will it be? You? Barnabas? Poor Mr Jarl who has already blown his children’s inheritance on free coffee for the staff? It doesn’t matter. The coffee, tea, and hot chocolate all have the lingering flavour of soup about them anyway.
Barnabas takes the little plastic beaker of coffee and sits on a little plastic chair. Officially this isn’t a break but Barnabas likes to take a moment before the day begins. There is a small television attached to the wall and if Barnabas is lucky it’ll be playing something innocuous and easy to ignore.
Barnabas is, of course, many things: hardworking, proactive, physically immortal, a team player. But he isn’t lucky. He wouldn’t get away with putting that on his CV.
The television is playing a news item on the funeral of William Portcullis. Everybody loves William Portcullis. He’s lived a blessed life for 186 years and now he’s going to die and give away all of his wealth. William Portcullis has seen the light. He knows that life isn’t about material things. That’s why he’s going to leave it all behind and accept a comfortable mortality.
They’d never let Barnabas get away with that. Not with his debts. If by some miracle Barnabas managed to drop dead his bank manager would be the one to come and give him the kiss of life in person. Barnabas’ bank provides a personal service. Barnabas’ bank likes to think of Barnabas as a friend not a customer.
The Portcullis funeral is set to be a big event. He’s going to have his body launched into outer space. He wants his corpse to explore the cosmos for eternity. He’s going to do all these things but not before he’s told the entire world about it on national television. All of the news reporters can agree that William Portcullis is an example to us all. He’s a gift to the planet earth. A modern day saint. Better than a saint, in fact, because nobody ever launched any saints into space.
Barnabas finishes his soupy-coffee and makes his way to the changing rooms.
Everything is not as it should be in the changing rooms. Several items of Barnabas’ favourite equipment are missing. His helmet, his throwing axe. These things should be here but they are not. I mean, obviously, Barnabas doesn’t own those things. All of the equipment is for everyone. But everyone knows that those items are for Barnabas alone. Those are the things he always uses. He shouldn’t have to put up with this. He should complain to Mr Jarl. He would complain too but Mr Jarl doesn’t give a crap. Barnabas has lost 11 consecutive fights and missed two shifts. If Barnabas doesn’t like it at the Stadium he is free to leave and explain the situation to his good friends at the bank. Is that what Barnabas wants? No, it isn’t. Barnabas won’t complain to Mr Jarl. Mr Jarl has exactly no time for Barnabas’ shit.
Barnabas checks all of the places his equipment should be but he doesn’t find it.
Barnabas decides to do without a helmet a selects a medium sized cast iron hammer instead of his axe. Which is fine but he doesn’t have any kind of relationship with the hammer. It’s not his hammer that he always uses. He gives it an experimental swing. It’s fine. The hammer is fine.
Barnabas steps into the stadium and presses his thumb against the clocking-in panel. It makes a high-pitched ping of recognition. If you forget to clock-in you won’t get paid for your stadium time. Employees used to cut off their own thumbs and have friends clock-in for them but Mr Jarl got wise to that. The device can differentiate dead and living thumbs.
They were still cleaning away the remnants of the last fight and the massive speakers were recreating the sound that a large and lively audience would make had they been there.
It’s usually the case that the clean-up robots would put down fresh sand but it’s the off-peak shift on a Thursday so they’re just mixing up the old sand instead. Sand doesn’t grow on trees.
Barnabas makes his way around the periphery of the stadium to the waiting area. His colleague Pat is there too. Or most of him is. Pat’s nose is missing. Barnabas tells Pat this because it’s the polite thing to do.
“I forgot my pill this morning,” says Pat. “It’ll take all fucking afternoon to grow back.”
“You should take the rest of the day off.”
“For a nose? I should be so lucky.”
Barnabas doesn’t reply. What can you say to that? He’s right. You’re not going to get a day off just because you couldn’t look after your own nose. He takes a tissue from his pocket and offers it to Pat.
“Thanks,” says Pat, “Tell you what; you hold onto it just in case you find my fucking nose while you’re out there.”
The arena has been reset. Barnabas is up.
The speakers switch on.
Then on again.
This is a thing that the speakers do. They make an unhappy noise that becomes a guitar riff. Once the music is up and running the Auto Commentator begins his crackling introduction.
“24 hour caaaaaaaaarnage!”
The speaker system provides it’s own applause. You cannot rely for applause on an early morning audience, comprised as it is of the jobless, drunk, and lost.
“You’re watching the Thursday Matinee Deathstravaganza! Back-to-back fights. No adverts. No mercy.”
A spotlight seeks out Barnabas as he crosses the sand. It finds him. Pauses. Makes another final scan of the arena before settling back on Barnabas. The spotlight is sceptical. You would be too. Barnabas looks like a child’s drawing of a warrior.
“And now your second fight. Barnabas the Tomb Feeder versus…”
There is a synthetic drum roll.
“Edward! Error Alias Not Found.”
Edward must be new. The system hasn’t assigned him a nickname yet.
A second spotlight goes in search of him. As the light crosses the sand Barnabas catches a sight of Pat’s nose. The nose is half-buried in such a way that it looks as though a whole person could be submerged beneath it like a lost pyramid in the sand.
The spotlight finds Edward. The little shit has Barnabas’ axe and helmet. He’s wearing Barnabas’ actual helmet on his actual head and he’s grinning the grin of the eager and stupid. It’s obvious that Edward is happy to be here. In spite of the fact that he’s chosen plate armour heavier on one side than the other, in spite of the fact that the helmet doesn’t fit him. In spite of the incontrovertible fact that Barnabas is going to kill him in under a minute, Edward is happy, keen and cheerful.
Edward is holding the axe incorrectly in his left hand. In his right he has an oversized chainsaw that he’s clearly struggling to lift above waist height. His irregular weight and unfamiliar outfit make him move like a badly animated puppet in an old film.
Edward reaches Barnabas in the centre of the arena.
“Sorry I’m late,’ he says. ‘I got lost. It’s my first day.”
“Picked the costume yourself, did you?” says Barnabas.
“I went for all the biggest and heaviest things so I’d have the advantage.”
“So I see.”
“I got all the most amazing weapons. I can’t believe that nobody else had chosen the chainsaw already. Reckon I’ll do some damage with this.”
Barnabas eyes the chainsaw that the kid is failing to brandish one-handed. ‘I reckon you will,’ he says.
“What’s your weapon?” asks Edward.
Barnabas raises the small hammer to a position that the kid can see through his visor.
“Were you late in or something?” asks Edward.
Barnabas is going to put that hammer through Edward’s skull. There’s no two ways about this. The Auto Commentator begins the count down.
“This is exciting isn’t it?” says Edward. “I’m just doing this for the summer. I’m studying Philosophy at university.”
“First job, is it?” asked Barnabas.
“Yeah. My dad paid for my Livelong prescription for one summer. I’m saving money for travelling.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah I really want to see Tibet…”
The counter reaches zero.
“Does it hu…”
Edward doesn’t finish his question but he gets an answer. Barnabas hits him square in the jaw with his hammer. Edward turns on his chainsaw and hefts it high above his head. That’s a mistake. The weight is too much for him to hold. The chainsaw starts pulling him over backwards.
“Shit. What do you do when…” says Edward as Barnabas hits him in the chest with his hammer. Edward flails. Edwards lands backwards on his own chainsaw.
It made the kind of sound you’d need a few drinks to forget. The chainsaw jettisons teeth, blood and sparks in all directions. Barnabas doesn’t want to finish the kid off because it’ll ruin his favourite helmet. But fuck it, that’s the job. He delivers a killing blow to the head.
Barnabas feels a pang of guilt as blood runs over the kid’s frozen look of shock and embarrassment. But the guilt doesn’t last. The job isn’t for everyone. Edward will have to get used to it. Everyone else does. There are some Saturdays where Barnabas breaks every bone in his body and don’t bother asking Mr Jarl for an aspirin thank you health and safety.
The speakers declare the winner just as Edward’s heart restarts and the healing kicks in.
He’ll be fine. Didn’t he say he was only here for the summer anyway? Probably Mr Jarl will put him in the Sunday Animal Fights. He’ll spend the holidays getting ripped apart by lions. Kid like Edward probably loves animals. He’ll have a whale of a time.
Edwards visible wounds close like zippers and he gasps as though he’s come up from cold water.
“It fucking hurt…” he says.
He’ll be fine though. He’s at university. In 100 years time the little shit will be having himself launched into space.
Barnabas will still be here somewhere in 100 years time.
100 years to the day he’ll probably be making his way to the showers just like he is now. He’ll be looking at the same piece of graffiti on the shower wall.
It says: Life’s a bitch and then you die, then you die, then you die. Then back to work and then you die.
The kid’ll be fine though. The world was made for idiots like him.