We sat around a big round table and let Alex tell us what to do. He was in his mid-twenties and dressed in a t-shirt and jeans and sneakers. He was tanned and talked like a flight attendant. He never used the furniture in the room the way you’re supposed to. When we’d gone around the group and told him our names he’d got so excited that he’d stood up on the table and pumped his fists, and right now he was sitting sideways on a chair, using another chair to rest his feet on.
I was thinking; is this part of the test?
To be honest I had considered writing it down, but so far I hadn’t been given anything to write on and I’d had my phone and my bag taken off me.
Alex pushed the chair back and forth with his feet, almost letting it tip over but also never letting it tip over.
What had Alex so jazzed was a new energy drink. He had told us, more than once, that it was unlike anything else on the market. I was seated with the seven other people that made up the focus group. Each of us had a name tag. Sue, Maddie, Sebastian, Maddie, Boyd, Penelope, Steven, and me.
There were two Maddies.
The name tags had the effect that I didn’t bother remembering anyone’s name until they talked and then I read their name tags.
‘All I want is for you to be honest. Why Jessica over here,’ Alex said, pointing at me, ‘she could come up and say that it feels like she’s drinking garbage juice, and would I call her a liar? Would I question that she’s ever tasted the juice at the bottom of a garbage bin and so knows what she’s on about? No, I’m going to take her word for it.’
There was a small paper cup on the table in front of all of us, and inside the cup a bright liquid, somewhere on the colour spectrum between green and yellow. Earlier Sue had said she thought we’d be drinking from cans and Alex had shaken his head.
‘No you’re going to be drinking this stuff all day for the next three days,’ he’d said. ‘If we gave you a can each time you wanted to taste it you’d be on the moon. You’d drink the entire thing and you’d feel great, don’t get me wrong, but you’d also have ingested a dangerous amount of caffeine when the time came for you to leave.’
There was a tense silence until someone, one of the Maddies, laughed and Alex had looked at her, physically pained.
When he nodded we all lifted the cups and drank. Alex clapped once, and while he handed out questionnaire sheets he told us how envious he was of us, that he’d never be able to taste what we’ve tasted for the first time.
That ship had sailed.
When I arrived home my housemate Gerald was sitting in the bathroom, in the empty bathtub, writing some of his terrible poetry that I always pretended to like because I liked him as a person. I was sure he worked in the bathtub as a kind of dumb play, and that if I hadn’t come home he would have just been writing in the kitchen like any normal person.
‘How were the tests?’ he asked me. ‘What was it this time?’
‘I can’t say,’ I said. ‘I’ll never say.’
‘One day you’ll slip up,’ he said. ‘It’s only a matter of time. Then you’ll be out on the street. Your rep in tatters.’
‘I try things and then I’m honest about them,’ I said. ‘It’s easy.’
‘Sure,’ Gerald said.
The bathroom was the best room of our apartment to be in, what with it opening out into a balcony that looked towards the park, and the palm trees out there so you could sit in the water and try to picture a beach. It helped also that the rest of the place was not so crash hot.
‘What are you working on?’ I said.
‘I can’t talk about it either,’ Gerald said.
‘Read me a line.’
Gerald shook his head no. ‘I have big, big plans for this sonnet,’ he said.
On the second day Alex was wearing a cardigan over the same t-shirt and jeans. Instead of the seemingly endless questionaries we’d be given the day before, where we’d had to give things like ‘vitality of taste’ and ‘quality of initial impression’ a rating out of eight, this time we were encouraged to drink from the cups and then write down exactly what we thought.
‘Spare me no detail,’ Alex said. ‘You might be thinking that you’re wasting my time, but you’re not. If you want to write out a story that the drink inspires you to produce then go for it. Has anyone here read Proust? In that a man dunks a biscuit into some tea and a whole memory opens up inside of him, and his recollections form the bulk of the novel. It’s almost a thousand pages, all on this bland biscuit and its magic-like effects once it’s dunked into some plain-sounding tea.’
We shook our heads. I’d only over pretended to read it, when I was questioned at one of Gerald’s soirees that had been filled with other poets.
‘It’s a masterpiece,’ Alex said. ‘A work of real genius.’
When I lifted it to my lips and swallowed, the energy drink tasted like it did yesterday; like citrus and something else, something unnameable. There were lots of fruits in the world, many of which I’d never tasted, so it could have tasted like one of those, but if I was going to be honest it tasted more like a chemical, like something you’d use to stop bees from stinging you.
This time I wrote that down.
For the product vignette I wrote: My parents and I once went on holiday to a caravan park beside a bay. It was the end of summer and too cold to be swimming, but we tried to anyway. Someone, an old man, vanished in the water one afternoon, and there was a police search for him. What I remember the most is that we were all sitting around much later, eating dinner and talking, and then a red flare suddenly shot up and popped in the night air above us.
“That means they found him,” my father said shaking his head. “Fucking hell.”
When we were given a break I stood outside with Steven and Boyd, who were both smoking. I didn’t smoke but I chewed gum next to them.
‘This place I don’t know,’ Boyd said.
‘I had so much trouble sleeping last night,’ Steven said. ‘I was up all hours, looking at my computer. My wife didn’t like it.’
‘Mine gets worried, even though I tell her it’s nothing dangerous.’
‘It’s not drugs or the military.’
‘It’s a young person’s game, I’m too old to be putting all these things inside my body.’
‘Good luck getting anything else. I was managing staff at a warehouse then we all got replaced by some kind of robotic arm and some kid that knew how to program the arm.’
They both looked at me then for the first time, and I nodded at them in a way to let them know I was on their side.
‘Things are bullshit,’ I said.
Gerald drove us out of town that night to go watch for UFOs near the military base. I was wearing a beanie and a heavy jacket because Gerald only ever drove with the windows down. He said it was so he could feel like he was properly travelling, but sometimes added that it saved him money on petrol.
I’d been awake and agitated the night before too so Gerald had offered to take us both on a trip to help me level out.
‘I feel fine, don’t be worried,’ I said, while he sped through the darkness.
‘You keep clenching your jaw in weird ways,’ Gerald said. ‘It’s alarming.’
‘I always do that. I busted my face up when I was skateboarding as a kid. You’ve just never noticed it before.’
Gerald shook his head, meaning he couldn’t hear me. I guess I was mumbling. Wind whipped around us and threw the debris inside the car around.
‘Let the car roll across the dusty road,’ he said, quoting from one of his poems, ‘because by the end I’ll find you out there.’
It wasn’t much of a poem, that’s true, but I was over-tired and the night air was rushing in, and I cried a little because of this.
On the last day we were put in a waiting room that had eight chairs in it and nothing else, apart from a doorway at the other end of the room, and a red light above the doorway. We all took a seat and Alex came in and took a knee in front of us.
‘Today, pretty soon really, we’ll reveal what our final prototype is. It’s inside there on a stand with nothing else in the room. I’m not supposed to describe it in any way so I don’t blow out your expectations. The room is white, the stand is white. You will be assaulted by whiteness apart from the product. After a few minutes a door will open and you can leave.’
‘Do we take notes?’ Sue asked.
‘Excellent question, and no. We have a slow-motion camera that films your face when you lay your eyes on the product, then we have a whole team of facial experts to pore over the data later. So let me say well done, this is like your graduation from us. I am like your best professor, watching you and nodding. You will never see me again and let me drop a friendly reminder that you’re banned from mentioning the name of our product, describing the product, or providing anyone with a representation of the product with any kind of rough sketch, drawing or mixed media artwork. Good luck.’
I expected someone to clap or say thank you, and was in fact anticipating it, but it did not happen and I didn’t want to be the first person to do anything like that. The light above the door went green. Alex came over and patted Sebastian on the shoulder.
‘You’re up first,’ he said.
‘God bless,’ Sebastian said.
Alex pointed at the light next to the door, and explained that when it went green we were supposed to get up from our chair and enter the room. Sebastian disappeared inside the room and the light went back to red. I was going to be the fourth in, after Maddie and Boyd. There was nothing to do and no one talked, so I held my wrist with one hand, in the space where my watch would go if I wore a watch. It seemed like an hour passed before the light changed and Maddie lifted herself out of her chair, and then even longer before it was Boyd’s turn, who nodded at me slightly before leaving.
When I was up I stood and went through the door, conscious that I was being watched by the other four. It made the back of my neck itch.
Alex had been right, the room was blindingly white. The door shut behind me, and in the centre of the room was a stand and the stand was empty. I looked around to see if anything had fallen on the ground, but the only two things in the room were me and the white stand. I turned around to go back out, but the door was closed now and there wasn’t any kind of handle for me to use.
‘Hey,’ I said, knocking on the door. ‘Hey, let me back in, I think it’s been stolen.’
I waited but no one came to the door. I knocked again, this time louder, and then put my ear to the door to try and hear what was going on.
‘There’s a mistake,’ I said. ‘Let me come back.’
I waited, and still, I heard nothing.
Chris Somerville is a writer who lives in Melbourne. His first book, a collection of short stories, is called We Are Not The Same Anymore. He can be followed on twitter at @chrisomerville.