Xconnect




The Hidden Agenda

Andy J Campbell


I

THE SMALL GREEN BOOKLET WAS OFFERED TO ME by a homeless man standing on a savaged cardboard box. I was in the heart of Huddersfield at the time; it was Monday, I had the day off work, and Sod's Law had decided to darken the sky to the colour of a nasty bruise and squeeze it until it produced random spittles of snow. The New Year had been alive for barely more than eight days. Shop windows were plastered with old stock, diagonal SALE stickers, squadrons of enthusiastic pensioners rooting through reduction baskets and children tugging relentlessly at their parents' coats. My own shopping spree had, so far, been remarkably fruitless, and so, not wanting to go home empty handed, I decided yes, alright, I would purchase a copy of the ominous green booklet, just this once, but with no promises that I would actually read it, you understand.

The shivering homeless salesman listened attentively to my muttery complaints as I dug into my pockets and felt through an embarrassingly large amount of change. He nodded and said "oh thanks mate, thanks, brilliant mate, nice one" despite the fact that I was nudging closer to evacuation with every passing, freezing-cold second.
When my fifty pence piece did at last materialise, the man, who had dashes of white like polystyrene balls stuck in his dishevelled hair, accepted the coin with all the grace and politeness of an archaeologist handling a fragment of a dinosaur egg. In return, I relieved him of the booklet (which was called The Hidden Agenda and was now damp with patches of wet) and slid it clumsily into my coat pocket. "Cheers mate, happy new year, cheers," called the man, waving me on up the street with a maroon-gloved hand. I put on speed and didn't wave back. The snow was spilling down over the town centre like a frothy waterfall and sticking to the flags already. People were struggling to put up hoods and unfasten umbrellas and climb into cars - as if there had been some mass telepathic announcement that Huddersfield was about to be invaded by the Martians.
Alarmed by all this sudden chaos (which to my mind seemed to have been triggered by my reluctant purchase of the booklet), I ploughed into the door of the nearest up-market cafe and bustled my way inside.
Before long I was enjoying a strong cup of tea and a cigarette and amusedly watching from my snug window-seat the progress of the public panic that had been initiated by the snow. Whilst a car parked directly adjacent to the cafe died a spluttery death and the young female passenger scrambled out to commence the strenuous pushing, I began to lethargically peel the wrapper off my three-pack of jam rings and then to nibble away the biscuit from around the sugary, strawberry-flavoured centre.
When the woman and the car had gone and the cafe was swimming with kids and coughs and wet rain coats, I produced the booklet, tossed it onto the table and examined the front cover. 'The Hidden Agenda by 'Randalph Leeson' it said at the top and, some distance below: 'No tickets required to get into this zoo. You're one of the animals.' There was also a barely distinguishable illustration of a monkey laid on top of a derelict wall and wearing dark glasses behind all this puzzling text, as though it were there to offer some form of cryptic clue.
Like a drunken man contemplating the punch-line of a subtle joke, I eventually lost patience and decided I would simply pretend to get it. I snorted and nodded to myself and casually glanced around the busy cafe to see if anyone had been watching. Two tables away, I noticed a woman switch her eyes back to her oppositely-seated companion. Three tables to the left of her, an elderly man wearing a brown hat and matching scarf engaged me in a long visual battle... Before returning his gaze to his empty plate. Nobody, I observed, was reading, holding, or even in possession of one of the small, green, fifty pence booklets. There was only I.
Feeling immensely uncomfortable, I turned the first page over and ran my finger down the crease of the spine. The paper onto which the text had been printed bordered on the quality of that which we use to wipe our bottoms, though for fifty pence I suppose it would be delusional to expect Premium Bond. Materialistic gripes aside, there were a good twenty pages and the binding, although flimsy and amateurish, was sufficient enough to keep the publication held quite neatly together. Any form of contents list appeared to be absent. Instead, there was a lengthy preface, entitled 'Unlearning the Already Learned' and from then on the booklet was divided into ten brief sections, each one classified as a 'lesson' (followed by a roman numeral) and appointed with a different - I assumed fictional - tale.
In effect, I had been sold a cheap and badly produced collection of what after a few moments browsing appeared to be short, contemporary stories. I closed the booklet, docked my cigarette, got up and went to the toilet. I was no fiction fan, let me assure you now - the very idea of bulldozing through a bunch of fashionable, depressing stories of child, alcohol and drug abuse turned me off like a powercut.
I emerged from the toilet wondering why on Earth I had failed to take The Hidden Agenda with me for resource saving purposes, only to discover that, to my alarm, approximately half of the inhabitants of the cafe had, out of seemingly nowhere, produced small, green, fifty pence booklets and were quietly, compulsively reading them.

II

Had I not been distracted by one small but significant spelling mistake I am quite sure that I would have remained in the suddenly subdued cafe avidly reading The Hidden Agenda until I reached the final full-stop. It was absolutely mesmerising. The fact that I had purchased such a compelling series of stories for the price of fifty pence from, of all people, a man who's bedding included a large grocery storage box disturbed me almost as greatly as the spelling mistake.

It was shortly after discovering the error that I happened to glance out of the window to update myself on the weather. The snow had calmed to a light, fluttery sprinkle, not unlike small bird feathers, and there were bargain-hunters milling around again and cars hovering through a canal of coffee-coloured slush.
"Just a shower I think sir," came the voice of one of the waiters from somewhere close beside me.
"Pardon?" I said, absently tidying my jumper. "Oh, yes. Yes, probably."
The waiter, a tall, dark and crystal-eyed boy of about seventeen, nodded to my acknowledgement before pointing with his rubber-ended pencil to the booklet that lay open beside my ashtray.
"You want to finish that, sir. Brilliant book. Ought to be on the best-seller shelves at Dillons."
"Really?" I was intrigued to hear another's opinion. I glanced at the work in question and scratched my stubble. "But it was merely fifty pence. I purchased it from, ah," I nodded towards the window. "A-a man just down the street there..."
"Huddersfield sir," the boy grinned, somewhat proudly. "Literary capital of England. Or there abouts. Simon Armitage comes from here you know."
"Simon who?" I inquired.
"Armitage. Famous young poet. Never heard of him?"
"I'm afraid not."
"It's been on the news, sir."
"I'm sorry?" I couldn't quite see the connection. "What's been on the news?"
"The Hidden Agenda, sir. The book you're reading. Nobody knows who the real author is. Apparently it's springing up everywhere. London. Birmingham. Manchester. The homeless are selling it. You know, like they sell The Big Issue."
He paused as if for response.
"Yes, yes, I know about The Big Issue," I impatiently prompted. "Tell me more about this booklet, please, I'm absolutely intrigued."
"Well, sir, I read-"
"Simon!" a plump cook dressed in a striped red apron hollered from across the room. "You got an order for table six."
The young waiter excused himself and scuttled away through the tables like mouse enclosed in a maze. "Er, excuse... Me..." I tried, but to no avail. The boy dropped his pencil, picked it up, then disappeared through a silver swing-door marked 'STAFF ONLY'.
I was, however, in a sense, quite relieved to be left alone again with the perplexing booklet and its oddly familiar spelling mistake, for it was during the following solitary ten minutes or so that my mind happened to land upon an intriguing hypothesis: I might have been, not five years ago, a very good friend of the author.
There were of course one or two minor set-backs prior to my arrival at this unlikely proposition. Firstly, 'Randalph Leeson' would be a pseudonym, for my old friend's name was the common and somewhat less inspiring 'Craig Andrews'; secondly, his writing would have matured to the incredible standard of The Hidden Agenda within the suspiciously narrow time-span of half a decade; and thirdly - perhaps most ridiculously - he would still, despite my repeated tutorings, be unable to spell the word 'scenario' without misplacing the 'e' with an 'i'. "Sc-en," I remember impatiently emphasising to the man. "It's spelt S C E as in 'scene'... Scene, you know? 'What a beautiful scene that is.' Come on Craig, it can't be that hard to remember." Of course, I hadn't known about his dyslexia when I'd said that.
For a while the idea that Andrews - a talented but mentally restricted English student - had penned The Hidden Agenda seemed both romantic and hysterical. Andrews and I had first met in a large ware house in the summer of 1993, where we had been paired off to work together transferring stock from the back of heavy goods vehicles onto pallets for fork-lift truck manipulation. The job had involved keeping an accurate count of the number of boxes marked with a certain design - this is where I had initially become aware of Craig's difficulties, for he had been unable to properly carry out even this simple, mathematical task.
Indeed I was on the verge of an explosion of private, sleeve-stifled laughter when I began to read the third stunning story in the booklet. This particular tale, however, soon made me choke (almost physically) on my own unnecessary amusement, for it contained a central character I knew, for definite, to be absolutely unique to Craig Andrews.

III

Using the Day Rover I had purchased at ten o'clock that morning, I ventured first to Bradford to pay a visit to my brother (who had recently been bedridden with a severe dose of gastric flu) and then to Weathercock Lane, Stone Bridge in the hope of dropping in for a chat with an old, perhaps marvellously talented, friend. I knew that approaching Andrews' home was a dramatic and risky move, not least because I had longsince forgotten his telephone number and had no idea whether he still resided there, but somehow... It felt like the right thing to do. It felt, I have to confess, quite exciting.

By the time the bus slithered into the outskirts of Stone Bridge I had read all but one of the stories contained within the pages of 'The Hidden Agenda' and indeed a wiser man I felt because of it. It was a strange, almost indefinable quality which oozed from the stories; they managed to peel open my emotions with their subtle delicacy and yet brutally taunt and interrogate my every fundamental belief. I could not help but wonder how far its distribution (in this wonderfully economical form) had managed to stretch and to what extent it was affecting the mind of the population as a whole. It was as though the writer, dyslexic shelf-stacker or not, had somehow tapped into an entirely separate mode of consciousness - one that we, as a society, somehow know exist but simply cannot accept or understand. (Higher Consciousness, I think the mystics call it.) The collection was, to put it bluntly, pointing an enormous finger in the face of humanity and accusing it of gratuitous slumber.
As the bus jounced over speedramps and traversed roundabouts I found myself reading the prose with increased anger, frustration, excitement; outside, the world, almost as if it were reflecting my thoughts, was slinking away into sea of thick fog, the lights becoming soft chalky smudges, the buildings developing scale and power. Soon so much of the night had been lost it was as though the near-empty vehicle had taken flight and was soaring through the clouds or passing turbulently across some psychic sleeper's dreamworld. Traffic lights were thin soldiers with gleaming heads; parked cars were crashed escape pods, their dazed inhabitants emerging only to be consumed by the hungry mist; evening shoppers were dark blurs beneath gothic towers; and torn green booklets blew like big false money into the gutters. Perhaps, I thought, the Martians have landed after all.
Or perhaps the world had taken a noticable step towards anarchy; a bold, frightening step triggered by the production and mass-distribution of the subversive booklet which lay open on my lap. This idea, no matter how preposterous it may seem to you, gentle listener, launched a sharp chill down the back of my neck. I seriously considered abandoning my visit to drop in on Andrews - contemplated demanding the driver to stop, in fact, before the fog transcended atmospheric and became abnormal, dangerous. However, before I could allow any one of my panic- stricken thoughts to manifest, the bus began its sluggish descent into the Stone Bridge station.
I stood behind the two other well-dressed travellers as the brakes squealed and the folding double-doors clattered open. Snow-flakes blustered around our feet as the three of us disembarked, the awaiting passengers nudging our shoulders and banging our knees with briefcases in the hurry to get on board.
Admittedly I hadn't walked the streets of Stone Bridge for several months, having had no real reason to do so, but even still I found that hardly a road, building or lamppost felt familiar. It was as if somebody had inversed the entire town or flipped it over and randomly plucked away some of its features.
The snow had fallen more heavily in this region, it seemed. The sky was a hazy replica of the ground, almost giving off the impression that one could look up and see one's own reflection standing there on the pavement, and the roads were dark rivers of shattered amber light. There were no casual shoppers or strolling business men, no clusters of misbehaving schoolkids or parents pushing prams, only barren streets sprinkled with occasional runners and hiders and one or two 'keepers hurriedly locking doors. There was also an eerie silence, as though not only the streets were empty, but the buildings too - gutted of human content and ready for demolition.
I have to confess at this point that I am a weak, easily-influenced man who will rarely go against the flow in any situation, albeit physical, social or political. The reason I have a box of Low Tar in my pocket, for instance, stems from the fact that I did not have the guts to say no back in high school, and to a certain extent my dying marriage is a result of that very same fear. I considered turning back and heading home that night, for the atmosphere as I walked through the town centre was one of such intense emptiness it began to frighten me. However, I did not turn back.
I did not.
It is perhaps ironic that it was - and I can only say this now, some time after the incident - the psychological effects of 'The Hidden Agenda' which drove me into continuing my spur-of-the-moment journey. This, and of course the surreal sight of hundreds of copies of the revolutionary booklet ignorantly splashed across roads and battered against doorways.

IV

The number of Andrews' house had disappeared from my memory, as had the name of the grubby backstreet down which it was located. I did however have vivid recollections of an unusually tall iron gate and a cyan door containing three narrow glass panels. I circled several dark blocks of untidy semi-detached houses before coming to a halt outside a gate which roughly matched my previous description. Despite the fact that the door of the accompanying house was - from what I could tell under the rich amber of the streetlights - a dull shade of green and completely window- less, I unfastened the latch, pushed the gate open and made my way up the snow-coated lawn.

I knocked four times, glanced at my watch (it was half past seven) and then stood around the way people generally do after they've knocked on somebody's door. I considered extracting the booklet from my coat pocket in case recognition turned out to be difficult but dismissed the idea on non other the increasingly familiar basis that it "felt right" to do without it.
Within twenty seconds, I heard the rattle of a chain followed by the metallic click of a security lock; the door eased wide open, as if by automatic, revealing a warm yellow hallway. I was so taken aback, I almost failed to notice a man's head protruding from behind the frame.
"Do come in," announced the head.
Such an immediate invitation did not register and I could not tell at first glance whether the head belonged to Andrews; it had barely a hair on its scalp and dark semi-circles under its eyes, like some ghastly butler from a low-budget horror movie.
"Ex... Excuse me," I said. "I'm... I'm looking for an old friend, he used to live around here."
"Look, just come in Philip," the head insisted. I jolted upon its reciting my name and took a step back.
"Phil," The head closed its eyes briefly. "I've just got out of the bath and I'm wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, now will you get your bottom off my doorstep and into my house?"
I would not have wished genital frostbite even on my worst enemy; I stepped into the warm golden light and took off my hat.
"I'm sorry," I said. "But... This is such a shock. Were you actually expecting me?"
"Yes," came the reply from behind. The door closed and the sequence of metallic noises was repeated. "Please, go through into the living- room, I'll be with you in a minute. I'll just pop upstairs and get dressed. Nice to see you again by the way, Phil. It's been four years, hasn't it?"
"Andrews?" I quizzed, turning around in time to see a fairly stocky man ascending the adjacent staircase. "Ah, five, actually," I called.
"Five, wow, incredible... Make yourself at home."
Although I had not yet had the opportunity to search for full facial recognition, it was starkly obvious that I had come to the right house. This revelation, coupled with the delightful relief to be - at last - out of the cold, injected into me a powerful boost of self-confidence. I took off my coat and hung it, together with my hat, over the end of the bannister, as if the house were mine and I had just come in from work. Then, whistling, I pushed open the living room door and walked inside.

V

I emerged not only from the door which led back into the hallway but also from a slightly duller replica that lay straight ahead. Initially this confused me; I offered a shy "hello" to the gentleman who had seemingly entered the room at the same time as I... Before realising that he was in fact my own reflection.

Deeply embarrassed, I shuffled entirely out of the doorway and into the room proper. From here, I engaged visual contact with a further three life-size clones of myself, each at slightly different angles; I also saw the lower half of my face boxed into a green frame on top of the windowsill, like an accidental shot taken by an already appalling photographer. It took me some time to realise that I was the victim of a series of strategically-placed mirrors, some small and dainty, others enormous, overwhelming.
The walls (where not consumed by mirrors) were hiding behind oak- effect panels, treacle toffee in colour and littered with golden clocks and colourful, surrealist paintings. The room itself was small (indeed it felt like the back of a cave or the furthest chamber in some deep and complex attic) and illuminated only by the moon-like glow of a circular lamp and a soft, almost unnoticable, flicker emanating from an extravagant fireplace. The mirrors, however, rendered the impression that there were a further four identically furnished chambers, no less. (If one were to remain out of reflective reach, I supposed, the illusion would be astonishingly convincing and not unlike some bizarre drawing by M C Escher.)
There were three chairs and a two-cushion settee, all coppery-brown and positioned so that the seats were facing the fire, and various other dark wooden furnishings - a China cabinet, a large corner bookshelf, a four-door sideboard and a desk with a computer and monitor. Everything, even the new technology, looked antique.
I must also mention here that the room had its own unique odour which smelt not unlike an expensive talc I had received as a Christmas present. I was thus reminded - if perhaps inattentively - of my wife and the current relationship I shared with her; our vague smiles and hope- less conversations, our cul-de-sac careers and faded love. 'I could be boxed into my own heart,' I contemplated as I studied myself in the refractive gloom. 'Everywhere I look, yearning to see what lies beyond the prison walls, I stare only into a matrix of images of my dreary self.'
I was aroused from my grievous thoughts by the arrival of an alien reflection; that of Andrews standing in the doorway. He was dressed in a plain, navy blue sweater, black trousers and tartan slippers, and holding what I assumed to be a bottle of wine.
"Drink?" he offered.
"I think perhaps I ought to," I replied, turning away from the mirrors in unison with my various other selves. "I must say your living room is quite remarkable. Congratulations."
"Thankyou," said Andrews, strolling over to the fireplace. He crouched down and began to sort through the silvery contents of an African vase. "Unfortunately, this is the only room of its kind in the house. The kitchen's just your average kitchen, the bedrooms are just plain old bedrooms, and the toilet..." He looked up at me, grinning, a corkscrew held between finger and thumb. "Well, it's bog-standard." He began to dig into the top of the bottle. "Yes... Imperial Leather, Slazenger Sport, Toilet Duck, faulty shower system, you name it... Ah," There was a gentle pop and a soft hiss. "Fifteen quid from Sainsbury's, would you like a drop?"
"Please," I nodded. "May I sit down?"
"Of course, don't be silly," said Andrews, producing two small glasses from around the edge of the cluttered hearth. "The majority of my guests tend to be disillusioned by this room's sort of, ah, 'glassy look', as if they're afraid everything will fall to pieces if they attempt to sit down," He laughed to himself, quietly. "Please, make yourself at home."
"I'll try my best," I said, gently easing myself into the nearest arm- chair. It appeared to sink a little too much beneath my weight, like a gigantic beanbag, but after some shuffling I began to feel luxuriously comfortable. "How did you know I was coming?"
Andrews smiled. "Didn't, really. I assumed only one thing: that if anyone were to spot the deliberate spelling mistake it would be you."
"Deliberate?" I came close to shouting. "You mean...?"
"Let's ah... Let's talk about the mirrors," said Andrews evasively, now carefully pouring the wine. "Wonderful, aren't they? They're here for a practical reason more than any other. My intention was not to create a sort of, ah, domestic circus attraction, but rather an environ- ment in which I could comfortably work."
"Work?" I quizzed.
"Yes," confirmed Andrews, topping off the drinks. "I assume you haven't forgotten, Phil, that I have, ah... A slight brain disorder?" He handed me my wine. I thanked him and shook my head as inoffensively as possible. "Good. Then what I'm about to tell you shouldn't be too difficult for your... Ah, 'conventional' mind to grasp." He chuckled wheezily. "No offence, of course."
"Not at all." I smiled, offended.
"It does tie in with your original question of how I... Sort of knew you would be coming - indeed there is far more to it that the spelling mistake alone - but, ah, it may take a while for me to actually get to that part. You don't have any other appointments, do you Phil?"
I briefly scanned my mental chalkboard and found that it was blank, as usual. "Ah, no. No, not really."
"Good, then I'll begin."

VI

Like a crab, Andrews managed to scamper backwards along the carpet and climb up and into the other armchair without spilling a drop of his wine - a performance almost as bizarre as the room itself. I was glad that he had chosen the chair and not the settee for it meant that he would be sitting directly opposite, and I could initiate a secret facial analysis.

I could not believe how tired and bedraggled my friend looked. When I had known him he'd been a tall and muscular man with thick bushy hair and a healthy, peachy complexion. His eyes had been bright and sharp and full of zest and had expanded so wide sometimes I used to think they were on the brink of popping out.
Now, I saw only a podgy, balding, sick-looking creature with a white, sunken face that looked as if it were made out of dough. It was quite obvious to me that life had grabbed this unsuspecting man by the neck and choked him with all its filthy, unromantic might. And by God had Andrews been unprepared. Like me, he was a dying kid in an adult shell, the shock of life's responsibilities frozen on his face like a birth- mark. Yes, I thought, this mock-grown-up is more of a reflection of me than the entire room.
"Do you remember Phil, when I used to have to ask for your assistance when filling in those... Daft little pink trading forms back in the old warehouse days?"
I nodded and took a sip of wine. "I do indeed."
"Good. Then you'll also remember that, given enough time, I was actually capable of filling in those forms for myself, yes? Admittedly, I was very slow, had to think hard, write carefully... But I was able to complete them, was I not?"
"That's right, yes, I remember," I said, although to be honest with you, gentle listener, I didn't remember at all. To my mind Andrews - minus some startlingly impressive ideas for fiction - had been as thick as a Yorkie bar. He could have been making this 'I was actually capable' rubbish up according to his own warped fantasies and I would not have known any different.
"Well, had I been able to write in my, ah, 'natural way' I would have had those pink forms completed as quickly as you or any other member of staff. You see Phil, I have what is sometimes referred to as 'Leonardo's Syndrome', a label which originates, of course, from Leonardo da Vinci, whose journals and manuscripts - you may or may not know - were almost entirely written in mirror-writing. To me, writing from left to right takes as much effort as it would take somebody like you to write in reverse."
I wasn't at all sure whether I was taking any of this in, but I nodded anyway, just to make it appear as though I was.
"When I first exploded into mirror-writing," Andrews resumed. "I thought I had finally cracked how to write: there it was on the page, line after line of it, and I could read it! Perfectly! I was twelve years old... I decided to show my English teacher, who had more or less given up on me, and ah... She... She laughed. She actually laughed at what I'd written and humiliated me in front of the entire class. This, I can assure you, was enough to convince me that I had several screws loose, up here, you know?
"So, I kept the mirror-writing strictly in the closet. I filled notebooks with it. Hundreds of private notebooks. And in my spare time I practised translating my words into what you would regard as normal text - but by God it was so difficult! It felt strenuous, wrong and unnatural. The stories I used to show you, Phil, the hand-written ones, remember? Why do you think they were so appallingly disjointed? They were the results of my translations - poorly assembled versions of stories I had initially written in reverse."
At that point in the man's intriguing speech, I have to admit that something was indeed beginning to click. At the very least, Andrews had managed to gain my complete attention.
"I began to realise," he went on. "That it is the conventional education system which eliminates the idea that a dyslexic person can have any... Ah, 'intelligent' effect on society. Schoolhood is often a traumatic time for those in my situation; what the majority of children find "easy", dyslexics often find terribly difficult - and vice-versa. Angered, I began to privately challenge this 'weeding out' process by writing hypothetical articles and stories. What I eventually came to discover, however, was that it is not only dyslexics who suffer horrific prejudice, but simply those who dare to oppose what is conventionally acceptable - whether their ideas and morals are superior or not."
I glanced at the computer and monitor in the corner of the room and commented suddenly, thoughtfully: "Technology helped you," Andrews began to nod in a rapid, energetic manner. "Yes, I've heard that software can be of great assistance to the... The ah..."
"Mentally disabled?" suggested Andrews, smiling a little. "You are on the right track Phil. Computers have helped me a great deal. I have a program, for instance, which 'flips over' my reversed sentences and spell-checks them simultaneously. As for my writing itself... You do have to take into consideration, do you not, that I was probably already at a far higher level than that which might have been suggested by my badly translated texts? The first story in the booklet for instance, I wrote - in reverse, naturally - when I was just eighteen."
"Eighteen, gosh," I scratched my head, feeling grossly incompetent. "Indeed that, ah... That is quite an astounding achievement."
The revelation that my dyslexic friend was in fact some sort of 'freak genius' was getting harder for me to take by the second; I promptly realised that if I didn't divert the subject away from 'unconventional talent' I would be in danger of sounding obsequious with all of my unavoidably stunned remarks.
"I, I wonder if I might ask why you chose to distribute the booklet via the streets?" I said. "I mean, why not approach a, a publish- ing house? They'd be foolish to turn down material of such... Well, for want of a better word, such lucid quality."
"There has never been a better time to self-publish, Phil," Andrews declared, picking bits of fluff off his trousers. "The master template and the first batch of eight hundred copies of The Hidden Agenda were printed here, believe it or not, upstairs in a fully-featured miniature press office. Two grand, Phil. No more. Sure, I had to find myself a few friendly deals and a second hand laser printer but hey, no problem. Add a couple of anonymous contacts dotted around the country, an Internet connection for email access," He shrugged. "Publication at my fingertips."
I was really getting into the discussion now and had begun to nudge towards the edge of the chair. "But surely we're missing the point here, aren't we? The point being... Well, why? Why did you do this? Just to spite convention? I mean... What...?"
Craig Andrews downed the last of his wine and studied the bottom of his glass. "Because we're not ready for the age of Aquarius." he said.

VII

He relaxed into his chair as if he'd said all he wanted to say for the evening and now it was my turn to intelligently respond. Unfortunately I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Aquarius, to me, was the name of one of those daft symbols associated with astrology, which in turn was linked with cliched 'Mystic Meg' columns found in tabloid newspapers. I was on the brink of turning the conversation into a slagging session when - albeit in a long-winded fashion - Andrews began to elaborate:

"The Hidden Agenda has been carefully designed to have a specific effect on the general public - the results of ah, 'tests', if you will, carried out by myself and a handful of my associates. Believe me that effect is now working: the booklet is on the radio, TV, the World Wide Web, Teletext, plastered across the streets... The Hidden Agenda has become gossip, Phil, and therefore it cannot lose."
I uttered a confused laugh. "Wait a second, just hang on... You seem to be under the impression that your unorthodox trek into the realms of vanity publishing has, has... Been a success," I threw my arms up in the air dramatically - wineglass included - only partially oblivious to the fact that I was getting slightly drunk, not to mention galloping into the unsociable realms of jealousy and bitterness. "Now, now from the enormous amount of green booklet-shaped litter strewn about the region, I would ascertain that your magnificent accomplishment has been ...Well," I struggled for a while before sighing and settling for: "Not very much of an accomplishment."
Whilst I swayed around, deeply considering this savage insult, Andrews got up, obtaining his bottle of wine in the process, and gestured refilling my glass.
"Please darling, wouldn't mind another dose," I sniggered stupidly. "By the way, what's the volume of this stuff? I don't want to get drunk you know."
"The first enticement," Andrews smiled, gracefully pouring the bloody liquid. "Is the price. What the hell's fifty pence in today's market, Phil?" He paused, my glass half-full, and looked at me questioningly.
"What do you mean 'what's fifty pence'? It's a coin isn't it!" I barked laughter.
"It holds the same value that a five pence held a decade ago," Andrews explained, ignoring my rather feeble sarcasm. He did not resume pouring the wine but instead gripped me in a sharp, almost hostile, stare. "The sales go one hundred percent to the homeless; I get nothing."
"Nothing!" I burped and patted my chest. "Ooh, excuse me... Nothing my mother's bra! What's the catch?"
"I get nothing," he repeated firmly, standing there like a statue with the bottle tilted. "But because modern times have programmed it into us that we 'just don't get any sort of material goods for free' we react the way you have done. By God, you wouldn't believe the trouble I had convincing the homeless - of all people! - to take batches of booklets from me. Like you, they just kept talking about 'small print' and 'catches' and 'what the deal was'. In the end I had to let them buy the books and throw their money back to them! What kind of society do we live in, Phil, where profit has to be involved with even the most basic forms of creativity?"
At last, he topped off my drink. I thanked him and took a sip almost immediately. "Ah, I don't know," I coughed. The room was getting a bit blurry. Andrews began to pace around my chair, making me feel like a murder suspect in some futuristic interrogation chamber. (Indeed I had forgotten what the world was like outside of this room; I felt to have been sandwiched between its lavishly decorated walls for hours.)
"As I was saying," Andrews continued loudly. "'It's only fifty pence, what the hell,' thinks your average person, digging into his or her pockets, unable to confess even to themselves that their main interest stems not from the price, but from the title of the booklet - the word 'hidden', Phil, activates the greedy aromas currently lingering beneath the Nations' nose. They can't help themselves. They purchase a copy of the booklet and stuff it into their shopping bag. Then, when they reach a cafe, or settle down on the bus, or pop into the local for a pint of Tetley, they rummage around and find it and rip open the first page."
Andrews stopped in front of me and turned. "That, Phil, is when I have them. The stories challenge, insult, slap around the head, and yet the readers of The Hidden Agenda continue because they can't help it, they simply have to know what happens, and this desire overrides any gut reaction until, at last, down comes the sword in the form of the final 'lesson'... Wounded by this great insulting blow, they get angry and throw the book aside. It's trash! it's stupid! it's bullshit! Away with it... But," Andrews lowered his voice to a whisper. "It's too late, Phil. It's far too late. Like a bee sting the book must now die, but the poison, my friend, has already found its way into the bloodstream."

VIII

Floating around like some muddy twig in a vast pond was the revelation that I had not yet read The Hidden Agenda final showdown and had thus managed to avoid, at least for the moment, being 'poisoned' by its apparently deadly 'sting'. I contemplated revealing this knowledge to Andrews, who I'm quite sure was convinced that I had read the entire works, but in the end declined, for several reasons - the most obvious of which being the fact that I no longer had any positive feelings about the man.

Andrews had, as far as I was concerned, cunningly lured me here to gloat about his marvellously original but ludicrously paranoid master- plan (not to mention to drug me upto the eyeballs with a tampered-with wine and to dazzle me senseless with his glamorous, many-mirrored room). In an odd way, however, I was quite enjoying it all; I hadn't permitted myself to slip away into a state of hysteric drunkenness (nor, come to think of it, had I conversed with an individual whom I could regard as an 'old friend') for several years. I think perhaps one small, alcohol- soaked section of my brain actually believed that the whole situation was a hoax; that Jeremy Beadle was going to pop out from behind one of the cabinets, tear off a false beard, plant a microphone under my chin and shout, "How do you feel, Phil, come on, how do you feel?". Another, more sober, part was taking everything so seriously it was on the brink of coming to the same foreboding apex. Either way, I was beginning to truly appreciate my drunken giddiness.
Andrews, on the other hand, most definitely wasn't.
"I am the writer, you are the reader," he said divinely, now resting his elbows on my knees. "I am the booklet, you are the helplessly intrigued."
I snorted and hiccupped simultaneously. "Oh darling, how poetic."
Andrews flung himself up and kicked my chair, hard; I produced a yelp and spilt wine over my trousers.
"Oh... Damn! Blast!" I made as if to get up.
"Remain seated!" barked Andrews, pointing at me.
"But, my drink..." I flopped back into the chair. "I've spilt my drink-"
"Tough! You don't move a muscle until I have concluded my speech, is that understood?"
"But... You made me jump out of my skin! I need a paper towel or a, a cloth or something-"
"SHUT UP!" He brought his hand down on the sideboard with one massive thump which made every mirror in the room vibrate. "Shut the hell up for God's sake! Do you not understand? Is your brain incapable of conceiving the fact that this is real, that this is actually happening?"
I shook my head, distressed by the man's violent hostility. "I'm sorry... I-I don't follow."
"Ignorance comes from the book's demand for basic change," snarled Andrews, now assuming a stance not unlike that of a boxer awaiting his opponents attack. "We are born into a society which then programs us to believe in certain values and principles, and an enormous chunk of that programming is devoted to convincing us that we simply cannot, under any circumstances, break the program. The Hidden Agenda, Phil, is a 'Hacker's Handbook' which allows one to see the core program for what it is: a bundle of weak, greedy, self-obsessive, misguided 'rules'."
Andrews dug into his trouser pockets and produced a handkerchief. He offered it to me.
"I'm sorry," he confessed, wiping his mouth with his free hand. (He had a large, purple-lipped mouth which reminded me of a tulip.) "I, ah, I got a little carried away. Forgive me. Here, take this. Clean yourself up."
"Thank you... Oh... are you sure? This is quality materia-"
"Use it," Andrews discarded my argument with a brief flick of his hand. I decided it would be best not to pursue the matter any further. Andrews sat down again opposite me and folded his arms, as though he were about to practice the art of levitation.
"Did you know, Phil, that we have been in the Age of Pisces since the birth of Christ?"
I winced at the sound of more astrological jargon. "Ah... Pisces, yes, ah... That, that's my star sign... I mean, I don't know much about astrology, but... Well, I know I'm a Pisces."
"Why am I not surprised?" Andrews grinned, as though battling to suppress the hilarity of some personal or astrological joke. "The Age of Pisces represents compassion, sensitivity, self-sacrifice - this was supposed to begin two thousand years ago, Phil, with the birth of the son of God. You see, Christ was the messenger; he gave us the ultimate gift - that of his life for our disgraceful sins. He was the teacher and we were his pupils. But because we're a pathetic and destructive race we have abused everything that the Piscean Age has taught us. The power of the Holy Ghost has been used by the Church as an excuse to butcher and brainwash innocent millions. Everything has been taken the wrong way, exploited. I don't know whether you are familiar with the visual appearance of the sign of Pisces, Phil-"
"It's... Two fishes, isn't it?" I tried.
"Yes, correct. Swimming, you'll notice, in opposing directions. In Ancient Lore, Phil, the fish indicate the material body and the ever- lasting soul... Ah, a tug-of-war, if you will, between materialism and the desire for inner, spiritual peace. But, as any decent astrologer will tell you,
is no Libra - it is rarely able to maintain an adequate balance; one of the two fishes must swim away and become lost in the oceans forever. There is no room in the Pisces fishtank for both.
"It is my belief, Phil," said Andrews quietly. "That, during the Age of Pisces, the human race has permitted the wrong fish to swim away."

IX

Andrews began to pour the wine again. His own discussion was becoming so bleak and saddening it seemed that even he was incapable of properly dealing with it. Repeatedly, he apologised for his unacceptably angry behaviour, and as many times, I told him it was perfectly alright.

Following the revelation of the mess human beings had apparently made of the Piscean Age, we sat in virtual silence for the first time that evening. Golden clocks ticked hypnotically against the gentle whir of cars on the main road. Somewhere, a door slammed, somebody yelled bad language and a dog began to howl. The rumble of an aircraft came and went like a slow groan of thunder. A gang of teenagers shuffled past the window, one of them throwing a small stone which bounced off the glass... And then the soothing tick of the clocks returned with the hum of traffic.
"People are changing," murmured Andrews, staring at the carpet.
"Yes," I whispered back, though I hadn't a clue whether I agreed with such a broad and unfocused comment. Were people changing? Or was all this excitement and tension simply the result of Andrews' wildly over- blown and hugely contagious imagination?
"We have ruined an age which could have been so much more," he said, shaking his head with pity - not for himself, I supposed, but for the whole of mankind. "Commercialism has destroyed everything; we don't even nudge our little fingers without being paid for it. Our government is ridden with cheats, liars, adulterers and back-stabbers, their cost- cutting schemes exploding not in their faces but in ours. We're like laboratory mice. Children die from leukaemia and other cancers which could have been prevented; doctors subscribe medicines which do more harm than good. The food industry sells chemical-swamped garbage which kills more people than Hitler... And, and, and people know all this, Phil. People know, but they don't care... What a waste of an age that had so much to teach... So much to offer. My God Phil, I dread to think how we might ruin the next."
We drank, then, like quietly depressed pensioners in some deserted moorland pub, gazing absent-mindedly at the complex patterns on the cushion-covers. The sounds of the ageing evening began to drift back, pulled by the tide of our mutual silence, until we were concentrating on nothing other than distant sirens, shouts and barks.
"So," I said, with the sigh of a man who has longsince discovered the meaning of life and is now bored of everything. "How did you really know I was coming?"
"You're a Piscean," Andrews replied mechanically.
"Ah," I pondered this response for a while before taking a large mouthful of wine and deciding, like I often did, that I would simply pretend to get it.

X

All I remember is that we drank ourselves nearly to death that night before Andrews gave me my hat and coat, led me to the door and told me to go home and get a good night's sleep. Unfortunately, like me, he seemed to have lost all track of time (I estimate that it was approx- imately half past three in the morning) and therefore it didn't even flicker cross his consciousness that I might require a taxi.

I have hazy recollections of standing - alone in the early-morning silence - at a vandalised bus stop, cursing the incompetence of York- shire Rider, before giving up and sneaking off behind a derelict build- ing to dizzily relieve myself... After that, I'm not sure what I did. Possibly tried to walk home (which would have been difficult considering I lived in Leeds) or wander back towards town in the hope of finding a taxi... I honestly don't know.
The next clear memory I have, gentle listener, is of sitting, cross- legged, on the pavement beneath the clean sandstone wall of a public house near the bottom of Weathercock Lane.
For an embarrassingly long time I don't think I even questioned why I was sitting there like some diseased tramp - but merely accepted it, as if inhaling the fumes of rush-hour traffic and gazing at the baggy backsides of greasy-haired housewives was an important aspect of my existence. Perhaps I was unconsciously reassuring myself that nothing had changed... Nothing immediately intelligible anyway. Yes, maybe Andrews had caused a momentary blip in our steady progress toward the Aquarian Age with his unique, self-sacrificing venture, but surely that was all he had done - caused a blip.
Although it took me almost half an hour to notice, I was in fact sharing the shelter of the cream-coloured wall with a dozen or so soggy copies of The Hidden Agenda - or, I mused, dead bumble bees. I tried to ignore the booklets and concentrate on dragging my body back from the realms of arctic numbness... But I couldn't. Trying to get up was too much effort, too much strain. Besides, why even bother? What was my wife going to say when I walked in? God's wispy beard, did I honestly care? All I had to do was reach out and take one of the booklets...
That was when everything began to flood back to me like a windblown jigsaw puzzle: the scrumptious wine, the boggling mirrors, the smell of expensive talc, the Age of Pisces... The final 'sting'.
Oh God that final, enticing sting. Was it really in the blood like some lethal poison? Was that why nobody appeared to have changed? Was there an incubation period? And how... How did one simple story manage to perform such a deep psychological alteration?
Peel open the last few pages and find out, I thought, staring greedily at all those attractive, muddy booklets. Discover, Phil, you great defeated soldier of the dying Piscean Age... Come on...



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