Friday morning, Richard woke up concerned. He left his bed and looked in the mirror. He observed a two-inch hole that had appeared on the left side of his body just below his ribs. He touched the surrounding skin. The skin was ice cold. He bent his head to see if the hole had an odour. It did not which was a relief. Neither did it reveal anything of his body under the skin. He saw nothing other than grey space. Richard telephoned the surgery of his doctor and the receptionist made him an appointment for later that week. To prevent infection, he covered the hole with a square bandage.
The next day, Richard woke up again at the same time but felt an odd pulse throbbing inside the hole in his stomach. He pulled back the duvet and saw that the centre of the bandage was beating like a drum. Richard pulled back the bandage and watched a man no taller than three inches climb out of the hole. The man wore an Army uniform and saluted when he saw Richard. The three-inch man climbed down from the body of Richard, walked across the bed and managed to haul himself down to the floor. He scrambled up to the bedroom window, climbed the edge of the middle window frame and left the room through the small window that Richard always left open.
Both days of the weekend, the same thing happened. This time Richard pulled back the duvet immediately so the men could leave his body and make their exit. On Monday, it happened again in the same way so Richard cancelled his appointment with the Doctor. He attended work and said nothing about the uniformed men that were leaving his body every morning. Every day it was the same and it always happened just after he awoke. All the men wore Army uniforms. Life in work also changed. Richard was a senior manager for a large commercial bank. He was fifty and had been fortunate and had a successful career. But just as the hole had suddenly appeared in his body, his voice had become much louder. When he spoke he scattered paper from the desk in the room. Immediately, the staff complained. Richard was called to meet his boss.
‘Don’t say anything,’ said the boss. ‘This room has only just been refurbished.’
Richard said nothing.
‘You will keep your job but you cannot be a manager. ’
Richard sighed. The papers on the desk fluttered.
‘I thought I could put you in risk assessment.’
Richard shrugged to indicate that he was confused.
‘The risk assessors will do the interviews. You will write the reports.’
Richard looked sad and somewhat pathetic.
‘It’s the best I can do, Richard. It’s not a career but it’s a job. Your salary will stay the same.’
Richard accepted the proposal with a nod. He went home and thought about what the boss had said and slept. The next morning, another uniformed man left the hole in his body, saluted and disappeared through the window.
The subsequent career of Richard was not without reward. Richard liked to write and he soon acquired a reputation in the corporate world as a producer of ‘best in class’ risk assessment reports. He also learnt sign language. Using his new skill and as part of a special Investors In People initiative, he taught all the staff how to communicate with their hands. The company rewarded him with special payments. Richard was comfortable, affluent and content. Meanwhile, every morning, a uniformed man would emerge from the hole in his stomach, salute and eventually leave through the window. Once or twice there were accidents so Richard put in slides and steps so the uniformed men could exit without injuring themselves. The three-inch men were not identical but they were not a diverse group. They had a dark complexion. Richard wondered if they might be Jewish. This did not worry Richard because, when in the past he had worked as a Human Resource Manager for the bank, he had learnt how to be free of prejudice.
Eventually, Richard retired. They company held a party and everybody as a tribute to Richard spoke in the sign language that he had taught them. Richard was a little emotional but he did not cry. A young woman asked Richard about a nervous habit of his that she had noticed.
‘Why do you touch yourself just below the ribs?’ she said.
‘It is just nerves,’ said Richard. ‘It itches.’
It did not but the wound did stay cold.
Richard had been retired a year and it was probably a dozen years after the first uniformed man had appeared when something different happened. The uniformed man who emerged from his body saluted as normal but this time he beckoned Richard to follow. Richard held out his hands to ask, ‘How?’
The uniformed man saluted and blinked three times. Richard assumed that this meant something and he also blinked. He left his eyes closed for some minutes and when he opened them he was standing above an enormous beach. The beach was filled with three-inch uniformed men and women and even children. Richard could see some familiar faces. Not all the people on the beach had left the hole in his stomach but his own people made a significant section in the middle of the crowd. The sea was way in the distance, almost out of sight.
The great beach was situated below a tall mountain. Richard climbed up the mountain until he found a comfortable ledge. He wanted to speak but not hurt the tiny people in the huge Army with his powerful voice that he had not used in the last dozen years. The crowd below shouted hello to Richard and told him that he was their true leader. They spoke in unison so it was possible for Richard to hear what they said.
‘What do we all do?’ they all shouted.
This moment, which Richard had never anticipated, worried him. Fortunately, Richard could still remember his previous experience as a senior manager and how he had avoided taking decisions.
‘I think,’ he said, and the huge Army of people listened, ‘that you should have free will. You will have to decide for yourselves what you do.’
Some of the crowd appeared sceptical but others nodded as if this might make sense.
‘How will you give us advice and show us what to do?’
‘No,’ said Richard. ‘If we are serious about free will, I will have to be invisible and silent.’
‘How will we talk to you,’ said the voice of the huge Army.
‘Why not pray and then you can imagine what I would say. It will work fine.’
Richard put his hands together and showed him what he meant by praying. By now, there were more than a few in the Army below that were expressing doubt but, fortunately for Richard, leaders emerged from the huge Army to persuade them that praying would work. Richard smiled and left the Army on the enormous beach. He climbed to the summit of the mountain where he encountered a small group of men and women like himself. They all had small holes just below their ribs. When they spoke they had a loud voices similar to Richard.
‘Have you spoken to the Army?’ said an Afro-Caribbean woman.
‘Yes,’ said Richard.
‘You must be our leader then.’
‘I didn’t intend…’ said Richard.
‘No, we’ve been waiting,’ said a man in a turban.
‘What did you say?’ said the Afro-Caribbean woman.
‘I mentioned free will and that I,’ Richard paused, ‘that we will be invisible and mute.’
‘That’s a relief,’ said all the others.
‘That doesn’t sound difficult at all,’ said the Afro-Caribbean woman.
‘No, it’s easy,’ said Richard. ‘It’s even easier than risk assessment in the bank.’
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