The train on which the narrator is commuting enters a tunnel, prompting him to wonder: “Had we entered a new kind of space? Were we still physical things?” These questions seem to capture the essence of this surreal, unsettling, and oddly moving story. A story that, like several others in Ben Pester’s excellent debut collection, hooks into the subconscious and burrows deep. The narrator rereads a message on his phone about the death of an old school friend. After dozing off, he wakes to find himself in an empty carriage. Everyone else has moved into the adjoining carriage but when he tries to do the same, the guard won’t let him through. The other passengers turn against him, appearing frightened, even disgusted by him: “Their faces were subtly altered, as though they were now confronted with an unpleasant cleaning task – say, a dead and half-rotted pigeon, discovered behind a voided fireplace.” I won’t describe what happens next because that would take away the fun of reading a story in which the narrative direction is impossible to anticipate. Yes, it is an extremely funny and bizarre story, but moreover it speaks to the reader on a deeply human level. Neglected or half-noticed places, dark, hidden away, negative spaces—tunnels, lofts, crawl spaces—, the mundane details of the everyday, become alive with feeling and meaning. After reading, we too feel transformed, our perspective shifted to perceive the world in a new, “silky and wonderful” way.
First published in Granta, June 2019, and available to read here. Collected in Am I In The Right Place, Boiler House Press 2020