The Serpent Under: The Citizen Weekend

Written in two parts, The Serpent Under relates the story of Matthew and Brenda as told by them. They work for the same company, pushing pens and being living proof of what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had to say about hell. That it’s not a place, but other people.
This sense of captivity is something they both want to escape, but their motivations are very different.
It’s this kind of psychological subtext, and the narrative skill Marsh brings to his story that makes The Serpent Under such a riveting read.


Before I met Brenda I didn’t know that killing a person could be so easy. I’m not talking about killing someone by mistake, accidentally tripping them up on the stairs or knocking them over with a car, that sort of thing, I mean actual murder, with malice, aforethought and in cold blood. Take my word, it’s a lot simpler than most people think.
I know there are those who will say I’m a monster because of what I’ve done, but I didn’t set out to hurt anyone. In fact, a lot of things that happened occurred by accident almost. That’s why I’ve decided to explain, to give my side of the story and to put things into perspective, I mean.
I think I should start out by saying that I believe I’m more determined and ambitious than most people. This is important because when you’re determined and ambitious, individuals sometimes get in your way and you have to take them out of the game, so to speak. That doesn’t always mean killing them, of course. I’m not advocating violence as a means to an end, I’m just saying that there are times when violence can be the only practical and effective method one has of obtaining a specific goal. And we all have goals that we want to achieve, don’t we?

I’d been working in the Finance Department at Thompsons Manufacturing for five years when Brenda joined the firm as a secretary. I remember watching Mrs Williams, the head of Personnel, show her to her desk. After she’d introduced Brenda to the other typists, she handed her over to Jenny Martin, the head of Secretarial then ran back to her office in the Administration Building. Secretarial, by the way, is the word management uses when they mean the typing pool. All the typists in Secretarial share a big, open-plan office on the top floor of the Production Building, which is just another name for the factory. My office was also on the Secretarial floor, but was at the far end, away from everyone else.
I’ve never liked Mrs Williams because she’s always struck me as being stuck-up and too full of her own self-importance. For example, take the time I ended up sitting next to her in the canteen during a staff meeting. Just to make conversation I started telling her about my plans for the future. She suddenly interrupted, saying: “It’s not always a good idea to be too ambitious, Mathew,” which, in my opinion, was an uncalled for thing to say. I think she thought I was getting ‘above my station’, if you know what I mean. Either that or she was just plain jealous because she knew that I was capable of great things.
She’s also always dressed up to the nines, like mutton dressed up as lamb, as my Aunt Sal would have said. And she’s very fond of putting on airs and graces, as if having an office in the Administration Building somehow meant that she was better than the rest of us.
A couple of times when I’d been over to Administration, I’d caught her in her office holding up a little gold compact and staring at her face in the mirror. One time she was putting on lipstick, and another she was dabbing face powder on her cheeks, but the moment she saw me she quickly put her make-up away, acting like she’d finished what she was doing anyway. But then they all behave like that, the bosses, I mean, pretending to be ‘part of the team’ one minute and playing the lord high and mighty the next. It’s like they think that the rest of us are stupid and don’t know what they’re up to.

It may sound strange but I knew Brenda was special the first time I laid eyes on her. That’s why I immediately made a note about her in my desk diary. The note said: GP started today. I didn’t know her name then, but I was struck by her dark eyes and long, black hair. GP stood for Gypsy Princess.
I think it’s necessary to explain that I’d always made a point of maintaining the correct professional distance where the typists are concerned. That’s why I didn’t go and introduce myself, because I didn’t want to appear forward, and is the reason I didn’t actually get to speak to her until she’d been working at the firm for almost a week.
From my first day at Thompsons, I’d always made an effort to keep myself to myself. That was to prevent any kind of salacious gossip, particularly as I knew one or two of the girls had something of a reputation with men, if you know what I mean. It was also true to say that until Brenda arrived none of the other girls had ever held any interest for me. They were a common, empty-headed bunch, in my opinion. Men seemed to be their main topic of conversation, except for the married ones that is, who only talked about babies.
My office wasn’t really an office, by the way, at least not in the normal sense of the word, it was more a small open booth or cubicle. There were five of these cubicles in a line along the far wall of the Secretarial floor. Put together, they looked like a row of horse stalls, which was the name most people used when they were talking about my part of the building.
My ‘office’ was the centre cubicle and the only one still being used. It contained a desk, a chair and two grey filing cabinets that were pushed up against the back wall. In one filing cabinet I kept all the payroll files for the company, all listed in alphabetical order and in the other, everyone’s personal and banking details. Over the desk was a neon strip light hanging on a long chain from one of the roof girders.
All the other cubicles had become dumping grounds and were full of rubbish. When I first joined the firm I wrote some memos to Mr Goodison, the managing director asking that something be done about this ‘unacceptable waste of space’, as I called it, but even though I eventually got a reply from his secretary saying the matter would be looked into, nothing happened, so in the end I gave up trying.
My job was to keep track of salary payments and to record any absenteeism that occurred, including sick or annual leave. All this information I kept on computer, of course, but Dick Butler, the finance director, a complete moron who couldn’t tell a computer from a combine harvester, insisted on a paper backup too, which is why I was always having to shuffle through the files and send him a ‘hard copy’ every time he had any sort of query to deal with.
Anyway, the first time I spoke to Brenda was when she brought me a letter to sign. I was writing in a ledger and hadn’t noticed her come in to my office. When I finally looked up she was standing right in front of my desk, staring down. I asked her how long she’d been standing there.
I spoke sharply because I wanted her to realise right from the start that I wasn’t to be trifled with. Instead of answering, she just shrugged and pushed a strand of hair back behind her ear, which is a habit she has. The strange thing was she never once took her eyes off me, or even blinked, which was slightly disconcerting, to tell you the truth.
“Jenny told me to get you to sign this,” she said after a long pause.
I took the letter, put my signature on the bottom without reading it and threw it back at her.
“Thank you,” she said and went back to her desk.
I suppose it was what you’d call a brief encounter, but it made an impression on me because I felt like I’d been assessed in some way. I don’t like being subject to such close scrutiny, which is half the reason I was so off-hand with her.
Brenda is very striking to look at, by the way. Most people would agree that she’s very attractive, what with her big green eyes and long black hair, but she’s hardly what you’d call your classic English rose. Even though she’s tall and thin with a ‘model stature’, as I once heard Jenny Martin call it, she dresses differently to most girls. You’ll never see Brenda in jeans or a t-shirt, for example. Mostly she wears long swirly cotton dresses that she gets from an Indian shop in the high street. She’s also very fond of black eye-liner and that makes her look quite foreign, Middle Eastern, I suppose, even though she’s English born and bred. That’s why I called her the Gypsy Princess before I knew her name, because she looked so foreign, I mean.
Sometimes, when I didn’t have a lot to do, I’d pretend to work on a file on my desk so that I could watch her out of the corner of my eye. She had a very graceful way of moving and I got the impression that she was a very quiet, serene sort of person, someone who did yoga or meditation, that kind of thing. I also thought she was probably quite innocent, naïve almost, which is a quality I find quite appealing, especially nowadays, when most of the girls I come into contact with seem to be so sure of themselves. I want to say though, that even when I used to spy on her, I wasn’t doing it with the intention of starting up a relationship or anything like that, I was just interested because she seemed so different to all the other typists.
After our first, brief conversation, the next time I really spoke to her was about a week later. She came into my office just when lunch break was ending.
“Why don't you ever eat in the canteen with the rest of us?” she asked.
That day, she was wearing a long green and white cotton dress, a green headband and brown leather sandals, which made her look like a hippie. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her what business it was of hers, but in the end I just said that I didn't want to instead.
After that I went back to the book I was reading. When she didn’t move away, I looked up at her again, only more sternly the second time so that she could see how annoyed I was.
She gave me a funny look, more frown than anything else, looked like she was about to say something, then turned and walked away without a word. A minute later I saw her talking to one of the other secretaries in the typing pool. Stupid girl, I thought, but didn’t think any more about it.
It was an hour later that Gloria, the girl Brenda had been talking to, banged a file down on my desk.
“Why were you so rude to Brenda today?” she said.
I knew who she was talking about, but decided to play dumb for a while.
Who's Brenda, I said.
“The new girl.”
I said, oh, her, like the whole thing was totally unimportant.
I ignored the question, gave her a long bored look, then went back to the work I was doing.
“Well? Haven't you got anything to say?” she asked, all irritated now.
The last thing I wanted was a pointless argument. I had more important things to think about.
No, I haven’t, Gloria, I said.
“She was only trying to be friendly.”
This time I shrugged instead of answering. That was when she finally got the message: that I wasn’t interested and wasn’t going to talk about it.
“You really get on my nerves,” she said and stormed off to her desk.
I thought that would be the end of it, but the next day, Gloria was back in my office again, only this time she was all sweetness and light. When I didn’t pay her much attention, she picked up the book I’d brought to work with me that morning. She suddenly looked all confused and I saw her lips move as she read the title.
“What’s this you’re reading, Mathew?” she asked.
I said that it was called Also Sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. I nearly added, perhaps you’d like to borrow it for a day or two, Gloria, but thought the sarcasm would be wasted on her.
She read the title again, then put the book back down on my desk, but a lot quicker than she’d picked it up. You’d almost have thought it was going to burn her fingers or something. It was all I could do not to laugh.
“Never heard of it,” she said.
I told her who Nietzsche was, that he was a philosopher who lived in the nineteenth century. He created the concept of the Ubermensch or Superman to justify the existence of the human race, I said.
I knew from the look on her face that she hadn’t the faintest idea what I was talking about.
“You mean Superman from the films?”
She thought I was talking about the comic book character.
No, I said, another superman. Then I gave her a long explanation about Nietzsche’s theories. His Superman wasn’t a product of long evolution, I said, but someone of superior potential who emerges after he completely masters himself and strikes off conventional Christian herd morality in order to create his own values.
That made her even more baffled, if that was possible. Not that I was surprised, of course. For the girls in Secretarial, fine literature is something with Mills & Boon on the cover.
“Why can’t you be nice to Brenda?” she said, changing the subject.
I was nice to her, I said.
“You weren’t very nice to her yesterday.”
I said that I didn’t know what she meant.
“She came to speak to you, but you ignored her.”
She wanted to know why I didn’t eat in the canteen. I told her.
“She was just trying to be friendly.”
Yes, and I was friendly too.
That was when she gave me a look. “You're not a queer are you?” she said.
What a cow I thought, but I didn’t let her see how angry I was just then. No, I'm not a queer, I said as quietly and calmly as I could. I'm just not that interested in your little friend, Brenda.
She had to think about that for a few seconds. In the end she shrugged. “Please yourself then,” she said. At that point she turned on her heel and walked back to her desk.



The Serpent Under

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