You slowly awaken only to suspend your disbelief. It feels as though you were beamed from another world, reincarnated. It is as if some higher power had booked the wrong destination for you at Karma HQ and you were suddenly reborn as an ant or some crawling midget.

You lie in your bed. A beam of light, filtered through your closed eyelids, bores its way into your brain. “Get up,” begs your girlfriend. She says this in a sweet manner, but all you register is jarring noise. The events prior to your deep slumber slowly reveal themselves, the analepsis of which is somewhat akin to painstakingly re-assembling a puzzle made out of 5000 jigsaws, put together to escape some immense, decadent boredom.

It’s a boredom that coincidentally matches the grand apartment in which it now spreads. A boredom which a great chunk of Western society tends to occupy with stupid pastimes, to compensate for the generous leisure time so hardly earned, to avoid thoughts of having to confront one’s own demise, the trickling away of time, the sell-by date that sticks to our bodies like a sweatshop label.

You think about those 5000 pieces that you metaphorically assembled, just to end up with a nondescript image, a flower bouquet, a cow in a field, a pastoral landscape of such aesthetic banality that it makes your stomach churn. You think of that puzzle, where the resolved image isn’t given away on its box, and which eventually resolves into nightmarish imagery or explicit content, some horrible creature that rapes you, for example, the idea of which you rather like.

Yesterday you couldn’t sleep again. Lying in bed as usual, your thoughts stirring, and the more you became aware of your thoughts stirring, the more you began to think about them stirring, at which point you ask yourself why this loop happens, if it were all just a manifestation of an unfulfilling existence, in which you permanently have to keep track of each passing day. And in contrast to your girlfriend, already lost in soothing, rhythmical breathing of truly deep sleep, you lie there and wonder if you will be able to shut off at all tonight. A question that’s sort of fatal as soon as it pops up in your head. But how do we prevent certain thoughts from intruding into our minds, like an unwelcome neighbour, say, like John Goodman’s character in Barton Fink?

How do we avoid their harmful manifestations in our head, much like the work colleague that you despise, and begrudgingly encounter during your breaks at the only coffee vendor at the end of your office corridor, day in and day out? The vendor may be swapped due to malfunction, yet the colleague remains, despite his general annoyance.

The same principle applies to the aforementioned thoughts stirring in your head. Or, while we’re on the subject of images, like the time you were at a painting residency during a workshop in Berlin, it was late summer, and you, who’d always been notoriously afraid of wasps, were the person that was, of course, most acutely aware of the residencies’ location next to a swarming lake, with poorly insulated windows to boot, a disconcerting number of black and yellow corpses lying on the thick carpets of the corridors, bearing resemblance to some of those utterly incomprehensible art installations set up by some of those “creative” friends of yours, and for which, you never show it, but guessing by the twisted look on your face, have only but contempt.

And once one of those creatures came flying into your room, you were entirely preoccupied with this most unwelcome guest that consumed all of your focus, despite your girlfriends’ simple advice on the phone to just ignore the damn thing, because it was already the end of the season and the wasp probably, plausibly even, made its way into your room just to die there in peace and quiet, and she almost succeeded in you feeling empathetic towards the little parasite that only yesterday had ruined your Sunday roast in the beer garden, by greedily circling the leg of duck on your plate.

But then the mental image reappears, as if in slow motion. Six of the flying predators plough through the brown gravy on your plate towards the pièce de résistance, you summon all of your courage and, armed with your fork, crush one of the beasts in two, feeling like one of Arthur’s brave knights for a moment. This memory triggers your panic, however, simultaneously obliterating all the calming attempts of your girlfriend. You continue to panic, although the poor wasp was just stuck to one of the curtains and was never going to play a game of last duel with you. That’s how these thoughts plague you as they sting you at night, just before you try to sleep.

But now you’re awake again, or at least in a twilight state resembling semi-consciousness, and you wonder why your mind is already whirring with thoughts, although you know you’re still slightly asleep, and your girlfriend tells you that you really ought to get up, that we’d better be on our way, and the mental projection of the whole damn hygiene ritual between getting up and leaving the flat, the whole showering and teeth brushing and grooming and packing the daily essentials, all this makes you so depressed, that you’d just prefer to slip straight back into bed, but then you realize that you’re very much still in it, which in turn causes a new wave of despair.

At last, you open your eyes. It’s 6:35 am. According to your cellphone. Realizing this makes you grumpy, and you channel this grumpiness into getting up, d’un coup, as the French tend to say. Speaking of the French, you tell yourself, keep in mind that one of their most famous countrymen, René Descartes, the reason he dropped dead, back in the day, was in no doubt because of his duty to rise very early each morning, being the precept to Queen Christine of Sweden, who would you believe it always chose to get up at 5 in the morning, or thereabouts, you don’t quite remember, and can’t really be bothered to Google it, your eyes still crusty, your surroundings blurry, distorted, you think of this unlikely match, Christine of Sweden and René, well, he just couldn’t cope with the routine, caught a cold, and gone he was, one of the most eminent philosophers, your fate’s going to mirror his, you think, I mean not that you were an important thinker, far from it, but you’d at least equal the great man by way of a gesture, be it a single, fatal one. And while you trod to the bathroom to get cleaned up, you mutter to yourself that a world that voluntarily agrees to get up at 6:35 am has quite simply failed.

You tell yourself, for the hundredth time, whilst thinking of poor old René, at least in memoriam, that there are people who just aren’t made to rise early. You once read a study, can’t quite recall where, but you keep citing it to others ever since, but also inwards to yourself in a never-ending, grumpy monologue, very often, in any case, this study proved that people always follow their internal, circadian rhythm, independently from the external world and its myriad temporal obligations. In other words, there are those who rise well and early and those who don’t or cannot. And the latter are ruthlessly dominated by the former.

The early birds, if we may so call them, have cemented their status and have long since imposed their will on us. Using the ridiculous precept of more or less following the rhythm of daytime hours, by which they more or less implicitly accuse the night owls of being a bunch of lazy bastards who lie on their backside all day. But what the early birds ignore, is that it is objectively absurd to spend the moments of natural daylight inside an office building. That might have made sense in the past when most of us worked in the fields. The fact that no one’s noticed this antinomy, that no one attempts to correct this, although I’m certain that if we added up all the complaining and the moaning on this planet in the morning hours between 6 and 7, in a single time zone, that should do it, an earth-shattering, groaning sound would result, the scale of which would extend well into space. That no one seeks to change this, just proves yet again that we’re all just miserable slaves.

Concerning myself, (I’ll now stop using the second-person pronoun, just a narrative trick of mine), I’m a painter, or trying to become one. My ways of going about it are as follows: I always take on small jobs for 7 or 8 months, parental leaves that I use to replace, for instance, fixed-term contracts. Sometimes they offer to prolong my contract, then I have to find some way for them to fire me. This is a doddle since in earlier, more naive episodes of my life, I’ve often been made to leave or was fired, be it by colleagues and partners, from hospitals and schools. I’m well versed in this. After this, I’m on the dole.

Of course, this is socially frowned upon, but I don’t care. As long as I can’t sustain myself from my art, I will rely, partially, on state welfare. But for this, I have to show up at the job center each day. And check in. So they can at least see that I’m awake. So that they are shown evidence, proof, that I try to integrate into the logic of the labour market. Which of course ushers one to wake up. The early bird catches the worm. L’avenir appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt, and similiar stupid catchphrases. As one can see, every language has its own equivalent. This is precisely where the indoctrination starts. Ten years ago you had to check in once a week, a decade earlier it was once a month. Now it’s every day. Late once, and you can say goodbye to your allowance.

We slowly leave the flat. It’s winter, and a few snowflakes dancing around in the cold air seem to avoid having to settle down anywhere, very much like me I ponder. The car’s frozen, a whole layer of icy dust covering it like some dodgy gift wrap.

After a few minutes of frenetic scratching, a bit as if we were bathing then scrubbing a massive pet, say, a domestic whale, my girlfriend proclaims that this whole early business here really is bollocks. That’s why I love her. She always seems less grumpy than me, who gets agitated about anything and everything. But in essence, our worldview, taken at large, is the same. What could one want more but to share a fragment of another’s worldview? Not much, I gather. Basically, we’ve come to find out the same things, having departed from the same premises. Only our conclusions differ. That’s how I find the world abysmal and she doesn’t. Perhaps I’m too demanding, or perhaps she’s too tolerant; in the end, it doesn’t matter. She takes everything with a grain of salt, whilst I remain bitter and cynical.

We’re finally on the road. It almost seems like a pilgrimage, almost makes me chuckle. Stuck in the commuters’ traffic for an endless hour each morning, in order to pass the gates of the Church of the Latter-Day Neoliberals and fall on my knees before the saints, begging them for forgiveness, that I, poor soul, still haven’t learned the commandments. After which I’m ordered to hand them my Excel-Psalm documenting my daily efforts to find a new job. On my way there, I drop Jen off at her office. We’re both shattered and remain silent for most of the drive. Surrounded by a sea of lights, red, orange, white, and sometimes quite an ugly green thrown in, while the tiniest hint of sunrise shyly peeks through a diffuse sky to announce a new dawn. A whole procession of metallic creatures, loudly ploughing their way into town, polluting everything on their wayside, like a huge, endless animal, a sort of snake, if you will, a fantastical creature made out of aluminum, steel, and smoke, something that connects us all, something that makes us equal, and equally suffocates and devours us.

My job advisor keeps me waiting, as usual. I always try to beat the queue first thing in the morning before the doors open, to be the first one served. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, as everyone else wants the same as me, so that, in this giant funnel in which the mob now settles, sticking together like moist freshly ground coffee in a filter, you end up rubbing elbows, something I almost relish as I try to overtake the antisocial bloke in his stupid jogging trousers or that bore with his briefcase, in order to take pole position at the ticket dispenser.

I’d just seen him, how he stormed out of his office and pretended like he needed to urgently photocopy some document. In reality, he’d only waited for his coffee to be ready, it seemed like he couldn’t face the endless queue of jobseekers without helplessly staring into the black abyss of his coffee mug, as if he could shield himself from us unemployed.

As if, by staring in said liquid, he could predict which one of us would soon receive a job offer. And who on the contrary, will have to rot in the waiting room for another few months, like a drab, under-watered office plant.

As he calls me into his office, he gives me a stern, even angry look, jiggles a piece of paper in front of my nose, and starts reading from it. It was a letter written in French.

Monsieur le Président-Directeur général, chers collègues,

Je sais que la tradition exige que j’exprime, au cours de ce discours, ma gratitude d’appartenir enfin et officiellement et potentiellement à tout jamais à votre service. Permettez-moi néanmoins de vous dire que là ne sera pas mon propos aujourd’hui. J’aimerais au contraire vous dire que la boîte dans laquelle je bosse, je la vois un peu comme un enclos à vaches ou une cage à poules. Pendant des années, vous sucez mon énergie vitale en pétrissant mon pis pour en faire jaillir le liquide séminal de mon inspiration, quand vous n’attendez pas que je vous ponde des idées comme la poule son oeuf. Et, au bout d’un certain temps passé à faire bonne mine à mauvais jeu, à essuyer les regards ternes qui m’accueillent chaque jour, à endurer la terrible absence d’humour qui taraude cette boîte, après de loyales années jalonnées par quelques augmentations de salaire pas très fameuses et quelques ringards cadeaux d’entreprise – une montre en argent, qui ne fait que m’enjoindre implicitement à enfin venir à l’heure à mon travail, vous me mènerez à l’abattoir de la retraite, cette ultime salle d’attente où vous vous attendrez à ce que je regarde ma montre en argent frappée du logo de l’entreprise pour me rendre compte du gâchis que fut mon existence ? Comme si c’était à vous de décider, de choisir à ma place le divertissement pascalien qui, tous les jours, est censé me distraire de la certitude de ma mort et de la mort de ceux que j’aime, de me divertir de la faucheuse ? Et si je préférais, pour ne pas penser à la mort, plutôt donc que de travailler encore et encore, me bourrer la gueule ? Mais me la bourrer quotidiennement, et sévèrement ? Ou si mon idée du divertissement, c’était de collectionner des timbres, d’élever des moutons, de faire le tour du monde par ordre alphabétique des villes, de battre le record du monde du temps passé assis aux chiottes, de m’enfermer dans un cloître et de m’y taper des religieuses, ou encore, oui, de vous envoyer chier? Mais royalement, majestueusement ? Alors, voilà, avec cette missive, je vous envoie chier.

Merci.

“Right, I suppose you know how the speech goes on”, says my advisor in a schoolmasterly tone, as if he’d just caught a little rascal smoking in the schoolyard or had found dirty magazines in his rucksack. That’s exactly how his tone is now. Of course, I know how the speech goes on. It was me who wrote it in the first place. And kept refining it over the years. Every time the company is willing to offer me a permanent job due to my performance, I read them this letter. Their reaction is always delivered promptly: an angry HR clerk grabs the letter from my hands, tears it to shreds, and proclaims my immediate redundancy. Or better still, proclaims the non-renewal of my contract, meaning I’m legally allowed unemployment benefits and can thus return to my art.

“Isn’t the letter great?”, I say, more than a little proud.

The artificial lighting in his office seems to violently clash with the sunlight. But to ignore the power of sunlight is perilous. The sun’s sort of the Chuck Norris of lighting. After a while the pale artificial lighting fades and so do the spots it projects unto the four corners of his office. My advisor gets up, walks over to the curtains, pulls on a handle until all the grey blinds have covered the entirety of the window, and swallows up all of the daylight. The room suddenly turns dark, seems almost incinerated, ashen, with only a few spots of a brazen orange not unlike a slowly dimming fire.

“You do realize what this entails? Your little number’s none other than a serious case of fraud. You deliberately made yourself redundant at your job, preferring to turn up here, again and again, to suck at the teet of our benevolent mother state. We’ve sussed out your little scheme for a while now. Not since yesterday have you held a firm place on our red list of fraudsters. We only needed a single other piece of evidence, and here we have it.”

Again he jiggles my letter, his eyes, glinting like the night sky, making him seem almost possessed.

“I’ll tell you what, my dear sir. Not only will we henceforth close the tap on your benefits, but you’ll be obliged to pay us back every last cent we paid out to you.” The way he demonstratively bangs his ringed knuckle on his desk, it seems like he rehearsed this at home in front of his mirror. “Otherwise, you can count on our bailiff to pay a visit to your miserable flat and confiscate what he pleases. In short: you’re fucked. And I’m already looking forward to receiving a hefty bonus.”

He seemed so pleased that I almost expected him to clap his hands any moment. His calculating manner almost resembled a civilian version of Sherlock Holmes, without the drugs and devoid of any caustic wit. Dead boring, to be honest.

“How dare you insult me in this way. There’ll be consequences!”

Shit, I probably shouldn’t have been thinking out loud…

“By the likes of it, the way you treat us unemployed, one would be forgiven to think that you’re the type that prefers foreplay, perhaps?”

“You can try as hard as you may, to woo me with your argumentative chops, your elegghhh….” His sentence was abruptly interrupted by a gasp, as I pulled hard on his ash grey tie and tightened his collar, uncomfortably nearing his choking point.

“Now YOU listen to me, you pratt. I could indeed just serve you one of my elegant ways of speech, smother you with my own prodigious use of language, let you delectably suck at my own brilliant ideas, and use my tongue to spit vitriol at your comfortable, numbing breed. But right here and now it’s just unbearably hot in your office, and I have a few canvases waiting for me at home. Which reminds me, I noticed something. Even the most mundane of offices is graced with some graphic embellishment, a decoration of some sort, perhaps a framed photograph or two of smiling offspring intended to show off the office clerks’ parenting skills.”

“Posters also, often just pale reproductions of the old masters. Bookshelves filled with actual books. I can think of cacti too, tulips, or other flowers, all of them, without exception, reeking of plastic. There’s nothing of the sort here. Your pen is black, your notepad white, broken by the drab grey of your computer screen. Your coffee mug doesn’t even display any notable colour. Just plain white. What does this mean? I’ll let you come to your own conclusion. Go ahead and turn off my welfare tap. I’ll go home and draw. I’ll draw your miserable office, your miserable face, so that even the most uncultivated viewer, say, yourself, will get what I wanted to express, although I generally loathe any attempt to ascribe meaning or expression to my work. The only things I like to express are pieces of fruit or a sneaker, say.”

And with those final words, I disappeared. I actually did complete the painting I threatened the advisor with. At night-time, as is my custom. It didn’t quite turn out the way I wanted. But for my first oeuvre done entirely with spray cans, it turned out pretty ok. You have to bear in mind, that I was sitting on a meager little staircase during the process and that the beam of the nocturnal streetlight didn’t exactly make things easier….projecting weird circles onto the dark wall of the large building, resembling a torn cinema screen. I intended to cover the entire wall, but the little ladder I brought was never going to be up to the task. My painting, however, certainly drew attention. Of course, they knew immediately who it was, given my signature, which I included out of principle. And now I find myself exactly where I wanted. In prison. Even managed to broker a single cell, where I can draw and paint in peace. Only miss Jen, really.

Jeff Schinker (1985, Luxembourg) earned a Master’s degree in comparative literature in Paris. He has worked as the editor of the cultural pages for the Luxembourg daily newspaper Tageblatt since 2017. He published his first novell, Retrouvailles, in 2015. Sabotage is his second novel, which includes stories in French, Luxembourgish, English, and German. His multi-lingual work reflective of a neo-liberal society was shortlisted for the Servais Prize for Literature, the Lëtzbuerger Buchpräis, and the European Union Prize for Literature. In addition to novels, he is a playwright. Most recently, he wrote a play titled Bouneschlupp which addressed racism in Luxembourg. Since 2014, Schinker has organized, hosted, and participated in Désœuvrés—Works in Progress, a lecture series. In 2016 and 2023, he was the laureate of the writer’s residency at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin.

Alasdair Reinert emigrated to Montreal two years ago. He is now occupied with turning a formerly pronounced interest in drawing and painting in oils into a full-time career. Following convention for close to two decades, he worked as an employee for various private and public entities in Luxembourg, as an insurance salesman, teaching assistant, and then civil servant. His gradual reinvention as a visual artist, having studied with current European Masters, has led to group shows in Luxembourg, private commissions, as well as illustrations for the Lëtzebuerger Land weekly newspaper and Jeff Schinker’s novel Ma, vie sous les tentes. Besides this, he’s a regular contributor to TageBlatt daily newspaper, having written music and art reviews for its culture section.

Trafika Europe