In the Union of Facelessness

An original short story

John had found Vienna to be even more absurd than he remembered. The name was a problem to begin with: in German "Wien"; hence wiener; hence - when he was growing up, a queerly half-Jewish child in 1970s London - "Vienna". His pukka Jew friends at school would say: "I'm just going to get a Vienna and some chips . . ." Or would they? Gross God.

They also - perhaps because of phylogenetic memories of the East End - would say: "Wally"; as in "I'm just going to get a wally and some chips . . ." A wally was a pickled gherkin - or was it? Gross God.

In the caff at the airport, where John was served with a travesty of a cappuccino: cumuli of cream towering over a slop of caffeine (and yet Austrians were meant to be so fucking proud of their coffee, or were they? Gross God), another man's mobile phone rang. The peal was the opening notes of Eine Kleine Nacht Musik - or was it? Because even as it beeped annoyance at John, and the Austrian's pig visage crumpled into acquiescence, he found that he could no longer remember what the opening chords of Eine Kleine Nacht Musik were. The piece, once profoundly loved by him, had become little more than a student race memory, compounded with bedsits, Nescafe and fumbled sex.

He had said to the driver of the slightly stretch Merc: "I'm not going to go to Frankfurt, I'm going to go to South America, begin a new life"; and they'd talked about Brazil - which the driver had visited - and they both opined that the Brazilians were crazy, both tapped their foreheads with their index fingers in the lingua franca of derision.

John was half-serious about this, because ever since arriving in Vienna, things had begun to go wrong. Everywhere in the city there were underwear and lingerie shops, displaying billboards on which demure and inaccessible young ladies paraded their 20-foot long pudenda; their breasts like bubble cars. Even if he could have scored with these women, it would have been a failure; his little wiener would be lost, wandering among these illimitable alps and valleys of erectile tissue. Or so John imagined.

Anyway, it was a taunt; another act by Gross God. John's Vienna was so unsalient, so ingrown; he might - he supposed - be an incipient victim of latah, the Malaysian hysterical condition, whereby victims became convinced that their penis was about to shrink inside their body. Those foolish Malays would get exercised about the telescoping of their manhood; and resort to absurd stratagems, such as tying it to the inside of their thigh - or even nailing it! Not John. He couldn't give - or receive - a toss. His sexuality had become a matter for purely academic concern: did it exist at all? And if so, how could it be observed with any objectivity?

In Brazil John would have plastic surgery (just for the hell of it - he wasn't concerned about pursuit), and start a business. Something solid enough - perhaps wholesale - and dull; beautifully dull. John had a hunch he was good at business - he had a spreadsheet in his head. It would be so refreshing after the bogus pavane of his career thus far.

Anyway, what was his career? John stared at the dollop of cream atop his coffee. He couldn't . . . remember. He knew he was on his way to Frankfurt to attend a trade show, but what the trade was - he was passively bemused to realise - he had no idea. It was like a conceit for some story; sitting here in Vienna airport with his identity steadily eroding. Perhaps it was the central European context? Traditionally the English looked for their anonymity in the American heartland - just another example of the special relationship - but recently depersonalisation was to be found closer to home, in the European Union of Facelessness. To his left another mobile rang. This time it was Thus Spake Zarathustra. Gross God.

He was losing his identity. It was a fictional conceit - perhaps he was a writer? Certainly, John acknowledged, he had a manifest penchant for seeking out the telling phrase, the mot juste, the precise apercu. Only minutes before he had partially relieved himself in a toiletten; and after the deluge risen to see a gleaming pretzel of shit, elegantly furled on a purpose-designed platform. Yes, a writer, for the purposes of the moment. He would be a writer. It made sense, because writers were oddly anonymous figures - or so John supposed - quite lost in their task of examining the unexamined lives.

It was likely - no, certain - that he'd got drunk the night before. He definitely had a hangover when he awoke, fully dressed, spreadeagled on his bed in the Graben Hotel; awaiting a liver gnawing, although he had no recollection of having stolen any fire the preceding evening. The phone on the bedside table had rung; it was an anachronistic item, cream Bakelite with an in-built radio. John had never seen such a thing before now, before picking it up.

"Gross God!" Barked a Wiener on the other end.

"Gross God." John wearily intoned.

"We were just wondering . . . "


"Well . . . when you might be checking out?"



"Yes, now, can you order a taxi for me?"

"To the airport?"


Really John should have stayed on the line, kept within the confines of this helpful conversation. He might have been able to elicit more information: "Who am I?"

"Your name is John."

"What am I doing in Vienna?"

"You are here on business."

"What is my business?" And so on until all doubts were erased.

At the hotel the television had been on, silently whining. On-screen hotel had succeeded on-screen hotel: the Oberoi Palace in New Delhi, the Oriental in Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore . . . all served by CNN. John remembered being told by someone . . . acquaintance? Friend? Adjacent queue member . . . ? that Ted Turner - the network's founder - was a manic depressive, whose hyperactive periods beggared description; speed synergised with global communications. Mmm. John pushed his head up a bit. Alcohol made you stupid, as flatly incapacitated as if you'd been clubbed around the chops with a four-kilo endangered cod.

Two smeary, bleary Johns peered back at John from the two, slightly ajar, mirrored doors, of the two, overly solid wardrobes, which graced the leaden room with their leaden presences.

Over by the double doors - like some Oxford college, perhaps that's why spies had favoured the place - there was a grey pool of piss on the light blue carpet. John knew it to be piss without needing to go over and assay the stuff; it could hardly be water. The toilet was next to the double doors, the bathroom nearer the made bed John was atop. It was hardly likely that he'd risen from the bed, gone to the honour bar (marvellous expression - honouring whom exactly?), fetched a tumbler, gone to the bathroom, poured himself a glass of water, walked to the main door and poured it on to the carpet. No way. Gross God.

The bit about the Oxford colleges was good - authentic, John thought, showed he knew his territory; not like Vienna, which despite its dinky, rococo elegance - or more likely because of it - was as undifferentiated as this cream.

John tasted a bit of the cream mound on his cappuccino. He felt the awkward companionship of his belly. A sculptor had once told John that what he feared most about growing old was that his sense of his body would become more and more extraneous, more hollow, until, "It'll be like your eyes are just two fucking holes cut in the outside, peep holes in your own fucking body". Had that been in Vienna, or London? The "fucking" would imply that the man had been speaking English, but perhaps he hadn't said "fucking" at all, it was most puzzling. Perhaps the "fucking" was a screen memory, utterly, suitably psychoanalytical for old Wien. Gross God.

It bit down on John that this was really the bitter essence of his middle years. He had, he knew this much, always fancied himself as a cynic when he was growing up, wise to the world's infinite modes of disappointment; so how could it be that the dark wood of the years closed in so on him now? The dark Vienna Woods. He really wouldn't have troubled being miserable all of those years if he'd known it was going to end up like this; with being both miserable and old. Drunkenness gave you an unnecessary taste for oblivion, for death.

A combined phone and radio actually made a good deal of sense. Obviously the first thing you thought about when you answered the telephone - given that it was on in the first place - was turning the radio off. Alternatively, once you'd put the receiver down, you might decide that you'd like someone else to talk to you, without the necessary labour of reply, and switch the radio on.

John had switched the radio on, risen shakily from the bed and made his way to the extravagantly net-curtained windows - three-metre billows of scratchy wispiness, full of cold, damp air from the street - but even on this small route things had felt wrong. He'd slept in his boots; dandified, suede ankle boots, not his usual style at all. And at the first pace he was aware of sweat sloshing in the toe, at the second the macerated mush of sock soaked by it, and at the third something intensely painful, an abrasive wire in the very cleft of his middle toes. Standing, stork-legged, visual field spattered with a holding pattern of spots, he got the boot off. John's toes were startled, white tubers, wrinkled at the flanges. At the mouth of the middle toe cleft the skin was raised into a tight speckling of pink pimples. Dropping the boot, John leant down and parted the toes, sensing another grating wire of pain connect with his sore cortex. As he'd suspected, the skin was gone and the webbing was pitted with mini-bites, as if he'd been chomped on by three-millimetre long rodents. It was a nasty little attack of athlete's foot. Damp micro-organisms gnawing at him in the mittel-European night.

What conceivably could have happened? John had a vision of himself being dragged along the dusky corridors of the Graben, his suede feet ploughing still darker furrows in the burgundy nap of the carpet, two burly Austrian athletes holding him up by respective armpits. Out front a black Merc with tinted windows awaits, the driver smoking a toothpick-sized Dannemann. They chuck him in the back (Gerhard, a hammer-thrower, and Rolf, javelin; gifted amateurs, certain men of even temperament), drive to a gymnasium in Jedlesee, across the river. There they strip him in the changing rooms, drag him up and down the checkerboard of soiled tiles, liberally coating his naked feet in whatever infective matter may be circulating there, in amidst the drek of water, toenail clippings, shed calluses, and worse. Then they stuff him back into his clothes and boots, throw him back in the Merc, drive him back across Reichsbrucke and dump him in his room back at the Graben.

How else could he have contracted athlete's foot (which was a fungus, wasn't it?) without ever undertaking exercise of any kind? Certainly, he hadn't the look of an athlete; although seen in the mirror, on the first of the mighty wardrobes, his figure was stocky enough. His suit was a rust colour, the cloth a light weave. A naevus of creases had exploded in his groin.

He still had his jacket on as well, and his red tie was yanked round to the side of his neck - perhaps there's been an attempted lynching as well? But most surprising were the close-clipped - but full - curled, grey beard; and the corresponding helmet of contained, steely luxuriance. His eyes - blue irises, red whites, sag bags - peered out through fleshy goggles. His nose was a nosepiece; his ears irrelevant.

But John didn't feel bearded, not psychically. He'd run a stubby paw around his face, stroking the twisted pile of the thing. Strange. He took in the suit as well - its colour and cut.

Neither seemed quite right - like the boots. The unusual radio-phone combinatorial device had eased its way back into John's narrative at this juncture; insinuating an American announcer with an Austrian accent - or perhaps the reverse: "It's 10.39 on the eighth of October, and here's the latest news from Radio Blue Danube. Presidential aides are continuing to . . ." then quit it again. Leaving behind only John's bemused sense of the faint absurdity of radio waves emanating from the Blue Danube, and the time.

He then launched a search for an air ticket - that's what the time check induced in him. A launch for an air ticket that might be his. Why else the request for a taxi to the airport - if it wasn't to catch a flight? He saw a wad of paper protruding from under the wardrobe to the right; "Heavy 2" John had already christened it. This wad could've been there to keep the weighty furniture level, but when he withdrew it, John saw that it was indeed an air ticket: an oblong folder of stapled card, containing a tissue admission voucher to another landscape. He scanned the information - it was a Lufthansa flight, from Vienna to Frankfurt, departing at . . .

Shit! In an hour and 15 minutes.

The peculiar dance of the late hotel guest - how funny to witness, how terrible to endure. St Vitus jigs from bathroom to wardrobe, to honour bar and back again. He plucks garments off hangers, whips them into bags; dumps toiletries into littler bags and whips them in as well. He stacks flat things in a briefcase - laptop, books, papers, receipts - and zips it bulbous. He counts the piddling miniatures in the wastebasket - the ones that made him piddle; and annotates the carbon-backed bill accordingly.

All this turbulent while John checked labels inside collars and the headings on letters. He glanced at the titles of books and peered within himself for any obvious referents. The name "John" was on the air ticket in the ruled box denoting "passenger", but was it a first or a last name? He could not have said, for his vision was smeared when it came to detail, as if spots of grease had coated the inside of his eyes. The personal effects and clothing were just that: elements of an identity that he felt quite certain he might either assume or reject at will. When it came to re-examining himself in the full-length mirror, prior to running the gauntlet of the lobby, John quite self-consciously noted that the creases in the suit were fading. The creases in this drip-dry, ersatz, quintessentially Central European suit.

John had looked more closely at the unslept-in bed than he did at any other thing in the room. Indeed, despite the feverish packing, he'd had plenty of time to dwell on its rucked counterpane and partially depressed pillows. Hadn't bed once been a refuge? He thought.

Hadn't he once looked towards bed as the most ineffable repose? Hadn't it been possible to pull at the downy edge of darkness and yank it over his cold, damp body, drag it into cosiness? Why could he not forget the flight, the air ticket, the trade show in Frankfurt?

Why not turn in and cheat the hangover of its grim dialectic?

It was not possible. Even as he packed the Janus-faced possessions into their conventional housings, John sensed that bed would forever be an alien nation to him now.

That all beds would be like that of Room 25 in the Graben Hotel - Great Beds of Wear, of terminal uncosiness. He'd deftly combed his beard - how could that be? Did all men know instinctively how to comb beards; the psychic beards that, since adolescence, had lingered about their pale faces? Outside it was drizzling, cold. John looked in Heavy 1 and found a long, dark grey overcoat, with a synthetic, blue fur collar. He put it on - it fitted. Even so, not liking the feel of it, or the weight, or the way it flared in an effete fashion from the hips, he'd decided to look in Heavy 2 as well.

The mirrored door to Heavy 2 was jammed shut, jammed shut on a softish thing which prevented it being either opened or closed, so that it remained only a few centimetres ajar.

How so? John had begun by gently prising it - the phrase "bend but don't break" had come to him unbidden - but he was in a hurry and there was a dreadfulness about the jammed door which caused him to wrench hard on the handle until the entire thing shifted with a double thud. There was, John had concluded, something heavy inside Heavy 2; something that was jamming the door. What could he do? There was already the dishonoured bar and the piss pool, could he explain this to the manager of the Graben as well? "Biegen aber nicht brechen."

The telephone-radio had rung again at this point. "Herr Incomprehensible?"


"Your cab is here."

"I'm on my way." And he had been. On his way to more unpleasantness.

This time it was the Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem. Astonishing how these mobile phone technicians could compress the full majesty of a requiem mass into a few discordant bleeps and peeps. There was no need any more for orchestras and opera halls; Schwarzkopfs and Von Karajans. Gross God. John looked down to find that the cumuli of whipped cream had been demolished with unconscious lightning strikes of his own spoon. The gross god was angry. Now he simply had a slop of average cloudiness.

In the taxi - which was not as long as a stretch, but neither was it as short as a conventional Merc - John had recovered some of his composure. The quitting of the Graben had proved both less and more traumatic than he'd feared. There was one plum-blazered managerial type and a hovering porter in a shortie white jacket. The lobby was fusty with rubber plants, yuccas, leather chairs, wood panelling. Herr Incomprehensible's bill had, it appeared, been settled. Saving, naturally, charges for telefon and minibar. These John had paid for with a swatch of schillings trawled from the suit's pocket. Then a flurry of "Auf wiedersehens" to the manager and he and the bags and the porter were in the chill little canyon of Dorotheergasse. Another flurry of valediction, the porter palmed more notes and John plopped on to the upholstery. The porter ducked and danke-ed, winked conspiratorially, and whispered through the open window, "I will look after your friend."

Disconcertingly, the driver had chosen to back all the way up Dorotheergasse, his arm braced around the front passenger seat's headrest, his large, Wiener countenance confronting John's own. "I think," the driver had begun ponderously, as if he were about to enunciate an epoch-making, philosophical proposition, "that they did not build these streets with cars in mind."

"No, indeed," John had muttered in reply, looking over the driver's shoulder at a retreating sliver of the Rotenturm. It was then that he had had an idea. Why not, in the spirit of the espionage role he seemed to have assumed, take back bearings on his own past, and thus establish his identity? Look at the retreating street of short-term memory. It was then that the absurd character of Vienna had impinged; then that the stuff about childhood and wieners had boiled up to the murky surface. Then that John had felt quite safe in his Englishness.

RED ZAC . . . BUDAPEST . . . W+3473ZE . . . SCHWECHAI . . . HASS . . . FLUGHAFEN 4KM . . .

Letters and figures whipped by the wings of the Merc as it breasted the spray. Once he was out of the centre, the driver had pushed on relentlessly, imbuing the big saloon with so much inertia that it had felt as if they were falling. Taking front bearings, John realised, peering between the oblique gun sights on the bonnet, was useless. Frankfurt was conceivable only as the most sketchy lineaments, washed-out stacks of children's plastic bricks: the towers of Mainhattan; and an exhibition hall as large as a despot's mausoleum, wherein rubber-wheeled electric carts ferry the trade delegates about. Entirely implausible.

But back bearings were another matter. The shops along the Ring glowing in the twilight. Blind people with white sticks singing Strauss lieder from Braille music sheets. The smell of coffee and cakes, followed abruptly by the sight of middle-aged women eating them, their well-upholstered bodies sat in well-upholstered chairs. Lace everywhere. Gross God! It was overweening Wien! John saw his trouser legs in a darkened doorway, a searchlight flirting with them. He heard the synthesised strumming and plucking of a zither. You could bottle these memories and sell them commercially. Vienna was just this abstraction of elements; this decoction of its own past; this world-beating lie. No wonder it felt so suspiciously familiar - John, like anyone else of his age, reared on Hollywood, could choose any number of travestied cities within which to situate his ill-remembered past.

It had helped that the Merc had felt as if it was falling. Helped to place John's viewpoint some metres above his dimly remembered past. There he was, walking beside a far taller man, a man wearing a formal, dark overcoat, unbuttoned over a severely cut, darker suit. The man was gesturing at the blind choir, the shops and cafes, the promenade full of hurrying Wieners. Evidently he had been showing John around the old town, and presumably it had been to him that John had retailed his anecdote.

It had. There was an appropriately filmic dissolve as the pipeline galleries of an oil refinery strobed away to either side, like the giant markers on a dial. An old Viennese apartment resolved itself, and within it, seated around an oval table, six mismatched guests - four men, two women. The faces of the other four were obscure, but John, in his role as cornice-cam, spotted his own hairy helmet and the tall man's slash of profile, vis-a-vis across the table.

Which had come first, language or consciousness? It's impossible to imagine thinking without language, but equally, can you speak without ever thinking about it? And by the same token, is it possible to have a character without having an identity?

Yet John's character must be perfused with the most gaseous of ironies. Why else lean across the table, replete with its sculpted serviettes, modelled entrees, and arranged flowers (clearly they had yet to begin), and say to the assembled company: "I'm just going to get a Vienna and some chips . . ."? As if expecting a rustle of arid acquiescence. What a wally. Gross God! Had this been said in English or German? And what kind of response had he possibly expected from this lot? This quintet of Wieners, in among their Biedermayer effects. Certainly not what had then occurred.

From his aerial perspective John saw five hands travel to five throats and fiddle there. Five hands come away with five sticks atop which were five faces - or rather masks. The swine had taken their faces off - this was a masque. They twirled them in the candlelight, revealing first the crumpled expressions of strained civility, then nothing. At the side of the room stood a glass cabinet full of ancient votary statues, oil lamps and other, gently rocking bibelots.

The driver was looking at John in the rearview mirror, an expression of strained civility on his face. They were sweeping around a spiral tongue of roadway. "So, Brazil, which airline would that be?"

"Brazil? Oh, yeah, right - no, no, Frankfurt, I'm going to Frankfurt -"

"Right, Brazil was your little joke. Which airline for Frankfurt, then?"


A very little joke. An infinitesimal joke; a photon of hilarity disappearing from the space-time continuum before it could even be measured. John had paid the driver, assumed the bags, marched off through the electronic doors. Going . . . going . . . gone out of Vienna into international space. Or so he had hoped as he set off with an efficient lope across the shiny floor, a lope which soon slowed to a crimped crawl. The athlete's foot - for this there was no international rescue; and the hangover, back now with confident bombast: a roll of kettledrums in the belly, five cors anglais in his chest, and a triangle on the brain. He found his sick self wandering amidst the same shops as he had in Vienna, the identical pudenda parades, displaying the same underwear. And the glass cases full of Mont Blanc pens, and the cases full of camcorders, and the aisle upon aisle of tiny dirndls.

Gurgling out of John had gone the irony and the playfulness. The neat, shiny pretzel had been the residuum of this. Yet still he struggled on with the back bearings, struggled to bring the wavering beam of the searchlight from shoes, to trouser cuffs, to overcoat, to face. The glass cases of goods were rearrangements of the products that were on display in the city. Different room - same things. It reminded him of the way that Freud's effects had been packed up in 1938 and transposed over to London, where they'd been placed in approximately the same positions, in the front room of another comfortable home. The cabinets full of Freud's myriad of miniature antiquaries; the ottoman-blanketed chaise-longue; the bookcases full of the canon. But had he seen these things in London . . . or Vienna, where - Gross God! - they had a plenty big enough Freud Museum.

Leaving the aisle of tiny dirndls, he'd seen immigration and customs dead ahead, together with a row of automated check-in points. Why not? But once he'd gone through, traversed another esplanade of shops, gone down an escalator, up another, he'd found himself back where he'd begun - still "land side" - and temporarily given up. Berthed himself in this cafe - was it a subsection of the airport, or was the airport an extension of it? - and ordered the aforementioned cappuccino; listened to the extempore songs of the mobile phones.

It was the childhood anecdote, the one about the wieners, that had accelerated the pace of the evening. It was after this that the masks had come off. Why had he told it?

Why had he been unable to judge the effect that this would have on Herr Direktor, Frau Direktor and the others? Until then it had been - how would you say it? I don't know - swimming between them. But afterwards, after the obligatory sluice of wine had washed them back into the streets, they'd ceased waving and begun to drown in each other's contempt. Why had he behaved in this fashion? He was a writer - true enough, but that gave him no licence. He was here as a representative of his country - like any other. Did he not realise the importance of these people?

They had reeled along together, the tall Englishman and the stocky Austrian. The quiff of brown hair bobbed beside the helmet of grey. There had been a bar, then another, then a third. At one point they found themselves in front of the carious calcifications of the cathedral, and he'd pointed out the secret sign of the resistance, figures scratched on an archway. The other had laughed, saying that the two numbers indicated the size of the resistance, not its intentions. Once started - he wouldn't stop. It'd all come up. Kurt Waldheim, Thomas Bernhard - whatever. He'd gestured around him in the empty square, almost shouting: "And where are they?! Where?!" Then singing, in a grotesque pop parody: "Where've all the Hutus gone, lo-ong time ago!", then rounded on him, shoved his sharp nose at him and slurred "Well, where've they gone? Y'don't see many Hutus sitting down at the pavement cafes of Old Kigali, now doo-yoo? This place is full of fucking gho-osts!" Then pirouetted away, a madman in an overcoat: "Oh - Vi-enn-aaaa!"

At the Graben they'd attempted to patch things up over two Johnny Walker reds, two Jack Daniels, two Gordon's gin, two Stolichnayas and eventually, belatedly, two Underbergs.

They'd talked of Ted Turner's mania and the dark woods of middle age. They'd discussed their bodies and how time had winnowed them out, left them hollow, looking through slits for eyes. And by dawn they'd reached some kind of concord; at any rate there was silence from within the wardrobe. Heavy 2.

He stood, and looking around him at the precincts of the airport, felt once again the dawn of the European Union of Facelessness. He called for the bill, and while it was added and brought, the loose garment of his assumed identity began to fall from his shoulders, until he was an Austrian in a rust coloured suit, with a red tie. An Austrian in a fur-collared, Austrian overcoat. He would have to go back to the Graben - what could he have been thinking? The false check-out and still falser check-in, could only work for a matter of hours. Biegen aber nicht brechen. He would have to look inside Heavy 2. Have to find out if the porter really had looked after his "friend". His friend, to whom Vienna had seemed so absurd.

What a wally.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition