The Designated Area

A short story by Sean Ashton

The sight of workers huddled together on pavements outside office buildings is a common one these days, and will remain so until the stigma of their habit becomes too much to bear, or new legislation prohibits them from indulging it altogether. We anticipate a total ban in public spaces, and we expect it to come sooner rather than later. Until then, we must accommodate the needs of the few, or expose ourselves to charges of discrimination in the workplace.

The main reason for having a Designated Area is to keep employees off the street during tea breaks. The Designated Area is bounded by three buildings: H-Block, C-Block and the John Redwood Conference Suite. These form a quadrangle thirty metres square. Exclusion zones extend five metres from the facade of each building, and are clearly marked with yellow chevrons. Aluminium benches are located in the centre of the quadrangle to draw people away from the buildings. It is better for everyone that they do what they have to do as near to the middle of the Designated Area as possible.

 Only here, then, in the Designated Area, may employees indulge their habit. Only here may they draw their blades and cut into themselves. Only here may they consume their own flesh. In addition to the benches, a number of other provisions cater for their needs. In the left-hand corner of the quadrangle is a bicycle-storage unit that we’ve converted into a miniature field hospital. It is here that they keep medical supplies—their swabs and tourniquets, their bandages and so forth. We can’t have these things on the premises—we can’t have people wandering around with medical waste. All that must go in the incinerator behind the hut. The hut itself is manned for an hour in the morning, an hour at lunchtime and an hour in the afternoon. The operative functions as both quartermaster and nurse, handing out supplies and assisting with the running repairs employees must make before returning to their desks.

Several government health warnings in and around the Designated Area aim at dissuading employees from eating their own flesh. We are not required by law to mount this campaign, but like most companies we are committed to the wellbeing of our staff and encourage them to phone the helplines. It goes without saying that a healthy worker is a happy worker, and a happy worker is a productive one. Workers who eat their own flesh are on average twenty percent less productive than those who don’t.

The extent of addiction varies. It is plain that some will never give up—they carry their own instruments in bespoke flight cases: hack-saws, hunting knives, cauterising rods, monogrammed iodine flasks—but the majority are not beyond help. It’s the dabblers that confuse me. In many ways, these ‘social cannibals’ are the main problem. Their frivolous attitude diverts attention from the seriousness of the habit. They approach it in the same way they approach the vending machine or the salad bar, neither mindful nor fearful of the consequences. A lot of them don’t even have any equipment. They wander into the Designated Area frisking their pockets, eventually borrowing a scalpel from a colleague. They partake, it seems, without ever becoming addicted. You won’t see them in the Designated Area for months, then suddenly they’re there every day. And it’s never their own flesh, always someone else’s.

Despite my responsibilities as an enforcer, I sympathise with the autocannibal. Like a lot of my generation, I myself was once addicted to my own flesh. It’s hard to believe now that there was a time when it was more normal to do it than not. As recently as 1965, fifty-four percent of men and forty-nine percent of women regularly partook of their own or someone else’s flesh. It was the done thing—as natural as wearing a hat. The cinema was full of it: Bogart, Garbo, Dietrich—we grew up watching silver screen icons tearing strips off themselves. Everywhere you went—pubs, theatres, train carriages—the air was heavy with the scent of freshly let blood, the upholstery stained with iodine. When you got home, your clothes stank of it.

Dave Ironmonger, my counterpart over at SINTEC Industries, thinks a ban in public spaces will lead to an outright ban, and for him that can’t come soon enough. Ironmonger and myself are at loggerheads over this. You can’t criminalise a once commonplace habit, you can’t expect people to change overnight; you have to let it happen naturally.

We have it about right, I think: we give them their space, but are firm with those who break the rules. A three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy is in place to deter people from doing it in the building. But clemency is extended to those who show signs of wanting to help themselves. Repeat offenders are not dismissed but given a choice: resign or sign up for the programme. All choose the programme—and all come back clean.

It’s a different story over at SINTEC, where the twenty-minute tea break has recently been divided into two breaks of ten. There’s barely enough time to make the incision, prepare the flesh for consumption and dress the wound before they have to go back inside again. And they fine them if they’re late. Some of our employees dress their wounds as they go back to their desk. At present, we turn a blind eye to this, but for how much longer?

Employees at SINTEC are also prohibited from eating their own flesh while driving company vehicles. This includes nail-biting and nose-picking. Surely, I put it to Dave Ironmonger, mucous doesn’t count? Dave Ironmonger disagreed: ‘What if the nose bleeds,’ he said.

For me, this is going too far. I wonder at the wisdom of it all. In my view we need to adopt a more counter-intuitive stance. It’s no good just banning it. Prohibition in itself isn’t enough; you have to fill the void created by prohibition. There’s this new thing they’re trying out in France, a prescription drug that does not so much cure you of your addiction as replace it with a less harmful one. It’s being trialled regionally in Montpellier, but the plan is to roll it out nationally. It’s an oral infusion made from a plant that grows in abundance in warm climates. The leaves of this plant are dried out and rolled into cylinders. The patient places the cylinder in the mouth, ignites the end, inhales the smoke into the lungs, holds it there for a second, then exhales. That’s all I know.

This is an interesting development but we must guard against premature optimism. Will the new drug be sufficiently addictive to distract people from their carnivorous yearnings? Clearly, a balance must be struck. Make it too addictive, and you replace an old set of problems with a new set of problems. Not addictive enough, and they’ll go back to the scalpel and iodine flask.

Let us suppose they get it right. Let us suppose the experts can arrive at the right formula. There’ll be money in it, will there not? New markets will open up. Private bidders will clamour for government contracts. It’ll be a boon for the economy. As for the Designated Area, that could easily be adapted to the requirements of this new vice. Or maybe they would prefer to do it inside? Yes, perhaps they would prefer to do it there, at their desks, in the boardrooms, in the lift lobbies, in the auditorium of the John Redwood Conference Suite. The Designated Area could be used for some other purpose. We could redesignate it. It could become a General Recreation Zone, a Fire Drill Assembly Point. Anything.