Short Fiction by Tom White
‘Your shoes, Max. They’re filthy.’ Pretending I just noticed. ‘They were new last Saturday. How come they’re in that state already?’
‘Wore them. Didn’t you trooper? That’s what happens, Babs.’
That’s my ex. Dan. I think: it’s what happens when you leave shoes out in the rain. I just can’t imagine ever having liked Dan. He’s such a prick.
‘Sure. But you have to look after your things Max honey, don’t you honey?’
Max says nothing. Chews a doughnut. He knows when I meet Dan that we’re not really talking to him and he doesn’t need to respond. He’s a channel. Dan and I package resentment in kiddie talk and send it on through the tiny conduit of our son. An intense half hour of passive aggression over coffee, and Max goes back to his father for the week. It’s unfair, of course, how my own shitty situation adds to Max’s. Childhood is bad enough without all that; but then so is adulthood. Especially adulthood: marriage, divorce, fear for your kids, parental death.
I wake up at 4am, turn on the TV to mask the deadness of the hour. Make myself tea and watch the news. That’s what I always do and I don’t know why; by the time I sit down for the news, it’s always sport. There’s nothing I’m less interested in. If it serves a purpose, it’s to make breakfast palatable. I just have eggs. It’s my nod to dieting as I don’t do anything else in that direction and I read somewhere that even if you only diet at breakfast, it’s doing some good. I chew and swallow, chew and swallow my way through the football results. Then I get a move on. I go liberal with foundation and lippy, to make up for what I look like this early. Tug my hair back into a wincing ponytail, pull on my coat and give the door a good slam.
The tube at this time is still the tube of the night before: yesterday’s news on the floor, vomit and sleepers. It’s rank. The good thing is I get a seat. And I actually enjoy the journey. Seven stops, gradually waking up as I count them down. By the time I arrive, I’m alert, able to move with some dexterity. That’s necessary, as people around the station that early in the morning aren’t so capable. I barge a piss-head out of the way and dodge a tart who stops dead to tap on her phone right at the turnstile. The machine snatches my ticket (oh to be so honest and untouchable) and I step out.
I like this part of the city, the financial district. It lacks soul, imagination, convenience – any humanising features. The buildings are oversized. The roads super wide. The thing that owns these streets is of unimaginable proportions. This kind of corporate power has its own style requirements and architectural demands. The City is in the city but apart from it, with its own exclusive ways. It’s not designed for mere mortals. Especially not for me. That’s ok. Walking past benchless squares, chrome sculptures deflecting the rising sun, I’m as uninvolved as a tourist. I’m free and I breathe the crisp dawn air right up to the doors of Capability Tower.
Inside, my shoes squeak on marble as I approach the reception desk with its vase of fake-looking tropical flowers (corporate style again). It always seems like the same bunch, like it exists in stasis, but it’s real – I’ve touched it to make sure – so it must get replaced. I flash my ID to security, take the lift to the fifteenth floor. It’s super modern, the lift; impossible to tell whether it’s moving or still, except for the cracking in my ears.
The lift doors ping open onto the twin sentries of the coffee and chocolate machines. I unlock the cleaning cupboard, heave out the vacuum and make a start on the hall. There’s very little superficial to clean. The pile is so tight that dust and dirt don’t really get involved. But there are three coffee stains. That’s the real issue because it only gets a shampoo once in a blue moon. After vacuuming the hallway, I switch on the beat-up little radio and head into the office with the hoover and cleaning trolley.
The office is open-plan with a row of seven workstations seating eight on either side. I start by vacuuming down the aisle between the first two rows. Once done, I move the swivel chairs on the left side out into the middle and hoover under the desks. I move them back. Then I move the swivel chairs on the right into the middle and hoover under the desks. I move them back. I do it row by row. The greater the distance from the entrance, the less worn the carpet is. As if the workers furthest away have given up dreams of escape and just sit, staring out of the windows at the skyscraper opposite, while those nearest the entrance have too much hope, pacing the aisles, badgering the coffee machine like it’s a sympathetic prison guard.
In the spaces between hoovering, the drone of the radio re-emerges. It’s tuned to a station which is seventy percent talk. The rest are songs from a decade I’ve missed but which seems recent. I don’t like it but I don’t change it. I wouldn’t want to reveal myself to anyone who might walk through the door.
By now, I know all the attempts at personalisation: family photos, torn out cartoons, ticket stubs. It’s the postcards that fascinate me. Such an odd way to communicate. Why would anyone send a picture halfway around the world? What does it mean? I find one: a picture of goats stood in the branches of a tree in an arid landscape. We were driving the old Citroën through plains on what seemed some sort of a loop. The beige ground went on forever, a few trees and sun-bleached shacks repeated themselves like the songs on the three cassettes we had. I take it down and pocket it for the collection. There’s a whole lot of them now, saturating the back wall of the cleaning cupboard where I’ve stuck them. I’m just waiting to get rumbled.
Dust sticks to sweat as I move furniture and hoover awkward spaces. On the plus side, with the noise and the whipping air, I can fart with impunity. It’s the eggs. I’m done when I’m up against the view. Far below is the featureless street I walked earlier. I can see myself, too: pale reflection in the glass.
‘Here you are again, Babs. Same old same old,’ I say to myself. Not words worth hanging on.
I snap open a black bag and start emptying the bins. There are crisp packets, KitKat wrappers, Krispy Kreme napkins and popped blisters of ibuprofen. Even a pair of laddered tights. And a half-chewed sweet sticks to my hand. In cases like this, I get even. I stick it to the underside of the desk, where a knee might touch. And then, after all this, I’m back at the doors. The monotony kept asserting itself – in the screech of music above the whipping wind, in the minor variations between that shack with the chickens and this one with the red door – so that, coupled with the motion of the car, I had a slight feeling of nausea.
I dump the bag at the entrance to the office and grab a J-cloth from the trolley. The last job is wiping down surfaces. Scrubbing thumbprints off screens and coffee rings off desks. Some of the slobs have left mouldy dregs in their ‘Good Morning Handsome’ mugs. Circles of grey on beige. We were travelling too fast to catch anything but glimpses which hung in the head and couldn’t be placed. Getting close to the workstations reveals more evidence of the lives spent here. Although the stations are only separated by a bit of fabric-covered board, that small division goes a long way. As well as the trinkets, the relative order and disorder, the workstations all have a faint but distinct smell. Coffee, perfume and fart in various combinations, trapped in the foam of the swivel-chairs. Not that that’s anything to do with me. I just spray and wipe, spray and wipe, until I’m back up against the window. The morning sun is up now and a few early men in suits stride the street below.
From the front of my apron, I pull out the air freshener and leave a pine fresh vapour trail in my wake.
By the time I’ve dropped Max at day-care, it’s 8.15. I like to be first into the office but when I arrive, James is already here. James is my least favourite colleague. We’ve got nothing in common but instead of letting it ride, he brings up his interests and leaves me short. It almost seems intentional. He waves at me from where he’s sitting on the edge of his desk.
‘See the match, Dan?’ He doesn’t come over. He just shouts.
‘Right. No. I only got back yesterday. So no.’
Any normal person would ask how my holiday was. Did I go anywhere, do anything special? Not James. He says: ‘Cracking second half. A real treat.’
I sit at my workstation and he disappears from view.
I can tell someone has been sitting here in my absence. The height of the chair is wrong. We started to climb as the light was fading. Shacks by the road sold rough pottery, jars of honey. There are other signs of invasion. The mouse is on the right-hand side of the keyboard and the stapler has gone. Some bastard who couldn’t be bothered to shuffle over to the stationery cupboard. Luckily the drawer locks – one of the few in the office that still does – so the things I’ve stashed are safe. I take out my pens (inexpensive but subject to theft as they run nicely) and the photo (Max on a swing, Babs pushing. At that point, the smiles only lasted a camera click.) Then I push the power button and the screen crackles alive.
It’s an old monitor, takes up half the desk. The Windows logo gradually brightens into focus. I go straight to emails. The road became harder as we entered the mountains. We rose and descended, twisted and turned, to accommodate the landscape. On one side, the view out the window was lichen-studded rock inches from my face; on the other, a valley. As expected, there are hundreds of messages. I estimate which are urgent, which are urgent but deserve to be ignored a few days more, and which can just be deleted. Then it’s time for coffee.
I could use the kettle in the corner but it’s too much hassle. I’d need to own and maintain a mug and besides, the water needs to be collected from the cooler down at the end. We stopped at a place selling tagines on the roadside and were led around the back to sit with the view. The colour was uniform beige, from the rubble of the treeless mountains to the village at the bottom; the features of the landscape discernible only by angle and shadow. Anyway, the little ritual of putting money into the company-owned machine makes me feel connected – an indispensable, indisputable part of the business in a much more solid way than actually working here does. After a minute of tubercular groaning and hawking, the thing spits a gob of bitterness into a plastic cup. Dust stuck to the plastic table-top and blurred the evening. I’m carrying the coffee back to my workstation when Trish arrives. I get away with just a not and a smile, then I’m back at my workstation, clicking emails into oblivion.
The carpet and wallpaper were anodyne, their between-tones and vague patterns hardly perceptible and instantly forgotten. Except for the bed where she reclined, the room was empty, as if the furniture had been bleached out of existence by the pervasive afternoon light.
She gazed motionlessly through the large French windows. She’d been like that long enough for the knock on the door to startle her. When the waiter entered with her cocktail, she waved him away with a frown, then stood stiffly up and trod into a pair of red heels. She smoothed the creases out of her dress and pushed the French windows wide.
After the cool of the AC, the melting air took her aback. She squinted in the harsh light, waiting for her eyes to adjust. They didn’t, so after a minute she stepped into the arid landscape anyway. Cicadas screeched in the heat. Dust filmed her patent heels and scree made her stagger but she reached the shack some hundred metres away without falling.
It was just breezeblock walls with a tin roof. No door in the frame or glass in the windows. She didn’t try to unlatch the rusting gate. Instead, she clambered over it, into the approximation of a garden: red dirt, a few weeds corralled into line at the base of the prickly pears which formed a barrier around the shack.
Inside, there was just one room. On one side, a plastic bowl was set on a work surface made of planks on bricks. At the bottom of the bowl was a white O where water had been. That made her smile and seemed to remind her; she took something small from a pocket in her dress and pushed it into a gap in the wall. On the opposite side, there was a makeshift bed of woollen covers. Torn cardboard carpeted the floor.
Some distance away from the house, a man slouched on a rock under a tree. He dragged a polished line through the dust on one of his shoes with a finger. Then poured a little of the water he was holding onto the parched ground. It sat there in a bubble. Sunlight sparked off the windows on the perimeter.