Contentment

I paused as I reached the gate, looking up through the blank nothingness of my headphones. The house was lit, glowing, the unshaded windows spilling gold onto the drive. The scene visible through them was a photograph, a perfect still image of family life, a mother and son eating dinner together.

Twilight had gone, the last hopeful vestiges of the day vanished from the sky. I could see the neighbour’s tree, the one that overhung our garden, outlined in shadow against the warmth. The indistinct form ruffled slightly in the breeze.

For a moment, a branch creaked down and obscured Jeff’s face in the window, hiding his grim scowl. Then the branch swung back up and I could see my son glowering at his green beans. His mother mouthed something, her words lost in the breeze, and a terrifyingly adult mix of lust and desire and greed flashed across the little face.

Sarah didn’t notice the effect of her words. She had stood and was delicately placing a bowl over the plate sitting at the third, empty, place. Jeff looked at her, then back at his beans. Then he picked up his fork and speared them with a sharp stab, trying to inflict every ounce of malevolence and indignation he felt about the basic unfairness of life.

I found that my finger was tapping mechanically on my leg, spurred by the white noise of the music in my ears. I pulled my headphones free and began to walk up the driveway towards my house, the twittering of birds floating intermittently through the air on the gusting wind. The gravel crunched beneath my feet. The tree looked more detailed up close, the wrinkles and gnarls on the bark thrown into ancient shadow by the upstart electric light. It creaked and swung again, and tales of forests and elves, fantasies and dreams and myths spoke in the creaking.

Then my foot fell. It crunched again, flatly, and the moment was gone.

The beat of my steps pushed me up the path, away from the dark mysteriousness and into the light. My hand was tapping against my trousered leg, in time with the regular, ordinary sound of my walking. I didn’t notice until I reached for my keys and my leg suddenly felt freer, the relentless pulse no longer being hammered into my body.

I half-heartedly tried the door, but the handle was solid. I jabbed my key at the lock, scraping another line into the door when I missed. The lock was webbed by little scratches, spindling outwards like a window waiting to shatter.  I turned the key once, felt the deadbolt clunk, then kept twisting until it clicked open. The handle turned now, tight and stiff. I slipped through it, into a dim hallway. Light was radiating out from gaps in the doorframe to my right, slivers fading into nothing in the darkness, showing half shapes.

I reached down and fumbled with my laces. Breathing shallowly, I eased the knots apart and slipped out of my shoes, leaving them sitting alone where I had crossed the threshold. I plucked my bag from my shoulder and lowered it down beside them. I caressed the door closed, barely remembering to slide my key out of the lock.

Then I took one large step in the dark, peering through the shadow in the light coming from behind the closed door. I lowered my foot down onto the darker patch, the carpet that stretched the length of the wood-floored hallway. I balanced tentatively on one foot for a moment, desperately trying not to think about falling in the darkness, then managed to bring my other foot onto the carpet.

Padding softly down the hallway, I could hear Jeff clattering his fork against his plate as he prodded his food. Another door opened and closed off to my right and I heard a pair of heeled boots marching in parallel to me. Sarah would be going through the kitchen to get the pudding she’d promised, one of the little pots we kept hidden in the booze fridge.

I paused in the middle of the hall, waiting for the footsteps to turn around and make their way back. My breathing seemed loud in the darkness. Maybe I was getting ill, a cold or a scratchy throat.

There was some quiet rattling as Sarah searched through the cupboard for something suitable to serve a pudding cup in. Did the congealed mess of chemicals deserve a ramekin or a sundae glass?

I closed my eyes, bit my tongue, and counted. My breathing was louder now. I probably was sick, I decided.

Then the boots moved again, rapping stridently back down the way they had come. I shuffled forward again, rolling my feet into place on the carpet. I zagged randomly across the hall. In the dark, I was relying on memory to tell me where I was, how many steps I’d taken, where the noisy floorboards were.

Nine irregular paces further on from my shoes, I swivelled to my left. I could see the slight glint of a brass doorknob. I grasped it and turned, pushing open the door. It swung back easily on well-oiled hinges. A smell of paper drifted out of the room beyond, paper and glue and ink and leather. Heavy curtains veiled a window.

I stepped over the threshold to the room and pushed the door closed, slowing as it neared the frame so I could ease it in. I closed my eyes, then shrugged my jacket off my shoulders. I stretched my arms for a moment, luxuriating in the cold of the room, the prickling of goosebumps springing up along my forearms, the slight electric shiver than ran through my spine and limbs.

Opening my eyes again, I peered through the darkened room and threw the jacket casually over to where I thought the desk chair was. It whumped softly onto the floor.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

I crouched and shuffled awkwardly over to where the jacket had landed. Crumbs crunched welcomingly beneath my feet, the sharpness of their breaking muted by the carpet. I felt the floor in front of me with both hands. When I found my jacket, I picked it up and shook it a little, hearing a pattering as the dislodged crumbs showered onto the floor. I squinted through the darkness again and found the straight backed desk chair. I hung my jacket on the back, straightening out a slight crumple in the back. Then I moved over to the desk itself. My hands rubbed it, caressed it until they found the switch, and I pressed it.

There was a slight click and a dim twilight oozed out into the room, pooling near the lamp. It glinted slightly as it lapped up against the walls, drawing my attention. I turned and my shadow cut across the light, making the reflections of the lamp vanish. A photo of a couple, barely recognisable after ten years, just married, was framed and hanging on the wall. Sarah was in a wedding dress and a broad, free smile. I was laughing, thin, with a mop of hair starting to break free from a delicate coiffing.

I turned to the sideboard. On the top was a set of cut crystal glasses and a decanter, sparkling vibrantly. I moved towards them, picked up the decanter and the dancing flame died. I drew the stopper from the whisky and splashed a decent measure into one of the glasses. There was a plastic bottle of mineral water in one of the cupboards, which I fished out. A precisely measured amount of water went into the glass.

The glass in one hand, I turned back to the desk. A book was sitting there, and I picked it up and walked the couple of paces over to where the light from the lamp was starting to fade into nothingness. I took a sip of the spirit. It warmed me from the inside, the fire hitting my empty stomach, then spreading through my limbs and banishing the chill. I barely felt the cold deadness of the leather armchair as I slumped into it.

I didn’t read my book. I sat there, my back to the lamp, staring at the drawn curtain as I sipped my drink.

I felt a pleasant lightness in my head, thoughts drifting up and out of my skull and floating away into the ether. For a while, gazing was all I did, blinking slowly and heavily as I slouched. A couple of times, I heaved in a deep breath and let it out before taking another, shallower one to savour the smoky aroma spiralling up from my glass.

And then it was finished. I peered at the bottom of the glass, swirled the last drop or two around the bottom. The smell still clung to it, making the empty glass seem full and inviting, tricking my brain into thinking there was something there. I set the glass down on the small table beside the chair and stood up.

Blood flowed through my head and I closed my eyes. The rush pounded inside my skull, sharpening the world and causing me to take a quick, stabbing breath. Then it passed and I retraced my steps, picking up my jacket and teasing the door open. Some tune wafted in from elsewhere in the house, having been blocked before by the door. Snatches of it stirred fragments in my memory. It was grandiose, orchestral, sweeping.

As I was tiptoeing back down the carpeted hallway, I tried to think of what television show that particular theme belonged to. The fragments had pieced themselves together into partial mosaics, evenings on the couch. Then a fully formed picture snapped into my head, swords and dragons and escapism.

Funny. Sarah had only started watching it because I had. She’d moaned and moaned about being forced to watch my fantasy nonsense, ignoring the idea that she could just leave me alone for an hour. Yet here we were.

I crept softly back down the hallway to the front door, less carefully now. Sarah was in the living room and Jeff-

Jeff should have been in bed. Which made his standing in the kitchen door all the more surprising. His tiny silhouette was ringed with an aura from the kitchen, a halo of light I had to squint through. After a second, I saw that the cunning little bastard had another pot of pudding in his hand and a stricken expression on his face. His baggy pyjamas, bought two sizes too big so he could ‘grow into them’ flapped loosely around his bony shoulders.

“Jeff, are you sneaking out of bed to steal pudding?” I drew myself up from my stealthy crouch and fixed the boy with a glare.

His face twisted into guilty denial. “No, I just-”

“Don’t lie to me!” I thundered as quietly as I could. This could still be saved.

“Well… yeah, I guess,” Jeff muttered to his feet, tears visibly welling in the corners of his eyes.

I sighed theatrically. I reached out a hand and grasped his little shoulder. Suddenly gifted with intelligence but without scruples.

“Right,” I said, tilting his chin upward with my hand so I could look into the glimmer reflected in those teary eyes. “Look, because you owned up to it, we can forget about it just this once. As long as you promise, absolutely promise to me like a big boy, never to steal again. That’s sneaky and dishonest.”

I stared steadily into his eyes, barely able to believe my luck.

Jeff sniffed. A glistening, pearly tear rippled down his cheek.

“O-OK,” he wavered.

There was a moment’s expectant silence. Then I prompted, “So, as long as you promise not to do it again, I won’t need to tell your mum, OK?”

“OK,” Jeff quavered.

“So we don’t need to talk to mum about this at all, do we. Now promise me?”

“I promise.”

“OK then.” I reached down and hugged my son. He was light and small in my grasp. I could feel his chest quivering as he tried to contain his sobs.

“Now give me that, and go back to bed before your mum sees you,” I said, reaching down and prying the cup from his hand. “Go on!”

Jeff dashed gratefully off down the hall, feet pattering delicately on the carpet. There was no chance Sarah would notice. I continued padding down the hallway, eased the front door open, then shut it again with a bang.

“Sarah!” I called into the gloom. “Sorry I’m late, one of the clients just wouldn’t shut up!”

“Your dinner’s on the table! It’ll do fine in the microwave!” The answering shout drifted through the darkened house.

“Thanks!”

I clumped down the hall to the dining room and banged the door. There was a plate with a bowl over it sitting alone on the table. I picked it up and walked through the connecting door to the kitchen.

The light there was still on after Jeff’s misadventure. I peeked under the bowl and saw another serving of the same beans that Jeff had rightly rejected earlier. I opened the bin and scraped them into the rubbish, making sure to pull a concealing layer of junk mail over the top. Then I opened the fridge to grab some odds and ends for a sandwich.

Before putting it down to free up both hands, I glanced at the pudding I’d earned. It was plain vanilla flavour. Typical.

***

The computer monitor flickered, then went blank. I started, head straightening up off my palm. A few murmurs rose above the cubicle boxing off my vision. A couple of moments passed while I tried to remember what windows I had open. The grey, blank cubicle walls seemed to bleed into my memory, filling them with a bland indistinctness, nulling any image of what had been on the screen before it crashed.

I was fairly sure it wasn’t anything incriminating at least. Then I swivelled in my chair and saw Mark seated across from me. His face was red, squeezed by the collar of a shirt two years past fitting him. The sheen of sweat wasn’t caused by that though. I checked my watch and saw that it was just about time for him to disappear off to the toilet. And, yes, his phone was connected to the computer. I was safe then. Certainly, nothing I did on a work computer compared to the videos Mark downloaded.

Mark saw me looking at him and his gaze fixed mine, pupils wide. I gave a nonchalant shrug and lounged back in my chair. Some of the sweat on Mark’s face pooled and coalesced into a droplet which trickled down his temple. Dark patches were appearing under his arms as his eyes flashed away.

They swept over and past the small photo he had pinned up on one side of his cubicle at eye level. It showed a woman and three children. I’d met Mark’s family once. They’d seemed nice enough, in that special kind of inoffensive, blankly pleasant way that was somehow reserved for work meetings. Nothing suggested that they deserved the upheaval of Mark getting fired, anyway.

“You OK?” I called across the space between the cubicle openings. Mark’s eyes fixed back on my face, twitching.

“Em…d’you know how good the system recovery stuff is?” Mark spoke slowly, but his voice had climbed half an octave in the half hour since I’d spoken to him last. “Because, I had a, a big project open for a client, re-vamping their logo and image work, you know?”

“No idea,” I replied, frowning. “Wouldn’t put it past them to be able to recover everything you had open, though. Then they could tell the client that all the work was lost and charge them for twice the man hours.”

Mark loosened his tie and undid his top button. “You really think so?”

“No idea, to be honest.” I folded my legs, adjusting a fold in my trousers so that they caught the light properly. “I mean, I know art, not computers.”

“Just, well… you’re tight with Arthur, how safe d’you think I am for the next performance review?” Mark’s eyes were now darting from my face to the end of the row of cubicles and back. Now that he’d lessened the pressure on his neck, some of the colour had begun to drain from his face.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” I soothed. Mark’s taste in bathroom entertainment was an open secret throughout the department. “I mean, I’ve seen your sketchbook, you’re the best artist here.”

“But no-one’ll pay money for that stuff if I lose this gig.” Mark waved a hand dismissively towards the drawer of his desk where his sketches were, not bothering to deny the charge. Even among a group of selfish, needy egomaniacs, talent was obvious. “I mean, I tried drawing comics and selling superheroes before, but with three kids…”

“Seriously, you’ll be fine,” I reassured him.

“How come you’re always so relaxed about this stuff?” Mark asked. He seemed like he’d calmed down a little. “Performance review comes up and you never bat an eyelid.”

“I guess it’s just that I’m tight with Arthur, like you said.” I yawned a little and stood up to stretch. “Since the lights are still on, it can’t be a full blackout. I’m going to go see if the kettle still works, you want anything?”

“Um, no, no, I’m good thanks,” Mark stammered absently. His gaze was now fixed on the end of our row of desks.

A man strode into the space and Mark inhaled sharply. I sank back down to my chair, guessing that Arthur had come to give us a speech.

My brother-in-law was tall, and lean rather than thin. Even now, when he was still sheathed in the ad executive’s skin of the tight, shiny suit, he positioned his limbs to strain against the fabric. The one time I’d seen him shed it was when he’d dragged me along to the gym the firm had an agreement with. I’d told him I’d prefer a place with fewer mirrors, and hadn’t been back.

His hair was shorn and sweeping all at once, artfully flopping across the beginnings of baldness. A few new wrinkles showed up in the light, cracking the façade at the corners of his eyes.

He looked over the double row of desks that comprised Creative (Art). Then he cleared his throat and smiled expansively, extending his arms and holding the pose until he was sure we were all looking at him.

Hey everyone,” he began genially. “So, I’ve made a few calls to find out what’s going on, and turns out it’s just a couple of circuit breakers been tripped by a surge. Nothing to worry about, and once maintenance have run a couple tests, everything’ll be back to normal.

“Provided you were following protocol and backing up properly, you should be able to recover pretty much everything.” A soft sigh of relief sounded from my left. “Now, I tried to fight for you guys, but you know how demanding some of the clients are.”

Arthur swept an apologetic smile around the desks for exactly two seconds.

“So any work that’s fallen behind schedule because of this, please stay in and make sure it’s completed on time,” he concluded.

A hand was raised in front of me. Arthur nodded at Marie to speak. “Will we be getting overtime for extra hours?”

Arthur sighed. “Unfortunately, no. Upper management is of the opinion that you aren’t doing anything beyond your normal duties, and so will not be entitled to discretionary overtime pay.” He almost managed to sound regretful.

There was a pause as everyone digested this information.

“Any more questions?” Arthur asked brightly. “No? Then have a good one, people. You know where to find me, and remember, my door’s always open.” With that, he swivelled and disappeared into his small office.

No responsibility for a while. And no internet to piss about on.

I fished a small pad from my desk and began idly sketching. Some of the afterimages from the scene with the tree the night before were still dancing around in my head, silhouetted fantasies waiting to be brought into the living light. Or at least whatever artificial simulacrum management called light in the office.

That half hour melted into a flurry of pen strokes and lines, eyes half shut, pouring primal imagination onto the pages before me. Something was developing there, something which felt old, fundamental, undisturbed, indistinct. Something out of myth, before man, before the world had become tame and safe and rigid, a mass of twisting, flowing lines, shifting and morphing in my mind and on the page to become a tangled mess that began to unravel itself, began to resolve itself, a shape, something that made sense and was forming now in my mind’s eye, and was so close.

And then it fell away, became something else, the images from that film Sarah and I had gone to see last week, the creatures from the TV, an illustration of Mark’s I’d caught a glimpse of earlier, all bleeding in and merging and morphing and imposing themselves on my mind.

The picture in my head became mundane. It became an amalgam of every other fantastical creature that I’d seen in the past year. A cheap attempt at flattery.

I tore the pages out of my pad and crumpled them up. The bin threatened to overflow when I stuffed them in. Other compressed balls of paper were jammed tightly against one another there. I opened a drawer of my desk and placed the clean, unmarked pad back in. Shadows pooled in the grooves worn into the paper as I shoved the drawer shut.

I stood up, waving my mug. I got a couple of answering nods from the colleagues who had stayed to wait at their desks. Not that it mattered, since it turned out the plugs in the kitchen were on the same circuit as the sockets powering the computers.

The power did eventually come back. Monitors flicked back into life, great glaring eyes of responsibility suddenly open and staring. People snapped straight in their chairs. A couple of wistful sighs drifted through the air. There was a collective grinding as chairs were scraped along the floor and keyboards dragged into position, then work became work once again.

“Damn,” I mused to Mark. “We’ve used up our yearly excitement quota all at once.”

Hours crawled. I somehow couldn’t quite tone the vibrant, pulsating colours of a beach scene down to the bland flatness the client or management wanted. The picture stubbornly stayed warm and inviting and alluringly exotic. It still made me want to dive in and away.

The travel insurance people wanted it to look threateningly foreign.

I was idling blankly at the screen, dragging sliders up and down and up and down and up. Glancing at the clock, I saw it was after 8 o’clock.

I booted up my browser and logged onto a couple of social networking sites. There was nothing on my linkedin page. So much for being headhunted for my stunning, innovative portfolio.

I switched to another site, and pictures of half-forgotten acquaintances streamed past, rushing and blurring together, poses and smiles and backdrops blending into a surreal, jerky animation, a flip book charting achievement and happiness and experiences and successes.

Christ, that was Jonny, smilingly bearded, triumphantly straddling some lesser Himalaya. The bastard had lost weight in the fifteen years since uni. Alison posting a link to her latest speech. The remnants of the lads on tour wherever the beer was cheapest. Owen, standing beside a car that was even shinier and newer than his teeth. And Kara, oh god, Kara, looking just as sparklingly, beautifully alive as she had the last time I’d seen her, wit and laughter forever poised at the corners of her perfectly curved lips, beaming radiantly while comfortably ensconced in the embrace of some guy.

The fucker even looked a bit like me.

Who was he? I frantically clicked through to her profile, diving through photo albums and post histories. A wedding? A fucking wedding? Kara got married?

I yanked my mouse to the corner of the screen and shut the browser. I was breathing hard, and my pulse was racing.

The beachscape flickered serenely on the monitor. I clicked another slider, but the sea stayed jewelled, deep sapphire. Then I lifted my hand off the mouse, reached down under the desk and jabbed at the power. The screen went mercifully dark once more.

I stood up and pulled my jacket over my shoulders. My stomach rumbled, even though I had been eating from a constantly flowing conveyor belt of snacks and biscuits all day. The lights reflected off the inside of the windows, mirroring grey geometry back into the office. It would be dark outside, then. Arthur had left hours earlier.

“Mate, where you going?” Mark asked, spinning round in his chair.

“Just going to get some dinner,” I replied. “Want anything from the chippy?”

“Nah, Helen’s got me on some diet or other,” he said ruefully. “Says she’s getting worried about my health.”

“Well, sucks to be you then.” I turned and walked away as quickly as I could manage. There were no more questions, just glances.

I crossed the street outside the office and walked into the multi-storey carpark. The stairs up were bare concrete, with a steel handrail crudely exposing flashes of silvery metal beneath a scanty covering of wrinkled, peeling paint. The place smelled of stale urine and unwashed people.

I reached my floor and pushed through the swinging door. There was a mass of darkened cars squatting in the harsh fluorescence coming from the strips overhead, and I was momentarily lost. Mine was there, I was in there somewhere in that indistinguishable sea of similarities.

I clicked the button on my key and there was a squawking and a flashing from a corner as my car unlocked. I hurried over and hauled the door open, then clambered in. The light that had come on flicked off when I closed the door, so I sat in the darkness for a second. Then I turned the key and started the engine, illuminating the interior with the orange glow of instruments and dials.

I followed the arrows to leave. The route was taking me to the edge of the floor, where a concrete spiral twisted down the side of the structure. I reached it and turned slightly, and the angle made the parapet fall away and opened up the twinkling cityscape below.

The panorama spread out across my windscreen, distant lights twinkling softly like the stars of far-off, unexplored galaxies. There were formations and structures, a whole cosmos of life, patterns forming and coalescing and breaking apart as people came and went and lived. Some winked out, extinguished, as I watched, while others sprang into fiery being. It was beautiful, a living, evolving image of the life of the city projected across my view.

I reached into my pocket for my phone. I took a couple of pictures, thinking I might try and draw something based on it later, try and capture the vitality and life. But the still image on the screen was flat and dead. I deleted the photos and put my phone away, then swung the car down the ramp. At the exit of the carpark, I took a couple of turns onto the motorway and drove home.

***

I could see the milk jug toppling before it happened. Jeff’s tiny hand reached greedily to top the sugar masquerading as cereal that was piled in his bowl. Sarah didn’t notice as she blearily eyed her single boiled egg.

“No, Jeff, don’t!” I shouted from across the kitchen, as Sarah snapped up with a “What?”

He grasped the handle, went to lift, the strain of the heavy jug visible in his shaking forearm; he heaved and his arm jerked upwards as he lost his grip, his fingers slipping free from the handle and the jug teetering, then crashing forward, sending a wave of milk flooding across the table.

I rushed over and snatched the boy up as the milk spilled over his chair.

“Have you got any on you?” I asked the panicked face, guilt and fear shouting silently from Jeff’s wide eyes.

He was dumbstruck. I examined his new trousers, found a small patch of damp on one shin and hauled Jeff over to the sink.

“What were you doing?” I inquired as I scrubbed at the spot. “I thought you had enough manners to ask people to pass things instead of reaching across half the table.”

“I asked Mum!” he said fiercely. “And she didn’t, so I had to reach.”

“Sorry, I must not have heard him,” Sarah said, drifting over to the sink. “Where are the kitchen towels?”

“I don’t know, didn’t you have them in the dining room last?” I concentrated on cleaning Jeff’s trouser leg.

“Maybe.” She didn’t sound convinced. “I’m sure I’ll remember later, you know how I am in the mornings.”

“Well, someone has to mop up that milk now, and I’ve got to go to take Jeff and go to work,” I snapped, still scrubbing.

“Fine, I’ll just use one of the normal towels and throw it in the wash.” Sarah reached past me into a cupboard.

“Well, we have to go.” I released the squirming boy. “Jeff, get your things, we’re leaving before I’m late.”

“What about his breakfast?” Sarah asked.

“I’ll get him a bacon roll or something at the petrol station, I need to fill the car up anyway.” I didn’t look at Sarah but could feel her pursing her lips behind me.

“Fine,” she said flatly. “But we’re still having that photo of all three of us on Jeff’s first day of pre-school.”

“Fine,” I echoed. I grabbed my bag and looked for Jeff.

“Where is that boy? Jeff?” I called up the stairs.

“Coming!” answered the voice from above.

“I’ll set the camera up,” said Sarah behind me, and I heard her shuffle outside to the front of the house.

Eventually Jeff appeared at the top of the stairs. He’d managed to spill toothpaste on his new shirt.

“Come on, we’re late.” I grabbed his hand and hauled him outside.

Sarah was waiting, crouched beside the camera sitting on the low wall bordering the lawn. She glanced up and saw us.

“Just stand by the door,” she said, waving an arm distractedly while looking into the viewfinder. “Yeah, there’s perfect.”

I put a firm arm around Jeff’s shoulders and held him in front of me.

“Stand up straight and smile for your mother,” I hissed down at him. He slumped his shoulders beneath my arm.

A red light appeared on the camera and Sarah rushed over, jamming herself in behind Jeff and beside me. The three of us were framed by the doorway of the house, an old stone arch completely encircling the picture.

“Smile everyone!” Sarah mumbled through clenched teeth.

I forced my cheeks up and bared my teeth a little. The image of my laughing face, hanging in my study, gave a model.

I smiled with what I hoped looked like contentment as the camera flashed.

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