(Photo - Night Facade by Christopher Woods)
Sunday nights were the worst. He wasn’t sure why exactly, it wasn’t as if he worked the nine to five any longer. Yet every week, without fail, from four o’clock onwards, his stomach would tighten and he would start to bite on his fingernails in an absent minded manner. Dinner always proved indigestible and the offering on TV rarely aspired to much more than comfortable, idyllic portraits of middle class lives, set in some time or place that probably never existed. Often, he would wander down to his local DVD store in order to hire Hollywood’s latest offering. The content usually washed over him for his concentration was elsewhere.
Carlton had been told early on in his career that the trick was ‘never take your work home with you’. Easier said than done. Carlton was a perfectionist and though his career had been a success story to date, he felt that he was always only one mistake away from failure.
That particular Sunday was proving more stressful than most for he had an extremely important meeting early the following day and if all went well he would be able to take a lengthy break once it was over. He needed it. He could feel that he hadn’t quite been at his best recently. He was glad he had stayed freelance. No boss sitting over his shoulder harrying him, ready to stick the knife in his back the moment he slipped up. Yet Carlton was acutely aware of just how much he was tied to the next pay cheque. He worked in a results business and those who hired him made it patently clear that was all they cared about.
As the film he had rented half-heartedly exploded its way to its all too inevitable conclusion, he lit his first cigarette of the evening. Carlton hated smoking and hated himself even more for not giving it up. He had only tried it in the first place on the misguided belief that it was an important part of his outfit, saying as much about him as the shirt or tie he wore. Instead of any benefit, all that Carlton noticed was that his throat became ticklish, his pay didn’t stretch quite so far and a stale, lingering smell haunted him. To his absolute horror though, Carlton discovered that smoking did calm his nerves in moments of high tension. Also, when he lit up, he found peoples attention distracted by the slender, smouldering object in his fingers and the more they focussed upon that, the less notice they took of him. He had used this to his advantage on more than one occasion.
The credits began to roll on the DVD so Carlton stopped the disc and retreated into the kitchen to finish his Sunday night chores. Despite the fact money wasn’t really a problem for him these days, Carlton still cut his own sandwiches. Preparing food was one of the few domestic chores he took a pleasure in. Carlton found it therapeutic, a chance to create rather than destroy. As he deftly spun the knife around in his hand and began to slice the tomatoes, he attempted to pinpoint the moment in time when his natural optimism had deserted him. The draining pessimism that had replaced it bit to the grain. No matter how hard he tried, the moment always eluded him.
Having prepared his lunch for the morrow Carlton settled down to run over his itinerary once more. He had promised himself he wasn’t going to, but such was the importance of the meeting with Mr Dearnley he knew he couldn’t leave the slightest item to chance. His biggest concern was transport. He wasn’t happy about it, but he was going to be reliant on the public variety actually running on time. He had to be there by nine in order to catch his client off guard before the maelstrom of the early morning rush had time to settle. As the journey was one which he wasn’t overly familiar with, he had undertaken a dummy run the previous week in order to time it. Being way out from his estimate, Carlton undertook it a second time. Much to his annoyance, the second journey took a full thirty-five minutes longer than the first, thus presenting him with a real dilemma. The pessimist in him said to trust the lengthier journey time, so he added a half an hour safety buffer and settled upon that. Carlton packed his briefcase with extra special care that night. Before closing the lid he slipped in his lucky charm and smiled. Perhaps there was hope for him yet, for he knew that in spite of all his careful planning and preparation, in spite of the fact he had gone over the meeting a hundred times already in his head, in spite of his reputation within the business, he knew all of this counted for very little when it was stacked up against that most random of commodities - luck. What most people, his competitors included, didn’t seem to realise was that pre-planning was simply a case of risk limitation. No amount of diligence could overcome the power of chance and fortune.
As he brushed his teeth Carlton wandered aimlessly between bathroom and bedroom. He wasn’t entirely happy with his choice of suit but mistrusted changing his mind so late in the day. He knew he was in for a miserable night’s sleep as his head sank into the pillows. Surprisingly he found himself drifting off relatively easily, his sub-conscious wondering at the potential new secretaries he might meet on the morrow. A pang of sadness haunted Carlton. None of them ever remembered him. He had resented this at first, before quickly realising the advantage it gave him. Yet he couldn’t help hoping that one of them would remember him, just once, for the good of his soul. They never did.
Carlton awoke a little after four. It was the inevitability that really irritated him. For half an hour he made a token effort of trying to drift back to sleep. It was no good so he lay there, lit up and traced phantom scrolls with his cigarette end in the dark. It was particularly annoying because he could feel the tiredness gnawing at his bones, a dull ache that refused to go away. He tried his best to block out the coming day but to no avail.
He rose just before five, showered the aches and pains away as best he could and treated himself to his favourite cereal. He tried to listen to something on the radio only found that despite a huge improvement in the past decade or so, radio programmes between midnight and six a.m. still had a rather horrible insomniacs anonymous feel to them. Carlton soon gave up, made himself the first coffee of the day and then went to his window to watch the dawn come up.
Carlton wondered where poets got their romantic notions of sunrise from. He found that the only time dawn breaking ever felt romantic was when you were awake voluntarily, which usually meant a day off work. The catch of course being that when you had a day off work, you never actually wanted to be awake in time to watch the sun come up. It certainly wasn’t a morning for poets anyhow. A heavy mist hung over the city and a light, persistent rain spirited down, covering the world with a veil of wetness. It cast an appropriate mood for the work at hand. Carlton hated his job and had done for so long now he found it difficult to remember a time when he hadn’t. As he sipped his coffee he thought back to when he was an apprentice to Hobson. He had enjoyed it back then. He was sure he had. Learning a new trade, working with the old man and the thrill he had got from the first time he had stood on his own two feet and completed a particularly difficult assignment alone. Those memories had faded and were in danger of becoming lost in a sea of bitterness. Carlton witnessed the way in which the business had killed Hobson in the end and he was determined the same wasn’t going to happen to him. He hadn’t anticipated the hours back in the early days, the boredom brought about by long periods of inactivity followed by high-pressure bursts of intensity at the conclusion of every job. It had reached the point where it dominated his life. He could feel it in his veins. It had started to define him. It wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was.
On finishing the drink he laboured back up the stairs and reluctantly donned a suit, his identity becoming lost in the process. When he was fully dressed he treated himself to the full-length view in the mirror. He barely recognised the faceless nonentity that stared back. He gave a grunt of satisfaction before descending the stairs to pick up his briefcase.
The walk to the tube station gave no indication that he was less than ten miles away from the centre of one of the largest city’s in the world. That all changed when he transferred onto the Central line. No one looked at him and he didn’t look back. Passengers were too busy with their books, morning paper or not so personal ipods. It was a sad indictment, the level of hostility and indifference. Little wonder the business he was in was allowed to prosper. Sometimes he felt an intense urge to engage a complete stranger and tell them his life story; how he hadn’t meant it to pan out the way it had, it was an accident, he wasn’t really a heartless city type. What held him back was the way in which people who showed the slightest sign of loquacity were shunned as if they were carriers of a disease. Carlton wanted to close his eyes to it all and treat himself to a moment’s respite, but he daren’t for the thought of having his briefcase stolen. He simply could not afford that to happen, so he rocked and swayed along with the motion of the carriage and day dreamed of the break that he had promised himself. He hadn’t decided where he was going as yet, but he had already drawn up a checklist of what his destination must have to offer. Peace and tranquillity were a given. Above all though he wanted to be somewhere his job didn’t even exist. He wasn’t prepared to run the risk of the tiniest reminder. Some remote Pacific island maybe, far Northern Canada or the Galapagos.
As the train slowed to a halt a mechanised monotone announced the destination. The passengers alighted under a veil of thinly disguised aggression, Carlton receiving a sharp elbow in the back from a particularly vicious looking Oriental lady. She didn’t even acknowledge the incident let alone offer an apology. As they left the station they were assaulted by a dull rain. The fortunate ones released a flock of umbrellas. The remainder buried their heads in their necks, behind collars or made futile attempts to hide beneath already unwanted newspapers. As they trudged off to their respective gaols, no one looked up. No one spoke.
The rain became heavier and visibility worsened to Dickensian proportions.
It must have been that which led to Carlton not noticing the bus. As he stepped off the pavement the driver slammed on the brakes and paled as he realised he had little chance of stopping in time. A hand shot out from nowhere, grabbed Carlton’s shoulder and held him back. It prevented him from taking that final, fatal, step. On being reprieved the driver quickly changed tack, hammered the horn and accelerated. He deliberately missed Carlton by a matter of inches, but thoroughly soaked him with murky water from the puddle that stretched half way across the road. Carlton’s lapse in concentration shocked him to the core. It was so unlike him, so unprofessional.
He turned to face his saviour and found himself looking at a rather slightly built young woman who was wearing far too much denim and carrying a folder that didn’t look as if it would survive the day. She smiled at him. “You ought to be more careful. That’s no way to go.”
She turned and was off before he could thank her. Returning to the safety of the pavement he tracked her progress through the crowds. She walked with a carefree jaunt, oblivious of the downpour. From time to time she shook her hair, creating a halo of water when she did so. She seemed untouchable, shining like a beacon of humanity amidst the surrounding misery. The look in her eyes had given him a hope he hadn’t felt for some time. Maybe it wasn’t too late for him maybe he could still rejoin the human race.
Carlton heard a faint chime from St. Martin in the Field and glanced at his watch. The choice was upon him. Any delay now and he would be late. If he missed the meeting would he be free? Would they allow it? He looked up and sought his saviour. Her blonde hair was just disappearing from view when a shove in the back distracted him. No apology. By the time he looked back she was gone, swallowed by the crowds. He wavered momentarily, then his heart sank as he realised he had no choice. He couldn’t afford to run.
Settling into a brisk stride he arrived outside the offices in good time and spotted his client enter the vast, featureless, lobby. Carlton stepped into line behind Mr Dearnley and followed him all the way to the executive washroom. Stepping up a pace, he managed to time it so that his client actually held the door open for him. Dearnley gave Carlton a look of slight suspicion, but shrugged it off. It was only a toilet after all. “Mr Dearnley?”
Carlton’s client turned around. The toilet suddenly felt very empty. “Yes? Do I know you?”
Carlton proffered his hand. “You do now Sir. Carlton, Carlton Ferrers.”
Mr Dearnley took his hand and shook it uncertainly, the quizzical expression on his face staying with him until the last.
“May I apologise for the inconvenience.” Carlton flipped open the lid of his briefcase reached inside and withdrew the implement of his trade, deftly spinning it in his hand. It was the tool of a master craftsman. “Goodbye sir.”
And at that, Carlton went to work.
(Photo - Night Facade by Christopher Woods)
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