A Day’s Work

He checks the schedule in the tiny laminated wallet that lives in his pocket. The 7.36am express, due next from the intersection. Always crammed to gills with pasty skinned business men on their way downtown. As with the former, as with the next. As with any Friday morning. That thousand tonnes of metal slides up on the rails, that token few peel out of the Sardine can and stumble onto the platform. Then the crush commences. A few hundred human bodies compressing up against each other in an orgy of unwelcome intimacy. He reminds himself of the damp rain outside, staining the platform, requiring that extra volume of varied colour umbrellas; absorbing more capacity that might otherwise permit some fortunate travellers the space to respire.

Casting his gaze along the curving tunnel, he caught site of the dishevelled man for a third time. Previously his direction had been towards the end of the platform. This time he moved forward, in the attendant’s direction. His necktie loose, his shirt bunched up and only partly tucked below his belt-line. He would look down, shake his head a little; off to the right, into the neatly lined crowds; out to the right at the tunnel wall, with its precisely engineering tiling, advertising billboards. There were four. One for a popular brand of toothpaste, another for a travel agency. The attendant tried to recall the remaining two, but memory failed him.

The clock now 7.35 and something-seconds, with light gradually illuminating the tunnel a hundred or so meters ahead. Screeching, breaks pressing against wheel arches as the deceleration began. Distracted for a second, the attendant’s view returned to the mass of morning commuters. In a few seconds the train began to enter the tunnel, its lights casting a travelling ring of light as it worked its way towards him.

Then it happened. A blur of movement. A shriek, a scream. A crescendo of machanical noise. The crowd suddenly parted, half way along the tunnel. The most ungodly crunch; a first percussive and then wet, moist. In his memory later he would recall the horriffed look on the helpless driver’s face. Hours later, with the chaos past, with the cleanup crew finished and the station returned to midday steady peace, the attendant would wonder if he had imagined that he had looked. Perhaps his eyes had forced themselves closed, that he hadn’t witnessed a thousand tonnes of metal crash into a human body.

But it would not have mattered. He would never know why the dishevelled man had lurched onto the line at 7.36am on Friday morning. A wet day, 23 degrees.

Goats in the Meadow

All that day as she waited for her sister to come home, Maxine remembered the goats. In the Spring they would gather around awkwardly in clumps in the meadow. Afraid to step too far into the field, they would watch from afar, shivering slightly in the morning drizzle. She felt very much like that herself today.

When Connie had left those few weeks ago, Maxine had felt trapped and isolated. Would she return? Had it really been her fault to anger her sister so. They’d been so close for so many years, but since their mother’s sickness, the stress and anxiety had begun to infect their relationship. Decisions had to be made; the health care, the money, the house. Before, any disagreements they’d had were over trivial matters. How to organise Christmas, perhaps. Whether so-and-so should be paying more attention to that-or-whatever. There’d been no precendent for a change of intensity so dramatic. And now the cracks were beginning to show.

She’d received the call just a few hours previously. Connie’s voice arriving hesitantly over the line. Some arrangements had been made. Rough timings. All that was left now was to wait. Would everything be fine now? Had a few weeks been enough to let the whole matter blow over?

With a slight noise of breaks and grinding, Connie’s car pulled up in the street outside the house. That few moments pause whilst she pulled herself out of the driver’s side, Maxine peeped through the curtains. Dropping them suddenly, she tried not to seem like a suspicious neighbour, tutting disapproving at the neighbourhood teenagers. She took a shallow breath and waited for the coming ring of the doorbell.

Her face at the doorway gave little away. That much had been expected. Some light greetings and an inernest hug. That clear feeling of we-need-to-talk. Sat a few moments later in the living room, Maxine noticed for the first time the binder in her sister’s hands. Now I was being opened, spread on the coffee table. Legal letters. Contracts. Brouchers. It would seem the past two weeks hadn’t been spent stomping around, cursing names. No, her entrepeneurial sister had been doing her homework.

“The monthly fees and conditions are listed in the final part of the pamphlet. It all seems quite reasonable to me. I had my boss look over the small print. Couldn’t find anything suspect there. It all seems quite straightforward. Time is of the essence now, we should get this resolved immediately.”

“Well… It would seem you’ve put some work in. Hadn’t we better get Mike’s input as well?”

“I’ve already spoken to him. He’s in Ireland right now with the kids. Doesn’t want to be bothered. He gave me his blessing. And besides, we don’t require his signature to move forward. Just yours.”

When the hail came, the goats would dash into the forest edges, seeking shelter until the worst was past. Maxine pressed down her clothing, ironing out creases with her fingers.

Out and About

The chill wind bites at my neck as the door closes behind. I take a depth breath and feel the cold gas tunneling into me. Minus-ten-something. I beat my way through the mild traffic on the way up the street towards the open road. The pace picks up and blood starts pumping thicker, pushing away the elements. Inside, muscles beat, the temperature gauge rises and begins its fight against the world.

A quarter hour later and I’m up to speed, the first destination reached. The route ahead of me opens out into flat terrain. Passing my end goal, not to be seen again for a full hour. Now the need to concentrate falls away and the meditation begins. Feet pound away at the ground, the flow begins stifly, but eases as time passes. The challenge lessens, but will return later.

At a distance, bushes and trees, shrouded in mist. The sun vainly fires thousands of degrees of radiation against space, time, and meets its match against a blanket of grey cloud. But no Winter hibination for us; we fight on against the freezing ground and air, launching round and round and round.

Hushed walkers thrust their hands into woolen pockets, bury their necks into the scarves and coats. I’ve been them too – observing the January runner plod their way around this inhospitable landscape. Had the whole world a choice it would sleep until Spring, until the buds blossom in May. But this is no choice, no option. So fight on we do against the gloom. A fist in the air against Mother Nature’s time of dying.

Time passes towards the other end of the loop. The elevation rises and falls. Struggling at times, and then entering into a flow. The mind fills with ideas, muses or frets. At times adjusting clothing, or correcting a stride. Beating against the grass, hopping across puddles, greasy slicks of mud.

And almost as quickly as it began, that checkered flag is in sight. A right turn and making for the entrance. Back to the traffic, civilisation and the last leg toward home. To come, the warmth of the home, water, food, shelter and some peace. A good day passed on a damp, grey Sunday afternoon.

After Hours

She lies on her side, gradually prising open her eyelids. Trying to resist the urge to register the pulsating digital dial on the nightstand, eventually she gives in. 4.23am. She sighs; begins to calculate backwards for 7.30am. 2 hours and 37 minutes. Sleep seems like a foolish errand now, only based on habit. What possible use could there be now? The coming day was set as a great enough challenge without the fog of exhaustion clouding her mind.

Kathy rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling above, now somewhat lit from the coming dawn, peeking through the curtain edges. Her body felt drained and lifeless. She’d been here many times before. She knew that the effects she felt weren’t entirely genuine; part deprivation, part self-punishment.

It was the emotional effect that wore her most; putting on the day’s pantomime mask. That was not the great exhertion with eight hours of rest. Now this began to feel like the worst kind of torture. She thought of the slowing of her senses, the world outside oscillating between unpredictable states of time dilation. A doppler effect of the world stretching and contracting as her brain attempted to process.

In but a few hours she would be making the pitch of her life, convincing the elders of the party to consider her for the upcoming election seat. What would they expect? Confidence. Authority. Quick thinking. Did she kid herself? This wasn’t the first time her anxiety had come to rattle and tap on her consciousness on the eve of a crucial landmark on her career journey. Thus far she’d often surprised herself. But never did it stop, this fear inside, what might be possible if she were only more able to silence the inner doubts. Those suspicions that taunted her and pushed her from her course.

Outside the window a bird began to sing. A sweet and lilting song. Her day would be filled with hopping from branch to branch, scavenging for grubs, perhaps reinforcing a nest. Every day a loop in the same program, adjusting and readjusting parameters to rectify balance. Part of Kathy envied this simplicity at times like this. Did a garden bird fret and worry so? Did a Chaffinch suffer from insomnia?

Slowly but surely her eyes began to droop again. Her vision fuzzy and morphing. She began counting backwards from ten… nine… eight… seven…

The Soup

What is there to love about making soup?

Is it the preparation? The plan, the plot. The physical exertion of chopping vegetables, onions, stripping a pumpkin, pressing the garlic? Roasting a bird and picking the flesh surgical from her bones, down to the last flap of skin? Is it that antidote to wastefulness? Putting every last gram to use, an honour to fallen friends deeper below on the food chain?

Next, the frying; the whirlwind of activity as plans become action. Could it be the pot? The one and only vessel. The focus. Heating the oil gently, building up the mix in stages. Garlic, onions, vegetables. All at once a festival of movement, but a balance of care. They dance around the pan, beaten by the spoon like balls around a tennis court. As heat burns away, the beating gives them chance to escape; leaping desperately to safety on the kitchen floor, only to be discarded as wasted victims of combat.

The components soften, bringing the third stage. The downpour of scalding broth. Turning the fire into a pool of flavours. Itself matured product of hours’ boiling. The drama settles, the heat dispates, and the wait begins. The fat that rises to the surface like capsized sailors, grasping for air whilst the blue sucks them down to its frigid depths, skimmed away. Sensations mix and unite. That which lived above ground, that which dwelled below; all at one.

In goes the highlights, the peppers, the spices. Minerals mix in with the flesh. Colours begin to merge. The pot is left in peace, better to work alone. Until we return. Finally, peace. Rest. Then, at last, to the table.

The Gift

The droplets of dew are always heaviest on the Autumn mornings. I squeeze myself out of the crevice that was my home last night and start the drop, gradual crawl along the Oak tree branch. I heavy my body up and down and slowly make my way forward. The tantilising green of the leaves sing a Siren call to me.

My senses are always atuned. A thousand predators lurk around me at all times. Time for me is short. I must eat.

After an agonising time, the beautiful fresh leaf is within my grasp. Today could be a good day. Heaving myself up and forward, dropping my weight onto this morning’s hearty delicacy. Eating, eating. The strength builds in me. The green grass of the park below me. How many days have I eaten? How many more? How will I know it is time?

A squawk shatters my peace. Above me a Sparrow is circling. Has she seen me? Do those hunting senses zone in on my short, plump body? A morning snack for me, and a morning snack for her. Such are our short lives. One for me, one for you. I continue to eat, faster, faster if I can. One day I will flutter up into the sky. One day, I hope.

As I nibble away, my island of nourishment shrinks to a spec upon a bud. Thank you for your gift, my Oak tree, my giver. You have some to spare and I am only small. My body drops down onto the branch and I consider my predicament. Venture forward? Or seek shelter. The Sparrow circles above me. Did she come closer? How far was she before? Does my scent betray me? Perhaps the juice of the fresh gnawed folliage, fresh and damp in the morning dew.

Then, there is a shock. A sudden sharpness. I try to orient myself. Where am I looking? Above? Below? I know not. My senses allude me, am I dreaming? Has the time come?

A blackness comes upon me slowly; edging around my world. One day I hope to fly high in the sky above this little Park. This little corner of the world, that has been my all. It gives away. My dream is passing now. All that I had becomes just a spec of a moment. As I ate, as the bird in the sky eats. That is how it has been, that is how it will always be.

Catching Up

Anne sighed. Took a deep breath; she’s always like this, she thought to herself. Every. Single. Time. Anne tried to think about loyalty and the power of long friendship. But this effort was forever strained. The pattern always repeated itself. Her best friend since their school years, Becca. She would remember how they’d sit up in the old oak tree at the back of the school yard and pick flowers from the branches, letting them glide towards the ground. Giggling to themselves. Or gossiping about boys and the latest pop singles.

This all seemed like a distant memory, another life. In the twenty years since then, the two of them had diverged like the branches of that same tree. The same root, the same genus, but oh so far apart.

Becca dropped her worn travel bag in the hallway and surveyed around. Her tangled hair and plain face. “It’s not as cosy as the old place, is it?” she ventured, with the usual bypass of typical social mores.

“Had to downgrade a little. I told you about this”, replied Anne with a cough and a shuffle. This year had not been kind to Anne. Leaving that chic flat on the City Road had been the final blow after the firm had shut down and she’d seen fifteen years of ascendent greasy-pole career ladder rappling turn into a wet squib. Then there’d been the unpaid salary. And the court case. This polite weekend catching up with Becca would be a struggle. She remembered the many times she’d let out cutting critique; Becca with her little ambition. Living above a Post Office. Writing the occassional article for the local paper. And stamp collecting. It seemed like after all this time they’d finally come crashing back to the same level.

“I’ll put the kettle on,” offered Anne by way of a topic change. She plodded a few steps down the hall, through to the kitchen, and reached for the grimy old plastic pot. Becca hadn’t followed. Hitting the clunking power switch, Anne paused and looked out into the tattered garden, through the stained windows. Sodden boxes and stacks of wood. The sun struggling to peak through fluffy grey clouds. Rain later, thought Anne.

Warm Results

Right after they posted the results, I tried to imagine what Joey would think. All those evenings in his bedroom, me lying on my back whilst he worked his way below my belt-line. He would be exceedingly surprised. Confused. Troubled. And no doubt angry. He’d stolen every minute he could away from me, every synapse he had spare trying to crack this exam. Shortly he would be starring away at the league table, blinking, trying to grasp how sweet little Emily, easy little Emily, had somehow found her way to the top.

I’d like to say it had been easy, but pulling this kind of ruse is anything but. Certainly, actually toiling away on the syllabus to have that ammunition loaded in the clip, ready to fire on that windy morning in July; one might think that’s the real challenge. And perhaps it had been. But why would I take that risk? Why would I put my future on the line, to the whims of some exam board clerk, taking randoms shots from the topic list. Oh no.

Mr Rogerson hadn’t been the challenge. That had been all too easy. Knocking the wrong side of forty, when I’d found my way to his office that one late September evening, flustered, car trouble. Could he help? Did that wise old academic know how to get my old rust bucket to start… Or, perhaps… Could he ride a vulnerable young lady back home. It’s late, the buses have stopped. Oh, looks like my parents aren’t home. Away until Satuday. Perhaps he’d like to warm up inside before heading back into town?

It had only taken a few months to plan my entry into that filing cabinet. The rest, just an evening or two of memorisation. And access to Joey’s study file.

Joey was just a cover. Joey, top of the class that past four terms. Of course we’d been seen together. Eyebrows had risen in the lunchroom. Emily? Joey? He’d better know what he’s dealing with… But of course not. The only one in the driving seat these part twelve months… Well that had not been he.

A few of those suspicious sideways glances in the throng at the notice board. I knew what the muttering meant, but what were they to do? Had anyone the nighest interest to mount an investigation, well, by then I would be long gone. Out of this town and on to the next step. Poor Joey, stuck here now. What would he do? I might try to care, but for what? When you put your arm into the beast’s mouth, don’t cry out when it bites.

Not Going Up

You stride up to the control panel and press the up button. Looking upwards you observe the row of floor number lights above the closed down. Going down. You give a sigh and tap your foot for a few moments against the cold granite of the elevator lobby. Eleven, ten, nine, eight… Will it go down further? Yes… Seven, six, stop. A pause. You mind wanders to those occupants, two floors below you. Shuffling in, shuffling out. How many? How large was that space the last time you rode this morning? How many humans can fit in a space that size? They say every human alive can cram themselves on to the most ungainly compact pacific island. Flesh slammed up against flesh. The entirety of mankind squeezed like business men on a Tokyo subway line on a Monday morning.

Ding! With that thought the light has stopped on the floor of your drab office. The door slides open and it is near empty. It’s only inhabitant a scruffy looking young man, in that uncertain age somewhere between the teens and the twenties. With a few steps you’re inside. A smooth right punch and you have dialed in your ride. Spinning on a heel, your back to this anonymous travel companion, and the doors are once more to.

You feel that most miniscule of G-force as your corporate carriage accelerates you to speed. What speed? How fast are we travelling? Watch that inner counter incrementing steadily; nine, ten, eleven… Crunch. Crunch? What in the good name of Oscar Schneider was that. Crunch! And a jerk. Again, that sudden jerk of physcial forces and for a second you were a kilo lighter. And then nothing.

You blink slightly. Could it be? You’d always wondered if and when this might happen. So many rides in the vertical tin can train. You’ve seen that alert button. Ancestors of this gleaming steel model, product of the late 1980s, with their access hatch and promise of a telephone. What are my chances? Like death and taxes, was this always an inevitable landmark in the story of your life? Failed by human mechanical endeavour on the way to that most important of appointments.

You let out a breath, and so does your companion. You glance over your shoulder to catch sight of your new friend shuffling awkwardly. His eyeline pointing downwards. Now where might you be going on a day such as this, you ask yourself. Social conventions of distance are necessary to be broken today.

Silver, square, rounded corners and that inner orange logo. Every day a new button, every day a new adventure. You press, and wonder when you last visited the bathroom.

Up Above

Evening was the time for dreaming. Peering down on the glistening city lights, the warm orange flourescent glow of a thousand street lamps and brake lights. The varied layers of breath, and bed murmur of conversations, engines, gases exhausting or breathing.

On a night like this I always retire to this Crow’s Nest way up above. I try to pick out pedestrians wandering along the streets. I try to imagine their thoughts, lip-read snippets of their chatter. This man, goes to the cash machine; to withdraw the ransom money demanded for his kidnapped step-daughter. This woman, rushes to a taxi to visit her sick grandmother in the hospital. This child dreams of some day becoming a firefighter, climbing as high as I, to rescue a stranded cat in a Sycamore tree.

The I glance up, through the clouds I glimpse a jet plane swimming amongst the clouds. Half of the occupants arriving, embarking on some great or small adventure. The other half, returning home to their families, or to their troubles and woes. I wonder if up there, some tired and anxious traveller is looking down at me. They spot me pearched within the billboards and ventilation grates, above my tattered building.

Sometimes I drop my gaze midway, and see through curtains and blinds into the homes of my neighbours. Sometimes I might capture a glance of naked flesh, or a domestic feud brewing, or recovering. I see television sets glowing. Fine, expensive sofas, or rooms filled with trash and discarded pizza boxes. It warms me most to observe dozing bodies, watch them retire to bed and slowly wander into the world of dreams.

And just then, a splash, and another. Slowly but surely gathering into a cloud of white noise as rain begins to descend, gradually filling the empty borders of the paving stones. A randomly splattering, with no reason, no artistic voice. But beautiful nevertheless. I can feel the temperate drop that two or three degrees. The pace on the streets rises as the city dwellers below pick up their pace, dashing for entrances or bus stops.

But I stay. It’s here and now that I feel content. As the clouds above me thicken, reflecting the orange from below. Multicoloured in grey, blue, black. I know it will be a beautiful evening.