(I’m guessing I wrote this in 1996 (from internal evidence!); I can’t recall if there was any particular inspiration for it.)
“Damn,” muttered Carl, switching the over-full cup from his right to his left hand. He set the cup down on the lounge table and flicked scalding coffee from his fingers.
A band of sunlight fell across the surface of the table and bisected the morning paper. Carl stared at the front-page headline, but had no desire to read it. Near the edge of the table closest to him was the letter; the torn envelope lay, where it had fallen, on the floor.
In Carl’s mouth was a bitter, metallic taste; abruptly and irrelevantally he wondered if it was the taste of death. The thought annoyed him.
“I’m going out,” Carl commented, realising as he did so that he was speaking out loud despite the fact there was nobody in the flat to hear him, and this annoyed him too.
He collected his jacket from the back of a chair, then retraced his steps back to the table, snatched up the letter and pushed it into his trouser pocket. Turning, he made his way out of the door, resisting the temptation to slam it behind him. The stairs were dusty and the heavy sound of his shoes on the bare wood set his teeth on edge.
Outside the air was close to being warm, but a light, chill breeze occasionally brushed down the street. Small clouds moved slowly across the sky, like a group of nomads, and the pale spring sun glared weakly at them as they passed by.
Carl found himself going into Dorian’s, a cheap café where he sometimes broke his fast. The furnishings were plain and not particularly comfortable, and the decor was bland, but it was clean and the food was okay. After ordering, however, and sitting down, he regretted entering; today the place felt like a train station restaurant: austere, uninviting and full of people waiting to go somewhere else.
When the meal came he ate half of it quickly, then left the rest, finding that he lacked an appetite completely. He stayed a little while longer to finish his cup of tea.
Next, Carl headed to The Peacock. It was dim and cool inside, and after he had got a pint and gone to his preferred table in a niche between the fire and a window, he found that his mood had improved somewhat.
He drank leisurely, and the thoughts which had been bothering him all morning slowly drifted away. A calmness settled on him, and he listened with a detached interest to the distant conversations and random noises which reached his consciousness.
His glass was eventually empty and he went back to the bar. He realised that he was now hungry and so, along with another pint, got a packet of roasted peanuts.
He ate and drank tranquilly and time passed until it was suddenly afternoon. Carl looked up as the door opened and several people walked in. Helen was amongst them, and after getting half a pint of cider she came over to join him.
Helen was in her mid twenties and worked as a secretary in a local legal firm. She was of medium height, slim and wore a plain but elegant grey skirt and a pale blue blouse under a dark jacket. Her hair was cut fairly short and styled in a suitably business-like fashion. She had high cheekbones (which, for some reason, made Carl think she had French blood in her) and large brown eyes flecked with black. When they had first met, Carl had considered Helen as being good-looking but nothing special; since then, after becoming aware of the expressiveness of her eyes and the warmth of her smile, he had progressively found her more and more attractive. Carl supposed they had been going out together for a month or so now, but he found it difficult to calculate exactly how long as he wasn’t sure when their ‘first date’ had been as opposed to the two of them simply spending time in each other’s company as friends.
Carl became aware of the letter in his pocket again; a hot, uncomfortable, crumpled shape which pressed against his thigh.
“Hi ya,” said Helen as she sat down and began searching through her purse.
“How are we?” Carl asked, trying to make his voice sound easy.
Helen looked up momentarily from her rummaging. “Oh, fine. Fine.”
She produced a packet of silk cut and a lighter. Before offering the cigarettes to Carl she took one herself.
“Thanks,” Carl said, accepting first a cigarette and then a light. Although he had quit several years ago he smoked when he was with her as he knew it made her feel less self-conscious.
Helen breathed out smoke and looked at Carl quizzically. He wasn’t sure if there was something she wanted to say to him or whether she realised he had something to tell her and was waiting for him to say it. After a few seconds had passed and she hadn’t spoken but instead reached for her drink, Carl decided the latter might be the more likely. Knowing that if he delayed the moment further he might decide against it all together, Carl pulled out the letter.
“This arrived today,” he said by way of explanation as he handed it across to her.
Helen unfolded the letter and held it at an angle to catch the light. She smoked as she read, her inhalations and exhalations marking the punctuation.
28th March 1996
Dear Mr Atkins
I am pleased to inform you that, after careful consideration of all the applications for the post of test engineer, we have chosen to accept yours. I apologise for the delay in contacting you with this news but the number and quality of the applications was very high, which has caused us to take longer than normal to arrive at a decision. The terms and conditions of your employment will be as discussed:
1) the hours of work will be 9.00 am to 5.30 pm from Monday to Friday inclusive, with a lunch break of one hour.
2) the salary for this position is £18,000 per annum with a review after six months.
3) you must not either during your employment or after communicate or disclose any confidential information about the Company, its affairs or its employees to any person outside the Company or use such information for your own private benefit.
Please report to my office at 9.15 on Monday, 8th April, to sign and collect your contract of employment. If you have any problems during or prior to your employment please do not hesitate to contact me or Leslie Adams, Manager of the Electronic Services Department. On behalf of the Company I extend a warm welcome to you and hope that you enjoy working here.
“Congratulations,” Helen said as she finished the letter.
“Thanks,” said Carl dryly, placing his empty glass on the table. He could not tell whether the frown which creased her forehead was because of the implications of what she had read or because she was confused by his attitude.
“The eighth,” Helen remarked, crushing her cigarette into the ash tray. “Just over a week. Have you’ve got a place arranged?”
“Not quite, but I’ve got relatives who live in the area and will put me up if I can’t get something sorted out in time. I don’t think there’ll be much of a problem, though.”
“Good,” said Helen. “Things seem to be working out for you after all.”
“Yeah, it seems so, doesn’t it?” He searched her eyes and realised things would never be the same; things would be different between them now, even if he didn’t accept the job. Their relationship had been characterised by a lack of obvious commitment and the pleasure he had derived from going out with her had come from the fact that they didn’t seem to be really going out – it had all felt so casual and natural but there was an undertone of something more, something deeper, which had excited them both. If he didn’t go, it would be a direct statement of what he felt for her, and such a statement was beyond the unspoken agreement of what they held to be proper and expected behaviour from each other. Maybe they would become closer and more serious if he did choose to stay but the fact that the change would have been prompted by an outside event, rather than a free decision, would devalue it.
“Back in a sec,” Carl said, getting up. His stomach was churning and the smoke which still hung in the air stuck in his throat.
The stark bright walls and smell of disinfectant in the toilet disorientated him and he realised he was slightly drunk. As he stood with his downward turned head hovering inches from the wall while expelling colourless piss into the urinal, he wished that Helen would not be there when he got back. He wished that he would never see nor think of her again. “How fucking morbid,” he muttered as he did up his flies.
Helen was, however, still sitting at the table when Carl returned, and he stopped on the way to get another pint for himself and half for her.
“Thanks,” Helen said as he set the drink down before her. “I shouldn’t really have another as I’m back to work soon, but just today…”
Carl ignored the remark. He knew he was being childish and self-pitying, but at the moment he didn’t give a damn. He gulped down half his pint to prove this to himself.
Helen had lit another cigarette and was staring at him with a hurt expression. “This is what you want, isn’t it? I mean, if…”
“No. No, I’m sorry,” Carl interjected when he heard the concern and pain in her voice. He realised that he didn’t care for self-pity or childishness at all. “It’s just that I didn’t expect it. I’d thought that I wasn’t going to get the job and I had started to make plans believing that. I’d started to enjoy the fact that I didn’t have the job.”
“I’m sorry,” Helen said.
Carl shrugged, and they drank in silence for a few minutes.
Helen finished her cigarette and looked at the time. The people she had come in with were already leaving. “I’ve got to go,” she said. “See you tomorrow night?”
She touched his hand and stood, taking a final sip from her drink. Carl looked up and could see worry and what he felt was sympathy in her eyes. He felt embarrassed and humbled.
Once she had gone Carl slowly drained the quarter pint he had left and thought about getting another drink, but decided not to, fearing that he may end up spending the rest of the day in the pub if he did.
Back outside he found that the weather had changed for the worse. The breeze had become more forceful and less occasional; the clouds now dominated the sky, hiding the angry but ineffectual sun and threatening rain.
He arrived back at the house where he rented his flat. As he drew the keys out of his pocket and was about to insert them into the lock, the door opened.
“Hi there, Carl,” said David. “I’d just given up hope that you weren’t going to show up. I’ve been talking to Mr Freeman for the past half hour.”
“Mr Freeman – that reminds me, I suppose there’s something I should tell him.”
David raised his eyebrows quizzically but didn’t say anything.
“Come on up,” said Carl. “I’ll tell you all about it.”
By the time he had reached the top of the stairs, with David following, Carl wondered why he had made the invitation. Before he got his keys out again he recalled that he hadn’t locked his door when he had left that morning.
“Do you want some tea or coffee?” Carl asked as they went in.
“No thanks, Mr Freeman made us a cup.”
“Well, I’m in need of coffee. Have a seat.”
Carl collected the cup which he had left on the table that morning, took it into the kitchen, poured its cold contents down the sink and put the kettle on. He returned to the lounge and sat down heavily on the sofa.
“Shall I turn the light on?” David offered.
“Na, I like it gloomy.”
“What have you been doing today?”
“I’ve been in the pub mostly. Haven’t been up to anything exciting. I did get a letter this morning though; here, take a look.”
David took the offered letter and sat at the table to read it.
“Very good,” David remarked enthusiastically. “I told you you’d get it.”
“The thing is,” Carl explained. “Do I want it?”
David gave him a sharp look, then put the letter onto the table and rested his arms on his knees. “Well, that puts a new light on it. Helen, I suppose…”
“Oh, it’s not just Helen. It’s the fact that I’d adapted. I was enjoying living here, without a job, without an agenda. Certainly, Helen may have been a part of it all but it was not just her. I had been, for a while at least, free.”
“Then turn the job down.”
“It’s not that easy.”
Carl shook his head. “Well, I’ll need to get money somehow sooner or later. I’d be a fool to turn this down.”
“You’d be a fool to end up slaving away for years at a job you didn’t like doing.”
Carl was about to reply when he heard the kettle boil. He went into the kitchen and tried to gather his thoughts while he made his coffee.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy the work,” he said as he settled himself, more gently this time, on the sofa.
“Then what is it?”
“I had seen myself as having a different future. I don’t know what future, but not one where I ended up working as a test engineer.”
“Then don’t do it. Find something else.”
“But that’s just it. I had nothing else in mind, I was just waiting for something to happen.”
“Then carry on waiting.”
“I can’t, don’t you see? Not now. If I turned this down I’d have to start thinking about alternatives, I’d have to look around. It wouldn’t be the same.”
“It sounds to me as if you had no clear idea of what you were doing. You can’t live in a dream world for ever; reality always catches up with you sometime. That sometime was today.”
Carl sipped his coffee. “That’s not a lot of comfort.”
“I’m trying to help you face facts, Carl, not encourage you to believe that if you can forget about the world then the world will forget about you.”
“Maybe I don’t like such facts.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you like them or not, they’re still there. Don’t make a hasty decision on this, it’s an important thing. But don’t think you can avoid making a decision, or that you can ignore it and it will go away.”
“You’re right, I suppose. Everything you say makes rational sense, but at the moment rationality isn’t an important factor. I’ll be okay in a few days, I’m sure.”
“Right. Well, I hope that if I haven’t been a comfort I’ve at least been a help, but I’d better be making a move. Give us a call when you’ve made up your mind, eh?”
“See ya, Carl.”
“See ya, mate.”
Carl sat, sipping his coffee and staring vacantly at the wall. The sound of David’s footsteps on the stairs finished abruptly when he got to the bottom, and Carl realised that instead of being alone with silence he could hear the sound of rain striking the roof and the window.
He put his cup down and went over to the window to gaze at the dull, wet world, but found that, instead of focusing on the view outside, his vision stubbornly fixed upon the pane of glass itself. It struck him how strange it was that there should exist such a substance which should have both the characteristics of being solid and being transparent at the same time. He thought that maybe the universe, or life, or both, were like this; real, material, but lacking depth, structure or significance. Did anything really matter, and if it didn’t, did it matter that nothing mattered? Surely, thought Carl, if nothing mattered then there was no need nor reason for guilt or pain, or to regret the past or fear the future. And therefore he was ultimately free and it was his choice whether he was to see things positively or negatively. Maybe this was the one thing that mattered, this choice.
Carl laughed, switched the light on and sat down to read the paper.