He opened the window. The sounds of a million souls crashed over him, a wave of voices and traffic noise that pushed him back and forced the breath from his lungs. A horn blared, a crash echoed, a siren drilled into his head.
With the sound came the smell, that sickening mix of fumes and sweat and heat, the undercurrents of a thousand meals, the noxious hint of waste. He could almost taste the alcohol, didn’t know if that was from the start of this evening’s debauchery or a hangover from last night.
He closed the window so hard the glass vibrated in the splintered frame, dislodging flakes of dried paint. And still noise seeped in—creaks and thuds from above, the constant muted drone of a TV, sharp tongues raised in argument, a child crying, a baby screaming.
To think he used to moan about early-morning birdsong, and rail against the occasional chugging tractor.
No! He wouldn’t think about his old life. This was who he was now—a new man, in the heart of the city, where business was life and life was business. He’d departed with his mothers tears and a handshake from the old man. He’d escaped that dead-end backwater, ready to meet his destiny.
They’d laughed when he’d studied, asked barbed questions when he read all those business books, but he promised he’d show them. He’d make something of his life. He’d do something real, something with meaning. He wouldn’t waste his life in some faceless village where time had stood still for a century. He was better than that, better than all of them.
And here he was, in an apartment that was smaller than his old bedroom. The man with the toothy grin had said the place was a bargain, prime location, everything a young man could ever want.
He’d believed that at first. But after three months, this place felt like a cell.
The clock on the grease-stained cooker—the only clock he had—flickered as the hour changed. He should really get ready. Much as the thought of some overpriced meal and a sweaty club made him groan, he dreaded the quiet ostracization at work even more.
It was already happening. They didn’t say anything, of course, but their expressions betrayed their thoughts, the pause that filled the room whenever he joined a conversation spoke of their disdain. Occasionally, they laughed. But how was he to know that Moet wasn’t a car manufacturer, or that there were rules to wearing clothes? And the words they used—he didn’t know if they were places or people or brands. This was all new to him. Couldn’t they give him a break?
Sally tried, though. She asked him questions about his home town and so on. But he could see her struggling to find a frame of reference, and he made his excuses, got on with some pointless task. It was easier to stay in the background.
Three months. It felt like an eternity, but he was only a quarter of the way through his contract. He thought he’d fall in love with the nightlife, the cafe culture, everything he’d been led to believe was so good about the city. He thought he wanted the fast-paced life, the cut and thrust of business, the constant adrenaline rush.
He missed home. He missed quiet walks by the river—a proper river, not the stinking brown sludge that oozed between concrete banks here. He missed open views of trees and clouds. He missed refreshing rain, morning mists, the sound of branches swaying in the breeze.
But most of all he missed the people.
He thought of Craig, and the den they’d built one everlasting summer, then flooded in the winter. In his mind he saw Mike and Jenny, sickeningly into each other, but for a while it had been good to hang out together, talking in the woods where he’d had his first drink. And Rhonda, who said she’d miss him, and he didn’t believe her, or maybe he didn’t want to.
His father, a stickler for the rules, hard-working, keeping the family together. The dread of climbing the stairs in the early hours, fearing the creaking floorboards would wake the old man, even though he always knew what was happening anyway.
And his mother, always fussing, always embarrassing. The washing on the line, the smell of baking, the old blanket she’d sewn that he still kept in a drawer.
Then he remembered the office, the window looking onto the next building, so close he felt that he could reach out and touch it. They’d told him that Farringdon & Slater were a family. They said everyone looked out for one another, prided themselves on their bonds of friendship. Some companies used a metaphorical stick, they said, but Farringdon & Slater knew the carrot produced a happy, productive atmosphere, where everyone was part of the team, vital to the development of their corporate family.
But carrot or stick, a donkey was still a donkey.
And he was the prize ass.
He couldn’t face nine more months of this, but he couldn’t go home either. The things he’d said, the complaints, the insults. No, he couldn’t face their disappointment, or the looks that would tell him they’d been right all along, that he was a fool to believe he was better than them.
A shout came from below, angry and in pain. He almost opened the window, but it wouldn’t be anyone he knew. Of course it wouldn’t. He was alone.
A million souls, ever surging onward. How could one person swim in such an ocean? How could one person go against the flow, or even tread water?
The city was an ocean. Whatever he did, he’d be caught by the currents, dragged by forces he didn’t even understand.
He closed his eyes, and dreamed of drowning.
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