Thick guilt forced me into a day job. I fondled the interview questions for too long past answers so was surprised to be there on my first day, learning about the tea-making facilities and fire exits. I made mum promise on a limit of wetness, a lag between extinguisher falls. We needed fast cash. She said something I couldn’t hear behind the blazing bouquet. It might have been choking but that was always her face.
Billy did his best. He arranged a meeting with a bank manager, describing himself as an adult visual co-ordinator. Sitting in our kitchen after, his stiff shirt I’d ironed now corpsed, atrocious. “He thought I was working with the blind, the daft bugger. I told him we sometimes had disabled clientele but he wasn’t having any of it.” Bitter spit and his mug of tea gripped to coldness. Our own lukewarm ruminations at home in the dank. Swearing of the kind we hadn’t heard before. We didn’t blame him. Mum’s own damp slid down the walls behind. I had to step up. My dream could still be prodded down a plank, vivid and alive, crawling at all times. Billy said it wouldn’t be for long.
It was data entry work, a casual place. I was on the early half-seven shift, the only woman on the team. We hunched with hoods up gulping coffee. There was no learning curve, or we were the cardboard city under it. In our morning and booze breath we were already obsolete; Indians and machines could do our work on the cheap. We were a doomed battalion taking broken weapons off our dead.
I could show my guts to the world but there I was shy. I spoke in a fidgety, chiselled voice. I daydreamed slick worlds made for skating and the steps in new routines. I collapsed words to my male boss and blushed at guessed stares. Running Man’s was the worst.
He sat at the corner desk, close-shaved and suited at all times. He never took off his sunglasses. He jogged around the office and stretched leisurely at the vending machine. I had to wait nearby studying staff notices and the Heimlich manoeuvre with coins warming my palm. I presumed his name derived from his businessy hurry or referenced a sporting aside to our graft’s sarcastic typing. His always sounded like boasts, or bitty I-told-you-sos getting angrier as the hours marched.
Running Man kept his sunglasses on all winter even as more darkness slumped on already dark days. I imagined underneath was a single bloody weeping crater. If anyone was unloveable it was him, I’d decide on Monday mornings. I’d stare when I felt sure he wasn’t looking. Underneath was what unlovable looked like—the sea where it began.
A wedding ring was found in a men’s toilet cubicle one mid-week afternoon. No one claimed it. It was the talk of our team in that it provoked sounds from our mouths that weren’t grunts. The owner had been having a sly wank we reckoned after five minutes sleuthing, our first and last team building exercise. Running Man was prime suspect—his shades were clearly for the discrete collection of wank bank material. I could understand this; our line of work—its mute monotony—lent itself to desperate scrabbles for relief. Colleagues would turn up gakked-up, unable to see straight or log on to their machines. Bumps were snorted for elevenses—for normalizing purposes. The gurning was cinematic but the management ignored it. We were all contenders here, trying to unpick our parts from time’s flattening machine.
Nah it’s not to do with him jogging around the office. Not at all. But I spose he does that to remind us who he is. The distance he covered. What he done. Or thinks he done, I should say. He took a lot of time off, said he was going on an expedition. Said it was up there with Everest. Gagarin in space. Space monkey more like, we said. But he came back all suntanned and said he’d got the world record for running around the world. First man to do it. You can look it up. It was all over the news. He’s got gold embossed business cards that say it. We stack them under crooked desks when he’s not about. But did he do it, Lucy? They took his word and looked at a few receipts. Curry at the Taj Mahal. Bubble bath at the Great Barrier Reef. War zone sprints. Record breaker my arse. Record breaking fantasist, more like. So desperate to be something. Wasn’t where he said he was half the time. Not even close. He was down the pub when he was meant to be dodging bullets. Someone like that doesn’t have a shadow. I’m happy staying where I am, me. I’ve had the same telephone number 25 years.
We were motley and tetchy but our dreaming was indivisible. We were failed and hoping and unfit for much else. Pain planned hard in all our heads. I kept my own striving secret, my face bare. I was mostly ignored. Dave, at the next terminal, was kindest. He didn’t hammer his humiliation into mine. A chatty sort who’d let me in on Running Man’s etymology. He was a former punk drummer deaf in one ear. Still bitter that Strummer left The 101ers. Still sad the millennium ever happened. He’d nudge me when my head hit the keyboard, then would carry on with his centripetal history of the scene’s bit-part players. I was sucked into the monologue, though I had no interest in his stories of gig riots and line-up betrayals—I only cared for dad’s Country songs and Starlight Express. But I loved hearing about the scene’s women, severe in their alienness, their raccoon eyes and pouring flesh and insistence on now or its pushy whereabouts. I was petty compared to their youth and violent want, their cutthroat smiles. I had no hammy symbols at hand. To me the present would always be an electrified fence I took the long way around. “And the birds!” he’d remind me and I’d jolt alive.
On quiet days he’d email me photos of them, their swastikas flickering under the office’s etiolated light and creeping germ count. Sometimes it felt odd—why was he showing me this? Was it some kind of life coaching? A come-on? Dave wasn’t like Billy. I often smelt bitterness and boozed breath but there was no hardness talking, or pining softness that I’d hesitate to share a bed with. He said he had a daughter my age he did not see. He mentioned her when he was most glassy. He asked about my life outside work—was I studying, did I have hobbies. What did I really want to be and where did I see myself in five years. I felt sad framing answers in a pause I’d never break. I kept giggling, or forgetting to put sugar in his tea. I asked to see more photos. He sent me the one he was most proud of—a famous line-up shot of the Bromley Contingent, the most notorious and suburban punk rabble. “That’s me on the end,” he said, but the half skull and hunk of shoulder could’ve been anyone’s. I felt clammy, pumped full of water, ready to burst.