Mark shoots out an arm and thumps at the snooze button. The alarm flips and knocks a glass of tap water, sending it sloshing over the bedside cabinet. The radio crackles. A car bomb has gone off in Iraq. Next of kin have been informed. Mark groans and slaps the alarm into silence.
6:31 AM blinks in mint green.
He slides beneath the duvet, wriggles into a cool stretch of cotton and drifts to sleep.
Weak winter sun pokes through a break in the curtains. Mark yawns and stretches. His tongue is furred with last night’s curry. He shudders at the thought of the film of grease on the sink and the bloated, soapy grains of rice in the plughole. He reaches for the glass and sees it’s empty. It’s spilt onto his book. The pages are warped like a clam shell.
8:22 AM blinks.
He tumbles from the bed, heart pounding, half tangled in duvet. Yesterday’s boxers and trousers are crumpled by the door where he stepped out of them. His shirt hangs from the banister. He takes the stairs in twos and microwaves leftover coffee, while he fumbles with cuffs and tie. He pushes his arms into his sleeves, door keys clamped between teeth. Somehow, seventeen minutes later he’s on the train.
Wouldn’t you know it? For the first time in weeks the train’s on time. Even the conductor is surprised and puts on a special announcement which is greeted by ironic claps and cheers from the suits. Mark nibbles at his lip. He can’t blame a signal failure or leaves on the line because Lorraine will check.
He nods to Kelvin on reception and straightens his tie in the lift, scratching a sandpaper chin with his fingertips. There’s a dried blob of toothpaste on his lapel. He spits and picks at it with a fingernail, spreading the ghost of white, so his lapel looks as though it might have been spattered by pigeon shit.
The lift bongs and Mark hurries along the corridor. He peers through the porthole window and is cheered by the sight of Lorraine’s empty seat, kicked adrift from her desk. He strides across the office muttering good mornings to Mike and Therese. He whips off his jacket, drops into his seat and fires up his PC. Come on, come on, he wants to scream at it. The jacket’s on the back of the chair. All he needs now is a steaming mug of coffee and the Home Page and….
‘Good afternoon, Mister Sheridan.’
Mark’s toenails bite into his inner-soles.
‘It’s nice of you to join us.’
Mark’s PC is still loading. His screen flickers uselessly. Lorraine nods at the clock on the wall.
‘What time does it say?’ she says.
Mark shuffles in his seat.
‘I’ll help you. The little hand is pointing…’
‘A quarter past ten,’ Mark says.
‘Yes, you’ve got an interesting idea of flexi-time, haven’t you?’
Mark doesn’t answer.
‘Well?’ Lorraine says.
‘Stuff at home,’ he mutters.
Lorraine looks him up and down. She takes in the shadow of toothpaste, three days’ stubble and the crumpled shirt.
‘I can see that.’
Mark’s faults are laid bare, open for discussion by all – the breakdown of his relationship, his spreading waistline, his controversial coupling of brown shoes with a black suit. Of course, when he’s the object it’s light-hearted banter. But you daren’t say a word about Lorraine; no one does.
‘You need to shape up,’ she says.
He thinks about saying ‘You can talk’ and she sees that, he’s certain.
Lorraine is a closet drinker, the kind who smuggles her empties to the tip at nightfall rather than facing the clink-clink shame of bin collection. She’s propped up by face-paint, instant coffee and fading dreams of promotion. Her skin is heavily rouged, like uncooked liver. She’s an ageing perfume saleswoman in a dying department store.
Lorraine snorts and shuffles back to her desk. Minutes pass and his screen comes to life. There are 47 emails waiting for him. He pinches his gum into a scrap of paper and flicks it into the bin. It pings the side, ringing out. Lorraine’s pen freezes in mid-air, like a conductor’s baton.
‘I’m still waiting….’
Mark counts to ten in his head.
‘Complete this sentence: I was late for work this morning, again, because…..’
‘I told you,’ he says, ‘I had things to sort…..problems.’
Lorraine stares at him, unblinking. Her eyes are the colour of liquorice.
‘When it’s my time you’re wasting it becomes my problem.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Mark manages. He glances sideways, grinding his teeth. It’s a paltry concession to his pride.
‘Is it Heather?’ She mouths the words, but loud enough for all to hear.
Mark’s neck flushes. Private lives are currency for Lorraine. She thrives on marital affairs, cancer tests and crippling debts. Open up to her and she leaves you alone. If only he could tell her Heather has walked out his life would be easier. But he couldn’t bear them sharing his secrets and he couldn’t bear the sympathy cakes and offers of a hug. Knowing this only makes it worse.
‘No,’ he says. ‘It’s nothing to do with that.’
Mark glances up and stares at the clock face as if he’s back at school, watching the interminable crawl of the minute hand.
‘You’ve been late three times this week. It doesn’t lie.’
‘It’s fast,’ Mark says.
The words spill from him before he can stop them. Lorraine sighs and lifts her phone. Her painted nails dance over the digits in a blur. She hits the speaker button and the Speaking Clock confirms the time.
‘Satisfied?’ she says.
He begins to work through his emails. There’s a complaint from Ed Salmon about typos in a brochure and a request for him to archive material from IT.
This is your second reminder…..
IT is immune from courtesy. They don’t do please and thank you.
‘Anyway, it wouldn’t matter if the clock was wrong,’ Lorraine says.
Mark spins round. Lorraine is filing her nails. She holds the file like a cellist’s bow. Lorraine sets the nail file down and rummages about in her bag.
‘So it doesn’t matter – that’s what you’re saying?’
Lorraine fishes a pot from the depths of her bag, unscrews the lid and dabs gloss onto her lips. Lorraine sighs and slams down the lip gloss.
‘My point is you’re not doing your time.’
‘Not doing my time?’ Mark can’t resist a smirk.
‘You know what I mean. Don’t try getting clever.’
Mark sighs under his breath. ‘That wouldn’t get me anywhere here, would it?’
‘You’re not clocking up enough hours. Christ alone knows what you owe this firm.’
Mark’s temples throb. He stares at the screen, shutting her out.
‘I wouldn’t mind but everyone else puts a shift in…’
Mark bites his lip. He tastes copper.
‘You seem to come and go when you please.’
Therese stands perfectly still, mid-way across the office. Terry Holt from Accounts heads for the photocopier.
‘Don’t shout at me, young man!’
Mark pinches the bridge of his nose.
‘Do you hear me?’
He stretches his fingers and stares at his wedding ring, twirling it.
‘I said do you hear me!’
Mark stands up. ‘I hear you. I hear you all bloody day.’
‘You heard that. You heard him, didn’t you?’ Lorraine snaps.
Therese and Catherine are staring at their screens.
Mark turns his screen off. He puts on his jacket, picks up his bag and hoists it onto his shoulder.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’
Lorraine glares at him from behind her desk, hands clamped to her hips.
‘You walk out of here, don’t you bother…’
Mark raises a finger and points at the clock.
‘It’s ten thirty nine am, precisely. And I’ve got more important things to do.’
He waves and says goodbye, without looking back.
‘Lots more important things to do,’ he says to no one.
Outside it’s chilly, but Mark buys an ice cream from Mister Whippy and sits by the canal. An icy gust swirls brittle leaves along the towpath. He knows they’re up on the eighth floor, watching him from the kitchen window. Their shadows move, breaking the glare of winter sun on the glass. Mark thinks about giving them a wave, but he doesn’t. Raspberry sauce drips from his cornet. He no longer cares if it spills on his suit.