Mark shot out an arm and thumped at the snooze button. The alarm flipped and knocked a glass of tap water, sending it sloshing over the bedside cabinet. The radio crackled. A car bomb had gone off in Iraq. Next of kin had been informed. Mark groaned and slapped the alarm into silence. 6:31 AM blinked in mint green on black. He slid beneath the duvet, wriggling into a cool stretch of cotton and drifted to sleep.
Weak winter sun poked through a break in the curtains. Mark yawned and stretched. His tongue was furred with last night’s curry. He shuddered at the thought of the film of grease on the sink and the bloated, soapy grains of rice in the plughole. He reached for the glass and saw it was empty. It had spilt onto his book. The pages were warped like a clam shell. 8:22 AM blinked at him.
He tumbled from the bed, heart pounding, half tangled in duvet. Yesterday’s boxers and trousers were crumpled by the door where he stepped out of them. His shirt hung from the banister. He took the stairs in twos and zapped leftover coffee in the microwave, while he fumbled with cuffs and tie. He pushed his arms into his sleeves, door keys clamped between his teeth. Somehow seventeen minutes later he was on the train.
For the first time in weeks the train was on time. Even the conductor was surprised and put on a special announcement which was greeted by ironic claps and cheers from the suits. Mark nibbled at his lip. He couldn’t blame a signal failure or leaves on the line because Lorraine would check.
He nodded to Kelvin on reception and straightened his tie in the lift, scratching a sandpaper chin with his fingertips. There was a dried blob of toothpaste on his lapel. He spat and picked at it with a fingernail, spreading the ghost of white, so his lapel looked as though it had been spattered by pigeon shit.
The lift bonged and Mark hurried along the corridor. He peered through the porthole window and was cheered by the sight of Lorraine’s empty seat, kicked adrift from her desk. He marched across the office muttering good mornings to Mike and Therese. He whipped off his jacket, dropped into his seat and fired up his PC. Come on, come on, he wanted to scream at it. The jacket was on the back of the chair. All he needed now was a steaming mug of coffee and the Home Page and….
‘Good afternoon, Mister Sheridan.’
Mark’s toenails bit into his inner-soles.
‘It’s nice of you to join us.’
Mark’s PC was still loading. His screen flickered uselessly. Lorraine nodded at the clock on the wall.
‘What time does it say?’ she said.
Mark shuffled in his seat.
‘I’ll help you. The little hand is pointing…’
‘A quarter past ten,’ Mark said.
‘Yes, you’ve got an interesting idea of flexi-time, haven’t you?’
Mark didn’t answer.
‘Well?’ Lorraine said.
‘Stuff at home,’ he muttered.
Lorraine looked him up and down. She took in the shadow of toothpaste, three days’ stubble and the crumpled shirt.
‘I can see that.’
Mark’s faults were 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 was the object it was deemed to be light-hearted banter. But you wouldn’t dare say a word about Lorraine; no one did.
‘You need to shape up,’ she said.
He thought about saying ‘You can talk’ and she saw that, he was certain.
Lorraine was a closet drinker, the kind who smuggled her empties to the tip at nightfall rather than facing the clink-clink shame of bin collection. She was propped up by face-paint, instant coffee and fading dreams of promotion. Her skin was heavily rouged, like uncooked liver. She was an ageing perfume saleswoman in a doomed department store.
Lorraine snorted and shuffled back to her desk. Minutes passed and his screen came to life. There were 47 emails waiting for him. He crumpled his gum into a scrap of paper and flicked it into the bin. It dinged the side of the bin, ringing out. Lorraine’s pen froze in mid-air, like a conductor’s baton.
‘I’m still waiting….’
Mark counted to ten in his head.
‘Complete this sentence: I was late for work this morning, again, because…..’
‘I told you,’ he said, ‘I had things to sort…..problems.’
Lorraine stared at him, unblinking. Her eyes were the colour of liquorice.
‘When it’s my time you’re wasting it becomes my problem.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Mark managed. He glanced sideways, grinding his teeth. It was a paltry concession to his pride.
‘Is it Heather?’ She mouthed the words, but loud enough for all to hear.
Mark’s neck flushed. Private lives were currency for Lorraine. She thrived on marital affairs, cancer tests and crippling debts. Open up to her and she left you alone. If only he could tell her Heather had 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 made it worse.
‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s nothing to do with that.’
Mark glanced up and stared at the clock face as if he was 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 said.
The words spilled from him before he could stop them. Lorraine sighed and lifted her phone handset. Her painted nails danced over the digits in a blur. She hit the speaker button and the Speaking Clock confirmed the time.
‘Satisfied?’ she said.
He began to work through his emails. There was 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 was immune from courtesy. They don’t do please and thank you.
‘Anyway, it wouldn’t matter if the clock was wrong,’ Lorraine said.
Mark span round. Lorraine was filing her nails. She held the file like a cellist’s bow. Lorraine set the nail file down and rummaged about in her bag.
‘So it doesn’t matter – that’s what you’re saying?’
Lorraine fished a pot from the depths of her bag, unscrewed the lid and dabbed gloss onto her lips. ‘My point is you’re not doing your time.’
‘Not doing my time?’ Mark couldn’t resist a smirk.
‘You know what I mean. Don’t try getting clever.’
Mark sighed 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 throbbed. He stared at the screen, shutting her out.
‘I wouldn’t mind but everyone else puts a shift in…’
Mark bit his lip. He tasted copper.
‘You seem to come and go when you please.’
Therese stood perfectly still, mid-way across the office. Terry Holt from Accounts was heading for the sanctuary of the photocopier.
‘Don’t shout at me, young man!’
Mark pinched the bridge of his nose.
‘Do you hear me?’
He stretched his fingers and stared at his wedding ring, twirling it.
‘I said do you hear me!’
Mark stood up. ‘I hear you. I hear you all bloody day.’
‘You heard that. You heard him, didn’t you?’ Lorraine snapped.
Therese and Catherine were staring at their screens.
Mark turned his screen off. He put on his jacket and picked up his bag.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Lorraine glared at him from behind her desk, hands clamped to her hips.
‘You walk out of here, don’t you bother coming back…’
Mark raised a finger and pointed at the clock.
‘It’s ten thirty nine am, precisely. And I’ve got more important things to do.’
He waved and said goodbye, without looking back.
‘Lots more important things to do,’ he said to no one.
Outside it was chilly, but Mark bought an ice cream from Mister Whippy and sat by the canal. An icy gust swirled brittle leaves along the towpath. He knew they were up on the eighth floor, watching him from the kitchen window. Their shadows moved, breaking the glare of winter sun on the glass. Mark thought about giving them a wave, but he didn’t. He was enjoying his new-found freedom too much for that. Raspberry sauce dripped from his cornet. He no longer cared if it spilled on his suit.