The mellow pinks and grapefruits of the sunset dragged in across the ancient forest, and he knew the shapes of the Milky Way would soon reveal themselves—but they’d been seen before.
“Have you given up?
“Well most people I think would have given up by now?”
“Hadn’t crossed my mind.”
“Maybe we should have chat?
“How about on the soft seating?
“You mean the couch.
Peter hated Daniel. What sort of dweeb called it soft seating? Peter knew he’d been shut out of the circle of privilege long before he said goodbye. He’d seen it in the faces of the circle members. He’d seen it in Daniel, his denim-jean-baggy-shirt-wearing team leader. Peter watched Daniel’s gelled quiff begin to lose its hold, as he rushed round to listen to Peter’s work being critiqued. Peter would later kick himself for reading Daniel’s facial expressions from across the room. Book-smart and obedient Cath was delivering the critique inside a glass office.
“You see everything must adhere to the ethos of the comp–,” Peter thought he heard Cath say as the office door opened briefly to let someone out.
Peter detected a hint of mock-surprise as Daniel’s eyebrows kinked up a notch. Peter could stomach piss-taking, but not glee. He was slowly putting his notepad back in his knapsack, when he caught Daniel’s eye. Daniel turned away first, and continued to listen to Cath explain to a growing number of do-gooder workers, who detected a moment to flaunt enthusiasm and prove their allegiance to the cause, and were squeezing themselves into the glass cube, which was—ironically for Peter in this instance—originally designed to promote feelings of transparency.
“So this is why we now do it a different way –” he thought he heard Cath say as the door opened once more. Peter lost all sense of social norms for a moment, and just stared at Cath’s attractive, crimson, lipsticked, fulsome mouth trying to make out what was being said. Cath threw a look in Peter’s direction that was so sharp and clean it struck him with an embarrassment, and he went and sought refuge in the disabled toilet, which was hardly ever used, because his company didn’t actually employ any disabled people.
Why bother building a nice, expansive toilet facility, with easily reachable handles and cords if it wasn’t going to be used, he wondered as he pissed into the sink. It was classic Daniel, Peter concluded. All show, no substance.
Peter was a tentatively hopeful chap, but he carried with him a convalescent anxiety, and a natural paranoia that could often lead to rash decisions. However, on this occasion, he felt sure he wasn’t being rash. He’d read between the lines of the anodyne email asking him to read the style guide; he mused on the reasons behind its sending; and, his heart sank low. The sort of low heart that had eventually killed his father, he thought.
The fight was unwinnable, unsalvageable, no amount of emotional manipulation, new horizons, carpe diems, was going to change that. The group had turned; Daniel had made it so. Each employee, fighting for themselves in the dog-eat-dog system of Daniel’s blessing, had naturally followed suit. Peter was out. And he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.
That was until the day he came across Daniel’s notebook. He saw it a couple of days before he was due to be “reassigned” up north. He first saw it lying there on Daniel’s desk; a coveted, moleskin number. He opened it without hesitation, and went to the last written page as though checking for something important. He read the first line: an eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.
Peter had never read so much clichéd and disablist shit in his life, and he realized right there that Daniel had weaknesses.
He then Googled the phrase and found it was written by Ghandi, and no longer thought it was clichéd or disablist, but it was now, unoriginal on Daniel’s part and plagiarized. Classic Daniel, Peter muttered.
The humiliation at work had been so airless and mercurial for Peter it had led to regular thoughts of suicide. These were the parameters for Peter. Things were often in flux. It could be suicide, but in another moment, it could be hope.
It was in the early mornings, alone, when he’d allow himself to indulge in hateful thoughts, and he kept returning to one inevitable conclusion: revenge. The consequences of such wouldn’t be of this world, a spectacular, omniscient, thunderous, glorious revenge against Daniel’s mooby flesh. Peter wrestled with the hatred until he could no longer do anything but confront it. He’d lost, and was bitter. But there was something in the way he’d lost that he was struggling to accept. In Peter’s mind, it hadn’t been a fair exchange of ideas or personalities. Daniel had flexed his soft power influence by virtue of his position on the social dynamics of the group, and this had left Peter having to accept his fate without protest.
As a consequence Peter was having to deal with bucketloads of unresolved negativity so vicious, blind and motivating he’d forego his own position in life just to see its will carried out. He shuddered and tingled with deep, wholesome, justifying hate.
“Mawnin’ Petey baby,” said his wife, Martha, cheerfully entering the room, wrapped up in a fluffy gray dressing gown, her curly hair frizzing into a nest.
“Morning luv,” he replied, stealing himself away.
She grabbed his head and gave him a big, smacking, sloppy kiss right on the cheek.
“W’cha doing? She preened.
Peter looked lost.
“What happened to the fork sweetie?” she asked, nodding at the fork poking through his fingers.
“That, oh, nothin’, I was tryin’ to straighten it back out,” he said.
“Oh right” she said, “what you fixing your baby for brekkie, you want toast?”
“Yeah, why not?” said Peter.
“Now you just give me one good reason why not,” she said, and went to poke his sides, but Peter jerked away.
She was always taking the piss out of Peter’s tendency to say “why not?” And the more Pete thought about it, she was right. Why was he flipping things round, why didn’t he just say “yes.” Why was he putting the onus back on her? “Why not?”—now youanswer the “why,”he was effectively saying. And then it struck him—it was because he wasn’t sure what he wanted. He wanted someone else to answer the “whys,” or rather work out what the “whys” were. This realization, coupled with the lost battle with Daniel, clattered him like a horse hoof to the back of the brain, and he sank back down into his broken and bruised self.
A hardened slice of unbuttered, brown, organic bread slid in front of him on a saucer. The side-plates were dirty.
“Think I’ve made another sale,” said Martha scrolling her phone.
“Fantastic,” he replied. Bitter experience had taught him to engage immediately and positively with such remarks. She didn’t make sales often. If he missed a beat and wallowed for a vacant second longer in his own pitying, shapeless mess, she’d sense something was off and a row would inevitably ensue. The truth of it was, as soon as she was out the door, he’d pick the bones over himself, turn and churn it all back up, and try and find some iota of peace or hope. It usually took some convincing, but ultimately, he’d allow it to happen. His mother called it vanity.
You’re too in love with yourself to be depressed, she’d say in her no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth, unarguable tone. Maybe she was right. Maybe that was the thing about vain people, they could convince themselves of some hope about themselves to carry them off into the day, riding the wave, all wrapped up in winter coats and smug lip-balmed pouts.
“Clean the house when I’m gone, just try and help a little,” Martha said softly.
“Yeah, of course, of course, I don’t want you doing it all,” Peter replied.
The door clunked shut, and Peter slouched in the corner chair and went immediately back to hell by the fastest route. He tried to rekindle thoughts of Daniel’s execution, but it was no use, the potency had gone. The only thoughts that brought any solace were memories of his leaving party.
The party hadn’t been Peter’s idea. In fact, he’d loathed the suggestion from the beginning. He felt Daniel would simply use the occasion to gloat about his removal in front of respected colleagues. Daniel wasn’t a drinker. This made sense to Peter; Daniel was too proud to drink, he liked to be in control of himself at the very least, of others, if he could get away with it, and his relaxed disposition was all a show, and belied a much more severe and controlling interior.
The stage was set.
Peter acquired one gram of the city’s finest MDMA before heading to the party with the intention of lacing Daniel’s drink. All illegal, but the opportunity arose easily enough. All Peter had to do was offer to buy a round, about half of the stuff was poured into Daniel’s lemonade, and then Peter just waited, smiled, and appeared to be taking Daniel’s power-play in front of the others.
Book-smart Cath with the full lips was wearing a cocktail dress, and she’d brought along a couple of her friends. Other colleagues were huddled round the bar in polite but pointless small talk. Half an hour evaporated before Daniel felt a sense of duty to speak. “Well, well, well, finally he’s leaving us,” Daniel said in a voice that demanded attention. “We’ll miss you, you’ve been a great sport Peter.” “Thanks Daniel,” Peter said, thinking about who still uses the term “sport.”
“You’ve taken everything I’ve… we’ve thrown at you,” Daniel stumbled.
“Yip,” said Peter.
Daniel burst into laughter. “You’re a good sport Peter,” he said.
Christ not again. “So you keep on saying,” said Peter in a mock-confused tone, provoking a slight titter from the crowd.
“Well, you tried your best,” Daniel said looking earnest now.
“Bit patronizing for a leaving speech,” Peter rebuffed, “but okay...”
“And now you’re off,” said Daniel.
“I think we’ve established that,” Peter replied, and he opened his hands slightly, as a gesture to the very existence of the leaving party they were all currently attending. Daniel then burst into laughter, again.
And from there it was all eyes on Daniel. He started stretching out, sweating, and little white flecks of salvia began to build in the corners of his mouth. His pupils dilated to the size of party popper lids, and he was talking overly enthusiastically.
He stood there watching the women, sweat patches growing under his arms, and showing through his gray t-shirt. Peter watched Daniel sidle over to Cath and her pals. I really have only drunk Ribena, he chirped, and smiled, as a big vein creased his forehead, the flecks of salvia in the corners of his mouth had now condensed to more of a stringy paste.
It wasn’t long before Daniel started asking everyone “Where we going next?”
Peter relished watching Daniel’s face flicker with disappointment as one by one people told him they wouldn’t be bar-hopping tonight, and instead made excuses for home. Peter waited for Daniel to head to the toilet before he approached Cath. “I dunno what Dan’s on,” he said waiting to see if Cath had twigged, before saying: “but I want some.” Cath and her friends didn’t laugh as much as Peter would have liked. “Bit sweaty tonight isn’t he,” said Peter, gesturing with his head in the direction Daniel had just walked. He’s obviously very stressed at work, said Cath.
A couple of days after the party Peter and Martha traveled north so Peter could take up his new post. He felt excited about settling into his new flat, and exploring a new city that was, according to the travel guide, surrounded by lakes and forest. After a few days of finding his feet, he quickly became fed up with unpacking, and decided to take a drive. As he was leaving the apartment, a delivery guy came up the stairs and shoved a parcel into his hands. It was from Daniel.
He opened it and found a small but expensive-looking box of marzipan fruits, along with a note from Daniel, apologizing for his behavior at the leaving party. Peter laughed, and skipped down the stairs to his car. He’d been unpacking all day and hadn’t had a chance to get lunch so he ate three or four of the marzipan fruits, and sped off in the direction of the forest.
After about 20 minutes of driving in the late afternoon sun he realized for the first time in a long time, he felt great. He wound down his windows and felt the breeze through his hair. He whacked on his music and turned up the volume. He parked up near the outskirts of the forest, put on his headphones and continued to blast music into his ears as he walked into the trees. Same songs repeated. He just kept following the path, and it was as if all his cares were evaporating with every footstep. The music, the feeling of victory. He noticed he was sweating and wanted to sit down and stretch out. As he was thinking this, Peter arrived at a clearing, a viewing spot with a vacant bench. Everything was falling into place, he thought. His temples felt all warm and gooey. He sat on the bench and watched the mellow pinks and grapefruits of the sunset drag in across the ancient forest, he knew the shapes of the Milky Way would soon reveal themselves—he couldn’t wait.