Spring, Pump & Gasket

‘Have you read the contract we sent you? … You’ll be working full-time three days a week – you need to e-mail M—— with what days you’re going to work – and then for two days a week you’ll be formally furloughed… but on those days we need you to keep on top of things.’
    There was one of those heavy pauses, that I broke—
    ‘Define “keep on top of things”.’
    ‘Read your e-mails, keep up with your actions, sign off documents, reports, drawings.’
    I said nothing, either for being speechless, or in one of those situations where whoever held the silence longer was winning.
    ‘Sounds like you’ve got a problem with that.’
    ‘Well, yeah, that’s illegal.’
    ‘Okay.’ He was irritated. ‘Okay. Lemme make a note of this—’
    ‘That’s work. That’s me working when I’m not meant to be working.’ I did not pause long enough to really think about what I was going to say next—‘This is about you getting paid twice.’
    He sighed, almost a groan. After fourteen years, he was quite used to dealing with me and must have been anticipating my reaction; maybe he did not care at all. ‘How do you mean?’
    My mother says my attitude is not good when I speak to my employers, and she can always tell. ‘You’re invoicing for my hours and the taxpayer is forking out for my salary. You’re getting paid twice.’ I always likened it to the teachers I experienced at school; those who demanded respect without deserving it, and those who earned respect by giving it; my employers fell into the former.
    ‘Not exactly…’ How sensitive was his phone’s microphone that it picked up his breathing, compressed it, and then flung it, curling, into my eardrum?
    ‘It’s illegal. I’m not having it.’
    ‘So I can put you down that you don’t agree?’ He waited as I did not respond. ‘We won’t top up your pay then.’
    ‘That might not make that much difference to you, but it will to other people.’
    ‘Well, then that’s their problem.’
    The phone was plugged firmly between his shoulder and jaw. We get on well personally, and I have spent a lot of free time with him – even entire weekends – where we relate as equals and enjoy each other’s company, but, professionally, we are oil and water; he is whichever one smothers the other.
    ‘I got no issue doing a bit of work, y’know, a detail for an architect or signing off the odd thing or other, but I’m not working a full-day when I’m “furloughed”. I’m not sitting at my desk from eight-thirty till half-six.’
    ‘Okay, then, lemme note this down and take it to the other directors.’
    I was angry. ‘Crack on.’
    ‘All right, then. Well, I’ve written all this down. We’ll review and get back to you.’
    ‘All right, you do that. Bye.’
    ‘Speak soon.’
    I got up from my chair and went into the garden. The frost had still not melted. Tapping the mercury but it did not move from two-above. Could not tell when I had finished exhaling smoke, liable to pass out one of these days. The cold cooled my red mist. It was half-ten on a sunny first of February. That evening I lay in bed and tried to turn away the thoughts that had plagued me all day. Another manager said—‘I can’t tell you what decision to make but please do consider what they are requesting against future prospects. Going against them may put you in the firing line, so to speak.’ In the morning, I sat reading with some coffee. My mother walked in—‘How’s it feel being a man of leisure, then?’ Looking up from the book I had barely been paying attention to—‘I can’t stop thinking about work.’ I cannot stand to not be working. There were a half-dozen things I could have been doing, and yet I could not distract myself from the feeling within that drove me to labour!  At eleven, I sat down in front of my laptop.

    There is nothing to say. Life has repeated itself to the point of tedium. Winter underlines the monotony, the stream of shadowless days, and the same route walked over & over. I dream of the past and the figures from it: I see myself in my flat, with ex-lovers, and I am being chased away, or I come to, and tell everyone that we must leave. There is the stove, in front of me, by my wrist, the oven is open, the fridge too. There is simultaneously hot and cold, a joyous nostalgia and a sad remembrance of things past. The cut on my thumb heals slowly because it squeezes open during downward dog, or I catch it on the rivet in my jeans as I reach for a lighter. I finger it curiously, eager to know how it will fix itself. It has unsettled a tiny part of the order of things, something – the movement of a thumb – that I had taken for granted. My brother & his family have come to stay as my sister-in-law stumbles weakly through some health problems on a diet of lucozade and baked potatoes with a pinch of grated cheddar. There are eight in the house and she the most silent, wasted & gaunt, floating about like a ghost. With the last few moments of silence before they arrived late Saturday afternoon, when the rain lashed against the windows, I read; then they burst in through a wind-flung-open door, hurrying in numerous suitcases and overspilling bags as a cold draught penetrated the house and everyone said hello. Soon the downstairs was a chaos of noise, toys strewn and tripped over, soiled and sealed nappies next to the back door, a film in the background, the whole scenery peppered with the colour of building blocks and tiny figurines, miniature plates and cutlery crumbed in strawberry jam and limp cucumber, little plastic pots for dipping biscuits in milk (three o’clock every day, timed like a shuttle launch), and furniture rearranged to construct dens/zoos/shops/classrooms. The house smells differently.
    Then there is the small story of the soap dispenser. In lockdown monotony, the innocuous minutiae of existence can come to the fore, even something insignificant, such as, for instance, a soap dispenser. The soap dispenser in the bathroom is bolted to the wall. Quite sturdy. It has seen better days and its spring and pump and gasket are all quite weathered, deteriorating. It has lent the soap (antibacterial, pale blue like summer) a rather peculiar smell, unpleasant, almost metallic, rusty unsanitary. It is enough for one to lift their fingers to their nose and, sniffing, recoil. One evening my brother spoke to me about it—‘Does that soap smell weird to you?’ Yes, I told him. The pale blue (like summer) soap was depleted and I came to replenish it. My mother keeps all the soap very tidily in a cupboard. There is a global pandemic, so it is stocked more than usual, with antibacterial wipes, moisturiser (antibacterial, also), sanitiser (frequent use and industrial strength), and an assortment of various, scented hand soaps. I picked up Pears, a soap that I used to buy for my flat to remind me of my parents’ house, but that is all so long ago now that I struggle to remember what it is like to buy hand soap. It is funny the things one takes for granted. I brought it to the bathroom. Dripped into my palm, the scent took me back to my flat, and in an instant, neither coaxed nor encouraged, the whole thing returned to me, not just the place, but the state of mind, the temperature, the air and its humidity, light, the squeeze of the floor underneath my feet, the creak of neighbours, sound of the street outside.