Chapter Three

I was late getting into the office next morning. Once I had woken up on the patio and had gone back inside to bed I had found it difficult to get back to sleep. I had eventually managed to drift off again at around six and had then slept through my seven o'clock alarm. I could only have been ten or fifteen minutes later than usual but it did not matter - ten minutes or ten hours; once my daily routine had been disrupted it always seemed to take the best part of the whole working day to get it back into some semblance of order. Fortunately, the office was quiet all morning and it seemed that all of the people who were lucky enough to have the choice had stayed at home to make the most of the relatively tropical conditions outside.

There had been no overnight respite in the weather and by midday the brilliant sun stood high and proud in the deep blue sky, burning everything that it touched with its powerful and undiminished rays. I spent the morning trapped in my sweat-box of an office catching up with the paperwork which I had taken home last night with the intention of completing there. A telephone call from a friend was a welcome interruption from monotonous sheets covered in endless lists of repetitive figures.

'Sorry to bother you, Steve,' Carol said as she poked her head around the door and into my room. 'I've got a Rebecca Marsh on the phone for you, she says it's a personal call.'

'Thanks, Carol,' I said. 'That's fine. Could you shut the door on your way out please?'

My secretary obliged by slamming the door and almost pulling it from its hinges. I picked up the phone quickly to speak to Rebecca.

'Hi Becky How are you?'

I had known Rebecca for the last four or five years I couldn't remember how or where we had originally met, I just knew that she was the best friend I had ever - or would ever - have. One of the biggest regrets of my life was the fact that I had met her shortly after she had married. I knew that if she had still been single I would have found the perfect partner to share the rest of my time with.

'I'm all right, Steve,' she replied 'How are things going with you today?'

I sighed.

'They're going, that's all I can say.'

Rebecca laughed and I relaxed. It was good to hear her voice again as she had been out of town for a couple of weeks. One of the few advantages of the location of the branch which I managed was that it was only a couple of minutes' walk from Rebecca's office a little way down the high street.

'Are you very busy?' she asked.

'Not particularly Do you fancy meeting for lunch?'

'I was just about to suggest that. Shall I meet you here at about one?'

'That's fine,' I replied, cheerfully. The thought of spending some time with Becky made the prospect of the rest of the day seem a little more palatable.

'Great,' she said 'I've got to go now, I've got an appointment in a couple of minutes. I'll see you later.'

'Okay, I'll see you in a while.'

I put the down the phone.

It was a source of continual amazement to me just how much better I always felt after speaking to Rebecca. I only needed to hear her voice for a moment and I was suddenly torn away from my depressing, humdrum career and thrust into a calmer, safer world.

I got up from my seat and walked across to the open window. Looking down, I saw that the street below was momentarily quiet and I watched as crowds of children suddenly spilled out of the gates of a nearby school, heading en masse towards the nearest shops. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, the children ran out into the sunlight as they would on any other summer's day. I had to remind myself that it was the middle of October.

The hour between Rebecca's call and one o'clock dragged incredibly. A combination of the heat, the continual stream of work which arrived on my desk and the prospect of finally seeing my best friend again made the seconds feel like minutes and the minutes feel like hours. One o'clock eventually arrived and I quickly left the office.

I met Rebecca outside the building where she worked as we had planned, and we discussed where to go.

'It's too hot to go for a drink,' she said, 'and anyway, I can't really afford it.'

I knew exactly what she meant. It always seemed to be the same at the middle of the month - pay-day was still a couple of weeks away and my bank account was already beginning to slip heavily into the red.

'We could go to the park,' I suggested, searching for cheap alternatives for something to do. Rebecca nodded.

'Good idea. You can hear yourself talk there.'

'And it's free,' I added quickly.

We crossed the main road and followed the twisting path of a narrow side street which led to the park. As we walked, we caught up on the fortnight's worth of gossip and developments which we had missed while Becky had been away. I could not stop myself from staring at my beautiful best friend and thinking what an incredibly lucky man her husband was. Now that she was happily married, however, we had come to share a close, symbiotic relationship whereby we both relied on each other for help and support. Over the years we had grown to be as close as brother and sister and I valued her companionship more than she ever could have imagined. I always meant to tell her just how much she meant to me, but could never find the right moment.

When I had first suggested the park, visions of lush, cool grass and leafy trees had flooded into my mind. The reality, however came as something of a surprise to both of us. The park stood at the end of the little road which we followed and it usually offered an unexpected oasis of greenery contrasting sharply with the dense, cold grey of the city nearby. While it still provided a welcome escape from the plastic and concrete, we found it to be in a desperately sorry state. The grass was brittle and bleached of colour the soil hard cracked and dry. Although the temperature had only reached such extreme and unusual levels in the last few days, there had been little or no rain for the best part of a month and the lack of moisture was killing the park almost as we watched. Undeterred, we walked towards a huge, old oak tree to sit down in the little shade that it offered. It was only the layer of dead golden-brown leaves on the ground around the tree's base and its savage, bare branches twisting into the sky above us which gave any indication of it being autumn at all.

Rebecca brushed away handfuls of crisp crackling leaves before sitting down on the hard ground. I did the same and sat next to her.

'This weather's incredible,' I said, loosening my tie.

'Oh, don't, Steve,' she sighed. I looked at her, confused.

'Don't what?'

'Talk about the weather. Christ, it's all I've heard this morning.' She spread her legs out in front of her and leant back against the rough trunk of the tree. 'Every single person that I've spoken to has mentioned it. "What a lovely day", "Isn't it hot for the time of year?" Honestly, there's only so much that I can take.'

I could see how the continually inane conversations that Rebecca had been subjected to could soon wear a person down, but I could not help thinking that it would make a welcome change for me to actually become involved in a decent conversation at work rather than being ignored and locked away in my office in tiresome, continual isolation. It wouldn't matter what the subject was, just to have a member of staff be pleasant and approachable for a while would be enough.

'How's Richard?' I asked, changing the subject. Richard was Becky's husband.

'He's fine,' she replied as she began to search for something in her bag. We never talked much about him - if I was brutally honest, I didn't really want to know anything and Becky seemed not to want to tell me much. As long as he was treating her well and was looking after her, I was happy.

She emerged from her bag clutching a small, cellophane-wrapped packet of sandwiches and a can of lemonade. She opened the sandwiches and took a large bite out of one of them. After chewing for a moment she stopped and a look of utter disgust spread across her face. She forced herself to swallow.

'What's the matter?' I asked. Rebecca wiped her mouth and grimaced.

'That's disgusting,' she said as she looked down at the half-eaten food in her hand. She slowly peeled one slice of bread away from the other and I turned my nose up at the slimy concoction which had been spread between them.

'What the bloody hell is that?' I asked, pointing at the revolting food.

'Tuna fish and salad cream,' she replied. 'It doesn't look too good, does it?'

I shook my head.

'You've got strange tastes,' I joked.

'It'd be all right normally, it just got a little bit warm in my bag.'

'I couldn't even eat that cold,' I said, 'never mind toasted!'

Rebecca looked at me and wrinkled up her nose before gathering up what remained of the sandwiches, standing and throwing them into a nearby waste bin. She walked back towards me and wiped her greasy hands clean on her smart skirt.

We sat and talked for about half an hour. Thirty minutes of forgettable and yet enjoyable conversation which inevitably worked its way towards the subject of my marital status and what we were going to do about it. Rebecca seemed to enjoy making plans for me and usually took a while to be convinced that my attitude (all good things come to those who wait) would ever find me a partner. I said, jokingly at first but then with some seriousness, that there was little point in trying to find the perfect woman when she was sat next to me and already married to someone else. Becky smiled but she did not reply and I wondered what she was thinking.

'I've got to get back,' she said at almost a quarter to two.

'It can't be that time already,' I whined, desperate not to have to go back inside.

'It is. Anyway, I've got to go to the supermarket before I go back so I'll have to go now. Are you coming or are you going to stop here for a while?'

The thought of fighting my way through a building packed with hot, sweaty and angry shoppers did not appeal to me.

'I'll stop here a little longer. I'll call you later.'

Becky smiled, collected up her things and walked away from me towards the park gates. When she was about a hundred yards away, she turned and waved and I wondered how my life might have changed if things between us had been different.

As I watched my friend leave, I heard the sound of approaching footsteps crunching towards me through the layer of dead leaves on the ground. I turned to see who was coming and was blinded for a moment by the brilliant sunlight. I shielded my eyes and saw that a shuffling figure neared. Uninvited, the figure stopped next to me and I looked up to see a gasping, wheezing old man stood at my side. Before I was able to protest or move away, he sat down.

'It's too bloody hot!' he coughed as he lowered himself to the ground.

I was about to get up when he grabbed my arm with one outstretched hand. Despite the heat, I saw that the man still wore full winter clothes - thick trousers, boots, a heavy overcoat and even a hat and scarf. I looked across into his aged face and watched as a heavy bead of sweat ran down the creased and wrinkled skin of his forehead before trickling down the bridge of his nose and hanging precariously between his nostrils. As I stared, unable to look at anything other than the overbalancing drop, he wiped it away with the dirty sleeve of his coat and sniffed.

'It is warm,' I said meekly, eventually remembering to reply to his comment.

'Do your know what I think?' he whispered as he took off his cloth cap and ran a trembling hand through the yellowing strands of silver hair which clung greasily to his sweaty scalp.

'What?' I asked politely, forcing myself to prolong a conversation with a character who I was becoming more and more wary about with each passing second. The man leant towards me.

'I think it's the end.'

'The end of what?'

The old man paused for a moment and looked around to make sure that no-one else was listening. I tried to pull away from him as a dry smell, which seemed to be made up of equal parts of stale sweat and urine, wafted towards me.

'The end of the world!' he said in a hushed, secretive tone.

I fought hard to control myself and not laugh out loud but could not prevent a broad smile from spreading across my face. While I hoped that the man would not take too much offence, I hoped that he would be able to understand and accept my disbelief and leave me alone.

'It's all right, son,' he continued, unabated, 'I can see you've got your doubts and I can't blame you for that.'

I sat in a stunned silence at the man's side, trying to work out how I could escape from him and becoming quickly convinced that the brilliant sun had tanned his brain as well as his weathered skin.

'What makes you so sure then?' I asked. I instantly regretted speaking and I knew full well that I tempted fate with every second that I stayed sat next to the old man.

'I've got a feeling in my gut,' he replied slowly. 'Call it intuition if you like, but when you get to my age you can tell when things are about to change.'

I too had a gut reaction about our conversation - I was sure that it was senility rather than intuition which was proving to be the deciding factor in the man's ideas and thoughts. I turned away from him and looked over towards the park gates, wishing that I could be walking through them and back to the office. I felt the man staring at the back of my head and, out of distrust, I turned back to face him.

'When you've seen as much as I have,' he continued with his throat hoarse and dry, 'you just get to know things.' He paused to wipe his sweaty brow with a weak, shaking hand. 'It's getting hotter by the day, son, and I don't think it's going to stop.'

'Don't be stupid, it's got to stop,' I protested. The man looked at me with an expression which seemed to be asking me for evidence to support my comment. Obviously, I was unable to find any.

I'm not sure whether it was my wariness of the old man or the things which he said to me that suddenly made me jump to my feet and start back to the office. There was no denying the fact that it was getting warmer with each passing day and although that in itself was not substantial evidence to suggest that the world was about to end, it was enough to start the first alarm bells ringing in my mind. The more that I thought about it, the more I began to read truth into the man's words. There was something about his voice which was honest and believable in a terrifying kind of way and, as I walked away, he shouted after me.

'Don't go, son. I haven't finished.'

I didn't want to hear any more.

'I've got to get back to work,' I yelled over my shoulder. 'It's been nice talking to you.'

'Don't waste your time there,' he shouted with his voice ragged and tired. 'There's not long left, you should be enjoying yourself.'

As I walked away, I could not help but think how right the man was in one way. Even if the world wasn't about to end and I was going to live for another seventy years, where was the logic in shutting myself away in the office each day and only managing to escape when I was too old to enjoy what was left? I thought back to yesterday and my conversation with Ian and realised how perceptive his comments had been.

I nervously looked over my shoulder to make sure that the man was not following me back to the office. The thought that I might one day become like him terrified me more than the prospect of the end of the world. Was that all I had to look forward to? Would I finally escape from my terminal career only to spend the rest of my days harassing people in the local park, or would I be destined to wait out my days in some damp, dingy flat?

I realised that the man was right. I should be out now, enjoying myself and living each day as it came along. And what about tomorrow? I'd only worry about that when it finally arrived.

When I returned to the office, the quiet of the morning had been replaced by frantic activity. The trays of work on my desk were full to overflowing with forms to complete and papers to sign and not one single member of staff seemed able to solve even the simplest of problems without first referring them to me.

I made a determined effort to clear my desk so that I could have an early night but throughout the afternoon I could not help dwelling on my lunchtime experience. The more I thought about the prison in which I worked, the more I came to realise that my cell was not the four walls within which I sat, but the whole system of civilisation which everyone was involuntarily and unavoidably trapped in. The more I thought about that, I became convinced that while the system could survive without me, I would find it difficult to survive without the system.

My efforts to leave early proved fruitless and, having worked myself into a deep, dark depression, I finally left the office at a little after eight o'clock that evening.

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