The Absent Word
By David Whelan.
The horns can be heard everywhere.
She sips coffee and stares through a large monitor. Some article about elephants travels upwards on the screen as her eyes shift sporadically from side to side. Her name is Amanda, I think – but to be honest I don’t remember. Actually, it’s not that I can’t remember, it’s that I never even listened to know it in the first place. Seconds ago she was talking to me, standing over me at my desk answering a question I didn’t ask, and I slipped into my well-honed routine of eye contact, nodding and mmhmms? and before I knew it she was gone. She sits, now, at her computer satisfied in the assumed knowledge that I know what I am meant to be doing.
I’m new in this place and I really should have listened. I know that I should listen more often, but I think as a city kid there’s that constant murmur of bustle and business that makes it hard to concentrate. I mean, if I just stop thinking for a second and let the lack of silence wash over me, in what I imagine would be an orangey wave of dust and sweat, then the noise starts suffocating me from all angles and I hear that thud, thud, thud, thud of bones, skin and plastic colliding, bits left behind by both parties, mingling with each other, computer becoming flesh. Blood as ink. Fingers tapping on keyboards, horns outside beeping, lights flashing on, off, red, green, yellow. Ink. And then I open my eyes.
She’s back at her desk now and if I’m clever I can perhaps overhear someone else say her name, or maybe I’ll never need to learn it. Maybe I’ll just go over to her and grunt like her husband and thrust into her possession whatever it is that I decide she wanted me to do. Oh, she’s married. No one could suck on a coffee like that without experienced lips.
‘Amanda’ is back. With a couple of sways of the hip she is above me again. I think there’s a chance I can get her name here, maybe I’ll ask for her email address, that’ll come in handy. J.Harrow@hotmail.com. Great. A J. Janet? Maybe. Let’s try it. Here goes nothing. First day, already getting in trouble. I really should learn to listen, like I used to do.
“So you want these elephants researched and cross-checked by two …” – say it you stupid fuck – “… right, J-anet?”
A smile. Jackpot struck, three melons. Well, two, in this case. Eyes lingering on the whites of the top of her breasts. She doesn’t notice, I think she’s a little slow.
“Yes, please. Robert.” My name’s Michael. This isn’t good, but I smile and nod anyway.
Thud, thud, thud. Clicking again and the light in here is beginning to annoy me. It’s sort of too fake, too bright. I don’t know why but I begin to feel very self-conscious about my complexion, like the light is somehow so powerful that it’s not actually showing people my face, but another face that isn’t mine, or anyone else’s for that matter. It’s ugly and deformed, slack jawed and ignorant. I rest my cheek on my right hand and try to cover up as best I can, as I use multiple search engines to research fake elephants and grin as I get bored and return to the various sport, technology and car websites I frequently browse.
I’ve not really done much by the time lunch comes around, but I yawn a small amount of air out of my lungs and get up and try to covertly get out of the office and take a lunch break a bit longer than I am allowed to. I succeed. But, my vanity isn’t stronger than my cynicism and I somehow think they don’t care if I’m there or not.
The world outside is cloudy, sort of too dark to be day, but not quite twilight. The sky is fucking orange, again, and it’s summer so that’s ridiculous. The streets are busy with kids on holiday and mothers. Some of them are attractive but most have suffered from the curse of aging women, and widened. The men sit above in offices, chewing their cheeks off and rubbing their love into the cushions of their chairs, the grease on their hands, the vaginas of their secretaries.
Munching on a burrito from a local organic deli, I stare blankly at a blank white wall, which stares back at me with an expression of interest. There is something otherworldly about the blank space and it, I think, begins to fill with something more colourful than anything I’ve ever seen. Slowly but surely, colours – grey, brown, red – drip down from the top and cover the whole wall, like some modern art piece. But there are new shades, stuff I’ve never seen before, or comprehended. Colours that have never been seen before. They’re dripping down over the monochrome wall and I’m more frightened, more amazed, than I’ve ever been. A face is forming, I think. It’s a grimace, the eyes are alive and move and I think they see me clearer and brighter than any person I’ve ever met. And I know that it’s all in my head, but damn, I think there is something inside that wall, and a bit of chili falls on my jeans but I don’t care enough to wipe it off as the juice stains them a dark, greasy blue.
I blink and forget about it.
Blank again and I’m in the office talking to Will. Will is an o.k. guy from what I can tell. He looks like he’s never had an original thought in his life but somehow surpassed all expectation and become a normal person. He’s probably rested in some sort of dogged consistency. So I feel sorry for him.
“You getting on fine here, Mike?”
I nod and smile, hoping he doesn’t ask anything else.
“Just ask me if you need anything. Amanda says you’ve settled in nicely.”
Of course I am. I’m like an imaginary little figure. I read articles about ceramic elephants for a living.
“Yeah, no problem, Will. I’m doing fine. Amanda has been great. I appreciate this opportunity.”
He smiles and doesn’t respond. Disappears back to his own computer and proceeds to do nothing. Just like me.
The end of this office is almost entirely women. They’re talking about something and I’m so bored that I try my hardest to overhear.
“If you find the idea alarming, don’t fucking go. If I find the idea alarming, I don’t fucking go.” That’s the voice of Amanda. Full, Southern and probably used to the taste of alarm.
“It’s not alarming, Am. It’s just, I can’t quite understand what it’s all about. A man doesn’t just do that.”
“People do it all the time. You know what? Just go. It’ll be good for you.”
I still haven’t placed the male voice when Will is suddenly above me, grinning.
“Mike. A favour, if you will,” he says, putting a pair of tickets in front of me. “I need someone to go to this event for me tonight and write it up for Wednesday’s issue. I would do it,” he says through a I’m-just-too-busy-you-know-the-feeling grin, “but I can’t get out of the office at all at the moment. Fancy it?”
I look down but I don’t know why, because of course I fancy it. Anything to get out of this chair and away from this noise, this light and into the real world, where people breath, talk, laugh, move, sing, dance, cry, bleed – where things happen and aren’t just words, words that sum up everything that happens by those who are locked up and can never, ever, experience it themselves. I look up. Will is staring at the patch on my jeans.
“I fancy it.” I’m proud of myself. I don’t give much away in that moment, my voice doesn’t break, and he probably has no idea how much I want to leave and get straight on it. He smiles and says that as I’m now working this evening, I should take the rest of the day off. He’s gone.
I look down at the tickets in my hands and look again. There is nothing on them, nothing but four words.
Death, by Absence
I flip them over and see nothing. No watermark, no printing house, nothing. I look up and search the office for Will, but I’m quite embarrassed to ask for his help and for some reason my legs won’t move anyway.
I search the term Death, by Absence online and I find nothing but a series of obscure blogs, one of which is simply those three words repeated over one hundred times in a row. Each repetition is in another colour and it all seems too overpowering and as my stomach begins to turn, my head sways and I feel a small amount of vomit, hot and sour, creep into the back of my throat and my eyes fall onto the grease stain from the chili at lunch and I can’t seem to pull my gaze away from the dirty patch so I stand up, swaying, and rush from the office to the toilets and let the entire contents of my stomach loose into one of the polished white bowls. Yellow, white lumps and orange chunks swirling and swirling in the water, turning my head from all angles, hair inside my throat, and wrenching into the cold, white bowl that is now stained and smells of a dog, or me. No one hears me from behind the murmur of the city and thud-thud-thud of the keyboards, and all the infidelity of ideas, marriage, sex, time and food. Hands, greased and guilty, pummel words into screens and bleed into life a reality never lived as I empty my body into the lavatory.
“Are you alright, Robert?” Amanda asks me, as I walk back into the office to collect my things, whilst wiping little specks of vomit from my mouth onto my sleeve. I nod that I’m fine and almost run from the room once I’ve picked up my bag.
“Pity to see him go,” I hear Will say as I leave, “I’ll miss his dose of masculinity to this end of the room. I’m always suffering in silence.”
“Who?” asks a lady I’ve never seen before, and she has never seen me and never does, as the tinted glass doors shut and I fade, absent, into the swirl of a city and my voice, in a whisper, dies amongst the cacophony of horns.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Whelan has written for the Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times. He is currently employed as a freelance writer for Demand Media. His creative work has been published in Tengen Magazine, circalit and Pi Magazine. His interests span from football, through to There Will Be Blood, looping back to tennis, running, Lost, literature and tuna steaks.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 27th, 2010.