Thursday, July 17

The Wordless Parentheses

FEELING OBLIGED AT the hint of hurry in her voice, I booked my appointment with the building manager at two o’clock, knowing too well that it would interfere with my lunch, cut it short, enforce upon it a rush that would give me indigestion. The building was overshadowed by a neighbour, the second tallest in England, and was stumbled upon from out of nowhere as, finishing my cigarette, I realised I was at the correct address, and all of the city going on around me in mid-afternoon temperature; they say we’re aiming for a heatwave but that is not what I want, wiping perspiration from my brow and the roots of my hair with a soiled tissue. It was a burden, the job. I was too busy for it.
The reception hall was light, well-aired, all white and faded turquoise, elaborate centre-piece light fixture, ornate, bedazzling, magazine stand stocked with three copies of each: National Geographic, The Spectator, Men’s Health, the FT. It was apparent from the bare stack of glass plates that the building, though built a year ago, was not yet occupied. Two girls sat on reception and my appearance startled them out of their conversation into a rehearsed greeting. ‘Who are you here to see?’ I told them the name of the building manager, but I got it incorrect, so they corrected me simultaneously, giggled and while one went about calling the absentee, the other asked me to sign in on a sheet that, within two lines, stretched three days. The building manager was contacted and, after some confusion, I was led by one of the receptionists to meet her.
I followed as we went into a blank office.
It was very cool and I was grateful for that as I couldn’t stop perspiring and I suspected that it was becoming odorous. The carpet had not been lain so that the metal floor shone and reflected each luminaire personally; I followed my leader and they shone off her hair, too, in vinyl grooves of air stewardess perfection. She bobbed and took me and we chatted. ‘There’s only the four of us,’ she said. The last people on earth.
The building manager immediately got off her chair at the gunshot of me entering her office. She forced her hand into mine and, smiling, informed me that she had experienced no problem getting a full refund for the pants she took back at lunchtime. I congratulated her. She was small and alive, wriggling like a fish from in front of me to behind of me to all around of me, wriggling and kicking, flapping, telling me to follow her, asking me all sorts of questions, not letting up, and happy at the new soul down there in the belly of the building where windows are not kept. We studied some documents from a wall of documents. They were kept in binders that I had come across dozens of times and always filled me with dread. She picked each off the shelf as though they were fruit from a tree, slung them in my lap, smiled and did it again, over and over, until my thighs went numb. She rushed off, came back, spoke some more, asked me a question, put her chin out, laughed tremendously and picked at the corner of a coloured light that was flashing on the wall. ‘She’s all right. You’d do her from behind.’ She smiled at me without knowing that a strange man was saying such things about her; I tried to smile back.
We went up to the top floor, the eighth floor. She was very near me in the small mirrored lift—‘She’s all right. You’d do her from behind.’ She didn’t at all have the manner of a building manager, but towards me submitted a friendliness I fell for instantly and found no cause to shy away from. The eighth floor, with its full height windows and bare shoulders, was bright from the darkness of the lift. We stepped out. She showed me around the floor with a series of presenting hand gestures and farm girl finesse. It was up to me to look around, so she left me to it. I did so and fell, as I normally do, away from professional obligation into a struck admiration of the view. Lapsing, I asked a question aloud to the building manager who was some way away from me, on the other side of the floor, looking out of the window, down, with her frame all slanted.
Rather than repeat my question, I walked to her side. She stared down at the road, eight storeys below. The sun was still out, still fierce. The buildings spread out and up for miles around, we were eye level with most of them, and the scene was fantastic overpowering gorgeous town falling up and rising down.
She said—‘You see those yellow marks on the road there?’
I saw.
‘A man died there yesterday.’
I saw: the yellow marks were like parentheses without a word in the middle but with space enough for one.
‘He ran out of that building site there . . . He was a labourer, ran right across the road and got hit by this T— P— truck. His head went under the wheel and he was dragged a bit.’ Pause. ‘He died right there on that spot . . . they performed open heart surgery in the middle of the road but he died.’
‘Did you see it all?’
‘No, as soon as it happened – that minute – the police came in and asked to see the CCTV footage and I watched it with them.’
‘Do you think it was suicide? I mean, it seems strange that here, on this stretch of road, he’d just run out like that.’
‘Nah, I don’t think so. He just did it. He risked it . . . We all do: you see a car coming along and you think you’ll make it.’
There were bloodstains dark bloodstains. ‘Calculated risk,’ I said.
We stared down at the wordless parentheses the cars were passing over, eating them and shitting them out and the hum roar of the engines and the relentless passing over. I imagined the traffic stopping up the A1211; some man twenty-two cabs back cursing and not seeing a thing, not even the winking wordless parentheses.
‘O, look.’ Two men and three women had just arrived. By the side of the road, against the green hoarding, they placed bunches of flowers and lit some candles. There were many candles and they winked like the wordless parentheses. The two men and three women stood in the spot and stared at the parentheses. When I left the building, they were there and still staring. The women were weeping and the men said nothing but stood around as though they could not think of which way to go. It was them that I walked past. Everybody walked past them because they did not know why they were there. I knew and I tried to observe them out of the corner of my eye as I went back to the office. The traffic sped past me, a yard away; the traffic did not falter and the road was back to normal. Everything hummed. The traffic came from all directions at the crossroads and it hummed and roared in my ears and I was lost in thought so I stepped when the man was red. It was not far to my office and if I kept a good pace I could finish my cigarette and be at the front door.

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