At 15:32 a day later, Thomas Mansen stops. He drops his pen as though it has stung him. He pushes away from the desk and stretches his legs. He doesn’t pick up the phone even though it cries out. He stops and cannot find a place to start again.
He wonders what his boss would say if he went to his office and said, “I’ve stopped and I can’t begin again”. Would he himself be able to explain this? He doubts it. He doesn’t feel hungry yet, he doesn’t need to piss and life is unusually ‘fine’. In fact, his boss even suggested a promotion might be in the works and he hasn’t argued with his girlfriend in months.
So he is lost.
Perhaps he has some rotting disease that works its way to the surface inside out and that’s why he feels strange. Perhaps his heart has stopped and he has unknowingly passed into death at his desk whilst helping Mrs Rayder understand that her policy does not cover the death of her beloved tomcat, Bubbles.
He laughs into the air. “Shit”, he mumbles, knowing it’s entirely possible for this to be the case. Yet, hearing his own voice reassures him that he is still in a physical realm of existence, not in a twisted form of limbo where everything is similar to the life he has been leading up to this point.
The pen lies on the pile of paperwork. He stares, narrows his eyes, screams at his hand to move forward a few inches and clutch it. But his hand ignores him. His eyes begin to ache and tire in their sockets. He closes them for a few moments and reopens them.
Yet, he still doesn’t move. He begins to panic and thinks he’s having a stroke or an unworldly force is possessing him. But he knows he has to meet Emma later at the restaurant. Will he make it? Will his body simply imprison him here throughout the night? He would much rather be with Emma, having sex, talking about nothing.
He sees the light of the phone glaring at him. There are incoming calls on four lines. He is sure one of them is the old man who phones every day, pretending to ask questions about his housing policy, but in reality just wanting to connect with another human being. Apart from that, it could be any one of the thousands of customers, waiting to chew an ear off.
“Come on Thom, get yourself together!” He shakes out his shoulders. He smiles at his progress and prepares to get back to his day. However, he now finds he has no desire to pick up the pen, to continue signing the rejections on policies, to hear another customer saying “of course I read the fine print” when they haven’t, to continue in any way at all.
He goes through every part of his job specification in his mind and cannot put a tick by any of the duties. He watches the other people walking by his office through the glass, like a helpless goldfish not functioning at the same level or speed. They are all busy – moving papers, picking up phones, and chatting about who’s shagging who this week. What is stopping him from doing the same?
He imagines if any of them cared enough to notice him, what they would see. A man, who is clean-shaven, has straight and recently cut brown hair (which curls at the sides if he doesn’t monitor it), a straight tie, a dribble of ink trailing from his lip that he doesn’t know about. Thom complies with every rule about uniform in the employee’s handbook; he is the physical representation of company policy. Would they know he hasn’t moved for five minutes? Would they assume he has been working up until the moment they happened to glance in?
Although his body is functioning again, Thom’s mind is suddenly heavy. His head drops into his chest like his neck has dissolved. A depression pulses through him, makes his chest rise and fall in a pitiful sigh, makes his body sprawl out on the desk like a person who has just suffered a heart attack. He watches his breath make a mist on the wooden face of the desk.
Abruptly, the phone stops wailing. Then ten seconds later, it rings again.
He grabs hold of the receiver. He balances it on his face which is still flat against the desk and awkwardly muffles, “Hello. Thomas Mansen”.
“Thom. It’s Richard”.
Thom shoots up as though someone has electrocuted him. “Rich, what’s going on?” It’s the voice... He can tell from the first syllable, the downward direction of the tone.
Richard delays, his breathing heavy for a moment. “Thom…it’s about Daniel”. Thom is sure Richard is crying, or perhaps he has a cold. “He’s dead”. Crying, then.
“What?” Thom stutters, then again, “what?”
“He fell under a train. Yesterday”. Richard’s words are so direct, poison darts that keep hitting him, closing in on his ability to respond normally and quickly. Thom’s chest starts to tighten; his bones are shrinking like clothes washed at the wrong temperature. “I’m sorry I didn’t call earlier. Aunty didn’t take it well, obviously… I had to call the doctor”, Richard adds, making Thom feel like he has been squeezed out of his body and now lingers somewhere above the desk, not knowing the way back in. He needs to get to Aunty Val.
“Oh”, is all Thom says.
And then he listens to Richard, talking about the funeral, an inquest, the reading of the will and asking can he come and can he bring Emma, and Aunty Val would’ve called herself but she is still crying, and she needs him there. Tonight.