By Craig Roberts
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The process was routine by
now. He recognised the agent at the check-in desk; he had seen her many
times before; aisle seat, close to the front please, no luggage just my
carry-on, gate 12 boarding at...
He was completely bored of it.
He wheeled his black Samsonite bag along behind him, carried his lap-top in his briefcase in his
other hand, boarding pass in his inside jacket pocket. The clean dullness
of the terminal was familiar to him and he walked through it as if in a
dream, still half-asleep actually, looking forward to a little nap on the
flight instead of eating the oily breakfast. People who looked just like
him walked along with him through the airport, in their dark suits and nice
ties, with their wheelie-bags and laptops.
They all crammed into the narrow tube of the aircraft, strangers, all trying to avoid interacting
with each other. The cheeriness of the cabin staff grated on him, like
fingernails on a blackboard. The familiar hassle of finding space in the
overhead locker, shuffling other people's bags and suit coats around to
make room. He sat down, buckled his seatbelt, shut his eyes and prayed
silently that if the plane is to crash, he won't wake up to notice, or if
it is to land safely, that at least either way the whole ordeal is over
Breathing the rough, recycled air made him feel as if his brain was shrinking, shriveling up inside his
He woke up with a jolt as the wheels hit the ground at the other end. He shut his eyes again for the long
taxi to the terminal, opening them again when he felt the familiar halt and
heard the seat belt light go off. A plane-full of men in suits stood up
simultaneously and rummaged for their jackets, their bags, trying to avoid
elbowing each other or making eye contact. They all stood awkwardly in the
aisle while the door was opened, seeming like an eternity. Then they all
filed out, slowly, like people in a bread queue but in Armani and Zegna,
cuff-linked and windsor-knotted.
This airport looked just like the one he had just left. He wheeled his bag past the baggage carousels,
rotating emptily while people who looked lost and destroyed waited blankly for their bags, and outside to a taxi. Into the city via the expressway, to the office door. It was still before nine, and local people bought coffee and began their days all around him. He sighed sadly and went through the
revolving doors which were designed specifically to keep the conditioned
air in and the real air out. As the elevator carried him up to his floor,
he felt any life which the morning might have given him seeping out of his
every pore. He imagined his life force congealing in a damp puddle near his
feet. The doors slid open and he walked into the office.
"According to the high level work plan the team is on schedule. The Customer Value workstream is
progressing with interviews and data collection and the Cost team is eighty
per cent complete with the baseline..."
He heard these words wash
over him but could not care less about them. The meeting room was
expansive, filled with a huge heavy table surrounded by other men in suits
with fountain pens. He stared out the window which formed an entire wall of
the room, looking straight out at a height of some two hundred feet into
the hazy air of mid-morning. Down below he could see movement but felt
utterly disconnected from it.
Someone was asking him a
question, and he turned and spoke with assurance - "Yes, that's right. We
will be ready to show you a draft tomorrow night so you can make any
changes you want before the presentation on Wednesday" – then went back to
staring out the window. The sky was a strange off-white colour, with blue
partly visible or perhaps imagined behind the smoky haze that enveloped the
city. Does anyone else in this room care less about what is going on here
than me? he wondered. His brain was a wizened, hard ball of tissue,
completely drained of fluid and creative thought, rattling around inside
his head. An empty plastic bag blew upwards past the window, like an
apparition. Inside the room, the air was quietly circulating through vents
and drying out his eyeballs. He felt like he was in a glass prison, cut off
from the world, suspended above it as punishment from some ancient crime, a
boy in a bubble.
The day dragged over him;
colleagues and clients demanded things of him, and he agreed to deliver
them, feigning enthusiasm. He made frequent trips to the coffee machine,
thinking to himself as he walked along the halls of the office if there was
any element of this work that inspired the tiniest bit of passion or
excitement in him, and couldn't think of any. People around him spoke of
concepts like value-add and customer segment and stakeholder input, and he
nodded enthusiastically in agreement, completely devoid of
At the end of the day, a
couple of hours after most people had gone to their homes, he took the
elevator back down to the ground, went out through the revolving doors and
across the street, through another set of revolving doors and into the
hotel foyer. It looked and smelt like an airport terminal. His face hung
heavily from his skull, and he dragged his feet desolately across to the
counter, where a nondescript person made him fill in a form and hand over a
credit card. Then he took his card-shaped key up in the elevator, pulled
his wheelie-bag along behind him down an endless corridor that stretched
out in front of him like a torturous dream, the perspective making his
vision blur. He found his room and went in. The carpet seemed to have the
same pattern as the seats in the aeroplane. As in all hotel rooms, there
was no direct light, just dim lamps in the corner and above the bed. He
felt as if he was in a recurring nightmare. What city am I in
He kicked off his shoes and
sat on the bed, back slouching, and flicked through the TV channels. Then
he flicked through the room service menu, even though he knew it already
and had eaten everything on it more than once. He pulled open the heavy
curtains and leaned up against the double glazed window, seeing his head
reflected and distorted in glass, the orange light from the lamp forming
huge black shadows under his eyes. Down below he could see cars and people
moving beneath streetlamps, but the only sound was the unnatural, constant
breathing of the air-conditioning and the dull thump as he lifted his head
from the window and let it fall back again.
He went downstairs and sat in
the hotel bar in a low chair beside a low table, and picked at dried nuts
and other salty things in a glass bowl. Another nondescript person in a
hospitable uniform came over, and he ordered a drink. She brought it back
and set in on the table with a little paper circle marked with the name of
the hotel for a coaster. In other corners of the bar, other rumpled looking
men were sitting in the same low chairs, alone or in pairs. Unobtrusive
piano music played. He tried to breathe deeply but it seemed as though the
air was lacking in oxygen. The light was the same orange, indirect
lamp-light of his room, and he blinked and squinted to focus on anything.
This is the most depressing scene, he thought to himself, and then realised
that he was part of the scene and part of the depression. He swallowed half
his drink then stood up and strode back out to the foyer and through the
revolving doors past the doorman and into the street.
He started walking, away from
the hotel, it did not matter where exactly. There were few people on the
streets; it was a Monday, after all, and late. He took the first deep
breath of the day, and his head span for an instant as it sucked up the
oxygen it had been craving. He breathed deeply again and heard the blood
quicken in his veins as it reddened and brightened. He had an urge to prick
his own finger or slit the back of his hand to make sure his blood wasn't a
lifeless gray, the colour of his suit or the aeroplane seats.
He arrived at a bar, and went
in. It too was dimly lit, but in a way that still allowed the brass
railings on the bar to shine and the bottles on the shelves to glisten and
glint with promises of anticipatory pleasures. Suddenly he knew he was
going to get very drunk.
He sat at the bar where he
could see the game on TV and most of the tables and other seats. If he was
going to drink alone at least he wanted to be able to watch other people.
He scanned the room for a pretty girl, but saw only ordinary Monday night
drinkers, huddling together in small groups around their glasses. He
started to order a beer but then decided to get a scotch instead, and
loosened his tie. The amber liquid burnt at his throat on the way down but
sat warmly in his stomach, spreading a glow in tentacles out through his
body. He felt the muscles across his neck and shoulders start to loosen,
finally. It seemed like all day he'd been holding the posture of a man
sitting in an aeroplane seat, elbows wedged up on the armrests.
Another drink, and the
stresses of the day seemed to float gently out of him. Echoes of corporate
euphemisms stopped ricocheting around inside his head. Instead of the
rarified air of the aeroplane or office or hotel room, he smelled smoke,
beer and body odour, the smell of real, living, people. After the third, he
found himself craving a cigarette, even though he did not smoke and never
had. Part of him thought it would be nice to have someone to drink with and
chat to, but mostly he was happy on his own, half watching the game, half
watching for whoever was coming into the bar or leaving, just to see what
they looked like. In this strange and unfamiliar place, he felt for the
first time that day that he might actually be a living creature, not merely
a husk of a man passing through terminals and taxi ranks like a walking
He decided to stride back out
into the night, to prowl the sidewalks and feel the city air in his lungs.
It was nearing midnight, and this part of the city, the business district,
was desolate and a little frightening. Any self-respecting business person
was at home with their family in the suburbs, this city-based part of their
lives only a daytime thing. He thought to himself that he was becoming
quite the night-watcher of empty cities, a ghost that haunts the glass and
concrete canyons. The idea of haunting an office building appealed to him,
tormenting his tormentors, moving staplers around for a joke, or changing
the order of pages in important board presentations.
"Ah, but to be a ghost, one
has to be dead," he muttered to himself.
Taxis slowed as they passed
him on the street, thinking he was looking for a ride somewhere, but he
pressed ahead, his Italian shoes making a resonating click-click-click on
the pavement. Even the hobos had turned in for the night, he noticed,
seeing one or two huddled beneath cardboard and newspaper in the doorways
It was not long before he
found himself back at the front of his hotel. Without thinking, sticking to
familiar streets and well-lit areas, he had ended up retracing his steps.
Not to matter, he thought, as really there was little else to do but head
back upstairs. Bars were closing at this hour anyway, and Monday night
strip clubs were notorious for featuring the most unattractive and
unenthusiastic dancers possible – he knew, he had tried that tactic before
to delay having to go back to the hotel.
He slinked back through the
revolving doors and across the foyer to the lifts. Even the doorman had
given up for the night, and was over chatting to the woman behind the
reception desk. They ignored his movement through the foyer.
Back on his floor, he walked
along the disorienting corridor again, his feet silent on the thick carpet.
The only sound was the faint whisper of his clothes brushing against
themselves, like a gentle breeze heard or imagined from a great distance.
Door after identical door slid past him.
He arrived at his room, and
as he walked through the door he caught sight of himself reflected against
the darkness of the window. He stood up straight and watched himself. The
reflection stared back, the image mingled with the reflection of the room
itself and with the outline of the building opposite, lights still on in
offices on one floor or another making a strange mosaic of separated boxes
filled with desks and computers and piles of paper. He was a ghost, an
apparition in a rumpled suit.
"I am the plastic bag," he
said aloud. "I am buffeted, I float and drift and tumble to the whim of hot
air rising from the concrete city," and then collapsed on the bed and fell
asleep in his clothes.
Daylight through the open
curtains woke him. He made it to the bathroom to splash water on his face,
and realised he was already dressed.
"Huh!" he grunted, with a
smile, discovering that he had just saved himself about half an hour of
showering and dressing. He patted his hair down with some water,
restraightened his tie, and went downstairs feeling better than he had in
many days. This small victory against the system that enslaved him was
enough to bring a huge grin to his face, like a tormented soul in purgatory
that had flicked the Devil's tail and gotten away with it.
But he knew better, of
course, and by the time the lift had reached his office floor the feeling
had drained out of him. He scratched at his unshaven cheek, and sniffed at
his shirt, now dreading the day more than ever.