Fiction | Dispatches by Philip Womack

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Philip Womack


Dispatches

The Peters and Taft offices were double-height. The glass windows, which had no apparent joins, gave a view across a narrow street directly into the office blocks opposite. Overhead lights, breaking up the gathering night, revealed abandoned workstations. Black-clad figures emptied wastebaskets or pushed the nozzles of vacuum cleaners across carpets.
………It was 8pm, or thereabouts, on Friday night. Dom was still at his desk, surrounded by empty swivel chairs, some angled away as if their occupant had only just departed. Everyone else in his team had begun drifting out from 630pm onwards, wrapping scarves around their necks, clutching shiny handbags or leather cases, congregating in chattering groups.
………Dom had hidden his phone in his drawer. In front of him shone a triptych of screens, and it struck him, as he lifted his bowed head, that they were screens, coated with a membrane under whose surface numbers and phrases had, only recently, held the key to everything.
………He scratched his scalp, and bent a paperclip out of shape. His long report was due in tomorrow morning for the pre-meeting at 9 am, where they would finalise their strategy before the other side arrived at 1030. He would have to make sense of all these figures, somehow, before then. And the team from Washington had made it very clear the contracts would be finalised by Monday. They were flying back on Sunday evening. Dom had made no plans, just in case.
………He had labelled each column in the spreadsheet with a different colour. He was proud of his labelling system, and he refused to tell anybody else how it worked. As he clicked through the same lines of figures once more, this time almost grasping the edge of their meaning, the totality of their purpose, he heard his phone buzz.
………His tongue clicked against his teeth, and he ignored it, trying to concentrate on the contours of the problem. He stuck the bent paperclip into a piece of blu tac that adorned his keyboard. He did not know where it had come from, having never, as far as he remembered, needed to put up a poster for any reason whatsoever. Behind the surface of the screen, his computer made its own calculations and suggestions and he felt the intention of its movements.

The phone’s vibrations continued. He decided that whatever (or whoever) it was, would be no worse than giving the presentation tomorrow; and so, only semi-reluctantly, he killed the monitors, one by one, their almost exquisite blue light dimming instantly.
………He shuffled on his jacket, enjoying its fine scarlet silk lining, and retrieved his phone from where it nestled in a leather case among the jumble of paperclips and memos.
………
He flipped it open and scanned the messages.
………
Josh had a beer for him, dude, lined up waiting on the bar, and if he didn’t come soon, he was a mahoosive loser. This was followed by some emojis, the purport of which were obscure to Dom: smiley face wearing Mexican hat; smiley face winking; dancing lady; unicorn.
………
Anisha, who always texted in full, elegant sentences, properly punctuated, a result, Dom thought, of her expensive schooling, was wondering if he wanted to go to the cinema next Sunday, instead of Saturday, as her uni girlfriends were having a get together; and Mona was coming, and she hadn’t seen her for ages, since she’d been in Japan.
………
Mum, who had never quite got the hang of text messages, had tried to call him three times, which was what she always did, perhaps not really believing that he would know she’d called him unless she did it three times. They were making the trip up to Leeds by an early train the following weekend. It was his birthday, and he would be bringing Anisha to meet Mum for the first time. They’d been together for over three years now. There hadn’t been time before, what with work, and everything else.
………
He pictured her, coiled in her orange and yellow armchair, with her dark curly head against the antimacassar, the electric fire lit, and the television on, and the little duck figurines she had started collecting by accident on every surface, and now he was listening to her voice on the answering service, as she wondered what Anisha would like to eat on Sunday and should she get a leg of lamb in specially from Simpsons, and hadn’t the weather been dreadful, and he must remember to dress warmly and she hoped he was looking after himself because London was a terribly big city and she didn’t know why he wanted to live down there.

Oh, and Nan was looking forward to it too, said Mum, before hanging up, as her landline was ringing and she thought it might be her chiropodist returning her call, and she needed to get her feet done, because her bunions were playing up again.
………Dom decided he would call her tomorrow morning. He tapped out a quick yes to Anisha, and as he was about to roll his chair away from the desk, something which, even now, he still enjoyed, his phone beeped.
………
It made a dull, metallic noise he’d never heard before, something like the sound of a tin can falling onto a metal sheet.
………
His skin prickled. A message icon had appeared on the screen. It wasn’t from Josh, or Anisha, or Mum, or Sid, or any name he recognised. In fact, there was no name at all, and no number, either.
………
He clicked on it.
………
Silence washed through the office; he heard the dim hum of lifts moving up and down. Somewhere in the building a hand-dryer went on in a bathroom.
………
He looked carefully at his phone. There was a blank space where the message should be.
………
The printer that crouched next to his workstation gently whirred, making the complaining sort of noise that meant it was firing itself up for a long job. Dom glanced at it in surprise: he had thought he was the only one left. But perhaps there were still others in the office, on other floors, and perhaps their printers had broken, and important documents had been transmitted down here, to his station, and he had a sudden, terrible feeling that they were meant for him, and that he would have to read them and deal with them before morning.
………
Sighing, the machine calibrated itself, and began to disgorge a page. Automatically, Dom glanced at it.
………
There was nothing on it. A fault, he thought. Or somebody printing out blank pages by accident. He’d done that before – it was easy to do so, if you didn’t follow the right procedure. Just as he’d realised his error, his line manager Eileen had arrived. She had hovered there, eyebrows raised above her red-framed spectacles, tapping her gold- nibbed pen against a leather folder stuffed with documents, watching the blank pages pool out until it had finished, and her own single page of bright graphs followed.

He watched the new page now, curiously gripped by its slow, elegant movement through the printer, and peered closer.
………This was not nothing in the sense that it was empty. This was something else, a different kind of blankness, almost a force, or an emanation.
………
He wanted, suddenly, to pick it up. He stretched out his hand. The printer whirred again, and the machine issued forth another page, balletically folding onto the one before, and this time, he felt an imperative, an order, that he was bound to pick it up, and that somehow doing so would realign the nature of his thoughts, and of reality itself.
………
The metallic arms of his chair glimmered with reflected light. Across the narrow road, in another office, a nightwatchman stared at blurred images on small screens. CCTV cameras showed ghostly figures crouching by a door. And somewhere, there was another nightwatchman, and he was reaching through the darkness, and initiating a protocol that would open a door through the shadows.

Dom felt a pressure on his arm. Dimly, he heard a voice. ‘Still here, mate?’
………Somebody was beside him, tall, encased in a long black overcoat. It was Sid, one of the younger new hires. He was a gangly Essex boy with a jaunty set to his shoulders. Dom liked him. Sid rubbed his nose, and sniffed; and then squeezed his eyes shut for a second, as if clearing something troubling from his mind. Already there were bags under his eyes, strange in the schoolboyish face.
………
Sid was speaking. ‘Just printing out my stuff for tomorrow.’ Dom nodded, slowly. Sid continued. ‘Josh asked me to. Any chance you could take a look at it?’ He stood there, tapping his foot. His shoes, Dom noticed, were insanely shiny. ‘Thought you’d be on the lash with the others?’ Sid thrust the page at Dom.
………
The towers of light opposite. A helicopter, throbbing overhead, curving through space. Along the riverbank, dots of blinking red and blue, and the river, surging onwards.
………
Dom, hand shaking, took the page and looked. On it was a perfectly ordinary graph.
………
He breathed out. ‘I can’t. Haven’t – haven’t got time. It’ll be all right, I’m sure.’ He placed it, face down, on the top of the printer. ‘You’re right. I’m seeing the others. Just quickly, actually. Then going home to finish up.’ He gestured, uselessly, at his desk, and forced a smile. He picked up the bent paperclip and threw it at the bin. It missed. Sid punched him lightly on the forearm.
………
As Dom passed through the automatic doors, which swished open at the touch of his pass, he turned back and saw that Sid was still waiting by the printer, carefully checking the pages of his report. He licked his finger, and turned over another. He would be there some time.
………
The lift doors, sighing open. Cables, spooling upwards. Ducts, pipes, floors full of computers. Meeting rooms, all lit, variations of the same, all making a pattern that seemed to fit into something greater, if only he could find the key to it. The red glow around the lift buttons, his reflection on either side of him.
………
He buried his chin in his chest, muffled against his black woollen scarf.

………The sound of the lift doors haunted Dom as he paced through the city streets. It was never quite dark, even in mid-winter. Not like it had been at home. He felt the cold, keenly, something which made Anisha laugh, because she thought Leeds was about as far north as you could get.
………Light cascaded from bar windows. Office workers loitered outside the doors, queuing to get in somewhere, or smoking. Large men with earpieces, clad in dark overcoats and gloves, monitored the scenes.
………
A dark-haired girl, tipsy, wearing a tight dress, snatched a cigarette from her co-worker’s lips, turned it round and popped the lit end into her mouth. Her friends, or maybe they were not friends, applauded, and she curtsied, holding on to the man next to her, flinging the butt away into the gutter. She blew a kiss at Dom as he went by.
………
Dom couldn’t remember the name of the pub, and he didn’t want to look it up on his phone. The thought of the machine, glowing in his hand, made him shudder.
………
Instead, he wandered, almost sure that his feet would lead him to the right place, the pub where they always went. He stepped in a puddle, and the water soaked through his shoe and into his sock. A hole was appearing in his left sole. The sensation was discomforting, but he found that he didn’t mind.
………
For a moment he was a boy again, standing on the edge of the beach at Skegness, feeling the freezing sea water wash over his toes, being dared by Dad to run in, and Nan sitting on a towel behind a windbreak, gamely trying to read a tabloid newspaper as it flapped around her. Dad, standing in the water, the waves right up to his chin, grinning back at him goofily, and Mum shouting at him to get back.
………
He walked onwards. Past the revellers he went, by groups singing and laughing, until he came to the Red Lion, where he paused. Was it this?
………
It looked completely empty, the windows dark, not a sound inside. Of course. The Red Lion. It was this, it had to be.
………
He stood on the pavement opposite the door. For a city pub, it was old-fashioned, small and dark. It looked like a Tudor house. It might even be a Tudor house, for all he knew. The team had started going there on Fridays when they’d joined the firm, five years ago now.
………
He stood in a patch of orange light radiating from a streetlamp. The door was open. He began to climb the short flight of steps.
………
He understood now, that he had to walk through the door. It was important, vastly so. There was a friction in the air, and he could break it apart, he was meant to break it apart, and on the other side, he knew now, was a black paved road picked out in moonlight, and he would be on the road, which rolled onwards through a wide, dark expanse, and it did not have an end.

***

They were all there.
………Somehow, Sid had arrived in the pub before him, and was at the bar, taking up space in the way that only Sid could, a packet of salt and vinegar crisps clenched in his teeth. Josh, as promised, had a pint of Guinness ready for him, and it was sitting untouched on the table, condensation pearled on its side, and Josh did in fact mouth the word loser as he went by, and made an L with his fingers and put it to his forehead, laughing, which made the others laugh, and Dom made the same sign, and shrugged. ‘Good lad,’ said someone.
………
They were all crowded round a small table, perched on stools, their coats piled onto the window sill. The beer mats were not doing the job they were supposed to do. Someone clinked glasses with him. Someone, thought Dom, is about to say oy oy saveloy, and indeed, when Sid appeared, and plonked down some vodka shots, he did.
………
Dom’s phone shivered. He was hot, and he hadn’t taken his coat and scarf off. Anisha. Could he get some carrots, bread and milk on the way home? Pause, in which Dom caught the tail end of someone’s joke, and the throbbing ellipsis appeared on his screen. Another message was imminent.
………
And some cucumbers? Anisha explained that she wouldn’t be going past a supermarket, and they were going to be out a bit longer.
………
Once more his thumb hovered over the reply button, and then another message came in, adding that if he could also get something nice for breakfast tomorrow that would be great, but he shouldn’t worry about it too much, and he found himself suddenly stricken, unable to form the symbols on the phone’s touchpad together into coherence, and he looked up at Sid and Josh and Bev and Amir and Antonia, and the mass of workers thronging the bar behind them, the half drunk pints and the bell shaped wine glasses and the goth barkeeper with blue hair and three silver studs in her nose, and they all seemed caught in a net, mouths moving, fragments of sound emerging, sounds that were meaningless, and that when taken together had still less meaning altogether, a patchwork, a grid of shadows, and the shadows formed into a door, an archway, and there was only one possible way.

The kitchen in the flat was illuminated by the light from the dishwasher which announced an end to a cycle. He did not feel like emptying it. Dom and Anisha’s flat was above a shop, which had not long before been an ironmongers, and was now somewhere you could buy a T-shirt for £100.
………The room shuddered, as it always did when the Underground train passed below it, many hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth.
………
Dom laid the carrots, the cucumbers and the bread on the counter top. There were some sausages, eggs and bacon as well. They were nice sausages, he noted, though he couldn’t remember buying them, and he suddenly rifled through his wallet, until he found a receipt from the local supermarket Express. He’d paid in cash, and he jingled the comforting change in his pocket, before stacking the coins, by size, on the shelf.
………
The shots. Of course, he’d had one, and they’d all laughed and patted each other on the back and talked about their presentations and their deals and their holiday plans and of course someone was doing a charity run, and someone else was going skiing and someone else was going to find the sun, because who wanted to be in London in December, and underneath it all was the subtext, the manoeuvrings, the little triumphs about which partner had noticed whom, and whose appraisal was better than everyone else’s, and who’d been chosen to go to a conference in Miami in January.
………
The milk bottle was by the fridge, open, the shiny foil top half on, and he’d already poured out some milk.
………
Good, he thought. That’s sensible. That’s the sort of thing Mum would suggest.
………
Guiltily, he remembered he had to call her in the morning. It was 10pm. She would be having her nightly Ovaltine by now, dozing off to a late night chat show, in mock horror at the lewdness of the talk. Have a glass of milk, dear, she would say, it’ll make you feel better.
………
Sometimes she still poured one out for Dad, before she caught herself, and then her hand would shake, and she would put the milk bottle down and say that she’d seen a nice house for sale a couple of roads away, it was a nice place to bring up children and there was Dom’s old primary nearby too.
………
Dom drank his milk in one go. In a burst of activity he put all the food away and opened the dishwasher, taking out three glasses with one hand and putting them back in the cupboard. He removed his shoes, and turned them over, to remind himself about the hole tomorrow morning. His sock was still a bit damp, and he hung it over a radiator to dry, and then, because it looked ridiculous by itself, he hung the other next to it.
………
They’d made the flat look pretty nice, considering, despite saving for a deposit, which, they calculated, they would have in two years’ time. Going into the sitting room, he imagined spending Christmas in the little terraced house in Leeds, his Mum knitting and his Nan snoring softly in her special chair.
………
His mother would give up her bedroom for them, and would sleep in his own childhood bed. He and Anisha would huddle together under a pink duvet with white frills. A photograph of Mum and Dad hung above the headboard. His dressing gown was still on the hook of the door. Behind the thin partition wall, Mum would cover herself in a superhero duvet, and lie awake.
………
Nan had a single bed in a little box room off the kitchen, which was always fugged with warmth, and where she kept seemingly limitless supplies of boiled sweets.

Whenever he tried to explain to Nan what he did at Peters and Taft, or what Anisha did in fin-tech, she would nod for a few seconds, grin, and then say, ‘That’s nice, dear,’ offer him a boiled sweet, and return to her Giant Wordsearch.
………He thought of Anisha sitting at the kitchen table with its plastic tablecloth, the pattern of sweetcorn and wheat, his mother ladelling out baked beans for breakfast, Anisha politely drinking sweet, milky tea.
………
He would stay up, he thought, until Anisha came back. There was time to watch something, a documentary, maybe.
………
His phone was on the counter and he checked it, relieved that there were no new messages. The work channel, the family group, the university friends’ group, the office friends’ group, the breakaway friends’ group, the banter group, the social media messaging services, his work email, his private email.
………
All were quiet.
………
Yet all were expectant, as if at any moment some vital piece of information, imbued with meaning and clarity, might manifest.
………
He settled into the comfortable beige sofa which belonged, like most of the other furniture, to the landlord. The expensive new television set switched on.
………
Anisha had put tinsel around the mantelpiece. He rather liked it.
………
His phone began to vibrate. He ignored it. The vibrations became faster, louder. Gingerly, he turned it over.
………
There was the black envelope.
………
The television switched channels. The curtains, closed against the night, let in a sliver of streetlight. It was too hot. He thought of the three bar fire, the fug. Anisha must have turned on the heating through her app, ready for them when they got home. One anglepoise lamp lit the wall, where some previous tenant had left a burn mark. The phone buzzed louder.
………
He picked it up, and laid it flat in his hand, where it fitted perfectly, as if it had always been there, and in its surface dim shapes were moving, and he knew that if he answered, there would be the archway into a dark plain, and a black road, wet stones gleaming, though there were no stars, and a dark purpose, fumbling onwards into the void, the pointing figure of the nightwatchman, beckoning, showing him the way, the only way.

He closed his eyes.
………Open the message, he thought. Open it. Shadows encroached. He was pulled onwards.
………
The overhead lights burst on, and someone stumbled in with a draft of cold air from the front door.
………
He sat upwards. It was Anisha, with one of her friends, slightly unsteady on her feet, giggling, both hunched in their black coats and bright scarves, carrying plastic bags full of takeaway, sighing as she kicked her high heels off, and hey darling, how was your night, and oh my god the taxi driver was hilarious, and was it all right if Kelly stayed on the sofa because she’d missed her train, and what are you watching?
………
And the television poured forth laughter from an ancient sitcom.
………
He found his voice. He was standing already. ‘I only just got back. I had … work. Have work.’ He gestured at his laptop, which was, he saw, on the table, closed. ‘I was about to start.’
………
Dom kissed her on the cheek. Kelly giggled. ‘You two.’
………
‘Your phone’s ringing,’ she said, looking down at her own phone, and laughing at something someone had sent her. ‘You seen this meme?’ Anisha was scrolling through some pictures with her forefinger. The takeaway sat, steaming gently.
………
‘I know,’ he said.
………
The phone was now in his hand, and his thumb hung over the message, and he thought that if he opened it now, he would be on that road, buffetted by winds, leaning into the night, and maybe, just maybe, there might be an end to the road, and a door that led to somewhere, he did not know, and the winds were now howling through the sitting room, and the sofa cushions were blown away, and Anisha’s scarf was a long, fluttering banner behind her as she bent into the blast, and the walls of the flat fell away and he could see down into the underground and the tube trains snaking below.
………
When he looked again at his phone, the screen was empty.
………
‘Hurry up, get some plates.’ Anisha and Kelly were leaning over some photographs from a friend’s wedding. ‘Look at that dress!’
………
And Dom put the phone down, went through to the kitchen, opened the dishwasher, and got some.

 

Philip Womack is the author of several critically acclaimed novels for children: The Other Book, The Liberators; the Darkening Path trilogy, comprising The Broken King, The King’s Shadow and The King’s RevengeThe Double Axe, a reimagining of the Minotaur myth. The Arrow of Apollo, also set in the ancient world, was published in May 2020. Wildlord, his first teen fiction, appeared last year. How to Teach Classics to Your Dog: A Quirky Introduction to the Greeks and Romans (for adults) was published in October 2020.


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