Beachballing – A SHORT STORY by Josh Burt
This is the beach ball in question…
Okay, so don’t all take the piss, but I’ve written a short story, and I thought rather than have it languish there doing nothing, or have it laughed out of the office by a publisher, I thought I’d publish it here on Interestment. I hope you don’t think it’s completely shit…
Rain spattered the window of the greasy spoon café on the small stretch of road in a beach town somewhere in the south of England. The details don’t need too much expansion, if you’ve been there you know what it’s like, and if you haven’t you just need to imagine putty-coloured skies and a small dining room with a thin film of general grime making everything a bit sticky. The menus probably needed a good douse with disinfectant, the woman behind the counter managed to make darling sound like a sneer, the chef looked like when he wasn’t boiling potatoes or frying eggs he’d be alone in a caravan with sick thoughts. Definitely not a place for a date, but a British staple nonetheless, second or third behind Fish n Chip shops and old fashioned pubs as a place to dine with the family.
And so it was that Samuel Stephenson – once an eagle soaring high, riding a wave of financial excellence, mixing metaphors to prove a disregard for convention – yet so it was that he found himself there, spooning some very limp looking cabbage and some extremely lumpy mashed potatoes into his mouth, once in a while he’d accompany them on the fork with something described as CHICKEN PIE, but which was just off-cuts drowned in Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup with an elongated tasteless biscuit on top. There were bright signs on the walls in the shape of stars saying things like PIE & CHIP’S £2.20 or ROAST LAMB AND POTATOS AND VEG £3.70. The place was locally famous for its ALL DAY GUTBUSTER, which was a massive cooked breakfast times two then served with chips. Sam was there with David and Sue Stephenson, his parents who had spent the best part of their lives lovingly attending to his wants and his needs. The family albums were brimming with pictures of Samuel learning to swim, or enjoying a birthday party surrounded by his friends, there were bright sunny pictures of him diving into a swimming pool in France when he was a teenager, the mantelpiece had a framed photo of him in a special hat and gown holding a scroll to prove that he’d just managed a first class degree from the University of Bristol.
After that the pictures became more sporadic, not for any less pride or attention, but because David and Sue Stephenson’s little boy went out into the world and left them to watch mainly from afar as he explored the planet and set up ventures and took on jobs and eventually found a niche for himself as a businessman – something to do with software or computers, all very confusing – his body changed, he became stronger, his voice became more authoritative but still kind and funny, he didn’t just spend money, he invested it. In the end he started making loads of the stuff. Enough so he could take David and Sue away from their little three up two down and put them somewhere a little plusher, not over the top, but somewhere without a mortgage to pay off. He’d always said he would and he’d been true to his word.
Like their boy, David and Sue now found themselves sitting in this curious little café in an innocuous seaside town that could be somewhere like Eastbourne or Torquay, him on one side of the table with chicken pie and bad vegetables, David wolfing down liver with onions, and Sue had what she’d only ever have in these kinds of rundown places where the food couldn’t be completely trusted – the soup. In this case, tomato. The tinny sound of a radio filtered out from the backwaters of the kitchen, an old station, one of the ones that ignored the current hits and played songs from yore. Occasionally David would recognise a favourite from when he was a young man and it would tug part of his memory and he’d bite his bottom lip and nod his head slightly out of time as a show of approval.
All the while Samuel, once so full of life, so handsome, looked into the distance somewhere with dark rings circling the bottom of his eyes, his hair messy and probably a bit smelly, the obligatory stubble jutting from his face to signify a man who had given up, because make no mistake about it, Samuel Stephenson had given up. Where once the flames of passion and ambition burned in his eyes, now those eyes seemed dulled and sad, like they were only seeing things in black and white. He used to wear trendy suit jackets with skinny jeans, occasionally he’d throw a tie on, now he was in a crappy old t-shirt, his trainers were rubbish ones. He dropped his fork to his plate to signify that his encounter with the chicken pie had now come to an end.
“How was your lunch?” asked Sue.
“Nice thanks,” replied Samuel, smiling generously, secretly knowing that it was a bit shit.
“Would you like a pudding?”
Sam would love a pudding, he nodded gratefully as Sue nudged David to go up to the counter and come back with a couple of treats. He duly marched up to see what was on offer.
“Have you been keeping yourself busy?” asked Sue, reaching out and taking her boy’s hands, her eyes welling up and looking like glass.
“Yeah, I’ve been fine, Mum. Seriously, it’s all fine. I think I just needed a bit of a lie down, but for ages…”
“You worked too hard…”
“Sammy, I think it’s time to get back out there.”
Sam smiled at her and nodded, he knew she was right. First he had an appointment with a bakewell tart which had literally just arrived swamped in custard. He launched into it, his teeth clamping down onto icing and almonds and pastry and the other ingredients that went into making a half decent bakewell tart. Sam closed his eyes and when he opened them they were in the car, David was driving. The car purred and it smelled of polish. Outside stretched a long pebble beach with a traditional accompaniment of ferocious rain. Sue was still giving her pep talk, it hadn’t stopped. She’d kept momentum throughout Sam’s date with the bakewell tart and she was still going, he’d heard it before but he wasn’t frustrated or angered by it. He knew she was right. He should have just paced himself before – he needed to try again but with lessons learned, he needed to trust other people to share the load, he couldn’t do all of the work himself. He just needed to get back out there.
It was starting to resonate with him now. He’d seen the way one of the girls sitting in the café had looked at him, he was still attractive, if he cleaned himself up a bit he could get girls ten times better than her. The goodbye was conventional, mum Sue had a little cry and hugged her son like it was the first day of school, dad David stood slightly awkwardly behind her confused as to which move he should incorporate, this would always end somewhere in the middle of the ocean between a hug and a handshake, neither of the men in the family had ever nor did ever manage to get it completely right. And so they all went their separate ways. Sam arrived back at his “pad” – he liked to call it a pad, it made him feel like a guy about town. He dicked around with the dimmer switch in his lounge and looked around. Light was creeping in through a tiny gap in the curtains, everything looked like it had just been sat in or slept on, there were no traces of anything remotely feminine, the closest he came was with some old bottle of Aqua Di Parma which hadn’t been applied for ages.
Sam stood in front of the long mirror that no longer hung gracefully on the wall but rested on the floor, and he examined himself properly for the first time in a while. He looked a bit bloated and scraggly, but not beyond repair. He still owned nice clothes, he’d recently bought a bottle of shower gel. He got to work. He dusted things, he pulled j-cloths from one side of a table right down the length of it to the other, if this was a movie an inspirational Rocky soundtrack would kick in like Sam was in training for a big fight. Dust vanished, Pledge got sprayed into the atmosphere around the flat overpowering the old musty smell of feet and the putrid fug of armpits and old plates with food still on them. The washing up got done, the toilet scrubbed and bleached until you could barely make out the numerous shit stains that had gone untended for months, possibly more. He cleaned behind things, underneath bits of furniture. He found old records and blew the fluff from a needle and played his favourite songs. Pain in My Heart by Otis Redding had been perpetually on loop for the first few weeks of his downward spiral, but now hearing it energised him, he wasn’t that guy anymore. The sad sap. Showers were had, beards removed, ears trimmed of unusual hairs coming out of them. He picked up clothes from the launderette and proudly folded them and dispensed them into allotted areas in cupboards around his master bedroom. And then Samuel Stephenson emerged backlit by a shining light like a Christ reborn and stood in front of the mirror finally recognizing himself for the first time in fuck knows how long. He cracked his knuckles, he looked at his old MacBook Pro which was positioned on a desk by the window, the blinds over the windows were now open so the sunshine flooded in like orange squash. He lifted the lid like it was a briefcase, he pressed the ON button.
WELCOME SAM. It hadn’t forgotten him. A small window appeared beneath this friendly message – it said PASSWORD and blankly faced him, awaiting these secret digits before he could proceed into cyberspace, somewhere he’d barely seen for months, possibly years. For the first time since he bade David and Sue a fond farewell – be it hours or days before, Sam had been in such a whirlwind of activity and self-improvement that time had become impossible to keep track of – but for the first time there was a chink in the momentum. Samuel Stephenson’s whirling dervish temporarily stopped whirling and became particularly un-dervishlike. His PASSWORD? What the fuck was his password?
It had been months, possibly years. He hadn’t replied to such a formal welcome in all of that time, and everyone knows that after a while you don’t consciously KNOW your password any more, it just knee-jerks out of you, the muscle memory in your fingers darts to the correct keys and there it is. But just like sometimes your PIN number can simply pop out of your brain and never come back, so Sam’s password appeared to be lost in another time. He stared at the screen for ages, listing in his head his favourite things from back before everything went Pete Tong. Otis. Acqua Di Parma. Clifton. He struggled to remember what else he enjoyed. He used to drink in cocktail bars but he couldn’t remember what his tipple was, and anyway he wouldn’t name his password after a drink, he was the head of a company. He’d only had a handful of meaningful relationships with girls and none of them warranted such an accolade. Sam closed the lid of the computer, deciding to reach a Zen state through meditative breathing, after which he’d sweep open the laptop without thinking and rely on his fingers to just get it right. He breathed in, he breathed out, counting the breaths as he went. This lasted for anything between five minutes and a number of hours, then Samuel Stephenson swept the lid of his laptop and expected his fingers to dance, which they did. DJSS14.
OF COURSE! DJ SS – his facist sounding old DJ monicker from when he used to light up lounges at house parties with his amazing dance records. Then 14 was his lucky number. It had all made perfect sense at the time, and he was in, the lock had been picked. Samuel Stephenson’s muscle memory and his actual memory combined with the decision-making area of his mind, and he looked through his old bookmarks, showing all the places he used to visit. There would always be a trip to the New York Post to see what they were saying about things. He’d check the BBC Weather, he’d look at The Guardian for interesting columns, he’d read The Telegraph for the sport. He had a couple of irreverent football websites that he liked, and as with the whole planet and beyond, before it all went south, Samuel Stephenson was an avid user of Facebook. He enjoyed seeing what his old pals were doing, he liked to share his successes with them. It felt good. He keyed in the URL. The phone rang.
He thought about ignoring it, no one tended to call, normally just his mum. It rang and rang. It stopped and started up again. The colourful beachball that blights so many lives span in the middle of his laptop screen. The phone continued to ring, getting louder and louder until eventually Samuel Stephenson walked from his desk to the other side of the room, he picked it up to find a crackling sound, not quite the garbled wailing of a fax but somewhere in that area. There was a muffled voice speaking in the background but it was drowning in white noise.
“I can’t hear you!” shouted Sam. “Whoever you are, you’re going to have to call back!”
He hung up the phone, the beachball had stopped rotating. The phone rang, again the crackle. Sam returned to his computer, figuring the log-in details for Facebook were probably the same as before. No need for muscle memory this time around. It looked so familiar, though there were probably even more pictures of children and babies now. He flicked through the lives of his various friends. He smiled as he recognised old pals larking around. He went to his own profile page and like a thundercloud suddenly booming overhead, or a fist suddenly flying into your nose, Samuel Stephenson was caught off-guard, winded and his senses heightened, almost as if in the grips of a panic attack. If this were a cartoon his eyes would probably be out on stalks while a siren went off. But there it was, no matter how many times he looked away and then looked back again, it wasn’t going anywhere – a picture of a handsome and clean Samuel Stephenson, spots of silver-grey hair peppering the side of his head, his clothes pristine and well-fitted. He didn’t even look pregnant in a tight shirt. “Great lunch with my beautiful fiancée” read his status update, there was girl in the photo – just his type, hot, a bit exotic. Samuel Stephenson read it over and over again from his bedroom, now dark because the sun had set. He was still looking at his recent status updates, for there were many to get through, when the sun arrived to signal that it was morning.
Samuel Stephenson splashed water onto his face, first delicately, then quite violently. He splashed water all over everything, his hair, his shoulders, most of his body. He should really have considered just having a shower. Images from the night before flashed up in his brain relentlessly – the nonchalant smiles, the nice car, the smart haircuts, the expensive destinations. There had been pictures of Sam having drunken nights out with his old gang, no mention of anything that had happened. His mind was racing, but he’d stopped pinching himself, he’d stopped checking the mirror, he knew who he was. He grabbed a towel and dried himself, he looked around the bedroom, it was still in pretty good nick despite the hours spent flicking through bogus pictures of his life. “Great to see you last night!” said Dan. Dave likes this. FUCKING HELL. He hadn’t seen these guys in donkeys, what were they on about? They must be in on it too. The girl definitely looked hot though. His page was still open, he sat down in front of his laptop. He clicked on MESSAGES at the top left hand corner of the screen, but before he could steady himself to type something, a box appeared at the bottom of his monitor.
“Hey babe, what you up to?”
It was her. She called him “babe” (gross). Sam froze for a second, considering what to write, but before he could figure out that conundrum, words began to just appear, replies from a “Sam Stephenson” who most definitely wasn’t him.
“Thinking of you mainly…” he said. The smooth bastard.
Sam clicked his mouse, nothing happened. He clicked it again. And again. He clicked, harder and harder until he was practically punching the thing with a bleeding fist. He needed to write something, the thundercloud from the night before boomed and crackled, his chest tightened. The house phone starting ringing, and it rang and rang louder and louder but he ignored it, the beachball appeared in the middle of his laptop screen, it span wildly and hypnotically and seemed to be getting bigger, but then like an old television set switching itself off everything transformed into a small microscopic dot of light and disappeared. Sam’s computer screen went blank as if sucked into a vortex. He pressed at the ON button. No luck. Broken. Sam desperately needed to sleep, he duly collapsed onto his bed.
When Sam Stephenson finally woke up he was already marching down a street lit by bright sunlight, clutching his laptop firmly under his arm. His wandering mind had found him on autopilot through two weetabix, one coffee, a shower and a shave. Such was the rarity with which he left his flat that he had wildly overdone the dress code. He’d put on one of his old suits, he’d applied some of the languishing aftershave that had gone untouched for so long. He’d even used some product in his hair, making him look like a very vague approximation of Don Draper. He knew exactly where he was going, and when he got there the dinging sound of a bell marked his arrival at the shop – a shop that hummed with the sound of switched-on computer monitors, but had a strange smell that you wouldn’t normally associate with these places. He made his way to the counter. Behind it was a hub of activity. Men in glasses peering at things, fixing problems like 21st century mechanics, which is kind of what they were.
“What’s the problem Sam?”
“Bloody thing,” he said, tutting to the heavens and placing his MacBook Pro on the counter.
“What’s the problem?”
“Well I’m hoping you’ll be able to make that diagnosis!”
“Let’s take a look at it,” said the man.
“It just kind of stopped, it had been fine, well, I hadn’t used it for a while, after, you know…”
“I remember Sam. How are you getting on?”
“Oh, much much better thanks. I just needed a rest. But it was working fine, I was on Facebook, I wanted to send someone a message and then it just died.”
The man took a look and suggested that Sam leave it with them for a few days, they’d make it right as rain. There was an internet cafe down the road in the meantime. Samuel Stephenson shook the man’s hand out of a force of habit – those business pleasantries can be hard to shift – he then went in search of this other place, which wasn’t remotely hard to find. There were banks of desks, all stretching from the window to the back of the room, they were lined with computers. It was about half full (or half empty depending on how you want to look at it). People of all ages were in there – young guys, a few middle-aged men, women who looked like they probably had kids. There were even a couple of old fogies – what business did they have with this new fangled internet nonsense? Samuel Stephenson approached his second shop counter of the day, this time he was greeted by a pretty girl – if this were a cartoon his heart would have burst from his chest. Instead his palms started sweating and his eyes probably dilated a fraction. She had big green eyes and shoulder length brown hair. He was suited and booted, and he smelled divine. Lady Luck was smiling on Samuel Stephenson that day.
“Alright mate, what can I do you for?”
“Um, a computer? Oh and a coffee… and if you want a coffee…”
“Why thank you kind sir.”
She said that in a Deep South accent. Sam liked that, it showed that she had a good sense of humour. Literally moments later, Samuel Stephenson found himself with a mug of coffee and a computer screen, content but feeling slightly self-conscious on account of the good-looking girl. He wanted to settle in first, to relax into his surroundings before starting on his important research, so Sam casually perused the web for the first time in months, possibly years. He looked for interesting stories. He read a Guardian column about new technology, his heart slowing to a gentle rhythm. That world seemed like it was galaxies away now. At the height of his success, Samuel Stephenson had devoted much of his time to inventing all manner of apps to make people’s lives more simple, yet somehow the whole process had managed to clutter his own life – ideas, ideas, ideas. He was so full of ideas that his filters broke down, he didn’t know a good idea from a bad one and no one would ever tell him THE TRUTH. That’s all he had wanted – someone with the decency to tell him he was wrong. But no one did. Sam was never wrong. Except that he was and he knew it. It bore a hole deep into him and he could feel himself eroding.
“Peter’s my name,” a hand jutted outwards. “Who are you?”
This was unexpected and friendly, and one of a handful of introductions heading Sam’s way on that first day in the internet café. He took a refresher course in the art of conversation, swapping questions, listening for answers. It was like riding a bike. Later he met a guy named Alf who had a really loud voice, he met a lady called Sara who seemed nice, there was a Len and a Norm, it felt like something out of Cheers. These people came here a lot, it transpired. It was their home from home, their office where they could work and socialise. Sam was reminded of how much he missed people and conversations. Even the hot girl from earlier eventually divulged important information about herself, like her name (Rita) and her age (which was 29). But Sam’s chatty distractions hadn’t remotely deterred him from the task in hand – there was a complex mystery to figure out. He logged in. DJSS14. “FINALLY found a venue – JUST IN TIME!” read the status update, presumably referring to the ridiculous wedding that obviously wasn’t happening. 43 Likes – if it was cow shit it would still be steaming.
“Fucking bullshit!” muttered Sam.
He went to update his status.
“What’s bullshit?” asked Rita, suddenly next to him.
He hadn’t noticed her sitting down. Her eyes were greener than he remembered, her brown hair a bit chestnutty, like you get on a horse.
“I’m not going to lie, Rita, I’ve found myself in a strange situation. Something really weird’s going on.”
His tone was dramatic and grave, it suggested that there was one hell of a story on its way. Sam had always been a great speaker when he wanted to be, part of the reason why his company had become so successful was on account of his ability to command a room, to find people who were invested in whatever journey he was embarking on. Slowly, ears around the internet café began to prick up, chairs shuffled in different directions, and before long Samuel Stephenson wasn’t just explaining his curious plight to the large green eyes of beautiful Rita, he had Alf in attendance, and Pete, Sara, Len, Norm. A handful of others. It was like one of his legendary Monday Morning Meetings, only this wasn’t a Monday nor probably a morning, nor really a meeting. Sam didn’t really have any idea what day it was.
“That is FUCKING NUTS!” exclaimed Alf.
“He’s the spit of you – very gorgeous!” said Rita.
“Who’s the chick?” wondered Peter.
The chick, as it turns out, was called Andie. Short for Andrea.
“OH MATE, you’ve got to SAY SOMETHING!” insisted Alf, quite correctly.
Chattering voices discussed what Sam’s next move should be. It was obviously a big joke, he should just call them on it, prod a stick between the spokes of this ridiculous charade. He went to type, but before he could formulate his thoughts the fire alarm went off. Loud and urgent. Perhaps a stove had been on or some toast had caught fire, but the alarm shrieked and wailed like death was imminent, strong authoritative voices urged everyone to leave the café immediately. It became cacophonous and unbearable for Sam, who was never great with sudden loud noises anyway. He could feel his chest tightening, the place felt like it was in a state of chaos. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was outside, he had a cigarette on the go. He was smoking one of Rita’s Camel Lights. He thought about making some kind of arch quip linking their smoking with the fire alarm, but his brain was struggling to find an adequate one-liner.
“You should go after this girl,” said Rita. “Track her down and get to the bottom of everything.”
“Chercher la Femme,” mused Sam, attempting to sound sexy.
“Yeah, that’s the one. OR you could just get in touch with some old mates?”
The second idea seemed a lot less daunting. And so it was that Samuel Stephenson spent the next few hours or days repeatedly redialing numbers, patiently waiting for someone to answer. He tried his old business partner Dan, he tried Dave. Phones rang and rang, they kept on ringing. Sam ate sandwiches, he drank drinks, he smoked from a packet of Camel Lights he’d picked up on the way home. But nothing. No answer, no voicemail, just the eternal ring-ringing sound that eventually started to echo around his head even when he wasn’t on the phone. After anything between a few hours and a few days, Sam stopped phoning. He took his suit off and went to bed to get some sleep. He’d come up with a Plan B in the morning, or even the morning after the next morning. As he slept, he slept the sleep of many thousand sleeps. All the while somewhere in cyberspace Sam and his glowing bride-to-be Andie had splashed out on a beautiful dress – a vision of lace and ivory and all kinds of other wondrous details to coo over. They had a caterer promising a delicious summer barbecue for the guests, they were praying for sunshine, occasionally losing sleep at the thought of rain. Both sets of parents, Richard and Debbie and David and Sue, had been enjoying getting to know one another – it was nice for them to make new friends at their age. Tradition may have dictated that Richard and Debbie would be splashing out on their daughter’s big day, but Sam was having none of it. He’d insisted on contributing a hefty portion himself, what with the business doing so well. Richard and Debbie loved their son-in-law to be, and not just for the generous financial gestures. They loved Samuel Stephenson because he was selfless, strong and stable, and because he’d provide a great life for their only daughter.
Some days later Samuel Stephenson did a wee then washed his hands diligently. He smiled at himself in the mirror, it was nice to see a reflection that wasn’t coated in shame and sadness. He used the hand dryer for all of about ten seconds, just enough to transform the dampness on his hands into little beads of water all traveling in different directions. He returned to his seat. Rita gave him a thumbs up, Alf shouted his hello, Norm went for a fist bump and was duly rewarded with exactly that. Sam’s issues had become everyone’s problem, it had been days now, or possibly weeks. It could have been months. Nothing he did worked. His laptop appeared to have died a death, never to be seen again. No word from the futuristic mechanics at the shop down the road. It was frustrating, but Sam was happy at the café, it got him out and about.
He’d long since realised that something much bigger than him was afoot, he couldn’t get onto Facebook without the universe caving in on him somehow. There had been the occasion with the fire alarm, another time his hands became so cramped and swollen that he couldn’t type, the endless ringing of the phone, the weak voice at the end that he couldn’t decipher, it didn’t mean anything to him – it wasn’t familiar, it sounded frail and uneasy, a little bit too concerned for him. One afternoon found Sam attempting to send a message to Andie when a bike literally crashed into the café window. Of course, then the fucking beachball appeared, that old thing that would never shift. He would be crippled by panic attacks, sometimes his clothes started to smell or his hair began to grease. He washed as much as he could but he had bigger fish to fry.
They worked around the clock in the café, slowly more intertwined in one another’s lives and united in each other’s causes, all at times confused for their reasons for being there – a montage of long evenings, clicking buttons and the never-ending glare of a screen began to mark their days. With an inflated sense of his old self returning, Samuel Stephenson was starting to feel bullet-proof again because he had friends and they understood him. He decided to go after his old life, to visit his old haunts, to reconnect with his old friends and colleagues – not over the phone, not in the virtual world of social networking which was so stilted and impossible for him to penetrate as if somehow stuck in time. He was going to stand in front of them proudly and declare himself back in the world. Perhaps not in such a grand manner. So it was that Sam arranged everything neatly on his bed. An ironed shirt, some trousers and shoes selected by Rita, he combed his hair, he applied some aftershave. He stood in front of the mirror for a while having a conversation, a pep talk, in his own head. He was telling himself not to worry, to be fearless again, everything that had happened before wouldn’t happen again. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them he had a couple of bank notes and he handed them to the man behind the glass booth. A return ticket to London. He was coming back that day, he had a plastic bag in his hand and in it was a Sainsburys sandwich and a carton of Ribena Light. Hardly the fine dining he was used to from his time at the top, but all pretty tasty nonetheless. He took his seat, he arranged his things into an order that made him feel comfortable, he rested his head back on the tartan chair and Sam drifted into a slumber. He awoke to find himself emerging from a tube station that had once been so familiar but now seemed like a fading memory, warped from the changes and upgrades that had taken place since he stopped his daily commute. He could see the ghost of himself striding to the office with a man-bag and a purpose, on autopilot through the maze-like streets around Soho, often yapping into his phone to make every second of his day count. But now he wandered more tentatively, nothing urgent pending, breathing deeply, taking everything in like he was seeing it all for the very first time. The noises and the relative chaos had been nothing more than a backing track in the past were now intoxicating and slightly overwhelming. He may have been on the up and up and feeling more confident than he had been in years, but there was a knot in Samuel Stephenson’s stomach, and he was frightened.
He headed for his old office, which was on the fourth floor of a modest tower block that homed numerous other businesses and a place of study that was something to do with UCL. There had always been a diverse mix of people spinning in through the rotating doors, from tech nerds to preening media types, then a few wispy old professors who looked like they belonged in a completely different century. Sam had been a popular figure. He stood outside looking up the side of the building, which once seemed dazzling and slightly golden but had been dulled and muffled by time and quite probably from actual erosion too. In his mind nothing had ever felt this dusty and unusual. This had once been his home, now he was a stranger in a foreign land, though the ghosts from his past were all around him – his colleagues, his parents, his friends. They’d all been with him here. On his journey to the office he’d seen old buildings that used to be pubs of different names, and restaurants that had changed hands and were now something completely different. He’d stood outside the building many times over the years, sometimes with a cigarette on the go while he angsted over a business conundrum, sometimes just enjoying a bit of sunshine. He liked standing outside, he associated it with nice things, so he stood there for a while, long enough for the security guy behind the desk to get agitated. Samuel Stephenson didn’t recognize him.
“Can I help you mate?”
“Oh yes, sorry, I used to run the company on the fourth floor. I’m Sam Stephenson.”
The man looked at him blankly. If the conversation was going to flow, Sam was going to need to take the lead on it.
“I used to run Chronicle Tech, can I go up?”
“Fourth floor’s Phase Four mate, not Chronicle whatever.”
Phase Four was a thriving digital agency mostly made up of ambitious 20somethings dressed top to bottom in trendy outfits from Topshop. Samuel Stephenson had missed the dress code by a country mile with his outdated stabs at staying fashionable. He studied the unfamiliar security guard, who appeared to be manning the main door and the main reception, and his mind whirred as he searched on his toes for reasons to go up there. He just wanted to see it, to see if it looked the same, someone up there might recognize him and be able to point him in the right direction. Everything smelled different, the walls seemed thicker like there had been a thousand paint jobs since he last visited.
“You need an appointment mate, you can’t just go up.”
“I’ve got an appointment,” decided Sam, lying. “With Rob.”
There was always a Rob in these kinds of places. From the beginning of time and probably to the end there will always be a Rob in the office. And so it was that Samuel Stephenson found himself in a completely see-through lift, watching people filter into an expensive sandwich shop outside as he pushed a Number 4 and slowly ascended to his old office. His heart was racing, his chest slightly tightening. No one’s ever truly comfortable visiting forgotten scenes of great successes, especially if they doubled up as the scene of your worst disasters too. The journey upwards was no different to how it had always been, it was a reassuringly slow lift, there would be no sudden jolts. In Phase Four, the day was zipping along with its usual bustle. Rob Baker, the intern of two months and counting, had barely had time to wolf down a breakfast and the prospect of lunch was fast dwindling. Fresh from university, he was unpaid, often ignored, and sometimes overwhelmed. He had great ideas and potential, but Rob Baker was a bit too quiet for his own good, hence he was lumbered with running around delivering post, or booking boardrooms or hotel rooms, or plane journeys. He really wanted to get involved, to prove his worth, his phone barely seemed to ring and he was never invited to the big meetings. So when his phone did ring, when he was told of a Sam Stephenson waiting to see him, Rob Baker felt genuinely excited. He was being visited, someone somewhere had wanted to visit Rob Baker at Phase Four. He’d arrived.
He got up from his desk and walked with a great sense of purpose to reception. He strode past the kitchen where a couple of the execs were talking loudly at one another and ignoring him as usual, he zipped past a number of alcoves and nooks which had been decorated like children’s playrooms but were used to discuss important business. Rob Baker eventually arrived at the reception desk to find a man lurking awkwardly next to a sofa. He introduced himself as Samuel Stephenson, he looked weird. Rob hadn’t seen a frightened face in the office since he started there, everyone was completely self-assured and there wasn’t a soul over 30. Samuel certainly didn’t look like a digital agency type. He had grey hair, he was trembling and his trousers were ill-fitting like they were bought a decade ago, he was too untidy. Rob felt immediately uncomfortable, the man in front of him absolutely stank of aftershave and their were hints of body odour creeping through the mist, he was peering all over the office as if he was looking for something.
“I used to run Chronicle Tech,” said Sam. Rob had never heard of it. “I wonder if there’s anyone here left over from Chronicle Tech, my friend Dan might be here, Dan used to work in one of the bigger offices at the back, he might be here, or do you know where Chronicle Tech is? It must have moved, it could have got a bigger office, it was a very successful company Chronicle Tech, I was the director, I founded it, it was made from nothing. Is Dan here, where’s Dan? I just need to find someone from when it was Chronicle Tech because I’m not getting married, but the computer says I’m getting married, I don’t want to get married, well I do, but I can’t because I don’t know her…”
Rob Baker didn’t know what to say. He shot worrying glances to the girl at reception who called downstairs. Sam could feel his chest tightening, he felt frightened as he often felt frightened, and a great big thundercloud crackled and boomed above him, his mind was racing, he knew who he was. And before long Sam Stephenson was reacquainted with the old security guard from a little while earlier. The security guard told Rob Baker that Samuel Stephenson had said he was his dad. Rob looked disappointed. Sam could see the old office disappearing as people filtered in and out of the sandwich shop across the road, he heard voices talking and arrangements being made. He knew who he was. He may have been saying it out loud. Car doors shut, engines switched on. Outside the car window the streets of London morphed into less frantic roads with occasional shops flanking each side, then eventually these turned into fields and you could hear birds singing. Sam was completely silent, and eventually he closed his eyes.
When he opened them, Samuel Stephenson was sitting by a rain-spattered window spooning limp bits of cabbage and old lumpy mashed potato into his mouth – he’d occasionally spruce up his fork with a piece of dry chicken caked in Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup. There were posters all over the walls, describing how to stop smoking, or what symptoms to look out for with the flu or some other such illnesses. On a table across the room from his a 29-year-old girl with big beautiful green eyes laughed hysterically and occasionally fell completely silent as she stroked and hugged her visitors, and in another corner a man with a blisteringly loud voice kept barking random words in anger.
“So how have you been Sam?” asked Andie, smiling, her eyes welling up as they always did when she saw her husband like this. “I understand if you don’t want to talk, I tried calling.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said urgently not looking at anyone in particular. “I just needed a lie down, but for ages… I think I’m ready to get back out there.”