Ben Paynter

It Hasn’t Started Yet

05:16. He wakes abnormally. There’s no light. His name is Martin Purchance. There is light: a green glow from his alarm-clock. It announces a time: 5:16.
          He doesn’t need to wake yet. Not until 7:00.

06:55. Why has he woken now? One reason: the article deadline, today at 10:00. He thinks about it.
          The piece is all written, excepting the start and end bits, which are always last. More editing is required. One or two facts: about the lobby decor, especially, and the former career of that informant . . . Danny . . . Mc . . . Gerald McAdam. Quite a lot. But not impossible. Arnie just tight on him. He feels blue. Arnie is an arse-hole. Deadlines are arse-holes. The article’s OK. Brita Palmer has a five-bed house and a pool and drives a Porsche, just for being blonde and titsome and using that to sell duplexes. Brita Palmer. There are options. He ought to get more sleep.
          He closes his eyes and soon is having anxiety dreams, in which an old acquaintance is carrying fruit naked and he has to sit on a dog that has bitten his hand.

06:55. His alarm rings. It annoys him into action. He lies back, rubs his eyes, stretches his arms, doing a stretch to stir himself.

07:39. Fuck. It’s 7:39. Fucking hell. He’s overslept. Idiot. The article, the deadline. Fuck.
          He hauls himself out of bed. He makes coffee, a bowl of cornflakes. No time to waste. He gets day clothes, spritzes himself with the shower, dries, combs his hair, dresses, gets the coffee and cornflakes and goes to his desk.
          The Apple Mac comes into being with the angelic grace of prayed-for sunshine. He blesses it – or – it calms him, and that feels like a blessing. Bringing up the document, he checks the time, and sees that he has one hour and forty-five minutes to submit.

09:51. He submits.

10:46. He notes the time and is surprised at the ‘loss’ of an hour. He berates himself only half-heartedly. Maybe he was indulging himself in what could almost certainly be categorised as trivia of the most excellently inane variety, but he has earned an indulgence with his hard work and anyway, maybe he could say, albeit impishly, it had at least been Grade A matter (celebrity lives, for example, that everyone, literally everyone follows). But, certainly it’s beside the point. It’s ten-to-eleven and he hasn’t yet done anything but sit at his desk and type, practically. Fresh air and food and coffee would be beneficial or even healthy. Movement.
          He makes his second coffee. Mulls over the article. Imagines Arnie’s response (surprised pleasure). Remembers a phone bill that has to be settled. Thinks of the next job: an interview with a web entrepreneur. Speciality: online dating. Offices in the suburbs somewhere west. Appointment this afternoon at probably 2:00 PM.
          In the intervening time he must write emails to the accountant and electrician, as well as try again with the Press Office of the petrol people. He also needs to buy milk, butter and vegetables but can do that last, in the evening.

12:16. Discovers that the interview isn’t scheduled until 4:00. Is pleased to have extra time, though the food-shopping is jeopardised.

12:25. Arnie calls. Mart is chirpy. Arnie is not. Their dialogue is (approximately) as follows:
Arnie: ‘You’ve missed the point. This isn’t to brief. I can’t use it. You have to rewrite.’
Martin: ‘What’s not to brief about it?’
Arnie: ‘We’re linking in to Russia. Russia is the keyword. It’s too vague in your piece. It’s more focussed on the MI5, the hotel, the collusion. There’s not enough Russia. You’ve got to fix it.’
Martin: ‘I mention Russia every paragraph. There’s a consistent referring back to Russia. The story isn’t set in Russia, so you have to accept some . . . drift off-topic. It’s variety, Arnie, it’s diversity. It’s not off-brief.’
Arnie: ‘Hey, hey, wait a fucking minute. Who’s the fucking editor here? If I tell you it’s not to brief, then it’s not to fucking brief. You, if you want to fucking keep your job, go and fucking change it. Bring it in line, Mart; send it to me by . . . half one. Ciao.’
End of conversation.
          Fuck. Fuckity fuck. Martin panics. He feels something he’s been feeling too often recently: a tightening about the heart, a weight on the lungs, a tensing across his scalp. He can feel hairs greying. He’s seen the research that suggests that stress leads to critical illness and shortens life. He’s seen all that stuff. What good is it now. He has to get this article straightened, within an hour, and then get his act together for the interview. Fuck that. Arnie’s a prick.

12:37. Email from Arnie saying: ‘More detail KGB intentions.’
          Martin is still panicking. What the fuck were the KGB’s “intentions”? Who the fuck actually knows? It’s all hypothesis. Can he use hypothesis like that? He has to: there’s no other choice at this stage, it’s emergency repairs. All he has to do is reflect calmly on all he’s learned about the KGB and cobble together some semblance of insight into their motives. Simple as that. In forty minutes.

13:29. Emails Arnie to ask for ten minutes more.

13:38. Submits.
          Realising he has a little spare time – perhaps twenty minutes – before having to prepare the interview, he makes another coffee and toasts some bread and scrolls facebook while he waits. Amnesty is drawing attention to the plight of imprisoned journalists in Egypt (how apt! he thinks). They’re being held on charges of co-operation with a banned political group – that only a few months ago won general elections. The charge is trumped. Who’d report in Egypt now? Also his friend had written an article on a weights regime, for GQ. Also a friend had shared pictures of her toddler. Also a friend was running a marathon. Also he could try online dating (how apt, again!) because there were lots of desperate women around . . . just ads.
The coffee is burnt.

15:15. He leaves for the address stored on his iPhone but roughly in the environ of Acton Town. It ought take half-an-hour to get there. Pushing the schedule, a bit, but he had to rehearse the questions.

15:24. The train arrives.
          He takes a free seat. There’s a folded newspaper next to him and he grabs it. He peruses the articles of the first few pages. Most of the stories he’s already read about, but still reads them in their slightly new telling. Militant separatists cause trouble in the East; there’s threat of war; the West issues statements. A celebrity couple are divorcing; there’s tens of millions of dollars at stake. A footballer is aggrieved at being subbed. A new make of bus gets hot in hot weather. An old man is retiring from TV-presenting. A dog mauls a woman. A boy sails single-handed to America to raise money for a cancer charity. A foreign mafia is illegally dumping waste. These are the topics he has time to peruse before reaching his stop.

15:55. He greets the receptionist at Concept One Thinkspace.

16:03. Harris Tennyson greets him and shows him into the cafeteria. It’s a high and wide-open space with a key contrast between the bare-concrete architecture and the colourful, intimately-arranged furnishing. They seat themselves on a sofa and instantly a waiter, clad semi-casually in white and black, comes to take their orders.
          Tennyson wears his blue suit slouchily. He is tall and healthy-looking; the sort that Martin associates with sailing; this also because of his backswept blonde hair. He is genial but abrupt. They exchange small-talk until the black coffee (Tennyson) and expresso and sparkling water (Purchance) arrive. Then the interview gets underway.
          Martin gathers the information he needs for his article. He knows already, in a general sense, what Tryst is about: using social media to facilitate sexual encounters. It’s emphasis is on sex, less so on ‘lasting relationships’; it focusses on looks and appetite. It’s special-weapon is an image-recognition feature that is able to use the photo of a real person to scan the internet, find identical images and locate that person’s contact information; the idea being that you see, snap, and later on message. Beyond the spin, though, he knows little.
          Tennyson explains that Tryst has the potential to specialise in that element of ‘partner-seeking’ that is image-based. He says that we all have a ‘type’: certain physiques gain our attention much more easily than others. Some men like larger ladies, for example, he says, whilst some men prefer petites. Tryst will establish itself as the expert in tracking down those people whose looks you best like. He cites a ‘commonly known fact’ that we ‘choose our partner’ partly according to whether they look like us or not (the more they do, the more likely a relationship). He believes that ‘other services’ focus too much on words, on descriptions, on chatter, and too little on image. Tryst will reverse that.
          Tennyson is confident that the online-dating business is still in its early stages and will be ‘ten, twenty times bigger’ in the near future. There’s ‘a lot of money to be made’ in it. Statistics back him up: five out of nine relationships, supposedly, now form initially over the internet, and this will only increase; year-on-year, millions of new users try out dating sites. Tryst is on the cutting-edge of satisfying users’ desires, sating their demands, and continues to develop technologies. Tennyson is confident that the company will soon have hundreds of millions of clients.
          They talk gadgets a while. Tryst is orienting its tech development toward tablet devices, particularly Apple ones. Ipads, iphones, etc. ‘Constant connectivity’ is a phrase he repeats.

17:09. The interview ends. Tennyson pretends to apologise for having to get home to his family. Martin doesn’t care: they’ve run out of topics, pretty much, anyway, and his voice is sore. His head is moreover full of facts and statements.

17:12. He reads a message on his phone, from Arnie. Reads: ‘Went with first anyway. Space issues. Call in tomorrow at 6 for assignment.’
          Martin feels angry. He desires another coffee. He desires enough coffee to make him so strong that he could pull down the whole concrete building by its pillars; something violent like that. That chest-cramp returns, and the radioactive feeling of hairs whitening. He walks quickly out of the building and is modestly placated by the air that is cool and gentle, en route to the station; entering the station, he is deprived of that sop, and is instead hurled into rush-hour.

17:20. The train arrives. It already looks full. When the doors slide open, a small number of passengers spill out. He is one of the gang that charges in to replace them, two-fold. He is shunted down the isle into the armpit of a besuited woman; closed off behind by a man with plentiful dreads who glowers at him every time he looks in his direction. The atmosphere is a mix of warmed stale meat pie and the unwashed t-shirt of an online gamer.
          The train is subjected to a delay after one stop – but he secures himself a seat. Luckily he’s brought his Kindle – for just such scenarios. He’s reading a thriller by an American writer who must be male but whose name is ambiguous although tough-sounding – M. T. Bellow – and who he’s never read before and chose merely because it popped up on Amazon. He hasn’t had time to read far into it – admitted, he prefers to watch a film when he’s tired – but has got the gist already: a woman has been sentenced to death (in the States) for the murder of her husband; they were both in military special forces and met in Afghanistan; except the body of her husband was never found; and it’s rumoured that her husband knew things the government didn’t want out, and would have to go into hiding, and possibly try to contact the ‘good’ people in Washington; and now is seems that the woman is plotting to break out, to try and rescue him. The plot is maniacally twisted but moves at a pace and he’s glad to have distraction. Other passengers have their noses sunk in newspapers, as though they are to the mind what the sea is to burned feet. Eventually the train labours on.

18:13. He enters the supermarket. There are long queues at the tills and he almost aborts. He grits his teeth and hunts down the stuff he needs. Milk is to hand. Butter also. Vegetables are harder: he is always slightly bemused at their prospect, unsure what exactly it is that each does, what its individual virtues, outside of a curry-pot. Tomato? Sliced raw with cheese? This type looks too bland for that. How does a tomato come to be that delicious sauce used on pasta? He doesn’t know. Zucchini? What can you do with that – can you just fry it? What then do you eat it with? On bread? With what? Cheese? He picks up a few of the classics: tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, potatoes, garlic and onions; without having a clear plan for them. It’s just good to have them in the fridge. He also buys bread, peanut-butter, crisps, guacamole and hand sanitiser.

18:58. Fits his key into the lock of his flat door.
          He deposits the shopping-bags near the fridge, removes his shoes and coat, gets a glass of water and then lies on the sofa. A valedictory slip of daylight fingers the cushion-frill and he squints out the window, feeling pretty tired.

19:07. Making tea, he watches television. The news, precisely. Stories he read about earlier are updated. There’s a new story about a flood in the north which is threatening a whole town and might knock out power. He makes peanut-butter toast.

19:31. He notices an incoming email. It’s got his bank’s name on it. He reads it. He’s apparently been robbed of a thousand pounds, through internet fraud. He laughs. He logs into on-line banking and almost chokes – actually – when he sees the numbers of his account.
          Holy fuck, he repeats, sometimes ragingly, sometimes worriedly. The old tight heart effect is back. His throat also feels strangulated, his vision narrowed, and an excess of adrenaline gives him the urge to hit something, so he bites the sofa cushion.
          He calls the bank and they confirm the theft but – here’s a boon – reassure him that he’s insured and that he’ll be reimbursed, by and large. That’s all he gets out of them. He swears, washes the things in the kitchen sink, showers, listens to loud music, sits and thinks, then uses his computer to watch porn and masturbate. When he comes he says, ‘Holy fuck’. Then he cleans up.

21:44. He returns to his computer with the intention of looking for free comedy shows to watch, however, in scanning the sites, he’s distracted by the usual news feeds of facebook and cheap news. The journalists in Egypt have been denied bail and are paraded in handcuffs. Rita Carter is listening to The XX. Someone posts a picture of a puppy.

22:35. An email appears. ‘Arnie’. He writes: ‘Martin, sorry to be a pain in the arse, we need to bring forward that interview by a day. File it by 4 tomorrow afternoon please. Ta. Sorry again.’
          Martin thinks: But I’m visiting the theatre in Southend tomorrow. He knows that. The fucker!
          He gets up, stands tall, stretches: his arms straight up, then out, his legs apart. He screams:
          ‘You fuckers of the world! You fuckers! Just fucking listen to me! I’m not having it! I’m not your fucking slave! You can’t fucking make me do it! Fuck you! Stick it up your fucking arse! Burn in hell you bastards!’
          He addresses the computer, its screen showing the email, more moderately:
          ‘You can go fuck yourself, you arsehole. Fuck your arse.’
          He thinks – with some surprise at the spontaneity – of Harris Tennyson. He says:
          ‘You can go die, you stuck-up fuck.’

22:52. Feeling better, but only relatively, he performs ablutions in the bathroom.

23:15. He returns to reading Run For Him, having got into bed, but, after only two pages, decides it’s a waste of time and shuts the device. Lying there with no object of his attention other than the ceiling, ceding that freedom to his mind, he realises that it’s groaning under a strain of concerns. His head actually seems to hurt.

23:25. With a thought akin to, ‘What’s the point?’, he reaches to switch off the lamp.

23:25. Suddenly two altogether new questions are posed, one after the other: first, ‘What the fuck was that?’, second, ‘Did I just imagine that with the intended extinction of light and collateral clicking-noise of the switch, there coincided a smashing noise from the direction of my livingroom?’. (This incredibly fast).

23:25. He recalls light to the room.
          For an extremely fleet instant he imagines that a hideous monster, with rankly matted black fur and suppurating face-wounds, claws and horns, and pitch eyes will meet him when he turns towards the door. His heart doesn’t even have time to leap, though: he sees that all is as he left it, no monster is there, it’s merely his primitive mind joking.
          Feeling some timidity, nevertheless, he rises, determined to ascertain the cause of the sound, if there was one at all.
          He walks into the hall, turns on the light. Nothing. He walks into the livingroom, turns on the light.
          Holy fuck.
          A black object is jumping about on the floor. A trail of black leads to the window. The window is part-smashed. Holy fuck! Only now registering it properly – the creature writhing on his living room floor – he leaps backwards, slamming the door shut, too.
          The ‘bang’ is like a judge’s gavel, dispersing doubt in his mind. There is absolutely no doubt: his flat, his flat, of all the fucking flats in the whole world, has just been visited by an unwelcome, alien creature, most probably a bird, which is now flapping around on his floor, spreading blood and stuff…
          His recounting of the facts to himself is drowned out by a new chorus of mental rage at the fact that this should have happened to him in the first place, at this time of night, that he should ever be expected to put up with this bullshit.
          Fetching oven-mitts and several other cloths, he dares to open the door. The black thing, which had been taking a rest, resumes its violent fit. A wing of some kind slices the air ineffectually. A limb of some sort lags brokenly behind the black body. The pointed beak of a head, presumably, pokes out. There’s a shockingly loud (so it seems to him, all on tenter-hooks) thumping-sound with each movement.
          He nears it. It’s a kind of bird but what he doesn’t know. A bat, even? The idea of picking it up makes him nearly sick so he forces himself to do it rapidly. Clumsily, too: in snatching up the thing, throwing cloths on it to obscure it first, he hears a cracking noise. The thing under the cloths is surprisingly squirmy. The beak, probably, jabs his thumb.
          Now what the hell does he do. All time seems to have stopped, as he stands there in the centre of the livingroom with the creature straining against his hands’ grip.
          A television-show from his childhood recurs to him. In it, a family take an injured bird to a vet. He knows he should do this. But the thing is persistently jabbing his thumb and he doesn’t like it one bit. So, hoping that no celestial equivalent of the television-crew is observing, he strides to the window and opens it. He tosses the thing in the cloths out. He slams the window shut (of course the sound of night carries on through the smashed hole). He supposes that the thing has tumbled fatally to the ground far below; he doesn’t actually want to look. But at the same instant as he slams the window and envisages the fateful fall and shivers as though shocked with electricity, he hears the combination of a madman’s deep laugh and a murdered girl’s scream. He turns away from the window in time to see the black blood evaporating, smoking, leaving no trace.
          He runs from the room, slamming the door again behind him; runs into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him; scurries under his bedsheets; and lies there in the artificial light, his eyes glued to the doorhandle.

Some short time after: A smash again.
          Holy fuck. Martin Perchance is really awake now. Martin Perchance is more aware than he’s ever been since he was excreted into this world. A baritone laughing again, unhinged. Holy fuck. Time to start again. Time itself has just melted down and everything that has gone before comes to nothing.
          This guy’s about to find out how it really is.


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