He wanted a new shirt for work. Just so he could feel fresher for a couple of weeks. Was that too much to ask? He also wanted a pair of slippers, but didn’t want to wait until Christmas to receive some.
It was a cold, black morning and he was ready. He liked to get ready quickly, so he’d have a good fifteen minutes to relax before he set off. But he hadn’t slept well. He wanted to be able to sleep whenever he wanted to, just like everyone else seemed to do whenever they wanted to. He’d slept three hours that night. He felt awful, wired, but was getting used to it. 6.20. Time to leave. He had his eyes shut all the way to the front door, saving his energy.
Work went okay. Same pleasures, same frustrations with every shift. He’d find something better really soon. He spoke to people in his job. He spoke to old friends, strangers and his colleagues all day long. Sometimes this annoyed him, he thought, walking back to his aunt’s. He wanted to learn to drive again, but didn’t really like cars.
He wanted people to ask him questions about himself when he asked them questions about themselves. He wanted people in his town to take notice of him, and not consider him an oddball. But, in a way, he wanted to be considered an oddball more than he did a regular person. The conversations he wanted to be included in were about football and drugs. Topics he felt he had authority in. He was interested in none of the other conversations that came up at work. And he wanted a new shirt, damn it. The shirt he was wearing was as old as his job.
They both looked at someone standing outside. There were lots of people around. Some he knew, some he didn’t. The fire was roaring. All against the wall were more books. Choked together in bookcases.
Pouring wine into a glass, he thought of the house he might one day own. He wanted a nice, big bookcase in it, so he could justify holding on to his own books all his years. He wanted people to visit his house and look at them, and for those books to inspire further elegant conversations. And he wanted to write his own books, yes, and put them on the same shelves. His friend laughed a lot. She was rich, people said. He listened to his rich friend talking about social inequality.
At the end of the party, he entered his flat alone. He fell straight into bed, and deep into thought. He wanted people to think he was middle class, so he felt like he’d improved upon the conditions in which he was born. But, on the other hand, he wanted people to think he was working class, so he could gain respect in certain situations.
He wanted the people he grew up with to do well for themselves, so he could continue to reflect positively on his childhood. He also wanted them to do well for themselves so he couldn’t feel guilty when sharing good news with them. And he wanted them to stand up to people who weren’t used to being challenged. He missed home. He wanted to go back in time to the summers when he was seventeen and eighteen. He longed for those days.
He recalled an old man he used to work with. The old man had always lived in his small town and had been pushing trolleys for twenty years. The old man had never been married, kept himself to himself and was never seen at the pub, unlike so many others his age. The old man was the kind of guy who could go his entire life without saying a word to anyone and be just as content and bitter as the next old man. The old man definitely gave that impression, but was nice and approachable all the same. Very occasionally, the old man would tell people a story or two that made them feel even more sorry for him, as he stumbled over his words and avoided eye contact in a kind of instinctive way. The old man owned a little dog that he would walk a few times a day, going up to the castle, around the woods, or down the main street, depending on which day of the week. Like clockwork. People could see the old man muttering things to his little dog, having conversations with it, but they weren’t even good conversations, just about the weather and stuff, which somehow made it seem even more tragic. The little dog was the old man’s only friend, but he appeared happy enough with this arrangement. The old man had everything he needed. He wasn’t a freak, either, just a quiet, lonely guy who had values and never asked any questions. Absolutely nothing twisted about him whatsoever. The old man’s little dog became ill and died, and the old man went on compassionate leave from work. Nobody would see the old man around town like always, as the only reason the old man had been out there anyway was to walk his little dog. Everyone was sad thinking about it. The old man came back to work as soon as he said he would. People started to greet the old man in passing, perhaps trying to make him feel better as nobody would have ever done that before, and the old man would smile politely back. The old man got a new little dog just like his previous one a few weeks afterwards.
It was very late. He rose from the bed and rubbed his eyes. Stretching, he picked up a glass from his desk. Then went to the bathroom.
He put down the newspaper. Economy’s bad, people were saying. He’d read all the sport, news and opinions, even the obituaries, before shutting the window. It was starting to cool outside. Little flies were trying to creep in. Next to his wallet and keys on the desk were some train tickets. He looked at them, then turned off the light.
The walk to his friend’s place was long. He’d forgotten how long. Following the path through the park and heading left through town, the journey took about forty-five minutes. Daylight was fading and there was a lot of traffic. A lot of people out and about, too. Sirens.
Along the way, he’d been worrying about his future. He knew that above any other profession, he wanted to be considered a writer. He wanted to become a playwright, or something, and try to be in the right place at the right time, but he knew it could be a wasted effort. He could give up on a career and write creatively all the time on little income, but he knew he wouldn’t really enjoy the relative poverty. He wanted someone to discover his writing and catapult him into the literary world. He had ideas. He could much better express himself in written rather than spoken words, yet his writing tried to capture how he intended to discuss things in speech. He wanted to be in a job where the prospect of travel was always possible. He wanted to travel forever as that’s how he learnt most. He wanted to visit each continent by the time he turned thirty, just because he’d had that idea in his head a long time. He wanted to live in the USA for a few years, too. Maybe he could own his own property in somewhere like Oregon. Walk around in boots, drive a pick-up truck and own a large dog, he thought. Or maybe he could rent an apartment in San Francisco and work 9-5 in Silicon Valley. Right then, he wanted both these lifestyles. He also wanted to live in London, so he felt like he was furthering himself. Anyone who achieves their potential in this country lives there, he thought. And he wanted to spend a lot of his life in the Lake District, rowing on the lake in a village he visited when he was younger, or sitting atop a mountain with a flask of tea, alone. He was raised to believe these things were possible, if he worked hard enough. And he felt like he had.
His friend was talking about this sort of thing, too. Twisting a cigarette butt into a saucer, his friend offered him a drink. He accepted. Then his friend started talking about music. The room they were talking in was a mess. Plant pots sat on dinner plates on the windowsill next to stacks of CDs and newspapers. The light bulb hung, uncovered by a shade, from a cord attached to the ceiling. The place was covered with dust.
He liked the feeling of living among an artistic, bohemian community. But he liked more the thought that he’d moved on from that. Now, he wanted to be in the presence of people who were professionally ambitious.
His friend didn’t think about his future as much as he did. He’d made this observation before, but it seemed more striking now. It represented a big difference between them now as people. A few hours later, it was time to leave. He heard someone playing an acoustic guitar as he emerged on to the footpath outside his friend’s flat. The sound of it inevitably faded as he walked away. On the journey home, it occurred to him that he wanted to be with his girlfriend for the rest of his life.
When he’d finished washing and drying the dishes from breakfast, he sat down on the sofa and flicked through the TV channels. He experienced a heightened sensation of time passing as he did this. Then he heard something. It sounded like something being powered, like the fridge or the dishwasher. But it was just house sounds.
He settled on some property show, and then started to itch. He scratched and changed his position, but the itch refused to go away. He tried not to think about it, but it couldn’t be ignored. The itch spread from the small of his back to somewhere between his shoulder blades, and then around his neck. Was it his clothes? He’d showered that morning, and pretty regularly all that week. Maybe showering too much was the problem, he wondered. Or perhaps his body wasn’t used to his mother’s detergent. It could be that.
The phone rang again the following Tuesday morning. The same person he’d spoken to before was confirming where the job centre was located, and what time he’d have to be there. He nodded as he wrote down the details on the back of an old birthday card.
At the job centre, he was given a slip of paper and shown the waiting area. He took a seat on one of the blue cushioned chairs and picked up an old magazine, but didn’t read it. He just held it on his lap and fingered its pages as he waited for his name to be called. The place was filling up with people, and the carpet was becoming soiled with the slushy dirt they’d brought in from outside. He tried to think about what he was going to say.
He wanted a job he loved doing, so people he knew in high-paid but uninspiring jobs would look up to him. Then again, he wanted a high-paid job that would earn him the respect of the ambitious people he knew who were struggling in low-paid but exciting jobs. He wanted to believe that his ambition would eventually make the things he wanted to happen, happen. He wanted to commute to work alongside others so he could feel that sense of purpose. He wanted to become a farmer and live the simple life, but he knew full well he’d come to resent the people he’d encounter. He wanted to feel accomplished at age fifty. He wanted to be able to retire when he could still enjoy life. He wanted his mother to feel accomplished that her son achieved far more in his life than she did. He wanted his successes to make people think there was still justice in the world. He wanted to be someone’s protégé. He wanted to be someone’s teacher. He just wanted to leave some kind of legacy, you know?
He didn’t really say any of this to the woman sat in front of him, when his time came. They spoke instead of his work experience and availability, but mostly about paperwork. While the woman was talking, he noticed she wore a silver locket, which hung delicately over her collar bone. As she bashed on her computer’s keyboard, he observed how her veins glowed beneath her perfumed skin. He saw that her eyes were the same colour as a lot of people’s when she looked past him and asked for his signature, pointing to a dotted line on a form with the nib of a pen. All this didn’t feel very momentous, he thought, waiting for his moment of clarity. In that nano-second, when it arrived, he wanted to know if he had already lost himself. As he went to take the pen, the woman’s face creased up and she sneezed. She dropped then pen and said sorry as it rolled across the carpet, before she sneezed again and again. He rose quickly to pick it up, and while he was on the floor, a boot fell heavily on to his right hand. He squealed loudly. People looked across at him, and the man wearing the boot muttered an apology. The pain took his breath away. His eyes watered a little, and his dirty knuckles ached. His nails, which he’d slowly bitten into thorns, had been forced into his fingers by the boot, and that was what had really hurt. The woman asked if he was alright. He chuckled and nodded, but he wasn’t really. He signed the form and left, terrified of many things, when he was supposed to.
Over the coming weeks and months, he started to want different things. He wanted his own dog so he could go out for walks and people wouldn’t worry about him. He wanted to smoke marijuana more often. He wanted to watch more plays.
He rarely held on to his thoughts and ideas, but he had started to write down his dreams in a book. He never showed them to anyone, or even cared to read them back himself; he just wrote down whatever he dreamed, and, whenever a new dream came along, he wrote that down too. One night, the rain drops were racing each other down the window pane as he switched off his electric heater and watched the bars turn from red to black.