A Better Place

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“Alright Daniel,” said Doctor Earl Schwanzberg, his little grey eyes fixed on the nervous man opposite him. “Tell me everything, from the beginning.”

Reassured of a captive audience, Daniel relaxed into the worn armchair.

“It was Sunday evening. I was on my way back from the supermarket, hurrying in the rain. That’s when I saw her. My ex, Christine. I hadn’t seen her for eight years. We’d completely lost touch, I never found her on social media. She was pushing a pram, one of those big ones, with the rain canopy up. Funny enough, she looked even better than I remember.”

Daniel had stopped and was gazing wistfully into space.

“Go on,” said the doctor.

“Well, we chatted a bit. She told me I’d changed too, but I don’t think she meant in a good way. I mean, I look like shit. I’ve not felt right for weeks.”

The doctor nodded in understanding.

“She was married, said the baby was her second kid, she had a five year old girl too. Asked if I wanted to meet her son. Sure. I said.”

Daniel took a drink from the glass of water beside him.

“His name’s Patrick, she says. Then she pulls back the canopy so I can see. And there’s this baby, looking up at me, with one eye. And it was in the middle of his fucking forehead.”

He finished the contents of the glass as the doctor watched, his expression unchanged.

”I started having a panic attack. This numbness began in my feet, then my legs, spreading round my body. I looked at her for an explanation or something, but she was just smiling at it. Making cooing noises. I look down again and all I see is that big eye, blinking at me. I can’t remember much from then. I thought I was going to pass out. I made it home, I guess.”

“Okay,” said Schwanzberg as he wrote with his fountain pen.

“It can’t have been real. Can it?”

“No,” replied the doctor after some deliberation.

”So what the hell is wrong with me?”

“Are you a drug user, Daniel?”

“If you count the weed I smoked two years ago at a party, sure.”

“Have you spoken to your GP?”

“He wanted to put me on drugs. I don’t trust any of them. That’s why I found you.”

“You’re right to get a second opinion,” said the doctor. “And work? You mentioned stress?”

“Right,” said Daniel. “This new boss is making it hell. He won’t let us get on with it. He’s always sitting us down, setting little targets, hounding us.”

“And it’s causing you anxiety?”

“I can’t stand it. I can’t sleep.”

The doctor seemed lost in thought.

“Could it be sleep deprivation?” said Daniel.

“No, definitely not. If anything it’s the stress. But even so…” he trailed off.

“What can I do?”

“Keep your routine.”

“That’s it?”

“Routine anchors us in turbulent times,” said the doctor sagely, laying pen on notepad as if to signal an end to the conversation. “But let’s talk again in a few days. Just make an appointment the usual way, with Maureen.”

The next morning at work, Daniel opened his email to find a team meeting scheduled for 9.30am, meaning he was already late. He entered the breakout area to find the only chair available beside Nikolai, the team manager. His other colleagues, Diane, Lewis and Zoe sat round the table. As Daniel sat he noticed a book beside Nikolai’s laptop titled Next Level Leadership, with dozens of coloured paper tabs protruding from the pages.

“We can do better,” Nikolai was saying. “Good morning Daniel. That’s not a criticism, by the way. You’re doing great. You’re the best product managers I’ve worked with. I mean it. Rock stars, every one of you. I’m simply saying we can do better precisely because I know just how capable you all are.”

Daniel caught Zoe’s eye, and it seemed she held his gaze a fraction longer than was necessary.

“As you know, there are several Values Champions awards up for grabs. You can nominate yourselves and one other person. In my opinion, if we really put pedal to metal, we’ll clean up with this.”

Lewis looked in physical pain. Diane just looked defeated. Zoe’s eyes were now closed, and Daniel studied her. She was one of the few reasons he felt motivated to turn up day after day. She’s rather pretty in a girl-next-door kind of way, he thought as his eyes roved over her skin, the fullness of her mouth. She did wear too much mascara. She probably looked better without it. Probably got a long term boyfriend. Pretty boy I bet, he thought to himself. Someone she knew at university. Probably some sort of project manager, typical boring bastard. But who am I to talk? A wave of self-loathing washed over him.

Zoe’s eyes flicked open, catching him staring at her. Nikolai was talking about agile frameworks, but Daniel could no longer focus.

For the rest of the afternoon he pondered the meaning and purpose of existence, in particular his own existence. One way or another, he thought as he gazed up at the fluorescent striplights over his desk, change was needed.

Daniel stared pensively out of the train window on the journey from Cannon Street back to South London, soaking up the dreariness of the landscape, tinged monochrome by the overcast sky. The return commute at least wasn’t as bad as the morning journey, which was by far the busiest. Nonetheless, since he’d worked out the exact spot to wait on the platform – specifically, by the rear set of doors of the least crowded carriage, he was usually able to get a seat. There was a marking on the concrete, a partially worn white strip, beside which he would stand. When the train halted, he would be positioned just left of the doors. Directly in front wouldn’t work; he had to make way for the stream of exiting passengers before slipping in quickly and unobtrusively.

Sometimes he arrived at the platform to find someone in his spot. On such days he’d stand close by, nursing white-hot rage toward the interloper preventing Daniel getting a seat and by extension, ruining his entire day.

At first he felt pleased with himself. He felt in possession of a valuable secret, a brilliant ‘life-hack’. Then, one morning as Daniel stood on his little spot beside the faded paint strip, he felt suddenly overwhelmed by the crushing pathos of his life. As the train rumbled in, he pondered hurling himself before it.

“Spare change,” rasped a voice interrupting Daniel’s reverie. A haggard, hooded figure was limping up the aisle holding a paper cup. He was wearing shorts, revealing an injured leg wrapped in dirty, bloodied bandage.

At least I’m not this poor bastard, thought Daniel, already ashamed at his own self-pity. He dropped some coins into the cup.

“God bless you sir,” said the beggar, looking up at him. Seeing the man’s face, Daniel jolted violently. As the man shuffled on along the carriage, rattling his cup of change, the icy numbness spread again through Daniel’s body. He sat frozen for the rest of the journey. Only once home did he feel composed enough to leave a message with Maureen, the doctor’s secretary.

“Interesting,” said Schwanzberg as Daniel related these events to him the following evening. “Interesting indeed,” he said, scribbling with his fountain pen.

“Have you heard of this?” pleaded Daniel. “People seeing carbon copies of themselves?”

“The doppelganger phenomenon? Certainly.”

”Really? When? Who? What happened?”

“I mean, not in reality,” said the doctor. “But it’s a well-known concept in folklore, in mythology.”

“I know that. I spent half the night reading about it online. It’s a bad omen. A harbinger of doom.”

The doctor continued scratching away on his notepad.

“Of death,” added Daniel despairingly.

“Try not to get carried away, Daniel. The Internet is the bane of every doctor’s life. If you only knew how much hysterical self-diagnosis I have to listen to, even as a psychotherapist. It’s astonishing how people torment themselves.”

“You’re saying this is nothing to worry about? I’m going mad!”

“I’m simply saying you must try to stay calm.”

“I can’t go on like this.”

“I’m going to look into it, do a little research. Let’s meet again in a few days.”

“I’ll talk to Maureen,” said Daniel sadly.

“No need,” said Schwanzberg, handing him a post-it note. “Make the appointment with me directly when you’re ready. If anything happens in the meantime, call me.”

As Daniel stood up to leave, the doctor added “Take some risks. Try to live a little.”

The next morning at work, Daniel fired up his computer and checked his new emails. ‘Value Champions nominations now up!’ read the subject line of one. He clicked the link to the company intranet, then scrolled through the content until he saw his boss’s face. The accompanying text read:

Self-referred nominations for Value Champions Awards
Category: Diversity and Inclusion

‘I strive to embody our core values within every aspect of my leadership. That’s why 50% of my team is female, but this simply isn’t good enough. There are too many like me in this industry. We’re doing well, but we can always do better.’

Nikolai Choadhorn
Head of Product

He looked towards Zoe’s desk ahead of him. Her hair was tied up, exposing the back of her neck. She was alternately tapping away at her mobile phone, fidgeting with a pen and sipping from a mug, apparently oblivious to everything on her computer screen. He checked her status in the instant messaging system. It displayed an amber dot, indicating she hadn’t opened it for a while.

He typed out a message to her.

So you voting for our Nicky?

He read the simple message several times before pressing ‘send’. Zoe’s status changed at once from orange to green. The reply came almost at once.

Don’t think I want to answer that, haha

Grinning, Daniel immediately typed his response.

I won’t tell 😉

After several minutes with no reply, her IM status reverted to amber. Annoyed, Daniel closed the chat window. As soon as he did, the IM beacon began blinking. He opened her message.

😛

Daniel decided to visit the coffee machine. He glanced at Zoe as he passed. She shot him a brief smile in return. As the steaming black liquid streamed into his mug, he felt more alive than ever. Schwanzberg’s words echoed through his mind; take some risks.

Emboldened and inspired, his insides warmed by the coffee, Daniel composed his next message.

How rude sticking your tongue out at me… need to spank you for that

Her status again changed from amber to green as soon as he sent it. He waited, but no reply came. From where he sat he couldn’t see her screen, but she appeared completely motionless. Her messaging status reverted once more from green to amber, and Daniel felt his heartbeat in his throat.

Stay calm, he thought, sipping his now tepid coffee. It was obvious she wouldn’t want to seem too easy. He tried to focus on the workflow report Nikolai was chasing him for, but he couldn’t concentrate. The numbers, tables and charts on his screen appeared like hieroglyphics, indecipherable to him.

Zoe was no longer at her desk. He cast his eyes around the floor. She wasn’t in the kitchen area either. Probably in the toilet, he thought. At that moment Nikolai emerged from the breakout area, Zoe behind him. They walked across the floor, past Daniel and into Nikolai’s office.

As he watched them engaged in serious looking discussion through the glass, he felt mild nausea. He silently cursed his stupidity. Flirting was best done in person, never mind over company messaging channels. And had he, in fact, misinterpreted everything? All she’d really shown was basic friendliness, certainly no obvious come-ons. Fighting anxiety, he tried to imagine what the doctor would say to him in this moment. It would be something like “relax, don’t be hard on yourself,” in that breezy manner of his. It had to be an impromptu one-to-one, nothing more. Nikolai was always bothering them with unscheduled meetings.

Two more people headed towards Nikolai’s office; Penny, the HR director, and Shanice, head of Diversity and Inclusion. Daniel watched aghast as they joined his team-mates in the glass room.

When they finally emerged he stared at Zoe hoping for reassurance, a smile, anything, but she walked straight back to her desk without a sideways glance. At five o’clock, she pulled on her coat and joined the stream of employees leaving the office.

For the first time in his life Daniel stayed late. As the cleaner carefully disinfected every surface around him, he pored through the Human Resources section of the intranet, focusing on the policies on sexual harassment and workplace sexism.

It was already dark when he left the office. Utterly lost in his thoughts, Daniel failed to notice the pedestrian light change as he stepped onto the crossing.

Getoutawayastupidcunt!” yelled a cyclist whipping by inches from him. Shocked into the present, Daniel observed that whilst the pedestrian light was red, the traffic lights were not yet green.

“Prick!” he roared back, even though the two-wheeled offender was now out of earshot. He fantasised intensely about the cyclist being hurled skyward over a car bonnet. As he reached the other side of the road, he heard a loud clanking sound. In the distance he saw a car frozen mid-turn. Close by, flat on the tarmac, lay bicycle and rider side by side. Daniel gasped, his breathing constricted. He fought the urge to go and have a closer look. Seeing it up close would make things even worse. He leaned against a wall and focused on his breathing to calm himself before continuing to the train station.

As his near-empty train bore him homeward, Daniel tried Doctor Schwanzberg’s number repeatedly with trembling fingers. There was no answer.

Need to see you urgently. Tomorrow morning if possible, he wrote in a text message.

As soon as he was home he logged remotely into the company network, but there was no message from Zoe. There were no new messages at all. For a long time Daniel was unable to sleep. When he finally dozed off, he was plunged into a maelstrom of disturbing dreams.

First he dreamed he was a giant with elongated limbs, twice the height of normal people, his stilt-like legs manoeuvering around traffic as he strode down the middle of the road. A car honked its horn at him. He glared downward and the car immediately exploded. As a van driver cursed at him, he reached out with a long slinky arm and flipped the vehicle over with a shovel-like hand.

“I don’t want it. I don’t want it!” he yelled, fighting to puncture the fabric of the dream and rip himself back to reality. He drifted in and out of sleep for some time, then a fresh dream began. Now he was in the dock, standing trial for as yet unknown crimes. Opposite him stood Penny from HR and Shanice, head of Diversity and Inclusion, as well other people he couldn’t identify, their faces all twisted with malice and ill-intent. A stranger of uncertain race and sex rose up to read out a damning statement. He strained to listen but could only catch certain words.

“Objectification… Privilege… White… Brazen… Male, Shame, Burden!”

thundered his accuser, each word spoken with more vituperation than the last.

“Inclusion… Racism… Pestilence, Apocalypse, Damnation!”

 He felt the weight all of their eyes on him, focused beams of hatred and condemnation burning through his core.

“I did nothing wrong,” he tried to protest, but no sound came. He fought to shout and make himself heard, but it was futile. He had no voice. He searched the sea of hostile faces for an ally, at the very least someone who wasn’t part of this witch-hunt.

“Zoe,” he gasped in blessed relief. She was behind the wooden barrier like the others, but instead of scorn and hatred, her face bore a dreamy smile. She wore an evening dress, her delicate shoulders on display, giving her an enticing vulnerability.

“Tell them. Tell them I’m innocent,” he said, his voice now restored, but she gave no response. She didn’t speak, but nodded her head repeatedly. Presently she opened her mouth and let out a small moan. It was then he saw the reason for her nodding. Looming behind her was Nikolai Choadhorn, his hands clasped around her waist as he vigorously took her from behind. Zoe’s head rolled back in ecstasy.

“Smashing those KPIs,” grunted Nikolai, looking immensely satisfied with himself.

“Make it stop,” Daniel wailed. With superhuman effort, he finally jolted out of the realm of dreams and back to reality, his bed and his damp pillow. He lay still with eyes open until his alarm sounded at seven o’clock. As he rolled over to turn it off, he saw a message from Doctor Schwanzberg.

See you at 9am

it read. Daniel immediately sent a text message to Nikolai excusing himself for the morning due to a doctor’s appointment. The reply came shortly afterward.

Take all day if you need

it said, followed by another;

Need you healthy and productive

Daniel was still thinking about this last message as he entered the doctor’s surgery.

“Well, you’ve really had a time of it,” said Schwanzberg after Daniel had updated him on all the latest happenings. “Now, have you thought about taking your own life?”

“Is that a suggestion?” asked Daniel, horrified.

“Forgive me if that sounded out of context. I just realised I should have asked that before our first session. It’s obligatory.”

“I might not be suicidal, but I’m living in hell.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about your case,” said the doctor. “And I would like to propose a remedy.”

“Tell me,” said Daniel, and at that moment, the doctor appeared to glow with warmth, light and salvation.

“Take a holiday.”

Daniel sat for some time absorbing what he’d just heard.

“Are you serious?”

“The Canaries. Or Malta. Or the Azores. It’s delightful there this time of year. The perfect tonic for those British winter blues. Far more affordable than people suppose, by the way.”

“The Azores,” said Daniel mechanically.

“We’ve a timeshare there. We’re often there between January and March.”

“So you’ve known people like me who were cured by – a holiday.”

“No two cases are identical, but paranoid ideation and yes, even hallucinations can happen when mind and body are under stress. Have you thought about an extended sabbatical? Chances are you won’t want to come back.”

As Daniel left the surgery he made mental calculations, adding up how much it had cost him to secure this piece of advice, and then pondering the doctor’s costly sojourns in his island paradise. He decided to return to work for the afternoon. Despite his trepidation at the thought of setting foot in the office again, the idea of sitting around at home, or lying in bed, filled him with a worse dread.

As he crossed the office floor to his desk, Penny, Director of HR walked past him. She returned his fearful glance with a smile. They’re mocking me, he thought. Zoe was at her desk and as usual, his view was of the back of her head. The floor seemed busier than usual, a constant flow of people moving to and from the kitchen, executive offices and breakout areas. He fired up his computer to see he had a new IM from Zoe. He clenched his teeth and opened it.

That’s a bit forward sir. At least take for me a drink first!

He read the message dozens of times with increasing feelings of elation. Within minutes, his mental condition underwent a profound transformation. Hitherto interlinked fears, sadnesses and bleak thoughts, no longer reinforced by one another, began to fade.

He held back from replying at once. There were still many things that made no sense. There was still a part of him that suspected they were all trolling him, even at that moment laughing together at his expense.

A meeting request arrived with a little red ‘high priority’ flag attached. It was from Nikolai, and the subject, in capital letters, read ‘WORKFLOW REPORT – FULL UPDATE’. Daniel looked at his watch. He had forty minutes to prepare. He drew a long breath, then sent his reply to Zoe. From across the office, she turned around in her chair and smiled at him.

The Beaver and Badge, located around the corner, was one of the only nearby venues where office functions were never held. The clientele mostly consisted of elderly locals, sometimes families, and nearly always, dogs. A French bulldog on a long leash studied the pair as they sat on a battered leather sofa in a dark corner, large glasses of Merlot on the table in front of them.

“Now tell me. What was that meeting about yesterday?”

“A promotion,” said Zoe.

“Congratulations.”

“I’ve not been promoted. He’s been dangling it front of me.”

“He’s been what?” said Daniel with alarm, unwelcome echoes of his dream soiling his thoughts.

“Telling me I’m ready for Senior PM. But instead of just giving it to me, he’s asked me to do the job as a trial, for six months.”

“Why was Penny there?”

“I told him I’m not working a senior role without being paid for it. So he got HR to draw up some kind of contract promising me the promotion at the top end of the pay band, and a bonus, if I meet the targets.”

“And Shanice?”

“Diversity points. He wants it on record that he’s promoting his female staff.”

“Ugh.”

“He says we have a special rapport.”

“Creep,” said Daniel, enraged.

“Aww, you’re jealous!”

The bulldog watched with protruding, quivering tongue as finally, they kissed.

“Why did you take so long to reply?” said Daniel, breaking away.

“I had to make you sweat.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“What you wrote was extremely forward. In fact, it was highly inappropriate.”

Daniel felt a faint twinge of anxiety before remembering they had just kissed.

“You’re lucky I replied at all,” she added.

“Lucky me,” said Daniel, but he really did feel lucky, luckier than he could remember feeling in quite some time.

The dog yapped as if in agreement.

“I have to leave this job,” said Daniel.

“Me too,” said Zoe.

Ten months later, Adebayo, employee of Montefiore Security Services Ltd, made his way across dusty polythene sheets to take a bundle from the postman standing at the open entrance. Cables ran across the floor of what had formerly served as Doctor Schwanzberg’s reception, through to the office behind where a team of mostly Romanian builders drilled and hammered away non-stop.

He heaped all the letters and packages into a large container marked ‘post to be forwarded’, except the postcard, which bore an image of luxuriant green coastlines, fertile, rolling hills and shimmering blue seas. He settled back behind the desk, pushed his wax earplugs in deeper and turned the postcard over.

Dear Earl

I couldn’t reach you by phone or email, so I’m trying the the old-fashioned way. I hope you’re alright.

As you probably guessed from this postcard, I’m writing from the Azores. I actually did it – I quit my job and moved here. And that’s not all – my girlfriend, who I met at work, did the same, and she’s here with me now. Life is good. I never realised how easy it really is to make changes.

Best of all, the visions have stopped. I’ve not had a single episode since I came here. Doctor Schwanzberg, you helped me completely change my life and I will never forget it.

If not in London, maybe see you here sometime!

Daniel

Adebayo tossed the postcard into the forwarding mail bin, took off his glasses and placed a large pair of headphones over his plugged up ears. It didn’t block out all the noise, but it was enough for him to close his eyes and doze off.

Just a few hours later, over fifteen hundred miles away, Daniel and Zoe stood outside the entrance to O Paraíso restaurant and bar, high up in the hills overlooking a bay. The sky was a brilliant blue, the sun low and large to the West.

“I’m getting hungrier by the minute,” said Zoe.

“I don’t know what’s going on. They’ve never made us wait before.”

From inside they could see the place was filled with people, shouts and laughter reverberating beyond the wooden walls and open windows. Delicious smells wafted out at them from within. Daniel noticed that more and more cars were arriving, several already lining the edges of the gravel road leading up to the entrance.

“Are you with Mr Hawke?”

“Who?” said Daniel irritably. They had been waiting nearly twenty minutes already. Even under shaded cover, the Azorean evening sun was strong.

“Mr Otis Hawke. Excuse me, one minute,” said the hostess, letting in yet another couple who had been standing behind them. 

“No. Why are you letting all these people in when we were here first?”

“They’re with Mr Hawke. He booked the whole restaurant tonight. I’m sorry, Sir.”

“We come here every week. You’re telling me you can’t find us one table for two?”

“I’m sorry, Sir.”

“Forget it, let’s go,” said Zoe.

Daniel was silent as they made their way back down the looping hydrangea-lined road to his apartment. As if sensing his wounded pride, she held his arm tightly all the way home.

“Let’s just get a takeaway and stay home. There’s a new series everyone’s talking about, we can check that out.”

Daniel’s mind was elsewhere as they sat in front of the TV that night, eating mediocre Paella from cardboard tubs.

“I feel sticky. I’m going to jump in the shower,” he announced.

“I’ll pause it for you”.

“No, just carry on,” said Daniel. “I’ll figure it out.”

He stayed in the shower for some time, calmed by the warm torrent on the back of his neck and shoulders. The annoyance of O Paraíso was soon forgotten. He thought of all the things that were going well in his life. There really wasn’t much to be unhappy about, all things considered. Just one thing bothered him; that he had been unable to directly contact the doctor to express his gratitude.

Towelling himself off, he was still thinking about the doctor when he heard Zoe shriek from the living room.

“What is it?” he said, entering the living room naked. Zoe was sitting with feet tucked up under her, pointing at the TV screen.

Daniel looked and saw, blown up on the 42 inch screen, a large, blinking eye, in the middle of a baby’s forehead.

“Ewwww,” said Zoe. “That’s the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

But Daniel was no longer listening.

“Babe, you okay?”

His perception slowly came back. He continued to stare at the screen as the credits rolled. One line jumped out at him from the wall of text:

Written by Otis Hawke

“Babe?”

“I’ll be back in a minute,” said Daniel, taking his laptop computer into the bedroom. His Internet search quickly brought up the information he was looking for.

Otis Hawke is the pen name of former psychotherapist Earl Remus Schwanzberg. Hawke primarily writes fiction in the horror genre. He has published several short stories and a novella, one of which was adapted into the highly successful TV Series Shadowrealms, in which a downtrodden office worker experiences unsettling hallucinations, encounters doppelgangers and, in the final climactic episode, develops powers of telekinesis.

Daniel sat for some time staring into space, then laughed aloud until Zoe, bewildered, came in to check on him.

The following morning he stood on the balcony admiring the stunning scenery before him. It looked better than the postcards. Indeed, even the best cameras couldn’t do it justice. Nature, he thought. It’s nature, that’s the key. Far more of what he was seeing was natural than manmade. In that sense, it was the inverse of the view from his cramped studio back in South London; concrete, metal, brick, punctuated by the odd tree or patch of grass.

The sun felt exquisite on his skin, although he was used to it. He felt arms slip around his waist.

“Coffee’s ready.”

Over the past few hours, Daniel had experienced a range of human emotions, particularly betrayal. But now, having slept on it all, he felt only contentment and gratitude. He even felt pride. After all, they were good stories, and they existed because of him.

He savoured the warmth of Zoe’s body as she pressed against him from behind, then a large, soft, round mass against the small of his back.

“I think I felt a kick,” said Daniel.

“You will if you don’t come to breakfast,” said Zoe.