In his drab world, an accountant tries to make sense of the colour that starts to appear.
Up or down? It was one of few choices presented to John in his otherwise rigid life. At five o'clock, he had logged out of his workstation, all accounts saved and submitted to his manager. Then he had put on his suit jacket, clocked out, and left the office room. The corridor he found himself in at this time every weekday didn't change. The floor was the same dull carpet. The plastic potted plants neither grew nor died, they were just there. At the end of the corridor the corridor split into a left and right. The far wall was a huge glass window looking out over the city. The view of the city was the only thing that changed, but it was more poignant for being out there. Out in the wide world. It made John sad to see the endless variations of the sky and city from inside the office. He disliked being reminded that the world was going on without him, like he was left out of a party, stuck in his office. Still, the pay was good.
It was a maze in here, but John knew his way, through habit more than through memory. Some helpful spark had printed two terrible signs out on A4 paper in a horrid font - trying their best to look fancy or different, no doubt. One said UP, with an arrow pointing left. It showed the way to the upper staircase. The other said DOWN, with its arrow pointing right. Both had been Blu-tacked to the window. John thought having staircases at opposite ends of a floor was silly, and it annoyed him somewhat. Even so, he consoled himself with the fact that this building was designed by architects, and he was an accountant. The architect probably knew what he was doing.
John didn't know where UP lead. It could be management, or the roof. He had never been curious enough to find out. Besides, his bus left at ten past five and he didn't want to miss it because of some pointless explorations. Following the DOWN signs lead to the foyer of the building, and to the exit. It was the only choice he made all day, to go DOWN instead of UP. He took pleasure in it, knowing he could choose differently every day. He never did. He always exited, and followed the familiar route to the nearest bus stop.
As he walked, he spotted Greencoat. That was good. Greencoat was a lady he had never spoken to. She caught the same bus as him every weekday at ten past five, always getting to the bus stop five minutes early. She always wore her green coat, her face devoid of expression, the same briefcase clutched in her right hand. Her expression was youthful but John had never seen her miss the bus in six years. Her appearance had not changed in that time, but the length of her hair oscillated between shoulder length and a couple of inches shoulder. It was shoulder length, and it was a Thursday. John guessed that on Monday her hair would be two inches shorter. He wished there was a betting shop for those kinds of useless predictions, but concluded that he would never be a patron - he had never been a gambling man. Anyway, Greencoat was there, less than twenty yards away, so John was on time.
There were other, less regular commuters. There were the construction workers, who varied between sobriety and being completely sloshed, whatever day of the week. Thankfully he had never had any confrontations with these two in the three years he had seen them. He always avoided eye contact, but he was aware of them because of their flourescent yellow jackets and loud voices. Red-dress had only ever caught the bus once in a red dress, but she had looked pretty and John had never stopped noticing her, every Thursday, since that day.
Today, there were only two irregulars. They were a young couple, not more than twenty. The boy wore jeans and a tee, the girl smart office clothes. They had obviously not been going out long. John hated new couples.
Occasionally he pretended that his mental voice was in court, where it had to justify what it thought to the mental judge and the mental jury and the mental prosecutor. He did so now. He told the prosecutor that he hated new couples because they couldn't keep their sappy love private, that they couldn't keep themselves off each other, that they couldn't behave properly in public. He knew that he was jealous. He feared being jealous, in fact. But that was something his mental voice could not reveal to the court. The mental jury would just not understand. He would have to tell mental lies to avoid telling the jury that he was jealous, and that he craved to be a couple, and that every new couple was a reminder of the people who were finding love day by day, while John wasn't. But John couldn't think this, because then the mental court would hear. So he kept the thoughts buried, and his mental voice was acquitted. Satisfied that he had settled the matter, that he hated new couples for perfectly justifiable, explainable reasons, John busied himself with staring out of the window.
The sky was purple tonight. John found that odd. Had the sky ever been purple before? He could not recollect. He could remember deep blue skies fading to midnight black, but this purple was a gaudy, bright colour. John decided he had never seen a sky like it. His mobile phone had the capability to take pictures, but examining the scene out of the window, John knew that telegraph poles and buildings would get in the way. The lights inside the bus would reflect off the window, causing even more obstruction to the picture. He also knew that the colour would not be captured adequately. His phone stayed in his pocket. John's mental voice said that he would remember the purple sky accurately, that the memory would not be tarnished as an imperfect photo would be. He knew that he would forget within a week, but to think this openly would be to plead guilty to the mental court. He buried the thought, and marvelled at the purple sky.
What did it mean?
How odd. That was a ridiculous thought, that a sky had meaning. It was a thought that would would get sentenced to ten years at least.
Why would it? It's just a question.
For amusement, John entertained an argument between his voice and his prosecutor. But slowly his voice won the argument, much to John's own surprise. The jury came back: not guilty. John's mental voice was perfectly justified.
It whispered freely, that meaning was not a stone slab, but a cloud, that anyone gazing at the sky could make into whichever shape they chose. John's mind whispered to him that if he gave the sky meaning, it was meaningful.
The purple sky meant something to John. He gave it meaning. If only he knew what meaning to give it, of all possible meanings under this auspicious sky.
John tried to put the purple sky out of his mind. It faded quickly, to a more reassuring red, with blue chasing it down. A more usual dusk. John felt sad that he had not taken a picture after all, but he reassured himself that the picture would have been of bad quality. But the question of the meaning of it still clung to him.
At home. John prepared a simple meal. A long time ago, when he had first come to the city, he had worked out the cheapest meal to cook, considering ingredient costs, electric bills, and time costs (imagining he was paid at his hourly accountancy rate - he assumed that was what his time was worth). It was pasta carbonara - or at least, pasta, cheese and ham, with a glass of water. He ate in silence. In the evening he watched television to relax. He would have read, but he wasn't in the mood. He decided to himself that when he was in the mood, he would definitely read. He had drawn up several reading lists of books he had heard about, that he thought he might like to read, or that he felt he ought to have read. Every book on these lists remained unread. He slept at ten o'clock, and rose at six the following morning.
He ran in the morning. He had worked out a route that came to exactly five kilometres, that wasn't too hilly or unsafe, and had plenty of lighting for the winter mornings. He timed himself every time. He ran smoothly this morning. His time was only twenty seconds slower than his personal best. That was above average. It was good. After his planned breakfast of wheat biscuits with milk and banana with orange juice, he caught the bus in the opposite direction to the evening bus. There was only one bus he could catch into work if he was to leave at five, get eight hours good sleep, and still work eight hours (not including his one hour lunch break, taken at twelve o'clock) during the day. He caught it with Greencoat, who comfortingly caught the same bus in the morning. She was a weekday mainstay. He wondered what she did at the weekends, when presumably she had no work to go into. When he thought of that, he wondered what he did at the weekends. He spent all week vaguely longing for the weekend, but plans always came to nought. The thought troubled him, so he left it. The sky was normal again.
He got off the bus at the same stop as Greencoat, and they parted ways when John entered his office building. He pulled out his phone, glancing at the time. A couple of seconds later, he checked again. He had forgotten the time after he first looked. It was 7:58. He remembered this time. He followed the convenient signs that said UP without needing to, but they reassured him of the correctness of his route. He was going up, and the signs said UP. There was something pleasing about the coinciding of interests there. He imagined the sign had a little personality. All the sign would ever do is ask if people wanted to go up, and if so, it pointed the way. It tried not to fall off the wall, because then it could never show the way. If many people asked it the way up, the sign would get happier, and if fewer people asked, the sign would get sadder.
John imagined this sign, being at the bottom of the stairs in a busy office, would have increasingly worse days. More people went up in the morning, but less went up as the day went on and by five o'clock, only the cleaners would be going up. By night, nobody would go up at all. John stopped daydreaming as he clocked in. He had work to do.
The work was tedious, but it involved checking all the numbers went in the right places. If the numbers weren't going in the right places, John put them there. If they still didn't fit, John would ask questions until they fit. It was rare that after a lot of questions, the numbers still didn't fit. In those cases John notified his manager. The manager would then take it off John's hands, and a less problematic account would present itself. One such difficult case appeared today. John had been in correspondence with a small business owner over his accounts for some weeks now, with no resolution. The money had gone everywhere just fine, but the owner's calculations regarding which money went where had been askew by a lot. Looking into the matter further, he had found that the accounts were far shadier than expected. Today, John passed it to his manager, and it became a government issue. An easier account came up for review. John checked it through, submitted it, and the trouble account had been forgotten.
At a quarter to five, the small business owner came storming into the office. John was shocked - surely security hadn't been this lax. He regretted the happy signs telling this man where to go. They had lead him right to John. The man was angry, upset, and he ranted at nobody in particular. John was glad that in this office of three dozen people, the man didn't know his face.
"You've cost me my business! That was all I had left! John, I know you're in here, which one is you? Which one is you? Help me, it's all I've got left!"
The hysterics continued for interminable minutes before a manager entered the office and calmed the man down. The man left, and John returned to his work, shaken, but relieved that even this strange outburst had been dealt with. Raised voices floated down through the ceiling. After a while, they were silenced. John continued his work until five. He submitted all his work -
The sound was faint but unmistakable. It was the thunk of thick glass being hit.
It had the entire office's attention.
The sound was rhythmic, and growing in intensity. John clocked out in a hurry and left the room, where he saw the same dull corridor, with the window at the end. UP or DOWN? The small business owner was slamming himself into the glass repeatedly. He was crying and muttering to himself, unaware that John was watching. John couldn't understand what was happening.
"That was all I had left!"
John couldn't believe this. Had he done this? He was shocked into silence. He knew he should call out, help, save this man. But no words came to mind, nothing motivational, nothing inspiring.
John just watched as, with the loudest THUNK yet, the window pane broke free from its brackets. The man fell, his noise fading away. UP and DOWN floated on the wind for a second, then scattered. John was left alone with the wind and a purple sky. UP and DOWN had been ripped away from him, and this man had chosen a third path, OUT.
In that simple moment, the structure of his life came loose, and John felt suddenly sick. He felt as a lone leaf must feel, blown by winds it could not understand. He felt as if he had been ripped from the solidity of a tree in an autumn gust. John could not return to the life he had lived before.
Turning left, John chose UP.