It always rained this time of year. Not just the odd shower, but a relentless never-ending downpour. For the next month or so, the greying sky would continue to fall, and the city continue to take a beating, clinging to the edges in fear of being washed away. But it never was. Far down below, the pavement completely obscured by a sea of umbrellas, flowing like a tidal current as the crowds hurriedly made their way home. Home.. that would be nice.
As the warm amber streetlight spilled into nearby offices, a single window shone out, bright like a beacon. Inside, at cubicle 276, sat Gerald and two-thirds of a presentation for the biggest client pitch in company history. Which was tomorrow. “Thanks for the help guys” he grumbled to himself. Some bloody team this was. He took a break from the frantic typing and sighed heavily, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. Time for a well-deserved stretch. Pulling out his earphones he rose from his chair and headed to the nearby window, passing the lowly hum of the printer in the corner and the incessant ticking of the clock on the battleship grey walls.
Staring out of the large full-height window, Gerald gazed upon the sprawl of modern apartments opposite. Must cost a fortune to live there. He’d read that the whole lot had been bought before the construction had even begun. This city was starting to burst at the seams, but more than ever, its residents wanted to live closer and closer to its core. Which, he thought, is probably why the skyline had almost doubled in size & height in the past five years. The nearest apartment building was so close to the office he could watch people’s televisions, and see them shoving tonight’s dinner into their smug little faces. He wondered if they knew they had an audience. Then again, maybe they were all his audience.
He shuddered and turned to walk towards the vending machine on the other side of the office. Snack O’clock. At least from there he could look at the distant cathedral in all its grandeur, standing majestically in the distance clashing wildly against the sprawling urbanite architecture. Whatever happened to detail? When did it get replaced with hard lines and angular juts? Such a question could only be followed by another sigh. Dropping some change into the slot, he jabbed at the button for chocolate.
Gerald had gotten used to the flurry of passing vehicles by now, and at this time of night they filtered out into a small stream, posing no more than ambient background noise, mixing with the patter of raindrops against glass. Suddenly a flash cracked the sky like a stone spidering a pane of glass. He smiled. There’s something calming yet exciting about a storm. He started to count as he walked back to his desk, awaiting the percussion that would surely follow the light show. For a second or two it became a race.. who would win? Gerald or Zeus? He got to his chair as a slow, faint rumble of thunder broke. Strike up one for the mortal man.
Like Gerald on this particularly stressful evening, cities never sleep. In order for them to function, in order for them to maintain it’s existence, they must stay awake no matter what. As a living, breathing infrastructure, a metropolis both provides for and relies on the people it employs. An almost subconscious balance is therefore established between it and its inhabitants to maintain this exchange. But sometimes, cracks can appear in the system, and if they are not addressed in time, the system becomes fragile…
It was still raining when he finally left the office and ran for the bus, which stopped a street away. Gerald wasn’t lucky enough to live so close. His journey home would take at least an hour. The queue of people had almost finished boarding as he flailed his sodden arm, pass in hand. Slumping down in the nearest seat, he looked up to see some familiar faces. He’d jokingly referred to them as the “graveyard shift” (although never to their faces), as they always ended up on the same dreary route home. The old bald guy with enormous black glasses and a mole on his chin. The young girl with blond hair, silver hoop earrings & diamond tattoo on her hand. The drunk in a pinstripe suit who clearly spends too much time working from the bar on the corner. Gerald lent back, popped his earphones back in and drifted off as the rain slapped against the bus window and dribbled down the glass…
He jumped, alarmed at the driver suddenly looming over him, kicking his feet. He rubbed his eyes as the realisation hit.
“Second time this week, Gerry!”
The depot. He was at the bloody depot again. Cursing his job, the endless torrent of freezing water and his own innate ability to miss his stop, Gerald drowsily stepped off the bus and began the twenty minute walk back to his flat. He nodded to the driver as a way of thanks, who chuckled and shook his head empathetically, twiddling the ends of his profound black moustache.
“Same time tomorrow Gerry?!”
He really wished the guy wouldn’t call him that. The only reason he knew his name was because of the stupid neon-orange lanyard draping his company ID around his neck like a noose. Then again, this happened so regularly that the two of them might as well be on first name terms. Keith, that was it. Or was it Kevin.. Kristian? Oh who cares. And seriously, screw this bloody rain!
Later, it was only inevitable that when he needed it the most, sleep would escape his clutches at every desperate grasp. Gerald rolled on his back and stared up at the bedroom ceiling. His mind raced with facts, figures and policy statements. All the key plays from tomorrow’s presentation took turn to do frantic, record-breaking laps in his head. It was no use.
Flicking on his bedside light and reaching for a nearby glass of water, he took a few gulps before scrambling out of bed. He stumbled over to his bag in the corner of the room, routed around for his green notebook and proceeded to spend the next hour spilling the panic-stricken contents of his brain onto the pages. As the last sentence left the pen and firmly established itself in front of him, the last few runners crossed the finish line, and his eyelids caved. Dropping the notebook on the floor, Gerald slipped into the deepest sleep in weeks.
Gerald knew this particular ailment well. Some said it came with the job. Others said it came with the city. He’d just hoped that after this long he would have reigned it in. But on the eve of every big potential closure, right up to the moments before stepping into that boardroom, his heart and stomach would reprise their roles as circus acrobats. Part of it was the pressure… the sheer responsibility of looking after the type of clients that would make or break a financial year. Then there was the creeping self-doubt and paranoid voice telling him he’d missed something at the eleventh hour. You know, the perfect time for such a revelation.
Today’s eleventh hour was on the 7.00am bus to the office. As Gerald took one of what would be many “last looks” over the document, the voice squealed erratically in his head.
“What about comparing the client’s current stock value over the past 2 years with their main competitor?!”
Oh God. What a brilliant idea! This would certainly help the client’s confidence; their value had practically doubled in the last 24 months. Why the hell did he just come up with it? What’s more, how could he hold the presentation now without such an obviously vital piece of information?
Cursing, he ripped open his bag, and pulled out his notebook to add to last night’s frantic scribbles. His… blue notebook.
Gerald rubbed his eyes, perplexed. How much sleep did he get last night? He looked down again at his lap. The notebook met his befuddled gaze. A deep ultramarine blue notebook. But.. his was green? He flipped through the pages. The contents were all too familiar; all his notes and scheduled lists from the past few months, ending in everything he had written last night. It was his notebook, but it also wasn’t? What the hell?
Was this some kind of stress-related onset colour blindness? Was that even a thing? A vein on the side of his neck began to twinge. He looked up and out of the bus window. The sky was still grey, the artificial trees the city council had “planted” along each suburb were still green, and as he found his reflection the stupid office lanyard was still neon orange. He closed his eyes tight, counted to five, then opened them and looked down once more. Yep, still blue. Still freakin blue. But last night, yesterday, and the past countless damn days he knew it had been green.
Maybe this job really was starting to get to him. He turned around and waved the notebook in the stoney miserable faces of the people sat behind him.
“What colour is this??” he blurted.
“Um, excuse me?”
“The book! What colour is it??”
The poor couple glanced at each other puzzled, not used to crazy people yelling at them at such an hour of the morning.
“It’s blue. Is this some kind of trick? What do you want, man?”
Before Gerald could reply, the bus announced his stop. He backed off, sheepishly apologising and hurried for the door, still clutching the notebook in his hand whilst throwing his bag over his shoulder. He tried to snap himself out of this momentary madness, and made a beeline for the office through the usual massing crowd of city workers.
As he reached his cubicle, a single solitary post-it greeted him, slap bang in the middle of his monitor that would leave a lovely smear.
GOOD JOB — F.P.
His Director’s initials. Dropping the notebook on his desk, Gerald peeled the words off the screen and held it in the palm of his hand. Finally, his efforts might be getting noticed. However, the A5-sized elephant in the room was still keeping his heart rate elevated. Leaning across his desk wall, he beckoned for his nearby colleagues’ attention.
“Steve, Eric… what colour is this?”
Steve and Eric looked just as puzzled as the couple he’d harassed on the bus. Steve snorted & returned the question with a series of his own, all somewhat condescending..
“Are you asking us to see if we can tell what colour it is like a test or somethin’, or do you mean you ain’t never seen anything that colour before, or… do you knowwhat colour it is but you forgot the name? Ha! Its blue you idiot! Are you ok? What’s gotten into you this morning?”
“But it, I mean I.. nevermind”. Gerald returned to slumping in his chair. He wanted to tell them something was wrong, different, but he looked mad enough already.
“You need to take a day off, Gez.” Eric suggested in a more empathetic tone.
As he went to respond, he clocked Frederick Petersfield arrive and walk into his room at the end of the office. Post-it still palmed, he picked up the notebook and briskly walked over to him, passing the clock on the pale cream wa…
Oh come on! Not this as well? He stopped mid tracks and shook his head whilst gripping the bridge of his nose. The neck vein pulsated in confused sympathy. First the book, now the wall? He looked again. A clean, glossy cream.
“Ah, Gerald! Just the person I want to speak with.”
Fred was standing in the doorway to his room. Gerald, despite his best efforts to act normally, wandered over like an intrepid explorer scrutinising everything in his path. Just what else was suddenly different? Why were odd things not the way they were mere hours ago? And why was he the only one to bloody notice? Frederick Petersfield frowned at Gerald as he waddled up to him.
“Take a seat, Gerald.”
He sat down in front of a large oak desk, adorned with family photos and company reports. On the wall behind, various industry awards and accreditations hung in proud unison. Gerald looked at his boss.
“Morning Mr Petersfield? You wish to discuss something?”
“Of course Gerald, of course! In fact I just wanted to personally congratulate you on such a sterling effort yesterday.”
He must have heard about last night’s big push for the meeting, Gerald thought. Hopefully he also heard about his ungrateful colleagues who threw him under the proverbial bus.
“Thanks to your excellent work, our biggest client opportunity is now our biggest project. You should be proud. They were highly impressed with the presentation yesterday. Between you and me, you should look forward to your upcoming apprais…”
Gerald had leapt out of the chair, and was boring holes through the back of his boss’s head with the kind of horrified stare someone gives you if you’d tell them you may have accidentally run over their cat.
“The presentation Gerald.. you gave a top rate performance, you had them captivated the whole way through!” Frederick Petersfield raised an eyebrow. “Are you alright?”
“But I was up half the night yesterday.. here, busting a gut to finish everything! For today! The presentation’s today!”
F.P.’s eyebrow dropped back into frown mode.
“Gerald, you were at the bar last night. With the rest of us, drinking what felt like our collective weight in liquor celebrating this deal! Jesus man, you must have been a wreck. How can you not remember? The hangover alone should be a constant reminder!” He turned towards the beaming awards. “Is something the matter Gerald? When did you last take a holiday?”
A frail whimpering sound caused him to turn back around. Gerald had recluded back into the chair, and rolled himself into a ball. Gently rocking, his right arm outstretched, clutching a notebook.
“Wha-at colour is this??!!”
“Its, er.. blue Gerald.”
The vein went into overdrive.
“And the wall over there, how long has it been cream?!”
“The office was repainted last year Gerald. What’s this all about? You don’t sound well at all. I’ll get Eric to take you home, get you some rest. I can’t have my top representative fall apart on me, especially after yesterday’s big hit.”
“It’s today!! THE MEETING’S TODAY!!”
As he screamed at his director, Gerald felt something pop. The vein hit breaking point and everything gradually faded to black. As his face hit the oak it felt no more than a mountain of feathers.
Gerald had no idea how long he had been out for. A couple of hrs, a day? But as he slowly regained consciousness and opened his eyes, he found himself no longer at the office, and definitely not his apartment. This was a hospital. If the bed he was led in wasn’t a giveaway, the smell of disinfectant was. As things began to reach full focus, an ample, feminine figure walked towards him with a chart. He squinted to catch the badge she was wearing.
Sylvia Woods — Senior Nurse
Sylvia took a red pen from her blouse pocket and jotted something down. The red matched the colour of her lipstick.
“Gerald, is it?”
“That’s right miss. Um.. what happened to me? Last thing I remember I was at work?”
“Well Gerald, you’ve been suffering from what seems like severe stress, which peaked when you suffered an anxiety attack yesterday. You fainted and gave yourself quite a concussion when you hit your head…”
Gerald placed his hand to his forehead and felt a gargantuan lump.
“You’ve been unconscious for almost a whole day, that or the fullest sleep I’ve ever seen. We would like to keep you in for further tests, and make sure there’s nothing more serious going on. We’ve managed to stabilise your blood pressure, but you need to take things very slow.”
“Thanks miss, I appreciate everything.” He nodded sincerely at Sylvia. She smiled and turned to continue her morning rounds, before stopping as if she had just remembered something.
“Oh, by the way, your friend Eric said he’d drop in after work to check up on you. You should also find your belongings in the table drawer next to your bed. Keys, wallet, phone, a work ID I believe.. and that notebook of yours. It must be quite important to you. Even though you were out like a light, you had that thing in a vice grip! Now keep resting, and I’ll be back in a few hours.”
As Sylvia left his ward, he reached over to the table and opened the drawer. Sure enough, there were his keys, his brown leather wallet and his beaten up phone. He really should get it upgraded. And sat next to them was his stupid neon orange lanyard. On top of his notebook.
His neon orange notebook.
Somewhere on the other side of his neck, a vein began to pulsate.
Gerald worked in what you could quietly refer to as a “cut-throat” industry. Whilst his company maintained they weren’t directly out to rob their customers blind, (not the slogan they chose for the ad campaign), when it came to jostling with it’s competition there really was no honour among thieves.
It was because of this, Gerald had learnt that trust & loyalty were relatively scarce. Sadly, there were times when this even extended to his office’s environment. Ever since he unwillingly received the big-shot contracts, he’d found several colleagues less agreeable, more abrasive and judgmental. If it wasn’t for Steve and Eric, he’d have probably quit or gone insane by now. Sure, Steve could be a patronising dick, and had a Sahara dry wit, but he was one of the most reliable workers. Eric just didn’t have a mean bone in his body, and was consistently happy. How the hell he got into this kind of job Gerald just never quite fathomed, nor how he remained so vigilantly cheerful. It was almost creepy. At least he knew he could trust them.
Then there was his notebook.
After last year’s internal mail hacking scandal, when it was discovered that someone was siphoning highly secretive client information, Gerald refused to use the company server for anything remotely sensitive. He’d gone anti-tech, back to (synthetic) paper & pen. Everything was kept in his green leatherbound notebook. Accounts, finances, dates & contacts; he kept it with him at all times, and trusted it more than people.
And now the thing he relied on the most was having an identity crisis.
Gerald gingerly fished the notebook out of the bedside table drawer, and held it in his trembling hands. He turned it over once or twice, and cautiously checked the contents. Inside as usual were all his priceless notes, and in his handwriting. So how was it now the same disgusting shade of orange as his stupid ID?
Its finally happened, he thought. I’m genuinely going mad.
What other explanation was there? His notebook, the office decor, the client pitch? All those things can’t just simply change overnight.. it’s impossible! But that wall was always grey… and there was no way he’d forget a client presentation of that magnitude. He’d never be able to work in this sector again if it had fallen through! The city’s a soul-consuming spider that’s finally entangled me in her vicious web he glumly began to accept. Either that or…
Gerald suddenly sat bolt upright, eyes wider than the Sun, mouth slightly ajar, and slapped his palms against his face.
Or they’re all out to get me!
Steve, Eric, Frederick Petersfield… the whole damn office for all he knew. How could he not see this before?! And to think, they almost succeeded in driving him over the edge and into the abyss. He cursed aloud to himself as the frailty and stress turned to anger and contempt. Those ungrateful, scheming, backstabbing bastards!
With him out of the picture, Steve & Eric would be able to scurry in and fight at leisure over the lucrative scraps like rabid hyenas. He pictured them snarling wildly at each end of a project file, desperately trying to wrench it away with their teeth whilst clawing at each other. No. Goddamn. Honour.
But why? Gerald spent the next 2 hours erratically constructing his own tinfoil hat out of half-baked theories and reverse-engineered accusations. Yet in every instance, every angle he could think of, two things always eluded him.
The presentation itself was one of two things he “deduced”. Either it was secretly rescheduled and brought forward a day, with a second team brought in (likely stealing and adapting the work Gerald had already put in), or.. maybe the meeting had always been the same date! Maybe F.P. just gave him a fake deadline and a list of objectives, and his “team-mates” stole all the work, wrapped it up and presented it a day early without him. No wonder he was left to finish the document on his own that night! The client pitch was already over. It was all just misdirection, smoke and mirrors! He cursed again.
As for the office walls, well. The company could have found a decorating contractor at short notice who was willing to work through the night. They must have been highly skilled, and probably highly expensive too, as aside from the (obvious) change in colour there were no marks (or smells) of freshly licked paint to give the game away. It must have been barely touch-dry! Gerald had been too stunned to actually run his hands over the clean, creamy surface. If only he had checked it thoroughly.
Perhaps F.P. didn’t want me to, and that’s why he was watching me when he summoned me to his office?
But the notebook.. how did his notebook keep changing wardrobe? How could it be one colour one day, and another the next? They could have taken it from him, found a local Leather Binders and then covertly placed it back without him seeing. But that was just too ludicrous for even Gerald in his current state to truly accept. First of all, where the hell do you find a Binders in the city that’s open 24 hours a day (or even, heck where would you find a Binders full-stop? They’re not exactly on every street corner!), and secondly, how did they break into his home, take the book, and then place it back without making a sound?
The other thing he struggled with, was what did his director get out of all of this? Was his meagre city salary such a drain on the company’s finances? Or was he simply getting too good at his job, and F.P. felt threatened? Yes, that must be it! Gerald grinned manically.
Maybe I was one of the few next in line, and it was only a matter of time? Maybe putting me out of the client pitch puts me down a few pegs, and ol’ Frederick Petersfield gets to cling on to his job a while longer!
Gerald was so wrapped up in his own little world of secrets & lies that he didn’t notice Eric walk into the room with an elaborate fruit basket. As he approached to greet him, Gerald caught him in the edge of his tunnelled vision & span around to confront his former friend.
“YOU!!” he hissed venomously.
Eric jumped back, startled at Gerald’s reaction and waved, almost cowering behind the assortment of grapes, apples and kiwis.
“Um.. yes Gez it’s me, Eric. H-here, these are for you. I’d ask if something was wrong but that’d be a daft thing to say seeing as we’re here in the hospital..”
“You planned all this, didn’t you! You and Steve. You were in cahoots with Fred!”
Gerald had propped himself up on his elbows, glaring at Eric as he spat out his fork-tongued proclamation. Eric looked back in complete confusion.
“Gez.. you totally flipped yesterday. Steve, Me and rest of the office has been really worried about you man! I came with you in the ambulance but they didn’t let me stay overnight. I was hoping to be around when you woke up, in case you had, I dunno, amnesia or something. You left a real crater in F.P.’s desk, that’s for sure.”
“Stop avoiding the subject! Why are you all trying to drive me crazy!?”
Eric pleaded with him. “Gerald, listen to me. We all love working with you. Plus,you’re one of the best we have! Why would we want to…”
“That’s it isn’t it?? I’m one of the best, and you’re all afraid I’ll get ahead of you all! You’re all jealous of me!”
In any other situation, Gerald would realise he was acting like an ass. Especially to a poor guy who brought him a fruit basket. However, his livelihood was at stake because of his colleagues’ underhanded actions, and Eric right now was their figurehead. Or Scapegoat. Clearly he got the “take one for the team” straw.
Eric tried once more. “Gez, look man, you’re tired. You’ve clearly been working too hard and it’s taking it’s toll. But there’s no “conspiracy”. It’s all in your head! We just want you to get better.”
“Then why is my notebook orange?!”
His hands were still shaking, but now with rage rather than fear. He fiercely waved the notebook at Eric as if to say Checkmate. But rather than creating cracks in his façade of falsities, Eric’s bemused look of confusion seemed to strengthen.
“Um, Gez.. all our notebooks are orange. It’s corporate stationery, corporate colours. Y’know, like Branding & Log..”
“IT WAS GREEEEEEN!!”
As the last word left Gerald’s roaring lips, he threw the notebook full force at Eric. It struck the fruit basket he was still carrying, sending the contents scattering like a fresh green firework. Eric fell backwards clutching his face in complete shock. The book must’ve bounced up and struck him.
“My nose!, You broke my freakin nose!”
Before Eric could splutter another word, Gerald had dove out of the bed and grabbed his now bloodied shirt with both hands. He desperately shook him on the floor, yelling in his face whilst staring at him through entranced bloodshot eyes..
“It was GREEN! It was always green, until you bastards started changing it! You’re trying to screw me over aren’t you, send me over the freakin edge! Why.. why, why, WHY ERIC?! I know I’m not crazy.. tell me what the hell is going on! WHY IS EVERYONE AGAINST ME?!”
“Jesus Christ! *cough* Snap out of it Gez, you’ve bloody lost it! Nurse, NUUURSE!”
Sylvia Woods had already heard the commotion and raced over with two of her colleagues for backup. They darted into the room and attempted to restrain Gerald before he could do any more harm to Eric or himself. As Eric managed to wriggle free and crawl hurriedly towards the door, Gerald continued to scream at him. There was no use..
“We need to move him to a secure unit!” ordered Sylvia.
One of the other nurses produced a syringe from his uniform pocket, popped the cap off with his teeth and stuck it in Gerald’s left arm. He cried out in surprise, then felt the anesthesia start to slowly take effect. His anger levels began to subside, and arms & legs began to feel light and floaty. The third nurse had materialised a wheelchair, and both of them rather unceremoniously dropped him into the seat whilst Sylvia attended to Eric, still bleeding profusely from the nose. As they rapidly wheeled him out of the ward, and down several hallways into the bowels of the hospital, Gerald fought the increasing urge to pass out with every breath. His arms & legs tied down with straps, he frantically tried to twist his body and look back at his kidnappers, but the hazy glow of the corridor lighting mixed with the growing desire of his eyes to close themselves resulted in clouded amorphous shapes that “resembled” people.
Then at once the chair came to a halt. Undoing the straps, (Gerald was far from being a threat as this stage), the two nurses lifted him out and into a small room. As they lowered him onto the floor, his weightless body embraced the soft padded cushioning that lined his new accommodation. As the two shapes left the room, he could just make out one of them speak to him.
“You’re ok now pal. We’ll take good care of you. That jab should give you all the rest you need. Kinda surprised it hasn’t knocked you out already.. Oh, and here’s something to keep you company.”
A soft thud next to him announced a familiar roommate for his stay in this “plush” establishment. As the door locked shut, he managed to fall sideways like a baby, wearily reach out for his notebook and clasp it as he finally went under.
Gerald awoke shivering. He was freezing cold, and a strong wind was blowing right through the room. “Through” was quite the phrase.. because as he took a few seconds to sit up and take stock, his eyes widened in amazement.
The soft padded floor of his cell was still padded, but it was also covered in rubble, dirt and moss. Three out of the four walls were missing, collapsed around him. The doorframe stood fast, but the door itself was hanging off its steel hinges, creaking with each passing breeze.
He gradually rose to his feet, and realised he could see past the confines of the hospital, or what was left of it, and beyond to the outside world. The sky was still grey but the clouds seemed heavier, denser somehow. This whole building was in ruins. He struggled for words. One minute he was throttling Eric, the next he was carted into this room and now…
As he went to step forward, his foot brushed something. He looked down, and smiled meekly at his notebook. His green leather notebook. Thank God, at least something was back to normal. But at what cost? What the hell happened now, and why was everything falling apart? If all of this was a dream, it was the longest dream he’d ever experienced, and definitely the worst. He picked up the book and hugged it tight, seeking for some momentary comfort before flicking through the pages. All his own notes, all his lovely plans and schedules. And then…
And then, scrawled sharply across two full pages in large capital letters, was a phrase he’d never uttered or written in his life..
YOU’RE DRIFTING, GERALD