My name was Wilter. I worked in sales. Ceramics, earthenware, minaret lanterns. We sold tiles in rusty ocean, silver oat, understory, these were our colours. There was no pressure, targets, accountability, and every month-end I was up for promotion. We had all attended the seminar on decision-making, but decision-making still caused me distress. One February morning, beginning to creak under the weight of my own uncertainty, I finally surrendered and accepted my new position, with all its formidable responsibilities. Company car, bonus scheme, juniors to terrorise – something greedy had clambered up my throat.
My new boss was a great appeaser as well as somewhat an opportunist. We bonded, a potent cocktail, spent afternoons cooking the percentages and inventing discounts for all the products we coveted. He was building a swimming pool, a whole lagoon of rusty ocean, while I had amassed enough silver oat to cover a bathroom wall – encaustic tiles, teardrop-shaped, audaciously glazed.
My wife was away, unreachable. But before I could worry about justifying to her my newfound hedonism, a tiler was here, confusingly rapidly, his galvanic voice in our bathroom. I offered him tea, spent ten minutes distressing over which mug would best convey the invented down-to-earth, no-nonsense person I was pretending to be. boredom is the legitimate kingdom of the philanthropic, it read. I winced as I put it in his hand, but rebuked myself. Could he not be a sparkling littérateur?
Weeks pitched by in timeframes I wasn’t familiar with. My tiles appeared to be installed but didn’t resemble a finished job. The boss suggested I replace the toilet, a slimmer cistern. I worried about this, the consequences, and about my wife – all winter really – not least because our baby was due very soon and I had still not heard Cee’s voice on the phone. My boss had started squirming every time it was mentioned. We had our happy customers, our award-winning colours, what more could I want?
Once you’ve finished this project, my boss took me aside once or twice to whisper, oh, you’ll feel miles better. A weight off. And he would pat me on the back and tears would come to his eyes. Sometimes I felt that he had always been there, my boss, just as my completed bathroom had, and like an archaeologist I was merely digging both of them out.
I researched thermostatic showers but, in spring, plumbers informed me that I’d been commissioning jobs in the wrong order – how could they move the pipes? My wife was pregnant, I said. They didn’t ask me where, when, and I shook my head, wanting to convey my disappointment, but also not wanting to appear too arrogant. I was making efforts to come over more conventionally, sober. I crafted things to riff on which on the one hand seemed to make me sound quite interesting, but on the other were the kind of things no human being would ever say.
Things had changed. Had I broken into winter again, lapped myself? I considered mornings a raging success as long as I had successfully woken up into them. I conducted my operation out of an A5 notebook, columns of figures that no longer tied to anything tangible. Keys were cut. I pressed them onto tradespeople, sales visitors, in vain because nobody could understand the nature of my demands.
I missed my wife, her officiating. I would send her pictures, show her the progress. And she was due very soon. After all, she had been carrying now for such a long time. How long was the term? It struck me that it had been years rather than months, and that actually there was a chance Cee had been carrying our boy for too long, for years, for decades.
I was running out of money. While a company hauled in a claw-footed bath, another team arrived to take away our appliances. A hairy man, a bear of a man, a creature, wheeled away my television. I met strangers on the landing, handsome people with long white professorial coats. At first they were jolly, convivial, but soon started shaking their heads, refused to greet me. It was deep winter. All was snowy. Sirens droned in the street. But in the time it took me to cross the landing to see my white lawn, everything had melted again. Birds were swooping, apples strewn across our patio.
A young woman had started visiting, always in blue. There were words written in my notebook beside the figures, dyschronometria, anticipatory grief, early onset, graphs and diagrams. I disregarded them. At night people chanted in the passageway behind our house. I dreamt of phone calls from Cee, invitations to her water birth: the river or my boss’s swimming pool.
Rooms took on different shapes now, unfamiliar people had occupied them, but they were quiet, respectful. Occasionally there was tennis. If no tennis, then wedges of light – mapping the wall and ceiling, stretching out their rhombuses. A man was hired to observe me. My visitors found me boring, repulsive, hated my company. They assumed I had a mania for dressing gowns and brought them, so many.
Breakfast was purees; lunch, strange exercise. The chanting came back, it was everywhere, within. A woman came to see me, her voice of powder, everything straining. She kissed my forehead and collapsed, shaking up and down. We’ve never met, I assured her, but she couldn’t understand.
Now a boy was in the hallway. He needed a glass of water, he was thirsty, it was urgent, would someone give it to him, please? But when he’d drunk his water, he wanted more, larger and larger glasses, always more. I rose in my bed, rose to listen. But there was no conclusion. The boy was gone, away with his mother. The room was dark. I rippled in my sheets. My name was Wilter. I was alone now.
Jack Barker-Clark is a writer from the North of England. His fiction has recently appeared in Hobart, No Contact, (mac)ro(mic), and elsewhere. In 2020 he founded The Pale Quarter, an interdisciplinary art-grasses group in a valley in his home county. A portfolio of his work can be found at jackbarker-clark.co.uk