In a windowless room, fifteen by fifteen, stood fifteen chairs. But as a man entered with the name of Adam and the age of sixty, he saw there were not fifteen people, just six including himself. If anyone looked, they might’ve said he didn’t look sixty. Yet nobody did look and nobody did say anything at all. No acknowledgement whatsoever to the fact their number had been augmented; no eyes widened, no smile if lips could be seen unfurled. They just went on with what they were doing, which amounted to looking at phones and occasionally glancing at the clock.
As Adam took his seat he decided there was nothing for it. So he took out his phone and pretended there was something interesting therein. But there was nothing. There was nothing interesting in this room at all. Except for one thing… Glancing at the clock, it struck him that it hadn’t yet been put forward. On the one hand it was giving back one hour to their lives yet on the other hand it was taking moments away again. Fifteen moments to be precise.
Suddenly, the woman opposite, in her thirties and a nurse’s uniform and lanyard, silently upped and left.
“Was it something I said?” said Adam, stabbing knifelessly in the dark. But the nurse was away, no time for small-talk, like all the others had no time for it either.
Within seconds they numbered five again. A man this time, dark and handsome, suited. A solicitor perhaps, who sat with precision. Adam maintained his peep, hoping the man would peep back and feel it necessary to kick something off. But he didn’t, so Adam gave up on the idea.
Eager for distraction from the nothingness, he remembered he had a crossword in his pocket, crudely torn from the Guardian and unfinished. He thought about giving it another bash; if he could just crack its backbone, fifteen down… But he didn’t, because it would make too much noise, like Werther’s Originals in the cinema do. Anyway this room was a chastening puzzle in itself, within which he decided to search silently for stories.
The lady next-door, whom he’d decided was in her forties, flicked away posts with a disdainful forefinger as if they were bogeys, then began to add her voice to the virtual debate. Thumbs were needed now, to knit furious rows on the issue. The issue, Adam imagined, was men. “They’re all bastards,” she was typing. And she should know, having been dumped by one. Lol.
The man to Adam’s right was in the muddle of a torrid affair, sexting in fantastic anticipation. “Why can’t you leave him and be with me?” he was asking. He was unaware, Adam decided would be fun, that the man opposite him, the man to Adam’s left, was the cuckold in question. Virtual danger, virtual jeopardy and irony to boot.
Adam began to feel virtually sorry for the man, whose eyes were blinking sad, like they were looking ahead to the toxic demise of a twenty-year marriage. Not minutes before, he was asking the nurse if he could have a couple of lollies, quietly planning to save them for the grandchildren. But soon his eyes would not clap on them as often, they would not rest on the shelves he’d put up in the living room and stood back to behold with pride. They would in the not-too-distant be looking at a bleak bedsit or Housing Association flat with no permission for DIY or room or garden for children to run around in.
Because there’d be divorce, over which the dark and handsome solicitor would preside. He’d feel absolutely no compulsion to favour the husband, because that’s the law, that’s the way it is, and though he’s a bloke himself as long as he got his fee he’d be happy. He himself was in a loving marriage, the kind that’s unbreakable. Or that, Adam decided, is what he thinks, because any moment now his wife could be having her head turned too.
“It’s possible, right?” Adam imagined saying to the woman to his right. “All men are bastards but some women can be less than honest too? In the interest of balance.”
But the woman to his right couldn’t agree. In fact she was outraged at the notion, so much so that she stashed away her phone and left with an indignant flourish. Clearly Adam’s view was anachronistic, this was not the time for balance, the world was not ready for it, in the current climate the world had gone off the idea. So now they were four in the court, where blame and counter-blame was being lobbed over and volleyed back, making Adam glance expectantly from left to right and back.
“Fifteen love,” umpired the dark and handsome man, “Fifteen all.”
But then the wife was called. She entered sheepishly, without looking at either man in her life. In the circumstances looking was unbearable, impossible.
“How could you do this?!” the sad man cried.
“I’m sorry, Frank,” she said, looking at the floor, “My mind’s made up.”
“Advantage Ernest,” declared the dark and handsome man.
Frank was speechless, flabbergasted, broken. He wanted desperately to protest, beg even. But tragically he knew his time was up, all he could do was gather up his coat, pocket the two lollies for the grandkids, and leave.
“Love you, Victoria,” said the man to Adam’s right.
“Love you too, Ernest.”
“Game, set and match,” perorated the dark and handsome man.
“I’ll wait for you outside,” said Ernest, with a kiss that could not be felt.
Still looking at the floor, Victoria released a tear, with a mixture of love for Ernest, sadness for Frank amid the blinking destruction love had caused, and fear of the possible bumps along the road to her next normal. The dark and handsome solicitor meanwhile, went back to his phone and scrolled fondly through the pics of the beautiful wife and home he could never contemplate letting slip from his hands.
It wasn’t long before Adam’s time was up, he knew it, so began to consider the world he’d emerge to. With the windowless room affording no hint of rain or shine, no merest glimpse of how the land lay, it was all a matter of conjecture, fodder for his imagination. He strove to picture sunshine, but something nagged him, something dark, dangerous and grave. An ugly brawl, a broken nose, a dagger in the heart as Frank and Ernest scrapped on the pavement.
He tried to shrug away this horrible thought but couldn’t, because this was the monster he’d created and had to live with. No turning back. For the past fifteen minutes he’d been living in a world unreal, unyieldingly monstrous, stark and meaningless, where conversation was forbidden, laughter frowned upon, views on the outside world bricked up. A world that made him ask what did it all mean?
A minute later he was blinking at the sun. There was no ugly brawl, no noses broken, daggers in the heart. Adjusting his eyes to the light, he saw Frank being greeted by his daughter and grandkids, smiling and chattering as he proffered a lolly apiece. His daughter jokingly chided him for giving them stuff that was bad for their teeth.
“Ah come on,” Frank’s wife was saying as they piled into the car, “You can’t deny a grandfather giving his grandkids a treat.”
As they drove for the exit, Frank held back to allow another car to pull out. The driver, Ernest, smiled his acknowledgement and drove on.
“Excuse me,” said a voice, and Adam turned to see it belonged to the woman who’d sat to his right. “Can you change a five pound note for the ticket machine?”
“I can do better than that,” said Adam, “They gave me a free carpark ticket. I don’t drive so why don’t you take it?”
“Thanks,” she said with a smile, “Can I return the compliment by offering you a lift somewhere?”
Travelling home, they talked a lot. They talked about the future, what life could have in store, what plans could be made, what corners of the world they could visit with loved-ones.
“My husband and I fancy Mexico,” she said.
“That’s nice,” he said, “You can drop me here if it’s easier.”
“I won’t hear of it,” she said, “I’ll drop you right outside your door.”
Thanking her for her kindness, Adam got out of the car and gave her a wave. Opening the gate to his small town house, he smiled to himself, thinking life could actually be sweet and people sweeter. Given the chance, given the freedom, they were all beautiful and they were all friends. Yes, behind the mask they had their problems, but they were all colourful stitches in the tapestry. Away from the fifteen minutes of compliance they were rich and profound, far from stark and meaningless.
Far less stark and meaningless than the fifteen hundred words in this story, anyway.