I’m awake. It is literally that sudden. My eyes open to a thin, watery light. A moment ago I was somewhere else: a dank, in utero world that pulsed and contracted to the warm foetal stupor of my brain. I was dreaming about myself. It’s all I ever dream about. What else is there? A man who wasn’t really a man told me a lie and I believed him. A child died because of it and a whole crowd of people turned and saw me for the worthless piece of shit I am.
It seemed so real, ultra-real, which is not really real at all. All the time it was happening I knew that somehow, but it still made the panic and disgust rise at the back of my throat. An elysian sun cast no shadows on the antique buildings; there was no breeze floating on the sterile air. It was the set of a cheap movie, or a block print in a mouldering book of adventure tales. So fake, so obviously artificial, and yet it jolted me upright in bed and quickened my heartbeat nonetheless.
I’m disorientated for a moment, but ultimately I know where I am. Of course I do. My clothes are folded clumsily over the back of the standard issue hotel chair, exactly where I left them a short time ago. The faint clack and groan of the lift comes to me from the end of the corridor outside, out there, beyond my bed and my room and the anonymous space these walls enclose. It’s four am. In a few hours I need to be up, I need to be showered and dressed in a suit that hopefully doesn’t look too creased. There’s the midweek rain, there’s the faint vulcanised smell that clings to the grimy metro tiles of the underground, and there’s a room of executives that are waiting for me to trip over my words so they can lean back in their chairs and smirk.
‘It’ll be ok. What you’ve done once, you can do again.’
My voice echoes back from the bare grey walls. It sounds muted and dull. And unconvincing. It’s not the same this time, I can’t get a grasp of it like I did before. I raised the bar for myself and now it’s too fucking high. I have nothing to show them, a big yawning void of progress that I’ve tried to cover with handfuls of words. It won’t take a genius to spot the sinkhole through the straw. I’m fucked and there’s not a lot I can do about it now.
‘You seem a bit distracted.’
My wife is telling me about a parent’s evening she went to for our youngest boy. He’s doing alright, which is something, at least, that I don’t have to worry about. I’m obviously not paying enough attention though.
‘Yeah, it’s just work. I’m tired.’
‘You work too much. You need to relax, it’ll all take care of itself.’
If you ever need to define the difference between men and women, it’s there in those six words: it’ll take care of itself. It’s easy to have faith when there’s nothing chiselling away at it. Our mortgage gets paid, there’s wine in the kitchen. Everything’s fine isn’t it? Except it probably isn’t. We might be thirty minutes away from the bubble being burst, and then what? Women are optimists. Men are just pricks. When it comes down to it, if they see someone struggling they’ll do what they can to help them stay under. I’ve seen it. I’ve fucking done it.
‘In this business, it’s sink or swim.’
That’s what passes as an induction – the grim reality behind all that Human Resources bullshit. Plough your own furrow. Dig your own hole. We’re four or five hundred millennia in and not a lot has changed. Natural selection is natural selection: the details transmute but their execution never wavers. Suzanne doesn’t understand. She tells me it isn’t fair. Fairness has nothing to do with it. Right and wrong is a yarn we spin for the kids. If you build upon that as a foundation, you’re pretty much fucked from the start. It’s all about living on your wits. Be better than the next bloke, and if you can’t do that, then at least seem like you’re better than him. When they cut the weakest loose just keep moving, don’t look back, and don’t let them know you’re relieved it wasn’t you.
‘They’re waiting for you in the boardroom.’
I bet they are. I sign the visitor’s book and get in the lift. The doors close, slowly, and I turn and check my tie in the dark corporate mirror. For a second I think it’s going to be alright, but I can’t quite bring myself to believe it. My face looks jaundiced in the incandescent light.