I am delighted to say that another one of my short stories came 2nd place in the LifeofWriters monthly competition. The theme this time was ‘Regret’. I tried to have a little fun with this one. Enjoy!
It stares teasingly at me, compelling me to take action. My hands tremble and I thrust them into my pockets to restrain myself. No one else is around but I can still hear the tip tap of typed keys, the murmur of quiet conversation. Cautiously I peer out, to see the ocean of bobbing heads – barely visible above the bright blue dividers.
I wait for a moment checking that no one has noticed me, getting more nervous the longer I hesitate. Just get it over with, I urge myself, my tightly clenched palms becoming clammy. No, I plead, they’ll know it’s you, just look at you, who else would do such a thing.
The office is normally quiet, subdued by the constant pressure to deliver. My stressed colleagues often remind me of over-boiled eggs, their forced cordial expressions like the cracks that barely keep from bursting. Not me though, I have found a way to cope. My insides are snugly supported by my widening waistline, one that my wife flip-flops between chastising and cuddling into.
She tries to be supportive, knowing that this job will give our daughter the future she dreams of, and I feel pressured to be jolly at home too, lest I worry her. At times I can see her concern etched within her vibrant viridescent eyes, the slight appearance of crow’s feet when puts on a smile whilst trying not to frown. I love her, more deeply than I had realised was possible, more intensely than anyone else in my life except my daughter. For those two I can carry the weight of the world upon my shoulders and still feel elated, buoyed by their love. At least that’s my mantra, the thoughts I delicately wrap around myself like an impenetrable shield as I pack my briefcase each morning.
Just thinking of my two girls began to cheer me up, the way their infectiously joyous faces, so alike, beamed at me as I’d got in the car. Prudence, waved tenderly from the doorway. Both of us laughed as our sweet little Sophie ran heedless across the damp grass, a purple floral dress underneath a pair of dungarees, her legs and feet bare except for a single bright orange sock.
‘Papa,’ she squealed excitedly, urgently pressing a piece of paper against the car’s window. ‘I drew this for you,’ she proclaimed proudly. The blurry mix of crayon could have been anything, it didn’t matter and it never does, all that mattered was the infinite depth of love in her innocent expression. The paper lies nestled within my briefcase beside the empty chocolate bar wrappers, their crumbs have merged with the smudged collage ensuring that its depiction will forever remain a mystery.
Lost within my own circumspection, I almost didn’t hear them approaching. The click clack of heels upon the industrial carpet tiles, so thin they may as well be bare stone. Their words jar me from my pleasant recollection, ‘Dave told me,’ one of them whispers dejectedly, ’he was bragging that the exec team had asked him to make a 30% headcount reduction by…’ The end of the sentence broke away, concealed by muffled sobs.
‘Oh, Linda,’ the other voice comforted, ‘you have nothing to worry about, your sales were in the top quartile this month.’
Realising they will turn the corner to find my bulky form blocking their path, I dart clumsily to the counter to grab a coffee. Only my mug knocks against the edge, smashing my hopes of appearing nonchalant into a thousand shards. I try not to feel their cold opinionated stares upon my back as I ungracefully reach down to pick up the pieces. I’m used to it, many of my colleagues frequent me with unspoken resentment. They wonder how I’m not drowning in their combined sorrow, can’t understand why I don’t partake in the incessant drone of narcissistic nattering. Perversely, they take a certain pride in it, being able to talk about how they are so busy they missed their son’s football game, how their wife left them because she couldn’t handle the late hours. Their voices feel like the void, tones barren of all emotion bar one, ambition. I prefer to stay silent, to take a few deep breaths and imagine something relaxing, like the scarlet ringlets of my wife’s hair and how they tickle my cheek when she leans against me.
Compared to them, I suppose I should welcome my vice. I’m not claiming that it’s healthy, but it gets me through without all the bitterness. However, it is times like these that it undermines me. Instances when the work kitchen is filled with an array of delicious delicacies. I had only come in for a coffee but the dense swirls of fresh chocolate icing upon the birthday cake exert a force on me like a black hole. I stand like a statue, eyes lingering upon the bright white lettering that spells ‘Happy Birthday Dave’, while still gingerly holding the fragments of porcelain. Despite the presence of the women it almost lured me in.
‘Chris,’ Linda said softly, ‘you’re bleeding.’ She reached out kindly with her tissue, ‘here’, she said. As my fingers brush against it I feel it is damp with tears and feel an immediate regret of my earlier train of thought, perceiving it was I who had been judgmental, that I had become jaded. Small drips of blood splat soundlessly against the floor. I feel embarrassed but relieved as the cake slips from focus. The realisation that I had almost delved into it’s perfectly untarnished facade, almost certainly to leave a trail of blood behind me, fills me with wretchedness. As I dispose of the mug and wipe the blood I can feel a trickle of perspiration wriggle down the side of my face, and in a moment of strength I bolt out of the kitchen and to the toilet.
Wiping my forehead dry, I look closely at the man in the mirror. Time has made a mockery of me, it is clear that even without the folds of skin under my neck that my looks have faded. I shakily remove a small photograph from my wallet, it is crumpled and faint but forever dear to me. It had been a feature of all my wallets since it had first been taken, on the pier of her hometown, her tender arms were wrapped tightly around me, seeking comfort as a harsh gale blew in from the sea. The man looks daring, filled with vigour and courage that the world will be of his making, that the woman by his side will give him the strength to see it through. But, that man is barely recognisable, the vaguely familiar blue tint in his eyes is far brighter than the ones that greet me in the mirror. That feeling of empowerment that comes with youth had slowly but surely seeped away, to be replaced with a gradually accumulating remorse, as if they are two sides of the same hourglass. The transition is so lazy there is no boundary, merely a continuous blend stretching from this moment all the way back to that photograph.
There are times when that regret seems like innumerable grains of sand cascading down to bury me alive, but usually in the bright light of day it’s a flimsy feeling of such obvious folly. As I morbidly watch the blood merge with the running tap, I can feel that lifetime of regret floating up my esophagus. It burns as I try to swallow it back down. It’s the man’s fault, the one in the mirror, and I stare at him, willing him to be brave. Eventually he shirks from my steely cerulean stare, and in his wake I can see once more my old companion, who had before lain languidly beneath the surface. My hefty thumb slides over the photo to cover up the man’s face, all I have eyes for is my angel, her features little different to how they are now, she is the one who makes all of life’s regrets seem a mere trifle. No matter where life has taken me, or what decisions I have come to regret, she has always stood by my side and I knew she always would.
I waltz confidently out of the toilet, heading purposefully to the kitchen. The cake no longer has the same irresistible allure but I still grab a sizeable fistful and swallow it in a few hasty bites, taking no heed of the two women’s abashed stares over the top of their coffee mugs.
‘Don’t worry, Linda,’ I said warmly, ‘I’m quitting.’