I wrote this short story in 2007 after friends asked me to write a love story. It’s not a genre I’d had anything to do with but I’m game for anything. This, then, is the first love story I ever wrote. It made the girls cry because, y’know, ‘chicks’.
Invisible isn’t the same as imaginary, but at times I think it may as well be. I see her often, and she has been wonderful to me on occasion, probably without even noticing how much I enjoy the attention from her. She doesn’t come from a particularly easy background, as far as I can tell. There is often a faint whiff of cooking and kids about her, but no one except me seems to notice. How could they? By and large, they don’t even register her existence. She’s a cleaner. That really says it all, doesn’t it? They are the invisible workers of the world, even when they’re in an office full of people. They move with a silent efficiency, an economy of movement that seems to make them blend into the background. I’ve seen the sometimes annoyed looks on some of the office workers faces, and at times I see a disdainfulness that I think is endemic but nevertheless wrong in how people manage their relationships with each other. Being a cleaner is an economic necessity for some; it is not a crime and I for one am thankful that she does such a good job, often under trying conditions. I sometimes wonder if people who choose this job do so because they’re nondescript, or if the job makes them so. Sometimes I watch her out of the corner of my eye, fascinated by how this woman, who is neither old nor young, beautiful or ugly, fat or thin, can move with such fluidity and speed and yet remain unnoticed. On the few occasions she’s seen me looking at her she’s given me a small and encouraging smile; it’s almost like she sees into me and recognises a kindred spirit, because I, too, am one of those nondescript types who has never known the gasps of surprised delight in my being found here, or anywhere for that matter. It’s true that my daydreaming has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion, and probably more than on a hundred occasions, truth be told. It’s not that I’m melancholic; its that at times I feel a sense of emotional detachment, of nothingness, of not belonging to any particular tribe. But this I know, with the clarity of one who spends a lot of time alone, pondering; there is a vast intelligence at work in the universe. At the very least, it is benign; at most, loving and nurturing. That others fail to feel or acknowledge it does not, in my opinion, negate its existence. It simply hides it. I wonder if she has these thoughts, and then I dismiss it; here is a woman who does not have the luxury of a thought that is not focussed on the comfort of others, either in her job or at home. She is stripped-down humanity, every waking moment – and I suspect many sleeping ones – is spent worrying in the service of others. She intrigues me; she makes me want to love her for her willingness to take her responsibilities head-on and see them through. At the same time she frightens me; here is a woman of ruthless efficiency who appears to have little in the way of romantic notions and even less in her consideration of them. Yet she has been good to me on more than one occasion, even when its clear she has had to make the time to take the time. Does she like me? I hope so. I know I’m not much to look at. I’m getting on into middle age and losing quite a lot more hair than I would have liked; I’m getting a little thick around the middle but it’s certainly not from my diet. When it comes to food, I catch as catch can. It is one of the pains of being single, although I long ago got used to the idea of eating alone and at odd times. I’ve sort of wandered off again into those daydreams that feel so good yet divert my attention from my job. I know the boss doesn’t like me; I’ve heard him say it a few times, although he didn’t know that I heard him. It hurt me nonetheless. I prefer it when he treats me like I’m invisible. Isn’t it odd that what causes us pleasure in one setting – the boss not seeing me – can cause pain in another – her not seeing me. Sometimes I feel that I just sort of flicker in and out of existence. She’s coming this way! I get awfully tongue-tied when she’s around. I can see she’s tired so I silently offer her my chair, my eyes quickly doing the talking. It flashes through my mind that she’s going to reject my offer, which will stab me in the heart because it will feel like she’s rejecting me. Why, oh why, do I put myself up for rejection? I just know she’s going to give me a tight smile and move on; even though we’re safely around the corner from the main office there’s no way she’s going to sit down in here. But she smiles, a little cautiously and with a glance sideways, and she sits on the edge of the seat. I can see she’s tired, and perhaps this has been a day of greater than average exhaustion for her. I try to speak but it comes out all wrong; it sounds like I have a lump in my throat that I’ve just managed to dislodge, and my heart falls at my own clumsiness. Right now, I wish I could be invisible to her. I want to slink away and be done with it, but to my absolute delight she motions me over with her hand. I want to run, but I muster all the dignity I can as I move closer. She waves me closer, and I need no third invitation; I jump up into her lap and rub my head against her hand. She pats me and smooths my hair, and if I die right now it will be in contentment. “Hello, Cleaner,” she whispers. “Did you catch a mouse today?” At that point I’m so genuinely happy that I can’t remember, but I mutter the best reply I can manage. For a time, we’re both visible.
Visible II. Anger Management.
“For fuck’s sake! Nearly two years I’ve given this company and what have I got to show for it? Two pounds of fuck all, that’s what!” When he wasn’t busy brooding about how the world had done him wrong, The Boss was busy being a complete arsehole, except when it came to dealing with his boss, when he turned on that oily, toadying charm that is as insincere as it is transparent. Indeed, he had joined the firm nearly two years ago; that much was true. What was less obvious, at least to him, was that he had in fact at least partly climbed the greasy pole of promotion – and not by means of ability. He was of a kind that is well known: a political opportunist, a backstabber, a bully and a thug when he could get away with it, a rampant self-promoter and above all blessed (?) with that rare gift of being able to reinvent the truth of any matter in his own mind and to his own satisfaction, so that when his plans failed it was because of the envy of others, and when they succeeded it was because of his natural intelligence, foresight and – dare he say it – a touch of cunning where appropriate. He had knifed his way into a position of insect authority that was beyond his true ability, and he meant to go higher still. If only that idiot who was his boss could see, if only his boss could put aside his fear that a promotion would somehow equate to an attack from below. The Boss had been passed over for promotion for all the right reasons; his ambition was greater, much greater, than his intellect; his section had the highest staff turnover and was a uniformly unhappy place; he had already been promoted twice, both times because his immediate superiors had left and the company was slow, awkward and lazy in it’s recruiting. He was lucky enough to be available and insecure enough to know it, though he’d never admit it. He had very calmly and meekly left his boss’ office, having just been told that the firm intended to look outside for the management position above his. He nodded, quiet and pensive, trying to look thoughtful and as if he had in fact declined their generous offer of promotion rather than having been told he was not a candidate for it. Inside, he seethed. Someone was going to pay. Everyone was going to pay. Nearing the end of the corridor he dropped one act and replaced it with another. His face red and his tread loud, hinting at venom to be spat as he marched/waddled back into his section, glaring at everyone as if they were all under suspicion of committing a crime. Everyone was busy doing what they were paid for, which was a strange mixture of their correct work and covering and correcting his mistakes, for his type are good at twisting the truth and insinuating guilt whenever they’re caught short. A cup of tea to calm him down then he’d sort these lazy bastards out. Again. He drew momentary satisfaction from the knowledge that he had the power to make people pay. He almost smiled, but it came out more like a grimace. As he rounded the corner he spied the cleaner and the cat, both of them sitting down as if the world had come to a stop just for them. “What are you sitting down for, and why did you bring that filthy cat in here?” he spat. She stood up quickly, dislodging the cat from her lap, and hurriedly moved toward the door. He stopped her exit with an arm across the doorway; there was going to be hell to pay and she was going to pay it. “Are you deaf or stupid?” he roared at her. The cat darted for the door and nearly made it, but The Boss’ shoe found its mark and the cat did a graceless somersault before bounding away. At the sight of it something dropped from her heart to her stomach. Perhaps you have felt that dull feeling yourself on occasion. Without a second’s hesitation she drew off and slapped his face hard. He stood, stunned, so she slapped him again. He grabbed her roughly by the arm and dragged/shook her all the way to the rear door where he roundly berated her and threatened her with charges of assault before throwing her out and telling her she was through. The door slammed behind her with such force that it immediately flew open again, but he was there in a flash and slammed it again. This time, the lock caught. She stood there, shaking, immobile, blank. The cat called to her softly from his hiding place behind some waste containers. She knelt down and he came to her warily. They had been more visible than either had wanted and both had paid dearly for it, yet now they both drew strength from each other. “Well, Cleaner, it looks like we’ll both be looking for a new job and we’re both a bit old for it, but there we are. Are you okay?” He said what he could, but it was muffled both with embarrassment and rage. “Tell you what; I’ll give you a job. Do you want to come home with me?” He wanted to; very much. Sometimes love compels you to follow, and sometimes its sheer good luck to get the chance. She stood up quickly and, still jumpy, he fled. It was an instinctive act, borne of thousands of generations of finely-tuned reaction. She called him back but his heart was racing and he needed time to gather himself again. She needed to get home and so decided to find him the next day and make him an offer he couldn’t refuse: fresh food and a new home where he could see out his days in comfort. She walked briskly down the side pathway of the building and out onto the street.
Visible III. House of Fun.
There’s never a dull moment in this place. I see them all coming and going, and doing all sorts of weird things in between that helps them avoid as much work as possible. Fortunately, they very rarely see me because my office has its own entrances and exits. I have to say I’m glad the cat’s gone, mangy old flea bag that it was; I always hated it. And that cleaning lady? A bit too conscientious for my liking. Really, as much as I hate to admit it, that Section Boss is the one I like the most. He’s such a fucking dimwit; he’s hours of fun without even knowing it. Since my first memory I’ve been something of a connoisseur. Not that I’m particularly picky, its just that I admire and appreciate the finer things in life when they come my way. No, the only thing I draw the line at is that foul no-brand cheese. You’d have thought The Boss might have worked it out by now but he’s such a cheapskate who can tell? Maybe he buys it on purpose but you’d think he’d have realised that I won’t swallow the bait. Truth be told, you’d think he’d have woken up to the fact by now that no one ever falls into his traps; he’s so obvious. It’s an odd end to the day. If I’ve learned anything from my observations of the average staffer its that they wouldn’t lift a finger to help anyone if it meant bringing themselves into the harsh glare of The Boss’ spotlight. He needs a spotlight to see even the most obvious ploys; he’s that thick. They bicker, pilfer, use company resources for personal benefit and generally do as little as they can without getting caught. I’m sure he knows it but he can’t push too far because he’s the biggest culprit. However, and as I said before, something odd happened. I don’t know if it was his arbitrary dismissal of the cleaner or if it was kicking the cat, but the staff are up in arms. There’s a meeting going on in the Big Boss’ office right now but of course, I wasn’t invited. I have my own means of eavesdropping, however, so off I go. I can hear a raised voice in there but it’s a bit difficult to make out exactly what’s being said. They all seem to be talking at once. Suddenly quiet. Now I can hear the Big Boss; he’s on the warpath, for sure, which has been a rare sight in these latter years of his career. “Idiot; thug, exceeded the level of his usual incompetence; reinstate the cleaner immediately; fired.” Fired! Ha, ha! The Old Man finally grew a pair and fired that fucking moron! I scuttle about with glee then quickly reposition myself so he can see me as he leaves the office. This is going to be good! He skulks out, crestfallen, without even a bleat of protest. He’s been exposed for the coward he is. Invigorated and perhaps a little foolhardy because of it, I rush out into the open and climb up onto a shelf, where I call out to him. He turns and looks me straight in the eye, one rat to another. His cheap traps and even cheaper cheese have not prevailed. However, the traps he set for others have sprung closed on him. It’ll be a lively old time in the wall cavities tonight!
Visible IV. Into The Light.
“Well, Cleaner, it looks like we’ll both be looking for a new job and we’re both a bit old for it, but there we are. Are you okay?” I said what he could, but it was muffled both with embarrassment and rage. “Tell you what; I’ll give you a job. Do you want to come home with me?” I wanted to; very much. Sometimes love compels you to follow, and sometimes its sheer good luck to get the chance. She stood up quickly and, still jumpy, I fled. It was an instinctive act, borne of thousands of generations of finely-tuned reaction. She called me back but my heart was racing and I needed time to gather myself again, and she needed to get home. She walked briskly down the side pathway of the building and out onto the street. What was I thinking! Here is a woman I’ve come to know and love asking me to be her man, and my prayers having finally been answered the best I can do is run away. I race after her, determined not to spend another night away from her. She’s caught the lights and crossed the street so I have to hurry or I’ll lose her. I make a mad dash and almost immediately I’m hurled up onto the grille of a car before being thrown sideways into the gutter. No one pulls up, no one helps; I’m left in the gutter pissing my life away while a small crowd of gawkers gather for this unexpected entertainment. How cruel people are at the scene of an accident. Dignity is the second casualty. All I can think of is getting to her but the life is draining out of me. I’m getting cold and I see stars, then I’m flushed with the warmth of a million bright lights and ….
Visible V. Solitude.
The Boss walks out just in time to see the cat die. He is unaffected, too deep in his own wretchedness to think beyond himself, which is his normal state. What he’d really like to do is kick the cat again but he’s too much of a coward to do it in front of anyone who might challenge him. Opportunity lost; the story of his life. She arrives home to a ringing phone. Too tired, she lets it ring until it goes through to her answering machine. It’s the Big Boss, she grabs the phone, and after many beautiful words from him she finally understands that she has her job back with a slight raise in pay. The weight lifts from her shoulders and for the first time in a long time she smiles. Her children notice it and they’re glad; they’re old enough to know she carries their world on her shoulders, but too young to know how they can help. It’s a good night, capped off by the good news that there’ll be another mouth to feed from tomorrow. The excitement of finding just the right old chipped bowls for his food and water, and the best old blanket for his bed pushes their own bedtimes back, but finally sleep claims the innocent. It was the best day she could remember in a long time. Everyone was glad to see her back, but there was a small dark lining to the clouds of happiness. The cat, Cleaner, was nowhere to be found. Just a bit spooked, they said. He’d turn up again, by and by. She hoped so, and for all their good wishes she was glad when everyone got back to their own work and left her to glide silently and unnoticed around the offices. Her day eventually at an end, she has decided to splash out some of her higher pay and buy the best homecoming cat food she can find. Happily and contentedly, she sets off down the side pathway. She’s a woman on a mission. As she turns out of the building to walk up the footpath to the lights she catches a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye. All the goodness drains out of her day. Crying openly but silently she slowly walks back up the pathway, looking years older than she did only a minute or so before. Finding what she needs, she ventures back to the roadside and wraps the cat in thick paper. He will be buried in her garden. She mourns the loss of the cat more than she could say. She’d loved that old man; so open, so uncomplicated, so giving. The children are packed off to bed early, which is where they want to be, too. One Cleaner is gone, another remains. She sits in her chair and once more becomes invisible.