Remember To Forget Me was chosen by UNESCO City Of Literature Edinburgh as part of the Story Shop programme, where writers read their work before an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was first performed in 2015, then again in 2016 as part of Story Shop’s 10th anniversary.
To describe my office as Open Plan would be to imply there is a Plan. The office is occupied by men at desks manning individual computers linked to individual scanners. Into these scanners the men feed sheets of paper, usually invoices, and such documents then form a database on each individual computer. The information of each individual database will be verified by each individual man with a click of his own individual plastic mouse. This is Data Entry and this is all there is to it. Well, I tell a lie. When I had started working here seven years ago, the first month had been spent extracting staples from documents before handing them over to the Data Entry Operatives. THIS WAS DATA PREP. and I even had my own staple extractor. I then graduated to the lofty position of Operative and, like my colleagues, have occupied said position for far too long. The job is easy and therefor hard. It is predictable. For the last seven years I have known how my working day will progress. ‘Progress’ is the wrong word. Between Monday 9 am and Friday 5 pm, I have known my days to the minute. To. The. Minute. But the predictability cripples until it comforts and any alternate profession has long-since become unthinkable.
Office conversation, of which there is little, is limited to hello’s and goodbye’s and the offer of coffee. There may be sporadic chat from time to time regarding a football match or a song on the office radio, but I am rarely involved. I don’t wish to be. I have nothing to say. I have data to enter and that is that. I just want to get home to my wife, that’s all, no offence intended. I love my wife. I miss my wife. But the dull, repetitive nature of the job has made me dull and repetitive and I doubt she misses me so. As my wife once said of me, if anyone looked up the word ‘forgettable’ in the dictionary, they’d have found a torn hole where my picture had once been. She never said that. I just made that up. It’s all in your head, she would say. Yes, she liked saying that one. That job gives you too much time to think, she would also say. I married her because she is right. She’s always right. You’re not the man you used to be, another favourite. To be fair, I can’t remember who I was before this job either.
SEE A PIN AND PICK IT UP AND ALL DAY
YOU’LL HAVE A PIN
So proclaims the weekly A4 slogan taped to the wall directly across from me by our absentee boss, which he changes whenever he shows for work. It is always in UPPERCASE and in BOLD. Sometimes in colour. Somewhere behind the closed blind of the office window the sun shines cold. Somewhere, the boss will be playing golf. And yet here we are, working a job that cries out for automation. Here we sit, we unhappy few, men together, the forgettable forgotten, staring at screens and connected by desks but little else, surrounded by the day’s boxes of paper piled high on one another all around us. Surrounded, I stare at my screen and suppose my life is over.
Believe it or not, I can get through a whole day, a whole week, without a single word to anybody. It’s true, and this has been such a week. My colleagues have seemingly remembered to forget me, collectively ignoring me all morning. The characteristic gaiety of a Friday has been absent and any and all conversation has so far excluded yours truly. Just wait until I tell my wife about this! At least I will have something to say about my day. I have been anticipating 11 a.m. all morning and I know I will have to be quick this time, dammit, or so help me. The collective consciousness of the room knows what is coming and the tension is, as they say, palpable. At least I think it is. As is the case every day at this time, the radio competes with the rhythmic hum of scanners, playing an offensively inoffensive song that will soon segue oh-so-smoothly into the percussive jingle that heralds the day’s headlines of war, rape, bombs, beliefs and weather. And the morning coffee break. This particular week I have missed my windows of opportunity each morning and each afternoon and have been the guilt-ridden recipient of ever-weakening beverages. ‘Missed’ is the wrong word. I have procrastinated. Why? Well, to offer would be to announce, to become the focus of attention, to become visible.
The air of resentment, if not hatred, is now obvious and suffocating. I can’t possibly focus on my data entering. My wife would no doubt say that this was all in my head, God love her. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the coffees have been getting weaker by the day. Thursday’s even lacked sugar, a veritable act of war! My only hope is to break with tradition and offer my comrades their usuals before the jingle hits its mark, perhaps even before the end of the song! Then and only then could I be assured the role of the great provider and win back favour. The song has now reached its instrumental break, leaving me only a bridge and an extended chorus in which to make my move.
Tick-tock. Chop-chop. Go me.
The song begins its inevitable, inexorable fade-out and I stand so as to PROJECT. I offer coffee in direct competition to the radio and the sound of scanners… and I lose. No response. I clear my throat. The urgency of the jingle kicks in and the clock strikes 11. I now offer coffee in the form of a statement rather than a rhetorical question, this time speaking over the scanners rather than under them. Nothing. They are ignoring me. These men are ignoring me. I stand alone, unsure of what to say or do next. No? Yes? Tea? Nothing. A man I have sat next to for almost a year and whose name I never remember stands and offers coffee. All gratefully accept his generous offer. I sit. I ask for coffee, with sugar!, and make it myself when none is forthcoming. The radio news broadcasts our failings and somewhere out there the bombs still fall as if nothing has changed. It is the most I have spoken all week and I remain silent for the remainder of the working day. It would have been an ideal opportunity to quit, to storm out leaving data un-entered. But then what would my wife say about that?
At 5 on the dot I abandon my work and walk home despite heavy rain, gathering my thoughts as I go. Who did they think they were? What did I ever do to them? Just you wait until my wife hears about this! She’d say it was all in my head, of course. The mood I find myself in takes me along new streets for the sheer Hell of it and these streets are busy with others who have also abandoned their work. A walk through the city becomes a dance of sorts, weaving and twisting to avoid others who do not weave, do not twist. Low umbrellas glance off my head as my fellow man cares less about blinding me. Typical of this city. People think nothing of a shoulder barge, a reckless tut-tut, of walking through me rather than around. With bitter coffee still on my breath, I test a theory, barging my way through people engrossed in phone calls and smart screens and thoughts that bring not one smile to one face. Nobody smiles anymore. I used to, but my wife said it didn’t suit me, that people would not react well to someone with a smile on their face. She is always right.
And then it happens. I collide with a financier, or someone at least dressed as such – you wouldn’t dress as such if you were not – and he displays the unjust confidence that only money can buy. His tired eyes widen at me from behind designer black rimmed glasses and he tells me to watch where I am going, because it is the thing to say, right? I obstruct his way once more, just so as to ask him if he had been watching where he had been going. He pretends not to hear the question and so I repeat it for effect. Slowly and clearly. The financier chooses to respond by claiming that he is not a moron like myself, and therefor had indeed been looking where he was going. I smile as I asked how he had not managed to avoid me, given that he had been watching where he had been going. The financier dismisses me and I let him rejoin the flow of others of his ilk. The rain then becomes torrential and I desire an umbrella. It is the most I have spoken all month.
Soaking, I find myself at the house. I couldn’t get any wetter if I tried and I take a moment to admire the paint job of the door of the house, admiring just how green the green is. Green for GO? The No. 6. remains the same. At least some things remain the same. As is so often the case in such leafy neighbourhoods, the door is unlocked and I needn’t have worried about fishing for keys I do not have on me. I close the door and wipe wet shoes on the ironic ‘Welcome’ mat. The sounds of television and children emanate from the living room and I brace myself for a loving onslaught that does not come. My coat finds a home on the Swedish coat stand that ever-so-nicely complements the bookcase further along the hallway and I resist the urge to flee. Next to the coat stand I notice the umbrella against the wall. In the new gilt-edged hall mirror, I examine myself, doing what I can with my lank hair for the benefit of my wife. I announce that, Darling, I am home. I no doubt mumble it as always; that unconscious desire to go unnoticed.
Upon entering the noise of the living room I see son and daughter lying on the Swedish rug with glazed expressions (no doubt) before the altar of the wall-mounted, backlit LED, or is it LCD, devoured by the widescreen of their dreams. I cannot compete with the hysterical advertisement for… whatever, and so greet myself on their behalves. I sit behind them on the low sofa, getting the matching cushion damp, and watch the kids watch the TV that reflects all three of us. On the nest of tables beside me is a half-empty/half-full mug of coffee, the mug cold to the touch. Next to it stands the standard-issue wedding portrait, my wife looking beautiful as ever. I admire her as I attempt to remember that bad time fondly. After a few minutes, the advertisements became unbearable noise and I retreat.
I lead a trail of wet footprints along the deep pile of the narrow hallway, stepping silently over plastic toys as I go, and find my wife in the kitchen. At first I think she has addressed me, which stops me in my tracks until I notice the baby in the highchair. Her tone had been far too loving for me and I should‘ve known better. She has her back to both me and the baby as she chops. Leaning against the doorway in an attempt to feel relaxed makes me feel uncomfortable as I just watch my wife without her knowing, enjoying it while I can. My wife stops chopping and turns to look lovingly at the baby, knife in hand, telling the baby to eat up. My wife doesn’t acknowledge me because she still doesn’t see me. Through raindrops on the window, a distant sun reflects off the blade of the knife and blinds me momentarily as we fail to see one another. My wife returns to chopping without a word to me. From the little I have seen of her, she is as radiant as in her wedding photo and is more than I deserve. On my way to her, I lean down to the baby as it inspects it’s own hand. I bend over low and receive a smile of recognition, which was all I had wanted. The baby returns it’s attention to it’s hand as I turn my attention to my wife. I will embrace her, surprise her, endure her embrace and affections for as long as possible. I ignore the knife in her hand as she chops away and wrap my arms around her slight frame for a moment of love, asking her what a man has to do to get a cup of coffee around here.
It would be foolish to expect my wife to ask how my day went, as there was never anything of note to say and she always knew it. And as always, she now displays nothing less than retarded emotions, unable to respond in kind to my affections and desire. And as always she screams and shoves and backs away from my affections and desire, finding the corner of the kitchen the farthest point from me. I stand silent between my wife and the baby she keeps glancing at. The knife shakes in her hand and she then places both hands to it as if to steady either the knife or herself. I suggest that this is no such greeting for a husband returning from a hard day’s work. My wife asks what the Hell I want. I suggest coffee again, but that a civil ‘Hello’ wouldn’t go amiss if that isn’t too much to expect. She asks me not to hurt her and I direct her attention to the knife that is in her hand, not mine. She doesn’t find this funny. She asks me, ever so politely, to leave, before lapsing into the usual, ‘You can’t keep doing this, it’s over, move on, he’ll be home any minute.’ Blah. As I step forward with open arms, her pleas become a rat-a-tat-tat of ‘GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!’ Behind me, the son stands in the doorway asking his mother why his daddy is here. My wife says she’ll call the police, like last time.
As I take my coat from the stand I look back at her holding her son and her knife and open the door to the rain. I take the umbrella by the door, telling her it used to be mine anyway, and walk away leaving the door open behind me.
This is the most I have spoken all year.