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The Wail of the World
by Barry Charman
John Whim was startled one morning to find his pockets full of dirt. He scooped out a handful of soil and threw it to the ground. He spared a moment to think about the dirt and its arbitrary appearance in his life. But he had no more time to pause than that. He could come to no immediate conclusions so decided to walk on.
Not important, he thought to himself with half a smile.
He arrived at the station the same time as he always did. This comforted him. He was a man of routine; he knew the value of precision. Control was important to him; he never lost it.
His train arrived early. Whim had time to pick and choose a window seat. He put his briefcase down beside him, hoping the other passengers would take the hint. Then he buried his gaze in the newspaper. He nursed the familiar aggravations the stories gave him. He pursed his lips and snorted at the things he liked to be offended by. When the train pulled out of the station, he checked his watch; it was half a minute slow. Whim stared at the second hand. It wasn’t moving. He realized he was going to be half a minute late for the rest of the day.
He was too upset to return to the paper, so looked outside. His reflection in the glass stared back at him. It seemed frail, withered. There were mosquitos on his shoulders, bloated, biting him. He brushed his shoulders in a panic, but there was nothing there. He stared at the paper, but he didn’t read.
When the train arrived, there was a commotion. A pregnant woman had gone into labour in her seat. One of the other passengers was a doctor; he and others were around her, calming her. Whim stood by the doors, irritated, anxious for release. He needed fresh air. There were too many people. There were always too many people.
He’d had dreams where he woke up and the world had been emptied. There was just a certain sort that remained. Enough, more than enough. But less. It had given him a peace he’d held onto for days.
He hadn’t told Patricia or the girls. They were very touchy-feely. They asked him about the smile that had become pinned to his face, but he didn’t explain it. He wasn’t accustomed to explaining himself.
Eventually the doors were opened, and Whim darted out. He gave a porter an accusatory glance. It was good for the spirit to find someone to blame, to allocate that blame to them. The porter looked away, and Whim felt a little lighter. Leaving the station, he checked his phone. He had a missed call. That charity again. Something about funding and water. He skipped through the menus and clicked on delete. It wasn’t that he didn’t care; there just wasn’t time for every person that wanted to meet. So many people wanted sponsors, endorsement. They expected him to bend over backwards, but God hadn’t made him that flexible.
People always wanted something for nothing.
He checked his watch. It had started but was slowing again. It was still half a minute behind. It shouldn’t matter. He hoped to take a few clients out for dinner later, show them London in all its glory. Show them all the pieces of it a smart man could carve out.
There was a French restaurant he passed every morning. Through the window you could see a lobster tank, all the lobsters swimming with that stupid oblivious way of theirs. This was where Whim liked to take people, show them the city through the lens of an empty fish tank– that always gave them something to think about. Whim glanced at the restaurant as he passed it, then stopped in his tracks. The tank was absurdly full, and the water was bubbling, frothing, but the contents were not lobsters. Whim counted the skulls, forty–no, fifty—all of them infant-sized. He turned his gaze to the pavement and kept his eyes down as he resumed.
Once he arrived at the firm, Whim entered the building, pausing to mutter a greeting to the man at the desk. He didn’t relax until he was in the lift.
“Everything all right, Mister Whim?”
Whim nodded at Bobby. Bobby was a soothing, familiar presence. He’d been with the building for almost fifty years, taking people up and down, doffing his hat hello and goodbye.
Bobby gave him a curious smile. “Tough commute, Sir?”
Whim allowed for a brief smile back. “Not at all.”
Bobby pressed for the tenth floor. He continued to look at Whim, as if studying him.
“Doesn’t it trouble you, Sir?”
“What do you mean?” Whim asked warily.
“Can’t you hear it, Sir? The wail of the world? You can bury it, but it’s always there. We’re born to it. With a sort of… ability. To commune.”
Whim’s voice was tight. “I can’t hear anything.”
“Oh. My sympathies.”
Bobby turned away from him.
As soon as the doors opened, Whim hurried out. He intended to turn and give Bobby a piece of his mind, but he had the wild thought he wouldn’t actually be there.
Whim hurried to his office. He found good old Roger waiting for him, smiling. But then he saw Roger’s shadow, which was kneeling. Roger was not. Looking around the office, Whim saw that everyone’s shadow was kneeling. Pleading. And it wasn’t like he didn’t know why.
“Hang on, Roger, got to make a call.”
Whim went into his office, picked up the phone, and dialed the charity. He pledged his endorsement, and told them he would be sending a cheque. They sounded overwhelmed by the amount, though it was small change to him.
When he ended the call, Whim checked his watch. It had started again, and he realized the call had only taken him half a minute. That was all. He pushed it from his mind, determined to get on with his day.