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David Gaffney

Just tell her. Just open up your heart and spill it out. That's what some people do. But Damien's plan was special and as he began to put it into action, everything in the universe seemed to click into place, and all things rang with Emma; even the muted throb of the car's engine sang her name - Emma, Emma, Emma. He looked in his rear mirror at the diminishing oblong that was Industry House. Emma would be sat there this very minute, right next to Damien's empty desk. Every evening she lingered in his thoughts. Did he exist in hers? He was about to find out.

     At the junction he hesitated. Usually he turned right and headed straight for junction nine. Fourteen minutes and three junctions later he'd roll off the slip road and another eight minutes thirty saw him in his flat eating toast and staring at the fridge. But tonight was different. Instead of turning right, he turned left, then left again, and into the supermarket car park where he stopped. He laughed and slapped his hands on the steering wheel in a rapid tattoo. 'Woo-hoo,' he cried, self-consciously. Exuberance didn't come easily to Damien; he couldn't understand why people whistled and hollered out at concerts - he was unable to find the motivation within himself, even though he was sure he enjoyed the gigs as fully as he was intended to. Tonight was different. A new life was spread out before him, a life that would give the answer to the one question that mattered; could Emma love him as he loved her? He sat for a time listening to the ticking of the metal as the bonnet cooled down.

     Half an hour later he glanced at himself in the rear mirror. 'Bye-bye, Damien Jones, legal consultant. Nice to know you.'

     In the supermarket toilets Damien's transformation took place. He climbed into baggy blue overalls, glued on a false beard, jammed a woolly hat onto his head and balanced a pair of giant oval green-tinted spectacles on his nose. He nodded at his reflection in the mirror, made a gun with his finger and pointed. 'Hey! Kev! Kevin. Kevo. Kevvy. Kay. Kev. The k-miester. What's going on mate? What's going on pal, mate, pallo. . . matey - What's happening dude. Hey, how you doing? How's it hanging? What's going down - dog. Dog? What's new? Hey, lad, what's the crack? What's new fellah?'

<  2  >

     More of this, and more, and yet more, until slowly, incrementally, Damien, the dull, be-suited legal consultant disappeared and Kevin the down-to-earth cleaner was nodding and smiling back at him from the mirror. There was a bold swagger in his walk when he left the supermarket toilets. Mr De Niro had immersed himself into his new role.

     Back at Industry House he waited for the security man to buzz him through. Normally the man would have recognised him and given him that ironic half salute he seemed to reserve for Damien and Damien only. Damien could never think of anything to say to the security men. Some of Damien's colleagues chatted away to them, but Damien had no idea what they spoke about. He didn't even know the names of the security people, never seemed to need to. Mate was always enough.

     Donny, the shift supervisor, had constructed a miniature living room in the corner of the utensil cupboard - coffee table, stool for his feet, pile of Daily Mirrors for cultural diversion and an arm chair in which he was sat, sipping from a jam jar an amber liquid the consistency of varnish. A tiny radio on the front of his baseball hat emitted the soft drizzle of drive-time pop. Damien had no idea there were people in the utensil cupboard. He was entering a new world, all the more fascinating because it was hidden away inside the same building in which he worked during the day.

     'Here,' Donny said. 'Have a look at this.'

     Damien went over and Donny showed him a Polaroid of a crumpled bundle of blankets with, sticking out of it, a tiny baby's head that was wrinkled like a monkey's, and very red.

     'My grandson,' he said. 'Two pounds only, that's what he weighs. Born last week.' He slid the picture back in his wallet. 'He's in an incubator, ventilated at the moment, but they expect him to be breathing for himself in a few days.' Donny's eyes were filling with water.

<  3  >

     'I'm sorry. They can work wonders now, you know.'

     'I know. His oxygen level is a bit high. The mix, you know? Forty per cent. Normal is twenty one per cent so they need to get it down to twenty one per cent. I didn't know there was twenty one per cent oxygen in the air, did you? I thought it was all oxygen, to be honest.'

     'Your grandson looks great. I'm sure he'll be OK. I'm the new fellah by the way. Kev.'

     Donny indicated a sheet of paper blu-tacked to the back of the door. 'Take a look at the rota. You're on bogs.'

     'Sorry Donny, I can't do toilets. My, er, skin condition - I did tell them at the interview.' He hadn't gone to all this trouble to be stuck inside the toilets, seeing no one. The whole idea was to hang about near Emma, get her talking and find out what she really thought about him.

     Donny twiddled the volume knob on the side of his baseball cap. 'What?'

     'The skin condition. Didn't they say?'

     Donny pushed his lips out, emitted a long puff of air and twiddled up the volume on his hat.


Plucking fag-ends from lukewarm puddles of urine and wiping slithery snot trails off the tiles did not help Damien in his quest to discover the secrets of Emma's mind. The only advantage to being on toilets was the faint thrill to be had from cleaning the seats in the women's cubicles, and to be honest even that wasn't worth it. He was about to pack the job in altogether when Donny asked to see him in the utensil cupboard again.

     The cupboard looked different. A new lamp sat on the table, its light softened by a coloured cloth that Donny had thrown over it, giving the room a gelatinous green glow. There were a few sofa cushions on the floor which weren't there before, and Donny indicated Damien should sit down on one, which he did. Then Donny lifted a demi-john out from behind a metal cabinet and poured two servings of the viscous brackish brew he'd been drinking the other night into two jam jars.

<  4  >

     'You'll join me, won't you?' he said. 'Tomato wine. I make it myself. Sometimes I sit here and listen to the music, sip the wine. It's like a little island away from everything.'

     'I bet,' Damien said. 'How's your grandson?'

     'He's, he's not that good. He's, uh, he's had a stomach infection and they had to scan it. And then one of his lungs collapsed and they had to put a machine on him to drain that. So he's in the wars to be honest, not so good. Tough little mite, though. But I've been doing my garden plan.' He nodded his head towards a pile of graph paper on which were drawn neat circles and oblongs and a winding path. 'For when he comes out. Me and the missus, we're gonna make that garden for him and he'll be round when his mum's at work. His mum's on her own you see, so she'll need us. And in a city, you need a garden. At the moment it's just a big empty space - all lawn.'

     Damien looked at the diagrams and Donny explained which were planters, which were beds, which were raised, everything. He had a sheet of paper on which the cost of all the materials was laid out in a complicated matrix of heading and sub-totals, above a timeline showing completion dates for each element.

     'If he's out by next month we will have made a start. From next month's salary I'll get the top soil, from the next I'll get shrubs, the month after that the rocks for the rockery. You see? It'll all be great. When he gets out. No pond by the way. You'll have noticed that. No pond 'cos of little Sid, see?'

     'Oh,' said Damien.

     They sat in silence for a few minutes.

     Then Donny said, 'You can re-tune the radio if you want. It's in my hat. I bet you wondered where the music was coming from.' He chuckled. 'A radio in a hat. My daughter got me this. Sid's mum. It was a joke present, I don't imagine she thought I'd wear it. But I do. Come on, you tune it in. The tuning knob's here,' he tapped the side. Damien said he was happy with the station as it was, but Donny shook his head. 'No, no, no. You're young, put something else on. Whatever you want. You've got ten minutes before your shift starts. Enjoy yourself.'

<  5  >

     So Damien began to turn the knob on Donny's hat. The speaker whistled, squealed, spat static, hissed at him, but no other station could be found. Fuzzy voices drifted past below the crackle, but he couldn't catch them, couldn't get just the right notch on the dial. Up close he could smell Donny's breath - tobacco, tuna fish, foul tomato wine - and he wanted to move away as quickly as he could.

     'I can't,' Damien said. 'You'll have to do it.'

     'Ok, Ok,' Donny said, 'Sit down. What I've really asked you here for is about your work in the toilets. This is a piece of card onto which I have sellotaped an object. The item was found,' he paused and levelled his face at Damien's, 'on one of your toilet seats.'

     Suddenly they were Damien's toilet seats.

     'What do you think it is?'

     'I think it's a hair.'

     'It is a hair. And what sort of hair do you think it would be on a toilet seat?'

     'Well, Donny, you know, there's bound to be the odd one. Toilets aren't really my thing, I think I'd be better off doing the office. My skin, you see. Remember I told you about my skin?'

     Donny took a sip from his jam jar and Damien did too and they both looked at the hair sellotaped to the card.

     'What are you doing to do with it?' Damien wondered whether it would be filed as part of his personnel record. But Donny picked it up and flipped it over his shoulder. 'You have my full respect as a professional,' Donny said. 'I didn't find that hair on one of your toilet seats. It's one of mine. It was a test, to see whether you would lie. But you didn't. You admitted that you weren't perfect and agreed that it could have been there, that you could have missed it, and that's good. I like a man who recognises his own imperfections. I'll tell you what I'll do for you. From tomorrow night you can do the office, OK? Dawn will go back to toilets. She likes 'em anyway, and she's good at it. Damn good.'

<  6  >

To clean his own office. This was what Damien had been waiting for. The next evening, as he applied his beard glue and polished his oval reactalites, he felt a quiver of excitement. For the first time he would be somebody else. He would hear what Emma said about him when he wasn't there.

     It was strange to see his own desk from a new perspective. It looked dirtier than he'd expected. Why had he left it so untidy? Case files all over, some gaping open, innards disgorged, revealing confidential case information for anyone to read. How was he expected to clean a desk in this state? How thoughtless the daytime Damien was. There was even a half drunk cup of coffee he hadn't bothered to take into the kitchen. It would be he, the evening Damien, who would make this trip, tip the fermenting contents into the sink, rinse the cup and place it in the dish washer. How difficult would it have been for the day time Damien to have done this? Not very difficult at all. There were scraps of paper on the floor that had missed the bin and here was a chewing gun wrapper that he'd just left sitting on the desk. What a slob. Damien was learning so much about himself already. He looked at the way the daytime Damien had personalised his desk; the postcard from Blackpool he'd thought so ironic looked, from this new vantage point, like a clumsy advertisement for a quirky personality, an attribute that, in honesty, Damien did not possess. And the gig tickets he'd stuck up as proof of an active social life had become more crinkly and faded than he'd realised. Damien moved a few things about and dragged a cloth up and down listening to the conversation Emma was having with Rebecca.

     'What do you think of this lipstick? Too bright? My lips are so fat. I think this deep colour over-emphasises them. You know what I've got Becky? I've got big, plump, near-to-exploding bicycle tyre lips' Emma moved her lips apart making a popping sound. 'Look at me, I'm like a fat ugly fish.'

     Emma's lips were indeed special. Like an over-engineered solution to some problem, something sexual, possibly.

<  7  >

     'No way,' said Rebecca. 'You've got good lips. Emphasise those LIPS girl. Those lips are your ATTACK BRAND.'

     Emma broke into a larky smile. 'You think so, darling?' She pouted into her pocket mirror, Jagger-style.

     Damien turned to Emma. 'He's a bit messy, this fellah.'

     Emma looked as surprised as if Damien's mop head had begun to recite poetry.


     'This desk. Messy.'

     'Oh, that's Damien's desk. He's mortal busy.' She put away her mirror and tapped her computer keyboard. 'Rebecca, look at this site, here. Haircut One Hundred are so the eighties.'

     'Should I throw this out?' Damien said, holding up the lump of hematite the daytime Damien had collected from his hometown in West Cumbria and left on his desk as a conversation starter.

     'No, no, no,' cried Emma. 'That's one of Damien's special things'. She exchanged a small smile with Rebecca. 'Damien likes to collect.'

     'Sounds a bit of a saddo.'

     'He's all right.'

     She turned her face back to the screen.


Donny called him into the utensil cupboard again the next night, and again he had made some changes. Damien had to struggle through a bead curtain Donny had hung up behind the door and a photo of a Dolphin with the words run free underneath was on the wall. Orchestral music whined and parped from out of his baseball hat.

     Little Sid was getting over the chest infection, and he was off the ventilator, he was in oxygen still, but breathing for himself. His oxygen was down to thirty per cent and he was getting back some good bloods. They took bloods every hour to see whether they needed to reduce the oxygen mix. Donny was there last night. Bells clanged, monitors beeped, alarms shrieked, babies stopped breathing and nurses panicked. One nurse even ran across the ward, pushing visitors out of the way. That wasn't right. It was, he explained, a nightmare. His daughter was going through a lot of stress.

<  8  >

     'How's the garden plan?' Damien asked.

     'Well, look, I've made a new start. There were too many planters on the last one, and the raised beds might have been dangerous for Sid, so we've changed it around a little. What you think?'

     Again Damien looked at the circles, squares, oblongs and winding path.

     'It's gravel there instead of grass, and here we'll have wood chippings. See? See? And see this?' He took out a small pot in which a plant the size of a cashew was coiled. 'This is a tree fern. It takes twenty, thirty, forty years to mature. I can't afford a big one. That's gardening. You plant things you won't live to see the beauty of. In the winter you have to take it indoors and wrap its roots up in a blanket. Imagine that? Like it's a little dog or baby. That's what attracted me.'

     'It's going to be nice,' Damien said. 'Nice for little Sid.'

     'For little Sid, yeh. You like this music?'

     'Classical? No.'

     'Me neither.'


The next night Damien again spent a long time cleaning his own desk, listening to Emma and Rebecca talking about travel. For Emma, every sunset, cathedral, or mountain-top was a heartbreaking, moving experience. Damien longed to experience it with her. He watched Emma's mouth as she spoke, remembering his name on her lips the night before. He's all right. That's what she'd said. All right. That was good, all right was good. He remembered how the two of them used to chat about some reality TV show. They had laughed together, and once, while laughing, Emma placed her hand on Damien's upper arm. One evening Damien had dropped into the conversation that he was off to see The White Stripes and Emma said that she was desperate to see them herself, but Dunc - the bloke she lived with - hated gigs. Before he could stop himself Damien had asked Emma if she'd like to come with him. A thick membrane grew between them. The air tightened. They were both thinking about Emma's hand on Damien's upper arm.

<  9  >

     During a lull in the two girl's chatter he turned to Emma. 'You know, this fellah, I clean his desk, and I have no idea who he is.'

     'Join the club,' said Emma.

     'I've heard he's very popular.'

     Emma slotted her eyes. 'How long have you been working here?'

     'Long enough. Hours and hours scraping shit off this ungrateful bastard's work station.'

     'JESUS. You need to be less, like, involved with your work?'

     'I know. It's just, you clean someone's desk you feel you really know them.'

     'You ever met Damien?'

     'No, I'm a creature of the night.'

     She stared at him.

     'Late shift, you know?'

     Emma leaned back in her chair and put her hands behind her head. 'OK. Describe what you think Damien is like, based on his desk. And we will tell you how well you do.'

     Emma's world view accommodated a hunch that all people have a certain level of extra sensory powers, so he wasn't surprised at this exercise. He gripped his chin and stared at the desk for a long time. 'He's single.'

     'Ding.' she said. 'But how did you know that?

     'No family pictures, no kids, nothing like that. But I sense there's a special someone in his life.'

     'Oh yeh, how do you get that?'

     'See all these little postcards he has stuck up? I bet if you took one down it would have a little personal message on it.'

     'Well, you're wrong there 'cos I've taken them all off and had a look. They're blank, blank, blank. Like his life.'

<  10  >

     'Oh Emma, don't,' said Rebecca.

     'Well, listen to Houdini here.'

     Damien made a mental note to put a few messages on the back of the next postcard he stuck up - something spicy to intrigue these prying women. There was one fact about Damien that no one should ever know; his life had no meaning.

     The next morning the daytime Damien spotted Donny up a ladder, fiddling with a light fitting. Damien went over, in his smart suit, note pad against his chest and pen dancing between his fingers.

     'How's it going, mate?'

     'Nothing you need to worry about,' Donny said. 'Soon have it done.'

     He wondered why Donny didn't tell the daytime Damien about little Sid and the garden plan. What was the difference? He was still a human being despite the suit. Still a person.

     Later he found a post-it note on his bucket. Kev. See me in the utensil cupboard. Donny.

     Donny was in a good mood. He had tuned the station to radio one and a dance track was buzzing out.

     'See,' he pointed to the radio. 'For you. Give you a boost before your shift.'

     'How's little Sid's chest infection? Improved?'

     'Not much change, but last night, I was in there, and we got him out of the incubator and we all had a hold. His little fingers have a strong grip, for someone so tiny. Not feeble. We fed him a couple of inches of milk in a syringe.' He held his thumb and forefinger apart to indicate the portion of milk. 'That's all his little stomach can handle. Have some wine.' He shoved a half full jam jar into Damien's hand.

     'You know Donny, I'm not too mad about wine. More of a lager man.'

<  11  >

     'No class,' Donny laughed. 'That's your problem. You need to be more aspirational. You know, Kev, I sense you could do better than this. That's why I asked you down here tonight. I saw something in the paper for you and me.' He took out an ad and held it up.




     'I'm thinking, when the garden's finished for little Sid, I might get a shed and that's where you fit in. You and me, we could be business partners in the mushroom business. They send you spores and you do the growing and then they find you a market. This fellah here, see the quote? He made five hundred a week, just from his shed. From a few spores. What do you say? You and me?'

     Damien took a sip of the tomato wine and winced at the rancid taste. 'I don't know Donny. I haven't got the capital.'

     'Where's your entrepreneurial spirit?'

     They sat in silence for a time, listening to a rap track followed by some yearning ballad from the latest indie wonderkids, sipping their tomato brew until Donny finally said, 'Well, you know, you're probably right. Mushrooms. You know what they are? They are sinister. Did you know they were fleshy? I never eat them myself. Fungus aren't they? But others shovel them down. Who's to stop them?'


Emma was rummaging through some papers on Damien's desk when he approached.

     'Here he comes, international man of mystery. You know, cleaner man, I can never find anything on Damien's desk.'

     'Well,' he said. 'He's a sensitive sort.'

     'How do you work that out?'

     'The way he orders the items on his desk. It looks like a chaotic mess, but its kind of intuitive. Means he's good with other people's feelings.'

     'Not too sensitive I wouldn't have thought,' said Emma.

<  12  >

     'I don t know,' Rebecca offered. 'Damien told me he cried his heart out at Toy Story.'

     'Male sentimentality.' Emma snorted. 'That's not sensitivity. Sensitivity is what you anticipate, what you infer, what you deduce. It's about putting out antennae. My boyfriend, Dunc, is dead sensitive. Let me tell you what he did last week. I went to the town hall for a council tax form and I had to walk past a long line of taxi drivers queuing up to renew their licences. I'd forgotten it was that time of year. And seeing them all queuing up reminded me of my dad, who died last August. He was a cabbie and when I was an eleven year old girl he used to take me with him to renew his licence and we'd queue up together with all the other drivers, and have a laugh. It all flooded back, and I got quite upset, so I rang in sick and went straight home. And you know what? There was Dunc waiting for me, a big mug of hot chocolate in one hand and tissues in the other. He'd taken the day off as well. He knew I'd have to walk past the taxi drivers, knew that I'd be upset, knew that I would ring in sick, knew I'd need some company.'

     Rebecca looked at Emma for a long time. Then she said, 'Hardcore. I would keep hold of him, mate.'

     Damien cleared all the papers off the desk and threw every one into the recycling bin. Emma watched him with her eyebrows raised. Then he gave his desk a really good clean - polished it too. He would never clean it again. Whilst he scrubbed he thought about Dunc, Dunc with his heightened sense of other people's feelings.


When he went to hand in his notice he found that the utensil cupboard had changed completely. The bead curtain had gone, as had the picture. Only the chair remained and Donny was sat on it in silence. His radio hat was on the floor, next to a heap of torn up graph paper.

<  13  >

     'Sid,' he coughed. 'You know.'


     Damien picked up the graph paper and began to smooth it out. 'You know Donny, you shouldn't give up on the garden plan. Because you know what? Your daughter, she'll meet someone else. There'll be another kid, and they'll need a garden the same way Sid did. This garden should be like in memory of little Sid. Little Sid's garden.' Damien touched Donny's shoulder. Donny squeezed his fingers into his eyes. His body vibrated and from his throat came a noise like soft humming.

     'You should go home Donny. I came to tell you that I'm leaving. I'm not cut out for this sort of work. I'm sorry. Dawn said she would do my shift tonight.'


A few months later Donny's wife opened the door to find Damien standing there. In his hand was a gleaming new garden spade, its price tag still attached.

     'I've come to help Donny,' he said. 'With the garden.'

     She brought him inside. Donny hadn't lived there for a long time. Damien asked about Sid and she told him that there was no daughter, never had been, and no little grandkids. Donny had a few cleaning jobs she said. As well as offices, he cleaned a ward at the children's hospital. He used to get attached to the poor wee mites, get really choked up. He was a good man.

     She took Damien out the back. There was no garden, just a dusty cement yard with a little raised pond in the middle. Damien went to the pond and looked in. Just under the surface, he thought he could see Donny's face, beyond reach, and still receding.

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