I caught the bus at quarter to seven, as I normally do.
It’s the usual grey route to work. Grey tower blocks, grey concrete walls, grey gardens, grey weather.
And then we get to the first stop, and on she gets. I think her name is Jennifer: that is, I hope it is. She’s tall, willowy, with wispy golden hair and a laugh that can break a man’s heart. She sits next to me on the bus, and we flirt a little. She giggles, demurely, face partly hidden by one hand as with some kind of old fashioned modesty she has to hide her face, like she’s a heroine in a Victorian novel instead of a mobile phone shop customer service agent in a mini dress.
I shake my head and look at the empty seat beside me. I reach into my pocket, draw out the season ticket and hand it to the inspector. He waves it against a machine that beeps, and he hands me back the card.
I look around again on the bus. There’s a row of seats facing sideways just in front of me, and the first one has a blind man with his dog.
I say blind, but we both know that’s a cover, of course. There’s exquisitely crafted surveillance devices built into his glasses and his dog is highly trained to sniff out explosives. He’s undercover, of course, and we both know it. That’s why he’s there. I’d reveal myself, if I had to, but I only know this because… well, let’s just say I’m involved. A little. Well, maybe more than a little.
The blind man starts snoring, and the dog wakes him up. He taps the floor with his stick.
“Not yet Mr Johnson,” the driver says. “Two more stops and we’re at the day centre.”
He coughs. “Ok lad, thanks.”
Why do I do this? Well, active imagination, that’s why. We did the book “Billy Liar” at school and I thought “that’s me, I’m him, I’m Billy.” The inner life, the inventing things that never happened, and I’m the hero, the president, the man of the hour, I’m the only one who can save the world. And now, because of that book, it was just normal. That’s when I stopped caring, stopped worrying, and just lived with it. My brain likes inventing fantasy lives, trying to make the world a more interesting place. It’s just my way of coping with all the grey.
Take the launderette we’re passing now. A small grey concrete box with a cheerful sign and a coffee machine that dispenses something that can actually be mistaken for coffee if you try hard enough. Over the years it’s been the front of a drug empire, the entrance to a secret superhero lair, and the hideout of a space monster, just to name three. Sanjeev, who runs the place, has been my arch enemy, an undercover police officer, my drug dealer and even, once, my long lost half-brother.
And now it’s my stop.
I get out, walk round the corner, up the stairs to the office building. It’s another big grey concrete and steel office block, glass everywhere. In the 60s maybe it looked like the future. Now it just looks like something that wants to apologise for itself and shuffle politely out of the way.
I enter my code on the pad and the door opens. I’m not paying attention. This is every day. You never do. So I don’t notice the trail of blood on the floor, leading to the lift. I press the button for the fourth floor, not noticing that I smeared a bloody fingerprint on the button. The doors close and I don’t notice the red smears on them. I don’t hear the zombie hoards grumbling and growling, waiting when the doors open to eat me. I don’t…
The lift doors open on my floor and I get out of the lift and walk across the landing. I open the door with my ID card and go in.
“Morning,” I wave at Francesca behind the reception desk. But she’s not there. Must be something to do with the zombies, I think. Or she’s in the kitchen making coffee. Or maybe she didn’t start as early today as she normally does. Happens sometimes. Not many of us start much before half eight.
I shrug, use my card to get through the second door, and then turn right towards the kitchen.
It actually is quiet.
I turn around, slowly. I know what I’m going to see – zombie hoards waiting to eat me alive – and I really don’t want to.
But there’s nothing.
“Morning James,” Francesca says, walking past me with a mug of coffee. “Everything OK?”
“Thought for a moment something had happened,” I reply. “But it never does.”
“Nope,” she smiles. “Still the same old place. Nothing to see here.”
Nearly eight. She’s too cheery for this time of the morning. She sits down behind the desk and starts typing, furiously, clearly signalling that she’s too busy to chat. Point taken.
I make coffee, sit down at the desk. The old Thinkpad they gave me takes a long time to start up. I check email. There’s a dozen things to do in emails, orders to place, reports to run. I get started. I get through three of the orders, and that takes me just under an hour. The coffee is almost cold by the time I finish it.
My boss wanders over, stands at my shoulder and coughs. “Carson?”
I look up. “Yes?”
“Er… come to my office for a few moments, if you would?”
I follow him to his corner office. I think he’s only about two or three years older than me, but he looks older, fatter, with whiter hair. I guess being the boss doesn’t suit him that well. Either that or it’s imagination that keeps me young. He beckons me over to a chair at his meeting table and sits in one of the others.
“Carson,” he begins. “I need your help.”
“OK,” I nod, trying to look enthusiastic at quarter to nine. Got to keep the boss onside. “What is it?”
“It’s Jenkins.” He pauses. “From accounting.”
“What about Jenkins?”
“He’s behind my desk.”
He waves me over to the desk, probably seeing a look of blank non-comprehension on my face. Sure enough, there’s Jenkins, lying on the floor.
“What happened?” I ask, turning to look at the boss.
“I strangled him.”
I look at the boss, then look at Jenkins, curled up on the floor.
No. This isn’t real. It’s not.
I walk round to the other side of the desk, bend down and touch Jenkins.
He’s real. He’s definitely real. He’s also dead.
I look at the boss again.
“There’s money missing from the company,” he says, quietly. “Quite a lot, as it happens. Actually I’ve been planning this for a long time.”
I nod. I wonder why he’s telling me all this.
“Two, maybe three millions.”
“OK.” That’s more money than I’ve ever seen in my life.
“It’s a bit earlier than I planned, but I’ll give you half if you help me.”
It dawns on me, finally. I look up again and I see the boss differently. He’s sharp, a sly man. A murderer.
Still. One million. Maybe two. Enough to live comfortably. No more nine-to-five. No more being berated when orders go awry because people haven’t given me the right information. No more mind-numbing pulling reports together in Excel from six different sources and hoping that I did it all in the right order this time.
“All right,” I say. “If I agree. What next?”
He nods. “We’ll have to wing it from here. First thing is to get rid of the body, and then we’ll need to get out of the country. You’d be an accomplice, of course.”
“I see,” I nod.
“There’s a carpet,” he says. “A roll of carpet. In the stock room. We roll him up in there, then we take him down the road to that skip. From there, straight to the airport. We can be on a plane to Rio before anyone finds him.”
I look down at the carpet, look at Jenkins. Can I truly be a part of this? Of murder? Is it even real?
I make up my mind.
“All right. I’m in. You want me to go and get it?”
He shakes his head. “Less suspicious if I go. Francesca knows I often go in there and I can send her away on some errand before I get it. You stay here. Guard Jenkins.”
I breathe deeply. Inhale. Exhale again.
“All right,” I say. “Get the carpet.”
He nods. There’s an unspoken bond between us now. Brothers in crime. He gets up, walks out of the door.
I go and sit down in his chair. Might as well. I’ll never get another chance now. I’ll never need one, of course. No more bosses, no more work. Just luxury from hereon in.
It’s a nice chair. I try not to kick Jenkins, lying there on the floor, though it doesn’t really matter any more. He won’t feel it.
I wonder what it was like, killing someone. And I think I never could do that, myself. But sitting here, in the boss’s swivel chair, I –
“There he is!”
I look up, searching for the source of the interruption. Two policemen are at the door, my boss pointing at me.
“He’s gone mad I tell you, strangled Jenkins. He’s been muttering about blood on the floor and everywhere earlier. Even accused me of stealing money from the company, if you can believe that!”
Things passed in a blur then. Arrest. Psychiatric evaluation.
And maybe I did do it, you know? Maybe it did happen that way, like he said, like Francesca said. Maybe I did strangle him, and then calmly go and sit down and do some work and left him there in the boss’s office.
But did I?
If I did, I never would have forgotten it. Would I?
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