As usual I wake five minutes before the alarm. I turn it off, so as not to disturb Freya, who has another half hour before she has to get up and rouse Peter for school. I lie for a while, still but tense, and then rise stealthily, perform my morning cleansing rituals, and enter the spotless kitchen. I feel a flicker of pleasure at the sight of my beautiful pink orchid against the perfect whiteness.
Breakfast is a chore. Black coffee, half a pear and a slice of overpriced streaky bacon is the latest formula. A hideous envelope sits on top of a pile of post in the middle of the table. It is deep blue, and addressed to me in carefully but imperfectly etched gold capital letters. It looks like a poison pen letter prepared by a moron in an art therapy class. It has no stamp, so it has obviously been hand delivered. I decide that it is not urgent, and open the rest of the post before starting to eat.
Hector, my therapist, tells me to seek the stillness that lies in every moment. I fold the remainder of the bacon around the last chunk of pear and focus on my orchid. There is a moment of peace, which is abruptly wrecked by the ringing of the doorbell. Williams is five minutes early. I continue to slowly masticate, but the peace has gone.
The blue envelope fits snugly into the inside pocket of my suit next to my pen. I exit the house and approach the car. Williams is at the wheel, looking straight ahead, neck slightly drooping, servile, resigned, defeated. I let myself into the passenger seat and buckle up. “First stop Lotus Flower?” he asks, remembering it is the first Wednesday of the month, when I always start the day with a session at the Lotus Flower Centre. Hector Lowry is my contact there. His card describes him as a ‘Healer and Personal Evolutionist’. He and his cohorts have been making a killing for years selling various brands of hippie snake oil to emotionally bereft souls such as myself.
There is a free parking spot a considerable way from the Centre, so I have a short walk. A group of youths jostle and banter next to a bus stop. For a moment it looks like I am not going to be able to pass without either awkwardly changing direction or interacting with them. I think of the elite self defence tips given by my old school acquaintance Toby Marler. I identify the alpha male of the group, the one with the loudest voice and clothing, and then mentally rehearse how to incapacitate him. Gouging the eyes or punching the throat are both unheroic but effective techniques. A youth flails directly into my path. He wears a hood despite the morning sun. I actually have to stop walking. I dig the nail of my index finger into the top of my thumb, and look around. There are six in all.
“…. and now your getting in the way of everyone…” says the alpha youth, roughly pulling the stray hoodie back. I walk on unscathed.
I think of my last conversation with Marler. We both agree that society is unravelling, and you can’t be too prepared. He has left the special forces now and sells his expertise all over the world. After we had sunk about two thirds of a bottle of single malt we’d mapped out a contingency plan. The only things that would have any value in the event of a complete unravelling are weapons and gold, in that order. It is questionable whether gold would have any value of the anarchy was total, but eventually a rudimentary form of commerce would re-assert itself. I have already put quite a bit of my wealth into gold, as one does in recessionary times. Toby said he had a contact who could buy Glock automatic pistols in bulk. And I took him up on his offer of shooting lessons. These turned out to be quite absorbing, almost fun. We ended our discussion by weighing up the best locations for a bunker. I favour my hideaway in North Wales. It needs a bit of renovation but it’s basically sound. It’s a beautiful location, you could keep your own sheep and defend it with a couple of gatling guns, you’d see the hoodies coming for miles. The trouble is, it’s quite near Trawsfyned nuclear power station, so we would need to assess the likelihood of this continuing to function safely when the shit hits the fan. Marler was in favour of an abandoned tube station. You’d be closer to supply chains, but it would need a far larger force to defend it I reckon, and you would end up having to be a warlord…… which is not how I want to spend my retirement.
I feel a pang of irritation as my phone vibrates. It’s Freya. I unhesitatingly press ‘reject’. I enter the Lotus Flower Centre and greet the lady on reception, who invites me to sign in. I reach for my own pen in my inside pocket, and touch the blue envelope. My fingers linger there for a second, and I feel the raised bumps of the gold lettering, and I am baffled by a wave of sadness and longing. I hope that Hector will earn his money and be able to explain this.
I enter Hector’s study. He greets me, invites me to sit, and lets me talk. As usual he sits opposite, poised and smiling serenely, as though remembering a joke that I wouldn’t understand. I only tell him about the gold, the Glocks and the shooting lessons to break the silence. “Why so much fear, Reginald ?” he asks, sounding like one of the philosophical furry creatures from Star Wars, only less convincing. Where was he last summer when the youths were burning the shops? Probably over on his Ashram planting alfalfa sprouts, or holed up an an armoured flotation tank catching up on episodes of ‘Country File’. His closing platitude is a real corker. He says “You only feel lost because you believe that you ought to know where you are,” and then smiles drowsily. I imagine him in a crosshair, and what it would be like to squeeze the trigger and reunite him with his beloved void.
On the way back to the car I listen to Freya’s message. She sounds calm, almost friendly. She wants to know if I will be back for dinner tonight, seeing as it is a special day. I text her: “Busy, back at midnight. X” and feel an unwelcome twinge of tenderness. Freya is a solid partner and a good companion.
Next stop is a board meeting of Believe and Achieve, with floppy faced Harry in a salubrious Bermondsey Portocabin that stinks of stale cigarette smoke. I am surprised by my lack of contempt for Harry. He answers well when I ask him to summarise the Key Performance Indicators for their latest endeavour. Honest and to the point, no defensiveness. He knows I will eviscerate him the moment I sniff any bullshit. And he is genuine in his commitment to the human dregs he dredges up from the gutter. The meeting lasts an hour and then it’s across the river up to the City for a dreary lunch with Marsh and Cosgrove. I nurse a Schloer and smile weakly as they down their cold pints of premium lager, braying about their latest juvenile doings. Money, drugs, booze and fucking seem to be their only KPIs, which makes life simpler for them, I suppose. Why do I spend time with these people? The wheels of commerce are oiled with drivel.
It’s two o’clock in the afternoon before I actually get to the office. The conference call with the States isn’t until half pass nine, so I have seven and a half glorious hours to get up to date. I take the blue envelope out of my breast pocket and prop it up against the photo of Freya and Peter, who grin out of the picture, goading me to open it. I have a fairly shrewd idea of it’s contents. I will open it later. If I open it now, it will dilute my focus.
I am interrupted every ten minutes at least by someone drawing attention to some snag or other they feel unable to deal with on their own. The photo and the envelope start to annoy me. They look out of place in the office, like toys cluttering a bathroom. I feel vague confusion and sadness as I think this.
I decide to open the blue envelope, which contains a card bearing a blurred photo of my face contorted into a dumb grin.
Inside the words ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY DADDY I LOVE YOU’ are written in the same art therapy style gold lettering. So the little spastic has learned to write. I put the card and the envelope out of sight, next to the shredder.