This is a rough and unfinished early draft / excerpt from a planned novel. The bulk of the novel will take place at a later point in the protagonist’s lifetime, but in short interceding chapters he’ll be unnamed and characterised by key actions in his old life. In this case he’s a city worker going on his daily commute.
He knew that sleep wouldn’t come when the radio clock switched to 04:37, meaning he had just 1 hour and 53 minutes before the alarm would go off. If he fell under now he’d miss the alarm, would be late for work and, quite possibly, go further down a path ending in unemployment. That wouldn’t be particularly helpful with two sets of bills to pay.
First came the phone, perfect for an absent minded flick through the news, though he wasn’t truly taking it in. It was all a hot mess, in any case. The famine worsening in Africa, increased flooding in the Far East, and food prices were set to rise again as supplies became constrained by spoiled crop yields. Still, that didn’t matter as much as a celebrity on trial for assaulting their partner, apparently.
He popped the TV on, jumping into some streaming to avoid the TV shopping that fills the overnight hours. He put on a film he’d already seen a few times and watched it play out. The TV flickered away for about an hour and 40 minutes, and when the alarm made its noise he sat up, gathered his thoughts and headed for a shower.
It’s an odd feeling, insomnia, rather like being drunk but without the fun, freewheeling spirit that a full session can bring. His head felt twice as heavy as it should, and his thoughts lacked cohesion. Muscle memory and routine served him well, as he wasn’t actually aware of his actions – showering, brushing teeth, making coffee. It was this absent-mindedness that would often cause a panic later in the day, as he struggled to remember whether he locked the door or turned off the relatively fancy coffee maker.
Driving to the station felt similarly laborious, until he reached the bridge. A small one along the road, at this time of year on a sunny day it would wake him up – the sun would strike autumnal trees quite brilliantly, creating a 500 yard stretch of other-worldly colour. The sky a brilliant blue, it was the red and brown leaves that set the scene, a stark contrast to the dull confines of his flat and the muddy exterior of his affordable car. For a moment he would be wide awake, his mind would buzz with energy and thoughts and plans, and he would be grateful for another day.
The colour would fade when he got to the train station.
He took the early train in order to nab a parking space, giving an extra 30 minutes to the cause of his work. Grateful to have a job he took the tedium as a sacrifice to be endured; after all, everyone complains about their jobs.
He stood on the platform, crowded with people adorned in various shades of grey. He always hoped to see an extravagant worker stroll onto the platform in a rainbow coloured trench coat, singing and smiling like an extra from a ‘50s musical. Instead there were the massed ranks of employees in ‘formal’ attire, eyes glued to phones.
The crowd was bigger than normal, and rather than squint at the screens he closed his eyes and waited for the low voices of commentary. Tuts and “fuck’s sake” were the script, apart from one man on his phone engaged in a bizarre argument with a doctor’s secretary, or so it seemed. Strains on the health service meant surgeries often opened at 7am, and the man was demanding an explanation for something or other. As he listened the commuter felt sorry for the secretary.
With a train already cancelled the only hope for a seat was for extra carriages to be added to his own service, but it wasn’t to be. The rails clanked and whined, the train came into view and there weren’t enough carriages. The tuts resumed, and he positioned himself in a spot for the third door, calculating who to let ahead and who to barge in front of. His squared his left shoulder in front of the loud health service complainant.
The crush began and he found himself in the open space between carriages; with a slight twist of the hips and oddly splayed feet he got a spot, swivelling his bag to rest at a jaunty angle, occupying a tiny space of air between him and a rather portly fellow. He got one arm on a pole, and realised he was hemmed in for the next 30 minutes.
Initially, he closed his eyes, letting his weary mind enjoy its weight and semi-delirious state; sleep deprivation makes these moments important. To his left, a few bodies away, two young-ish men started up a loud conversation, eschewing the smartphone gazing of everyone else. Man A was talking over his woes at work; Man B was sympathising.
Man A: I spoke to Jill, right, and she said I hadn’t been chosen for the grade 5 job, that it had gone to Maria. I was fuckin’ pissed off mate, I could do the job in my sleep. I’d been grade 5 before, but went to grade 4 when I wanted a change, but I’m really a grade 5.
Man B: Yeah man, that sucks.
Man A: I mean, I was a team leader before. I can do that shit with my eyes closed, and team leaders are on grade 5.
Man B: Aye, but when you go back a grade it’s not easy to climb back up.
Man A: Some of these team leaders don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. I might keep an eye out, look for grade 5 elsewhere.
The commuter, who didn’t know where his salary fell in the ‘grade’ stakes, opened his eyes, distracted by what was becoming an increasingly repetitive conversation. Apparently grade 6 managers are the fucking worst.
About 15 people were crammed in the door area, and the commuter looked hopefully for someone more interesting, someone that wouldn’t self-consciously talk banalities about their job as loudly as possible. Candidate number one was a slightly overweight man dressed less formally than the rest, but well enough to still pass in an office. He was stuck with his right arm up as he held onto a grip, and the commuter realised he was looking right into a visibly sweaty armpit.
They exchanged looks, and sweaty armpit man gave a knowingly apologetic look. “Fun way to start the day”, said the commuter. Not exactly a witty remark, but the best he could manage in the circumstances. The two exchanged half laughs, but both felt better.
The commuter looked around for more faces, and locked eyes with a woman that wasn’t looking at her phone. Probably in her late 20s and with no notable sweat under her armpits, she was joining in the brief exchange, albeit without saying a word. She flashed a kind smile; like sweaty armpit man, there was a sincere and genuine sweetness to the exchange. Perhaps conscious of standing out among grumpy screen dwellers, both the commuter and the woman cut off the look with a second smile, shifting their eyes to a neutral spot. For the commuter the visual blank spot was a poster advising against being violent towards train staff.
The train approached the commuter’s station, and he knew a mini-crush and barrier queue was coming. Yet his mind, weary and heavy and slow, did lift slightly. All it took was a smile and eye contact to give him a brighter outlook, some faith in a good day. He stored the feeling, knowing he’d need it for the next 9 hours.