On the second floor of a modern duplex apartment in South-East Acton, Henry Sharpe lay awake in bed, debating silently to himself whether it was worth getting out of bed that day. He stared at the crack on the whitewashed ceiling which vaguely resembled a three-legged ostrich, if you looked at it the right way.
With great effort and much grunting, he rolled over onto his side to glare at the digital clock on his cluttered bedside table, discovering in the process that his right arm was dead. It read ‘7:31’; he was already one minute late. He groaned, tilted his head back onto the pillow and closed his eyes gently. He was halfway into a blissful slumber when the blaring alarm which had first woken him from sleep started bellowing out its ear-piercing ‘beep beep beep-beep-beep beep beep’ to the theme tune of Superman. Whipping his head up, he banged it on the metal headboard, slid off the bed and collapsed in a painful heap on the floor, arms flailing in an attempt to stop the shrill ‘beeps’ that had serenaded him during this spectacular stunt.
Picking himself up, he walked out the bedroom door, deliberately avoiding the sharp corner of the skirting board which had given him a purple toe for the last two weeks and four days. The stairs were more of a problem. There was the wonky floorboard on the fifth step for example, but he never really got round to fixing it. The costly all-boys school that his parents had sent him to as a child (well, his mother had been keen on it, but namely because she had not had to pay the bills) had focused more on academic subjects than the arts, and even though woodwork was supposed to be ‘masculine’ it had been missed out altogether, along with metalwork, design and home economics. This probably explained the shelves full of Lego figures, the tasteful tangerine and silver walls of the bathroom and the empty frozen ready meal packets in various stages of decomposition drifting around the house that his mother despaired of every time she visited him.
He reached the kitchen, switched on the lights and walked over to the kettle. He leant on the worktop while he waited for it to boil, and his mind wandered back to his school again. As a child, he had wanted to make a difference to the world, like his hero, Nikola Tesla, the father of electricity. He had been quite good at maths and science, ‘exceptional’ as his cheerful and voluminous teacher had scrawled in red ink all over his work. Since leaving college, however, he had opted for a safe, but fairly uneventful life, and found a job as an ‘assistant laboratory administrator’ in a hospital lab, which, as he soon discovered, was just ‘blood and urine sample labeller’ wrapped up in a blanket of elaborate words. The kettle whistled falteringly, and he quickly turned the gas knob of the hob down before it starting shrieking like an alarmed peacock. Steam filled the small room as the boiling water was poured into his ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor’ mug that his parents had given him upon his announcement that he was going to work in a hospital. This grave mistake had resulted in a huge argument over job satisfaction, wealth and importance in society, and a very uncomfortable Christmas where his mother refused to cook the turkey, and his father had to produce a very burnt, half plucked bird lying on an ornate platter of shrivelled brussel sprouts and raw parsnips. They had forgiven each other though, and Henry smiled fondly as he remembered the weeks after that fateful meal that his parents had spent nursing him tenderly, while he recovered from food poisoning.
He trudged upstairs again, zigzagging across the hazardous steps, that he had crossed so often that their positions were now permanently imprinted into the back of his mind. Walking into his bedroom, he opened the tall wooden wardrobe and pulled out a pair of black trousers, a stripy shirt and two odd socks, one green and black, and one with ‘Thursday’ in red capitals up the side. He hesitated for a second over the ties, before choosing an extravagant pink, yellow and blue polka dot tie.
Once he was dressed, his teeth had been brushed, flossed with approximately 7 inches of dental floss and rinsed with MintFresh mouthwash, and his hair was suitably patted down with water, he pulled on his overcoat, which smelt strongly of a mixture of paraffin wax and cod liver oil, and was at least 15 years old. He left his apartment, and walked down the short flight of steps that led to the front door. With a well-executed kick at the bottom right hinge, and a deft twist of the handle he opened it quickly, using a method he liked to think had been practised for generations of previous house owners to open the rusty seaweed-green door that led outside.
The street was very quiet, a vast, empty field of railings, tarmac and dead trees. It was very different to rush hour, which, at 9 o’clock on weekdays, the outside world was transformed into a bustling city filled with people and their belongings; the makeup-smothered women with their mobiles, the businessmen with their briefcases and the burly men, clad in tracksuits and wielding a pram containing a screaming baby.
The short distance to the bus stop was covered in a matter of minutes, where he joined a group of teenage girls clad in what resembled school uniform giggling over something on the apparent ringleader’s iPhone, and a quiet old man, who vaguely resembled the fourth Doctor, or at least his scarf did, shuffling his feet along the ground and glaring at the rowdy students. He distanced himself from both of them, and stared intently at the street to his right, pretending to look for the bus, even though he knew it always came at exactly 8:44, so it would be impossible to accidentally gain eye contact with either. To his disappointment, the 3B slid into the layby one minute late, but he consoled himself by remembering that at least it was at least precisely quarter to now. The doors slid open and he politely waited for the old man to ease himself into the bus, before being pushed over by a girl who was so fixated on a game of Angry Birds that she didn’t even seem to notice the fully grown man in an old-fashioned overcoat sprawled in a puddle at her feet. He clambered back onto his feet and tried to look as composed as possible for the benefit of the bus driver whose expression was a mixture of amusement and pity.
Grabbing a Metro, he hurried up the stairs and past the gawking pensioners, and took a seat next to the steamy window. The newspaper was not very good at the best of times, but today it had sunk even lower than his expectations, with ‘Cheryl’s Sensational Divorce Details Revealed!’ written in huge letters over a picture of a sombre, panda-eyed woman clutching a tissue. He flicked to the puzzle section; after the advice columns and before the sports. He couldn’t understand why anyone would read either, besides, they were both as tragic as each other: a 50-something’s love life, or a grown man running around a field in baggy shorts. Sighing for the third time that day, he scanned over the clues for today’s crossword puzzle:
“Bengal polymath Tagore, first name?’
He scribbled down ‘Rabindranath’.
“Stupidly barter with married man”
Pausing for just a fraction of a second, he frowned, then wrote down ‘Bertram’.
“Brave and fearless” He wrote ‘audacious’ in the small white squares, before crossing out the clue.
He tutted quietly at the last one. The only thing that annoyed him more than clichés were clichés that didn’t make sense. To be brave and fearless was impossible: how could you be brave if you didn’t have any fears to conquer? His train of thoughts was interrupted by the sudden realisation that the small, dishevelled old lady to his right was not-so-subtly peeking over his shoulder at his crossword answers. “However did you get those so quickly?” she asked dumbfoundedly.
“‘Cos I’ve never been much good at those cryptic ones, they aren’t ‘alf ‘ard, are they love?” Henry Sharpe was not the sort of person who appreciated being called a ‘love’. “Course, you must find them easy, dear!” He twitched; ‘dear’ was not a particular favourite either. The bus drew to a halt.
“Well, this is my stop”, he declared, and sidled past the woman, who beamed after him, murmuring, “such a nice young man”. In reality,it was nowhere near his stop, but an extra mile or so to add to his journey seemed much more desirable than another 20 minutes of meaningless waffling.