117. Tuesday

HE KNOWS THE WAY to work so well, he has driven it so many times, that he drives by reflex, paying almost no attention to the road. On the radio, a British historian is once again predicting the approaching and inevitable collapse of civilisation. The broadcast is interrupted with news of more bombings. He dawdles from the carpark to the office building.

The morning passes very slowly. There is only so much surfing he can do before he exhausts his repertoire of websites he can visit safely at work. He works in spurts. There is software on his computer that tracks the amount of work he does, but he pays it no mind. Halfway through the morning, his mind spinning with boredom, he remembers he still has a bag full of dry khat leaves in the glove box of his car, which he bought on the weekend from an Eritrean friend of his sister’s. At lunchtime he fetches the bag and stuffs a mouthful of the leaves in his mouth. The taste almost nauseates him, but within minutes his mind begins to buzz pleasantly. The afternoon proceeds more productively. The khat seems to be able to enliven his mind and to improve his concentration. Mid-way through the afternoon, he goes to his car for more. As he chews the horrible tasting leaves, he wonders if khat is addictive.

Around six o’clock, he decides to leave the office, even though technically he hasn’t worked his allocated hours. Technically he almost never works his allocated hours. He has a rather unpleasant errand to run. As he packs his things and his computer boots down, he looks around the office. This is his favourite time of day, when the office hums so quietly it seems to have arrived at some sort of peace, and the evening is – he tries to remember the line from the poem – spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table. Or something. Let us go then, you and I, he mumbles to himself. On his way out, he spies a CD he has been meaning to listen to lying on the unattended desk of a colleague he has never spoken to. Another colleague he has never spoken to is sitting at the next desk, her back to him, earphones on, typing quickly and lightly. The place is full of colleagues he has never spoken to. He silently picks up the CD and continues on his way out without breaking stride. He knows he is taking a risk, but he’ll listen to it in the car, maybe burn it tonight or tomorrow, and then he’ll put it back on the table when the coast is clear. No harm done.

In the gathering gloom, the lights of the port blink on the other side of the river. The radio buzzes with news about the latest round of bombings. He drives east, skirting the city, past luxury homes, to the house his sister lived in until last weekend. He is there to pick up what’s left of her possessions. He parks down the cobblestone side street and knocks on the door of the tumbledown house: his sister’s housemate answers. She takes him to the shed out the back of the house, and goes inside to get a candle so she can see what should be taken away. She’s a gloomy girl and while he loads the car she tells him about her brother, who was recently in a serious motorcycle accident and will be in rehab for months, and may lose the function of his left arm permanently.

What he packs into the car is the remains of his sister’s life, after all the good stuff has been given away to friends or sold cheaply. This is what has been abandoned, what has been deemed – either after some deliberation or on the spur of the moment – to be of no value now that she has decided to return to her life in the old country. She decided she had had enough of this new country. It was too hard, she said, she wasn’t as tough as he is. On the contrary, he said, life is easier here. Once you settle in, it’s only a matter of time. He couldn’t change her mind – he’d never been able to change her mind. Now he is once again alone.

He picks through her left-behind things. There are frames, a dozen of them in all shapes and sizes, that once contained photographs; the photos have been taken, the frames remain. There’s the guitar he bought her. There are bedsheets and blankets and towels. There are kitchen utensils, blenders, a pasta maker – a short-lived experiment. He’s surprised he remembers it as fondly as he does. There are tooth-whitening strips and aspirin tablets, and plastic take-away food containers. There are paintings by his grandfather. There are paintings by his sister. Things she could not bring herself around to throwing away herself, which is why she asked him to pick them up. In a sense he has been entrusted with throwing them away. When the shed is emptied and the car is full, the housemate gives him an envelope containing what is left of his sister’s bond once bills have been paid. It’s less than half of what was owed, which seems like a lot to him, but he says nothing. He’ll let his sister wage that battle from the old country. His sister left owing him money too. She left in a rush, as if fleeing from a condemned city.

He returns to the house he shares with a married couple on the other side of the city. He can’t bring himself around to emptying the car in the dark – he’ll leave it to the morning. The house is empty. He lies down on his bed, turns on the little television on the chest of drawers and falls asleep. He is woken two hours later by a text message from his... It would be presumptuous, after only a week, to call her his girlfriend. So what is she? When they’re not together, they only ever communicate by text message. They have yet to have a single phone conversation. He forgets to reply almost as soon as he has read it.

He hears his housemates laughing in the kitchen. He cannot face them tonight. He flicks between ‘Big Brother’ and Dave Letterman and the cricket being beamed in from England. All day he has been tired; now he is wide awake – he shouldn’t have dozed off when he got home. Now he’ll stay up all night, watching television. Finally, several hours later, around two o’clock, he familiar exhaustion returns. He slips into his bed, warmed by a hot water bottle, and makes a list in his diary of all the banal little things he must do tomorrow, which is a Wednesday, and which really is already today, although in fact days and nights are merely illusions caused by the continuous spinning of the Earth on its crooked axis. His last thought as he dozes off, his weary, sad, imperfect body lying flat on its back, is that tomorrow morning he is bound to sleep in again.