Aaron works with me. Our offices are next to each other and we know each other like school buddies and one day he says:
‘I’ve never been to the beach,’ and I can’t imagine what he must feel like. He says ‘I’ve never been, never really that interested. Besides who would I go with?’
‘I’ll take you,’ I say, with no intention of actually taking him.
On the fourth floor, our floor, there’s a switch on the wall. I don’t know what it does. No one ever touches it. Most people forget it. Each morning I wonder to myself whether it stops time in the office, or turns off all the power, the office goes dark and people who haven’t saved their work go into a panic.
The guy in the office on the other side of mine is David. David and his wife look very alike. I don’t know if that’s a reflection of his ego or what. I see them at the Christmas party and I’m always amazed by the similarities of their features. Sometimes, I’ve imagined they wear each other’s clothes and go to each other’s job for the day. Sometimes I’m not sure who I’m saying good morning to.
My computer screen is ringing in my ears. Aaron never seems to question what he does, never looking up, never wondering what the switch on the wall is for. I wonder if he thinks about David and David’s wife. On days when the sun is shining, I imagine setting my computer free out the window, watching it awkwardly fall to the concrete below. I even see the sun reflecting off the monitor as it turns over and over in air. Then I’d have a plug free for my CD player.
At lunch time we have a food court we all go to. All suits and neat haircuts. The storeowners love the lunchtime rush. The employees hate dealing with us. The food court security guard is normally patrolling around the fountains, or ‘water feature’ I think they call it, or talking to the female cleaner, who always ignores him. He tries to engage her in a talk about her weekend or the football, but she always walks off in the middle of his speech.
‘See you later then,’ he always says, so sincerely.
Sometimes a bird gets in and bounces around looking for food scraps.
An old guy, in a suit of course, sees me across the busy tables and smiles. I’ve seen him before. Today though, he walks over to my table with his lunch from home, wrapped in three layers of Glad wrap, and sits with me.
‘Hi,’ he smiles.
‘Have you ever noticed the girl up there?’ The man asks, pointing to a girl who is sitting alone on the level above us. Not at a table, just on the stairs. She stares at the street outside, blowing smoke rings into the window.
‘Have you noticed the bird today?’ I return to him. His eyes scan quickly to the small bird pecking at the floor.
‘Yes, he was here yesterday.’
‘So was she.’ We look at our lunches.
‘Hey,’ he reaches into his pocket ‘I have this.’ The man holds out a small figure of Elmo, the Sesame Street character. He squeezes the little red character and it laughs uncontrollably. The man nods his head, admiring it, then laughs with it.
‘I can’t help laughing with him.’ He giggles. ‘Maybe you should have it.’ I look at the little red man and poke it as if to check if it’s still alive. It laughs. The man is looking satisfied at me. He stands up, his lunch still wrapped and cradled in his arms, and leaves.
I get on the elevator, we pack as many people in as we can, until someone puts their hand up in a stop signal and says that’s enough. On the wall it says ‘ten passenger limit’. We have thirteen. One of the ladies is impatient. She flicks at the ‘close doors’ button repeatedly every time we stop. As the number three on the indicator above the silver door lights up, the elevator jolts and makes a metal on metal sound, then something that sounds like whale song, echoing through the shaft. We’ve stopped moving. The impatient lady taps every button, swears, then picks up the emergency phone. Next to me, an old lady makes eye contact.
‘Millennium bug, I don’t know nothin’,’ she says.
Sometimes people on the street look up at me. Or at least they look up at the building and stick their fingers up at their own reflection. I wave back to them. David, or David’s wife, sees me do this.
‘Hey,’ I say to Aaron, my hand shaking my pocket. He looks at me, so serious. I reach out and quickly flick the switch on the wall. The mystery switch. We both flinch slightly and look around for the damage I’ve just caused. Nothing seems to happen. Nothing changes. No one cares. I flick the switch back to normal again.
‘I’ve always wondered about that.’ Aaron says. My shaking hand in my pocket makes Elmo laugh.
Outside the window, on the fourth floor, the rain is making people run for shelter on the footpath below. The cars switch on their headlights. And as people are finalising everything for the day, starting to save, and file, and clean, I catch the elevator to the roof, without anyone noticing, and stand, watching the drops fall towards me. They catch me on the face and clothes.
The sky is getting dark. The roads are getting busy. The trains are getting full. But Elmo and I haven’t left yet. He’s laughing.
The next day, at 12:30 exactly, I tell Aaron to come with me. David waves to us. I think he’s wearing lipstick. We leave our desks, and our papers, and our computer screens and get into my car. We have to go quickly to make it back on time. I drive to the beach. It’s not a good beach, but it will do.
Aaron and I sit on the sand, our ties loose around our necks, our dress shoes and black socks resting beside us, our black pants rolled up to our knees. We eat our sandwiches. The seagulls make noise above. He has a smile on his face, a look of amazement and wonder and happiness. He stares, completely oblivious to me being there. With that look. And it’s beautiful.
The beach is empty, the dark grey clouds overhead threatening rain any moment. I can only see one fisherman out on the dock, and me and Aaron. That’s it. You can see where it’s already raining on the horizon, where the clouds seem to meet the water. I point this out to Aaron. He says nothing, just stares, taking in deep breaths. And I can’t help but smile.
‘Hey,’ I say to him. ‘Check this out,’ I say, as I drop my tie onto the sand and run towards the water. Run into the water. And swim out over the small waves. Still in my white shirt and dress pants. Aaron looks amazed, his mouth open wide. But he only hesitates for a second before running out into the water with me. We float with the ocean. We rub the salt water from our eyes. We shake our hair away from our faces. And we laugh. Laugh. Laugh.
It starts to rain. As I float on my back I can feel the drops flicking onto my chest, hitting my thin, wet shirt. The rain gently drumming on the ocean, like a constant, soft drum roll. I can hear it underwater. I can see Aaron underwater, looking up at the clouds above, watching the rain connect with the surface. We come up for air and laugh. Throw our hands in the air. Feel the raindrops on our fingertips. Aaron takes out his mobile phone from his pants pocket. The water has destroyed it. He throws it out to sea.
And I know my watch is beeping on the sand. I know my mobile phone is ringing with the words ‘work calling’ on the display screen. I know my clothes are ruined.
And it’s beautiful.