Dark Sweat 

Dark Sweat


The office is empty, the unextinguished screens flickering like blue eyes in the darkness. The rig of Happy Birthday finery erected over someone's desk is a sad memorial rather than the intended happy welcome surprise tomorrow.

And Jacob's working late. Not poring over sheaves of paper, but thinking - simply thinking, instead of sleeping. Better than thinking at home. If he were at home, he'd be thinking of work, worrying his fingers to bone. But, here in the actual place of work, the office-type-Jacob can think of the home-type-Jacob.

There was something nicer in being *somewherenasty* because it seemed even nastier when viewed from *somewherenice*. And vice versa.

Jacob had stowed away in the toilet. Now he sits in the same revolving-chair, as he does during daylit hours. Ears pricked for the caretaker. Jacob could be just about anybody. And probably is.

Jacob knows he's Jacob. Mrs Jacob and Jacob Junior know he's Jacob. They're at home biting their nails regarding his absence. Or maybe they're not worried at all, since they're all asleep at home. Perhaps, Jacob is asleep at home, dreaming...

But he's not dreaming, is he?

With an abrupt recall to the reality of the present moment, Jacob hears something outside. The droning of an aeroplane increases the loneliness. This time it's inside his head: paradoxically outside the office building yet inside his head. He need not worry too long, because it must soon finish flying overhead. Probably going from somewhere nasty to somewhere nice.

The drone surprisingly changes pitch as the pilot does whatever pilots do as part of the landing procedure. From nice to nasty to nowhere.

Jacob's mind has already dismissed the sound because he hears the same thing many times every day. It's routine; backdrop; wallpaper...

He should be at the Jacob home. Why isn't he at home as part of Jacob United? Are they not, perhaps, united? God! What a stupid thought. Of course, they're Jacob united. OK, they have their ups and downs, who doesn't? Mrs Jacob usually has something to complain about and Jacob Junior is a real pain, but he'll be at school next year.

Jacob felt someone creeping up on him, perhaps a buxom caretaker in a deserted office block, if any such caretaker existed. Jacob's world was tinted. Rose-tinted. Blue. Black.

At home it was perfect-tinted.

Jacob's home was special but not his work world. His work world was that of any office junior. Back stab, grovel, suck, grab that leg-up, tread on that contemporary, apply for that promotion, don't show chinks in your armour. Bottom-of-the-rung office clerks can't last long with houses to maintain, cars to run, families to feed...

At 28 nobody had got past Jacob, not since he joined the firm.

Jacob - the oldest office clerk. How come no one had been promoted from office clerk since Jacob had arrived?

Jacob knew no one was as good as Jacob. If anyone was going to be promoted it was Jacob. So why hadn't he?

Jacob knew and Jacob wasn't saying, not to anyone, not to himself, not till now.

Jacob could manage. Jacob could manage a house, a car and a family on an office junior's money, so Jacob didn't try quite hard enough for promotion, so Jacob didn't get promotion but he, unlike the others, didn't leave either. And now he was starting to realise why.

Junior was nearly four years old yet there were no marks on the skirting-boards from his toys, no stains from his accidents, no repair bills from his high spirits.

The boiler was sweet as a nut and was never serviced, the drains never cleaned, the paintwork never washed, the wallpaper, yes, the wallpaper never replaced even if Junior did scribble on it.

Jacob loved his home and, in return, his home loved Jacob.

Just a little too much.

Just a little bit too real.

Just a little bit too, too ... too like something-that-was-alive. And now, like any long term relationship, there were problems...

The birthday rig in the late night office rattled. It looked like one of those fancy cots with a stiffened pyramid-canopy of fluttering lace and fine linen.

Only slightly rattling, but enough to startle.

Surely there were no draughts in this air-conditioned container of an office.

Dark sweat beaded Jacob's forehead like an ornament that girls in some Oriental country wore at religious ceremonies ... like gems glinting, the buxom caretaker thinks, as she approaches the desk where Jacob's body slumps at too acute an angle to support the head in its still waking position.

"I thought I'd find you here," she says, as if she knows she is not only breaking his revery but actually is aware of its contents.

This lady was so unlike Mrs Jacob, Jacob wondered how he could manage to conduct relationships with two such different women.

But this lady wasn't a caretaker, having no place in his domestic *or* business existences. So how had she ended up here? He usually only met her in the city flat - he'd been careful to keep her separate, sacrosanct, special.

"I'm not as special as you think I am," she says with a smile. Her cleavage is dangerous. Jacob finds his thoughts vanishing down its tunnel...

Junior had been born before Jacob first met this lady. Yet Junior possessed her eyes, her nose.

Jacob rose from a doze or fell into one, to find the office emptier ... almost as if Jacob himself had vacated it. The birthday rig, darkly silhouetted against the grey glow of the office window, seemed to wear a blue-tinted haze from the nearest screen ... like a ghost's robe.

The Jacob household cleaned itself every night when the Jacobs slept. It even dirtied the bits Mrs Jacob had cleaned the day before only to clean them even cleaner than she had left them.

Jacob shook his head. He helped clean sometimes.

No. No. Not those thoughts again.

Even his cack-handed do-it-yourself was repaired and returned to a state even better than new ... while he slept.

Junior's playroom - a pigpen of toys and mixed-up games by the end of the day - was sorted, SORTED by some all-year-round Santa Claus ... while they all slept. While offices and their denizens slept.

No wonder Jacob used a lady-of-the-streets with whom to dirty himself, to sully his bone-aching purity...

The lady herself wonders if she is indeed a ghost come to haunt Jacob with Guilt in spectral shape or is she simply the birthday rig - erected over some poor day-sucker's desk - in transitory animation?

No, not transitory but real, permanent, solid. She watches as the birthday rig appears to straighten itself, makes itself look taut and new, as though it really does mean to wish a "happy birthday" upon some aging day-sucker. Out of the corner of her eye she sees a shimmering screen wink out of existence and realises what is happening.

"Jacob," she screams, "Wake up, Jacob!" and she reaches across the desk and shakes his shoulder violently.

Jacob wakes from something other than sleep; he stares bemusedly down the gaping cleavage.

"Someone nice," he mumbles, "someone nice." And, as he slowly reaches towards her ... "I dreamt you were here and now you are."

She stiffened the ectoplasm of a preformative hand and smacked him once around the head. Jacob's eyes shot open.

"Don't you ever..."

"Jacob, get out of here!" she screamed, "Now! Now go!" She could feel the dust being pulled through the floor, see the nervous twitch of the dead keyboards, feel the cleanness coming.

Jacob leapt up, his seat slamming against the console behind him, and ran. He burst through a door at full tilt, finding speed to be the only element keeping him upright on the swaying, buckling floor.

Out in the corridor everything was still. Looking back through the door he could see the lady-who-slept-with-panthers frantically skipping and jumping away from the twitching, twisting building. She stopped when she saw him watching her.

"Get out, Jacob, get out!" And she waved her hands in a human, shooing motion. Jacob winced as the floor rose up and wrapped itself around her foot. There was a loud CRACK and the once female creature hobbled way on legs of uneven length, desperately trying to keep the building's attention focussed on her.

Jacob sniffed at the electric cleanness of the air and ran.

On the street, Jacob looked back at the building. Oh, well, he thought, shame to lose the job as well as the bit-on-the-side. Still, perhaps it was time for a change. A brunette, perhaps. Or hair only very slightly tinted. Possibly someone less voluptuous - more like Mrs Jacob. He shivered as a cold wind blew a stinging blast of rain into his face and a stray piece of paper wrapped itself around his leg. A piece of paper...?

"Oh, shit! The street's not yet been cleaned!"

Quickly he thought for a cab and a set of lights swung around the block. As he fell into the cab he thought of Mrs Jacob, of Jacob Junior and and of his home, letting the cab take the strain as he dropped into a fitful sleep in the cab's amorphous body. It was as if the cab had become his own body, his own shape, with spotlight eyes glaring along the wet sheen of the street...

"Somewhere nice, please," he said to the glutenous shape of the driver.

But he is dreaming, isn't he?

The driver's got goggles.

Mrs Jacob wonders who the dreamer is and who the dreamed-of, as she cradles her husband's head to her breasts like a baby. His birthday tomorrow. And tomorrow was a Monday. And all Sunday night people hated Monday morning people with a passion. Todays and tomorrows were never the best of bed-fellows and yesterdays were simply never anything, neither nice nor nasty.

Like a child, he was always overexcited at the prospect of his birthday. Jacob's mother had said that he always became catatonic with a hard-to-bear pleasure on the Eve both of Christmas and of his own birthday. This had transmigrated into adulthood - but Mrs Jacob cared for her husband in a simple fashion. It was almost like having a son who never grew up. At least, that way, he'd be someone nice forever. Nice, never nasty, often naughty. Fine linen diapers never dark, never dirty.

A plane slowly rose, droned and crossed the date-line of a sweaty city.

(published 'Sci-Fright' 2000)

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