Groundhog Hour

The tearoom is out of milk. Clifford scowls and puts two sugars in his coffee, and drinks it watery and black. It is 3:02pm. He leans against the counter and watches a V of ravens cross the cloud-spotted sky. Barbara and Tess, the phone ladies, sit at a plastic blue table doing the daily crossword. Their patterned blouses almost perfectly match the confetti linoleum. They’re like mushrooms that have grown out of the floor. Cliff can’t imagine them having lives outside the office.

His phone rings and he slips out to the balcony to answer it. It’s Karen.

“Lilly’s home from preschool; she wants to say hi to you. Lilly, come here, quick. Daddy’s on the phone. Quickly, now.”

“Hi Daddy.”

“Hey, Lilly. Did you have fun at school today?”

“It’s preschool, Daddy. I only go to school when I’m five.”

“Sorry, princess. Did you have fun at preschool today?”

“Yes. Mrs. Anne gave us blue cloth and some buttons and shiny cloth and we made some puppets to put on my fingers. Can I show you? We also ate some apples and some bananas and bikkies.”

“You can show me later,” said Cliff with a smile.

“Give the phone back to Mummy, now, Lilly. Thank you, dear. Cliff? You there?”

“Yep.”

“Can you pick up a multi-socket plug on the way home? I keep forgetting to buy one and it’s a pain in the ass changing over the microwave and kettle ten times a day.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Thanks, Cliff. Love you.”

“Love you too. Bye.”

Cliff hangs up while looking through the floor-to-ceiling window into the adjacent room. Larissa, the newest member of the sales team, is at her desk. Today she’s wearing a navy pencil skirt with a slit up the side and a blouse like frothy champagne. She glances over her shoulder and meets Cliff’s eye and mouths, “Stop looking and start asking.” It’s been a mantra of theirs for the past week.

A gurgle in his lower abdomen propels him to the nearest toilets. When he comes out, he washes his hands and checks his reflection. He looks modern and clever. He grins briefly at himself.

Someone yells from outside. Cliff emerges, wondering what all the fuss is about. One of the computers has gone up in a small explosion. There’s a fog of smoke and an alarm goes off, adding to the unnecessary pandemonium. Debbie, who was using the computer when it “went up in flames and scared the bejeezus” out of her, is half hysterical.

Once everyone has calmed down, Cliff and another fellow examine the mess. “Faulty wiring,” the other guy declares at last, holding up a tangle of tiny cords. “Should’ve had this old thing replaced ages ago.” He glances at Cliff. “You all right, mate? Inhaled a bit too much smoke?”

The tearoom is out of milk. Cliff blinks, mildly confused. He has that feeling you have when you first wake up—what day is it? what time? It’s 3:02pm. A V of ravens crosses the cloud-spotted sky. Behind him, Barbara the phone lady shouts: “Twenty across, combust!” and Tess says, “My goodness you’re brilliant.”

Cliff puts two sugars into his coffee but doesn’t drink it. He stares at the floor, which is an ugly purple lino sprinkled with tiny yellow shapes like confetti. His phone rings. It’s Karen. He hesitates before answering. “Hello?”

“Lilly’s home from preschool; she wants to say hi to you. Lilly, come here, quick. Daddy’s on the phone. Quickly, now.”

“Hi Daddy.”

“Lilly! H-hi, princess.”

“Guess what? Mrs. Anne gave us blue cloth and some buttons and shiny cloth and we made some puppets to put on my fingers. Can I show you? We also ate some apples and some bananas and bikkies.”

“Didn’t you…didn’t you do this…last time?”

“No! You’re silly.”

“Give the phone back to Mummy, now, Lilly. Thank you, dear. Cliff? You there?”

“The multi-socket plug.”

“My gawd, you read my mind! It’s such a pain in the ass—”

“I know. I’ll get it, Karen. I gotta go. I’ll see you later.”

Cliff feels something like a giant knot in his stomach. He runs to the bathroom and throws up in the sink, and then rinses and rinses until his mouth is numb. Outside, someone yells and then a few minutes later the smoke alarm goes off, but Cliff doesn’t move from where he is standing, staring blankly at the pale-faced man in the mirror.

The tearoom is out of milk. Cliff feels his heart drop into the pit of his stomach and he collapses over the counter, groaning. “Oh, no. Oh, gawd.” It’s 3:02pm and a V of ravens crosses the cloud-spotted sky.

Barbara the phone lady eyes him with pursed lips. “Good grief, Cliff, it’s just milk. I’ll run to the shops and get you a new carton if you’re that upset.”

Cliff throws his coffee into the bin and stumbles out to the balcony. His phone rings. It’s Karen. He stares at it, feeling sick, and hurls it onto the ground.

“Oh, gawd, what is happening to me?”

He puts his clammy, trembling hands over his face.

There’s a tap on the glass behind him. Larissa, the newest member of the sales team, is standing at the window with one hand tucked against her waist, her hip coyly to one side. She’s wearing a navy pencil skirt and a blouse that makes him think of frothy champagne.

“Stop looking and start asking,” she mouths with a smile.

Cliff whirls away and walks out of sight, still shaking. He tries to steady himself. Maybe this is some sort of punishment. Did he do something wrong? Maybe he’s trapped here until he gets it right.

The computer! He runs inside, but by the time he gets there Debbie’s already yelling and there’s smoke everywhere. Cliff charges in, telling the others to clear off. He crouches down to examine the faulty wiring, but even as he does so he feels an unmistakeable clenching in his nether regions—he’s forgotten to go to the loo. Gripping his buttocks together, Cliff sprints for the nearest men’s room with the fire alarms going off around him, wondering if he’ll make it there in time…

The tearoom is out of milk. This time Cliff has a plan of action. He ignores the V of ravens crossing the cloud-spotted sky. Karen calls and he pick up without delay, asks Lilly what she did at preschool, and promises to pick up the multi-socket plug. After he hangs up, he marches over the Larissa’s desk (as he passes Barbara, he mentions that the answer to twenty-down is combust) and taps her on the shoulder.

Larissa swivels around in her chair, legs crossed. “Why, it’s you.”

“Hey, Larissa,” Cliff says, shoving his hands in his pockets. “This has got to stop. I’m a married man, I’ve got a daughter, and this flirting game is stupid and dangerous.”

Larissa shrugs and looks him up and down. “Well, I’m sorry to hear it,” she says, and turns back to her desk.

The beginning of a rumble in Cliff’s bowel reminds him to hurry to the loo. Once his business is down the drain, he doesn’t linger at the mirror but rushes across the office.

“Debbie, I need you to turn off your computer.”

“What? Why?”

“You’ve got some really messed up wiring back there and your computer’s going to go up in a puff of smoke within the next thirty seconds if you don’t turn it off.”

Debbie frowns at him suspiciously but shuts down her computer with a long-suffering sigh. “I hope you’re not wasting my time here, Cliff, because I’ll have you know I’ve got a pile of things to finish before five o’clock today…”

“Can I get an IT guy over here?” calls Cliff.

A couple of minutes later an Indian fellow crouches at his side and squints at the wiring. “Yeah, that’s pretty bad. Lucky you spotted that, sir. We’ll have to get it replaced right away, Debbie…”

The tearoom is out of milk. It’s 3:02pm, and a V of ravens crosses the cloud-spotted sky.

“Shit!” Cliff cries, and knocks his coffee into the sink. “It didn’t work!” He did everything right, and it didn’t work.

“Watch your language,” snaps Barbara.

Cliff runs out to the balcony and answers his ringing phone. “Karen, oh God, Karen, help me…I’m stuck here, everything’s repeating itself and I don’t know how to stop it….oh my gawd, I’m going to crack…”

Karen asks worriedly if he’s trying to say he wants to quit his job.

“No,” Cliff chokes out, and hangs up.

Larissa’s waving slyly at him from the window. He stares blankly at her for a minute, then drags himself to the men’s room. He unbuckles his trousers and sits on the toilet and lets out a sob of frustration. It’s just his luck, to be caught in an infinite time-loop in which he has to take a dump. Emptying his bowels over and over again for eternity. Maybe he’s dead and this is hell.

He barks a laugh. It’s a horrible laugh to his own ears: humourless and hopeless. He digs his fingernails deep into his forearms and huddles in on himself, ignoring the sound of the alarms and the faint smell of smoke.

The tearoom is out of milk. Cliff flings his coffee into the sink and sprints through the door, shoving his way through the crowded office, pounds down the stairs, hits the sidewalk and keeps running, running through the city until his breath is whooshing in and out of his lungs like a bellows-pump and his chest is going to explode like Debbie’s computer, putting as much distance as he can between himself and the office…

The teamroom is out of milk. Cliff holds his coffee and doesn’t move. It’s 3:02pm. Outside, a V of ravens crosses the cloud-spotted sky. Barbara and Tess sit at a plastic blue table and do the daily crossword. His phone rings, but he hardly hears it. His loins gurgle, but he doesn’t feel it. Someone yells and the fire alarms go off, but Cliff doesn’t move, only closes his eyes quietly and prays that this is a nightmare.

The tearoom is out of milk. It’s 3:02pm and a V of ravens crosses the cloud-spotted sky. Cliff plunges his hand into a pot of scalding water, screams and doesn’t wake up. Barbara and Tess take him to first aid.

The tearoom is out of milk. Cliff goes out to the shops and buys milk.

The tearoom is out of milk. It’s 3:02pm. Cliff goes out to the balcony and sees a V of ravens crossing the cloud-spotted sky. He crushes his phone underfoot before it can ring. He turns, sees Larissa at the window, runs inside and kisses the hell out of her. He wanders over to Debbie’s desk and whispers, “Boom!” into her ear just before her computer goes up in smoke.

The tearoom is out of milk. Cliff has lost count of how many times this has happened. He can tell he is going a bit crazy because he wants to laugh and cry at the same time, and not like a normal person either, but hysterically, in a screaming way.

The tearoom is out of milk. Cliff runs to the balcony and climbs onto the railing but he’s too chicken to do it. Barbara and Tess grab him, shrieking at him like seagulls, and take him to first aid.

The tearoom is out of milk. Cliff runs to the balcony and climbs onto the railing, and this time, giddy with recklessness and despair, he’s not too chicken. As he wheels towards the sidewalk, his breath comes out of him in a great whoosh and he prays that this is it.

The tearoom is out of milk. It is 3:02pm. A V of ravens crosses the cloud-spotted sky.

Fin.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s