The world was all lapis lazuli and gold on the morning that I first thought of myself as a unit of production, a barcode. Of little more substance than the sickly smiling photopass that swung by a balding string from my belt. It was an epiphany, the first of many. I turned over possibilities in my mind. A strikingly handsome woman boarded my bus and sat down next to me. Her wild curly hair was the colour of fire and earth, her eyes exclamations. I half turned and scanned the empty seats to express an irritation I didn’t altogether feel.
“Georgie,” she said in a quiet low singsong that was either Scottish or Manx. She offered her hand. Her overalls, though they were white and spotlessly clean, stank roundly of sheep, unpleasant, but without the spiky acid highs of, say, a Roquefort cheese.
“Parsley,” I said. We shook hands. Her grip was warm. “My name is Douglas Parsley.” I showed her my pass by way of introduction. “Of the flat leaf variety, nowadays,” I said indicating the diminishing vigour of my hairline. “Though in my younger days, back when this likeness was captured in plastic you’ll notice I hailed from the curly side of the species.” I auto-laughed at my own joke, an infuriating high warble that I’d never managed to train despite countless hours of practice. “Ah, to be young and foolish again!” I added. She studied my pass, looked up at me.
“Interesting,” she said. “Do you always talk like that?”
“As though discussion were a formula.” I frowned at that and considered sulking but I could see that no malice was intended. An uncomfortable silence ensued. The bus moved. Outside the windows life continued. I realised she expected an answer.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Oh good,” she said. She smiled brightly. I smiled back. She said “Do you have a job?” I raised an eyebrow and glanced again at my pass. Underneath my photograph and the insipid corporate logo was printed my name, the start date of my employment and the words, Credit Controller.
“I do,” I said.
“And what do you do?” She said.
“I work in credit control,” I said. “I’m a Credit Controller.”
“How lovely,” she said.
“Of course you do,” I said. I bestowed an oily smile.
“…I do,” she said.
“No, I mean, I know you do. It’s kind of obvious.”
“Oh,” she said. “The smell?” I hesitated, then nodded. She said, “Sorry. It’s the fat from their fleeces. The sheep. Gets everywhere. But I save a fortune in moisturiser.” We sat in silence for a while. I mulled this over, wondering if the zero sum effluvia of my world had permeated my pores and clothing so thoroughly. Formula?
“Nae bother,” I said. We looked out of the windows. I wanted to ask what a farmer was doing on a rush hour bus, or what would make her the happiest woman who ever lived. I wished I could ask why she had sat next to me, or even if she’d like to have dinner with me sometime. Instead I opened my mouth and bleated, “So, are sheep as stupid as everyone says?” Her look reconfigured me. Something light and unfathomable retreated beneath her shining skin. She stood and made her way to the door, turning before she stepped off of the bus and out of my life.
“No more than the rest of us,” she said.
At work I couldn’t settle.
The next day, a Friday, I deleted a cell from an important spreadsheet. It calmed me fleetingly.
At the weekend I filled my bicycle panniers with accumulated frippery, adornments, bits of junk and nonsense, and took them to the dump. When I got back I did it again, and later again. The calm space within me grew a little. On the following Thursday, a week after I met her, I amended a carefully crafted lookup on a suite of spreadsheets, rendering them all but useless. The next day I deleted the spreadsheets themselves, and then the backups. I donated my collection of novelty stress toys to my colleagues and quietly cleared my desk, dotting pens and packets of sticky notes in discrete caches around the office. Three weeks after Georgie I stopped going to work. I no longer had any work to do and besides, I needed the time to organise the sale of my furniture. It was another week before anyone noticed my absence. In the evenings I stripped my tiny flat of anything I could do without. I cut a dreary Kandinsky print from a frame and replaced it with my corporate pass, hanging it in pride of place above the empty fireplace. I sold my bed. A month after we met I could fit my belongings into a holdall. I felt lighter than air.
At night I left the windows wide open unafraid of burglars. When the last of my stuff was gone I curled up on the floor and slept undisturbed. It might have been days. When I awoke the world was all lapis lazuli and gold. I wondered briefly if I had died, and surprised myself that I wouldn’t mind if I had. But I must be alive, I thought. You’re only dead when you stop surprising yourself. I felt like walking and never looking back.
A knock at the front door got me to my feet. Through the open window drifted the wholesome stink of sheep. Behind the frosted glass sunlight sparkled on a cascade of flame red hair.