an old drawing of a green fish with a red eye and yellow fins

share


Under the Paving Stones, the Sofa

The email telling us to return to the office came last week, but I know when I step off the train that I can’t say goodbye to all that leisure time. Two years spent lying in bed all morning with the laptop next to me, messages popping up to be ignored while I dozed, lunches of tender marinated meats and spiced pulses, films on the sofa in the afternoon, hours reading on the toilet, trips to the pub for solo pints, taking the laptop and jogging the mouse every 10 minutes to keep my status active. You can’t go back from that, so I step off the train and sit down on the platform, right in the middle of the morning rush hour.

 

With the crowd surging around me, I look up at the clock above the platform. The orange numbers show 8:52, once the ideal time to be walking under the clock to get to the office for 9:00, back when I commuted down from zone 3 every day.

 

I’d get anxious if I was late. There would be headaches and unexplained rashes.

 

Memories of covering myself in hydrocortisone in the toilets, chugging back beta blockers at my desk, all voided by two glorious years.

 

The next train pulls in and disembarks. I get knocked over and stood on a couple of times but mostly manage to stay upright. Everyone ignores me except for one guy who calls me a cunt.

 

I watch as he makes his way through the crowds towards the exit. He doesn’t want to be going back to the office, but the self-coercion throbbing behind his eyes propels him forwards.

 

None of them want to go back, no matter what they’ve told themselves. They want to be getting up late, streaming a new series all day, learning Swedish from an app, taking naps, lying in the bath for three hours or drinking a coffee in some cafe that has a 4.8 rating on Google.

 

The clock says 9:05. I’m late now, but I’m not going back. I don’t have any special urge to get up and go anywhere else, so I get myself into a better position to avoid getting injured, legs crossed, knees up, hands between knees, elbows in. I don’t get kicked so much when the next train pulls in. No one calls me a cunt.

 

It’s not until the crowds have died down that the signaller with the plastic wand notices I’m here, just as he’s heading back up to the control room. He starts walking towards me with the look of someone who’s about to suffer a forced interaction on his face.

 

I want to reassure him that I’m not a threat, that I’m on his side, that I believe he should be invested with powers of coercion and arrest to deal with abusive customers, issued with a cattle prod or at least a baton for dealing with drunk bankers, Chelsea fans and commuters who lose their minds when there’s a delay. I hope his leisure time is full and passes slowly, unimpeded by the vague and difficult obligations of everyday life.

 

I try to communicate all this with my eyes as he approaches but just end up rapidly batting them at him. He looks away awkwardly. There’s no way to express my intentions without making it worse.

 

He asks me if I’m okay. I tell him sort of, I’m just resting for a bit.

 

He makes sure I don’t need any medical help and asks if I could sit against the wall instead of in the middle of the platform, for my own safety and the other passengers, which I do.

 

He comes back to check on me about half an hour later. He’s got a colleague with him this time. I can tell she’s been watching me on the monitors since I first sat down, that she’s ready to deal with a live one with the cattle prod or baton that I wish she had. He asks me again if I’m okay and after telling them I am she politely asks me to continue my journey.

 

I’ve got no intention of continuing my journey to the office, to sit there producing work that doesn’t need to exist, sending an email that causes its own replication in response, sending 50 others that do the same, replicating the replications over and over, doing work we have invented for ourselves just so that we’re taken seriously and can take ourselves seriously, self-abolishing our own time.

 

I cross over to the northbound platform and head back to zone 3.

 

I don’t bother opening my laptop when I get back to the flat. That’s all over. Instead, I get into bed and have a nap. When I wake up a few hours later I prepare a lunch of falafel, bulgur wheat, chopped tomatoes and fresh herbs which I eat at the kitchen table with a beer, enjoying leisure time that no longer feels illicit.

 

*

 

There’s someone sitting with me on the platform today. He’s got his rucksack between his legs and hasn’t spoken yet. He looks like he works at the same sort of place I do. Or did. They must have sacked me by now or at least have initiated the disciplinary process. Maybe they just have concerns for my welfare.

 

He’s not the first one to join me. A woman sat down next to me yesterday. She didn’t say anything but you could tell she wasn’t going back either.

 

I don’t know why they joined me. I haven’t been evangelising. I don’t even know why I got back on the train again today or the day before. Nothing has changed. I’m still not going back.

 

Three tube workers in hi-vis vests are walking towards us. They’re going to tell us to continue our journey, but I don’t fancy taking the train back already so I get up and head to the exit, going through the barriers and sitting down on the pavement outside. The guy follows me and sits down next to me. The tube workers watch us from inside the station, but we’re not on their turf anymore so they leave us alone.

 

I take a mango from my pocket and peel it with my teeth and fingers, then I take a spoon from the same pocket and spoon chunks out of it. I offer a piece to the guy and he takes it. I have eaten a mango every day for the last two years, savouring each one more than the last. This one’s juicy and we eat it slowly. Everything will be savoured now.

 

I’m planning what I’ll do when I get back later. I’m going to get naked, lie on the sofa, drink banana liqueur and carve a little wooden figure with the woodworking kit I bought on impulse last year.

 

*

 

Now there’s six of us including the guy from before. One of the new ones is really chatty and excited about what we’re doing. He’s too chatty. He says he saw us a couple of days ago sitting outside the station and didn’t know what we were up to when we looked like we should be at work. He thought maybe we were filming something, then he realised we were doing something, really doing something, he said.

 

His enthusiasm makes everyone uncomfortable. He fills the silence by telling us he works in operations for a tech company. No one says anything, and the look on his face shows he understands that he doesn’t do that anymore.

 

Passersby drop change at our feet, despite our workwear and designer glasses.

 

I pick up the coins.

 

To fund my leisure activities.

 

That night I open my laptop for the first time in days. I’ve got 78 new work emails, mostly concerning my absence. The subject lines become increasingly alarmist, with multiple question marks and capital letters. There’s loads of meeting requests, seven in a row from my line manager, all on the same day. Seeing them makes me happy. I don’t read any of them. I open a new tab and start streaming a film that’s just come online that I’ve wanted to see for ages. I get the banana liqueur out again. It’s in a banana shaped bottle. It’s fluorescent yellow and 52%.

 

Later that night two police officers ring the buzzer. I answer the door in an extremely plush dressing gown. They say they’ve come to check on my welfare. I tell them I’m all right. You haven’t been to work, one of them says, they’re worried about you. I ask them to repeat what they said, the first part, and they do. It sounds so good in my ears.

 

*

 

We’re all sitting in a loose mass on the pavement outside the station. The police ask us to move away from the entrance and we do, sitting instead against the side of the building. At first there’s only two police officers, then five, then later a van full. They’re unsure of the right approach to take now that there’s more of us, what the situation calls for and what exactly we constitute. Some watch from outside the van but most sit inside with the sliding door open, staring at their phones, enjoying their leisure, their police leisure, spent browsing questionable porn and far-right content.

 

They’re armed to the teeth with batons and handcuffs and pepper spray. We all agree amongst ourselves that these weapons should be surrendered or confiscated and issued to the workers to enforce their moral claim to uninterrupted leisure time.

 

Someone walking past tells us to get jobs. They look like they live their life through gritted teeth and suffer from a bad heart. They’re not the first to say it.

 

There have been spitters too.

 

Our numbers grow throughout the day. There’s little conversation between us, just silence between sedate asides of mourning and pity for those still living in the old world.

 

We don’t know each other’s names so we don’t use them. When we need to, which isn’t often, we make up names for each other. I have been called green trainers, big boy and all night garage. I don’t know what the last one means.

 

There has been romance, even in these early days and despite or because of the lack of conversation. Lovers regularly peel off in twos or more, returning a few hours later or the next morning, already rehearsing the endless days of slow love that lie ahead.

 

Then the journalists come. An old bastard from a financial daily distributed in the capital and another one from the broadsheets. They’re both under deadlines, experienced when it comes to late nighters and brutally suppressing their own leisure time. They both have bulging forehead veins. I nearly start evangelising leisure to them, but that’s not what we do, and I haven’t really spoken at all in the last few days, at least not much, and I’ve enjoyed living without the obligation to expel words to keep up the appearance of legitimacy. In any case, they wouldn’t understand.

 

They’re annoyed because they can’t find out who’s in charge. They wander around speaking to people at random, not getting the answers they want.

 

What are we? Members, participants, comrades? Those are all old words. We don’t call ourselves anything. The journalists get even more pissed off when we fail to articulate what we’re doing.

 

You’re in charge, the old one says when he gets to me, I know it’s you. He’s probably said that to everyone, unless I’m radiating some serious gravitas. I tell him it’s not me, but he ignores me and asks what we want, why we’re sabotaging the economy, stopping people getting to work, tempting them to wreck their lives, destroying brilliant young careers. They’re joining you, he said, they’re throwing it all away.

 

I tell him we’re not a political movement, we don’t have a name or any demands, and that there’s nothing to throw away, that even if they threw everything away, they would have thrown nothing away, only gained everything.

 

Later I take a long walk in the rain. When I get back I crack the radiator on full, wrap myself in a huge woollen blanket, light some candles, write a long prose poem and buy two expensive sweatshirts online. I have never written poetry before. I read it out loud at full volume before stacking the living room furniture in a huge pile and scaling it with a marker pen. I write a neat and affirmatory message on the ceiling that I’ll be able to read when I’m lying down on the sofa.

 

Work kills pleasure, pleasure kills work.

 

That night I dream many premonitory dreams about the end of industrial time.

 

*

 

The media coverage and police attention only increase our numbers. We’re all sitting on the pavements around the tube station. This morning we’ve been joined by almost the entire staff of a call centre. There are developers, baristas, joiners, designers, street cleaners, shop workers, accountants, bus drivers, scaffolders, product managers. Conversation remains sparse. There are no discussions or speeches. Nothing would be more unnatural.

 

There are nurses and firefighters too. They’re all welcome. We’ll share the essential work until machines or algorithms can do it.

 

There’s a couple of TV cameras and a few journalists wandering around. More police have arrived, mostly still hunkered in their vans. The council are out with the police, trying to regularise our status and induce us to apply for licences for public gatherings, but they can’t find anyone to complete the paperwork. They’ve decided we’re not a protest and we don’t meet their criteria for a mass event, but since they can’t find a representative or a spokesperson they either address the crowd as a whole or speak to people they think are in charge.

 

The coverage in the press has become more hostile. There are some mad pieces in the newspapers. The one distributed outside the station calls us a cult of laziness and talks about the threat to the economy. No speeches are given, one says, it’s impossible to find out what they want. An opinion piece in an enlightened broadsheet calls us nihilistic. A tabloid columnist says we should be forced back to work at bayonet point or conscripted into the military. There have been reports of public sex in nearby parks, defacement of currency and sabotage of fibre optic cabling supplying shared workspaces, says another.

 

There’s more of us than ever, they say, and we’ve started gathering outside other stations, not just in London.

 

We’re surrounded by crowds who have come to watch or take pictures. They’re blocking the pavements. The police keep telling us to move, saying we’re blocking the pavements, but we tell them it’s not us, it’s our admirers.

 

The tube station periodically declares a major incident because of the crowds and the tube workers close the gates. They tell us they’re on our side, that they have put in place defensive measures if the police try to disperse us. A couple of them have joined us, applauded by their colleagues. They bring out biscuits for us.

 

Some of us stay for only a few hours, others all day. We go home each night and gather again the next morning. The relaxation on our faces from spending our evenings in pure leisure is clear. Despite the chaos, there’s a feeling of complete serenity. Everyone has stopped paying their bills, rent and mortgages. What was morally theirs through de facto habitation but not legally according to the current laws is now theirs forever.

 

This is not understood by our landlords. Every few hours big groups of us go down into the tube station and head out to Mile End or Streatham or Acton when we’re needed, to protect our flats from bailiffs.

 

Some of us have started to arm ourselves with metal bars and coshes, to defend our moral claims to unlimited leisure time.

 

We don’t have a manifesto, just a general agreement that the economy has the productive and technological capacity to maximise the leisure time of everyone who’s capable of letting themselves enjoy it. We all simultaneously keep this manifesto in our heads, there’s no need to say it out loud or write it down or discuss it.

 

We arrive at the same conclusions, always more radical than the last, always spontaneously. We agree to support each other through mutual aid until the state has been compelled to restructure the productive apparatus based on need and leisure time alone. Even those who don’t want their time back, the work hard, play hard crowd and the burnouts, will be compelled to take it. We’ll teach them how to live again, how to spend days in tactile loungewear, nights drinking with friends, to lovingly gestate houseplants in tap water, take five baths per day, enjoy unfettered masturbation, worship the moon, welcome animals into their homes, surrender all will and purpose, exist horizontally for weeks at a time, take long hikes to other cities or to the sea or nowhere in particular, to see friends or nobody at all, camping overnight in suburban undergrowth or in five-star hotels that will freely assign their rooms based on the needs of passing travellers.

 

They won’t have any other option. Their jobs will be gone.

 

I missed my last rent payment but the landlord hasn’t surfaced yet. There’s a pile of letters on the floor by the front door that I haven’t read. It’s possible he’s initiated proceedings in the small claims courts, but it doesn’t matter. I run a hot bath and soak myself in eucalyptus oil. I read a South American novel while I’m soaking, then I put on my plush dressing gown and prepare seven oysters on a plate, each with three drops from a bottle of expensive chilli oil. Afterwards I spend hours on the sofa doing nothing, before lying on the carpet and peeling every speck of pith from the segments of a satsuma with exacting neatness.

 

*

 

There’s a helicopter circling overhead and a police inspector doing the rounds. He’s trying to find who’s in charge. He wants to move us on. Loudspeakers repeat the same. Vegetarian food appears from somewhere in big foil trays and we eat it with our hands, almost burying our faces in it.

 

Later, he’s walking around wearing a helmet with the visor down. The rest of them are wearing helmets and there are riot shields stacked next to their vans. The inspector’s got someone from the council with him. They’ve given up trying to get us to complete their paperwork, now they’re trying to issue us with fines, to get names and addresses, count us, photograph us, create useless and self-replicating information to be logged and entered into their systems. They drag some of us away. We’re always smiling. There are journalists still wandering around. We no longer speak to them, instead we bark at them like dogs, using our language only rarely now and among ourselves.

 

There are thousands of us. The economy is losing billions every day. The police charge us a few times, but always halfheartedly, contenting themselves with arresting the odd person coming or going.

 

The trains aren’t running due to staff absences, and neither are the buses, so later I walk back to the flat, the flat that is now mine and not my landlord’s, the flat that I’ve expropriated for the exclusive purpose of leisure time.

 

It’s a long walk but I take it leisurely. I stop to stare at the horizon, that deep orange strip of sun, giver of all leisure time. I pick up a fancy coffee. I’m deep in my overdraft but that won’t matter soon. We won’t need money.

 

It’s late. I’ve just used the eucalyptus oil on my hair again and I’m lying on the sofa. I open my laptop and check the news. There’s a live feed showing columns of smoke rising over the city and people running around wielding iron bars, although many are still just sitting on the pavements. I can hear the sirens and helicopters and the boom of concussion grenades through the open windows. The eucalyptus oil smells amazing. It makes my hair feel so soft. I’m wearing the plush dressing gown. There’s a mango in my pocket. No, one in each pocket. I take out a spoon and start carving them up. I can hear the helicopters buzzing overhead.

 

We’ve got big plans.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer based in London. His short fiction has appeared in multiple publications, most recently in The Interpreter’s House. He was longlisted for the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize in 2022 and has previously been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize.

READ NEXT

poetry

June 2012

At Night the Wife Makes Her Point: Two Poems

Gioconda Belli

TR. Charles Castaldi

poetry

June 2012

AT NIGHT, THE WIFE MAKES HER POINT   No. I don’t have Cindy Crawford’s legs. I haven’t spent my...

Interview

Issue No. 1

Interview with Paula Rego

Ben Eastham

Helen Graham

Interview

Issue No. 1

Dame Paula Rego introduces me into her North London home with a crooked smile and a plate of biscuits....

poetry

September 2011

Nigel

Patrick Langley

poetry

September 2011

Jamie sat alone at the edge of the dance floor and wondered how long it would be until Nigel...

 

Get our newsletter

 

* indicates required