The front door clicks gently, and as I step into the cool stillness, it reminds me of how the day used to start when I was a boy – with the electric whirr and clinking bottles of the milk-float. The sound was friendly, like the milkman himself. He’d come around, every Friday night and stand in our doorway, asking about Gran’s health, and about Eileen who’d moved to Australia three years before. Sometimes he’d tell jokes, or pull a sweet out from behind my ear, while Mum counted coins from her purse. His barrel-chested bonhomie filtered through to everyone he met. Many mornings, you’d collect your pint from the doorstep, to be greeted with a cheery hello from a neighbour or a passerby. You don’t get that now.
These days, people choose to wander supermarket aisles like zombies instead, barely able to glance up from their trolleys to work out whether they want full-fat or semi-skimmed. Occasionally, a parent might build up enough energy to give their child a wallop, but that’s about the only sign of life. And as for neighbourly connections with others – there is none. Like the formless milk cartons, tetra-packs of juice, and cereal boxes, the shoppers themselves seem pre-packed in invisible bubbles: never touching or speaking, and in all likelihood, stamped with a best-before date.
As I arrive at the station, the train’s already on the platform. Though there’s an inspector, he waves me through without a glance at me or my ticket. I think about Charlotte snuggled up in bed, her body warm. I wonder if she’s up yet; hair standing up at the back. Before I left, I checked on Jamie, too. I like to listen to him breathe.
Considering the desolation of the streets, the train’s surprisingly busy. A dawn commute, and the bloodshot eyes that come with it, are the sacrifice of country living. As I sit down, someone pushes past, bashing my head with a laptop bag. I look up, deliberating whether to comment, but they’re already down the aisle.
From my table-seat, I stare out of the window while everyone else is lost in phones and e-books. Eye contact is minimal, and feet, elbows or shoulders rarely touch. A few stops down, the passenger beside me leaves; her warm seat replenished by a muscle-bound twenty-something. He gets his newspaper, spreads it out, and invades my side of the table. I shift, edge into the corner, and he absorbs the extra space with his arms.
The City is a different world to the one I’ve left behind. The air judders with sounds of engines, air-brakes, bicycle bells and voices. There’s a stall selling pancakes, and I’m tempted to stop, but I need to get to the Conference Centre.
Outside the Centre, the Press swarm the steps, like flies on the face of a corpse; buzzing in frenzied anticipation. It’s the big day. Hamish McDermott is announcing his discovery. Up until now, it’s been totally hush-hush.
Opinions are divided, of course. Many say he’ll change the face of renewable energy forever. Others – the fuel companies, mainly – are downplaying it. It’s easy to see why. They won’t benefit, and don’t want anything to threaten their monopoly.
At the entrance, I present my ID, and I’m directed to the kitchen. Staff in white shirts and black trousers come and go, and a man in a suit folds leaflets, putting them in envelopes.
‘What’s your name again?’ he says.
‘Worked for us before?’
‘A few times. At –‘
He doesn’t give me chance to finish.
‘Yeah, yeah.’ It was clear he couldn’t place me.
‘Personal belongings? Put them in there,’ – he points to a room situated just off the kitchen – ‘then help Jade take the cups to the main hall.’
He doesn’t wait for a response.
An hour later, McDermott enters the building through the side entrance, shadowed loosely by Security. There are a few safety concerns. Death threats, according to the papers, but McDermott’s treating them lightly.
Me and Charl watched him on Question Time last week. He’s an interesting guy.
‘Fear of change,’ he said. ‘The threats are nothing more than that.’
Someone from the panel asked if he was concerned his plans might get leaked before the conference.
‘No. I’m the untrusting type. The blueprint stays with me. In here.’
He tapped his head, grinned, and the audience laughed along with him.
I’m in the corridor outside the main hall when it happens.
I push my trolley to one side to let the group past, but I’m still blocking the way, and McDermott collides into me.
‘Oh sorry,’ he says, grabbing my shoulder to steady me.
His group drifts on; a joke’s shared between them, and a snicker of amusement trickles back. That’s all it takes to remove the syringe from my cuff and stick it in his thigh. I recognise surprise in his eyes, and his grip slackens instantly.
As I stride off, a flicker of something like sorrow passes over me. He apologised, and that’s rare nowadays. Though I hear commotion behind, I don’t turn back. Instead, I slip through the surge of people rushing towards his body on the floor. Once outside, I’m a speck in the masses.
When I arrive home, Charlotte is pleased to see me. The television news shows a smiling image of McDermott.
‘Tough day?’ she says.
‘Not bad.’ I kiss her, draw her in. Her breasts press softly against my body.
‘You look tired.’
I nod towards the screen. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Heart attack.’ She shakes her head, disbelieving. ‘At the conference.’
‘Hey – Jamie.’
I lift him, smell his hair. He’s getting so big. He won’t let me do this for much longer.
Charlotte smiles, and wanders off to finish dinner.
‘Can we play Lego later?’
‘I can’t see why not.’
This is what makes the rat-race worthwhile.