The muttering in the room died away as the meeting began. The group manager stood up to present his review. ‘The returns from the last quarter are holding up pretty well in light of the current economic situation. The results of the market research we commissioned suggest that our profile was raised relative to our competitors by the pre-Christmas TV campaign…’
She looked at the man talking, noticing a reddened spot irritated by his crisp collar. He was a large man, showing all the signs of a well-fed sedentary life. She watched his hands, waving towards a Powerpoint slide behind him. They were surprisingly elegant hands, she thought, gesturing gracefully.
‘…and now I’d like to hand over to Dave, who has some interesting things to report about the R&D department’s work on sustainable packaging and the marketing opportunities it will provide.’
A thin young man stood up hesitantly and licked his lips, keeping his eyes on his notes as he began to speak.
‘Er… we’ve been looking at entirely cardboard packaging to replace the recyclable plastics we are currently using. Market research has shown that this would go down well with the target AB demographic…’ She watched his fingers as he fidgeted with a paper clip, twisting it into uselessness.
Her attention drifted away again. The notepad in front of her was filling up with doodled faces and random marks, outlines repeating and repeating until all definition was lost. The meeting droned on, and her eyes wandered the room, snagging on a tapping finger, a fluttering on the window ledge. ‘…well, I think that’s been a very valuable discussion. Thanks, everyone, for your input…’ At last it was over and they all gathered up their papers and paraphernalia and shuffled out, leaving a scattering of empty paper cups and disordered chairs for someone else to deal with. Back at her desk, she stared at a blank spreadsheet. Beyond the monitor she could see a colleague, similarly gazing at a screen, wearing an ill-chosen dark blue cardigan with an unnoticed birdlime smear of baby sick on her shoulder.
The day had begun as usual, with the whispering thud of junk mail coming through the letter box. Her journey to work had followed the normal sequence of brisk walk, eyes down, to the station, hanging on the tube, wedged into the anonymous over-heated press of bodies, then walk again to the shiny office tower, and slide up in a murmuring lift to reach their floor. So she did not know why, this day, she found herself rising from her chair to look out across the city from a high window, up at the cloud drifted sky. Then, descending the many flights of stairs, she is out of the building and away.
As she walks through the city, her eyes reach hungrily for scraps of life infiltrating the hard, straight places. She watches a pitiful limping pigeon, pecking unconcerned under a bench, where yellowish grass sprouts between uneven paving slabs, among discarded wrappers, cigarette butts and coins of hardened chewing gum. An abandoned building site is colonised by rose-bay willowherb and goldenrod. Looking up, she sees buddleias growing from impossible cracks in the neglected stonework of a Georgian façade. Billboards rise above a brambly no-man’s land, between rumbling trains and crawling cars.
She remembers walking to school, being so close to the ground, avoiding the cracks in the pavement, stopping to look at a bootblack creeping thing, brushing her fingers inside the soft concavities of a weathered sandstone wall that showered loose grains under her light touch.
Then for a while, she is in an almost-tunnel between high blank walls of warehouses. No litter here unless it is thrown from passing lorries, no other people walk, but dandelions have found a place to root where walls meet pavement.
Further on, the world turns greener. A row of trees, once winter lace against the sky, are now a leafy buffer between the playing fields and the railway track. Neat gardens demonstrate their owners’ faith in planting and pruning, mowing and trimming. How well-behaved the roses are, regimented behind box hedging.
She walks on, tireless, out of the fringes of the city at last, past fields where painted sheep graze, oblivious, and curious cows watch her pass. Hedgerows full of scents: cow parsley, meadowsweet, foaming creamily. Ash trees lift their feathery branches overhead, where invisible birds sing inconsequential songs.
But then, a barrier to her passage: a motorway, six lanes of hurrying traffic slicing through the open country. She turns aside, climbs a tipsy gate into a wheat field with a lone horse chestnut tree left standing at its centre. She wades through the ripening crop to reach its trunk, and looks up through the massive branches to its crown. The broad-fingered leaves are yellow-edged and young conkers show greenly among them. She finds a way to start and soon she is reaching branch to branch, into the higher air.
Aloft, she sits and looks out from her crow’s nest, seeing far behind her the haze of the city and ahead, beyond the motorway, the stretch of land, rising in waves to a wooded rim before the true horizon, where hills and sky merge imperceptibly. The cool air passes through her office clothes, but she rejects its chill and welcomes its pressure, feels it spilling across the downs, sliding around and through her feathered fingers. Looking down and closer, her fierce eye catches a fieldmouse streak across the bare earth between wheat and wild grass. And … she swoops … down from her perch, across the field and up again to hover, on high beating wings, head stooped, motionless, sharp eyed, above the rushing road.
In a car below, a mother says, ‘Look, kids, a kestrel – there.’ But they look too slowly and she is already out of sight.
Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts