Odd, musty smell.
What, you piece of shit? “Yes, sir?”
“Clean this mess up.”
“Right on it, sir.”
I’ll be turning fifty-nine tomorrow. Is that old? I can’t tell nowadays. I don’t feel old. Maybe I’m old, just not elderly.
Before I came in today, my wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said, “I’m getting old, don’t you think?”
She didn’t reply; just smiled at me. After a few more minutes she asked me again, “So?”
“What would you like?”
Honestly, I don’t know what I’d like. So I told her I’d like a fancy new beard trimmer. These dreadful chin locks are getting obnoxiously out of control. Though my wife always tells me she likes how they tickle when we make love. A woman laughing while you’re trying to give her an orgasm isn’t ideal but at least gives me time for the Viagra to kick in.
I go past the aisles: milk, bread, cheese; canned tomatoes, canned beans, canned soup; toiletries. The light is so much brighter in here now, and all white. It makes me feel like I’m floating in space. I take my glasses off and give them a wipe over. Doesn’t help much but at least I know approximately where I’m going. I go into the cupboard at the back of the store. I take a deep breath; I breathe out. My spirits lifted, I take the broom, the mop and other things I’ll need and head back to the vegetable aisle where the mess is. There is pink liquid spreading on the white, sparkling floor like diluted blood.
I bend down to take a closer look. The smell is overpowering. I see pieces of shattered glass swimming in the fluid like puzzle pieces. One of them has text on it but I can’t make out the brand. A perfume bottle. Expensive, by the looks of it. Is this really what perfumes smell like nowadays? I throw the pieces one by one into a waste basket. I can see my reflection in the pools: white dome of a head surrounded by a ring of whiter hair and cupped by a C of white, scraggly beard. I am almost meshed in with the background of white shelves and ceilings and lights. I look up. This building is enormous, the ceiling teasingly unreachable like the sky. There is a slight crack amongst the canvas blankness: a brown, almost wooden crevice.
There are floating pieces of whiteness within the pool of perfume. I hadn’t noticed them before. I use my finger to wade through them and I see various words and letters look back up at me. Pieces of paper. They continue to spread and shred.
I sniff at my hand; the odour is all intrusive. No wonder the odd, musty smell. Like dead characters. The first time I was inside of this building, I had had a tinge of the same, vexing smell. I was twenty-two, I think, in awe of the gigantic wooden doors which were always open and the proportionately massive doorknobs. I climbed up the steps and noticed gigantic engravings of gods and cherubs and angels on the panels overhead and the doors themselves. The moment I walked in, the air became so thick I almost chocked on it and initially, as if it were a stench, my nostrils flared and crinkled, trying to keep it out. My eyes shot upwards at the ceiling, concave shapes littering it like internal domes. But my attention was stolen by the shelves, rows and rows of –
What do you want now, you fucking wanker? “Yes, sir?”
“Sir?” Laughter. “I’m like, half your age.”
I turn around to see a young man, in his early to mid-twenties, looming over me. He seems tall but as soon as I stand up we are level. He has a full head of dark brown hair and a stylishly cut goatee. I notice he’s also wearing an ASDA shirt but I haven’t seen him before. His badge reads “Rodney”.
I apologise and ask: “What can I do you for?”
“Oh, sorry, but Mike says to hurry up a bit. Says there are a few other bits near the utensils that need cleaning and everything should be done by the end of the day.”
I nod and start to mop up the liquid. From the corner of my eyes, I see that Rodney is still there, shuffling feet. I do not continue the conversation; I merely focus on getting my job done. A minute or so passes as he pretends to pull things forward on the shelves. I am squeezing the perfume out of the mop when he asks, “Need any help?”
“Sure,” I smile. “Can you get some air freshener? And the wet floor sign?”
He nods vigorously and runs off. I have mopped and am about to squeeze the last few drops of the perfume out when he comes back. He starts to spray it into the environment. The old smell starts to fade. I pretend to rub my face so I can take a last sniff of the dying odour.
“You new here?” I ask.
“Oh no, I’ve been here for a couple of months now.”
“Oh?” I am wondering if I’ve ever seen him. “Don’t think I’ve seen you before?”
“Really? I’ve seen you a couple of times.”
“Getting old, you see,” I laugh. He laughs back to humour me. “I’m turning fifty-nine tomorrow.”
“Whoa, no kidding?” He looks genuinely surprised. “Almost sixty!”
“Yeah,” I reply. “My wife still says I’m young at heart,” I lie.
“I can tell,” he lies back, sniggering. There’s a slight, awkward pause as I put everything in order to carry them back and put the yellow “wet floor” sign up. “How long have you worked here?”
“Hmm, let’s see…” I act as if I haven’t counted every day of since I worked here. “Almost forty years.”
“Forty? You serious?”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
He hesitates a little before he asks, “Have you always been a cleaner?”
“No, actually,” I begin to say. But I change my mind. I have a tremendous urge to tell him all my life stories but I can see myself through his eyes. “Yes, but don’t worry,” I console him. “I just missed out on a lot of opportunities.”
“C’est la vie,” he says. “I should be getting back. Mike wants me to –“
“Yeah, yeah, go,” I provide him with an encouraging, guilt-free smile. “I know how Mike can be.”
He scuttles off towards the counters as I head back with all my gear towards the cupboard. I place all my things in their assigned places and sit down on a lone stool. I look at my watch: 11:07 pm. Fifty-three minutes to get to utensils and finish my rounds. I take out my copy of The Wasteland from behind one of the cabinets and flick through to a dog-eared page.
“Who is the third who walks beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together But when I look ahead up the white road There is always another one walking beside you Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded I do not know whether a man or a woman -But who is that on the other side of you?”
I bring the book up to my nose and breathe in. When I’d first walked in through the big wooden doors, this was all I could smell and I had covered my nose and mouth with the collar of my t-shirt, trying to keep it out. Shelves and shelves of endless volumes of words cluttering a single behemoth of a room, shelves that reached the domed ceilings and kept on going, ladders which led to the infinite end of history. I walked in to see Mr Reed for the first time as he greeted me with a smile and said, “You must be Archie Winkle’s son.” Excited, I nodded; “Pleased to meet you,” I said, ecstatic at the very thought of my first paycheck. He led me through the endless maze of shelves, introducing me to the history of the shop, and instructing me on how the books were stacked, how they were colour coded, how they were priced.
So much to read and a lifetime wasn’t enough.
He led me to the back where there was a small room with a tiny desk with two chairs and a typewriter. This is where I would sit, he told me. This is where I would work from. Even the walls in this small room were adorned with shelves and they held rusty, yellowing bound copies of texts I had never even heard of. I covered my mouth with my t-shirt again the moment Mr Reed left me to my own devices. I sat there thinking it was a small price to pay for this new, magnificent world.
SN Rasul is the greatest writer in the history of the universe to never have been published (not yet, anyway). He hails from the trenches of middle class Bangladesh and is fervently dedicated to the art forms of TV, film, music and literature. He also enjoys the company of good friends, good family and, occasionally, misery.