The Man Who Looked Up

        Mr Adrian Clark is an excellent worker.  His manager says so, his colleagues say so, his family say so and his wife says so.  Therefore, it must be true.  And it is.  He is never late and has not taken a single day off work with sickness in the two years that he has been employed at the Bank.  His monthly work reviews serve to reinforce everyone’s opinion of his attitude and aptitude for his job.  A man admired by all who know of him. 

        It is said that if you can’t get along with Mr Adrian Clark, then it is you who has the problem and not he.  Every day he is only too willing to help colleagues who may be having difficulties with their tasks, staying behind long after he should have finished work for the day.  Mrs Clark has got used to not expecting him home at the appointed time and is not altogether happy about it, but she understands.  She understands that because he is so conscientious, so personable, so reasonable, he feels it his duty to help out where he can, and anyway, if he were not the person he is, she wouldn’t have fallen in love with him, would she? 

        Does he feel the same way about her?  Mrs Clark is sure that he does!  Although he doesn’t always show it.  He never seems to have time to take Mrs Clark – Helen – to a restaurant or to the cinema or even for a quick drink.  He’s just too busy, or too tired.  He very rarely buys flowers, unless it’s a really special occasion.  However, on Helen’s birthday or at Christmas, he always buys her chocolates.  Not her favourites – he’s not too sure what her favourites are – but Helen doesn’t mind.  It’s the thought that counts and somehow it seems more endearing to Helen that Mr Adrian Clark tries, but just fails to get it right.

        At work, however, Mr Clark can’t fail.  100% productivity; 0% error rate.  Eight hours of the day filled with eight hours worth of work and not one mistake.  Yes, Mr Clark is very popular with his manager and his workmates and has had his enthusiasm recognised several times in the form of a ‘Cheers’ award.  A £5 shopping voucher, a card praising his contribution and a small, circular badge to wear proudly on his lapel, branding him a genuine Company man.  A man who looks forward to each working day and the opportunity to play his part, however small, in the advancement of his team, his department and the Company.

        This is how it is.

        Today, however, would be different. 

        Ah yes, this April day with birds singing as if for the mere joy of it, with the naked sun a dazzling white globe bleaching the milky blue sky, with the morning mist shielding the pastel drawn hills, with the masts of the small sailboats shimmering in the distance as they rocked on the softly rippling river. 

        Today, as at 8.45 a.m. on every other weekday for the past two years, Mr Adrian Clark strode purposefully across the arched, iron bridge that led him to his workplace.  The beauty around him invisible as he stared at the pavement ahead, his mind set on service standards, workload, productivity and effectiveness.

        “If I can only do one hundred and five percent today, that’ll push the team’s average to over ninety five,” he thought.  “We’ll be back on track to make-”

        Suddenly, a splash, quickly followed by another.  Mr Clark glanced over the rail to the river below.  As his eyes scanned the surface, he noticed a small, circular patch of water begin to bubble, then fizz, then boil.  As he watched more intently, a salmon leapt fully two feet into the air, light scintillating along its body as the scales reflected the sun like crystals of ice on a December dawn, then twisting deftly, plunged headfirst back into the glistening depths.

        Mr Clark stopped walking. 

        A look of stunned bewilderment masked his face as if he was trying to comprehend what he had just seen.  Like a child that had witnessed their first snow fall or experienced their first magical Christmas morn, he stood entranced, not wanting to turn away, not able to move lest it should happen again and he miss it.

        “Adrian, are you all right?” Louise’s chirruping voice sliced through the fresh morning.  “Come on, Adrian, no time to stand around.  There’s work to be done!” she continued half joking.

       Mr Clark roused at his manager’s presence and, without taking his eyes from the water, began to explain,  “I’ve just seen a beau…”

        “I’ll meet you in there,” she interrupted and walked off.   “I’ve one or two ideas for increasing productivity that I want to discuss with you.”  Her voice was fading to insignificance.   “Hurry now!  Don’t be late!”

       Mr Clark raised his eyes slowly, reluctantly at first, from the spot upon which they had fixed, and gazed out through the hurrying people around him, beyond the rushing, rasping vehicles, at the vastness of the sure and steady river.  He saw with new eyes the gleaming, glinting, star-studded surface and marvelled.  Dark figures hustled and dashed past him, either on foot or secreted inside their sound-proofed, four-wheeled coffins-for-the-living, hurtling blindly to their temporary resting place, but Mr Clark was oblivious to them. He knew only the grey-blue ribbon below him, meandering slowly, calmly and in its own good time, eventually to be welcomed by the cosseting mists in the distance.

        Closing his eyes, but holding this image in his mind, he tilted back his head, took a long, deep breath of dewy, ozone-filled air and smiled as the Spring-sharp morning permeated his lungs, stripping away two years of staleness in an instant.

        A body brushed against him. A hand held his arm and shook him and he heard a familiar voice call his name: “Adrian?”  Louder: “ADRIAN!  What are you playing at?  It’s five past nine!”

        No response.

        “Are you okay?”  The Voice continued.  “You don’t look yourself.  Has something happened?”

        Mr Clark did not open his eyes, but took another deep breath and exhaled slowly, waited, then replied in a whisper, “Yes, I think it has.”

        A short silence followed as if the Voice was expecting some sort of explanation, but none came.

        “You’ve never been late in your life!”  The Voice added, then diminishing, continued, “You’d better move yourself.”

        For a moment, Mr Clark felt a knot of anxiety tighten his stomach.  He allowed his head to fall forward and snapped open his eyes.  A handful of late starters hurried along ahead of him, but none were near enough to have spoken. He looked around expecting to see the face of one of his colleagues, but saw no-one.

        He started off again, hesitantly, in the direction of the three-storey redbrick building that he inhabited for the majority of the day.  As he did so he eyed the first-floor windows behind which his fellow New Accounts team members were already endeavouring to prove their effectiveness.  A small dark strip in one of the windows caught his attention.  The vertical blinds that were normally drawn and closed to shield the workforce from the distraction of the outside world were pulled slightly to one side and there, peering out of the small gap, was the bird-like face of Louise.  She looked at Mr Clark, then at her watch, then at Mr Clark once more.

        Mr Clark turned away quickly and would have quickened his pace too, if at that moment, a strong gust of wind had not blown into his face and stopped him in his tracks. 

        He sniffed the air.  His brow furrowed. He drew another long, slow breath.  The breeze was fragranced with the most deliciously sweet scent of pine.  Once more, he closed his eyes and savoured every molecule.  Above the noise of the traffic, which by now had reduced considerably, he could hear the delicate hiss, the music of the vast forest that decorated the left bank of the river.

        “How have I not noticed that before?” he thought.

        “This isn’t helping anyone, you know.”  The Voice had returned, but somehow softer as if not at his elbow, but some distance away.  “You realise they’re watching you, Louise and half your workmates, wondering what on Earth you’re doing, standing here with your eyes shut sniffing the air.”

        “Really?” replied Mr Clark, though not at all concerned.  “I suppose it must look strange, to some.”

        “Exactly.  So, come on.  Louise wants that meeting about productivity and you’ve got a mountain of work to shift to meet that service standard,” the Voice prompted, growing louder with every word.

        “Don’t you ever feel that there might be more to life than–”  Mr Clark began,  “but no.  Of course, you’re right.”  Mr Clark blinked open his eyes and looked around him.  He was alone. 

        He set off once more, but this time took only two steps before glimpsing the steeply-rising hills, that appeared abruptly from behind the Bank’s stark facade and tumbled in a patchwork of green and yellow and lilac, along the horizon under an azure sky and down, down to meet the ambling, diamond-dappled river at the far end of time. He leaned against the rail, shielding  his eyes from the exuberant sun with his free hand, and watched as a cloud’s light footprint glided across the fields and hedgerows, caressing every contour along its path.  He followed its effortless climb to the highest point of the largest hill and saw it slip easily over the brow and away.

       A softer wind blew and this time brought with it the scent of heather and jasmine and honeysuckle and wild rose.  A curious frown appeared on Mr Clark’s face as he filtered each fragrance.  A moment later it lifted to be replaced by a gentle smile of recognition: “Helen,” he sighed.

        He traced her image on the inside of his eyelids, lingering over the curve of her cheek, the pertness of her nose, the fullness of her mouth, to ensure that their beauty was captured precisely. He listened intently as his memory replayed their conversation this morning:

        “Try not to be late home tonight, darling.”

        “I’ll try, but I’ve a lot to do.  Louise wants a meeting – damn, where did I put those figures. Ah! There they are – but, yes, I’ll try, dear.”

        “Good.  Today should be special.”

        “Eh! Oh yes, yes, it should.  If Louise likes these calculations I’ve produced, we’ll improve the efficiency ratings at a stroke.”

        “No.  Something a bit more important than that, I think.”

        “My end of year grade?”

        “Now, Adrian.  Don’t tease!”

        He recalled how the hall mirror had reflected his blank expression and how Helen had looked at the floor then proceeded to busy herself with trivial tasks.  He remembered how he’d said: “Goodbye, dear,” lightly, but did not receive a reply. Finally, he recollected the feeling of his heart turning to lead as he closed the door and heard the gentlest of sobs coming from the open living-room window.

        “Are you going in today, or not?”  The Voice again.

        Silence.

        “They’ll be out to see what’s wrong, any minute now.  I think you’d better get in there right away.  Say you felt faint or had a sudden attack of nausea.  They’ll believe you.”

        “Why shouldn’t they?”  Mr Clark said.  “Right at this moment it’s not too far from the truth.”

        “Well, then.”  The Voice paused.  “Surely you realise how important today is?” 

        “Oh yes!  Although I didn’t until just a few minutes ago.  Up until then I thought that productivity and efficiency were the most important things in the world, nothing else mattered.”  Mr Clark opened his eyes slowly and turned to face the Bank.  Louise was no longer at the window.  “In some circles perhaps they are, but then again, who wants to travel in circles?”  Mr Clark allowed himself a brief smile, then continued,  “To be productive, but to produce nothing of value: to be efficient, but only in the pursuit of the worthless is meaningless, futile.  Far worse than this, however, it destroys the spirit and crushes the soul.  It turns lively, curious, fascinating, loving beings into automata, fit only for manipulating figures instead of stimulating minds.  Oh I dare say you think I’ve gone mad-”

        The Voice remained silent.

        “- but true madness lies with those in their barless prisons who can live in the midst of all this beauty,” he gazed about him, almost in awe, “yet see only balance sheets or shortfalls.”

        “Adrian!  Adrian!  What on Earth’s wrong?”  Mr Clark turned sharply to see Louise flitting across the bridge towards him accompanied by a security guard.  “Are you in trouble?  Do you need help?”

        “Ah! Louise.”  Mr Clark smiled benevolently.  “No, there’s no trouble, no trouble at all.  Quite the reverse in fact.”

        “Are you sure?  We were due to start our meeting at nine thirty.  We’ve lost eight minutes already.”

        “But what is eight minutes lost compared to a lifetime regained?” laughed Mr Clark.

        “I’m not sure I follow.”

        “No, I didn’t expect you to,” said Mr Clark.  “Anyway, I’m sorry I’m late, but I was just chatting to someone I used to know.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return home.  I forgot something when I left the house this morning.”

        “Oh, and what was that?” asked Louise tartly.

        “My priorities.” replied Mr Clark and with that, he turned his back to Louise and the Bank, took another great lungful of air and walked off in the direction of town.

 ********

        No-one at the Bank ever saw Mr Clark again.  Rumours circulated telling how the stress of maintaining his perfect record had so strained his mind that it had caused him to have a breakdown and even now he was lying in a sanatorium bed somewhere.  Or that he had set off for work as usual the next morning, but in a sudden spasm of mental anguish brought on by his inexcusable behaviour the previous day, he had thrown himself from the bridge parapet into the river below and been swept downstream, his body never to be recovered.  No-one knew for certain what had happened to Mr Clark, but the speculation continued and grew ever more fanciful.

        However, exactly one year later, a man bearing a striking resemblance to Mr Clark entered an exclusive restaurant on the Left Bank in Paris in the company of a woman wearing a gold pendant embellished with the single initial ‘H’.  They sat at a table by the window and ordered wine and hors-d’oeuvre and spoke affectionately of moonlit trips on the Seine and contented strolls in the warm, perfumed dusk.

        Presently, the waiter was beckoned and the man was heard to ask his companion: “Would you like to order, darling?”

        “Canard a l’orange, perhaps.  Poulet?  L’escargot?  But no.  You decide, my dear,” she replied.

        The man thought for a moment then a slow smile of satisfaction appeared on his lips.  “Garcon,” he said, “salmon for two, s’il vous plait.”

                                                                    THE END

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