The answer to the question in this post is:

Someone like a character in a short story I thought up but never wrote.

I wished to write a tale of two halves: first a walk to work, happy; second, its mirror, a walk home, identical route, yet misery. This character is an average office man, the biographical details of his life somewhat dull, although he has a lively but sensitive inner-life. (Not me, but not unlike me in some ways.) So first thing in the morning he is filled with smiles, the world is beautiful; birds sing, the sun beams, buildings shimmer and shine. He is floating on air; he will tell his secretary how pretty she looks, shout the new chap lunch, clear his in-tray, try some charm on a dinner lady. The world is wonderful, he tells himself, his company produces educational textbooks which help children and adults learn, that in turn helps them improve their life; where he works make a difference to the world, even if his own role is merely middle-management-clerical. People and things nudge the world in one of two directions: to good or to evil, he tells himself. His company is good, so that guarantees him as good; plus, he is kind and pleasant to others. And really, what else is there? Moods and wanders: so it’s a cheery walk to work, full of promise and promises.

Something happens at work. What? Maybe something as minor as someone being rude to him, sneering at him, a young and beautiful temp. And then she calls him aging and balding and fattening and boring – behind his back, but he overhears. And suddenly like a character in a Chekhov short-story, he sees that a large swathe of his unremarkable life is gone already, and that his love-life is not right, and elsewhere, and perhaps all around him but invisible to him, different, better lives rollick on. How horrible the city, that has produced him, he thinks wandering back alone through average streets, past locked doors containing lovers, drugs, wonderful musicians. Lives, luminous as brilliant starlight. And what can he offer such people with his sole trait and soul hobby of unambitious decency? Such questions… But he’s tired, and must sleep… Dream of a different tomorrow…

Or perhaps something major happens at work. A bit of plot, a story. That would need a little hook a paragraph or two ahead of it, a cipher for: mystery! Secret… Perhaps a short one too. With short sentences. Meaning: heightened tension. Events will happen.

But before the major event, the story requires the introduction of another character: Dot. Dot, one of the women whom he manages. An old bat, a bit mad, grey hair, spits when she speaks, wears thick glasses, incompetent. But no-one has ever had the heart to sack her. So instead she’s been made responsible for posting out certain types of letters, answering certain types of calls – to do with run-of-the-mill payments, that kind of thing, at most. In general, despite the simplicity of her tasks, she still gets confused, sometimes forgets to do something or forgets what she’s actually done; and the files by her desk are covered with post-it notes and reminders, and she hasn’t even learnt how to use a computer (even the post room staff have a computer to share), she is slow and no-one likes her; in fact, the best for her of human contact comes in the form of sympathetic kindness, such as that of our main character.

Her character established, his phone rings: it is a policeman. Yesterday morning a man jumped off a tower-block roof on the outskirts of the city. (Resolving one hook – the promised mysterious major event – while striking up another – why did he jump? What’s this got to do with our character?) Then the policeman gives the back-story that leads up to the suicide. First, let’s give the dead man a name; Tim, say, or, say, Vic. The facts of his life: he lived alone, was unemployed, had an IQ of 78. But just recently, in these last few months, Tim/Vic had been trying to improve himself – by studying mathematics, hoping for maybe a job behind a counter in a shop, as he’d written in his diary, the policeman explains. So he’d bought himself a whole series of books from our main character’s company, on his credit card, and you can imagine his pride and hope amidst the promises of victorious self-improvement.

Then, an invoice had came for the books, from Dot. He phoned her up, slowly, timidly explained he’d already paid, asked if the invoice could be cancelled. Dot checked and had said yes – she’d make a note of it on a post-it, do it later. A few days later, he received another invoice from her. Timidly he’d phoned back: was all this his fault? Had he underpaid before, or not understood the price? He was poor, too, could they give him more time? And Dot had said it’d just been another mistake, she was sorry and would make a note of it. Silence for three weeks. Then, another invoice from Dot. This time, for thirty-six-thousand-six-hundred-and-sixty-pounds. And ninety nine pence.

He knew he couldn’t pay.

A phone call would only make it worse, like before.

Another invoice was coming tomorrow.

He had no money.

New job or none, the future was debt.

Debt he could never pay.

He was better off dead.

And after scribbling a brief goodbye – addressed “To Who May It Consern” – he had no family – and explaining why – in barely legible writing – how shaky must his hand have been – and saying sorry, so sorry to Dot – the page smudging with tear drops – Vic/Tim ran up to the roof, and jumped right off.

Our man, so happy this morning, everything right in his world, listens to all this from the policeman on the phone, staring over at Dot. She’s eating a cookie he bought her, with a simple grin. The crumbs drop onto a letter. She wafts them away, and with that little flick of her feeble fist, a post-it note drifts down off her desk. Onto a corner of the hard indifferent floor, to get kicked around by feet, then binned, indifferently.

The policeman explains what will happen next: they will take statements, the paper-trail, computer records; there’ll be an inquest, and almost certainly some level of attention from the press. They must meet soon to sort it all out. White and mumbling, the main character says he’ll phone back, will need to discuss it with work, and his manager is out until tomorrow anyway. He tells his team he’s not feeling quite right and is going home early. The streets are lined with school children; they do not care about mathematics, the fate of life, or the welfare of the city; they are swearing, smoking, posing, drinking, snogging, fighting, rapping, stealing, and throwing litter amongst the sporadic trees.

And each one is the future.

And not one is a killer.

And so what, that they don’t admire the birds, the sun, the buildings? Bullshit, that’s all he was thinking on the morning walk, bullshit. At least they do not pretend their bullshit society or their bullshit company or their bullshit school makes them good because it says itself to be good; at least their barbarian selfishness is honest. At least they’re not a killer. Not full of bull.

At this point in the story, had I ever written it, I’d have wanted to definitely steer clear of political symbolism, which the narrative is veering toward. What I mean is, our main character is obviously a Leftist of sorts: he is paternalistic toward Dot, he doesn’t seek to ruthlessly rationalise bureaucracy, by sacking individual humans for the sake of profit and share prices. Yet this outlook has lead to incompetence and death, and now he’s rejecting those views in favour of ruthless individualism. So, symbolism in favour of right-wing politics seems on the cards here. But on the other hand, Vic/Tim was clearly operating as an economic individual: buying books himself (no government scheme), and then when economic problems loomed too large, there was no kind, social net in which to catch him as he started to panic, and then fall. The kind that has clearly caught the terminally flawed Dot, for example. If only our main character’s attitudes were fully expressed in social policy, Vic/Tim would be a Victor.

So as a writer, I could clearly now steer the story toward either political pole. And why not? Well, a whole host of reasons. These are the most important. Political propaganda, mostly, makes poor art. And symbolism, so very often, simplifies reality to a message that school teachers can pass onto school children, trying to make them docile and obedient to the demands of society. Lots of writers slot themselves into that kind of scheme, and lots of those living provincial lives attempt to plug into it to, in one way or another. Probably, for example, our main character reads nice novels on quiet Sundays with proper-thinking messages, was brought up in the provinces, and just look where it’s got him: Now he is trembling all over, and his soul tumbles down darkening city streets... (Hook: but where next?) But more importantly, there is simply not a political-symbolic language good enough to guarantee the affiliation of art; in fact, probably there can never be a supergrand perfect politics, all such philosophy is incomplete. Anyway, however lame writing is and this blog is, this fist still shall not wave false flags (although one way to deal with such issues to express the contradictions – via contrasting characters, perhaps…) But all that’s another debate, a big one, perhaps for some other time. Message-giving slows down a story and reveals the stupidity and arrogance of the writer too much – as this paragraph has. Thus truly symbolising the falsity of symbolising.

Our main character is staring about the city, externalising his dark mood. He’s bought a few cans of beer, is lonely, and is soon sat in a park. Night is falling. His home is a minute walk away, but what home is it? He lives alone, a little, ludicrously expensive flat. Sparsely decorated, beige wooden floors, simple light colours, virtually empty except for a large tidy book case of novels he’s read, the spines all neat and unbent.

He’s calming down a bit now, amongst the shadowed ugliness of the city. His thoughts are spacing themselves out. Hyperventillating panic, that's fading, that's going ... that's over.

And so from emotion to thought, via something like an internal monologue of moral ratiocinations. Is it really his fault? Could anyone have ever know? Perhaps we are all just shadows, bumping up against shapes in the mists of human dreams and misery, hearing distant calls of “timber!” in the form of thudding echoes, which announce the next random death. What was Vic/Tim really a victim of, anyway? His own stupidity? His lack of family, of friends? Of his ambitious dreams, and not accepting their probable passing? Of Dot? Of our main character? Of capitalism? Of fate, that decrees death will happen when it will happen?

And how can he find out, know something like that for sure, anyway? There will be a cover-up, and a computer error will be blamed - while Dot’s job will be downgraded even more. The press will shout shrill judgements about modern tragedies for a day or two, if they have nothing better to do, then grow bored, move on, with the final findings reported in a tiny mid-section paragraph months later. The inquest result will be filed away, the judge bored, the police in a hurry, his company thanking their luck that the dead man was so alone.

Cause and effect, right and wrong, who can say? And so nothing can be done, nothing is left for our character's day. Even if he had sacked Dot years ago, when a rat manager, passing through his Department while racing up a career ladder, had suggested it in a review, she might well be dead now too.

Nothing left for the main character's day? One thing. He’ll tell himself how lucky his life is: four walls and a good job. A boring life true, not worth - say - being the main character in a story, just slotting in, keeping going, not thinking too much. True, the interviews and investigation will be a minor hassle for a while, but it’ll not really add up to much. Just a minor interruption, like overhearing an insult that hurts, that spoils a sunny day, working out why it might not be right, then under the shadows of doubt, getting on and forgetting. And now is the time to sleep. And take a tiny walk through a world of dreams.