(The opening of a new novel)
It was another grey March morning. A Monday. The worst of days. The day that begins the endless cycle of toil and boredom that is the life of everyone who has to work for a living. The day the reprieve from slavery ends and all hope of escape vanishes with the dreams of the night before. The day Oscar Sonnenfelt, the unaware hero of our story, suddenly awoke, yet once again, to the sound of the alarm on his mobile phone, which he fumbled for and squinted at in the dismal early light. 7am. He pressed the key, dismissed the alarm, opened his eyes wider and turned his head to look out the bedroom window of his third floor apartment; at the sky, to see if he would need an umbrella as he had the day before, then down at the streets, to see if, instead, a late snow had fallen overnight. He saw neither but wondered briefly at the yellowish mist that hung near everything he could see. The fog made him feel drowsy. Sleep tempted him again. He lay back, closed his eyes and dozed off.
Ten minutes later the alarm annoyed him again. Mumbling and grumbling, Oscar sat up, scratched his head, then slowly rose, pressing his hands down on his aching knees to lever himself up. He ambled into the bathroom, shuffling his feet all the way. A minute later he walked back out, the sound of the toilet flushing following him into the kitchen where he hesitated for a moment, unsure of his purpose, then, with a sudden realisation, walked over to the coffee pot, took beans from a glass jar, ground them in the little machine, searched for a filter, got it all prepared, and waited for his favourite drug to appear.
It was as he sipped his first cup that Oscar decided he wasn’t going to work. He felt lazy some people would say, but dispirited best describes his state of mind, unenthusiastic; besides, he couldn’t help thinking of all the extra time he had put in for Mr. Kovaks, the moron who was his manager; a man who complained about everything Oscar did; one of those enthusiastic sadists that companies like to use to keep everyone in line.
Just the week before, Bill Szierki, the always happy, always eager, always ambitious, always lovable Bill, who had no shame about doing anything if it got him ahead, who occupied the office cubicle next over, a simple link in the chain of the promised rise to success, dropped suddenly dead; the victim of a heart attack, they said. His last words to Oscar at lunch that day, as they ate a rushed sandwich bought at the kiosk on the ground floor for the cost of an hour’s wages, were, ‘Oscar, you ever feel like we’re rotting in here, chained to the wheel of other peoples’ fortune?”
Oscar saw a strange look in his eyes, that look a soldier gets when he senses the bullet with his name on it just before it strikes. Two hours later he fell off his chair, without a sound, just those “why me,” wide-open eyes. The emergency team came up the service elevator, made a show of checking his pulse, warned everyone away, put his body in a red plastic bag, onto a gurney, then wheeled him quickly to the elevator. Zierkie was quickly and efficiently disappeared.
Kovacs told everyone to get back to work, the excitement for the day was all over, like he was a cop on the street and we were just riff- raff hanging around. One of the girls began to cry. Kovacs told her to save it for home and ‘we have to move on, time is money. ”Oscar had heard it all before. He felt a sudden desire to see Kovacs’ body in that red bag and to be the cause of it.
Harry, the only ally he had in the office, who had once made open advances but now desired him with more discretion, nudged Oscar as they stood by and watched as they took the corpse out. ‘Wonder of his wife knows?”
Oscar gave him a look, for he wondered the same thing. But did Zierkie have a wife? He had never mentioned one, but then Oscar hadn’t asked. Now someone else occupies the cubicle, a young man whose name Oscar had already forgotten. No, he didn’t feel like going to work today; to hell with it.
He sat at his small desk near the window, sipping black coffee, looking out the window, waiting for his computer to come to life. He felt a warm blanket of peace and calm descend over him like a blessing from on high. He closed his eyes, luxuriating in the feeling. Comforted by the warmth, he let his mind wander where it wanted, to explore itself among fascinating images of things of the past, fantasies of the future. He decided he’d go to a museum, or maybe read a book, walk in the woods, sit in a café, see a film at the last cinema in his neighbourhood, browse in one of the few bookstores still to be found, if he could find one. “Yes, to hell with the boss’ he said to himself, bravely, ‘To hell with the job. They won’t miss me for a day.”
He stood up, determined to execute his vision and walked over to his mobile phone resting on the kitchen counter. He dialled a number, waited a few seconds for someone to answer, but only got Kovacs’ voice mail.
“Hi, Mr. Kovacs, it’s Sonnenfelt here. Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m unable to come in to work today. I am not feeling …uh that is I’m…not up to it today. I don’t think anything urgent will develop, the files are in order, anyway, you’ll just have to deal with it. ” He began to hang up, but paused for a second then said, “I hope you have a nice day.”
He hated lying but it was the convention-a matter of manners. It’s important to have manners. He hung up, took a deep breath, felt the freedom flood in, felt refreshed, then went to the kitchen, poured himself some more coffee, then lazily sat down in front of his computer to read the latest news. For once he felt happy and content with his life.
Across town the traffic helicopter waited, its blades cutting through the air, whup, whup, whup, whup, whup, whup, as the pilot watched the CHIN traffic reporter climb aboard, whose blue windbreaker billowed in the wind as he smoked a final cigarette. Drawing in the last drag he threw the stub on the tarmac, stepped on it, then climbed into the seat next to the pilot.
“Ok, let’s go,” he said, “we’re running late.”
The pilot nodded, “Sorry about that but the guy who’s supposed to approve the flight plan didn’t show up this morning. Had to wait for his boss.”
The reporter, Smiling Jack Aymes, settled into his seat.
“What’s wrong with people? There was no one at the reception desk either and my secretary reported in sick. Anyway, we ready to fly?”
The pilot exchanged some chatter with air traffic control then moved his stick. Suddenly they were in the air heading towards the 401 crosstown highway as Aymes pulled down his radio mouthpiece to make contact with the station,
“Hi, Betty, we’re in the air, coming over the 401 and Don Valley, let me know when we’re live. Over.”
A young woman’s bouncy voice, answered,
“Roger, Ok honey, but give me a second, I’m having to do everything this morning, half the crew called in sick. They’ve got me answering phones, making coffee, acting as producer, and everything else.’ There was a minute of silence, then she came back on, “Ok, Jack, on the count of three, you’re hot, 1, 2, 3, ok” and Jack Aymes heard the on air radio host cut in with “and now over to our intrepid traffic reporter Jack Aymes flying the skies over Toronto, bringing you the latest traffic report, good morning Jack. So what’s the situation this busy Monday morning/’
Jack Aymes looked below him for the expected long lines of traffic, the usual morning rush hour jam but was surprised to see traffic was light and moving well. Jack poked the pilot in the ribs, and raised his shoulders in a question. The pilot looked down, shook his head and said over the intercom, “Beats me.” Aymes said the same thing on air, “Beats me. What traffic?”
Meanwhile, at the Ministry of Labour, the Minister’s executive assistant had not shown up for a meeting the Minister had scheduled with the Premier. The Minister, known to his staff as “the knife” for his ability to save money at the peoples expense, but whose name was Harry Lightfinger, was getting angrier by the minute at the delay since it was the executive assistant who had all the documents the Minster needed to brief the Premier on labour relations in the province. They had been going steadily down hill for some time.
The inner office of the Minister of Labour had the aspect of an unpopular funeral. The mood was definitely gloomy and concerned faces dominated the room, though there weren’t as many of them as were expected. It was this fact that the Minister, sitting in an agitated state at his desk, was now addressing to those present.
“What the hell is going on? Where’s the staff, where is George Cranley? How am I supposed to do anything without my executive assistant? My God, what has it come to?”
The fat face under the thick grey hair had a Churchillian scowl, all pursed lips and swollen cheeks as he spoke, each word emphasized with a stab of his right forefinger on the desk, a gunfire sound that expressed what he was thinking.
The 12 other people present, sitting at a conference table in front of him hesitated as if expecting him to answer his own question. But he glared a them, the nine men, two women and one person no one was sure about, having forgotten, or never understood, if she had been transformed from a woman to a man or if he had been transformed from a man to a woman. But we shall call her Miss Sanders, because that is what she asked to be called, though she usually dressed in men’s sleek Italian suits. She spoke first, in a voice that compelled attention, a deep purr of a voice.
”I’m sorry, Minister, but the reports from human resources are that every department is under strength, some by a third, everyone missing has reported in sick or taken saved sick days, or some other excuse. There is some of that every day but, well, we have no idea what’s going on.”
The Minister scowled even more and grew very red in the face. He suddenly smashed his fist down onto his desk, “Is it a strike?! Who’s behind it? Are the unions trying to screw with us again? Just what the….”
He never finished because the purring Ms. Sanders interjected with,
“No, Minister, the unions deny it. They tell us they have the same problem, staff members not showing up wherever they are, all over the city. In the last hour we’ve received reports from other towns that more people than usual are not reporting for work.”
She sat back, relaxed, deep in her chair, as she waited for the Minister to react. He stood up and began pacing back and forth in front of the window overlooking the gardens. He saw a gardener tending a bed of yellow tulips.
“Look, see, that guy is working. If that guy why not he rest? Would someone tell me what is going on because soon I have to meet the Premier and some of the big business boys and they want answers.”
At that point one of the senior men, well that is what he seemed to be since he was in his sixties, had thin grey hair, black glasses, and a dark grey pin striped suit, raised his pen from his writing pad, looking like a psychiatrist in mid-thought,
“We have no idea what is going on. It may simply be a mass coincidence, a fluke of statistical behaviour, a social anomaly, -but it’s odd, it’s very, very odd. My wife this morning, for example, while I am getting dressed for work ready to drive her to work, says to me, right out of the blue, “Oh, Victor, let’s not go in today. Life is so short. Let’s take the day for lunch and the art gallery. There is an exhibit I want to see”. Of course I told her she was being irresponsible and I had my obligations, but all she did was laugh and say “suit yourself” then announced she felt like taking the day off anyway and I could do what I wanted. I asked why. She just said, “I don’t know, I just feel like it. After seeing that beautiful mist this morning hanging over the trees and streets I just realised how much we are missing and how little time we have not to miss it’. I have to admit I had to struggle myself and was tempted to join her but then, Minister, you called, and asked what time I would arrive, so what could I do? But I have to say the feeling to play hooky, so to speak, was very strong.”
As soon as he placed his pen down on his pad again several others recounted similar experiences, some clearly amused by it all, but others just as clearly worried. One of the men said,
“I really don’t think this very funny. I agree with the Minister. If this were to continue tomorrow and the next day and accelerate across the workforce, can you imagine the consequences?”
Everyone became suddenly silent. They all looked down at the floor or their shoes, thinking about it, then slowly raised their heads to exchange silent looks, slow turns of the head, slowly turned eyes, then more looking down at the floor.
The Minister stood up, “Get me some experts. Get me someone who can tell me something, explain this, to stop this. Goddam it. What is this, a revolution?”
“Hardly, Mr. Premier,” said Ms. Sanders, “it seems to be random, across all classes, all types, all categories, No, Not a revolution, but a collapse if it progressed. It has to be stopped. But who shall we get, Mr. Premier? In which field? What kind of experts?”
The Minister, sat down, looking drained and exhausted by the attempt to comprehend the unknown. He looked up at the ceiling while winding and unwinding his fingers, like a nervous priest unsure of the appropriateness of his prayer, then looked round at all of them as he slowly said, in a tired voice,
“I don’t care what kind of experts, get me experts, find me experts, I don’t care from where, goddam it, someone must be able to figure this out.”
Oscar combed his hair carefully while looking in the mirror, wondering what his ex-wife would think of him now, but then wondered why he wondered because she never liked how he looked and only married him out of her own desperation, a fact she drilled into him every day of their marriage until one day, as she raised herself to a fever pitch in one of her tirades, he walked out of their apartment with just the clothes on his back and never returned. But now satisfied that he looked as good as possible for his age he walked to the hallway cupboard, put on a dark blue cloth coat, then thought about but rejected the idea of a hat, checked he had his wallet and cell phone, then stepped to open the door and looked out and down the apartment hallway both ways, as he always did. Not that he had ever been robbed, but he liked to see who might be there, who he might have to exchange pleasantries with. There was no one, except old Mrs. Donovan, dressed in her nightgown and shawl coming back from the garbage shute, shuffling her way back to her open door. She saw Oscar as if he were just another floor fixture, of no significance whatsoever and so entered her apartment and shut the door as if she were the only person in the world, and in her world she was.
Oscar drew in a breath as he braced himself for his entrance onto the world stage, nonchalantly strolled towards the two elevators, only one of which was in service, pressed a button and waited. The elevator made a series of groaning and scratching sounds as if it didn’t want to work either but finally the shiny steel door opened and he walked in, then a minute later walked out into the lobby, past a drooping tropical plant, onto the street, holding his collar against tight the cold northern air, free as a bird and just as happy, if the few remaining free birds can be called happy.
The street was bustling with people. There were more people walking by than he had ever seen or expected until he passed a bus stop where he heard people complaining that the buses weren’t coming on time –some not at all. Some gave up waiting and joined him on his walk. He sensed anger in the air, mixed with the miserable resignation that arises as city life becomes ever more difficult, for the many who always found it difficult, who were always being screwed one way or another. But some, like himself he thought, or assumed, walked past as contentedly observing the scene as tourists might.
He passed by, returned to, hesitated, then went into the Oran café and sat down at a small table facing a window overlooking the street. There were others sitting around, but few had cups before them, and all looked fed up. There was no one at the coffee bar or the cash register. He detected no signs of movement from the kitchen area behind a curtain, off to one side. He knew the owner and decided to find out what was going on. He got up, looked around then walked over to the curtain, calling out, “George –any service today?” He pulled open the curtain. There was George, sitting alone on an old crate staring at the floor, biting the nails of his right hand. “Oscar walked in and shook his shoulder. “You all right, George? Can we get some coffee?”
George looked up at him. “They’ve gone crazy. My wife’s gone off with her friends, my waitress went skating at the rink, my busboy “don’t feel like it,” he, says, “I can stuff it’ he says, like he’s the king of millionaires. It’s all gone wrong Oscar, it’s all gone wrong.”
Oscar looked down at him for few seconds as George rambled on about the world being against him, until Oscar took him by the shoulders, shook him a little and said,
“Come on George, you can’t do anything, so what’s to worry, come on, take a day off, I did, yes, I did too, I don’t know, it just seemed that’s what today had to be so here I am and now you, so come on, let’s take a walk, take in some air, get a drink somewhere, come on, the town awaits, life awaits.”
“What about my customers, I’ve tried to serve them, but it’s impossible, I’d have to close the shop, …how can I come with you, when this is everything to me?”
“I don’t know George, but something is happening today and I don’t think we should miss it. Give them all a free cup, tell them to come back tomorrow-you’re taking the day off too. Come, I’ll help you. And as for your wife, and your waitress, I reckon they face the same thing you do.”
So, with a sigh of puzzled acceptance, George stood up and together they spent twenty minutes closing the door, putting a closed sign on it, handed out free coffee to the ones left, urging them to leave, apologising and asking them to come back the next day when things would undoubtedly return to normal. Finally, after checking the lights and the alarm, they locked the door behind them and walked out into the street, now thronging with filling with people like themselves, with no work to do, no place to be, just ambling by to take in the scene, to enjoy the brief freedom they had created for themselves.
Over at police headquarters the chief of police was walking up and down in his office, hands behind his back, muttering under his breath.
He stopped and turned from the window overlooking College Street, to two senior officers sitting in chairs looking from each other to him and back, waiting for him to speak.
“How many divisions are under strength?”
The stern faced older plainclothes officer then replied, “All of them in the detective divisions, major crime units, fraud, homicide, all of them.” The equally stern faced officer in uniform said the same, “all of them, traffic, ticketing, patrol units, community relations, only the mounted unit has a full complement.”
The chief, lean bodied and lean faced under steel grey hair, turned from the window, put his hands in his pockets, and began nervously jangling his car keys against some loose change he’d received earlier in the Headquarters cafeteria, after he had to put money in the till himself for a bad cup of coffee and a stale Danish, because Ida, the cashier had called in sick. “I just hope we don’t need them. Smells like insurrection to me. What about intelligence, in fact where is Davis? Is he off too, for Christ’s sake?”
So as Oscar and George wandered the streets, Oscar enjoying the moment, George struggling to control the rising anxiety about his café, millions of others; not just in the city, but in the country, around the world, in places far and wide, in places no one had ever heard of as well as famous capitals, decided or felt that they were not going to work that day, the consequences be damned.
Each of them thought that it was their original idea, that others had somehow picked it up from them, for people are generally superstitious, every ready to connect the wrong dots to explain events. But then who was to blame them. No one had any rational explanation, not yet, for it was only after some hours that the authorities realised something universal was happening, something beyond their control, which induced paralysis, anger and fear, and, in the capitals of the more belligerent nations, calls for a military response. But the calls were rejected when it was realised that no one knew what the cause was or where it came from and when it was also quickly realised that their armed forces were losing strength by the hour as soldiers, usually ruled by strict military discipline, reported in sick or, risking arrest, didn’t turn up at their posts at all, save for the numbers of certifiable psychopaths in every army who looked for any opportunity to kill and were eager to perform their task.
But Oscar and George knew nothing about such things and so continued on their way enjoying the fresh air, silently observing the life around them, people gathered in groups talking, entering then leaving unattended cafes, noticing still shuttered shops, some with signs declaring they were out of stock because deliveries had not been made, not surprising since trucks lay in their depots, without cargo, without drivers to deliver it. But it was the unattended or shuttered cafes and restaurants that began to make Oscar nervous. He longed for another coffee and hankered after a blueberry Danish but where could he get either.
Just as he was about to say something to George on the matter, Maureen Mahoney walled up to them from the opposite direction, like a beach ball bouncing over waves, for she was as wide as tall and her ever happy fat face enhanced the impression of rolling roundness that she created wherever she went. Her blunt cut hair didn’t help. But she was always of a positive frame of mind, always read to say a nice word, to cheer you up, and so, both Oscar and George came out of their reveries to greet her. But it was she that spoke first.
“Hi, fellas, how you doing? You hear what’s going on? I guess so, or you’d be at work, or maybe you don’t, isn’t it great? No one knows what’s happening. They haven’t got a clue.. But hey live the moment right. So how you guys doing? Took the day off work like, I bet you.”
George replied that he hadn’t and didn’t appreciate people that did and how was he supposed to make a living.
Her smile turned too a frown, “oh, I’m sorry about that. Yeh, I guess you’re right, sorry about the café, but hey, it’s just one day, come on, enjoy it for once.”
George turned away disgruntled and kept walking so Oscar said goodbye to Maureen who rolled away happy and contented, and joined him in silence, George looking both puzzled and grim, Oscar enjoying their walk through the streets, taking in the sights around him.
The Minister of Labour had not been able to find any experts by the time his meeting with the Premier was due to start and was now forced to listen as “The Boss,” as he liked to be called by his staff, paced up and down, alternately shouting and silently threatening, depending who crossed his line of vision, his big belly wobbling like jelly with each step. He was not called Jelly belly behind his back for nothing, his fat face pulled tight with grimace and menace as he blamed everyone for the chaos that continued to unfold across his province.
“So, you’re all telling me no one has any idea what’s happening? Unbelievable. I’m getting calls from the boys on Bay Street, threatening me unless I get people back to work, threatening me, their best friend, can you believe it? And all you can do is sit there. Look, get your people out there, Investigate. Do a survey, I don’t know, get something done. How are we supposed to get things done, and where is my secretary? She didn’t show up either, calling in sick. I swear I’ll fire anyone else in this office who doesn’t come in. Goddam it Mannning, what do you want?”
He had turned quickly on the man who had just entered the conference room with a piece of paper in his hand, held in front of him like a burning stick. Manning, thin at all times, seemed to become thinner as the explosion of words poured over him, as he tried to get a word in.
“But, but, Mr. Premier, something is, that is, well, we have to,…”
“Goddam it Manning, what’s wrong with you, spit it out, what is it now?
“I just got a call from the electricity company, and…”
“Yeh, I know, they’re short staffed too, well they’ll have get their people back to work, do what it takes, …”
“It’s worse than that sir, now they report half the shift failed to turn up at the nuclear plant, they can’t operate it safely with a skeleton crew, they’re going to have to shut down the reactors, go offline, and that’ll throw the whole grid out, not to speak of the other dangers if this goes on, an unattended reactor is unthinkable, a meltdown would wipe out the whole city the whole region, the province,…” at that point he collapsed to a chair and seemed to be on the point of a mental breakdown as the Premier, dumbfounded, stood in the middle of the room, staring at him, his face going from florid red to deadly white and back, as even his dim mind began to appreciate what he was being told.
But for Oscar the darker side of taking a day off was what to do for lunch once he and George realised that none of their usual places were open, or if they were, had no food except yesterday’s stale bread and pies until, that is they chanced upon the Lost Diamond Café.