It’s when I’m flying over the trees that I notice something is wrong. The bunched-up leaves, from this angle, look like broccoli buds, and I begin get a sense in the back of my head that this day is not ending exactly right. Trees shouldn’t look like broccoli—not exactly like broccoli, in every way, the way these trees do. I imagine for a moment I’ve been shrunk to the size of a fly, and what I think are trees actually are broccoli, and in the end I fly straight into someone’s mouth, thinking it’s an interesting cave.
I tell this to my mother when I get home, and she chuckles, in a way mothers really shouldn’t.
Seems to me you’re getting restless, she says.
I don’t feel restless, I say. Life’s good.
Now you sound like you’re in an advert.
I don’t like the way my mother says advert. I don’t like the fact she doesn’t use whole words, that she abbreviates her language out of its meaning.
Have you thought about the Level III job, she asks.
Yes and nothing.
That night, I access files on broccoli, and on the formation of leaves, and cross-reference perspective shrinking, but when I click on Search and Define, I find out that perspective shrinking doesn’t exist in the files, or maybe I’m using the wrong search term. There certainly isn’t anything that explains all three things together.
I take the public shuttle the next day, which travels below the trees. When I get to work, I ask Roger, my cubicle-mate, whether he has ever felt like he had been shrunk. Roger keeps typing with one hand as he talks.
Like when you’re dreaming? he asks. That sort of thing?
No, I say. I was awake. I felt like I was smaller, but hadn’t realised it yet.
Sounds like a dream.
Roger often tells me he could do his job in his sleep, and I don’t doubt that he’s tried.
I think it might be something wrong with my head, I say. My diet’s not that great.
Roger makes a sound like squeaky toy, and we say no more about it. But for the rest of the day, I can’t help but feel like something’s cracked apart deep in my life.
I try to concentrate on the job at hand, in the way Roger never does. I’m writing a list of directions:
1. SOAK DRY NOODLE G100 IN HOT WATER MAKE SOFT CAR
2. HEAT WOK SOFT OIL ADD SHRIMP. STIR WITH FY EGGS 1 ½ TESPOON FOR 2 MINUTES
3. ADD NOODLE MIX TOGETHER. PUT 3-4 TSPNS PAD-THAI SAUCE IN ADD. G100 BEAN SPROUT THAI CHIVE. STIR FRY 2TO3 MINUTES.
4. GARNSH WITH CORIANDER AND SPRINKLE GROUND PENUT YES. SERVE HOT.
I add templates. A black and white picture of Mrs Parnell made to look like a 1940s generic Asian face. Faded yellow picture of Pad Thai. Non-specific hieroglyphs. I press Send.
I do this, and 34 excruciatingly similar jobs, and then I close down my workstation. Most of the others have gone home. Roger’s gel-filled wrist support hardly has an indentation in it. I look down at mine, and it looks like a mountain range. The only other person in the office is Mrs Parnell, and she is only staying late because she’s expecting a call from a different time zone.
It’s just gone nine in the morning their time, she informs me. She is still dressed as a fisherman’s wife from an afternoon photo shoot for freeze-dried Finnish Salmon.
Best of luck, I tell her, because I know the call will inform her she’s been shortlisted for another advertising award.
Thank you, she says, then furrows her brow (that kindly brow-furrow from cans of Mrs McGerrity’s Authentic Hebridean CheeseWhip).
Why are you here so late, Jonathan?
I had some extra work to finish.
We say our Goodnights, and I swipecard my way out of the building. When I am finally out on the street, I sigh deeply into the night air. The sky is still only just dark enough.
When I know I am approaching the broccoli trees, I consider closing my eyes, just to be safe. But then I remember news files I’ve seen of bodies sprawled on the ground, limbs collected in mangled piles, solemn newsbars running beneath. IT ONLY TAKES A MOMENT, was the ensuing campaign slogan. Besides, I’ve left it late enough so that I can only see the outlines of the trees. I fly away from the city with what I hope is an air of indifference. I tell myself I am just another apathetic commuter winging his way home. I leave the last vestiges of city behind me, and enter the green girdle of the government forests. The trees are below me now, but I manage to focus on the horizon beyond—a curiously starless night with a wedge of moon gaping above. It begins to feel like the end of any other working day, where trees are trees. But as I leave this thought behind, another enters my head. What if I am not outside the mouth, but within it? What if the starless sky is a stomach, and the moon is the dull light from closing lips?
My head constricts like burning paper. I begin to lose sense of my body. Every breath becomes a step closer to this new reality. I have lost my old paranoia only because I’ve found a new one. Suddenly, the trees are very close.
My mother wakes me up with a sharp click of her fingers.
Rise and shine.
By all rights, it should take a moment for me to realise where I am, but it doesn’t. I am in our living room on our yellow couch that looks like a wet Golden Retriever. My mother clicks her fingers again, a look of brusque impatience on her face. She thinks she’s a wartime nurse and I’m a reluctant soldier who doesn’t know the best medicine is good common sense.
Where am I, I ask, because I’ve always wanted to say this.
You’re at home, says my mother, placing the back of her hand against my forehead. You flew in very late last night and missed the house, but luckily I was out on a walk.
I know this means she was up waiting for me to come home, like she always does when I work late. I feel a pang of gratitude. Thank you, I say.
Nonsense, she replies, because this is what Wartime Nurses say to soppy, doe-eyed Corporals.
She gets up and I hear her filling the kettle.
I had that feeling again, I say over the back of the couch. Except this time it wasn’t broccoli, the sky was a giant mouth I was trapped inside.
Don’t be ridiculous, says my mother. You’re just working too hard. I just don’t think that job suits you.
My mother comes back into the room with two cups of tea and a packet of digestive biscuits. Beneath the biscuits is an employment application form. The title, partially obscured by a cup handle, reads EXCAVATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER (LEVEL III).
I sigh, as loudly as a person can before it becomes a groan.
My mother, sudden poker player, doesn’t say a thing. She calmly sips her tea.
I like my job.
My mother nods, like she understands. She says, I just think there’s more to life than writing phoney foreign instruction manuals all day.
I nod, like I understand. At least I get ten hours of daylight.
Whew, Level Three, says Roger, rubbing his chin. That’s pretty sweet pay, you know.
I know, but it’s underground.
So I’ve got thirty kilometres of rock hanging above my head.
Roger rubs his chin again. I have just told him of my mother’s latest attempts at subterfuge.
Still, maybe it’s meant to be, he says. Have you dreamt much about railway crossings recently? Cobbled roads, that sort of thing?
I look at him.
Classic dream signs, he says. Means you should embrace change.
But I don’t want to embrace change. I’m happy where I am.
You don’t look happy.
Roger reaches behind his computer monitor and pulls out a half-empty packet of salted beer nuts. Mrs Parnell’s crumpled face stares back at me, disguised as a young Brazilian girl happily harvesting cashews.
The last couple of days you’ve looked like your mind is elsewhere. Have your dreams contained anything broken, especially bones or teeth?
No, I say, far too quickly. Nothing like that.
I look over at the skirting board lining our cubicle. Carpet lint becomes plaque. Roger’s keyboard becomes tastebuds.
I have to get back to work, I say, and swivel my chair back to my desk. I begin furiously typing English instructions for a Kuwaiti DVD player, but when I finish, all the words are spelled correctly. I grind my fingers into my eyes. All I can hear is Roger’s mouth, fracturing nuts.
I leave work early, taking a shuttle. After three stops, two young schoolboys wander into my carriage, groaning beneath monstrous glossy green backpacks. They don’t look any older than eight, and their schoolbags seem twice their size. They are ants, hauling eucalyptus leaves. I turn away, fixing my gaze on the landscape flashing past out the window. All the buildings seem the same. They are the identical legs of suited workers, waiting in a line by the road for a miraculous taxi. The shuttle enters a tunnel, disappearing into the darkness. My carriage makes complaining noises, digestion growls, as it trundles underground towards the station. This is when—I think—I scream.
My mother calls me. She tells me she likes my beard.
I feel it sort of fits, I say.
I watch my mother shift her weight on the Labrador couch. When are you coming home, she says.
When I’m ready.
When will that be?
When I’m ready.
Come home, Jonathan. This is crazy. You can’t live in a subway all your life.
Call me Jonah.
I smile as she puts her hand to her mouth. My mother is still coming to terms with Terra Firma Me, and the new humour this entails.
She says, People from work were asking about you, Jonathan. Your friend from the cubicle. And that lovely Italian woman from the pasta sauce advert. I mean … advertisement.
She corrects herself, and a small part of me melts. I say, I thought this was what you wanted me to do.
She says, I wanted you to take that Level III job, not do this. She gestures out to me from my tiny, battered LCD screen, from my square view of her, and our warm living room. Her hands mean to suggest the drab tiled walls around me, the shudder of midnight freights, the single garbage unit overflowing on my platform like a rotten fountain.
But I’m happy, I tell her. I’m safe.
What about sunlight, she says. What about nature?
I take a piece of broccoli from the bowl in my lap, and wave it in front of my screen. I’m living well, I say. This is fresh.
I watch a tear make its way down my mother’s cheek. She says, That’s a leaf, Jonathan. You’re eating leaves.
I’m about to say, It’s all part of perspective, Mum, but then a subway shuttle thunders past and the Videoscreen goes black.