Friday, 11 October 2013

We Are Washing by Claire King

Minimalist Shower
Naked against the cold tiles, I wait. Waiting to sluice away a night spent under hotel sheets, the smell of room service. I stand impatient and exposed in my adequate, fourth floor Executive Suite. There is no hot water yet, because above me
and below me
The earth is heaving.
all the others are standing naked in showers too.
To my left and to my right. Behind the thin partition walls we are cleaning ourselves.
Alarms ring out across the city.
We stand to attention in every apartment block and hotel on this street, naked men and naked women. Hundreds of us, thousands of us, standing in showers. All across London. Across the country. Across Europe. We are naked, we have soap, we are washing.
Finally, the water runs hot.
After the trembling, a gasping silence.
Waiting for hot water has made me late. Now everything conspires against me. I have to redo my tie three times. The hotel room is stuffy and my trousers are uncomfortably warm from the press. How difficult can it be to get the temperature right, or to provide a thermostat? I am sweating already into my clean clothes as I
Close the door.
Pace down the blue-carpeted hallway.
Wait for the lift.
Descend one…two…three…four floors.
Take my place in the small yellow room where a buffet breakfast is available.
Don’t panic.
The coffee is bitter, the orange juice is warm,
The Pacific Ocean lifts and rolls.
and the bread is sliced and too tall for the slot, leaving a flabby sliver of bread along one edge of my toast. I take a selection of jams - strawberry, apricot, cherry – in tiny glass jars. I put some in my pockets for the kids. They always ask what I’ve brought them. They always want something.
There are newspapers in a rack. The headlines are all about Arabs fighting and unemployment here at home. I don’t have the time to read about this. The ink always comes off on my fingers.
I wipe my hands on the beige polyester napkin and check my watch,
There’s not much time.
then step out onto rainy streets, into the swell. Washed along towards the underground in an insistent tide of suits. No longer naked. But cold and wet yet again.
I buy a ticket.
I stand on the right.
I hurry past the buskers and beggars by my feet.
Hurry. Hurry. Leave everything behind.
The tube is a crush. I elbow my way in, apologising as I go. Nobody replies, offering at best their indifferent regards. They know this is not my city. I’m too polite. Or they are too rude. They could make an effort, we are in this together, so many bodies, packed in tight.
So many bodies.
It is a relief when I am spilled back out onto the platform and swept like flotsam up to the surface.
I smile with confidence as I walk into the company headquarters. I have practiced this in the mirror; you never know who you might bump into here. I brush raindrops off my shoulders, smooth my hair. The security guard smiles at me, calls me ‘Sir’. I sign in, collect my badge, pass through the turnstile and take the elevator up the
three floors to conference room two.
A few people have already taken their seats, others mill around in the corridor, networking. It’s roasting in here. I am too hot again but you must keep your jacket on until you have pressed the flesh. That’s only professional. Perspiration beads under my moustache as I meet and greet.
At three minutes to nine - three minutes to nine for heaven’s sake - my wife calls.
“I’m glad I caught you,” she says.
“Is something wrong?”
”It is raining,” she says. “Pouring.”
Rushing in.
In the background I hear the children squabbling. I check my watch. Everyone is moving into the meeting room now. All the best places will be taken.
“You’ve called me about the weather? It’s raining here too.”
“The roof is leaking,” she says. “What shall I do?”
“Put out some buckets.”
“Should I call a roofer?”
“We can’t afford to mend the roof.”
“Everything’s getting wet,” she says. “Our mattress, the pictures on the walls, our books…”
“You have to move them,” I say. “Buy some tarpaulins.”
“Joshy has a…”
”I’m sorry, Sweetheart,” I say. “I have to go into my meeting now.”
It always looks bad if you’re late.
It’s already too late.
“I’ll call you later, loveyoubye.”
In the meeting we break the ice. We sip mineral water. Welsh, not French. We brainstorm whilst pouring coffee from black flasks into white plastic beakers. We write on flipcharts with fat markers that smell of almonds and give me a headache. We sidle around the meat of the topics, arguing the small details and clinging to our points of view like life-rafts.
By mid-morning jackets are slung over chair backs. Dark, damp shadows under every armpit. Except the woman. Sarah. She is standing at the flipchart, smiling at the boss. She has kept her jacket on. She wants to look professional. She wants the promotion. I want the promotion. I need the promotion; the rain is coming into my house, wetting my mattress, spoiling my books and I can’t afford to mend the roof. Our credit is maxed out. This woman is young, she has no family to feed, she probably doesn’t have a leaking roof. She should take off her jacket and play fair.
Thumbs under the table flicker across BlackBerrys and iPhones. We are multi-tasking. Then at lunchtime we eat sandwiches in an adjacent room. King prawn tempura. Mini vol-au-vents. Crudités. Goujons of plaice. The air becomes stale but the windows do not open. I stand at one anyway, holding a sandwich, the other hand still inexplicably clutching a coloured marker. I lean in close to the thin layer of cold air by the glass and look out across the skyline.
Rising, rising.
It’s depressing. Everything is grey. There’s no view; the top of all the architecture is lost in sludgy fog. Drizzle traces down hundreds and thousands of windows of offices full of people having meetings, eating sandwiches, writing on flipcharts to build the business, to keep their jobs and earn promotions and bonuses to feed the families who wait at home under leaky roofs. I sometimes wonder what we are all doing. In this city alone, so many workers in so many offices, keeping things going.
I need a drink.
The water is here.
In the afternoon we make decisions. Senior Managers place casting votes. We eat biscuits and drink more coffee. We watch PowerPoint presentations and we take notes. We list Next Steps and try to avoid being implicated but sometimes you just can’t help it.
There are conclusions.
No safe harbour.
And clapping.
Where is the high ground?
Then we take the taxis that have been booked in advance
Where can we go?
to the team dinner,
for team building.
We are greeted by a beauty in a kimono whose welcome seems genuine if half-hearted. They’ve reserved the tatami. The music is pleasant and the decor is classy. We have to take off our shoes - I am not wearing the socks I would have chosen had I known, there is a hole in the toe -  and we sit on the floor. It isn’t comfortable, but the fish is tasty, fresh. I have ordered tuna although I know it’s frowned upon these days. I fumble the rice with my chopsticks. I try to make small talk with Sarah, whose toenails are polished red. This was probably her idea. I remain cordial nevertheless. And I drink a beer.
Thousands and thousands.
It is still raining as we leave. I think about my house, my mattress. I hope my wife has managed it all. I can’t do everything.
I am glad to get back to my room, even though it is still stuffy. I turn on the TV for company. On the television there are waves. The waves are sweeping up boats and crashing them into road bridges. Cars toss around in the flood. Buses. Lorries. The water is sweeping inland, sluicing away lives, into the mud and soup of vehicles and homes and hope and out to sea. It is washing away families like cherry blossom on the wind.
A woman’s distress call, eerie against the sibilant rush of water.
I phone my wife. The children are already in bed and I feel a pang of guilt, a tug in my gut.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I wanted to say goodnight. I always say goodnight. I don’t know how I could have forgotten. It was the team dinner…”
“It’s alright,” says my wife. “They’re tucked up safe and dry. They’re fast asleep.”
“I’ll be home in the morning,” I say, “I’ll help with the leaks.” 
“That’s fine,”  she says. “I borrowed some buckets from the neighbours.” A pause.  “It’s good to hear your voice.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“No,” she says. “I didn’t mean…” But I can hear her disappointment. “You sound tired,” she says. “Have you had a hard day?”
On the television the tide is advancing, houses are washed away, farms are washed away, children and babies are washed away. I turn off the television, unsure what else to do.
“Oh, you know,” I say. “The usual crap.”
“You should get some sleep.”
I take off my suit. Hang it in the wardrobe. I brush my teeth, spit the minty foam into the sink. Rinse it away. I splash my face with clean, warm water. I climb into the soft, cool, hotel sheets and stick my feet out of the bottom.
The sun is rising in the East now, tomorrow is coming, whilst across Europe, in Germany and Spain, in France and Ireland and here in London, up and down this street, above me and below me, we are
Climbing into clean sheets.
Putting down our books.
Turning out the lights.
We are going to sleep.
There are some who will not wake.

About the Author: Claire King's short fiction has been recognised by fancy places such as BBC Radio, New Scientist, The Bristol Short Story Prize, the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition and Metazen. Her first novel, The Night Rainbow, is published in English by Bloomsbury, with various translations available or in the offing. Her second novel ought to be with her agent by the time this bio goes live. 
TVFH interviewed her here: Or have a nose at her website and blog at
@ckingwriter on twitter 

Image: (c) Mike