Time and a Half
“So here’s the thing, Graham. We don’t really need your writing anymore.”
I shift in my seat. I’ve known, deep down, that this was coming. I just didn’t want to believe it. But there’s no avoiding reality anymore. So here I am – recently turned forty, unmarried and, now, redundant.
“I thought high-grade content was king, Campbell?” I say.
“That was in the old online world. We’re past that now. Our business model is evolving so rapidly. We’re much more of a software provider these days.”
“So I’m finished? Just like that?”
“I’m afraid so. This recession has been just brutal. We’ve not much left in our capital reserves. We can’t afford you anymore.”
I nod and rub my eyes. Late-autumn sunlight streams into the room. The nights are crisp, but in the middle of the day the weather still has that perfidious flavour of summer, as if it’s seeking to convince you that nothing is going to change. But things are going to change; that much is now clear.
“Your writing is… nice,” Campbell continues, evidently struggling to be positive. “You put the effort in to make it very polished, I realise that. Our content has been some of the best around. It impresses people who care about these things.”
“But hardly anyone does anymore. You try too hard, to be honest.”
“And you can make just as much money without me.”
“Exactly. All we need now are telemarketers.”
“You’ll get a lump sum and if you want to do any extra hours in the evening during your notice period, we’ll pay you time and a half. We can’t afford double time.”
He slides a folded sheet of paper across the table to me.
“This letter explains the official process.”
I glance at it then look up at him.
“One paragraph? After ten years? Really?”
“It’s a standard text. Don’t take all this the wrong way, Graham. You know what you can be like. You’re so oversensitive. It’s not personal.”
“It’s personal to me.”
“Like I said before, I’m sorry.”
“No, you didn’t say it, actually.”
“There’s no talking to you, Graham.”
“This conversation is over.”
I start to say something else, but he just gets up and leaves the meeting room, playing with his new phone.
Back at my desk, I stare at its contents. The neatness with which they’re arranged looks suddenly absurd, as if promoting the illusion that a structured working life can somehow protect you against the world’s randomness.
This is all my own fault, really. I stayed too long. It wasn’t a great job by any means, but I liked what we did: building websites for culture and heritage organisations. My area was content and design while the others handled the booking software. My salary indicated that I was at the menial end of the digital economy, but it took some skill and – dare I say it – creativity to do the job well.
It’s hard to believe now, but Campbell was quite proud to have me at first. When he introduced me to visitors, he’d say, “This is Graham. He’s got a Masters in English and he’s a published writer. That’s why our content is so good.” Hearing this made me feel proud. I liked the idea of being a creative person with a foot in the real world. Each day, I’d take my writing notebook out of my rucksack and place it discreetly on my desk under a stack of papers, in case I was struck by an idea or phrase I wanted to scribble down. But as time passed and my cachet diminished, I became merely tolerated – the only person in the office who wasn’t a computer programmer, over in the corner, wearing my dunce’s cap.
Then again, there are compensations in being fired. I’ll never again have to submit to Campbell’s insistence on altering my prose to replace the word “and” with “plus”, which he thinks sounds more dynamic. I used to speculate with Uisdean – the only programmer who read books – what it would have been like if great authors had fallen prey to such a delusion. Would we have “War Plus Peace?” “Pride Plus Prejudice”?
After some reflection, I agree to do time and a half during my notice period. No stranger to shift work as a student, I’m familiar with the phrase. But it resonates for me now in a way it never did then.
We’d all love to have it for real, of course: half our time returned to us. When things become too difficult to bear, we grow more preoccupied than we’d ever admit with the idea that if we could somehow go back, we’d be able to alter the choices that led us to the present moment. But it can’t happen. Once youth is over, time ushers us forward with increasing rapidity every year, as if eager to be done with us.
“I can’t believe this has happened. Especially at the age I am now,” I say to Uisdean as we walk to the bus stop. “I feel like I’ve hit a glass wall.”
“You mean a brick wall.”
“No, if it had been a brick wall, I’d have seen it coming.”
He smiles. An islander born and bred, he has a no nonsense demeanour that hides his essential kindness.
“It’s probably a blessing in disguise.”
“Well, if it is, it’s a bloody good disguise.”
“Nah. Campbell’s really smart. He’s got this knack of spotting people with high ability but low self-esteem. He knows he can use them. He can only exploit the rest of us up to a point because we’re programmers – he knows we could get a job somewhere else pretty easily. But with you…”
“Sorry, but you know what I mean,” he says. His bus arrives. “Don’t worry. You’re well out of it.”
How did I get here? This is where I hesitate. To explain it all, I risk indulging in our era’s most characteristic literary genre: the sob story. Why characteristic? Because, like the banker, the author of the sob story has only one purpose in mind: leverage. In this case, the leverage of attention and sympathy. I crave both, as we all do. And I’m no stranger to self-pity. But I know it’s a toxic, insidious characteristic. So, I’ll try… try… to be brief.
I was raised in a small town in the Highlands. It was douce, Presbyterian and barely acquainted with the modern world. My parents were unhappy together for as long as I could remember. He travelled for work, as a sports equipment salesman. She worked in the local bank. Each time he returned, they fought.
It continued like this for years. Yet for all their mutual resentment – and his drinking – they seemed unable to let go of one another. Arguments aside, home had the false calm of a battlefield on which neither army is willing to make the decisive move.
Being an only child, my method of escape was predictable enough: I read. I read everything. Being absorbed in the pages of a book was like gazing in the opposite of a distorting mirror. There was the world given shape, form and meaning, with so much of its bewildering chaos expunged.
Eventually I escaped to Edinburgh University, to do an English degree. After a solitary first semester, I met Amy in the Student’s Union one night with a gang of random people. Watching me nurse my soda and lime as the others got more and more drunk, she eventually leaned across the table and said, “Painting the town beige, eh Graham?” I burst out laughing and sat next to her so we could talk properly. Over the next two years, we were happy. But slowly she began to realise that certain things about me were more unalterable than she’d imagined.
“So what do you think?” she asked.
We were walking up on Salisbury Crags in early summer. The bright primary colours all around us – yellow gorse, blue sky, green grass – made the day’s perfection seem almost childlike in its naivety, but there was still that ever present, cool undertone from the Firth.
“About us moving in together.”
“I’m not sure.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to.”
“If you wanted to, you’d be sure.”
“I suppose so.”
“So what is it? Your parents?”
“Your life doesn’t have to be like theirs.”
“I feel like… I’m just beginning to figure out what it’s like to have a normal life, away from them. And, right now, there’s only so much I can cope with.”
“I’m not asking you to cope with me. I’m talking about us renting a flat together, that’s all.” She said this in a calm tone, but I could see the emotion rising under her skin, colouring her cheeks.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologise. I don’t like it when you start apologising.”
“Because you do it too easily. You don’t really mean it. It’s just a way of keeping folk bay.”
I winced. She’d read me perfectly, as usual.
“You hate this, don’t you?” she said.
“Someone else asking something of you. Even me.”
“You make me sound so selfish.”
“I don’t mean to be.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“You’re making a mistake.”
“I know that too.”
And I did. I could sense the carapace of self-isolation hardening around me. I didn’t want it to. It unsettled me. But I also knew that I wasn’t doing enough to resist it.
“I guess I have to figure a lot of stuff out,” I said.
“I guess you do.”
“I always feel the lack of something in me.”
“I don’t know. The thing other people have that let’s them…”
“Move in together?”
“Not just that. The thing that lets them… do life.”
“You say ‘do life’ like you’re talking about a prison sentence.”
“I don’t mean it that way.” I sighed. “I’m just so thin skinned. And fearful.”
“And why is that, do you think?”
“Before I’d have blamed my upbringing. Now I’m not so sure.”
We continued talking and eventually found our way down to St Margaret’s Loch, where families were picnicking and feeding the swans. I knew she was upset. But there was a lack of rancour in our conversation that owed more to her sense of her own worth than my neurotic aversion to awkward scenes. As the future we might have had together faded with every step, the energy between us in the present likewise ebbed away.
“So what happens?” she asked, as we reached the car park.
“No, not with us. I’ll be fine. What happens with you?”
“I don’t know.”
She nodded and wiped a single tear from her eye then smiled. I sensed not only resignation in the smile but also the beginnings of relief.
“Well, if you ever figure it out, let me know. I’ll be busy doing life.”
Still stupid enough to imagine that I’d somehow been liberated, I smiled too.
Alone again, I was left with the task of trying to unravel the trite mystery of my personality. To do so, I started writing. I wrote early in the mornings – the sun not yet risen, the radiator ticking awake – and during the weekend’s sprawl of solitude. Curled up in an armchair with a coffee, a pen and a notebook, I was in a cocoon of my own devising with the rest of life’s sparsity and compromises held at bay.
It grows colder and the end of my notice period approaches. In the office, none of my colleagues is unkind. But, Uisdean aside, they keep a discreet distance from me, as if my ill fortune might be contagious. To Callum I’m already invisible.
As my sense of fear mounts, the idea of somehow reclaiming lost years, turns from an idle notion to a full-blown obsession. All I can think of is how things might have been different. Every night I have the same dream. In it I can see the whole of my past – all of it, all at once – as if it were laid out on one of those mediaeval planispheres that showed the Earth’s globe on a single disc. I gaze across it. It’s crowded with versions of myself at different stages of life. They move like marionettes, devoid of self-determination. And the landscape they move across – though unremarkable in itself – resists any effort to be changed. I ache to erase it all, so that it can be made pristine again and new, better routes forged across it. But it’s no good. Helplessly, I watch my old selves follow their well-worn paths of error. Though I strain every sinew to yell at them, to warn them, my voice has gone. Nothing I can do will make them deviate.
On one of my last evenings of overtime, I find myself sitting shaking at my desk. Uisdean, who is working late before finishing up for two weeks’ leave, comes over.
“You all right?” he asks.
The note of sympathy in his voice is too much for me. I put my head in my hands.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Don’t apologise. You’re only human.”
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”
“You’ll find something else.”
“Probably nothing great,” he concedes. “But you’ll make the best of it.”
I glance out of the window. The snow has come at last. The first flakes are falling through the orange glow of the streetlamps, as if the night were shedding blossom.
“You don’t sound sure. You sound like you think it’s all over.”
The instant he says this, it all pours out. I try to describe my longing to go back and change things – and my sad realisation that all I’m doing is forging a chain of “if onlys” and dragging them behind me, making it harder and harder to face the future. I even describe the dream, as if it might make things clearer instead of less so.
He listens patiently, then says, “I understand what you mean. But maybe you’ve already had it.”
“Time and a half.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well maybe that’s what your writing has given you. I mean I know you don’t see it as much of a success. But by doing it all these years you’ve been able to go back and relive things or imagine them differently.”
“I suppose so.”
“You’ve had a second life. I mean okay, it’s a shadow of the first. But it’s better than nothing. Maybe it’s even a privilege.”
“Maybe,” I say doubtfully.
“You’ll be okay,” he says and pats me on the shoulder before shrugging on his coat and leaving.
Alone in the office now, I wander around, taking it all in one last time. Back at my desk, I begin sorting through old papers and tossing most of them away for shredding. My notebook, as ever, lies next to the keyboard, full of my life’s scribbled marginalia. I pick it up and turn it over in my hands, glancing between it and the bin. I don’t know how long I stand there as the snow keeps falling. It could be minutes, it could be hours. Finally, I stuff the notebook into my pocket, turn out the lights and leave.
David Cunningham was born in Ayrshire and educated at Glasgow University. His stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies and have been broadcast on Radio 4. His novel for teenage readers, CloudWorld, was published by Faber & Faber.
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