Shadow. Flash. Shadow.
This was something new.
The halogen tube gave off a low-grade rattle, more of a fat buzz, when it wasn’t emitting light.
“It’s the ballast,” Bernard thought to himself, nodding in satisfaction though there was no one to see him. Bernard didn’t know what the ballast did, nor the mechanics involved. He nodded all the same. “Maybe someone’ll – yeah, someone’ll be along to fix, I bet.”
Though the intermittent strobing, never on a rhythm, spiked itself into Bernard’s eyes, he kept his gaze upcast for a healthy five minutes. He noticed the way the change in light brought out a different character in the acoustic panelling of the ceiling. Harsh white with jagged stippling when illuminated, more…soupy grey in the darkness, smooth, deadened. The bands of aluminium that subdivided shifted, in turn, from matte ash to a black, threatening.
Even Bernard’s glare-deadened retinas began to tire from the unremitting assault. He lowered his gaze, back to that more steady source of illumination – the dual monitors, mirroring, in a way, his own binocularism. One set to look out. One to look in. Matched in another way, as well – one screen tethered to the larger, they doubled Bernard’s own strabismus.
Allowing his gaze time to adjust, Bernard reflected on the way his thick glasses distorted the image of the phone to the left of the dominant screen. Bisected obliquely, it was like looking at something through a prism of water.
The hour turned over as he watched, digital display reorganising itself in silence. Would it ring? It never did, simply lying there, exuding anxiety with its presence, its potentiality. When he had acclimatised, Bernard turned back to the computer.
Returning to the in-box, his restored focus pushed aside the disturbing, jagged shifts in illumination. His vision narrowed in, occluding everything but the screen.
Three new messages.
Typical, upbeat introduction. They didn’t really mean it, though. Bernard knew, because he wrote the same thing, quintillionth email after email. He never meant it when the muscle-memory took over, when the fixed script spun from his fingers, through the keys, to the screen. Which is why they didn’t mean it, either. He knew.
“This is an automated message, to let you know that…”
Ah. They really didn’t really mean it.
Bernard often wondered about the people that received his messages; that added to the workbooks he pored over, hour after hour. The emails always came back, true, but always automated. The spreadsheets filled up, and emptied, like clockwork, but anonymously, at arm’s length from messy organic involvement.
Sandy itch with each line – a hint of the growing migraine, no doubt exacerbated by the flickering fluorescence. Time to take a break.
The release click’d as Bernard waved his badge in front of the sensor. He opened the laminate-wood door to the break room, it swung itself closed on its own pneumatic pressure, sealing with a thuck. Shades down on the windows. Replay of the day’s news flashing on the far set, BBC. The near one spun in-house advertising, on repeat. Internal propaganda. Room, ostensibly, otherwise empty.
Bernard didn’t immediately move across to the vending machine, his goal. The lighting here was sedate – pot-lights issuing a shaded, warm sort of glow. The raw fray of the on-coming headache began to recede, somewhat. Not really diminished, more like, laterally shifted.
Bernard rubbed his eyes.
When he opened them again, rainbow lozenges striating, he felt from the walls a rumble. A remembrance of mastication, as if the boundaries of the room had absorbed the behaviour of its erstwhile occupants, and now, in their absence, regurgitated. Bernard got a Coke.
On the way back to his cubicle, Bernard wondered whether the repair-man would come today. It’d be nice to see someone, even if it did turn out to be some young lout, shaved of head and filthy-mouthed. Even the previous model of this stamp would do, a man well-larded, teeth blackened stumps and lexicon reduced to nicotine-scented grunts.
It would break up the day.
Not that Bernard never saw anyone, per se. He saw that other bloke all the time. Well, whenever he wandered past, that is. Always the one direction. Bernard had yet to figure out where he was going, or what he did. Always the same self-satisfied smile on his face, hair in a perpetual quasi-styled state, forever gauche. Not that Bernard himself could boast of any great fashionability. Bernard had never said a word to the other man.
And then, there was that girl, too. The one that went in the opposite direction, coming from down the hall and heading up the stairs. The one that swung her legs as if she never learned how to walk in her heels properly, and always wore blouses two sizes too small for her body. Looked like a sausage, on little stick legs. Bernard never said anything to her, either.
Ensconced once more in his own little fiefdom, Bernard sat with a rush, more dropping himself into the cheap chair than lowering. He could see above the barriers, of course; see the grid of four-foot walls that divied up the area, honeycombing the room. All empty, save for his own. Despite the absence of concomitant occupation, Bernard was pleased to be back in his own slot. He’d done little to ornament or embellish the drab uniformity of the space. But it felt less alien than the others. It was his. It had his smell.
A slough of tension had been gripping Bernard since…well, it didn’t really have a definite starting point. Now that he turned his mind to it, Bernard could feel the anxiety thrum, a knot pressing up on his lungs, down on his diaphragm. Like the flash of the bulb above him, it seemed to wax and wane following its own logic, untied to any external condition.
The halogen tube went, leaving Bernard in an island of darkness, surrounded by bright, lit cells.