Miller was still waiting for his boss to meet with him. There was a café in the lobby where people from his office went for catch-ups and where clients sometimes gathered their thoughts before getting into the lifts. Miller’s boss had said they’d grab a coffee there on Tuesday. It was now Thursday, three weeks later.
After sending the meeting request, the crux of which read, “I want to work part-time,” Miller, at first, felt regret. How could he have been so impulsive? Part-time work was for mothers with young children and baby boomers fading into retirement. It was not for twenty-six year old men with forty years of productivity ahead of them. He looked at the mail in his sent folder and berated himself for an entire afternoon. But then, one night at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, he regained his inspiration completely.
Graeme Ashford-Jones, twenty-eight, hipster, pathetically pimply, had just released Light, his debut, to critical acclaim. Miller had read it in one sitting. Miller had read every Aussie debut released in the last decade usually in no more than a few sittings. There was appeal in reading works written by people your own age, in your own place and time, especially if you were trying to write a novel yourself, which Miller was.
At the festival, Jones read an extract from Light. How poor the delivery, how dead the words sounded when read aloud. Miller was thrilled. He’d hated the novel. The style, colloquially Australian, the characters, 2D Aussie heroes, the premise, coming of age in the country. The reading had been even worse. Miller knew he could do so much better than that. “I can do so much better than this,” he caught himself saying as the crowd rose to its feet to clap and whistle.
All he needed was time.
Later that night, he left the festival and noticed Jones outside, on the street, with three women around him. That will be me, thought Miller. Only there’ll be more women. There’ll be men too. There’ll be people of all ages, proclivities and tastes, lining up to talk to me about my writing and how it makes them feel. If Jones can get a charmed reception for something as flimsy as Light, well then, my readers are in for a truly ecstatic experience. Love, hate, envy, humour, passion, fear, aloneness, whatever you wanted. Every page. With every passing beat of prose.
So far Miller had written ten thousand words. At night, mainly. After work. His mind, at the start of every session, too full of corporate flotsam to write his words freely. He’d sit before his laptop at nine, ten, often later, and force himself from one mode of thinking to another. Sometimes this took hours. A pouring away of the day’s residue that washed at the sides of his mind. By the time he’d done so, cleansed his head of all that scum, it was usually early morning. Exhaustion. If he were to give his work-in-progress a title now, that would be it. No stranger to it. He’d always worked hard: the kind of boy, and now young man, driven by fear of mediocrity. As for his novel, it was about… what? He didn’t know.
Prior to running H.G. Yates, a consulting firm in Sydney, Mark Hammond, Hammer to the staff, had been a navy admiral. Big, straight-backed, bald. He did not, as far as anyone knew, have a humorous bone in his body. Rumours that his voice box, the laughing part, had been damaged at sea had done the rounds for years. No one knew how much of them were true. To Miller, they sounded right enough.
Today, Hammer first appeared to Miller as a hand holding a brief case. He’d run for the lift and jammed his fist through the gap in time to arrest it. For a moment, the doors didn’t move, reducing Miller’s boss, all six and a half feet of him, to a fist clenched around a leather handle.
“My apologies,” he said to the packed lift, without a trace of irony. “Would’ve been nasty if I’d lost my arm.”
Polite murmurs. Shuffling limbs. The smell of coffee’d breaths. Miller’s boss looked directly at him, for maybe a second, as he slotted among the throng.
The offices of H.G. Yates stood on levels sixteen to nineteen of the Deutsche Bank building on Phillip Street. They’d been designed, or so it felt, to maximise desk numbers. Rows of work stations scored the floor, partitioned by furry walls for pinning paper. And photographs of cats. Open-plan encouraged collaboration and yet, at least as a writer, Miller found the presence of others draining. Also, in a way, humiliating. I am a number, he’d often think, in a wall of pigeon holes. The air was stuffy. The thermostats were always skewed. The windows let in too much light. You couldn’t hide in it. You couldn’t think about anything but the spreadsheets before you. It was, Miller had come to realise, a prison for his mind.
After getting out of the lift, hanging his jacket on the back of his chair and sitting down, Miller pulled out his iPhone and started writing in the notes section, which he sometimes used for jotting ideas about his novel. “Protagonist,” he wrote, “needs more anger. Also, more at stake. Consider violent scene, coarse language, loss of control…”
“Miller!” someone said from the adjacent cubicle.
He slouched in his chair in the hope that his colleague, Jade, would leave him be. But she stood up and walked over to him.
“Miller Miller Miller. How are you? Seen Hammer yet?”
“Haven’t,” said Miller, “gotten around to it.”
“More like he’s ignoring you. Does he even know who you are?”
Miller thought about that. The idea had crossed his mind before, in the days after sending the meeting request, for example, and just now, this morning, in the lift.
“Of course he knows who I am.”
“Don’t count on it,” said Jade, vacantly scanning the papers affixed to Miller’s wall. “There are, like, five different Millers in this company dude.”
Miller knew of two others, Adrian Miller in accounts and Jerry, the acne-scarred IT guy with bad breath who helped people when their computers froze. He supposed they were the only other Millers, Jade being prone to exaggeration, though who really knew? Maybe there were five. It didn’t matter. What did matter right now was that he’d been foolish enough to share with Jade his plans for part-time work, on the one hand, and the fact of his trying to write a novel, on the other.
“How’s it going, anyway?” she asked, nodding at his iPhone. “You still haven’t explained what it’s about, by the way. I know it’s not a mystery, so why so mysterious?”
Miller did his usual trick when someone was annoying him. He pictured their death. In this case, a sudden blow to the head from a fallen light fitting. Jade’s face, normally red from the gym work she did at lunch times, the running to and from the office, the taking-the-stairs from floor to floor, went an eerie white. One eye rolled back, the other to the side, like a plastic doll’s. Then she crumpled to the floor.
“It’s really not possible to say.”
“That’s what you said last time I asked. Is there a girl in it? Is there a boy? Do they fall in love? Oh, I know. You should make it like The Girl on the Train. Have you read it? It’s totally awesome. You could make so much money if you wrote that. Not that exactly, but basically the sequel.”
“I haven’t read it,” said Miller, which was a lie.
“You have to read it.”
“Thank you Jade. I’ll be sure to.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, Miller,” said Jade, who, for all her faults, was equipped with a built-in shit detector. “Lighten up.”
At this, she turned around and sauntered off to another cubicle, where there was more to be gained by mindless small talk, Miller assumed. In truth, he held nothing against Jade. She wasn’t a bad person. She was bored, like everyone else at H.G. Yates and P.R. Saunders, G.G. Binks, F.T.S. Habbard, and every other firm and bank and agency in this and every other city in the world. She was bored and young and no doubt had dreams of her own. What dreams? Miller thought. He’d never asked. No. He had nothing against Jade. She was kind and talkative. She was open. Unlike Miller, who recoiled from social interaction, preferring the safety of a book to the pitfalls of real people. God damn his stinking heart.
Another week passed, and still no word from Hammer. Miller, more frustrated with his life than ever, had decided he’d not wait any longer. If his boss wasn’t going to come to him, tap on his cubicle wall and take him down to the café for their chat, well then, he would go to his boss, knock on his office door, clear his throat politely, et cetera. He would do all this today without wasting any more time, he absolutely would, just as soon as the monthly staff meeting on level nineteen was over.
Employees of H.G. Yates not tied up on calls, or in meetings with clients, or, fortuitously, stuck in a traffic jam, in a broken down lift, in a bank robbery, in emergency brain surgery, piled into the seminar room. It was full of sky from the floor-to-ceiling window giving onto the harbour. Miller, taking one of the last seats, imagined flying through it, then plummeting to his death. It unnerved him that he found this a pleasant thought to have. He pulled out his iPhone and wrote, “Protagonist suicidal??”
“Thank you for coming to the monthly staff meeting,” Sophie, the HR rep, shrieked from the front of the room. It was packed; a scrum of heads, neatly cropped and cleaned, sat fixed on suited shoulders. “First up we have a message from the head of finance, Greg Bishop. Then we’re handing out achievement awards to the hardest workers. Fingers crossed!”
It suddenly struck Miller that Sophie’s energy derived from an inner loathing. She got about the place like a cheerleader, often out of breath and smiling through clenched teeth. It was as though she was afraid to be herself. As if her natural, idle state would reveal how miserable she was. Then again, this might have been Miller’s projection of his own shortcomings, struggles and inner tensions. He wrote, “Protagonist confused.”
“As you all know,” Greg Bishop began, having replaced Sophie at the front of the room, “it’s been a cracking year for H.G. Yates with revenues up and pipeline work ahead.”
“Protag, definitely suicidal. Can’t fathom pressing on.”
“Everyone deserves a big pat on the back. And a glass of champagne at next month’s drinks.”
The crowd murmured its assent. Like robots, Miller thought, and as he did it dawned on him that his biggest problem was the novel’s opening. The only problem, really, as he’d written nothing else. He was happy with the style. The language was punchy, he believed, with just a hint of irony tracing the voice. But the story, as it stood, didn’t know its own direction and the protagonist – you only needed to glance at Miller’s notes to see this – lacked roundedness. Heck. Who was he kidding? The protagonist performed a string of ink on a white page. There was no shape. And wasn’t that the point of fiction? Good, literary fiction at least? To bring to mind in stark relief the lines, the dimensions, of character? Miller felt pangs of despair grab at his guts like metal fingers. Did he actually believe he had even a modicum of what it took to write a novel? Graeme Ashford-Jones aside. Let’s face it, he thought. I started writing five years ago and what have I to show for it? Ten thousand words of garbage. A wad of ill-conceived and unfinished short stories about nothing-of-much-relevance. Surely there were better ways to spend his nights after work. For example, he hadn’t had sex in a year. Then again, if he could just get more time, more hours a day to write, the edges of his talent would sharpen. Wouldn’t they?
“…but the biggest change,” Bishop was saying, “this quarter, is the roll out of our new flexible work policy, which is being postponed, until the quarter after next.”
“Sorry Greg,” Sophie hissed from her seat. “The Flex-Work policy has been postponed indefinitely.”
“Ah yes,” said Greg, looking down at Sophie with an expression that suggested he’d forgotten who she was. “That’s right. People,” – he looked back up to the audience – “only this morning Mark Hammond determined to postpone Flex-Work until we have a better handle on staffing needs. This means no part-time arrangements and no working from home. We’ll let you know as developments arise.”
Sophie said something else in Greg’s direction, which he listened to, his eyes on her, then relayed to the room. “My apologies, everyone,” he said. “We won’t let you know about developments. If Flex-Work proceeds, we’ll let you know then. But we won’t keep you updated. Sophie? Is there anything else?”
The Botanic Gardens had always filled Miller with peace. When things at work got busy, or the pipeline overflowed, he could escape to them for fifteen minutes, walk their grass-hemmed paths, gaze up through boughs of fig trees to the sky or out to the glinting harbour. Today, he found himself running there from the office. He pulled his tie loose as he emerged from the building and tossed it onto the footpath. The sun was out, a cloudless sky. As he entered the gardens, he saw the inflamed rose bushes. And yet, no peace came.
He walked by the greenhouse, in the direction of Woolloomooloo and the pool there, only half-alert to the fact that he was talking to himself. “How dare they?” he kept saying. “The bastards.” It wasn’t just his novel either. His concerns for it were only part of his outrage. What really wounded him was the broader, more diffuse measure of control H.G. Yates had employed by cancelling Flex-Work. He assumed, with anger, his email to Hammer may have tripped an alarm. “Fuck them,” he said out loud, and an old couple walking by jumped in fright.
He arrived at the Boy Charlton pool, turned left along the harbour’s edge, with its canopy of figs and squashed orange droppings from the branches. He had no option, he thought, but to resign. The notion, at first, scared him. This was Sydney, after all. You couldn’t buy a sandwich for less than a tenner. But fear quickly became excitement. Thin at first, then fatter, until it had transformed into a voluptuous roundness, like the character he was yet to write.
When Miller was ten, he saw a man have a heart attack at a bus stop on Monday morning. His father was taking Miller to work for the day, to an office building on Market Street where his father spent his life. The man would have been fifty. To Miller, at the time, this seemed very old. Paramedics arrived within moments, as if they’d been waiting off stage somewhere, for exactly this to happen. To exactly this man.
The incident shocked Miller, but it wasn’t the body writhing on the ground and the blue gloves of the ambos and the defibrillator humming into action that’s stayed with him, all these years. It’s that his dad didn’t stop walking. He glanced at the fallen man and the scene in general, then carried on his way. It took Miller years to understand that his father, at forty-odd, had seen all manner of disasters; his skin was thick. But at the time, Miller thought him cold. Let me never lose my feeling, he told himself. Or thinks he did, looking back. He thinks, also, this was the germ that made him want to write. But of course it probably wasn’t, the germ being nothing more than a wish to be remembered. A desire not to fade wanly into nothing. God damn his ego-addled mind.
Hammer was sitting at his desk on the phone when Miller burst in. It was dark. The blinds were drawn. Document piles sat in heaps on the floor, the desk, over by the wall. Unfazed by Miller’s entry, Hammer waved him in, then put his finger to his lips and rolled his eyes, as if Miller must know how much of a bore the caller was.
“Sorry about that,” said Hammer, a moment later. “My wife. Are you my three o’clock?”
“No sir,” said Miller and thought, never. Lose. My feeling.
“My three fifteen, then? You’re early.”
“Nope. Not that either.”
“Then who are you?”
“I’m Miller,” said Miller and it occurred to him that his voice was shaking.
“Miller,” repeated Hammer, rapping the desk. “Miller,” he said again, though quieter now, as if on the brink of a discovery. “Ah yes! Miller. Of course. Sorry. I forgot for a moment… there are just so many of you working here that… come, come. Take a seat.”
“What can I do for you? If you don’t mind, you’ll have to make it quick. I have a three o’clock.”
“Well,” said Miller, “you see. It’s interesting. I was just walking in the gardens. I’d been at the staff meeting. Sophie, HR, mentioned. Or was it Greg Bishop. Something about Flex-Work not going ahead.”
Miller was finding it hard to get the words out. Story of his life. He looked at Hammer and noticed his mouth had turned from a simulation of a smile to a straight slit. His boss brought a finger to his lips and rubbed them.
“Flex-Work,” Miller went on, “has been cancelled, I believe. And. Well…”
“Listen Adrian,” said Hammer, mistaking Miller for another Miller, “you’re one of our best accounts guys. We really appreciate,” he drank a glass of water quickly, then banged it down, “your effort this quarter. I think you’ll find that,” he stood up and went to the side of the room where another table sat, and sifted through some papers, “the pay rise will be handsome, at the very least.” There was a pause. “Where’d I put the financials? Alice! Can you come in here?”
“What is it, Mark,” his secretary said, walking through the door.
“I had a pile of financials here, covering APAC.”
“They’re over by the printer.”
“Ah yes, and MENA?”
“You’re three o’clock is here.”
“Mmm,” said Hammer, looking at the document he’d picked up, licking his finger and turning a page. “Let them in.”
Miller left the office enraged. Before he walked away, he glanced over his shoulder to look at Hammer once more. He was seated back down, his gleaming bald head in a document, his three o’clock pointing to graphs or figures or words on the page in his hand. There was something remarkably blank in his expression. No joy. No rapture. But no anguish either.
The next day, his email said: “I resign.”
And that was that.
Two and a half years later, Miller sat in the back row of a packed room at Walsh Bay on the opening night of the Writers’ Festival. Soon he’d have to stand up, he knew, but for now he sat still while people filed in and took their seats and chatted about the book being launched. The air was abuzz. He hated that word. Women held champagne flutes like microphones and men held beers, like little trophies, up to their faces, hiding behind them, he thought, the posers.
The place stank of cologne.
“Miller,” a lady whispered. “Psst, Miller!”
He didn’t turn around. He knew who it was and what she wanted.
“Miller. Come and get the drinks.”
He stood up, a kid being dragged from class, and went with her through the doors. They walked down the corridor that led to the kitchen where the sandwiches lay stacked on platters; the beers and wines waited on trays.
“Please,” she said, flustered, “do your job tonight.”
“I always do my job,” he said.
“It’s true. Just ask around.”
“Yeah yeah. Just take the drinks, will you.”
“God,” he said, walking back to the room. But he didn’t have anything else.
He stood around for the next hour, tray on palm, watching writers read. How dead the words sounded. Truly. The book was called, what? He hadn’t caught the name. He wasn’t listening anymore. He wasn’t even feeling. He was thinking about his last job. The one on the building site. Two months back. With the guy named Rob, who had that really sweet weed he sometimes shared around. What was that stuff they spread on the cement each day, before they went home? He’d had a job before that too. In a deli, selling sandwiches to suits on Clarence Street. On his break he’d sit down out back and look at the wall there, not even alive to the way the sun had somehow angled in through gaps in the buildings, landing on the bricks in a steep and shifting parallelogram of light. Radiant. Vivid. Who gave a shit? Miller didn’t, anyway, not since stopping writing, six months after H.G. Yates, when he realised, in fact, he had very little to say. And even fewer means… by which to say it.