As Carl Watson woke he had no notion that anything was wrong, or indeed different to his normal routine working day. He stumbled into the shower, dressed in his normal cheap suit and made his customary breakfast tea and cereal without noticing anything amiss.
He was not in any case an observant chap. He often wished he had a partner, someone to share his life with and, when his head was in the clouds, someone down to earth to act as his eyes and ears, while he offered unswerving devotion and trips out to the seaside or to football matches. In point of fact, he had not the slightest idea where to find such a person.
As he locked the door to his rented house on what was once a council estate, Carl noticed a young girl walking by. She glanced towards him, giggled and turned away. What was that about? Not as if he was wearing a clown costume and red nose! As he walked towards the bus stop people stared at him with undisguised curiosity, the prurient stares usually reserved for someone with a severe disability.
Usually the only attention he attracted was studied ignorance. At times he longed to be the centre of attention, to be respected, admired and loved, though he was never quite sure how to go about earning such affection.
But as he sat on the bus in his customary seat half way down the upper deck it became clear he was the centre of attention, albeit without the respect or admiration. People glanced towards him, stifled laughter, talked in low whispers to their fellow passengers who instinctively turned to see what the fuss was about, then sniggered to themselves.
For reasons that were entirely a mystery to him, Carl had become a laughing stock – and he was far from happy about it. When he heard a passenger to his left telling her friend, “Ssh! He’ll hear you,” he could not bear this mockery any longer. He stood in the aisle and turned towards the woman opposite in a fury that surprised Carl himself.
“Now look here…” he began, but got no further. The middle-aged woman looked back at him, barely able to keep a straight face. “Yes?” she replied innocently – but her eyes were fixed above his head.
Carl clawed the air above his head but could feel nothing. “What’s this all about?” he yelled indignantly at the bus in general.
It was only then that he noticed the shy young woman in the seat in front of him. Come to think of it, she travelled there every day but they had never spoken. She tugged quietly at his sleeve. Carl sat down and listened.
The girl whispered to him, “You’ve got words sitting above your head. They say, ‘Dull, boring, self-obsessed, needy, cowardly.'”
“What?!” Carl gaped back at her. The girl pressed a make-up mirror into his hand. Carl looked at himself for the first time that day and realised the appalling truth. Animated words in a spectrum of shimmering colours, mostly grey-blue, were floating over his scalp.
“Are you?” she spoke quietly.
“Am I what?” Carl broke off from the image that confronted him and looked for the first time in the face before him. She was not, to his eyes, beautiful, wore little make-up and enveloped herself in a big duffle coat, but still looked attractive in a haunting and demure fashion.
“‘Dull, boring, self-obsessed, needy…’?” she smiled.
“I – I guess I am,” said Carl. For a brief moment their eyes met. Hers were grey, calm and steady. And then reality loomed.
“Sorry, this is my stop. Goodbye… and thank you.”
Without another word, Carl lurched down the steps and out on to the street, still wondering about what had happened to him and how his work colleagues would take to this turn of events. It was fine for him to admit to himself that he was dull and boring, and maybe even to acknowledge his failings with unexpected candour to someone who might someday be important to him, but he did not want to share these qualities with the world at large.
Was there any way to hide this commentary on his life and characteristics? He pulled his coat over his head and peered into a shop window, but the message was still there for all to see. Moving surreptitiously, he sidled along the road, hiding in doorways when anyone was passing, then made a break across to the office block in which he worked as a junior actuary in an insurance firm.
Up to that point he would always have taken issue with anyone who called his career boring, but in the light of current events it took on a menacing torpor, something of which he now felt vaguely ashamed.
Dashing across the lobby, Carl tagged his ID card on the electric gates, which opened with a swish. He made a break for the lifts but before he could slip in unnoticed a voice rang out from the gates.
“Carl! Carl Watson. Is that you?”
Carl closed his eyes in despair. This was the last thing he needed, for the voice belonged to the one colleague he feared above all, the director of corporate services, Dr Archer, a man who treated all employees with a beneficently paternal attitude as if he secretly owned them.
With a forced grin imposed 0n his facial features, Carl turned, then gaped with astonishment. As the deceptively jolly bearded face attached to a stocky body strode towards him, Carl could not help but notice words shimmering above Archer’s head in bright vermillion. They read, ‘mean, arrogant, cruel, dishonest, bullying.’
For a brief moment Carl could not help staring, but before he could be considered rude turned his attention back to the smiling face. He shook the extended hand and smiled back. It seemed plainly evidence that Dr Archer was not aware of the message hovering a few inches above his head, and that nobody seemed inclined to tell him it was there. Carl certainly had no intention to give the game away, all the more since he needed his job.
“How are you, my boy? Been way too long since we got together. You must tell me how things are going in Actuarial. You realise of course that these are exciting time for all of us, with the reorganisation and fantastic new opportunities…”
Archer was referring to the hostile takeover of a competing firm, announced in the press just a few weeks ago. The elephant in the room was what the merger might mean for jobs, though Carl would admit that anxiety was creeping into all the workforce.
The lift arrived and the doors opened with a ping. Sure enough, as Carl looked into the mirrored glass ahead of him the words had scrambled. Where once it had said ‘dull, boring, self-obsessed, needy, miserable,’ the words now read, ‘stressed, fearful, miserable, dull, boring.’
But Dr Archer had his head down was still talking to Carl, oblivious to the truth so plainly evident if only he could see. In fact, he was not even looking at Carl as he spoke, which to Carl demonstrated amply that his wish to talk was not governed by care or concern. It was spin, a PR message to an unempowered employee that everything was just fine and dandy – except it had precisely the opposite effect.
Playing along, Carl nodded and smiled, added the occasional, “yes, of course” but otherwise chose not to contribute to the one-sided conversation. As the lift pinged on the 14th floor, he smiled and stepped out of the lift while Archer continued to the 20th floor executive suite.
For a brief moment, Carl scanned the open office space and the people engaged in the working drudgery of daily life, all people at his level, admin staff and juniors; supervisors were partitioned off into small offices around the perimeter. For the first time, it became clear to Carl that everyone had words above their heads, though most, like Archer, did not seem remotely aware of the fact.
The words varied greatly with the person. There was his occasional drinking buddy Roger, whose words took on a deep orange hue: ‘drunken, lecherous, untrustworthy, lazy, greedy’ – and it was true, Roger always had an eye out for women – particularly bored housewives – and drank like a fish; at work he did the bare minimum then went out to the pub, and it was no surprise that he was sad. Untrustworthy though? He was not aware of any instance when Roger had proved untrustworthy, but that made him wonder…
He waved at the bleary Roger, hung his coat up and sat at his desk, complete with broken revolving chair that he had been trying to get replaced for some years. Roger waved back and tried to focus bloodshot eyes on the figures displayed on the screen in front of him.
“Good morning. Fancy a cup of tea?”
Carl turned to see Karen Prentice, a married woman with several children who somehow managed to stay optimistic whatever the prevailing mood. Her message, in a refreshing shade of yellow, agreed: ‘cheerful, contented, keen, gentle, helpful.’
“Yes please, Karen,” Carl found himself saying to his colleague, perhaps more brightly than he felt.
With much curiosity, Carl looked around the area and compared what he saw. There was the facilities chap wheeling around a mail trolley: ‘Morose, negative, compromised, dispirited, lifeless.’ Never yet has Carl received his post with a smile.
Then there was Arun, the technical wizard of the department, his hand supporting his head as he wrestled with an algorithm: ‘Intelligent, dedicated, ambitious, tolerant, harassed;’ the last word comes like a sting in the tail. Arun is decidedly under-promoted, but the senior management use him such that he works late nights and barely sees his young children. Carl felt sorry for Arun, particularly since he will be the first discarded when times turn bad – not that he could see that.
Best of all, there was the office flirt, Liz, chatting in the corner seat with several other female colleagues, her eye wandering towards the men. Her words cause Carl to cover his mouth to disguise his hilarity: ‘capricious, gossipy, vain, bitchy, funny.’ The vanity and humour came first, but it never took long to see the true nature of Liz come out. She could not hide her true self.
Everywhere Carl looked there were characteristics to which nobody paid any heed, still less acknowledged his own characteristics. What made those passengers on the bus more aware of him than his working colleagues? The answer had to be that they were so wrapped up in their own devices they never once saw or cared what other people were truly like. Maybe on the bus people are more observant, take note of others?
As he booted his PC, Carl thought on, especially about how his characteristics changed with the circumstances. It occurred to him that this was an opportunity to create a better impression by being more virtuous and happy, though if that meant being false it sounded like the truth would show up regardless of the disguise. Maybe those you meet see through your facade anyway, but others merely took you at face value. And then maybe the only people who looked deeper. It occurred to Charles how little attention people generally pay to the feelings of others.
“Penny for ’em?” Karen placed Carl’s regular mug on the tea-stained coaster placed conveniently near his computer mouse. Charles looked up as if surprised at the question, gathering his thoughts. In his reverie he was no less self-absorbed than others around him; he knew what his message would be saying without even checking.
He looked back at Karen with no little warmth. “Well, tell the truth I got into a brief conversation with a young lady on the bus. Sat behind her for months without really taking any notice of her, but then she seems to be shy and I guess I am too. Funny that – how you can go through life not noticing things?”
“You only live once, as my old dad used to say, so use it to the full,” mused Karen. “In his case he crammed in a full lifetime within 52 years.”
Carl felt a sudden prickle of anguish. “Oh no, I’m so sorry,” he replied.
“It’s alright. He smoked like a chimney and wouldn’t stop. He had it coming to him, but it made me decide to lay off them for the good of my kids.”
“Very sensible too,” said Carl, regretting that in his 37 years he had never had the inclination, nor especially the opportunity to have children of his own.
“You’ve got to count your blessings. I know it’s a cliche, but I’ve got a job, a home, a good hubby, lovely kids and I get a nice holiday every year. I go out when I want to, I meet interesting people, I’m not in poverty and I never have to worry about my next meal. I can put up with me bad back. Know what I mean?”
Not that he ever told anybody, but “know what I mean?” was probably Carl’s least favourite phrase, since in his opinion nobody ever did truly know what anybody else meant. But Karen’s words rang deep, even if he had heard the sentiments many times before. It occurred to him she had never previously mentioned the bad back though.
“Karen, are you okay? Hope it’s not serious…”
Karen brayed with laughter. “It’s fine. I’ve got my regular date with the osteopath tonight – think hubby is jealous haha. Anyway, must get on.”
With that she sauntered back to her own desk, the one replete with small furry toys and bizarre picture frames containing photos of her happy family – the most personalised desk on the floor. It would be shame indeed were Karen’s desk to be returned to an anonymous blank, though in Carl’s experience such decisions bore little if any evidence of sentiment.
As he worked, Carl found himself taking frequent glances to see the characteristics of whoever was passing by. Sometimes they caught him by surprise, though mostly he found himself nodding sagely. Mostly he kept his head down and worked diligently, all the better to avoid awkward questions.
It was only near the end of the day that he caught sight of Dr Archer making his way on to the floor but then rapidly into the office of the well-named but usually benign senior manager, Mr Fibbs, who had been in meetings all day with his office blinds closed. Archer’s surtitle told of his mood: ‘furious, panicky, worried, fierce, argumentative.’
Out of sheer curiosity, Carl stood and headed in the direction of the water cooler, which was handily placed the other side of the office wall. Pouring himself a cup, he listened carefully. The conversation was muffled by insulation in the partition, but it was evidently heated. Dr Archer’s raised voice quashed objections from Fibbs with ruthless precision.
It barely took two minutes before Archer stalked out of the office, ignoring Carl as he passed towards the lift. Gibbs followed, looked where his boss had just been, sighed heavily and returned to the office, slamming the door behind him. He was out long enough for Carl to spy the telltale emotions: ‘shocked, disillusioned, anxious, apprehensive.’ It looked suspiciously like Fibbs would be out for good, but the creeping fear for Carl was that many of his department would follow him.
Looking around, not many betrayed any specific anxiety – mostly wrapped up in their job or not paying much heed to the events nearby, even if the undercurrent was unquestionably concerned about their immediate futures.
He looked at his watch and realised the time was verging on 5pm. Typically he left the office at 5:30, but in the circumstances did not feel like staying longer. If asked, he could always say he had done overtime before and was taking time in lieu. Besides, if he was anticipating the worst then time spent contemplating his next career move might be worthwhile. He grabbed his coat and slipped out, but nobody seemed to notice.
As he got on the bus and climbed the stairs to the upper tier, Carl realised that the girl was already sitting in her usual place. For the first time he realised that words had formed above her head too: ‘positive, cheerful, nervous, demure.’
That seemed quite the best mood he could have wished for. But demure, as in modest, unassuming, shy rather than virginal? Was anyone demure these days? She caught his eye then turned away, living up to her nomenclature. Maybe demure still had a future – or she was genuinely keen on him, which possibility he had not previously considered. It seemed too Victorian a virtue, where women were, in Carl’s experience, direct and assertive – and expected men to be the same.
In the past they had considered his brand of dithering and uncertainty to be unattractive, though he felt sure there were some who did not expect everything to be black and white. Peeling back layers of complexity was surely what wooing was all about.
He wavered about where to sit but she beat him to it by patting the seat next to her and moving her shoulder bag to between her feet. “Please…”
It did not go unnoticed that while she looked briefly into his eyes, she was sneaking peeks upwards too. Conscious that he had been doing the same, Carl blushed and looked at his feet. The girl laughed gently.
For a brief moment, both laughed incredulously at the unlikely coincidence. She broke the ice.
“Your message says you’re surprised and delighted.”
“And so I am. This means we can’t have any secrets from one another.” Carl laughed, suddenly embarrassed at what he had said, or the implications of saying it.
“Is that such a bad thing though?” asked Carla. “If we knew what everyone was really like they would behave much better, wouldn’t they? If we knew politicians were lying we could decide who to vote for and who to reject, because we can’t depend on what they say.”
Carl nodded, suddenly speechless and slightly spellbound.
“And anyway, if everyone could see the truth it would show that we’re all human, we have the same feelings. We all get jealous and angry and depressed and all the things we never like to admit in public. It’s almost like we stop wearing clothes to pretend we’re something we’re not. Not that I’m suggesting we do without clothes… on a cold day, anyway.”
She giggled unexpectedly at her own joke, though not a shy giggle this time, certainly not the giggle of someone filling the space to cover up their own embarrassment. Rather, the giggle of a woman growing in confidence.
Carl caught up slowly and provided a short staccato laugh. He had a strange feeling that Carla did not need words displayed to convey his mood and feelings. She could read his eyes, his face, his body language. The more perceptive people always could – it was only those wrapped up in their own small selves who did not pick up many of the signs, but even then manipulation and deceit and shallow insincerity stood out a mile in most cases.
She was not like that, in his opinion; Carla was a down-to-earth sort, a woman who said what she thought and thought what she said. She just didn’t choose to talk about it with most people. That she was saying it to him meant something important, something that could not be conveyed by mere adjectives. But that was a silly thought, as if her qualities could be contained in an aura.
On the strength of positive evidence, Carl glanced up to double check his reading was correct. Her words had changed to: “excited, hopeful, amused, anticipating, eager.” Taking courage, he turned to Carla and spoke quietly.
“Listen, I don’t suppose you have any time now, do you? Maybe we could get a bite to eat? I know a very good Indian quite close to here…”
She smiled back at him. “That’s such a sweet thing to say, thank you. But it’s fine actually, my fiancé has a day off. He’s cooking at home. He’d be mad at me if I couldn’t eat his food.” Another giggle, but no offence taken at the suggestion.
Carl looked up, wounded every bit as much as if she had taken out a magnum and blasted him in the chest.
“Fiancé…?” he mumbled, looking down at her hands. Sure enough, she wore proudly a bright diamond engagement ring set in white gold. Her face glowed with satisfaction, sure in the knowledge her man was waiting for her, but not Carl.
Suddenly he questioned everything. How could he have misinterpreted the signs? Why had he jumped to the conclusion that this lady, someone he did not know at all, wanted to date him? Carl had been happy in the ignorance of a belief based on no evidence that she actually fancied him, yet that possibility had not even occurred to Carla. To her it was a friendly chat with someone on the bus, someone sharing the same.
Perhaps, like voters, we ignore the signs because we want to believe the visions people portray, even though we know they are meaningless and we will end up disillusioned? What was the term for that? Ah yes, cognitive dissonance…
She was looking at him as if reading his thoughts. “I see it now. Your words say you’re shocked, disappointed, crestfallen, embarrassed. You really like me, and I screwed it up for you? I’m so sorry, Carl. That was really thoughtless of me. I should have said…”
“No, it’s all my fault. Look, it’s my stop now. Have a great evening. See you on the bus tomorrow.” With that he stumbled up and clambered down the stairs.
knowing that this humiliation would mean there could never be another occasion, no matter how much he pretended it had never happened. In any case, he had to brace himself for the announcements that tomorrow would bring. Maybe he would not be coming into work at all, maybe there would be a call that evening from Dr Archer telling him he was no longer required?
“Bye Carl,” her voice rang through the bus, the same cheerful voice, a voice safe in the knowledge that she was loved.
Carl stepped off the bus and pulled up the collar of his coat. Feeling in the pocket, he found an old cap he kept for wet weather. He pulled it over his head as tightly as it would fit. With any luck this would hide his true feelings once and for all.