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Fiction Contemporary

Barnaby gazed out of his office window and imagined himself smoking moodily on the steel footbridge three floors below. He missed smoking and in his daydreams about it he was often overcoated and windswept in some gritty urban setting, giving off a sort of vaguely eastern European vibe. The footbridge over Chancellor’s Drive wasn’t exactly the Berlin Wall, but the mean little bridge which stapled the concrete campus to a surrounding fringe of woodland was the best he could do. 

Three papers was all he’d got through before his mind had drifted out of the unopenable window in the brutalist concrete ziggurat and down to the footbridge. Down on the bridge he was a man of potential, an enigma to any observer. His collar was up and he smoked navy-style, burning tip smoldering stealthily in a cage of fingers. As Bridge Barnaby turned to slouch thoughtfully on the waist-high railings a young woman in the uniform of a fast-food chain hurried past him. Barnaby briefly thought of the interesting juxtaposition of late twentieth century European post-structuralist intellectualism exemplified by his imagined self and the late capitalist consumerist dynamic suggested by the young woman’s instantly recognizable liveried cap and polo shirt. The immortally adolescent part of him wondered if the young woman could possibly fancy Bridge Barnaby, but mainly the sight of her blue cap and name badge just made him hungry.

Barnaby could not allow three marked papers and an embarrassing daydream to be the sum total of his achievements before he broke for lunch. He used to divide his days up into fag breaks but now there was only lunch and its new elevated significance was not reflected in the plastic imprismed tuna mayo and its meal deal accomplices that he would buy from the campus shop. He slid two papers off the top of the heavy pile that pinned his wood effect desk to the floor of the stuffy office. These two would be marked before he left the room. He picked one of them up and read the first line. Philosophy was misspelled. Barnaby folded his arms on his desk before letting his head fall heavily on them. He’d bought his jacket in the nineties when tweed had struck the young academic as arch and ironic. It had lived in a wardrobe for most of the intervening time but came out to keep him warm when its irony and his middle-aged body had started to feel equally exhausted. The thick woolly fabric used to hold a lungful of lingering fag essence as a reminder of its nights on duty with coffee and coffin nails driving Barnaby towards the completion of his PHD. Barnaby hopefully huffed the crook of his own elbow. Nothing. At least he had the PHD. If there was ever an emergency that could only be solved by someone with an extensive knowledge of the facticity of language and life in the early works of Martin Heidegger then he would be ready to serve. One more paper, then lunch.

Barnaby’s pen hovered over the paper, periodically snapping down like a toad’s tongue to ruin the perfect lines of print with squashed spiders of criticism. The tweed helped remind him that he was a self-regarding narcissist who needed to consciously maintain an attitude of restrained compassion when assessing the work of earnest first years making their first forays into subjects they only discovered for the first time a matter of weeks before their first deadline. Bridge Barnaby would write effortlessly witty things in the margins that would inspire devotion in his keen young charges. Barnaby looked out of the window and was about to start imagining another fag break when there was a knock at his door.

“Hello? Dr Everitt? I’m sorry, I know it’s not office hours but this was the only time I could come. I sent you an email.”

The young woman in the fast-food uniform stood at the half open door. Barnaby jiggled the mouse on his desk to rouse his dozing computer screen. A screen-filling block of unread emails faded into view.

“Oh, er never mind. Do come in. How can I help you?”

“Well, it’s just that, we spoke last week and you gave me some feedback on my essay…”

Barnaby stared hoping the image of the young woman would trigger a memory of the conversation. His mind, still not entirely back in the room from its latest trip to the bridge, recalled that he’d recently read a paper by Rupert Hagstrom at Lancaster about the power of olfactory memory. If staring doesn’t work; should he ask to sniff her? No, probably not. He made a mental note to reread Hagstrom and sniffed the cuff of his jacket in a time-buying pantomime of contemplation. He wished he had a cigarette. One thing he could certainly sniff out was an imminent request for a deadline extension.

“It’s just that it’s been a very busy few weeks and I’ve got a lot going on, and I know there aren’t supposed to be any extensions for this one, but…”

“Can’t do it I’m afraid. It’s four o’clock today if you want it marked.” As he spoke he looked back down at the paper he was half way through marking. Being firm didn’t come naturally to Barnaby. “Hang on, were you the one who was reading Being and Time?” Barnaby had been impressed that an undergrad was attempting the arguably untranslatable text by choice, let alone saying things that suggested a pretty solid grasp of Dasein. “Helen!”  

“Yes, that’s me!” Helen sounded mildly flattered that he had remembered her name and looked hopeful that this somehow increased the likelihood of an extension. “You gave me some really useful suggestions. It’s mainly done, but I’ve just run out of time.”

“Well, not quite. It’s only eleven. You’ve got five hours to give it one last push. No extensions I’m afraid.”

Helen looked down at her non-slip shoes. Barnaby grimaced. Was she dismayed by the refusal, or the realisation that he had not retrieved her name as a result of recalling her brilliantly insightful musings on Heidegger, but because she was wearing her name badge?

“I’m on my way to work. Twelve ‘till eight shift. Nobody would swap with me. I don’t really know any of them. They think I’m a weirdo. Anyway, I can’t do anymore work on it and I can’t hand it in as it is.”

Barnaby imagined an eight-hour shift in a fast-food restaurant. Or at least, his imagination put together a collage of snipped up parts of his experience to produce a sort of impressionist sketch of what it might look like. He saw himself standing behind a counter with nothing to do but listen and react. Even in the theatre of his mind the uniform didn’t fit him for some reason. Could serving burgers for eight hours be meditative? Would he be able to think about other things while he did it, or mercifully exclude thoughts of other things? He’d never worn a uniform or been paid for work you didn’t need a degree to do. He felt he had robbed himself of the myriad qualia that were to be experienced in this alien world. Could he be a complete person if he remained restricted to his life of tweed and smoke-free thought?    

“Have you got it on you?”

“Yes. I’ve just come from the library. I really was almost finished. I’d only need a twenty-four hour extension. Please. I have to do the shift or I won’t be able to afford my rent.”

“No extensions, but I might have another idea.” He stood up from his desk and stepped towards the window in a moment of hesitation. “I’ll do your shift.”

“What?”

“You stay here and finish your essay. Stick a cover sheet on it and leave it on my desk before four.”

“That’s mad. You don’t even know what to do.”

“I rather think that if you can tackle Heidegger then I can serve burgers. But no, you’re right. There would be questions. I suspect your manager would have something to say about it.”

“The manger never comes out of the office. I just sign in with this and crack on.” Helen held up a small bullet shaped fob. “Maybe not as many questions as you might think. There’s new starters all of the time. If anyone asks just say you’re on a shadow shift and ask what you should do,” she said, warming to the idea just as Barnaby was assessing it as a symptom of a mid-life breakdown. Helen’s sudden support, her willingness to consider a plan seconds after declaring its madness steeled Barnaby. The concept of a Shadow Shift, the lure of holidaying in an alternative life was suddenly irresistible to him. “Give me the fob. And your cap, and er… swap shirts? God no, sorry inappropriate. Sorry.”

The office door banged shut and Helen was standing in front of him in her bra with the fob, cap and shirt thrust out to him in one decisive fist.  

Barnaby spun away from her and stared wide-eyed out of the window. He noticed that down below, Smoking Barnaby was no longer on the footbridge. He saw his reflection in the plate glass window. A few whisps of thin grey cirrus made his translucent face appear to be floating in a cloud of lovely smoke. One shaking hand steadied itself on the waiting pile of papers on his desk, the other slowly reached for his top button.

Barnaby paused on the footbridge to look up at his office window. He saw Helen looking down at him wearing his tweed jacket, buttoned up for modesty after his rather sweaty shirt had been declined. She waved, fingers protruding from a too-long sleeve, the slow action matching the frown that she wore. But she was also smiling. Barnaby felt no such conflict. He held up an imaginary paper and mimed a furious scribbling action. Helen’s frown disappeared and she vanished from the window to get to work. Barnaby straightened the borrowed cap, pulled the tight polo shirt down over his belly and strode over the footbridge in the direction of town. 

November 10, 2023 20:29

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12 comments

Michał Przywara
22:33 Nov 15, 2023

A lovely piece. It certainly might be a midlife crisis, but it might also just be a day in philosophy. And there's a bit of “grass is greener” going on. I think he's onto something though, with his desire to “holidaying in an alternative life”. Particularly in his case, where he's so high up in the ivory tower he has trouble imagining what a service industry job might be like. I wonder if on some level he feels he's been betraying himself, by formally studying the science (art?) of living, but avoiding the actual doing thereof. “snapping do...

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Chris Miller
19:42 Nov 16, 2023

Thank you, Michal. I was very tempted to write the actual shift too, or at least the start, or an image of it, but thought it might be better left to the imagination. I think Helen can hold her own in both worlds, but Barnaby probably can't. Thank you for reading.

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Mary Bendickson
07:47 Nov 13, 2023

Liked the description of grading the paper. Laughed at the thought of him in the too tight polo shirt uniform.🧐such quick thinking for the solution,hilarious.

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Chris Miller
08:16 Nov 13, 2023

Thanks for reading, Mary. Glad you liked it!

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Kailani B.
19:41 Nov 12, 2023

You really captured the expression of a PhD professor, or what I imagine one to be like. The dash of noir and humor really made this an intriguing and atmospheric story. Some of my favorite quotes: "Barnaby briefly thought of the interesting juxtaposition of late twentieth century European post-structuralist intellectualism exemplified by his imagined self and the late capitalist consumerist dynamic suggested by the young woman’s instantly recognizable liveried cap and polo shirt." -- I mean, c'mon, who doesn't do that all the time? "If...

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Chris Miller
20:00 Nov 12, 2023

I'm pleased you enjoyed it, Kailani. He's living in an ivory tower (or at least a concrete one) but at least he sort of knows it. I nearly wrote an end scene where he was behind the counter so there was a glimpse of how it went, but I thought ending it on the bridge was a better/more symmetrical structure. Thank you for reading and taking the time to leave such kind comments.

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Tom Skye
11:24 Nov 12, 2023

This was delightful, and the development of the story was a total surprise. It was very fitting that a philosophy professor (or at least one familiar with philosophy) would see value in this trade. He is presenting it as a favour to the student but in reality, he is looking for perspective. A little bit like the song 'Common People' by Pulp. The idea of being comfortable (successful even) but never having really 'lived'. I was trying to think of you were stealthily incorporating the concept of Dasein into the switch. There is definitely h...

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Chris Miller
14:21 Nov 12, 2023

Thank you very much, Tom. There was a huge opportunity to work Dasein or some other existentialist concept in to the story but I only wrote it on Thursday and just didn't have time to give it sufficient thought. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave such thoughtful comments. Good luck with whatever you are working on.

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RJ Holmquist
16:09 Nov 11, 2023

So well done. The decision was wholly unexpected when it happened, yet well set up. When it happens, it seems perfect both in its ridiculous opposite-ness from the self-image he was day dreaming, and its absolute escape from his current drudgery. A really nice bit of writing.

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Chris Miller
17:22 Nov 11, 2023

Thanks RJ. I thought the set up was maybe a bit tenuous, but then I didn't want to make it too clear or the decision would seem obvious rather than unexpected. Sounds like I might have got the balance somewhere near right. Thanks for reading. I really appreciate the comment.

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RJ Holmquist
17:45 Nov 11, 2023

I think the two lines of set-up that perhaps make it work for me are the "juxtaposition" of his imagined self and the fast food uniform, and then acknowledgement of an "immortally adolescent" part. Both those ideas play out in real time with the ending. The yearning to smoke and the young female student starts me, as a reader, wondering if the tale is headed toward a midlife binge or career destroying relationship. But then what actually happens is a little bit relieving, quite a bit funny, and, for some reason, makes me kinda love the MC...

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Chris Miller
22:19 Nov 11, 2023

I really appreciate the engagement. It's so fascinating to hear how stories are understood by different readers. I think he's pretty likeable really. At least sympathetic. It's basically a kind thing that he does, even though it's rash and far from selfless. Great to know I hit the spot for someone!

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