He sniffed the air. His brow furrowed. He drew another long, slow breath. The breeze was fragranced with the most deliciously sweet scent of pine. Once more, he closed his eyes and savoured every molecule. Above the noise of the traffic, which by now had reduced considerably, he could hear the delicate hiss, the music of the vast forest that decorated the left bank of the river.
“How have I not noticed that before?” he thought.
“This isn’t helping anyone, you know.”
The Voice had returned, but somehow softer as if not at his elbow, but some distance away. “You realise they’re watching you, Veronica and half your workmates, wondering what on Earth you’re doing, standing here with your eyes shut sniffing the air.”
“Really?” replied Mr Clark, though not at all concerned. “I suppose it must look strange, to some.”
“Exactly. So, come on. Veronica wants that meeting about productivity and you’ve got a mountain of work to shift to meet that service standard,” the Voice prompted, growing louder with every word.
“Don’t you ever feel that there might be more to life than–” Mr Clark began, “but no. Of course, you’re right.” Mr Clark blinked open his eyes and looked around him. He was alone.
He set off once more, but this time took only two steps before glimpsing the steeply rising hills, that appeared abruptly from behind the Bank’s stark facade and tumbled in a patchwork of green and yellow and lilac, along the horizon under an azure sky and down, down to meet the ambling, diamond-dappled river at the far end of time. He leaned against the rail, shielding his eyes from the exuberant sun with his free hand, and watched as a cloud’s light footprint glided across the fields and hedgerows, caressing every contour along its path. He followed its effortless climb to the highest point of the largest hill and saw it slip easily over the brow and away.
A softer wind blew and this time brought with it the scent of heather and jasmine and honeysuckle and wild rose. A curious frown appeared on Mr Clark’s face as he filtered each fragrance. A moment later it lifted to be replaced by a gentle smile of recognition: “Helen,” he sighed.
He traced her image on the inside of his eyelids, lingering over the curve of her cheek, the pertness of her nose, the fullness of her mouth, to ensure that their beauty was captured precisely. He listened intently as his memory replayed their conversation this morning:
“Try not to be late home tonight, darling.”
“I’ll try, but I’ve a lot to do. Veronica wants a meeting – damn, where did I put those figures. Ah! There they are – but, yes, I’ll try, dear.”
“Good. Today should be special.”
“Eh! Oh yes, yes, it should. If Veronica likes these calculations I’ve produced, we’ll improve the efficiency ratings at a stroke.”
“No. Something a bit more important than that, I think.”
“My end of year grade?”
“Now, Adrian. Don’t tease!”
He recalled how the hall mirror had reflected his blank expression and how Helen had looked at the floor then proceeded to busy herself with trivial tasks. He remembered how he’d said: “Goodbye, dear,” lightly, but did not receive a reply. Finally, he recollected the feeling of his
heart turning to lead as he closed the door and heard the gentlest of sobs coming from the open living-room window.
“Are you going in today, or not?” The Voice again. Silence.
“They’ll be out to see what’s wrong, any minute now. I think you’d better get in there right away. Say you felt faint or had a sudden attack of nausea. They’ll believe you.”
“Why shouldn’t they?” Mr Clark said. “Right at this moment it’s not too far from the truth.”
“Well, then.” The Voice paused. “Surely you realise how important today is?”
“Oh yes! Although I didn’t until just a few minutes ago. Up until then I thought that productivity and efficiency were the most important things in the world, nothing else mattered.” Mr Clark opened his eyes slowly and turned to face the Bank. Veronica was no longer at the window. “In some circles perhaps they are, but then again, who wants to travel in circles?” Mr Clark allowed himself a brief smile, then continued, “To be productive, but to produce nothing of value: to be efficient, but only in the pursuit of the worthless is meaningless, futile. Far worse than this, however, it destroys the spirit and crushes the soul. It turns lively, curious, fascinating, loving beings into automata, fit only for manipulating figures instead of stimulating minds. Oh I dare say you think I’ve gone mad-” The Voice remained silent.
“- but true madness lies with those in their barless prisons who can live in the midst of all this beauty,” he gazed about him, almost in awe, “yet see only balance sheets or shortfalls.”
“Adrian! Adrian! What on Earth’s wrong?” Mr Clark turned sharply to see Veronica flitting across the bridge towards him accompanied by a security guard. “Are you in trouble? Do you need help?”
“Ah! Veronica.” Mr Clark smiled benevolently. “No, there’s no trouble, no trouble at all. Quite the reverse in fact.”