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The business of complaining was a complaint in itself these days. One had to ring a 1300 number and then listen to all nine options before pressing two or five or whatever number corresponded with the dilemma. Then, just when one thinks one has got past the automated voice, it returns with yet more options.
Walt was all for advancements in medicine and human rights, but did that mean people had to be made redundant by the thousands? Did it mean a person could not talk to another person? — People nowadays were announcing their pivotal life moments, such as engagements, marriages and pregnancies (not necessarily in that order) on social networking sites.
Walt had not worked in six years. The recession had set in with the power of a rigged poker machine — the only line of fruit was lemons. He himself had been made redundant from his job as manager of a bookshop. It was not that he did not want to work again. It was that work did not want him. Nowadays it wasn’t enough to turn up to work on time and put in a hundred and ten per cent. One had to befriend everyone on social networking sites and bond with them outside of work hours. And it was bonding, because you felt tied to them.
Walt knew he had to leave his apartment to rectify his problems but he did not want to. The only fringe benefit of the digital age was that he did not have to leave his house and interact with the germ-clad people that make up society. Though his therapist had pointed out that isolation was also unhealthy, and Walt had been quick to agree. He would much rather tell people they were imbeciles to their faces rather than keep that information locked up inside.
Walt sighed, put his hands on the table and pushed himself up out of his chair. He picked up his cups and plate and rinsed them before beginning his Leaving-the-Apartment routine. Thrice he checked that the lights were switched off — he did this with a lot of things, for three was a good number. Thrice he checked the stove was switched off, even though he hadn’t used it for two days since the day he forgot to account for the fact that pasta expands when cooked. Thrice he confirmed that the iron was switched off — he had used that yesterday to iron a shirt for today. Finally he made it to his apartment door. It had taken half an hour to get that far. Thrice he checked the lock — click-clack-click — before stepping down the staircase, keeping to the left side (like the number three, the good side). He pulled his shirt sleeve over his right hand to create a makeshift glove to open the front door to the building. Sometimes luck was on his side and someone was entering as he was leaving and he did not have to touch the public doorknob. But not today.
Leaving his car in its spot, he set off to the bus stop, keeping to the left side of the pavement. He carried in a bag the faulty product he intended to return to Steinberg’s. A breeze blew through his jumper and shirt to his torso and sending a chill down his spine. He had walked 20 metres down the street when a man, stout with a dishevelled beard, sneezed into the open air. It was one of those big sneezes that sound like one is ejecting all the world’s viruses out of two meagre nostrils. Walt held his breath for a minimum of five seconds (five was another good number). Strutting forth towards cleaner air, he exhaled with a big sigh. Walt Bugleman was a man who possessed so much order in his life that it became easily disorganised: it took only a breeze to blow his to-do list away, or a crowded lift and some person breathing down the back of his neck.
Walt got off the bus near Central Station in Brisbane city centre. On the street corner, while waiting for the light to change, he took his to-do list, folded twice to make a square, out of his pocket: 1) Steinberg’s 2) the chemist. But before all, a coffee! Walt was the sort of man who could not face the day without caffeine.
Walt frequented only one café: Little Johnny’s. Paradoxically, the owner Johnny was not little, but rather on the large side. He was a middle- aged man with an apron of stomach and dark features for he had a bit of Sicilian in him. But could that bloke make a decent sandwich and cup of coffee! Little Johnny was a fastidious man who kept his café at standards beyond the ceiling. He once threw out a sandwich because it would not sit how he wanted it to in the display cabinet.
But as Walt approached Little Johnny’s he noted a banner draped below the café sign:
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
Walt came to a full halt. It was so true: he never should have left home.