Isolation story: (15) The Gates of Eden

Nothing whatever to do with my Eden books, this is a short, non-SF story from my Spring Tide story collection. The only connection is the myth of ‘the fall’ itself.

‘The Gates of Eden’ qualifies as an isolation story, I’d say, simply on the grounds that there is only one person in the whole story: a middle-aged businesswoman on her way to a difficult meeting.

The Gates of Eden

I made a mistake at work.   I got a large order completely wrong, costing the company a great deal of money, and losing us a particularly valuable customer at a difficult time when our profit margins were at rock bottom and we were struggling to keep our market share.  There was no real excuse for my blunder, and, as often seems to happen, I compounded my original mistake by making other secondary errors as I struggled to put things right. 

I’d been summoned to Head Office down in Bournemouth to explain myself.  There was a very good chance of losing my job and I was terrified.  I’d been part of the sales force of this same company for over twenty years.  I knew I wasn’t as sharp and energetic as I once had been, and that my value to the company, such as it was, lay in my knowledge of the company itself and the people it dealt with.  I very much doubted I could find another job on anything like the same money, or even another job at all, but I had a big mortgage to pay and two teenaged kids, who I’d brought up by myself since their father’s death ten years previously. 

“You’re amazing, Jenny,” my friends used to say to me back in those early years.  “Full time work, kids.  None of us know how you hold it all together.  We know we couldn’t.”   And of course, I’d brush this off, as you do –“Nonsense, you’d do exactly the same as me if you had to.  I just didn’t have a choice”– but actually it had been very important to me, and a source of great pride.  I felt bitterly ashamed that I’d not lived up to it, and at the same I felt resentful, because actually, whatever I said to my friends, most people couldn’t do what I had done, most people would have stumbled, and that being so, it seemed very unfair that I should have this shame to deal with, and they should not.   Most of all, though, I felt afraid: afraid of what faced me in Bournemouth, and afraid of what lay beyond: telling the kids that we’d have to move somewhere smaller for instance, stirring up memories of that old catastrophe of their dad’s suicide.

It was a beautiful September day when I drove down, with air as clear as newly cleaned glass, achingly blue sky, and trees just lightly brushed with gold, but I saw all of this through a complicated cage of painful feelings which had the effect of setting it beyond my reach and denying me the solace it might have given me, just when I needed it most.  I was terrified of being told off.  I was dreading the humiliation of being cross-examined and found incompetent or unprofessional, after so long in the job.  I worried that perhaps I never really had been any good at this job I’d done all these years, and that my bluff had finally been called.  I rehearsed every small mistake I’d ever made, every embarrassing gaffe.  And over and over again, I imagined having to tell the kids that the life I’d given them was going to have to be dismantled.   Without the job, we couldn’t keep the house.  We couldn’t even live in the same area.

Worry comes readily to me.  I can put on a good impression of being calm and unflappable but the truth is that, even on an ordinary day, there are always a lot of things niggling away inside of me, and I often find it hard to sleep. I guess when your husband suddenly kills himself, it does sap your confidence in your ability to control events. But actually I think I’d always been the worrying kind, even as a kid, and there were plenty of more recent things to worry about: Ben’s difficulties at school, for one, and my friend Carrie’s cancer, and my relationship with Harry that hovered all the time between being on and being off, and never quite settled either way.  I worried a lot, but it was bad this time.  This was the bedrock of everything that was under threat, and as I drove through the New Forest, I felt quite sick with fear.

All around me, the warmth of the sun was making the heather steam.  A herd of deer were grazing peacefully by a stream.  But that was out there.  That was for the happy people.  It gave me no pleasure at all, no respite.  It had nothing to do with me.

*   *   *

As I do when I’m anxious about a meeting, I’d set off ridiculously early so as to be absolutely sure of not arriving late.  As a result, when I reached the far side of the forest, I realised I was only twelve miles from my destination with nearly two hours to fill before the meeting.  To kill some time I pulled over at a Little Chef place, sat at a window table, and, after ordering a coffee, began to read through, yet one more time, the various papers that I’d brought with me: the documents from HR, my own statement setting out the somewhat flimsy extenuating circumstances I’d been able to scrape together, and a list I’d compiled of some of the important deals and contacts I’d secured for our company over the years, by way of demonstrating that there was a positive side to my balance sheet.

When the coffee arrived, I took a sip and, for a while, carried on looking through the papers.  But I was getting quite panicky now, feeling that I could no longer remember anything.  I really wasn’t taking in what I was reading, and I realised I’d just get myself into even more of a muddle if I went over it all any more.  So I pushed the papers away and I took another sip of my coffee.  I’d barely noticed the first sip, but second time round I felt the warm buzz as the caffeine entered my bloodstream .

I put the cup down again and, as I did so, I noticed how the steam rising up from it caught the sunbeams streaming in through the window beside me, and it suddenly struck me, for no particular reason, that the sunbeams and the steam each made the other visible.  I was sufficiently intrigued by this, that I began to experiment.  When the steam rose through them, the parallel sunbeams that were revealed were as firm and steady as bars of metal, but if I gently blew the steam away, they disappeared completely into empty air, only to reappear when I stopped blowing and let the steam rise from the mug once more.  I blew again, very gently –it only took the smallest puff– and watched the steam and the sunbeams vanish again, and then rapidly reassert themselves as the temporary agitation settled down.   Then I stopped interfering, and just sat and watched the play of steam and light over my coffee, enjoying the sensation of the sun warming my skin as I sat by the window with the bright world outside.  It was several minutes before I noticed I was completely at peace.

At peace?  Me? Surely not!  But I prodded my feelings carefully, and it really seemed to be the case.  The things I’d been worrying about hadn’t vanished, the dreaded meeting still lay ahead of me, the future was still full of uncertainty and threats to myself and the ones I loved, but even so, right then, I felt entirely content.  It may seem an odd thing to say, but it was as if I’d suddenly remembered an ancient deal that was the basis of my existence, and could see that it was necessary and fair.  You can have no mind at all and be completely at peace, as sunlight is, or steam, and that’s always an option, as my husband Dick proved: you can always revert to being inanimate matter.  Or you can have a mind that knows it’s alive and is capable of pleasure and delight.  But if you choose the latter, you have to pay the necessary price for it in vigilance and worry and suffering.  No one can live in the Garden of Eden, even though it’s where we come from and where we will return.  That’s why it’s so peaceful. 

*   *   *

Of course, there is only so much time you can spend watching steam and sunbeams and thinking profound thoughts.  After a time, I got out my pad and occupied myself with emails until it was time to go.  I still felt quite cheerful, though, and, as I drove off I decided that, if I ever took it into my head to found a religion –if religions are ever founded by middle-aged sales managers with two kids and a boyfriend who won’t quite commit himself– the Little Chef restaurant on the A338 would definitely be one of its holiest shrines.   People would come on pilgrimages there, so as to stare at the spot where the prophet Jenny experienced enlightenment.  The area round the window would be roped off to ensure no one could sully the holy Formica table, or steal the sacred sauce bottle.  The blessed laminated menu would have to be chained down.

None of those pilgrims would experience what I’d experienced, of course.  Not in there.  Not with pilgrims and tourists pushing and shoving for a view under the watchful and suspicious eyes of the official guardians of the shrine:  “No photography please.  You can buy a picture in the shop, if you want one!”  But the funny thing was that they’d experience similar moments in other places, quite frequently most probably, and yet barely even notice them.  So they’d still keep coming to look at the sacred sauce bottle in the hope of some kind of salvation.

I was quite entertained for a while by these thoughts.  I even imagined a Great Schism, when two rival Jennyist churches would fight for control of the Little Chef, while members of a small breakaway group insisted that the moment of enlightenment had actually occurred in the Burger King down the road.  Next thing they’d be burning folk at the stake for denying that the beverage I drank here had, in some wonderful and inexplicable way, been quite literally transformed as it touched my lips, so that it ceased to be mere Little Chef coffee and became the elixir of eternal life.  And then, of course…

But now worry was starting to intrude again.  I would soon be at company headquarters, parking my car, checking my hair and makeup, and gathering my things together for that lonely walk to reception and the dreaded waiting area.   I’d had my interlude of peace, and now I had to deal with a threat to the conditions of my existence, as living creatures must.  Fear began to gnaw inside me as I approached the outskirts of Bournemouth.

*   *   *

As it turned out, the meeting didn’t go anything like as badly as I’d thought it would.  My argument about all the business I’d brought in proved to be more persuasive than I’d dared to hope.  We agreed that I had indeed made a very bad and costly mistake, but it wasn’t characteristic of me, and that I’d contributed a good deal to the fact that our company was still afloat at all, in a difficult market, with new global competitors emerging all the time.   We decided that I still had a lot to offer, but that perhaps my moment of carelessness was a sign that I needed a change.   A different role was suggested to me, a more strategic role, but on the same pay as I was receiving now.  

There were still Ben’s problems at school to worry about of course, there was still Carrie’s possible cancer and all the clumsy heartache of my relationship with Harry.   There was still even the distinct possibility that the company itself would founder.  But one threat, at least for the moment, had been warded off.

*   *   *

The sky had clouded over a bit by the time I headed for home, as is often the case on autumn days which start out sunny.  As I drove back up the A338, I passed the place where I’d stopped for coffee, but it was just an ordinary Little Chef now, like all the others, with the usual angel standing guard outside it, wielding a sword of fire.

Copyright 2018, Chris Beckett

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