A sharp intake of breath.
I gamble a sideways glance at my bedside clock: five minutes to six.
My heartbeat intensifies, so much that it drowns out the ticking of my clock.
I clamp my eyes shut and will myself to enjoy the last four minutes of sleep.
Today, Monday, is the advent of my adult life: the first day of my working career.
Images flash through my head: men and women in formal attire, long hours stuck in an office, the stress of the working life personified in a brief nightmare.
I gasp, and sit up.
Sweat is dribbling down my brow, and my chest is rising and falling rapidly.
Then the sound of my alarm clock hits me like a fist in the gut. My hand acts on its own accord as it lashes out and pounds the top of the clock. The blaring sound dies out as quickly as it started. I slip back onto my back.
All I want to do is sleep. No –
What I really want to do is go back to school, to be a child again.
I groan, and roll off my bed, hitting the carpeted floor with a muffled thump.
It is still dark outside, and I can barely make out the shady outlines of the furniture in my room as I fumble around for the light switch. I find it and flood the room with an explosion of dazzling white light. I shut my eyes against the sudden change of light. My head lolls to the side, and then snaps back up.
I shouldn’t have gone out last night.
I open my eyes grudgingly, and trudge out of the room. I walk into the bathroom and punch the light on. My eyes soon adjust to the light. I stare into the mirror, observing the way my arched eyebrows catch the pale orange light, and the dark shadows dripping down my cheeks.
I suppress a yawn and scratch the side of my face, feeling the rasp of my fingernails moving over my stubble, grimacing with the realisation that I should shave.
A few minutes later, I stare into the mirror again, moving my hands over my shaven, albeit still slightly bristly face. I strip off my pyjamas without thinking, and step into the shower. The freezing water rains down on my exposed body. My body reacts by jerking aggressively away from the water. But this is actually good; the frigid feel of the water bouncing off my shaking body is like being infused with a jolt of energy that wipes out my sleepiness.
I slip on my boxers and tiptoe downstairs. The rest of my family is still sleeping.
There are no windows in the kitchen, which condemn the room to a dense blackness. I turn on the light, suffusing every inch of the room in a pale grey light.
I slap my face softly, as a groan escapes my mouth. I’m not hungry, but I know that things won’t bode well for me if skip breakfast.
I bend down and pull my cereal box from out of a cupboard, and tilt the box forward as a mountain of grains cascade into my bowl. I quickly guzzle down the food, scrolling aimlessly down my Facebook newsfeed on my smartphone at the same time. I put the bowl aside, and stand up to make some coffee. I’m not really a fan of the drink, but exhaustion seems intent on claiming its hold on me, and I really cannot afford to turn up for my first day of work looking like a zombie.
Suddenly, the house erupts with noise as my parents’ alarm clock goes off, followed by the scramble of feet on the floor above, and the clicks of light switches.
I sigh, already lamenting this new life.
Moments later, my parents are downstairs, all dressed up and ready to leave, whereas I look like part of the cast of planet of the apes, with my hair tousled and sticking out from every point possible.
That problem is soon attended to, however, as my mother rushes towards me, hair brush in hand, tut-tutting all along as my hair gets caught underneath the teeth of that horrible tool which I have always loathed since kindergarten.
Shortly after, I am sitting in my car, ready to leave. I close my eyes, replaying the route in my head again. I start the car, and cast a fleeting glance at the time on the dashboard: I’ve got three quarters of an hour to get there. I bite my lip and pull out onto the road, praying that the traffic will not be too bad.
I make it to the office, forty minutes later. Sweat is trickling down my neck as my anxiety peaks. The car park was overflowing with cars, so I had to chance abandoning my car in the middle of the car park. I had planned on things going smoother.
I walk into the office, casting anxious glances at the swarm of men and women clad in suits and dresses all around me. I gulp, drinking it all in: the unmistakable routineness of it all.
The punch-drunk Monday morning gloom seems to hang over everyone like a dark cloud. A cold bead of sweat meanders down my forehead, hangs on the edge of my jaw for a second, and then splashes down onto my polished shoes. I do not know which way to go, but just standing here can hardly look good. The least I can do is pretend that I know what I am doing. That way people will think I’m a confident person. So stand straight, pinching back my shoulder blades and make for an elevator on my right.
Another two women are waiting to get on. One of them gives me a tight smile, which I find myself powerless to return; I end up involuntarily grimacing at her. The other one simply does not show any signs of having noticed me. The doors slide open, and the three of us walk into the elevator. Both women are taller than me with their glitzy high heels; they hold their chins high, as though I am insignificant. One of the women slams the number ‘2’ button with one of her long painted fingers.
“’Scuse me”, I croak. “On which floor is the Human Resources department?” I clear my throat, feeling the colour rising to my cheeks as both women turn round and look down at me.
“It’s on the bottom floor,” one of them says, a hint of a sneer creeping around her red lips.
“Thanks,” I mutter in a low voice, hitting the ‘0’ button in embarrassment.
The elevator jerks to a jarring stop on the second floor. The two women strut out without acknowledging me, the click of their stilettoes ringing around the place. The elevator doors slide shut behind them.
I find myself back on the ground floor. The place is still bustling with people, but I drive forward, across the room, determined not to hang about. I find a door opposite the elevator. A small plaque hangs on it, reading “Human Resources.”
I take a deep breath and knock. A muffled guttural voice penetrates the door, “Yes?”
I gulp, twisting the door handle open, and tumble inside. I find myself in a poky room with four messy desks, two of which are occupied. Boxes are strewn all around, and towers of files are stacked precariously on each desk. I walk towards the nearest desk, beside which sits a middle aged woman with curly red hair and an oversized pair of spectacles hanging off the tip of her bulbous nose.
“You the new recruit?” she asks bluntly, the sharpness of her words taking me aback. I mustn’t have disguised my edginess very well, because the other person in the room, a young, balding man with tanned skin says, “No need to be afraid of Grace, she’s not that unpleasant.” He snickers loudly, and turns his attention to his laptop in front of him. I continue to stare at the woman, my eyes slightly wide, and my body transfixed.
“Jeff, this new recruit’s a mute,” Grace says in a tone that suggests she isn’t joking.
“I’m here for my first day,” I say huskily.
“Have a seat,” the woman says, a sinister smile stretching across her face, extending a hand towards one of the empty desks. “Make yourself at home, and then I’ll put you up to scratch with what’s expected of you.”
“Thanks,” I say, my voice a hollow whisper. I edge slowly towards an empty desk, meandering around a pile of papers.
I fall onto the swivel chair, which makes a strained sound that suggests it won’t be long before it collapses. So this is it, the beginning of my working life. I square my shoulders and take a deep breath, determined to make this experience count for something good.