It was just getting dark as Phil fumbled for his keys and attempted to kick the gate shut behind him; an almost balletic manoeuvre he’d never quite perfected. Each and every time Phil reminded himself that the process would be a lot less troublesome if he’d just close the gate in a more careful fashion before reaching for his keys. But each and every time Phil tried to emulate the one and only time he’d successfully completed the routine. On that occasion he imagined that to the casual observer (or even a rapt observer, he didn’t mind which) he would have appeared to be the kind of dexterous, athletic and cock-sure kind of man he’d only ever really seen on television. He’d even ended with a flourish, twirling his keys on their ring around his index finger as, say, a sunburnt and hard-faced cowboy might have done with his six-shooter. “Kapow!” he almost said. But he didn’t. Because nobody saw it happen.
Unabashed, Phil still tried to return to past glories as he made his way into his house, and unerringly failed to pull it off. On more than one occasion, there had been a spectator present to enjoy the show, and not one of them missed the opportunity to remind Phil of it whenever they saw him.
“Whoah, steady on there, mate!” One would say, whilst mimicking an exaggerated (Phil thought) impersonation of a man ungracefully losing his balance.
“Fallen into any nice rose bushes recently?” Another quipped.
Izzaaak, who lived two doors down with his parents, would bray, “Bah-hahahahaha LOSER!” with the kind of cruel derision that can only be mastered by an eleven year old. Phil would console himself on these occasions by noting how Izzaaak would hold up his left hand with thumb and finger forming the letter “L” on his forehead, and that this was wrong and made him look foolish, because to everyone else the “L” was back-to-front.
This time Phil at least managed to stay upright and out of the foliage, and upon regaining his balance closed the gate carefully and opened his front door. Of this he was grateful, because this evening was no ordinary evening: He was expecting company.
Of the female variety.
It’s probably a little unfair to imply that Phil’s interactions with women were infrequent, because he worked with several women (all of whom despised him in an utterly irrational way, as you may recall, for simply being competent and totally unconcerned with them) and also visited his sister and her family every so often. He thought the lady at the shops was quite nice and they would chat about trivial things like what her husband might have been up to because he came in late last night and don’t even get me started on those bloody kids! In truth Phil found those conversations quite terrifying and often felt his participation was due simply to the fact that he was paralysed with fear. He certainly didn’t do much of the talking. This led the lady in the shop to conclude he was “a good listener”, although he secretly wished her impression of him was more that of “a fast runner”.
Anyway, tonight Phil was playing host to Phyllis, a woman he’d met under circumstances that she had likened to the kind of kooky plot lines one found in Hollywood romantic comedies (or rom-coms, as Phyllis had said, to Phil’s instant distaste) and she would often re-tell the story to Phil as if he hadn’t been there. What had actually happened was this: Phil was sitting in the park a block down from his office, eating a sandwich (egg and lettuce) and wishing the stray dog that had sat at his feet would go away and stop psyching him out for a bit of his lunch. Phyllis happened by at that moment and mistakenly thought the dog belonged to Phil. She remarked upon how “cute” and “sweet” the dog was as Phil smiled uncomfortably at her and nodded. Some time later, when he felt Phyllis had stopped talking for longer than it took to draw breath, Phil was at pains to explain the mix-up, that the dog wasn’t his and in fact he would rather it hadn’t chosen him or his sandwich as its prey that afternoon. Phyllis listened and when Phil had finished she laughed good-naturedly at length about the humorous nature of the situation. Then she told the dog “shoo!” and it dutifully trotted away, much to Phil’s relief and astonishment. After they had parted Phil pondered briefly how out of the ordinary this encounter had been but by the time he had returned to his cubicle he was once again focused on his windows.
“What a wholly uninteresting Hollywood rom-com that would make,” one might surmise, and one would undoubtedly be correct. But that’s not the end of the story. Later that evening, after lengthy deliberation and several false starts, Phil signed up for one of those online dating services he’d heard so much about. It took an unspeakably long time to fill out the various questionnaires and endless forms but he persisted and after a time was browsing through prospective “dates” like a seasoned professional. For a moment he considered that being a seasoned professional at browsing online dating websites probably meant you weren’t enjoying much success in the actual dating part of the process, but he shooed that thought away much as Phyllis had with the dog earlier. After a few evenings spent in pursuit of a suitably compatible woman he plucked up the courage to make arrangements with someone who seemed very nice. They were to meet at a local cafe for a coffee and chat, which seemed to Phil to be suitably innocuous, and public enough to ensure a swift exit was possible should things not work out. At two o’clock on that Saturday afternoon Phil went to Café Frappé and chose a seat outside, under an umbrella. After a few minutes he remembered that sitting outside a cafe was a singularly unpleasant experience and found a table just inside the door. He sat there for what seemed an age, politely deflecting the serving staff until they politely offered to show him the door unless he purchased something. After an hour had passed he began to suspect that perhaps this date wasn’t going according to plan. His mind began to conjure up images of what might have gone wrong, why Leanne – his date – hadn’t shown up or called him to say she was running late.
Am I doing this wrong? he asked himself. Should I be calling her, or would that seem a bit forward and creepy? Phil had learned from reading magazines in the waiting room at the dentist that being “creepy” was something to be avoided. The trouble was that it seemed a difficult condition to define, and seemed rather too dependent upon circumstances and subjective opinion to be something he could be sure of avoiding. What was “creepy” to one person may be “showing some concern” to another. After another half-hour Phil had resolved to call Leanne and find out what the problem was, maybe he could offer to help or something. He reached into his pocket for his phone. It wasn’t there. He stood up and began patting himself down, in case he’d inadvertently put his phone in a different pocket. But still, it was nowhere to be found. Realising it would be pointless to linger, Phil paid for his obligatory orange juice and made to leave. Just as he passed one of the other tables near the door, a man moved his chair out as he stood and Phil’s foot became entangled in it. As he lost his balance he had enough presence of thought to notice that the man was wearing a particularly incredulous expression and was laughing as he said “Whoah! Steady on there, mate!”
Phil performed a kind of pirouette and was fortunate that the glass door was already open as he twirled toward it, and then out into the street, only to then collide with a passer-by. It took him a moment to register that he had fallen onto someone, a moment longer to register that it was a woman and by the time he’d figured out that it was in fact Phyllis, the dog-whisperer from the park, he was on the verge of catatonic shock from the ignominy of the encounter and the bizarre nature of this convergence of fate.
Phyllis was very understanding and barely injured and laughed in her good-natured way about the incident which made Phil feel slightly less than mortified with embarrassment. It was the coincidental, rather than the accidental nature of their meeting like this that made Phyllis draw comparisons with Hollywood movies, which puzzled Phil. Anyway, Phyllis invited him to go with her to see a friend play in her band, who were called The Olecranon Process, at a local venue and they had a great time. Well, Phyllis had a great time listening to the music, dancing and singing along; whereas Phil enjoyed the fact that it was too loud for small talk, so he could have a couple of glasses of house white and not interact with Phyllis beyond smiling at her, more with relief that she hadn’t called the police when he wound up flattening her earlier than with any affection or guile. Phyllis seemed happy with that and at the end of the gig she breathlessly told Phil how much fun she’d had and that if he didn’t mind she’d like to see him again.
Phil rapidly played out a number of possible scenarios in his mind, but his lack of experience in this sort of situation left him at odds with his feeling that he ought to reciprocate Phyllis’ kind invitation and general goodwill and understanding.
“Do you like pizza?” he asked.
As it happened, Phyllis did. Very much.
To be continued…
Phil worked at a computer programming firm, where he specialised in windows. There was nothing at all that could in any way be described as extraordinary about Phil or his work. He simply did what was required of him and nothing else. Ambition was not a motivating factor in his life.
Every day he would sit at his terminal in his small and unadorned cubicle alongside the other 50 or so programmers in the room on the 19th floor of one of the more architecturally aspirational office buildings in the city. Phil’s work life was quite blissfully monotonous and he really quite liked it. However, he was completely oblivious to the fact that every one of his workmates seethed with bitter resentment for him.
They were unable to comprehend how he could lead such a peaceful existence, apparently unhindered by the pressures that drove each of them to medications for stress, anxiety and other ailments their working lives induced. They were utterly absorbed in their frantic, desperately competitive and miserably unrewarding careers, which spilled into their equally hectic, vacuous social lives. They would spend an inordinate part of their down-time bitching and moaning about Phil, whether it was during coffee breaks or at fashionable bars and cafes. They would carp on endlessly to their spouses and partners about this guy at work who just didn’t seem to get it, who wasn’t a team player, who thought he was too good for them.
Phil, of course, kept to himself and dreamed of his windows and remained utterly unaware that his co-workers never stopped once to notice how much of their precious time was devoted to such an unassuming and ordinary person.
But then, at work, nobody knew about his secrets.