I wonder if hell notice I've become incredibly small? thought Peter. Trying to end the meeting early, he asked: Is that all you need me for?
Yes. See you at the next appraisal. Thank you, Peter. Peter walked backwards out of the room, aware of the absurdity of the gesturenot turning your back on the enemy, or something. No longer an indication of respect, anyway.
He really had become incredibly small. The door was like a cliff, the doorway a cavernous portal, his arm an anaconda, extending impossibly far from his tiny body. Or was it that he had become huge? Suddenly, out in the corridor, the whole thing was reversed. He was huge, and now he was looking down the wrong end of the telescope, at a corridor so compressed that he wondered how he was going to squeeze himself along it. The space between him and the double doors at the end was condensed into a few giant steps, and when he clumsily pushed the doors openboth of them, because he liked to do thatsomeone tiny squeaked a miniscule protest and his vision snapped back into normal.
Hey, how did it go?
Okay, I suppose. Nothing I wasnt expecting.
Wish me luck.
Yeah, good luck. See you later, Tom. Toms appraisal usually went about the same as his own, but Peter knew that Tom never found himself at the wrong end of a telescope. Hed tried to talk to him about it once, but the incomprehension was so complete he knew right away that Tom had never known anything like that. The corridor zoomed away again, and Peter began to enjoy the weirdness. He took exaggerated steps along the grey carpet, lifting up his enormous spindly legs like a spider and placing them ever so gently down so that nothing could be heard. In the private space between two double doors, he played with gravity. He was almost weightless, but not quite. Being so huge, gravity became insignificant, and if he jumped, it took ages for him to land. He jumped, bending his knees and folding up his legs, then landed like a dandelion seed. He looked at the pictures on the wall. Tiny images, like passport photos, arranged in a straight line from one end of the corridor to the other. Some were pictures of the old building, of brown-tinged employees with caps and overalls, standing awkwardly next to shiny vintage vans with the company name on the side in plain type. Others were imitation abstract seventies daubs in colours all faded to a uniform blue in the sun with the dots of the colour printing process clearly visible. He could see an unlikely amount of detail, and knew that no matter how long he spent looking, he wouldnt be late, because time was like golden treacle in those sunlit corridors, in the afternoon, and nobody would notice.
In the restaurant, he sat with Pat. She always ate there, although she could have gone outside for a smoke with some of the others, but she didnt smoke. Pat was friendly with Peter, and showed him how to work certain things on the computers when he couldnt ask anyone else because he was already supposed to know. His email never worked, because he kept deleting messages by accident instead of sending them. He just told people were having trouble with our email system and mostly, they believed him, except for one caller who had asked him what email programme he used and he didnt have a clue so just said its our own system but the caller wasnt fooled, Peter knew they had gone away doubting his abilities and it left him feeling stupid. So Pat usually sent his email for him, and sometimes he bought her a cup of coffee.
Pat appeared normal size, but the rest of the room was extremely small, so he focussed on her.
You know. Fine.
As usual. Fine. Bob worked away from home as a consultant engineer, and was away from home now.
Hes due back anytime now. Peter felt inappropriately disappointed but smiled and said good because he didnt want Pat to notice his disappointment, but the little bags under his eyes filled up just a fraction and he felt it and was sure she could see it, but she just said nothing because people generally dont pass comments about things like that. They just respond to them without knowing. Peter had read up on body language as part of his training, and hed added a few things of his own, and that was one of them, that if the little bags under peoples eyes swelled up, then something was going on in there that they werent revealing. He liked to feel he could offer a bit of a support to Pat when her husband was away, but he didnt fancy her or anything. Just liked her. Still, he felt redundant when Pats husband was around. Peter had one son, but only saw him every other weekend, so he talked to Pat about him, because children the same age give you something to talk around towards other stuff. Eventually, near the end of lunch, he built himself up to approaching the subject:
I remember when I was small, my Mum took me to the doctor because I was always talking about small-seeingthats what I called it, small-seeingbut he said there was nothing wrong with me. Peter thought hed try this route, because he wanted to talk to someone about it, although it wasnt a problem, he just wanted to know that other people had the same thing, and he thought that if he presented it as a childhood thing, it would be easier to accept, and he could pretend hed grown out of it if he didnt get a good response.
What was it like then? This small-seeing?
Well, like everything was down the wrong end of a telescope. And I was huge.
Funny! Ive never heard of that. Do you still get it now? Here was his chance but, still unsure, he started with denial:
Err, no, then realising that he was letting an opportunity go by, Yeah, actually I do, sometimes. I had it today, actually. His stumbling sentence zoomed Pat away from him and she shrank in proportion with the rest of the room, and went quiet. From the other side of the now expansive plain of the table he said
Youve gone a bit quiet, Pat. Im not gone in the head, you know.
I know. I get something funny too, sometimes, but its different to you.
Really? You never said.
Why should I? We never talked about it before. Looking at the clock, she got up and cut things short. Ive got to go, Ill be late. He was geared up for a detailed chat, but that finished it. They didnt have the kind of casual association that would have allowed him to walk back with her and continue the conversation, so he just agreed:
Okay, Id better go, too. They never planned to meet, it just happened, so arranging to continue the conversation next day would have been out of bounds, because it was not that kind of a friendship, because she was married and they only worked together, nothing else. They never called each other from home, or anything.
All the rest of the afternoon, Peter read the manual for his email programme, and finally managed to send some mail on his own. It was Thursday, and he was pretty tired. His eyes kept going out of focus and he forgot about small-seeing. In the car on the way home he had to keep telling himself that the picture on the windscreen was real, not a picture, and he couldnt change channels or turn it off, no matter how may times his eyelids stayed closed for just a little too long. He sat up in the seat and opened the window. Take a break. Tiredness kills said a sign, but there was nowhere to stop except the motorway café and that was surrounded with scaffolding and unfriendly workmen who had been there for at least a year, and the toilets stank. After a takeaway he slept in front of the TV and pulled himself off the sofa to bed around 12.30.
His supervisor had sent him a message, confirming the stuff hed agreed to do the other day during his appraisal. He sat at the desk, staring at it, not wanting the extra responsibility. His only incoming email consisted of the message hed sent yesterday, sent straight back to him with loads of complicated stuff added to it about why it didnt get to its destination. He made the necessary calls and then called Pat.
Email? she asked.
Yep. He confirmed. She came in and sent the mail. Wanting to hang on to her, so they could talk, he said:
Just show me how to send mail again. No, better, let me do it and you watch. Tell me if I go wrong. It was the only way he could keep her there, but he didnt know how to bring another subject up. She watched him and this time he did it right, forgetting that hed almost taught himself yesterday, and remembering that you dont put the persons name right next to the email address.
You can do it!
Can I? He pretended to be surprised. He was struggling for excuses now, still wanting to leap that chasm between email and yesterdays conversation when she joked:
No small-seeing today then?
You remembered that?
Well, it made me think.
About me. And what I used to get, with my eyes. Its hard to describe. Id better get back now, but Ill see you in the restaurant. Again, shed given out a little, then retreated before he could react. He sent another emailjust because he couldinstead of phoning someone.
I used to getwell, I still do, actuallyI get these kind of colours in my eyes. Pat didnt seem embarrassed by her stuff, like he was about small-seeing. She just described it as if it were as common as eating.
And they sort ofthey ummits like there are two colours, and they wash in and out of each other. Yellow and purple. She looked at him for a reaction. He was just captivated, and sonot knowing what he was thinkingshe said:
Its nothing really. Just me, I suppose. Too much telly! Peter laughed, like he was supposed to, to stop it being too odd and serious, then added:
No, I want to know more. Whats it like?
Whats it like? I dont know. Like two lights in my eyes, only sometimes, I can even see them with my eyes open.
Does it bother you?
No, not really. I never think about it. Its just there. Aware of the growing intimacy this conversation impliedthat they were both telling each other things they hadnt told anyone elsePeter felt obliged to ask:
Have you talked about it to Bob?
Oh, no! Hed just laugh or say something like thats typical of you! which made Peter wonder what else Pat experienced that might make her husband say something like that. He had a fleeting moment of panic; panic based on the idea that he could be talking to someone who might hide the fact that she takes it all too seriously, whounder the everyday coping façadeis really lost in a place with no connection to anyone elses world, whichof courseis his own fear and so suddenly he had to tell himself no, dont think that, think heres someone else who understands and not oh no, this persons going to pull me under, drag me down with her strangeness buried under normalness.
All these thoughts happened really quickly and densely, and then he just asked her again:
So whats it like?
You know, I told you. And he realised it was his turn now. Shed let a bit of herself out, and he had to return the favour. Slightly nervous now, his attempt to explain tailed off too soon:
Well, with me, its a bit different. I get this any time. Its like I said before, like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. And then he tacked on You know, to see if she did know.
But what do you see?
Just everything, only smaller. Or bigger.
What, it goes bigger as well?
Yeah. Especially when I go for my monthly. Thats what they called the appraisals. She picked up her cup. He could hear her swallow two mouthfuls. She put down the cup and it sounded really loud on the table. He examined a minute chip on the rim. She looked at him with a very straight face and said:
I get that too. His head did a little flip, like a somersault, and his vision telescoped.
Oh no this is really weird.
I mean Im getting it now. She shrank in his vision, then grew enormous.
Do you mean everything seems huge, and you feel really small? Now?
Yeah, thats whats happening now. The whole room just expanded, and I feel like an ant.
And you get this at monthlies as well?
Just like me, then. Only Ive never told anyone about it.
Neither have I. With this, they got stuck. Where did they go now, how could the conversation become normal again? Should they press on and see where it went? Or just let it drop and not mention it again? The exchange implied common ground that just wasnt apparent before, and it bound their histories closer, but he didnt want her to think that it meant anything. Or he didnt want to feel disappointed if she didnt want it to mean anything. He tried to be casual, but hed wanted to talk to someone about this for a long time.
Saves us talking about email!
Suppose so. They were still stuck. But he could see that she welcomed the chance to talk about what must have been, sometimes, a troubling thing, like it was for himthe kind of troubling thing you could never explain to a doctor, and where else could you go?
See you later, then.
Okay. But there was only the end of the day, so later must mean tomorrow.
He got a phone call that night. He thought it was someone trying to sell him something.
Where did you get my number then he realised it was Pat and without thinking used one of the techniques he used at work when he got a call and had to pretend he knew who it was when he was still thinking who is this? and use a noncommittal almost funny phrase like oh, to what do I owe the honour? She just said:
The personnel files, I hope you dont mind. I got your number from there. I just wanted to talk a bitI didnt think youd mind.
No, its okay, I dont mind. Is Bob back yet? He was trying to keep the conversation in safe territory and remind himself that yeah, he liked her but no, dont think about it.
Nah. Hes had to stay longer than he thought. She sounded a bit flat, as if she wanted a boost. Peter felt inadequate because he wanted a boost most of the time, so he wasnt sure how to give one out, but he tried:
Oh dear. You going to be alright?
Yeah, Im used to it. He felt uncomfortable that she seemed to be confiding in him, and he didnt know how to respond. Without the familiar surroundings and shared tasks of work, their conversation seemed unnaturally loaded.
But hes due back soon? He was drifting off the point; at least, thats how it felt, even though she hadnt stated anything as a point.
Yeah, hell be back soon. She went quiet. He had to break the silence. He could hear his own breath in the receiver. He wanted to say something, so what was on his mind came out:
Funny that, about the big seeing. Do you know anyone else who gets it?
Neither do I.
It doesnt bother me, though. Its just good to talk to someone else about it, isnt it?
Thats how I feel. Im glad we talked about it. He was relieved at that. She didnt think it was all too strange. He reached out to turn off the TV, and the voice of a woman on the screen got louder as he leaned over. Pat heard it.
Is someone there with you? Im sorry, am I interrupting?
No, its just the telly. I turned it off. Suddenly it seemed too big a thing, turning off the telly, just to talk to her when theyd never spoken outside work hours, so he added I wasnt watching it anyway; just something to have on, you know, when you get back from work. She was still quiet on the other end, and he couldnt see her face, so he didnt know whether she was alright, or if maybe something had happened and he was the only one she could call.
Are you okay? I mean, has anything happened? Little beads of condensation formed on the cold plastic of the speaker as he waited for her to reply, so he wiped them off.
Your phone just made a funny noise. He didnt want to explain, so he just asked
Did it? without expecting a reply. Then she came out with it.
Can I come round? I mean, do you mind if I come round? He was too surprised to say anything but yes.
When she got there, he made a drink and she sat down opposite him.
Im sorry to drop in like this, I just wanted to talk. She didnt say what about, and he didnt want to ask her.
Oh, its a trial, sometimes. She said it like a statement everyone could agree with.
I know. Was all he could manage. She was obviously tired, but she was dressed well and he thought she looked good. He just stared for a few seconds, but couldnt think of anything else to say. She shifted her position to lean forward on the edge of the chair. She hadnt touched her drink. She said:
Id better go. And he thought right away that he must have done something wrong and he wanted to assure her:
No, really, its okay. But she stayed frozen, ready to stand up, so he added I mean it. I wasnt doing anything tonight. Just sitting in. This worked, and she picked up her cup and sipped. It was too hot to drink, really, but she sipped it anyway. Great props, he thought, drinks. What else do you do with your hands in company, if you dont smoke?
So is everything okay?
Its stupid really. I just wanted to get out of the house for a few minutes. I didnt think youd mind. She gave the impression of waiting to be asked to go on.
No, I dont mind at all. Go on its not stupid. I feel like that sometimes, but theres nobody near enough. He realised that this excluded her, but she didnt seem to notice. She made a tiny laugh:
Ha! I havent got anything to say, I just felt like some company. This was easier. At least he wouldnt have to handle a crisis.
Well, here I am! She laughed just a little at that, and shifted back into the chair, crossing her legs.
Dont you have someone? In your life, I mean? She could be quite direct, and although he was used to it at work, this was different; but her openness encouraged him.
No. I did have, but, you know, it didnt work out.
Oh. Im sorry. What about your sons mother? Do you still see her? Are you friendly? She asked these things innocently, but Peter felt she was testing out unfamiliar territory, and wondered if she was preparing herself for a breakup.
Its alright. It was a bit difficult at first, but its fine now. I hated her at first! He laughed, to show that it wasn't real hatred, but the ephemeral hatred of disappointment and hurt pride.
I can imagine. If Bob went off with my kids Id hate him. She took another few sips and looked into the cup. But thats never likely to happen. Again, this was an invitation to go further, to follow the thread into unfamiliar territory. But before he had a chance, she drank the rest of the mugful and stood up. Id better go, anyway. Thanks for the drink. He could feel the little bags under his eyes fill up, so he rubbed them and pretended to be tired.
Its okay, you dont have to go. But he knew this was inappropriate, and she knew, too; she didnt have to reply. So he just said: Okay, see you tomorrow.
Yeah. Thanks. And she smiled at him, and touched his arm. When he went to bed, later, he couldnt get to sleep for some time, but he wasnt troubled by it.
It was Friday. They met in the restaurant, and joked about small and big seeing, and about the appraisals. They never once mentioned last night, and he knew it wouldnt happen again. But they had something extra now, and thats how it was to stay. He was happy with that. On Monday, she helped him with a mailmerge from the company database, and he saw his address and telephone number flash by and neither of them said anything. On Tuesday, she told him that Bob was back, and on Wednesday they sat in the restaurant again and just talked.
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