surreal pencil drawing

“I wonder if he’ll notice I've become incredibly small?” he thought, trying to end the meeting early by asking: “Is that all you need me for?”

“Yes. I’ll see you at the next appraisal. Thank you, Peter.” Peter walked backwards out of the room, aware of the absurdity of the gesture—not 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 had he 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 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 shoved the doors open—both of them, because he liked to do that—someone tiny squeaked a minuscule protest and his vision snapped back into normal.

“Hey, how did it go?”
“Oh okay, I suppose. Nothing I wasn’t expecting.”
“Wish me luck.”
“Yeah, good luck. See you later, Ben.” Ben’s appraisal usually went about the same as his own, but Peter knew that Ben never found himself at the wrong end of a telescope. He’d tried to talk to him about it once, but the incomprehension was so complete he knew right away that Ben 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 printing process clearly visible. He could see an unlikely amount of detail, and knew that no matter how long he spent looking, he wouldn’t be late, because time flooded these sunlit corridors like golden treacle in the afternoon and anyway, 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, if she still smoked. Pat was friendly with Peter, and showed him how to work certain things on the computers when he couldn’t 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 “we’re having trouble with our system today” and mostly, they believed him, except for one caller who had asked him what email programme he used and he didn’t have a clue so just said “it’s our own system” but the caller wasn’t fooled, Peter knew they’d seen through his excuse and it left him feeling stupid. So Pat sometimes handled his email for him, and in return 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.

“Children well?”
“You know. Fine.”
“As usual. Fine.” Bob worked away from home as a consultant engineer, and he was away now.
“He’s due back anytime,” she said. Peter felt disappointed; knew this was inappropriate so smiled and said good because he didn’t 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 don’t pass comments about things like that. They just respond to them without knowing. He’d read about body language as part of his training, and added a few things of his own, and that was one of them: that if the little bags under people’s eyes swelled up, then something was going on in there they weren’t revealing. He liked to feel he could offer a bit of a support to Pat when her husband was away, but he didn’t fancy her or anything. Just liked her. Still, he felt redundant when Pat’s 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 about while you’re skirting around towards other stuff. Eventually, near the end of lunch, he built himself up to broach the subject:

“I remember when I was small, my Mum took me to the doctor because I was always talking about “small-seeing”—that’s what I called it, small-seeing—but he said there was nothing wrong with me.” Peter thought he’d try this route, because he wanted to talk to someone about it, although it wasn’t a problem, he just wanted to know that other people had the same thing, and he thought that presenting it as a childhood thing would make it easier to accept, and he could pretend he’d grown out of it if he didn’t 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! I’ve 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 he was letting an opportunity go by he corrected himself, “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 “You’ve gone a bit quiet, Pat. I’m not gone in the head, you know.”

“I know. I get something funny too, sometimes, but it’s different to you.”
“Really? You never said.”
“Why should I? We never talked about things like this before.” Looking at the clock, she got up, cut things short. “I’ve got to go, I’ll be late.” He was geared up for a detailed chat, but that finished it. They didn’t have the kind of casual friendship that would have allowed him to walk back with her and continue the conversation, so he just agreed:

“Okay, I’d better go, too.” They never planned to meet, it just happened at work sometimes, so arranging to continue the conversation next day would have been pushy because it was not that kind of friendship, because she was married and they only worked together, nothing else. They never called each other from home, or had any other contact.

All the rest of the afternoon, Peter read the manual for his email programme, and managed to send several emails successfully. 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 couldn’t change the channel or turn it off, no matter how may times his eyelids stayed closed for just a millisecond 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 construction staff who had been there for at least a year, and the toilets stank and children were always crying, so he kept going. At home 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 what he’d agreed to do the other day in his appraisal. He sat at the desk, staring at it, resisting the extra responsibility. His only new email consisted of one of the messages he sent yesterday, bounced back to him with an incomprehensible explanation explaining why it didn’t get to its destination. He made the necessary calls and then called Pat.

“Email?” she asked.
“Yep.” He confirmed. She came in, edited the address, and sent the mail. Wanting to hang on to her so they could talk, he said:
“Just show me how to do that 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 didn’t know how to bring up another subject. She watched him and this time he did it right, forgetting that he’d almost taught himself yesterday, remembering that you don’t put the person’s 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 yesterday’s 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. It’s hard to describe. I’d better get back now, but I’ll see you in the restaurant.” She’d given out this little snippet, then immediately retreated before he could react. He got back to the keyboard and sent another email.

As promised, over lunch she picked up the thread. “I used to get—well, I still do, actually—I get these kind of colours in my eyes.” Pat didn’t seem embarrassed by her experiences, like he did about small-seeing. She described it as if she were talking about eating or something. “And they sort of—they umm—it’s 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 fascinated but didn’t say anything and so, unable to read him she backed into dismissal:

“It’s nothing really. Just me, I suppose. Too much telly!” Peter laughed, like he was supposed to, quickly stopping the conversation becoming too serious, but then he asked her:

“No, I want to know more. What’s it like?”
“What’s it like? I don’t 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. It’s just there.” Aware of the mild intimacy this conversation implied—that they were both telling each other things they hadn’t told anyone else—Peter felt obliged to ask:

“Have you talked about it to Bob?”
”Oh, no! He’d just laugh or say something like ‘that’s typical of you!’” which made Peter wonder what else she’d told her husband that would make him say something like that. He had a fleeting moment of panic; panic based on the idea that he could be talking to someone who hides the fact that she takes these out-of-the-ordinary experiences too seriously; someone who—under the coping façade of everyday—is actually lost in a place with no connection to anyone else’s world, which—of course—is what he’s afraid of, so silently he told himself no, don’t think that. Instead, think here’s someone else who understands, and please stop thinking oh no, this person’s going to pull me under with her weirdness concealed beneath a very thin normality. Please stop thinking that, he said in his head. When he was reasoning internally like this, he had to be polite or else it became an argument that took over and stopped him from talking. All this came rapidly, densely, and his mouth was going dry so to stop it all from escalating he asked her again:

“So what’s it like?”
”You know, I told you.” And he realised it was his turn to talk now. She’d let out a bit of herself, and he had to return the favour. But the words stopped flowing and he tailed off too soon:

“Well, with me, it’s different. I get this any time… it’s like I said, like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.” 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.” That’s what they called the company appraisals; right now, the word felt wrong but that’s what they called it, from some old joke, he supposed. She picked up her cup. He heard her swallow two mouthfuls. She put down the cup and it sounded too loud on the table. He examined a minute chip on the rim. She held on to the handle, 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 know.”
“I mean I’m getting it now.” She shrank in his vision, and then appeared enormous.
“Do you mean everything seems huge, and you feel really small? Now?”
“Yeah, that”s what’s happening now. The whole room just expanded, and I feel like an ant.”
“And you get this at monthlies as well?”
“Yes.” That word again.
“Just like me, then. Only I’ve never told anyone about it.”
“Neither have I.”

With this, they got stuck. Where to go now, for the conversation to be casual again? Or should they just keep talking anyway? Or let it drop and not mention it again? The exchange implied common ground that wasn’t apparent before, and it bound their histories closer, but he didn’t want her to think it meant anything. Or he didn’t want to feel disappointed if she didn’t want it to mean anything. He tried to be casual, but he’d waited a long time to talk to someone about this. She tried to break the tension:

“Saves us talking about email!”
“Suppose so!” He smiled, but still felt too serious, and they were stuck. He could see she welcomed the chance to talk about what must have been, sometimes, a troubling thing like it was for him—the kind of problem you could never explain to a doctor without feeling stupid or worrying about what tablet they’d give you, but where else could you go? Who would listen? Neither of them knew what to say, but lunchtime suddenly ran out and people were leaving, so they had to leave too.

“See you later, then.”
“Okay.” But there was only the end of the day, so “later” must mean tomorrow.

He got a call that night. At first he thought it was someone trying to sell him something:

“Where did you get my number…” then he realised it was Pat and resorted to one of the techniques he used at work when he got a call, didn’t recognise the voice, and had to pretend he knew who it was while he was thinking who is this? and had to fill the space with a noncommittal phrase but instead, came out with one of his father’s jokingly pompous quips “oh, to what do I owe the honour?” She just said:

“The personnel files, I hope you don’t mind. I found your number there. I just wanted to talk a bit—I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“No, it’s okay, I don’t 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, don’t think about it.

“Nah. He’s had to stay longer than he thought.” Under the flippant tone 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 wasn’t sure how to give one out, but he tried:

“Oh dear. You going to be alright?”
“Yeah, I’m used to it.” He felt uncomfortable that she seemed to be confiding in him, and he didn’t know how to respond. Without the familiar work surroundings or shared jobs, their conversation seemed unnaturally loaded.

“But he’s due back soon?” He was drifting off the point; at least, that’s how it felt, even though she hadn’t yet stated a point.

“Yeah, he’ll be back soon.” She went quiet. He had to break the silence. He could hear his own breath. He wanted to say something, so what was on his mind came out clumsily:

“Funny that, about the big seeing. Do you know anyone else who gets it?”
“Neither do I.”
“It doesn’t bother me, though. It’s just good to talk to someone else, isn’t it?”
“That’s how I feel. I’m glad we talked about it.” He was relieved at that. She didn’t think it was 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? I’m sorry, am I interrupting?”
“No, it’s just the telly. I turned it off.” Suddenly it seemed too big a thing, turning off the telly, just to talk to her when they’d never spoken outside work hours, so he explained:

“I wasn’t 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 couldn’t see her face, so he didn’t 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?” For some reason the heating had gone off, and little beads of condensation formed on the cold phone as he waited for her to reply, so he wiped them off.

“Your phone just made a funny noise.” He didn’t 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. No, I mean, come round”.

When she got there, he made a drink and she sat down opposite him.

“I’m sorry to drop in like this, I just wanted to talk.” She didn’t say what about, and he didn’t want to ask.

“Oh, it’s 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 had dressed well and he thought she looked good, better than at work. This jarred his conscience, and he wished he could unthink it. He just stared for a few seconds, but couldn’t think of anything else to say. She shifted her position to lean forward on the edge of the chair. She hadn’t touched her drink. She said:

“I’d better go.” Right away, he thought he’d done something wrong so wanted to assure her:

“No, really, it’s okay.” But she stayed frozen, ready to stand up, so he added “I mean it. I wasn’t 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 don’t smoke?

“So is everything okay?”
“It’s stupid really. I just wanted to get out of the house for a few minutes. I didn’t think you’d mind.” She gave the impression of waiting to be asked to go on.

“Ha! I haven’t got anything to say, I just felt like some company.” This was easier. At least he wasn’t about to be faced with a crisis.

“Well, here I am!” She smiled just a little at that, and shifted back into the chair, crossing her legs.
“Don’t you have someone? In your life, I mean?’ She could be 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 didn’t work out.” He mocked the familiar cliché with air quotes.

“Oh. I’m sorry. What about your son’s mother? Do you still see her? Are you friendly?” She asked these things innocently, but Peter felt she was sounding things out, and wondered if she was preparing herself for a breakup.

“It’s alright. It was a bit difficult at first, but it’s 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 I’d hate him…” she took another few sips and looked into her cup, “but that’s never likely to happen.” Again, this was an invitation to go further, to follow the thread into unknown territory. But before he had a chance, she drank the rest and stood up. “I’d better go, anyway. Thanks for the drink.” He could feel the little bags under his eyes filling up with disappointment, so he rubbed them and pretended to be tired.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to go…” but he knew this was inappropriate, and she knew, too; she didn’t have to reply. So to put things straight he finished it with: “okay, see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” And she smiled at him, and touched his arm. When he went to bed, later, he couldn’t get to sleep for some time, but he wasn’t troubled by it.

It was Friday. They met in the restaurant, and joked about small and big seeing, and about the appraisals. They never mentioned last night, and he knew it wouldn’t happen again. But they had something extra now, and that’s 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.