I suppose you could call it a bunker. It’s underground – protective too. It’s the place where I chose to retreat. It’s the place where the interminable lifestyle commitments halt. I can finally get on with my work.
Linda had given birth to the boy. Our third child. Things at home had reduced my focus overnight. Any thought of work was immediately shattered by the wailing of the new arrival. The constant need for attention levelled any time I had for client accounts and the work-flow solution I was trying to work on.
Since my paternity leave began, I was forced to work from home - a casualty of the office’s new commitment to employee work/life balance. However much I tried to dispute it, they insisted that I wouldn’t be allowed into the office to work for at least three months. I tried to protest – daily emails to my line Manager and late nights at the desk to prove how busy I was. They all came to nothing. The company was trying to prove that they cared about their workforce, but by forcing me to suffer among the clamour of children, they effectively reduced my job satisfaction until it was all but burnt out.
The girls, older than their brother and with fully functioning vocabularies, prodded me with constant, irrelevant questions. My daughters changed in the space of a few days from a source of pride to a point of loathing. I snarled at them to keep away, but they kept returning. I could feel the urge to physically restrain them starting to rise. I felt violence towards them and their unreasonable pursuit of my concentration.
We would receive visitors, daily. They were all intent on playing with the baby for irritatingly long periods of time, throughout which I would have to be present. Linda would insist that I sit among them, playing the happy father role, making soft, and reassuring sounds in the direction of my offspring. It was a PR exercise and I was the hired performer. I couldn’t wait to get back to work, but I was only a fortnight into the paternity hell.
Linda herself was a living, breathing and squawking nightmare. Her ludicrous insistence on my not working from home compounded my belief that she and I were destined to part, sooner rather than later. My work motivation should have been something for her to celebrate. It was, after all, the source of all her fashionable trinkets, the foundation of our mortgage and the spring from where our two cars and five-bedroom maisonette sprung. Her complete lack of gratitude forced me underground.
She looked me in the eye on the day I left. It felt like the first eye contact we’d made in over ten years of marriage. As hers settled on mine, our pupils locked over a brittle distance, I realised that there was nothing between us any longer. I felt only alienation as we faced one another. The air between us had less substance than the air breezing in through the open window. I decide to leave, with immediate effect.
Carrying a shovel on the tube was undignified. I felt as though I were carrying a corpse, as the evening revellers eyed me in my pinstripe, suited and booted. Half drunk and ready for clubbing, a City worker with the equipment of a manual labourer was possibly an incongruous image. I stared back at them as though asking exactly what it was that they found so interesting. Shovel in hand; I suppose I may have looked quite intimidating.
I found the site immediately. In fact, I had pondered using it for some time in the preceding months. The night of the dig was simply a consolidation of all my hopes and dreams. The first downward motion of the spade felt glorious. It fell directly through a crack in the paving slabs and with a smile on my face I prised it from its position, revealing sandy, clay-heavy earth beneath it.
It was a devil to dig through. From nine in the evening, I dug for twelve hours and on the twelfth I finally stood back and evaluated what I had done. A chamber underneath the city streets. Three metres wide, three metres long and two metres deep, I could stand up, just. When I climbed in with my torch and pulled the paving slab back over the entrance, I ensured I could see out of the crack. Looking up from one side, I was able to see the sky-scraper that housed my offices. It loomed over my new tomb like a proud parent. Several skyscrapers were visible, if I craned my neck, built on foundations at the level of my subterranean body and shooting upwards on stony xylem, puncturing clouds and tormenting the heavens.
I stood for five hours, dreaming as I stared at the skyscrapers from my position under the ground. My fellow City workers trod the path above me as the sun rose, their footsteps a persistent stomp. My heartbeat timed itself to align with their shoes as they hit the tarmac in a strolling rhythm. When they had passed, after the rush hour, the sound of the tube trains beneath me formed an occasional white noise, both shrill and bass heavy, The sound of it filled me with joy and the smell of the soil made me dizzy.
From my position, I could see into a telephone box at street level. In it, the images of porn stars were tacked as desperate advertisements for nearby whores. But as the skyscrapers waved in the wind above me and I felt the warmth in my heart, the soil smell filling my lungs, the sluttish bikini-girls above phone numbers transformed into angels. An aura clung to the edges of each calling card and the girls within turned from lingerie-tarts into ethereal forms. White-tinged angels, all of them looked upwards to the window of my office.
Soon, as I began to taste God in the back of my throat, they left the two-dimensional refines of the cards. One by one, they flew upwards, like smoke-wisps on a breeze around they phone box. Slowly they ascended until they reached the sixth-floor window at which I would sit when my period of leave ended. They entered through a ventilation grid, calling for me to follow them.
When they had gone, a train bumped noisily along the tracks beneath me in time with my pulse, the wheels in perfect synchronicity as they railed along the veins of the tube line. I thought of the angels as I looked upward to the paradise of my office space. I began to count, very slowly, counting second by second and minute by minute, measuring the time evenly and with certainty, counting away the leave, waiting until I could get back to work,