Traffic was heavy on the motorway, according to the radio, as David set out on his morning commute. Since this commute, however, comprised eight steps from the kitchen to the spare bedroom, David didn’t care. These days the only jam he met in the morning was on his toast.
He pushed open the door to what was now his office, set his tea on the desk, and nudged the mouse to nudge the computer awake. He sat down and looked out into his garden. A robin was hovering, resting on the sky, as he pecked at the fat-ball in the bird feeder. David smiled.
He loved working from home.
He had thought it would be hell, that he would sit in his little room drowning slowly in a sea of isolation and bad wi-fi, and he had been wrong. The hell, he now realised, had been the forty-five previous years of his working life, in a series of jobs linked by the common thread that they had all been in the city centre, twenty gridlocked miles away.
He had risen in the dark for over nine months of every year, although none of his jobs had involved feeding livestock, delivering milk, or turning on the light in a lighthouse. He had slumped sleepily on crowded buses while people beside him rang other people to loudly tell them that they were on the bus. He had trudged to the office through the gale that habitually howled down the river, head bowed and one shoulder dipped as if he were trying to force open an invisible door. He had sat under harsh lighting and freezing air-conditioning. He had tried to concentrate while surrounded by shrill ringtones, barked laughter and loud conversations about Love Island, all of which are part of what is apparently called ‘the hum of activity’. He had put up with soul-draining drudgery, since drudgery was all there was.
Now as he worked he could listen to music, shout aloud at ludicrous emails, wear elf slippers. He never got rained on.
He didn’t see his workmates anymore, except on Zoom, but he didn’t miss them as much as he had thought he would, because he saw more of Margaret.
No longer did he leave the house before she had woken up. No longer did he go exhaustedly to bed at nine-thirty, leaving her to sit alone for the rest of the evening.
They now spent more time together than they had since they had been courting. They called themselves the Bubble Buddies, and walked together, laughed together, watched rubbish together. They hadn’t been as close for a long time.
David had been transformed from a gloomy man counting down the years to retirement to a happy man wondering if he need ever retire at all. He could stay doing this forever, maybe cutting down the number of days as the years passed.
He was fitter than he had been in decades. He walked every day. He hadn’t been to the pub for seven months. He hadn’t eaten a Chinese takeaway in over a year. He hadn’t had a Crunchie in fifteen months. He hadn’t –
He hadn’t had a Crunchie in fifteen months. And it had just hit him why.
He hadn’t been to the Childline box in fifteen months.
The Childline box in the office was a cardboard display like an old cinema usherette tray. It was stacked with chocolate and sweets, presumably donated by local shops, and had a little slot on the side where you could put in your money. On Tuesdays someone would come, refill the box and take the money away for the charity.
Monday in the office was free fruit day. Word would go around that the fruit had arrived and the young, health-conscious people he worked with would rush to fill bowls on their desk with bananas and grapes. David would ignore all of this, but on Tuesdays one or other of the young people would notify him when the Childline box had been re-stocked, and they would all watch and smile affectionately as he bolted from his desk with a fistful of coins (from his weekends, in the pub) to buy a chocolate bar for each day for the rest of the week. He always took whatever Crunchies were available, before moving on to Twirls or Lion Bars. His colleagues then would shrug off their health regimes and forage too from the box until all that remained were the Skittles, the confectionery version of the last kid picked for a football game.
David had done it to feed his inner child. That real children had benefited had been a happy by-product that he had never really thought about.
He thought about it now. Childline were no longer getting money from him. They were no longer getting money from any office in the city.
And at the worst possible time. He had read about the increased number of calls that they were taking. He imagined the stress of being trapped, now full time, with an aggressive parent. He imagined the stress of living with parents who were good and loving but who now were struggling with bills and unemployment, and whose frightened, furtive sobbing fed frightened, furtive sobbing in their kids. He imagined that there were things he couldn’t imagine.
He looked out of the window. The robin was now pecking contentedly at nuts that David had provided.
He turned to his computer, searched for the Childline page and clicked ‘Donate’.