“Empty”: a short story

It’s the desperate ache for chocolate cake at ten in the morning that makes you realise: You’ve become one of those people. One of those people who puts lipstick on in the mirror while stopped at a red light. Who stands on the train platform early in the morning reciting morning affirmations and visualisations – I have a happy life; I have a happy life – because you do not have time to do it anywhere else. You’re now the person for whom you used to shake your head sadly. Now, the only relief you get from your predictable workday comes in the form of a different flavoured chocolate frog at three o’clock in the afternoon, which you buy at the same newsagent downstairs in your building.

Your five senses are starving.

Last week you were possessed by the need to buy music. A wide variety – jazz, world music and, most of all, top of the charts music that you took home and turned up as loud as the neighbourhood would permit so you could lie on your bed, elbows propping you up, singing as if you were fifteen again. The need had ripped through you, so demanding, so non-negotiable, that it had made you gasp.

Today, it’s chocolate cake.

You find this bizarre. At home, on weekends, and during the rapidly diminishing fragments of your ‘real’ life, you don’t even like cake. You’ve never been one for sweet things. Chocolate, no. Cake, no. Biscuits, no. And yet, here at work, locked in this glass prison, it’s all you can think about.

In the mornings when you get off the train, you walk through the subway with hundreds of others. Everyone going in the same direction, with the same heavy shoulders and faces. Pity the poor soul who dares to walk against the flow. They are shoved and glared at and silently tsk tsked. The masses remind you of scenes you’ve seen in the movies of rats abandoning ships. The irony of course is that here, everyone is running toward the danger. Slowly, little by little, they are sinking with the ship. This morning you wondered: do rats have more sense than humans?

You despise the person you’ve become and wonder where the real you went. What happened to the freckly girl who wanted to work outdoors? Or the gumboot clad smiling young thing that wanted to tend to animals? Where is the painter? The poet?

You tap angrily at your keyboard, trying to ignore the chocolate cake calling, and remember how this was only supposed to be a temporary stop for you. Yes, you realised when you took the job that you were selling your soul for money. But it was temporary. It was just until you had made enough money to do the things you really wanted to do.

But you don’t feel you have any more money now than you did when you were studying. Or when you were working part time just to support your dreams of writing and creating… dancing… drumming… singing. You seem to acquire bills just as fast as you can pay them off. No difference really. Except now, you no longer see sunshine from Monday to Friday, except for the brief moment you spend rushing to get lunch. Instead, you must be content with wisps of pale light on the way to work, and the darkness of night from the train window on the way home. If you’re lucky, crimson sunsets.

The train. It’s as familiar to you now as your lounge room. The same people. The same briefcases, ties, sunglasses, earphones and books. Books. Always books. Everyone trying to escape. To pretend it’s not real—this life they have created.

And that’s what hurts the most. You created this for yourself.

Yesterday a backpacker jumped on the express. Right in the middle of the suits she stood, all long brown legs and shorts. You wondered where she could be going in peak hour, and your jaw unhinged a little with the longing. You want to see foreign lands, feel coloured silk against your cheeks and taste bitter coffee in mosaic houses. To see glaring hard sun bounce off sand dunes and taste soft summer rain.

The chocolate cake’s ferocious grip will not let go. It will not be placated.

I need chocolate cake, you murmur. No one looks up from their computer, although you feel that they have heard you.

Where can I get some cake, you say, louder. An eyelid flicks in your direction. A slight movement of the shoulders. The Shingle Inn, is the reply.

Of course. You hesitate, consult with the craving, now stronger than ever. You click absently at your mouse and bat the idea around in your mind as your cat does with his toy mouse.

Decision. I’m going out, you declare.

You have their attention now, although the chattering keyboards only pause briefly. A silent warning that you had better be back soon. You’re on billable time, you know.

So you write against your name on the whiteboard to tell everyone where you’re going.

Out: 10. Back: 10:30. Destination: M/Tea.

You smile crazily at your shorthand for Morning Tea. M/Tea. You have written ‘empty’, without even meaning to.

But you can fill this hole with cake. That’s what it’s come down to. Your sense of taste can at least be quietened for another day. Or, at least, a moment between the monotonous minutes of your work.

You carry the piece of cake in its paper bag like a thief as you head back to work. Workmen, as least forty of them, are on smoko. They sit on the hot steps of a building under construction, sunglasses on, staring at silken legs and blouses, shovelling large handfuls of white bread sandwiches into their mouths. You are sharply envious of this simple joy of sitting in the sun.

You meet the eyes of one of them. What depths of life has he seen that you have not?

At the next corner, a book shop. Four floors. You can actually smell the new books as the air conditioning tumbles out of the front door and onto the street. Without thinking, a detour. Now inside, you feel the potential of the other worlds, held within each book, embrace you like a lost lover. Gently, they scold you. Where have you been?

You drift up and down aisles. Books, floor to ceiling and beyond. Crisp, shiny covers. The intense colours of the photos draw you and you ponder the faces of Indian children, fat ginger cats, and foods the colours of summer. You touch many. Open several. Drink in all.

Before you leave, you buy over one hundred dollars worth of books, knowing even as you hand over your credit card, that they are destined to join the pile of books stacked neatly beside your bed, waiting for you to give them your time.

But this time it will be different.

(This short story won the Redbubble short story contest under the theme ‘Unleashed’ and is published in their first anthology.)

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3 comments on ““Empty”: a short story

  1. Jun says:

    it wasn’t a chocolate cake that i craved, but a good story. stumbled upon urs inadvertantly, and i am blissfully contented 🙂 keep up the good work!

    • Joanne says:

      Thanks Jun. Chocolate cake does sound a tad more appealing than Goji berries in trifle! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

  2. Eileen says:

    Joanne I love your story. For me, it’s not chocolate cake, but the feeling of sand under my toes or the intoxicating smell of horse! 🙂 Have a great day.

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