The shadows thrown by the shiny cars that nobody owns begin to lengthen in the car park and the long seconds tick by, each second becoming, like the shadows, longer and longer, as the people in the office fidget and watch the seconds, watch the shadows, until the shadows melt into one another, becoming one shadow, and the seconds melt into one another and become five o’clock.
The people of the office stop being people of the office and become people of the shadows, then they become people of the cars, then the cars leave, taking the people and the shadows with them, and that’s when I stop looking out of the window and look at my computer screen and try to do some work.
At ten past five o’clock I stop trying, stop pretending. I surf the net a little, a term I hate almost as much as I imagine actual surfers hate it. A past-time that requires skill, patience and prowess suddenly hijacked to describe an activity that requires none of these things, and even calling it an ‘activity’ is something of a stretch.
The reality is that I monged the net. That’s more fitting.
We mong it.
Or pehaps Belm it. Maybe we are all belming the net.
I’m certainly no surfer.
I’m much more of a monger or a belmer.
We are all mostly mongers and belmers. Let’s just accept it and leave the surfers to surf in the piss and shit and panty pads of the mongers and the belmers.
It seems to make them happy.
It is now twenty past five.
The cleaners will be round soon and so will Christmas.
The man who runs the cleaning crew – the weird man with the chip on his shoulder and the built up shoe on his foot – he seems to have bought a shipping container full of festive scented cleaning products from a car boot or somewhere godawful like that, because every time the cleaners come round and start to spray and polish and dust it smells like they are spraying and polishing and dusting with fistfuls of mince pies, mulled wine and Christmas cake. This is barely tolerable throughout the month of December, but you try getting a snoutful of cinnamon and mixed peel in the heart of a muggy, overcast, late Summer evening and you’ll know the true bleakness that a misplaced seasonal scent can bring.
Unfortunately this also has the effect of making Christmas feel like a shiny desk or freshly vacuumed carpet tiles, thus ruining two things for the price of one.
The one good thing about the cleaning crew is the girl who comes around and cleans our desks. She’s what I suppose people describe as ‘kooky’. Mid twenties or something, shy, good looking but not too good looking, not the kind of good looking that knows it’s good looking and blasts those good looks into your face like a cheap can of Yuletide furniture polish. No, I just like the look of her. She has a nice face and a lop sided grin. She’s Russian, I think, or something like that. I haven’t asked her where she’s from because in this post Brexit day and age it feels like you’re asking where in the world she’s going to be shipped back to in the uncomfortably near future.
And in a weird way I feel racist when I ask people where they’re from, like I know they’re not from here, even though they’re here now. Kooky girl is here and English is only a label, a label I feel very neutral towards, so if she’s not English then that’s fine, let’s leave it at that.
I look at the computer screen full of icons. Screen icons, but none of them are Faye Dunaway or Charlton Heston or James Dean. They’re little pictures of folders, printers, disks and drives.
The stuff of dreams.
I want to smoke.
I don’t consider myself a smoker but I smoke. I know I do. I can go weeks without smoking but then I’ll be walking, walking, and I’ll walk into a petrol station and buy a blue tin of small, thin, tight packed cheap cigarillos and I’ll smoke them all, loving them and hating them in equal measure.
That’s what I want to smoke now.
I want to push back from the desk, lift the ankle of one leg up to rest across the knee of the other leg, tip back in my chair and smoke a cheap fucking cigarillo.
I take a mouthful of very cold coffee look at the screen some more.
Got. To. Work.
I’m focussing, concentrating…
Something lands on my desk with a clatter. It bounces, rolls, comes to rest against the keyboard.
It is a sweet of some kind. Oblong, dark purple, gold twists at either end. There is writing on the sweet but I can’t understand it.
A foreign sweet.
I stare at the sweet for a second, slightly dumbfounded, and then I hear breathing.
I look up.
I press back in my chair.
An enormous man is standing next to me, grinning.
He seems to be as wide as he is tall. Fat, but in a solid, enormously powerful way. He is bristly, somehow bristly all over, like how a hibernating bear might look if you’d gone at it with a pair of beard clippers for a midwinter prank.
He is panting.
He wears a tatty grey t-shirt and tatty grey shorts, tatty grey socks and brown sandals. He has a great sheaf of bin bags tucked into the waste band of his shorts, cheap bin bags, gossamer thin, wafting in the slightest breeze like a dead girl’s hair underwater.
He is grinning and panting.
He says “Party.”
His accent is thick, Eastern European.
I pick up the sweet and hand it back to the enormous man, presuming he has dropped it, but he shakes his huge head, waves his hands.
He says, “Pliz.”
Then he says, “Party.”
I look at the enormous man, then I look at the sweet again.
I hear him say, “Pliz.”
He wants me to eat the sweet.
I don’t want to.
My training kicks in. I call it training, but in reality it is just that drilled-in warning that my mother used to say whenever I left the house.
Don’t Take Sweets From Strangers.
To be fair, I was never offered sweets by anyone as a kid. Maybe I wasn’t attractive enough. Maybe I’ve matured into a more appealing target.
So this was it. This was the moment she had warned me about, all those years ago.
The Stranger was here, offering me his sweets.
My stomach clamped shut. My mouth went dry.
I shook my head. I said, “I can’t eat this. Sorry.”
I slid the sweet across the desk towards him.
The enormous man looks shocked. He says, “Pliz!”
I try to think of something, so I say, “If I eat this… I’ll… I’ll die.”
This is what my subconscious was really telling me. If you eat the sweet you will end up bummed and murdered and dumped in a ditch on the moors.
The enormous man is confused so I perform an elaborate pantomime of eating the sweet and dying and the enormous man looks shocked.
He says, “Ah! Dia… diabeets?”
Fuck it. In for a penny. “Yes! I have diabeets. If I eat this sweet I will die of diabeets. Sorry.”
The enormous man looks saddened. He shrugs, picks up the unwanted sweet and puts it back in the pocket of his tatty grey shorts, where it will nestle in the dark with all the other sweets, warmed by the heat of his thick, bristly genitalia that hangs heavily just millimeters away, jostling the sweets for space within the crowded confines of his shorts.
I’m staring at his shorts so I look away.
I say “Sorry” again.
And then he lunges at me.
It looks like he’s going for his gun.
I let out a small scream and twitch convulsively.
He sprays Christmas spray across my desk and starts to wipe it vigorously, pinning me against the desk.
“Sorreee…” he breathes.
I don’t move.
He changes the liner of my bin, removing one cobweb thin bin liner, replacing it with another.
“Sorreee….” he whispers.
I don’t move.
He lumbers across to a Henry vacuum, fires it up, then slowly hoovers around my work space.
“Sorreee…” he pants.
I don’t move.
He switches off Henry. He says, “Thankyoubye.”
He lumbers away, whistling very quietly through his teeth.
I don’t move.
I want a trained counsellor to say, ‘show me on the doll where he touched you’.
Over the next few days I hear from other people who are terrified of the enormous man, or ‘The Candyman’ as he has come to be known.
He apparently likes to tell people that they can go home, as though he is giving them permission. Or he’ll say ‘party’ and start to do this weird little dance. Then he’ll laugh hugely and slap their back or squeeze their arm like it is his little joke. This is fine, maybe it’s just his way of being friendly, but it really does feel more sinister than this.
I talk to Mike TV.
Mike TV is an American who works on my shift sometimes. He’s fairly new but he’s catching on quick, he’s realised that he’s accidentally taken a job in a freak show.
Mike TV is shaking his head. “Dude, The Candyman is freaking me out! I mean, there’s some freaky dudes in this place but The Candyman is something else. Does he give you candy?”
I say, “He tried, once, but I told him it would kill me. I said I had diabetes.”
Mike TV looks impressed. “Wow. I wish I’d thought of that.”
He opens a desk drawer. It is full of sweets.
I say, “Shit! There must be… 200 sweets in there! What do they taste like?”
Mike TV shrugs. “Search me. I’m not gonna eat one. Some of the other guys call ‘em ‘Rape Sweets’. You eat one of those and you’ll wake up naked in a dumpster. Office Brian ate one. He says they’re full of some kind of booze. He felt spaced out for the rest of his shift. Drunk or something. Nah, man, I ain’t eatin’ these Mickey Finns.”
I feel a bit bad. Here’s this bloke, cleaning offices on minimum wage, trying to be friendly by handing out sweets to the people he works with. He only wants to fit in. And how do we thank him?
By insinuating he’s a bit rapey.
I decide I’m going to try and make an effort with The Candyman.
This plan goes out of the window the very next day. I’m working and Mike TV comes into the office looking shaken.
He stumbles over to my desk.
He says, “Jesus, Luci. The Candyman just cornered me.”
“What did he do?”
He says, “Well, I was in the bathroom, takin’ a piss, and suddenly he’s standing there, grinning at me, watchin’ me, an’ I say to him, ‘Erm, like, dude, I’m tryin’ to take a piss here’, so he offers me a fuckin’ piece of candy, so I say, ‘Thanks an’ all, but I kinda got my hands full here’ so he just smiles a creepy smile, walks over, AND SLIPS THE CANDY INTO MY FUCKIN’ POCKET!”
I shudder. “What, your… your shirt pocket?”
Mike TV shakes his head. “Nah, dude. My fuckin’… trouser… pocket.”
I whisper, “He… he put sweets… into your pocket… in the toilet… while you were… pissing?”
Mike TV nods.
I say, “That’s pretty fucked up.”
Mike TV says, “I know. That’s it, man. I’m done with that guy. You just don’t invade personal space like that, y’know? You just don’t do it!”
I say, “Damn right. Wait. Maybe… maybe he knows it creeps us out? Maybe it’s, like, his thing, you know? Maybe it’s how he gets his kicks?”
Mike TV shudders. “Dude, you ain’t makin’ me feel any better.”
The cleaning becomes more intimate.
The Candyman reaches around me like he’s giving me a reachround, and when I try to move he says, “NO SORRY NO! IS NO TROUBLE!” and sprays Christmas over the desk and over my screen and over my hands and then he wipes, wipes, wipes. He whistles through his teeth, quietly, hiss hiss hiss, then he will vacuum the carpet beneath me, the bottom of my chair, my shoes, my ankles, my shins, the long probing nose of Henry sucking where The Candyman tells him to suck.
It is horrible.
I start to realise that The Candyman’s jokes and actions are little set pieces – I hear him doing the same thing to other people in the office when they happen to be on my shift. The squeezings, the sucking, the wiping, all are practiced, all are part of a repertoire. I imagine The Candyman in the quiet hours of the afternoon, shirt off, practicing his moves in a full length mirror like Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver:
“You can go home.” (produces bottle of glass cleaner, squirts.)
“Party.” (Does the creepy little dance.)
“Diabeet?” (Hurls strange foreign sweet with deadly force)
“Pliz.” (forces people to eat his rape candy.”
I am now frightened of The Candyman.
Next evening he is not there.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
I am on my own so I pop my earphones in and try to get some work done.
But then I feel a hand on my arm.
A huge hand.
It is The Candyman.
He is grinning. He says something.
I pull out my earphones and say, “Sorry, what?”
He says, You go home. It ok. I say so.”
He is grinning that idiot grin, standing over me, his large belly brushing my shoulder. I am trapped against my desk.
I say, “Ha. Ha ha. Yeah…”
His big hand is massaging my upper arm. I can feel the huge strength of the man. He reminds me of a Turkish wrestler, or one of those formidable masseurs who look like they could easily pull every single muscle in your body from the bone, like a roast chicken, and serve it to you on a plate.
He says, “You go home.”
He is still smiling, but… is it a threat? Is this a Brexit thing? Does he think that I voted to send him home, and this is his subtle way of saying, ‘Fuck you. YOU go home, I’m staying.’
I suddenly want to know where he is from. I want to know where home is, where he is sending me. In five years time will I be cleaning an office in Budapest, handing out Mini Mars bars to startled office workers and asking them to ‘Party’?
I feel unusual.
The Candyman suddenly laughs heartily and releases me. He slaps my back and walks away, wiping and cleaning and dusting.
I wipe the sweat from my forehead with a hand that reeks of Christmas.
The next evening I wait until half past five comes around, then I flee.
I tip toe down the corridor to a fire escape, creep down the stairs, and see a figure lurking in the shadows…
He says, “Jesus, dude! You scared the livin’ crap out of me!”
It’s Mike TV.
I say, “What the fuck are you doing down here??”
He says, “What do you think I’m doing? I’m hidin’ from that big freaky bastard. What are YOU doin’ down here?”
I say, “Me too.”
We sit on a dusty step and get out our phones.
We scroll through news channels, read about Immigration and ISIS.
We are an American and an Englishman cowering in the gloom while a powerful foreign invader prowls the office, armed with dubious chemicals, taking pride in the domain where he rules for an hour very night, dragging Henry by the nose like a squire, his pockets bulging with offerings that say to those he crushes, “I Come In Peace.”
We have tasted our own medicine and it tastes of Christmas.