There wasn’t anything to see. Not even a crack of light and it was cruelly hot. The smell of decay was sickening the back of her throat. Heavy and cloying in its dense sweetness. She felt like a nesting bird, sweltering on the matted filth. But she had no choice and it was impossible to resist the urge to panic. Liberation would come eventually. She tried to focus on being saved.
* * * *
“Jamie how many times do I have to tell you about the recycling? It’s so bloody simple. Glass, tin, plastic and card in the blue bin and everything else in the green.”
“And can you just rinse stuff under the tap before you bin it?”
Jamie’s consumption of microwave meals perturbed Sal. The plastic waste his habit generated was immense. Meals and supplementary ‘sides’ – coleslaw, olives, manifestations of couscous were guzzled wantonly.
Jamie swung his courier bag over his shoulder and nudged his way past her to retrieve his bike from the hall. Such a free spirit, Jamie. She thought. Not for Jamie the hermetically sealed deadened silence and sanitised cleanliness of an office. There he was out on his bike, day in day out, his own boss. He styled himself as an earth warrior, mentioned regularly the zero-carbon footprint of his job, wore his hair in dreads and was tattooed in the verses of Tibetan monks. All this made it even more perplexing to Sal as to why he couldn’t figure out, or was simply wilfully ignoring the recycling arrangements.
Following Jamie’s departure Sal spent ten minutes taking out various recyclables from the general bin, rinsing them under the tap and redistributing them in the correct vessels. Afterwards she drained her coffee, switched off all the lights and followed him out of the front door.
Sal’s office had made elaborate arrangements for recycling. In each of the kitchens on the floor the surfaces had holes for the disposal of various items. These measures went some way to soothe Sal’s anxiety, but she often observed that colleagues mixed up the bins with the wrong components. A source of great frustration. It also upset her that the office had regular clear outs where items would be discarded in the large dumpsters in the basement. Piles of magazines, books, plastic document wallets and files abandoned without a second thought to the charity shops looking for donations. She tried not to think about the gratuitous waste.
Once every three months Sal donated blood. The NHS’s Blood and Transplant unit was a reassuring fixture on her empty calendar. She approved of the perfunctory manner of the nurses and their worker-drone like efficiency. Donating blood was a smooth operation dissected into various stages, the flow through which felt neat and calculated. She had donated at church halls and mobile units across the capital. They were always warm, light and filled with the blandly inoffensive tunes favoured by Heart FM. Sal was also on the organ donation register opting to donate everything after her death – even her irises. The idea of recycling her body made her feel worthy.
At the flat that evening Sal attempted to get her housemate Paula on board with her recycling campaign.
“I don’t know why you worry about all this Sal. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Paula was a hip young thing who worked for a fledgling app company. She had been enjoying the nineties revival look for several years now, and was known for wearing dainty crop tops under chunky knit cardigans even in winter. Alongside Paula and Jamie, Sal felt frumpy and irrelevant. She was surprised that they took her on as a housemate, but had stumped up an obscene amount of cash for the deposit and later discovered that the month’s rental payment had hinged on her funds.
“Doesn’t it kill you to think about it though? All the plastic in the oceans. The hundreds of years it takes to decompose. Have you heard about the plastic island floating around in the Pacific?”
“Yeah, I think I saw something about it in that Leonardo DiCaprio documentary.”
“But didn’t it give you sleepless nights?” Sal looked incredulous.
“Not really. I mean, it’s not great, but we’re carbon neutral at work and I don’t take flights that often. Could be worse.”
“Well at least you can get the recycling in the right bloody bins unlike Jamie.”
“Yep. That, I can do.”
Sal noted Paula’s disengagement. She had hoped to galvanise more support in dealing with Jamie’s lax attitude to the bins, but Paula was more interested in eating her fishcakes in front of The Great British Bake Off.
Sal climbed the stairs leaving the others in the living room. She always went to bed first, at around nine, preferring the company of her laptop. But in the last few months her alone time had turned from Netflix binges to the obsessive watching of documentaries about the world’s plastic consumption. When she shut down each night she struggled to sleep. A swirling vortex of plastic polymers in the Pacific Ocean lay waste to sea creatures, who were washed up dead, in their millions, on foreign shores. Sal was convinced that untraceable toxins had got into the water supply and were coursing around her own blood.
“You are taking your medication darling?”
Sal’s mother asked, brow furrowed, from an oblique angle that emphasised her double chin. She had started FaceTiming Sal, an unsettling new habit.
“What have you done to your room?”
“What? The background? Mum, can we just talk normally on the phone, voice to voice?”
“I like to see you. It’s more fun this way.”
Sal looked around for somewhere to position the phone to give less away.
“But you didn’t answer my question”
“I know. I just had a clear out is all”
“Looks like there’s nothing left. You’re not planning on going off somewhere?”
“No. It’s just all the clutter. I didn’t like it, didn’t need it.”
But Sal had needed the clutter. It was the tools of her everyday life she had rid herself of. Toiletries, makeup, hairbrush, books, lamp, most of her clothes, seven pairs of shoes, house plants…everything had gone to the charity shop leaving only the duvet and one pillow on the bed. She knew that without these things she would be stronger and had spent the entire week sorting through her belongings – assessing their worth – charity shop, recycling, clothes bank, bin. Without them she felt that her vision for navigating the world was clearer.
“Right oh, well I’ll leave you to it. Better run or I’ll be late for pilates. Don’t forget dad and I are at the cottage this weekend so we won’t have any signal.”
At work Sal couldn’t concentrate. The plastic waste situation was getting more urgent each day. Instead of working on the weekly sales numbers, she opened a new spreadsheet which she labelled ‘Unnecessary plastic packaging’. Columns were divided into item, company, suggested alternative and one for additional notes. She spent the entire day brainstorming the everyday items she could think of. Once she had covered everything she would write to corporations suggesting they change their ways. She would also write to her local MP and she would look at the charities she could join who fought for the same cause.
“Bloody hell Sal. You still here?”
It was Tom, another finance bod, be-spectacled and unremarkable.
“Um yeah. I didn’t realise what time it was.”
“Past eight. That’s a good effort. Crunching the spring sales figures then?”
She minimised the spreadsheet and swivelled to face him. The rest of the office was empty and the lights had been dimmed without her noticing. The low-level hum of air conditioning a lot louder.
“What are you doing here though?”
“Oh, I’ve got a date. But she wasn’t free until past eight so I thought I’d get ahead with the spring accounts. To be honest spent most of the time on OK Cupid browsing. Best of intentions eh.”
Sal was disarmed by Tom’s candid explanation for himself. They barely knew each other, yet here he was elaborating on his personal life. It surprised her to hear that modest Tom was meeting strangers from the internet. She had forgotten that encountering colleagues in the office after hours was like meeting fellow country-men abroad. There was a camaraderie to be had, the frisson of lurking alone in all that space, the daily formality dispensed. A cleaning lady in a tabard made a half-hearted attempt to hoover nearby. Sal was beginning to feel twitchy. Was Tom about to draw her into something more intimate?
“Well I’ve never tried internet dating to be honest.”
“Really? It’s actually quite fun. You single then?”
It was a trap. A furious flush crept up Sal’s neck and set in on her cheeks.
She returned to her screen mumbling, “Well, have fun then. See you on Monday.”
“OK. You too.” Tom edged away before heading for the lift bank.
Sal no longer felt safe in the office. It was time to leave so she gathered her few belongings and took the lifts to the basement where the bikes were stored.
Three red Biffa bins marked ‘general waste’ were lined up near the basement exit ready to be taken away. Out of curiosity Sal wanted to see what her idiotic colleagues considered as ‘general waste’, what they had lazily failed to sort through. She stood on an abandoned crate to get a better view and put on a pair of latex gloves (she carried them with her everywhere). But lifting the heavy lid, it was impossible to see into the darkness. She reached in her pocket for her phone, turned on its flashlight and placed it in her mouth. Concentrating hard, she lifted the lid again and angling her mouth down could see newspapers, magazines, plastic water bottles. All the usual suspects. But placing her phone in her mouth suddenly seemed grotesque. In the haze of her bin critique, she hadn’t considered the bacteria that was sure to be festering on the phone cover. She panicked and the phone slipped from her mouth into the darkness. Settled on an old copy of Red magazine with its torch still lit.
She would have to go in after it. She hitched her skirt up and with great difficulty swung her leg over the lip of the bin landing heavily inside. A long, scalding shower would be necessary as soon as she got home. The lid shut over her and she scrabbled for the phone. Voices outside, they were close. The bin was moving she banged hard but the sound of a fork-lift truck nearby layered over her beating fists.
Voices muffled outside. Close enough to make out the words.
“Thank fuck it’s Friday eh Tel? You watching the fight? I got a ton on Mayweather.”
Another voice further away. Mocking, joyous. Then Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright booming out of the post control room.
“Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god,” breathed Sal in gasps. “Hey! HEY! LET ME OUT. PLEASE, THERE’S SOMEONE IN HERE!”
From outside, “The fight’ll be between you and your Mrs when she finds out about your dirty, filthy William Hill habit. I’d fucking love to see that.” Sam rubbed his belly in satisfaction and leaning out of the cab blew Tel a kiss. Tel drew back the gates and Sam drove the waste disposal truck out onto the road.
* * * *
London set into its Friday night rhythm. In Borough Market the drinkers spilled out on to the pavements relieved that the week was done. The buses backed up over London Bridge. A thin mizzle set in which everybody ignored. Tom took his date to a tapas bar. At the house in Wood Green Paula and Jamie discovered Sal’s stripped room.
“What the fuck? Jamie have you seen this?”
Jamie’s head around the door.
“What’s happened here? Looks like she’s left. Call her. Find out.”
“So weird,” Paula dialled and quickly hung up. “Went straight to voice mail.”
“She’s paid the rent for this month. Doesn’t look like she’ll be back for a while though. Shall we light up a fatty and have a play on the x-box?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
They high fived each other grinning.
I wrote this short story for fiction class. It’s only a 2nd draft but I lost interest in it after a while so I published it here. Not a finessed piece of writing.