Yester Than Betterday
Yesterday Than Betterday
Lawrence P. Earnest had been king of a small, windowless room for just over a year and found he both loved the room and hated it. He loved the fact he was left alone by the majority of his former colleagues. He hated the fact that the absence of windows disconnected him entirely from the elements, from all that was natural and wild outside the building. There were other reasons but these were the two he found himself thinking about most often.
His room at The Jawdropping Oral Therapy Corporation (commonly abbreviated in the exhausting chain of internal emails to a heavy TJOTC) was the sole office for dealing with customer queries and complaints. Next time you clean your teeth take a look at the tube of toothpaste – be it sleek and new and fresh from its box or buckled and curled to the point of fatigue – and you will find a freephone customer telephone number. It was at the end of one such number that Lawrence Earnest felt the finite days of his life sliding from his grasp.
If you were to ring Lawrence and actually be able to see him, you would find a weary, crumpled man behind a small, cheap MDF desk cramped with a grubby off-white computer. Behind him is a low filing cabinet, dents and scrapes forming misshapen continents separated by a correction fluid equator. Lawrence is 41, generally a predictably level-headed Virgo, greying around the temples, hair short, neat and dated. He slouches into a slight paunch and has to wrestle with nasal hair most weekends – much in the same way some men feel obliged to mow the lawn. He wears simple suits from British Home Stores and frets that they too will eventually disappear from the high street. During the colder months he arrives at work in a bottle green scarf and a flat black corduroy cap that had been Christmas gifts in happier times. The accompanying card had read ‘From the girls in D&M’. There had been an ‘X’ but someone had thought better of it and attempted to hide it with correction fluid. Lawrence knew that in reality the gift would have been arranged solely by Gloria Tumpe – a foghorn presence in Accounts. Gloria is a large lady of vast, billowing floral skirts, hard-wearing legs and the sledgehammer subtlety of White Musk. She and Lawrence had both been new inductees at TJOTC what felt – to Lawrence at least – a thousand years ago. Since then Gloria had married, divorced, married again, had two sons, been widowed, found Jesus, learned to ski, beaten ovarian cancer, stuck two fingers up to Jesus, raised over £2000 with a charity sky-dive and started a part-time business selling homemade, slightly garish greetings cards on the internet. In that same period of time, Lawrence hadn’t.
It was after the clumsy Valentines Day card incident with Emma Bird (he had thought her early morning office smiles had been just for him, but it turned out that the card was something of a sympathy effort from the girls in the office who had also abbreviated his name to ‘Loz’ which he had especially disliked) – and his subsequent mental collapse (Occupational Health had politely referred to it aloud as ‘exhaustion’ but had been adamant about privately ensuring it was flagged in his H.R. file as ‘utter nervous breakdown’) – that Lawrence had been unable to return to work for five months.
On that last day he had been helped out of his office in the Oral Design & Marketing Team by Gloria who had refused to let the police remove him to the ambulance by force. Before his return he had received a letter delivered by motorcycle courier explaining that he had been subject to a restructure. The letter didn’t use the words ‘shipped-out’ or ‘side-lined’ but the sentiment behind the wording was not wasted on him. He knew on his first day back, frogmarched by young men in expensive suits to a new office deep in the dank bowels of the basement, that his position was ‘at risk’; his return to work little more than an statutory prelude to extinction.
For Lawrence, his chilly, sequestered existence had two slim chinks of light that persisted against the rising tide of darkness clamouring at the edges of his life. The first fragile gleam is the first Wednesday after payday when he visits Bitchez & Bastardz, a rough, rowdy rock bar festering in the savage, unlit end of town, for Wednesday night is rock karaoke night. Arriving as a sore thumb Lawrence awkwardly removes his tie, unbuttons his cuffs and drinks enough glasses of dark rum until his boundaries are satisfactorily blurred.
There have been times when he has felt bold enough to try a new song – but following a painful struggle with Nine Inch Nail’s Head Like a Hole (the request number had been one digit away from his actual choice – REO Speedwagon’s Keep on Lovin’ You) culminating with him singing the song on his knees, his confidence was at an all time low. More often than not he fell back on his convincing, impassioned (if occasionally slurred) rendition of I Want to Know What Love Is by Foreigner. Most crowds were appreciative, some even kind, but always he left alone.
Other interesting aspects of Lawrence Earnest are that he salutes lone magpies believing it will cancel out sorrow, prefers his rented flat to be neat and tidy and talks to his collection of houseplants. The second flicker of light in the life of Lawrence Earnest is his unique, patiently learned ability to know good teeth by the way they sound over the phone.
Lizzie Hopton is proud of her teeth and since a little girl has actually enjoyed cleaning them. She is 29, slim, somewhat timid, but with the sudden, spiky humour of a Taurus. She has long, straight blonde hair and very clear, very calm cornflower blue eyes. Currently she has an uncharacteristic brazen red streak in her hair leftover from a night out with work. She is employed by an energy company where her job is tricking people into more complicated, more expensive payment arrangements. She would like to be a nurse but her confidence is currently little more than a jigsaw in a box under her bed; crucial edge pieces missing.
Lizzie currently lives alone, since finding her fiancée in bed with her best friend on a rainy October afternoon. She had returned with bulging wet bags of supermarket shopping and stood in the musty hallway calling out to both of them. They hadn’t even had the decency to stop and she had heard her boyfriend reach his climax as she was halfway up the stairs struggling with an 8-pack of toilet rolls, shaving foam and a rubber duck she had thought might brighten up the bathroom. An argument had spread through the house like fire and once it had burned itself out it had somehow been Lizzie who had been asked to leave the house the three of them shared. Since then she has, in her own words, “slipped out of the world” and keeps it at bay by not opening her post. Lizzie is frightened of nuns, loves mature cheddar cheese and homemade onion relish sandwiches on granary bread and likes to dance to herself. But only on the days that feel better than the one before.
Today is a Tuesday – the embarrassing uncle day of the week. Lawrence has had numerous internal emails he has deleted without reading – ‘bun club’, ‘football coupon competitions’, ‘charity games at the weekend’ and a long train of emails written in management speak that have no substance whatsoever. By 11 o’clock he has beaten his personal best on Solitaire. The phone has not rung today. It rang three times yesterday: the first was a wrong number. The second call someone had asked for the head office address. The third call Lawrence thought was a small child, until it became a giggling adult voice that shouted “you dirty toothpaste-making-motherfucker” before hanging up. Lawrence thinks that already the company are filtering his calls at reception.
It has been a long time since a call lasted long enough for him to develop even a fleeting connection to another human being.
Now the phone is actually ringing. It is nearly the end of the afternoon and Lawrence is surprised to hear it ring. It is a deafening presence in the windowless room. Everything in this silent room seems so sudden. He glances at the wall clock involuntarily before answering:
“Good afternoon, The Jawdropping Oral Therapy Corporation customer care line. My name is Lawrence, how can I help you?” As he speaks he reaches for a pen and a piece of headed paper. He is thinking about doodling a five-pointed star, perhaps a series of interconnected 3D rhomboids.
“Hello. I’m sorry to bother you,” Lizzie begins. She had dialled the number unsure of what to ask. In all honesty she hadn’t expected an actual human being to answer.
“It’s no bother. How can I help?” Lawrence replies.
“I wanted to know a bit more about the Smile Extra?”
Lawrence pauses, catches his breath as he listens to the delicate cadence of the voice swirling around the receiver: soft spoken, fringed with a Northern lilt.
“What would you like to know?” he says a little too quickly, unsettled by his own nerves.
“What makes it work?” Lizzie asks, her words bumping into the end of Lawrence’s.
Lawrence fidgets in his chair, working his tie loose with his free hand – “I’ll let you into a secret…it doesn’t really. There’s no real science behind it. Well, only the science of marketing and manipulation.”
As his words tumble into the receiver like ants on the loose Lawrence feels an eddy of release and adrenaline flood over him. Reaching for a pen he scribbles on the stationery in front of him. Moments later the TJOTC logo is buried beneath a biro avalanche that settles into a heavy ‘The Joke’s On This Company!’
“Oh,” Lizzie starts. Something in this man’s barefaced tone has caused her to smile. “Do any of your products work?”
“You can clean your teeth with them, but they work no better than anyone else’s,” Lawrence finishes with an undisguised air of triumph.
Lizzie covers the receiver with her hand and lets out a small giggle. She has called many customer care lines in her time, spoken to many people who sound weary, bored, at the end of their rope, but this is the first time someone has merrily torn apart the products they represent.
“I’m not really sure what to say to that,” Lizzie says.
“Do you mind if I ask you what your name is?”
“It’s Lizzie, Lizzie ‘opton.”
“Hello Lizzie Hopton. I’m glad you rang today.”
Sat in his chair Lawrence feels as though he has slipped out of his body and now stands beside his desk, watching himself as he pushes his chair back from the desk and brings his legs up on the desk, sliding down in his chair, head back as he listens to the voice on the other end. He is aware of how their sentences rush into one another like a confluence of two previously unconnected rivers. For the first time in a long time, he is aware of talking to a woman with only moderate awkwardness; without a rum crutch for support. Were he able to applaud himself right now, Lawrence feels sure that he would.
“Yeah, me an all,” Lizzie says. “Of all the customer care lines I’ve called, this one’s the best.”
Lawrence smiles to himself. There is enough emotion behind her words to tell him he doesn’t need to ask how many she’s called, or how often, so instead he asks, “Are you calling from work, Lizzie?”
“No, there were a burst pipe or summat at work, so they sent us ‘ome,” Lizzie explains. “Mind you, I’m not complaining.”
“No, I don’t think I would either!” Lawrence replies. “Where’s home, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Manchester, I have an apartment in the city centre, it’s alright. What about you?”
“Leeds. I have a small flat in an old semi-detached Victorian house.
“That sounds good, do you like it?”
“It’s okay. My flat has a great view of the sunset but my neighbours are very loud.”
“What else do you like about it, tell me more,” Lizzie asks.
As she listens to Lawrence describing his tiny kitchen and the different views from his windows, Lizzie settles into her old, sagging settee, legs tucked under her. The settee came with her from her previous house and is swamped by a vast purple throwover. Curled up on the cushion beside her is a large, irascible black cat by the name of Hankey. Each time Lizzie shifts even slightly Hankey opens one eye and fixes her with her a stare. Lizzie reaches out with her free hand and tickles him under the chin.
Lizzie’s life has unfolded slowly in this apartment – barely more than a box overcrowded with white goods, tiled splashbacks and a balcony so shallow as to be entirely useless. She had signed the tenancy agreement with one arm up her back, forced into the move by the matching cold shoulders of her former fiancée and former best friend. She had intended to stay here for the initial six months and then move on, to Sheffield or Leeds, perhaps further away altogether. That was nearly two years ago and even Hankey had got used to the apartment now.
Her balcony gives on to an interminable horizon of indistinguishable apartments – some hastily purpose-built, others warehouses and mills with the hearts torn out. Lizzie finds it is like being trapped inside a hall of mirrors built by vicious, blind architects. Occasionally, a sliver of sunset finds its way between the colossi of dark, jammed constructions and reclines over the laminate flooring of her lounge area. Mostly, however, the balcony and the apartment came under siege from the legendary Manchester climate; eternally cold, wet and leaden. Once the unhealthy, luminous city night has fallen the moon is rarely seen and were Lizzie hoping to cast wishes upon constellations, it will never be Ursa Major or Orion, but instead the savage vapour trails of ceaseless budget airlines criss-crossing the sky.
Lizzie realises suddenly that Lawrence has stopped talking. Having moved from talking about his flat he has given her a brief explanation of his job and left a question now hanging in the air, Lizzie having lost herself in the deep, reassuring resonance of his voice.
“Do you like your work?” Lawrence asks again.
“I ‘ate it,” Lizzie answers in a faint voice.
“Well that’s something we definitely have in common!”
“You sound as though you are smiling,” Lizzie says before she can stop herself.
“I was then…well I mean, I am, now.” Lawrence feels a laugh escape from his lips like a trapped butterfly. Through the telephone Lawrence can hear a brief, musical chuckle like a freshly cast bell. In an instant he finds himself thinking of all the teeth he has pictured listening to callers. Many have been dirty, uncared for, damaged and broken. Some have been average, even approaching impressive. Never have any sounded beautiful.
“You have beautiful sounding teeth.”
Lawrence feels panic catch in his throat, but having come this pushes ahead, “You have beautiful sounding teeth. I have learnt how good teeth sound.”
Lizzie is aware of a wave breaking inside of her chest, spreading warmth up and over her throat. She cannot remember the last time anyone had used the word ‘beautiful’ to describe any aspect of her – and no one has ever told her she had ‘beautiful sounding teeth’.
“Thank you Lawrence,” she says. “And just ‘ow do beautiful teeth sound?” she asks feeling bolder; hungry for compliments from this man.
Lawrence takes a deep breath. His head is suddenly light as though it has expanded inside. “Yours sound fresh and bright,” Lawrence says. “Like walking beside a brook, early on a Sunday morning when everyone else is still asleep.”
Lizzie notices a thrill pass through her. Twenty-one words dancing from her telephone have left her feeling more alive than she has felt in a long time.
She doesn’t answer, allowing the words to seep into her; galvanising her blood.
Lawrence feels himself falling into what he feels is a vast silence.
“Lizzie?” Lawrence asks. “Was that too much?”
“That were wonderful,” Lizzie replies. There is such conviction in her tone that Lawrence cannot stop himself punching the air with his free hand – a gesture that immediately makes him feel somewhat silly.
“You know what Lizzie today is a good day…a very good day.”
“You know what I always think Lawrence, sometimes the best you can do, is just wake up feeling yester than betterday, that’s all you need.”
Lawrence laughs a little, not at Lizzie, but at the combination of her lively delivery and her tongue tangled words. “Yester than betterday?” he echoes.
The sudden sound of Lizzie’s cheerful laughter fills the telephone before escaping into the small basement room: Suddenly the drab walls are not so drab. The light in the room sparkles its way into the dampest, darkest corners. Despite the lack of windows in the room Lawrence is convinced he can see the trembling of a new rainbow spanning the space in front of him.
“I don’t want to come back to work here tomorrow,” Lawrence says, his words nudging up close to the glorious fade of her laughter. As the words swing between them he his desperate for to take the hint and step over the last of his nervousness for him.
“God, I know exactly what you mean,” Lizzie begins. “We could…”
“Well, you might think it’s silly, I mean, especially as I only rang up to ask about toothpaste an all, but what do you think about skipping work tomorrow…we could meet up somewhere?”
Lawrence feels his heart stop for a second. “Yes, yes I’d like that very much Lizzie.”
Lizzie grins as she looks out over the skeletal towers of the city. “Can you get to Oxford Road train station for noon?”
“Yes. I can, I mean, I will.” Lawrence answers. His face relaxes with the new found pleasure of smiling. He glances around the small basement room – the small basement room he will not be sitting in tomorrow.
“I’m nervous Lizzie, is that ok?” he adds awkwardly, dampening down the silence.
“I’m nervous too. Nervous is ok,” Lizzie replies softly. “We can start small, maybe go to Eighth Day – it’s this amazing café – just drink tea, have some cake…”
For a few moments there is no talking; no need for talking.
Lawrence feels something flutter inside of him; desperate and sudden a moth cupped in your hands as you try to open the window to let it free.
Lawrence listens to the sound of Lizzie’s beautiful teeth and she in turn hears Lawrence catch his breath as his heart beats quicker than it has for a long, long time.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Lizzie says bridging the quiet gap between them.
“Me too,” Lawrence replies eagerly.
“Until tomorrow then.”