Something floated past the window, which was odd as this was the fifteenth floor. It seemed to hover and bob lightly. A piece of charred paper? Too large to be ash. At what point does something become ash? What proportion of the original matter can remain intact for it to be described as ash?
‘Of course all of these factors are of great significance but the key to our survival is innovation; we cannot afford to stand still. Kit, would you share your presentation with the board?’
For a moment he felt compelled to continue musing on the properties of ash and how it might feel to float, lighter than air across the city; but the gravity of the setting pulled his thoughts back to the reason he was there. They sat around a heavy walnut table on solid leather chairs, even the water glasses sat weightily before them; all eyes were on him, and of course he delivered.
‘You did a good job up there, Kit, plenty for us to think about, but now we need to take things forward, ideas are only of any use if they work when put into action.’ Kit sighed inwardly, he had agreed to step out for a bite of lunch with his manager in order to escape the office, but it was clear they would be bringing the office with them.
Carolyn was driven, that was one reason their department was so successful, but Kit wondered at which point would she burn out or become bored with this constant pursuit of…of what exactly? He quickly stubbed the thought out, recognising that it most likely signalled the onset of his own decline. He had acquired too much to let things slip. He had all the accessories of success, they were the heavy chains that prevented him from giving up; but of course the work was important, and fun, of course it was.
Lunch was a healthy affair of tap water, Carolyn was keenly aware of environmental issues, and green salad with lentils.
Her energy never waivers, Kit observed as Carolyn leant forward with the enthusiasm of discussion, Does she ever lighten up?
His thoughts drifted off to his wife, she was a beauty and worked hard at it. She was clever, witty and successful in her own career, he was fortunate. They were an ideal couple, at the moment anyway. It’s so hard to maintain interest, something has to give, and if it came down to it, he could manage without her. The thought shocked him. Had it really been generated from his own mind? He felt a frisson of excitement, what if he just walked away from all of this? Why not? He imagined the walk to the train, the fear, the regret, the madness of his decision. He pictured himself on an old-fashioned liner, (where had that come from?) Sipping a martini and gazing across the endless sea to a golden sunrise; the magnetic pull of home and work stretching and finally snapping, its chain sinking below the waves without trace into the wake.
Wake, Carolyn was clearly cross about something. He tried to focus.
‘Can you smell it? Smoke, cigarette smoke. There should be no smoking in here.’
He vaguely registered the acrid scent, she was right, of course.
‘I don’t see anyone smoking, perhaps it’s wafting in through the door.’
An off duty chef was standing out front smoking. It seemed to him a strange sight, only the poor smoke now, he thought.
In fact he had spoken the words, in a somewhat wistful tone. Carolyn felt chastised. Who was she to pour scorn on the poor. She of all people. She regarded Kit, with his easy sophistication. He looked like a man who had always known the ease of wealth. What did he know of the poor? She paid the waitress and left a generous tip, she knew these things made a difference. She attempted to erase an expression of distaste as they passed the smoking chef. She considered Kit’s words. Strange that the poor smoked when tobacco had become so expensive. Strange to choose such a self-destructive luxury. She thought of her luxuries, the clothes, the car, the house, the holidays, they were basics, weren’t they? But she knew there was no comparison, she was surrounded by comfort, she took it as her due now; it had not always been that way.
‘Back to the grindstone then,’ she grinned at Kit as they reached the lift and parted. She’s really quite attractive, Kit briefly noted. His day dream of escape dissolved as the lift made its smooth progress to his floor; there was work to be done.
Carolyn did not feel inclined to return to the office, she’d worked hard that day and wanted to be outside, she wanted to walk, and think. There was still a somewhat smoky smell in the air, not cigarettes, something more substantial. Wisps of something burnt, perhaps paper, drifted in a sudden gust of wind. ‘Pollution, it’s everywhere,’ she tutted, not wanting to be reminded.
Carolyn was impressive, she knew this as she had engineered the persona she wore so well. Nothing had come easily to her, so she appreciated her success all the more. She was one of the few who had moved from the tedium of relative poverty to this empowering state of autonomy. Money had given her choices; and this is what she chose to do?
She was not like Kit; she hadn’t the security of generations of monied relatives behind her to cushion her fall. She had to keep going, she wouldn’t go back, she wouldn’t. She pictured a familiar scene from her childhood. Her mother was counting out the coppers, the one and two pence pieces, and sorting them into ten pence towers, smiling at the children, her cigarette at the corner of her mouth, willing the towers to grow higher. ‘Lunch money and bus fares ready to collect,’ she would cheerily announce, all knowing that there really wasn’t enough for both. The children took their allotment and didn’t bother to pass comment; there was no point when it was clear there was no more money to be had.
She thought of her siblings, now grown and scattered across the world; another blackened wisp floated by, some scattered to the wind.
There is a place on the bank of the Blackwater where the river meets the sea. Two structures are visible from this point; an ancient Christian chapel, one of the first in Britain and certainly the smallest. The other is equally odd, Bradwell, one of the earlier nuclear power stations to be built in Britain; both impressive in their separate ways.
It was a strange resting place, as these two structures were all that had a sense of permanence here; the skies and mixing waters constantly shifted. It felt like the edge of the world, water and sky met and blurred into one. The fields around were combed, unravelling into the soft fringes of marsh, brushing the sculpted waves of salty mud. The water was the colour of iron. It was a place where people washed up or moved on.
If that river mouth could speak it would tell of Viking long boats, Holy men in precarious coracles, Romans in metal and leather; and now, gently slipping and settling into the earthy sediment and onto the pale and tender plants; Kate, or at least her ashes. Some sank into mud, and some were carried away, particle by particle, out to sea, up river, on the air. Kate was becoming something else, part of new land, yet to be formed.
Carolyn recalled this moment and watched another piece of burnt debris float off and away into the wind.