Harry Taylor closed his computer and stepped away from his desk. It was Friday and the time was 4:30 PM. He had been working hard on the Kingston deal, which if successful would secure the prosperity of his company for at least another three years. What Harry wanted more than anything was a quiet weekend. He wanted to get home and relax in front of the television with a beer. That’s all he wanted. Nothing special, just relax in his favourite armchair and watch a good film.
The company lift was out of order and so he headed for the stairs, skipped down six flights, two steps at a time, before reaching the ground floor. It was a short walk to the main doors and then he was out of the building. It was mid July and very warm. The acrid fumes from the heavy traffic added to the oppressive feel of the atmosphere. He loosened his tie and hurried on towards the tube station. Rush-hour had begun and crowds of people were filtering into the station, heading for the lifts and escalators and congregating on the platforms deep below ground. Harry hated the rush-hour crush, but the tube journey would be short and then he’d be above ground and boarding the main line train home, which he hoped would be less crowded and more comfortable. Entering the station he checked his watch. Five more minutes before the train is due. He increased his pace, hurried through the ticket barrier and made his way to the escalator.
Harry felt agitated as he jostled towards the platform. Nearing the station he heard the train pull in, its breaks squealing as it came to a halt. Commuters crowded at the platform entrance, hampered by passengers who had alighted from the carriages and were heading in the opposite direction. Jesus, I’m not gonna make it … By the time Harry fought his way onto the platform his train was already pulling away. He watched in dismay as the last carriage disappeared into the tunnel. “Fuck it,” he breathed, checking his watch. “The next train wasn’t due for another fifteen minutes.”
Unsettled by the delay, he waited impatiently in the middle of the platform. Harry was too nervous to stand near the edge. He was concerned that some psycho might push him in front of a train. It happens. The next train emerged from the tunnel, slowed down and stopped. It’s doors slid open. A host of passengers stepped out. Pushed along by other passengers, Harry stepped aboard and shuffled to the end of the carriage. He felt trapped as people squeezed in around him. If a bomb goes off we’re fucked, he thought. The doors slid closed and the train sped off.
It had been a hard week. Crashed into the back of the carriage, Harry’s mood became increasingly more bleak. People were jamming and pushing. He could smell their clothes, their breath and their bodies. A woman with scraggy hair stood alongside him. Her clothes were stained. Her arm was raised as she hung onto the strap suspended from the ceiling. Jesus Christ, her armpits stink! Repulsed by the odour, Harry wondered if she would get off at the next stop or whether he would eventually — God forbid — have to squeeze passed her. Trying not to breathe too deeply, he glanced at his reflection in the window and thought about home. Can’t wait to relax in front of the television with a cold beer. It was an absurdly simple pleasure, but exquisite beyond measure when compared to the underground and the fraught journey home.
Feeling even more stressed, Harry alighted from the tube and made his way to the main line station. His train was waiting at the platform. It would be another five minutes before it set off. He climbed aboard. To his dismay, the seats were all taken, so he moved down the carriage and leaned back against the bulkhead. Taking his mobile phone from his pocket, Harry text his wife — ‘darling I should be home in half an hour’. A few seconds later his phone pinged. It was his wife acknowledging the message.
The train began to pull away. The station disappeared and the scenery changed as it sped through the city. At the next station a few more passengers boarded, forcing Harry to squeeze into the corner of the carriage. The air was stale. He considered how easy it would be — in an environment such as this — for viruses and bacteria to travel from person to person. People in China and Japan have no reservations about wearing masks, he thought. I wonder what the reaction would be if I were to put on a mask? People would probably think I was mad.
As the train passed through the city and into the suburbs, his mind began to wonder. The Kingston deal was ready to close. He’d been working on it for five solid weeks. Harry thought of the lunches he’d organised, the wining and dining and the cajoling of clients. “You know, Harry, I’ve dealt with a lot of sales people in my time but I have to say it’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” one of the clients had told him. He thought of the enjoyable conversation that flowed effortlessly between them, in particular a deviation from the humdrum sales pitch and onto a subject Harry knew nothing about — quantum physics. He was fascinated to hear about Schrödinger’s cat, the thought experiment; the uncertainty principle and the wave/particle duality principle. Harry had learned a lot that afternoon.
It’s amazing how you lose track of time when you are deep in thought. Before he knew it, the train pulled in at his station. Finally the journey was over. Happier now, whistled as he strode along the pavement. Five more minutes and I’ll be home and out of this heat, he thought.
At last he was home. Stepping and inside the front door, he began to peel off his jacket. “Honey, I’m here,” he called out hanging the jacket on a hook in the hallway.”
“I’m in the kitchen, Harry. Dinner is nearly ready …”
Harry passed the front room on his way to the kitchen. His nine year old son and one of his friends were playing on the Xbox, which was plugged into a forty-eight inch, ultra high definition television. The volume was turned up. Sounds of explosions, machine guns and occasional gleeful shouts coming from his son and his friend. Christ, this is the last thing I want after a heavy day’s work, he thought and asked his son to turn the volume down and quit playing when he returns, which would be in five minutes.
“Oh dad, we’re in the middle of a great game. I’ve got the best ever score …”
“Robert, I don’t want to argue with you. I’ve had a hard day and I just want to relax. Besides it will be dinnertime soon.” With that Harry made his way into the kitchen and kissed his wife, who was busy preparing a salad. “That looks nice. Just what I need on a hot afternoon like this,” he said with a smile. “What are we having with it, Honey?”
“I cooked a chicken earlier,” his wife replied. She leaned her head back and he kissed her cheek.
“Sounds jolly excellent to me.” Harry patted his wife on the bottom, pleased that he was home and that he was having a nice cool meal. He imagined sitting down at the table and pouring salad cream over the lettuce and tomatoes and spreading butter over a slice of stone ground brown bread and washing it down with a glass of wine. As he rolled up his shirt sleeves he caught the delicate scent of roast chicken. His stomach gurgled as he anticipated holding a chicken leg and, like a carnivorous animal, biting into the meat and tearing it from the bone. Already he was forgetting about the hard work he had done on the Kingston deal, the arduous journey home and the stifling air of the underground railway network.
Rolling his shirt sleeves up, Harry stepped from the kitchen and made his way down the passage and into the front room. His son was still playing on the Xbox. “Time to quit now, boys. Dinner will be ready soon. Better say goodbye to your friend, Robert.”
“We’re not ready yet, dad. We’ve still got a way to go before we finish the game.”
“Son, I don’t want to ask you again. Please switch that Xbox off. The noise is deafening. We are going to have dinner so quit playing and see your friend out.”
Robert paid no attention, carried on feverishly pressing the buttons on the Xbox controller, his friend patting him on the back and giving him a high five every time he killed an alien and furthered his journey into the computer game.
Harry could feel his anger mounting. He raised his voice, “I’m telling you to turn that machine off. We are having dinner and that’s it, no ifs or buts.”
Wondering what was going on, his wife appeared in the living room doorway. “What’s all the shouting about?” she asked, wiping her hands on a tea towel.
“The God damned boy won’t turn the Xbox off.”
“How long are you going to be, Robert?” she asked.
“About another twenty minutes mum.” “Okay then, we’ll wait a while and then we’ll eat. Just make sure you finish soon. Your father has had a hard day and he wants to have his dinner in peace and then relax and maybe watch the television.”
“Okay mum,” Roberts said, his eyes glued to the television screen.
“For God’s sakes, Jean. Why are you giving in to him?” — Sounds of explosions, machine guns and alien screams resounding around the room. Harry could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. “He’s not even paying any attention to you. This is beyond a joke!”
“Calm down, Harry. He’ll pack up soon enough” “That’s not the point, Jean. I’ve asked him to turn it off and he is flagrantly ignoring me.”
Robert continued frenziedly stabbing at the buttons on the controller, his wide eyes staring earnestly at the computer screen as another alien exploded, his body destroyed by a hail of bullets. His friend congratulated him, again giving him a high five, neither boy taking any notice of the anger boiling up in Harry. Robert didn’t even notice the anxious tones of his mother, who was doing her best to try and calm the situation. The boys were lost in the game and the pleasure of each other’s companionship, the excitement of being targeted by an alien race from another planet, the ultra high definition graphics of the game and the realistic sounds of bullets, explosions and screams.
“Come on, Harry,” his wife said taking him by the hand. “Let’s go back into the kitchen and set the table.”
Harry was fuming. He thought of the Kingston deal and all the hard work he’d done that week, the many hours he’d spent working on a spreadsheet, preparing documents and arranging high-level meetings with clients. He thought of the mid July heat and the crushing crowds in the underground station, the constant tension of trying to get the right train at the right time, squeezing into overcrowded carriages and standing face-to-face with other passengers, some of whom had terrible hygiene problems: body odour and halitosis. He suddenly wondered what it was all for. He just wanted to be home, enjoy the peace and solitude of his own house, his family, have dinner and relax in front of the television and watch a good film with a cold beer. Jesus fucking Christ, you’d think I was asking for the earth. I just wanna bit of peace and quiet in my own home and at my own time and not be a slave to the whims and idiosyncrasies of other people. Harry could feel the anger building up inside, spreading violently around his body, a living force of irritation and wrath.
“That’s not the point, Jean,” he said. “He is being disrespectful. Look at him …” He pointed to his son who was totally absorbed in the game and not taking any notice, his eyes fixed to the screen and concentrated on killing digital aliens, his mouth contorting into a grimace as he frenziedly manipulated the buttons on the controller.
“Nice one Rob …” his friend said as an alien was caught in the crosshairs of a weapon and zapped. The boys laughed and gave each other another high five.
“That’s it,” Harry shouted. He stormed across the room and tore the Xbox controller from his son’s hand, then grabbed hold of the television and pulled the plug from the wall. Barging past his wife, he strode out of the room, into the passage and headed for the front door.
“Mum, stop him!” cried Robert, confused and angry. “What’s he doing? We’re in the middle of a game!”
His wife was shocked. She had never seen Harry so enraged.
Opening the front door he stormed out the house and into the street, raised the television above his head, the Xbox swinging from its leads, and dashed the lot to the ground. “GODDAMN COMPUTER GAMES! BLOODY KIDS! WHO WANTS EM!”
Wondering what was going on, neighbours opened their doors and windows. They were amazed to see Harry — good old Harry who was always polite and helpful, never a raised voice — jumping up and down on the television screen.
“WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KIDS THESE DAYS? NO FUCKING RESPECT!” he screamed, drops of saliva flying from his mouth, eyes bulging like a maniac as he stamped on the Xbox, sending splinters of plastic flying in the air. “WORK FUCKING HARD ALL WEEK, SUFFER THE SLINGS AND ARROWS OF THE FUCKING TUBE AND FOR WHAT? ALL I WANTED WAS TO RELAX IN THE ARMCHAIR WITH A BEER AND WATCH A FILM …” — kicking the remains of the television into the road.
Neighbours came out of their doors, bewildered but curiously enthralled to see Harry — the quiet and unassuming Harry, the loving husband of a doting wife and father of a well adjusted boy — venting his anger on a television set. This was undoubtedly the most exciting event that had ever happened in their quiet, suburban street.
Sirens sounded in the distance, getting louder as a police car sped towards Harry’s house. Two officers jumped out and grabbed Harry’s arms. He kicked one of them and sent the other one sprawling. Drawing his Taser, the officers shouted, “CALM DOWN OR WE WILL TASER YOU!”
“FUCK YOU!” Harry screamed and lunged at the officer. “HARRY, PLEASE STOP,” his wife shouted, her hands clasped to her face. A sickening premonition tore through her, an instinct that told her something terrible was going to happen.
Acting in self defence the officer aimed the Taser and pulled the trigger. 50,000 volts of electricity surged through Harry’s body. A blinding light popped behind his eyes. He stiffened, span round and then then collapsed to the ground, his body writhing and trembling as he lay on the tarmac road.
The officers rolled him onto his front and cuffed him. Lifting him to his feet, he was bundled into the back of the police car and driven off to the police station.
His wife and son stood outside the house, wondering what had happened. Sending his friend away, Jean turned to Robert and told him to get indoors. Closing the door, she dragged him down the passage.
“MUM, STOP IT, YOU’RE HURTING MY ARM!”
“DON’T MUM ME,” she shouted, cuffing him sharply across the back of their head. “YOU SHOULD HAVE TAKEN MORE NOTICE — SHOULD HAVE STOPPED PLAYING THAT STUPID COMPUTER GAME …”
“I could have you arrested for hitting me,” Robert cried, running up the stairs and into his bedroom. He flung himself on his bed and began to sob.
His mother moved into the kitchen, leaned on the table in front of the chicken salad, and in that moment of misery thought of a Shakespearean line that she hadn’t heard since she graduated from university many years ago. ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’. With that poignant line from King Lear resounding in her head, she burst into tears.