The print man is my friend. We have whispered conversations about paper stock over the phone. He speaks with a lisp. I’ve never seen him in person but I imagine he has a little pot belly and soft hands. We discuss the stitching for the brochures. I choose a standard saddle-stitch because it’s cheaper and we don’t have much left in the budget. He makes the slightest sigh under his breath as he repeats back to me, “saddle-stitched, yes,” and in that almost imperceptible sigh I know he is pining for something more exotic, begging me to ask for cross-stitching or complicated binding.
I ask for the cheapest glossy paper stock available. I hear him tapping it into the order sheet. There is a lull as he looks down the order sheet, checking it’s all filled out correctly, that I’ve given him all the information he needs. I can hear him breathing.
This brochure has been a nightmare to prepare. Twenty pages of graphic design, copy editing and blood. That sounds more dramatic than perhaps it actually was but my fingers are covered in band-aids. The phone rings again. I hope it’s the print man, my heart is in my mouth thinking he might just be calling back for a chat but it’s Janet down the hall calling to tell me have I been filling out the condition reports about the air flow in the office because it’s really getting a bit much to bear on her end and it’s getting to the point where she might just unplug her computer from its sockets and drag it out into the sunshine where the air has a more natural flow and she might be able to actually get some gosh darn work done. She says “gosh darn” like that and I think that not many people speak like that in real life except for maybe Alf from Home and Away who always uses words like “flaming” and “struth” but I guess that’s not real life in the end anyway.
I let her talk some more about the process of dragging her computer out onto the patch of grass outside the office and describe the tree she would sit under to work – the one she likes to sit under when she’s eating her lunch, you know the one, it’s kind of gnarled looking except she doesn’t say “gnarled” she says “stunted” – and how the light there would be lovely and not like this fluorescent glare that bounces off the screen and gives her migraines. I think about settling down with my cat Alfonzo to watch Home and Away and how he will purr like a lawnmower, clawing at my tracksuit-padded lap to make it comfortable and waving his grey tail in my face, the warm weight of him getting a bit too much I really should stop feeding him so many tidbits but it’s hard because he always looks like he wants more and how could you deny a good friend anything?
Janet is still describing this idyllic outdoor office scene and it’s beginning to sound more like a jungle than the patch of scratchy buffalo grass outside our office – they’re replacing it with astro turf in the new year, and cutting down the gnarled and stunted tree – and I haven’t got the heart to tell her that her computer won’t work in the jungle office because there are no power outlets, that it is bolted to her workstation, that it is too heavy for her to lift, that she would have to relist her office location via a form that takes two weeks to process.
Janet sighs and I can feel the dust settle back into the carpet. The printer jams in the print room next door and someone says “Fghk” and the sole of their shoe makes a whizzing sound as they kick the carpet instead of the temperamental machine. The smell of microwaved lasagne drifts through the doorway and fills up my face. It’s mingled with the scent of crusted and reheated spatters of tomato paste, curry and butter.
I can almost hear the Macaque monkeys calling to each other in Janet’s jungle. “Janet. Janet,” I hear myself saying – and now Janet is talking about condition reports and the ridiculous bureaucratic nature of the things, like why do they need so many little boxes, half of them are irrelevant, and I think to myself, “you’re just not doing it right. Janet, you’re just not doing it right” and I am thumbing the hard copy mock-up of the flyer and my mind is drifting down the phone line into Janet’s flaring nostrils that are so difficult not to look at when she gets in a state like this, it’s unnatural how much they flare, I didn’t know nostrils could do that – “Janet. I have to get back to work now. On deadline, you understand. I’ll fill out another condition report in the morning. Yes. Yes, it is chilly. We’ll have to protest, revolt or order laptops on the company credit cards if they don’t fix this right away. Yes. Yes. Bye now.”
I hang up the phone and stare at it in its little cradle. Our phones have special fittings so you can rest them between your shoulder and your ear for long periods of time without causing permanent ligament damage. Ergonomically designed. The shape of it offends me. I stare at the grey plastic and its beige setting and try to remember if I’ve ever seen this particular shade of grey anywhere other than office equipment. I notice the greyness of my office. It’s almost exclusively grey. Computer keys, mouse, computer tower, monitor, ergonomically designed desk chair, foot rest, files, walls, folders, phone, light fitting, carpet, pinboard, bin, recycling bin, pot plant, my watch is grey, my shoes are grey. I look in horror at my lap and realise my skirt is grey. I am blending into the walls. I have slowly been painted in. The greyness of my office pushes in on me and the weight of it is suffocating.
Line 2 buzzes. This is the sound of a tree falling in the jungle when there are thousands of ears to hear it. This is the sound of a chainsaw cutting through bark and wet flesh. This is the sound a person makes when they’re breaking. My hand jolts, automatically putting the phone to my face, nestling it into the nook between my ear and shoulder. Static. The soft sound of someone breathing. I stand up, I fling the phone onto my desk – why not leave it off the hook?
I step out of the office. I’m not walking, I’m stepping – my feet feel light, I can feel the carpet under the thin, slippery soles of my grey patent flats. The sliding doors part and the sun strikes me, weak but triumphant.
The subway is only five blocks from here. The airport is only seven stops from here. There is time to turn back. I worry about Alfonzo, I think about turning back, at least to fill his bowl with food or to buy an automatic feeder but who knows how long I will be gone and Alfonzo knows his way in and out of the house, there are neighbours, it’s time he learns to fend for himself or at least to make friends with some lovely family with six children who will all feed him tidbits under the table until he is too fat to move but so happy, oh Alfonzo will be so happy with this new family I start to tear up at the thought of it and my stride takes on purpose again and I walk briskly and confidently, knowing that Alfonzo will be ok and in fact me leaving him, and him finding his independence and learning to love and be loved again is probably the best thing that could ever happen to that cat.
I am rounding the corner, and I know that when I do I will steal a last glance at the print shop. I will take in the crooked awning, and the orange and green façade. I will think once more about the poor choices made in the graphic design of their logo, the lazy kerning and clashing colours. For a business that’s core purpose is making people’s important graphic projects shine, it’s odd how far they fail in their first impression – almost as if they are trying not to advertise themselves, trying to slip under the radar and avoid ending up with too much business. The corner comes and I take in the building, thinking about how highly I hold its slim brick veneer in my own esteem. How I love the inconsistency of this face with the function I know resides behind it. I don’t break my stride, but draw the building into me like breath before turning toward the orange beacon of the train station sign.
I can feel soft eyes following the back of my head, I know the print man has seen the promise of a new life. He’s ready if I am. We’re doing this. I won’t look back – that’s always how it ends badly in the legends. I wonder if he knew it would be today, if he packed a Hawaiian shirt. I can’t wait to see his little pot belly poking out of the bottom of his Hawaiian shirt. I will wear silk dresses and never need a cardigan. I will only wear bright colours and patterns and nothing that has grey on it anywhere. We can buy a ridiculous pair of sunglasses for every day of the week. Nothing will seem unlikely or impossible and we can sleep in the forest or on the beach whenever we want to. We’ll let our hair grow long and I’ll paint my nails fluorescent green and the print man will paint his too because why not? He doesn’t care. We don’t care what anyone thinks, we are free to wear bum bags and think it’s ironic and hilarious if we want.
I can feel the sun on my face and sand in my toes, I can taste the salt in the air and we will drink rum old fashioned’s out of coconuts on banana lounges. I’m almost at the subway. I stop at the traffic lights and feel a small, soft hand creep it’s way into mine and squeeze ever so slightly, withdrawing again before I even have time to squeeze back.
Izzy Roberts-Orr is a poet, writer, broadcaster and arts worker raised on Arrernte Country (Alice Springs) and Wurundjeri Country (Footscray) currently completing a book of elegiac poetry, Raw Salt. Izzy works in Maribyrnong with local artists, is a Co-Director of Broadwave podcasting network, and advocates for artists on the Moreland Arts Advisory Committee and Collingwood Yards Board. Izzy is a 2020-2021 recipient of the Australia Council Marten Bequest Scholarship for Poetry. @izasmiz