Tom Baragwanath is a writer originally from Wellington, New Zealand, currently living in Paris. He completed Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters short fiction workshop in 2015. His stories have been published in Headland, Takahe, and the Eunoia Review.
I’ve been trying new things lately, just to stay busy. Meditation and Tai Chi, plus a few sessions of Pilates, but then that was harder than I thought. It always sounded to me like just stretching and breathing, but I was bloody sore afterwards. I tried going along to yoga at the hall down the road, but it was mostly young mums, and I felt like a creeper. None of them ever said anything, there was just this whole clique thing going on. I guess I can see where they were coming from. I tried picking up my guitar again, but that was no good. It took me ages to find the thing, and I managed to snap a string getting it back in tune. My fingers felt weird against the frets, like a language I’d forgotten.
It’s been, I don’t know, four months since I quit, maybe more. Time has gone strange on me. It’s not that I miss the department. You won’t catch me saying that, not even on the dullest day. I’ll admit there were some up sides to the place. Occasionally I’d get to work on one of the bigger legislative initiatives. Statutory employee trials – I was on the team for that one. Actually, that was probably the only thing you would’ve heard of, now that I think about it. I got to go to a few briefings with the Minister for that, and the Group Manager once gave me a nod after reading from some points I’d prepared. The odd moment like that makes you feel connected, you know? For a second it was like I was part of some shining machine steaming forward in some sort of direction. Anyway, the rest of my work was under the radar. I had a nice enough bunch to work with, and my manager wasn’t bad. In hindsight I think she had my interests at heart. She used to look for good projects for me, things that would really interest me. Not too many would bother making that kind of effort.
I think it’s mostly the routine I miss. The first fortnight off was great. It was such a novelty, not having to get out of bed for anything. I must have had four, maybe five days straight, just sleeping and watching shows, eating baked beans and creamed corn, sometimes on toast, sometimes right out of the can. I can imagine the look on your face. You can think what you like. Anyway, the first month I barely left the house. I’d wake up late in the morning and think of the office, everyone at their desks, switching on their computers, waiting for the weekend software updates to reconfigure, making tea and huddling together for the quiz. I didn’t dislike the work, necessarily. I was still productive, and definitely pulling my weight. I just got to a point where I couldn’t see any good coming out of it.
Now that I think about it, I remember the exact moment it occurred to me. One morning, someone from human resources came around and told us one of the old timers in accounts had suffered a stroke on the train. He’d been in the department for thirty-five years, this guy, since joining in his mid twenties. They were passing around a card with blue and pink pastel flowers, wishing him well. This numb sort of feeling came over me as I held the pen over the card, waiting for the words to come. Is this how it would end? Putting in three, maybe four decades before folding up on the floor of a train surrounded by bored strangers? I pretended like I was writing something, then slipped the card back in to its sleeve and handed it on. I was sure the old fella wouldn’t notice one missing. We’d only met once or twice, and I doubt he could have put a face to my name even before the stroke.
A few days later I sent my resignation email through. I kept it pretty brief. My manager came over to my desk right away. She seemed genuinely surprised, and her eyes were wet. I told her my mum had been sick, and I needed to move home for a bit to help out. I mean, I couldn’t sit there and tell her I was quitting because of malaise, right? It would sound ridiculous. I’d taken a week off the previous year to help mum out after her surgery, so there was enough of a precedent for it to be convincing. She suggested I take unpaid leave rather than quit. I told her I didn’t know how long I’d be, and quitting was the fairest thing for the department. It took a while, but eventually we seemed to understand one another.
I’d worked out that with my savings I could cover rent and basic expenses for around eight months without having to find work. If I really stretched things out and cut down on luxuries – whisky, beer, enough pot for the occasional 3D movie – I could push it out even further, providing nothing came up. I’ve been in the same unit for years, and the landlord upstairs has always been very reasonable about rent. She hasn’t even kept up with the market.
Boredom has been the main thing. At first I was excited to have the days stretched out in front of me like blank sheets of paper, waiting to be filled. I started off trying to work on some personal essays, and even filled a notebook with some charcoal sketches, but inevitably I started staying up to the early hours watching The Sopranos and The Wire and sleeping through to the afternoon. The Sopranos is such an expansive world, man. Weeks, months after an episode, you can find yourself thinking about a character, a situation, the treatment of a minor plot development, as if it was something that happened in your own actual life. And Gandolfini, Jesus, I could watch that guy forever. Even something as simple as parking a car or eating a sandwich, the nuance he gave to a scene like that is just incredible. I cried when he died, honestly. I’m not even embarrassed. Jenna could never really get into it, not even the season with Steve Buscemi. That’s a good enough reason in itself to call things off, in my book. But that wasn’t why things went the way they did with us.
Anyway man, there’s only so much television you can watch, even the good stuff. Hence the Pilates and the Tai Chi. I started going out for long walks, whole afternoons at a time, listening to Springsteen and Steely Dan albums, but that started to get repetitive too. I’d started seeing the same people out walking every day, mostly old folks, plus some young mums out in pairs with pushchairs. One afternoon this craggy old guy in a fishing hat and high socks waved at me in recognition across the road. That was when I knew things were getting out of hand. I needed some kind of tether, an anchor for the days sliding around me.
I hadn’t been to the zoo in ages. Years, probably. I remember taking Jenna out there on one of our early dates, but that would have been at least four or five years back. I’d seen a poster by the pools for discounted winter entry, and had been meaning to go for a few weeks, so one day I walked out there, just to think. The forecast was for rain, so I took a jacket and gloves. They’d done so much to improve the place, I barely recognised it. The otters were still there when you come through the entrance, and the red pandas after that, but they’d replaced the old concrete sun bear enclosure with this elaborate rope tower thing. The bears had a lot more room, and seemed to be enjoying themselves, though who can really say with bears? There was less of the convict pacing than before, so I guess that’s something.
You’ll want me to arrive at the point of all this, I’m sure. I can see the shakes of your head, those brows of yours like angry little hedges. I’m getting there.
So, they had this new veterinary center with a glass wall so people could sit and watch the check-ups. There was hardly anyone around, just a couple of school excursions, but they moved on after a bit. I watched the vets perform their checkups for pretty much a whole afternoon by myself. It was really something. To start off they had a meerkat with an eye infection. Meerkat conjunctivitis – can you imagine? Then they checked up on one of the dingoes recovering from a broken leg. These two didn’t require much in the way of sedation; they just kept them distracted with food while they worked.
There were two vets working that afternoon: an older no-nonsense woman with muscular forearms, plus a girl about my age wearing a too-large apron that kept falling open. The two of them seemed like a good team. There was an easy familiarity between them, and they worked efficiently at their tasks without rushing. The older vet wore a headset, and relayed what they were doing to the audience outside. Even though she could see it was just me out there, she still put a lot of effort into describing what they were doing. It was like the three of us were having an intimate conversation over dinner. She had a great voice for it; her words came clear over the speaker, and carried a quiet kind of authority. After removing the dingo’s leg cast and giving it a shred of biltong they wheeled in a tiny penguin on a silver tray. It had to be sedated so they could work on it.
“This is Tina,” the older vet said. “She’s one of our younger blue penguins.”
She adjusted the penguin’s breathing tube. The clear plastic looked huge coming out of the penguin’s mouth, like it would choke it for sure.
“She’s been lethargic lately, and hasn’t had her usual appetite. This can happen sometimes when penguins first come in, especially if they’ve been injured or maimed. Sometimes it can be a question of adjusting to the diet over time.” She lifted her wrist to scratch her nose. “But Tina was raised here, and she’s never behaved like this before. So, we’re thinking she must have an infection of some kind.”
She moved her fingers carefully against the penguin’s abdomen while the younger vet held the breathing tube.
“Alright. Definitely a blockage of some kind, something reasonably hard. Feel that there, Sarah?” She guided the younger vet’s hand to the penguin’s belly. “We’ll have to open up and see what’s what.”
She reached for a scalpel and a pair of clamps. Tina was rolled on her side away from the glass, so I couldn’t quite see what was happening, but the expressions on the faces of the vets suggested they’d found something reasonably noteworthy. After a while the older woman reached for a set of tongs, and I heard a quiet plink as something hit the metal tray.
“It’s a plastic clothes peg. A few of them, actually,” She held one of them up so I could see through the glass. It was a standard plastic peg, the kind you buy at the supermarket in multicolored bags of fifty or a hundred. She moved the tongs back against the penguin’s belly. There were a few more plinks against the metal tray. “I think that’s it.” She set down her scalpel. “Nine pegs all up.”
Nine? I thought to myself. How could such a tiny bird have swallowed so many pegs? How had it survived up till now?
The vet sighed and looked wearily out through the glass. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this. Someone has been dropping objects like this into the enclosures. Not too long ago we had the same thing with Gary, one of the otters. Wee Gary had a dozen pieces of Lego in his gut. We almost lost him, the poor guy.” She set her hands against the operating table. “These animals have an insatiable curiosity, and if they see something in their enclosure they don’t recognise they’ll go right for it. We’re lucky we brought Tina in early enough.” She gave me a meaningful look, her eyes directly on mine. “If you see anything suspicious, be sure to let the staff know immediately.”
It struck me as monstrous, the idea that anyone could do something so pointlessly cruel. I wanted more than anything to catch whoever was responsible. I thought about staking the place out. I had time on my hands, after all, and a year’s unlimited pass wouldn’t set me back too much, probably only the equivalent of a decent bottle of single malt. I could bring a book, and just set up by the penguins until I saw whoever was doing it. I pictured some skinny guy in jeans and a ratty t-shirt with patches of fuzz on his chin, walking between the enclosures with a backpack full of pegs and other assorted plastic shrapnel. I watched Tina’s tiny chest expand in and out with the motion of the breathing tube. My fists were clenched in my lap, white and shaking. I imagined what it would be like to see the guy lean into an enclosure and drop something in. No one else would see him, but I would have been watching the whole time. I’d let him think he’d gotten away with it, and would then follow him between the enclosures at a safe distance. Eventually he would look back and see me. By now he’d know something was up, and would start heading for the exit, as fast as he could while still feigning nonchalance. I’d reach him in a few quick steps, grab him by the shoulder, and spin him around to face me. He would squint up with surprise, knowing he’d been caught. I’d need to grab him by the throat, hard enough to keep him still. It would feel so good to hear his breath shut in his windpipe, the pinching sound as he tried to pull air into his lungs. His hands would thrash against me, his eyes shining like broken flint. Someone from the zoo would probably intervene before things went too far. Probably.
Anyway man, none of this is why I’m writing. Penguins, clothes pegs, otters, the young vet with the too large apron: all of this is just background colour. I know with your busy life you’re not exactly sitting around waiting for someone to mail you a zoo update. You’ve got stuff to do.
You might be wondering, after all this time, why I’m getting in touch. I know it’s been a while since we last spoke. I’m struggling to remember when that was, exactly. Rob’s wedding, maybe? Or some beer festival a few years back? In any case, I hear you’ve been doing well, rising through the ranks at the company, making all the right impressions. I always knew you’d end up doing well. Even back in high school I had you picked out for some shade of future greatness. Every time I hear from someone about how well you’re doing, I always think to myself, well, all right. Maybe there is some sort of order going on here. Maybe some things are correct.
It’s just, lately I’ve been wondering, what is there binding any of us together? I walk past people in the street, and, hard as I try to imagine, the idea we might share some sort of bond just seems stupid. Everyone just seems to be rushing onwards towards something urgent, their all-important something. And I’m never quick enough to find mine, you know? It’s always too far away for me to work out the size and shape of it, let alone chase it down and bring it to the ground. I’ve tried to get others to tell me about theirs, just so I can look at it side on and try to understand, but I can’t phrase the question in a way that makes sense, and no one knows what I’m talking about. I feel like I’ve made zero progress. Am I supposed to look around for another job? Is it a relationship I need? Am I supposed to patch things up with Jenna? Jesus, the thought of just talking to her gives me the shakes.
I’m not looking for guidance. I’m not chasing any favors, either: you don’t have to worry about anything like that. All I wanted to say is, if you end up hearing at any point that I’ve taken off somewhere, gone overseas maybe, or somewhere else, whatever, then don’t worry about it. Please. If anyone wonders, if you hear anything from anyone, hushed voices in circles at parties, whatever, feel free to pass this on. You can tell them, well, he was trying to get a grip on things, and whatever it was he could see in front of him must have been too big, much more than he could take on here, in this place.
Don’t worry about it though, man. I’m serious. The last thing I want is for any of this to be a distraction. If something is going to happen it’ll happen soon. I can feel it. Every day this world rolls over in the sunlight, mute and unconcerned. It’ll keep on rolling no matter what I have to say about it, no matter what I decide. There’s no reconciling any of it. So don’t worry, all right? That’s the last thing I want for you.