MORE THAN NOT-SWEEPING
Behind us there were sand dunes, and on the sand dunes were tufts of brown grass which made me think of those almost-bald men who thought that if they schuzzed up their few remaining hairs with wax or gel, no one would think of them as the men who were almost bald. I didn’t know how schuzzed was spelled – the ‘s’ was pronounced more like a ‘j’ — or whether spelling rules existed for words that existed only in hair salons many miles from any dictionary. I asked K what she thought, but she looked at me as if her life was ruined and I was the cause, and although I knew that such looks were her brain’s attempt to relieve her from the truth, i.e. the ruin was larger and more complex than we’d ever know, and that thinking that I knew what everyone thought was another such attempt, I began to feel like I’d swallowed something which ought never to be swallowed — like sand. I coughed and coughed.
‘Why are you Not Sweeping?’ Senior Leadership yelled through the rolled-down window of her Jeep, whose wheels were doing to the sand what those imaginary bald men had been doing to their hair. My throat ached — evidence that the sand was as real as it was metaphorical: small comfort.
My broom, it’s true, was on the ground, but I’d no idea how it had got there.
‘I’ve swept 25 litres in the last twelve minutes!’ K waved her broom triumphantly; it looked unbearably wet and sorry for itself.
‘That’s — ’ Senior Leadership was nearer to the ground than us, and yet, when she looked at us, she looked downwards. Whether this was a cause or a consequence of her position, I would never know. ‘— Satisfactory.’ She licked her lips and swallowed, as if in physical discomfort. ‘But satisfactory is not good enough; nor is good good enough; you might be expecting me to say that outstanding is good enough, but that is exactly the sort of attitude that results in people forgetting that if they stop sweeping whilst they are being paid what I should remind you is above average wage for sweeping, they will soon, if they do not get a hold of their attitude, not be a sweeper, and therefore no longer a person, at all.’
Her cart’s wheels szujjed the sand again; I coughed, again; again, everything felt like sand. No. I felt like sand. I felt like an egg timer whose internal sand is clumping together, refusing to do what some human has decided it has been put on this earth to do.
‘Hurry,’ K shoved my broom at my chest, ‘I can see right through your foot.’
I looked, and whilst there would have been a time when I could’ve told myself that the translucency of my toes was a Senior Management construct designed to discourage idleness, that my personhood was in no way contingent on my ability to sweep or not, such an idea was now as difficult to access as the almost-bald man’s hair, and as I reached for the broom, I was sure, absolutely sure, that it really was what I’d been put on this earth to do.
Forty two minutes later, sand splattered the back of my neck. ‘75 litres already.’ Senior Management flung a Gold Star out of her window. ‘Good,’ she said, ‘But not quite good enough.’ Then, she left.
‘I did 30 litres in 27 minutes yesterday,’ said K, ‘and she didn’t even give me a Special Mention.’ Her lip was wobbling, as if she might cry, and that thing happened when she looked not like my Chosen One, my companion, my love, etc, etc, but like any random person; I juggled the star in an attempt to forget this.
‘It’s all made up,’ I said. The star was silky soft against my cheek, yet I squeezed it and squeezed it, determined to find out what filled its soft, round belly. ‘None of it means anything.’
‘Then why are you smiling so much?’
‘I’m not.’ Pressing the star to my skin made my ‘I’ feel real in the way my toes now did.
‘Sometimes, I think —’ she was now crying whilst sweeping, which was an extreme form of feeling whilst sweeping, which was even worse than thinking whilst sweeping, which was the number one cause of people no longer being sweepers and therefore persons —‘that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be Good, not even for a minute, there’s some trick to it I’m missing and only no one will tell me what it is, not even you, even though we are meant to tell each other everything.’
I wanted to tell her that there was no secret, or if there was, I didn’t know it; but I was squeezing the star, which was suddenly the most important thing, more important than sweeping, or Senior Management, or men who refused to see that other people might see them as bald. I dropped the broom and, with both hands, I squeezed and squeezed; the tide lapped at my ankles, then, at my knees; finally, my palms began to hurt, and I opened my eyes, and I saw a flaccid rubber thing in my palm that did not look like it had ever been anywhere near any star. Then, I looked up, past K, at the other sweepers; they swept the water back into itself only for it to lap back towards them, and they did not look like people, but like those thin metal hair grips that almost-bald men wore in their dreams.
‘No more rewards for you.’ Senior Management was back. ‘They go straight to your head.’
‘What about — ’
Senior Management stepped on the accelerator as K said ‘me’.
Then came an announcement that anyone who swept more than 56.5l of water in the next 25 minutes would win an extra Happy Hour. K picked up her own broom, and mine. She swept 59.2 l of water in 25 minutes, but because she used my brush as well as her own, this was recorded as only 29l each, and so the extra Happy Hour was awarded to T, who did not attempt to hide his smugness as he scarpered over the dunes.
‘Oh well, we’ve only forty five minutes left,’ said K, now brushing the sea in the manner of a human who was far better acquainted with the word ‘tired’ than was sensible. ‘What shall we do after our shift?’
I looked at the place where the water met the sky; I suppose it’s what, in the time before The Ruin, might’ve been called the horizon. For a moment, I saw that world, the one in which there was more to life than sweeping and not sweeping, by which I mean less, by which I mean, in this other world, such words did not exist; whether this world had anything to do with bald heads, I cannot say. I thought I was going to tell K all about it, but when I tried, I said, ‘Let’s watch TV.’ I said, ‘takeout,’ I said, ‘fuck then takeout whilst watching tv.’ I said, ‘why is it that the closer you get to the end of something, the slower time moves?’
‘Sweep,’ she said, ‘it’ll go faster.’
And I did. I swept with one hand whilst clutching the deflated star in the other; soon, we were on the dry side of the dunes, rubbing our bodies against each other, as if they and we would never sweep, ever again.
Clare Fisher is the author of the novel, All the Good Things (Viking/Europa) and the short story collection, How the Light Gets In (Influx Press). Her work has been translated into six languages, has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is now studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds, where she teaches Creative Writing and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. Her short fiction has recently been published in A Queer Anthology of Wilderness (2019), The London Magazine, 3am Magazine, and elsewhere. Twitter: @claresitafisher website: www.clarefisherwriter.com