Ben Hall got home from work every day at six o’clock without fail. After hanging his blue waterproof jacket on a peg in the hall and removing his brown shoes, he would proceed to the kitchen where he set a full kettle of water to boil. In the exact three minutes that this took, he would change out of his blue-striped work shirt and tan trousers and hang them in the bedroom wardrobe. After changing into a pair of identical tan trousers (which were strictly ‘casual’) and a smart polo shirt, he would proceed back downstairs to make a large pot of tea, filling two mugs with the refreshing beverage. He would wait in silence for exactly five minutes, staring at nothing in particular, no expression on his face.
A key turned in the front door and Emily arrived home, stressed and tired-looking as always. ‘Welcome home!’ cried Ben, rushing towards his wife.
‘Don’t smother me, please,’ said Emily, rushing upstairs.
‘I’ve made us tea,’ said Ben. He watched her go, his face once again expressionless. He went back into the kitchen, put the cups and teapot onto a tray and carried them carefully into the living room. ‘Shall we watch television?’ he asked, not really expecting an answer. They always watched Deal or No Deal when Emily got home. ‘I’ll get us a biscuit each. Custard cream, I think.’ He returned to the kitchen and fetched a couple of custard cream biscuits from the cupboard. They were the only biscuits they ever ate. Whenever they started to run low, another packet seemed to appear in the cupboard, no explanation given.
Emily came back downstairs, wearing pyjamas and slippers. Ben followed her into the living room and they sat down on the sofa in their regular places.
‘How was your day?’ asked Emily, yawning loudly.
Ben’s eyes lit up and he sat forward. ‘It was busy today. Very busy. I chatted with one of the guys at lunch. He reckons it’s looking up for pay rises this year.’
‘Really?’ said Emily. ‘That’s good news. Who was it you talked to? John?’
‘No,’ snapped Ben. ‘Not John. He’s tied up with things at the moment.’
Emily picked up her mug of tea and snuggled down into the sofa. ‘Then who? You only ever tell me about John.’
Ben quickly picked up his own mug and waited for Emily to start drinking. ‘It was Steve,’ he said. ‘Steve Jobs.’
‘Steve Jobs?’ laughed Emily.
‘Nobs!’ corrected Ben, a frustrated look creeping across his face. ‘Steve from Accounts. He’s got a new phone. I might save up for one.’
‘Oh, really?’ said Emily. ‘What phone was it? If it was an iPhone, you can have my old one if you like?’
‘No, it wasn’t one of those. It was… a different one.’
Deal or No Deal had finished and the credits had started rolling. Ben quickly grabbed the remote and flicked through the channels, not bothering to stop to see what was on. ‘Shall we watch the last half of Flog It!, then?’ he said. ‘Then Antiques Roadtrip.’
Emily sighed. ‘Don’t we always? Go on then. I’m using the computer in a minute, anyway. There’s six reports I need to get typed up by tomorrow morning.’ Ben looked down at the floor, his grip on the mug tightening. ‘You can get some of your novel done tonight,’ continued Emily. ‘I can’t wait to read it.’
Emily drank the rest of her tea, gave Ben a quick peck on the cheek and then went upstairs. Ben was still clutching his mug, stuck in a trance. His eyes darted to the notepad he kept by the television. He’d never let Emily open it. Never.
It was half past twelve; the exact time that Ben Hall took his lunch every day, weekday or weekend. He allowed twenty minutes for eating his cheese and pickle sandwich, had a mug of sugary machine coffee, then allowed five minutes to digest. After this daily ritual, he would go for a walk around the office for twenty minutes, always returning to his desk by the end of lunch without fail.
As it reached one o’clock, Ben was just entering the Accounts department. He walked confidently, beaming at everyone who looked his way. ‘Afternoon John!’ he shouted. ‘Nice weather today.’
A young man with slicked back hair and wearing a black suit looked over the partition between his desk and the throughway. ‘I’m busy, Ben. What is it?’
‘Just wondering if you’d heard any more inside news on the pay rises?’
John sighed and slumped back down into his chair, clicking his mouse repeatedly. ‘I told you yesterday, Ben. I don’t even have involvement on pay. Go speak to your manager.’
Ben hesitated for a moment, confused. ‘But… I told Alice. I’m sure you mentioned something about it the other day.’
‘What you tell your wife and what you actually hear are obviously two very different things,’ said John. ‘I thought you told me her name was Rebecca the other day?’
Ben quickly headed off. He checked his watch and quickened his pace. He was running behind a little. He hurried through Recruitment and IT and arrived at the little break room near his desk. There were a pair of managers standing by the coffee machine, chatting and sipping from their mugs. They barely acknowledged Ben as he tried to politely squeeze around them to make himself a drink.
‘Sorry guys,’ he said, making little ‘oop’ and ‘err’ noises like he’d seen other people do when they almost bumped into each other around the office. He stumbled and accidentally elbowed one of the managers roughly in the side. He tripped, spilling his coffee all over his white shirt. Ben continued to make himself a coffee, getting anxious about the time it was taking.
‘Oi! Aren’t you going to apologise? Look at my bloody shirt!’
Ben started humming, trying to avoid a confrontation. The machine beeped to indicate it had finished making the coffee. Ben took the mug and turned around.
‘Oh, hi Steve!’ he said. ‘I was telling Alice about your phone last night.’
The coffee-drenched man gawked, perplexed. ‘My name’s Owen, you idiot! We’ve never spoken before.’
Ben clamped his fingers tight around his mug. ‘Yes… we did, Steve.’ He could feel himself sweating. Everyone was staring at him. ‘Those yPhones are really good, aren’t they?’
The other manager laughed, nearly spitting out his drink. ‘It’s iPhone.’ He shot a snide look at Owen. ‘Who the hell is this guy?’
Owen shook his head, his face crumpled up like a ball of paper. ‘A complete arsehole. Let’s go.’
There was a quiet cracking sound and Ben’s mug crashed to the floor, the handle broken and sharp in his bloody hand. He was shaking all over, his face turning red. His eyes were wild, boring into the men. Suddenly, he launched himself at Owen and rammed him head-first into the coffee machine.
‘I’ll save up for that yPhone then, Steve,’ he said, his face returning to normal. ‘See you tomorrow.’
‘Mr. Hall,’ said Mr. Ferguson. ‘I’m so pleased we could have this meeting at long last. Your wife tells me you’ve just finished the final draft?’
Ben nodded and looked at the notebook resting on his lap. ‘Yes.’
‘Well, let’s see the finished thing, shall we?’ said Mr. Ferguson eagerly.
Ben looked at Emily in the seat beside him and she smiled supportively. ‘Go on,’ she said. ‘It’s your masterpiece.’
Ben picked up the notebook tentatively and pushed it across the desk towards Mr. Ferguson. He immediately looked down at his lap and started fiddling with his fingers.
‘What is this?’ said Mr. Ferguson.
Emily leaned across the desk. ‘What’s wrong? Is it the handwriting? He prefers not to use a computer, don’t you Ben?’
‘It— it’s empty,’ said Mr. Ferguson, astounded.
‘What? Ben, what’s going on?’ said Emily. ‘You’ve kept me from looking at that notebook for the past three years. It’s a mistake, isn’t it? We’ll go home and get the right one.’
Ben looked his wife in the eye one final time and smiled like he always did when she arrived home. He wrapped his hands around her flimsy neck and squeezed as hard as he could. ‘Custard creams, Alice?’