Formaldehyde: Extract

2022: Paul

Formaldehyde by Jane Rawson

Winner of the 2015 Viva La Novella Prize

'Original, intelligent and compelling - a rare combination. Formaldehyde pulls off a complex narrative with frequent time and point-of-view shifts without ever losing the reader. The clever structure never gets in the way of the writing, which is sharply observed, assured and witty. The most original novel I’ve read for some time.' – Graeme Simsion

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Not knowing I was dead, I went about my business that day like I did on every other. I squashed onto the bus the way I did every morning and everyone else squashed on too. The man next to me rubbed up against my arm a little, told me I looked real smart while I pretended not to hear, while I stared at my phone and wondered whether to ask the new intern on a date.

We pulled up at the corner where the grubby white kids hang out, angling for change. ‘Hey, got a dollar, got a dollar, man I need a sandwich, can you help me get a cup of coffee?’; signs on cardboard ‘hey why lye I need beer’, ‘got a spare cigarette, buddy, buddy, got a spare cigarette, got a spare dollar, can you spare a dollar’. All their dogs on strings.

A boy tried to get on the bus. ‘Hey man, I got no money, but I gotta get to court by nine. Man, I gotta get to court by nine or they’ll arrest me! C’mon man.’

And I thought, well, why didn’t you get out of bed earlier, fool – it’s not like it’s a long walk. The bus driver said, ‘Hey, no cash, no ride.’ And he tried to shut the door on the kid’s hand, shut him out of the bus, but the kid wouldn’t move.

‘Get outta the way,’ the driver yelled at him. ‘I got working people gotta get downtown here!’

Yeah, look at these hardworking people, kid, with their daydreams about screwing, and the way they sit all day at their desks staring out the window, sending smartass emails to their jaded friends, drinking too much coffee, working about exactly not at all. Hey scum, these decent people have jobs, you know: you’ve got no job, you useless little shit, so fuck off.

I looked – not very hard, sure, but I was sort of looking – for my wallet so I could grab him a couple of dollars so he could get on the damn bus, despite his idiocy. But the driver closed the door on him and pulled away from the kerb and most of us went back to fiddling with our phones and our watches. I realised I didn’t have any money in my wallet anyway.

If I had money, I’d have bought a cup of coffee before I got on the bus. I made coffee this morning, like I usually do, but I forgot to put the water in the bottom of the percolator. You can wait a long time for coffee to brew when there’s no water in the percolator. So that’s why I was late this morning. That, and refusing to get out of bed, but that’s standard.

So I walked into the office and it was ten to ten, and no one even looked up, and no one yelled at me and I thought, really, this is what’s wrong with modern society. No goddamn discipline. How can I be expected to act like a decent human being when no one defines and enforces the boundaries of my behaviour?

I sat down at my desk and turned on my computer and there was absolutely nothing in my calendar. Nothing. Not a single stakeholder briefing, not one mind-mapping workshop, not even a one-on-one coffee catch-up. Every single meeting I’d had booked – all twelve of them for the day – had been cancelled. Something must be going on: there was probably some sort of meeting about it at, like, 9.15 or some ungodly hour, which I’d missed, and everyone was just assuming I was up to speed. I’d have asked one of my pod-mates what the deal was, but they were all in a meeting.

I went to the kitchen to get my reusable takeaway coffee cup, thinking I’d fill in time by heading downstairs for a macchiato, but it wasn’t there. I went into the bathroom to check my hair, spent a little while getting it just right, then looked for my cup again. It definitely wasn’t there. So I went back to my desk to see if, well, anything had changed in my absence.

Nope. Everyone was still in a meeting and no one had invited me.

And while I was standing and staring at my monitor, Louise popped her head out from the board room and gestured for me to come over. When I was a foot away she stage whispered in my direction, ‘Paul, will you please leave. You’re making everyone uncomfortable.’

So I did. Cause I didn’t know what else to do.