A Civilised Man, by Pascal Thomas

His preparations for social outings weren’t different from his preparations for work: he’d force down some food, before or after a cigarette (he would quit eventually), take five or ten minutes to browse on his phone and get in the shower, exiting the bathroom wearing deodorant and his shirt and leggings. He’d shave his face and brush his teeth, in that order, before drying himself. At this point he’d usually have another cigarette (the main reason was increased productivity), before washing his hands again to remove the stench of burnt tobacco. Finally it would be time to style his hair, and he had a very particular way of doing so: a side parting with one type of product, a strong putty, pushing up the greater part of his hair, and another type of product, a slick gel, holding the lesser part of his hair combed back and in place. It made total sense to do it in this way, in this order, and if there was a flaw in his method, it was only that he followed the process too consciously, as if each step didn’t come as naturally to him as he desired.

Frederick looked at the watch he was only now putting on (watches came squarely at the end of the process, along with shoes and, in the case of work, ties). He had over two hours before he would be meeting with his colleague, Clarice, the journey claiming half of that, which meant that he needed to leave imminently. Allowing twice the amount of time for the trip seemed prudent, as his buses had been diverted and his trains had been delayed enough times for him to know that mass transit was not to be trusted. To fail to account for variables was to submit to the mercy of events outside his control. The meeting itself was of no professional importance (Clarice and he worked at identical levels, and had done so for a long time. Her suggestion for a weekend dinner had caught him off-guard until he delivered the appropriate, affirmative response), but the possibility of lateness was unacceptable on a personal level.

His overall appearance was business casual: only the absence of tie and briefcase indicated that his destination was anywhere other than work. He smoked a third cigarette (the patches had once helped), stubbing it out in an ashtray before emptying the ashtray in the bin. He sprayed air freshener around the room to dispel the pervasive smell, before completing the final part of preparations, the collecting of his house keys. Standing outside his apartment, he turned the top lock, rattling the door, and the bottom lock, rattling the door, before slipping his keys in a pocket and descending the three flights of stairs leading to the main entrance. Only when the front door was opened did he realise that it was raining outside, heavily.

The windows were so fogged he could make out nothing of the world beyond them. Leaning against the seat in front of him was his umbrella, dripping wet, small copper streaks formed in places along the top, where the rust of the metal frame had somehow transferred onto the material. Frederick himself was dry, only the hood of his coat and the sides of his shoes damp with rainwater. The cold wind had tossed his hair back and forth, threatening to destroy his immaculate parting and succeeding in ruffling the rest of it, but he would not correct it here. More wind was promised from the moment he stepped off the bus, and the windows were fogged and he could not see himself.

His journey to the rendezvous point was much the same as his journey to work: a bus, a train and another bus, although in work’s case the journey was slightly shorter. So far he was on schedule, due to arrive at his final destination with almost an hour to spare until his companion’s arrival. As he travelled he kept his back straight, his rear firmly planted at the point in the chair where the base meets the support, as if cameras were trained on him and he was a model of good posture. Little demonstrations of discipline like this were good for him, helping him to clear his mind and focus.

He thought of Clarice, finding it difficult to picture her outside the office in which they worked. He was sure he’d seen her outside work before, many times, but he could not picture the clothes she wore or the demeanour she assumed. For a moment she seemed unable to exist as anyone other than a colleague, but gradually he remembered or imagined how she had been and how she would be: a little lacking in the can-do attitude she was paid to display, a little less concerned with the diplomatic resolving of day-to-day dilemmas, a little more sweary. Probably she would be dressed in business casual like himself. Certainly he was sure he’d never seen her in jeans. It had been many, many years since he’d last worn a pair of his own.

Trains, he noticed, were generally more dependable. The only times serious disruptions were caused were when some poor fellow jumped to his death on the tracks. Nobody could be held accountable for that, at least not those running the service. It was buses which coughed and spluttered to a stop five or ten or fifteen minutes late, an identical one pulling up behind them literally seconds later, in unashamed admission of poor planning and inefficiency. These duplicate buses would end up clogging traffic further down the road, the final insult for commuters inside and out. Frederick would have done it all differently, if he could have. He imagined, on a micro level, how he would manage the service of the buses.

There was less fog on the train windows than on the bus, covered instead with thick streaks of water. Still it rained, no less or more heavily than it had been when he first stepped out. He wondered briefly if he should have gotten a taxi instead, but the absurdity of the idea quickly revealed itself and was gone. Looking at his watch, appreciating that he was still on schedule, he thought of the meal he and Clarice would get: she’d suggested Indian (which he hated), he’d suggested Italian (which bored her), and they’d settled on Japanese, at one of the pricey restaurant chains that had been springing up all over the place recently. He was familiar with such places and remained somewhat taken aback by the lack of authenticity in menu and staff, the idea that a Western beer could be served to you by an Eastern European. In a benign way it struck him as an anomaly, something which didn’t quite fit and could have been done better.

He felt tired by the time he boarded the second and final bus, but also strangely revitalised, as though his body had grown accustomed to its tiredness and would continue to function correctly for many hours to come. It was almost five o’clock, and on a weekday he would be preparing to leave his workplace. On a weekday he would begin the journey tired. Today he was ending the journey tired, but it made no difference. Surveying the interior of the bus (the windows were fogged again) he saw that his fellow travellers were all listening to music, much like himself. In this day and age, there seemed no other way to travel, unless side by side with a trusted and interesting companion.

He was looking down at his phone with the intention of skipping a track when he realised he had a message. It had been sent a minute or two earlier (he kept his phone on silent at all times) and it was from Clarice. She would not be able to attend dinner that evening, for which she apologised, and wanted to reschedule at a later date. The craftsmanship of her message was laudable. Frederick would have compose it in just the same way. He messaged her back assuring her that there was no problem with the cancellation. They would organise another dinner another time.

A free man for the rest of the day, he prepared for the long journey back home. He stepped off his current bus and crossed the road to catch one going in the same direction he had come from. In between this bus and the train, he passed one of the same Japanese restaurant chains he’d intended to visit with Clarice. It made perfect sense to go in, to dine alone for a meal that would give him the strength he’d expended on the journey. He lit a cigarette (one before every meal, one after) and paced in front of the restaurant, holding his umbrella up against a light rain and briefly glancing through the windows, where others dined, most in groups, some alone. When the cigarette was gone, he paused at the door. He’d changed his mind: it was a waste of money that he could not justify. He walked away thinking that he would dine there another time. He had all of his life to do so.

It was dark and cold as he waited for the second and final bus on the journey home, although at least the rain had stopped. He held his still-wet umbrella by his side, its recent usefulness becoming a minor nuisance to him, something that prevented him from easily checking his phone (he preferred to cradle it with both hands) or lighting cigarettes. His bus was delayed, but there was no anger. He had no plans for the remainder of the evening, and the fatigue he’d felt earlier had given way to a kind of automation. Frederick felt he could have stayed there for hours and hours if he needed to.

Across the road, a group of children played in the road. They were adolescent boys, four or five of them, and as they darted across the road and back, the phrase came into Frederick’s mind of ‘playing with traffic.’ One of them ran between two stationary buses and came within inches of being hit by a moped: the moped drove off without delay and the boy resumed his run, he and his friends continuing to shout words that had no meaning. Frederick kept watching them, surveying every close call with interest. He found himself wishing that one of them would get struck down, and imagined that even if this happened, the other boys would only continue to run and shout and laugh.

Pascal Thomas divides his time between France and England.