Fiction: A Day Off
By Mark Keane
I took a day off work. Wednesday, 7th November. It didn’t matter that it was a Wednesday - I know now that each day has its strangeness and threat. As for taking it in wet and gloomy November, that’s equally irrelevant. All the months are the same when you get down to the essentials. What happened would have happened, no matter the day or month.
A day off, one day from the four weeks of statutory paid leave allowed by the Irish Civil Service. Normally, I took two weeks in summer and a week or so at Christmas and spent them working with my uncle on his farm in East Clare. I never took all the leave due me and nobody had seen anything wrong with that, least of all myself. One thing I’d never done was to take a single day off, whether a Wednesday or Tuesday in November or May or any other time. I was curious and thought I’d give it a try.
“I need a day off work,” I told Cormican, the Head of Department. “Next Wednesday.”
He frowned. “Are you feeling alright?”
“It’s only one day.”
There was a time when Cormican took the odd day off. That changed and he used all his holidays in one go, fishing in Killery Harbour in August.
“What will you do with yourself?” he asked.
His questions made me more determined to have a day off.
“Nothing much. Take it easy, recharge the batteries.”
“Can’t you do that here?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I want a day away from work.”
“Are you sure about this?”
I looked him straight in the eye. “I am.”
“Right so,” he said. “If it’s what you want, you can take the day.”
“That’s settled.” I got up to leave.
Cormican watched me, his face creased with concern. “Mind yourself,” he said, “on your day off.”
The others in the office had the same questions.
“Why do you have to take a day off?” D’Arcy blew out his cheeks and wagged his head.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Jamieson sounded worried.
It was none of their business. If I wanted to take off that Wednesday, it was up to me and nobody else. All the same, I began having second thoughts when Brophy came to see me. A man of experience, he spent his summer holidays in Corfu and went skiing in the Alps at Christmas.
“You’re looking for trouble,” he said, “taking a day off like this.”
“What do you mean?” Brophy had me rattled.
“Don’t do it. That’s all I have to say.”
On Tuesday, 6th November, everyone in the office seemed to be avoiding me, awkward in my company, less talkative at coffee break. Nobody mentioned my day off.
I expected D’Arcy to say something like, “Enjoy yourself tomorrow,” as we were leaving or Jamieson to call out, “See you on Thursday.”
No one said a word.
D’Arcy and Jamieson had each taken a day off years ago. I see now why they couldn’t bring themselves to tell me what happened, and I don’t blame them.
Everything I did that evening was loaded with significance, even putting out the bins and washing the dishes. My first evening before a day off. Watching the news on TV, I couldn’t focus on the headlines. I should have had something special for supper, not the usual grilled chop, carrots and mashed potatoes. Before going to bed, I felt giddy, anticipating my day off. “No need for an alarm tonight,” I said out loud to mark the coming day. For eighteen years, I’d set the alarm for eight o'clock. That added up to nearly a thousand Tuesday nights. Otherwise, I’d be on my uncle’s farm and he got up at the crack of dawn.
Even without the alarm, I woke at eight. Waking at the same time made it feel like any Wednesday. I’d expected something different. But Wednesday hadn’t changed and how could it? Just because I was taking the day off work didn’t mean the day would be different in itself. Lying there, looking up at the Y-shaped crack in the ceiling, my thoughts took me around in circles. My uncle was right when he said, “Too much thinking never got the turf cut.” He’d never taken a single Wednesday or Monday or Sunday or any day off and was the better for it.
In the kitchen, I set about making breakfast. It felt wrong, putting bread in the toaster. I took a step back. The toaster appeared the same, red casing with slots for two slices, but there was an abnormal quality to it. Maybe it was because I never used it on a Wednesday morning. On workdays, all I had for breakfast was a cup of coffee with plenty of milk and barely enough time to drink it before I had to leave.
I buttered the toast and spread on marmalade, cutting both slices diagonally as I did each Saturday but I was doing it much earlier this morning. On Saturdays, I slept late and didn’t get up until after ten. Then, I’d return to bed as breakfast in bed meant the weekend. This morning, I sat at the kitchen table, drank my coffee, ate my toast and stared at the toaster. On Saturday, I’d read the weekend sports supplement. This wasn’t Saturday and there was no sports supplement. This was Wednesday morning.
A glance at the wall clock told me it was coming up to nine. Normally, I’d be arriving at work, hanging up my coat, exchanging chit-chat with D’Arcy or Jamieson. Eight hours until knocking-off time at five, eight hours of freedom to do what I wanted. I could read, make some inroads into the book I’d been struggling to get through. No, that’s what I did after work or on weekends. There was all the paperwork I meant to finish, bills and bank stuff from the last year but that was too much like work. On my day off, I needed something exceptional; an activity suitable for a day off.
I washed the cup and plate in the sink. Idly rooting around in my trouser pocket, I took out some loose change and added up the coins before putting the money back in my pocket. What was there to do? I should have planned this properly. It made me think of Cormican and the others, wanting to know why I had to have a day off. I checked the clock; five past nine. The first hour had to be the most difficult. I was new to this and should start something, get into a rhythm and take it from there. Something simple like watering the plants. They hadn’t been watered in over a week. It wouldn’t take long, and then I’d be up and running.
The house didn’t feel right. Everything was there, the walls and doors and windows and furniture. Nothing missing or added, more a dissonance in the character of the place. I walked through the rooms, and they seemed unfamiliar. The kitchen table was in the wrong place, farther away from the wall or at an odd angle. I went to the other end of the kitchen to get a different view. Hard to tell as I didn’t know the table from that perspective. The ticking of the clock sounded louder than normal.
As I filled the watering can in the bathroom, I experienced a sudden sadness. Waves of regret and a hollowness in my chest. It just came upon me. A sadness, like I’d lost something that couldn’t be replaced. I sat on the edge of the bathtub and waited for the feeling to pass.
Normally, I’d water the plants in the conservatory first. Today, I started in the sitting room. The weeping fig held its leaves tight, the variegation severe. Another burst of sadness brought a terrible sense of exclusion. The spider plants arched over the bookshelves, long striped fingers pointing and accusing, telling me I didn’t belong here. I left the watering can in the bathroom.
The clock in the kitchen insistently counted out the seconds, magnifying the silence in the house. More than silence, an eerie stillness. I lived on a quiet road with little traffic or much activity of any kind. I looked out a window. Drizzling with rain, the sky a dirty white. Nobody to be seen, the few children in the neighbourhood at school, their parents at work. I should be at work, not isolated in this house. It was my choice, my decision to take a day off and I had to get through it.
Back in the sitting room, I found the remote control, turned on the TV and pressed the volume button. A talk show, grinning faces, garish colours, the sound of false laughter. I turned off the TV and the quiet was sudden, jarring. The arrangement of figurines on the mantelpiece bothered me. Off-kilter, not the way I expected. I wanted to go over and move them but I had no right to interfere. The hush in the room intensified, causing an unpleasant tingle along the back of my neck. I picked up the book I’d been reading, and retreated to the kitchen.
Sitting at the table, I read the same two sentences a dozen times and took nothing in. I turned the book over and re-read the summary and blurbs on the back cover. The ticking of the clock filled my head. I made another cup of coffee for something to do. Fidgeting, not able to stay sitting, I paced the hallway. Half past ten, still six and a half hours to go to the end of the workday. I took the coins from my pocket and stacked them, one on top of the other on the hall table. It was dark in the hallway. I turned on the light and felt even sadder.
The letter box opened and a letter fell onto the doormat. So this was when the postman made his rounds. Whenever I came home in the evening and went through the post, I never gave the postman a second thought, never considered his existence. Being here when he arrived made me nervous. I picked up the letter, an electricity bill. That reminded me of the paperwork I needed to sort out. Not now, I couldn’t face any of that, not in this house.
I had to get out. But where? Down to the supermarket to buy something for lunch, food that required preparation; chopping and cooking a distraction, a way of passing the time. A practical solution. I put on my coat. At the door, I hesitated, anxious about what I would find outside but too agitated to stay inside. The sadness came over me again. I forced myself to move, open the door, step outside and shut the door.
It had stopped raining but could start again any minute. A soft day, my uncle would have called it. I buttoned my coat, and walked down the drive, avoiding puddles. Across the road and down to the main street. I spotted one of the neighbours I half-knew, a surly old codger, a pensioner with nothing to do on a workday. Farther on, I passed more people. What were they all doing? How did they manage to deal with all this time? And then I saw their faces, their look of discontent, how they turned away to avoid my gaze. Each of them struggling, and I was one of them.
The supermarket was too bright. Mothers with prams, students, older couples going up and down aisles, putting items in shopping carts. Surprising, worrying, all of this happening on a Wednesday morning. On any other Wednesday, I’d be at a meeting or writing a report, unaware of this separate world.
I didn’t know what to have for lunch. Under the harsh light, the steaks appeared unnaturally purple, the chicken pieces shiny pink and fleshy. A special offer on duck breasts. That would do, pan-fried duck with the potatoes left over from last night. I took a bottle of wine from a fridge, a Chablis. One glass with the food to calm me. I used the self-service check-out, circumventing small talk with the cashier.
Retracing my steps, I kept my eyes on the ground. At the front gate, I paused. It had started raining. The house observed me. I felt its hostile welcome in the hallway. Rain whipped against the windows in the kitchen.
I prepared the food, heating oil in the frying pan and cutting carrots to go with the potatoes. As I searched for the corkscrew, it struck me how unprecedented this was; a day off with duck and wine for lunch. How unprecedented, and unreal, and how mistaken. The duck tasted of nothing, the wine acidic. I pushed the plate aside. Quarter to two, and the clock ticked and ticked.
I wandered into the bedroom and approached the unmade bed. Ominous, the way the quilt had folded, the wrinkles in the pillows taking on a sinister aspect. The curtains stirred, the pattern of squares and lines undulating, breathing.
There was a life in these rooms that went on when I wasn’t here. A life in these inanimate objects. Not that I believed the chairs danced with each other once I shut the door in the morning or the toaster sang songs with the clock or the plants laughed and argued. A life, nonetheless, and I had disturbed that life by taking a day off.
The house was suffocating me. I needed something to grip onto, something solid and dependable. Out I went again, away from the house. Strange, taking the usual route to work at three o’clock in the afternoon. When I reached the office building, I couldn't go inside, not able to deal with their questions. Instead, I entered the public gardens across the street. Hidden behind a tree, I watched the entrance.
After an hour, the first people began to emerge. I recognised one or two from the audit department. Finally, D’Arcy appeared, Jamieson behind him. They dawdled at the entrance, D’Arcy talking, Jamieson listening and nodding. Brophy joined them. He said something and they laughed. I wondered if they were laughing about me. Brophy went down the street and the other two parted. That was my signal, the end of the workday and the end of my day off.
Going back to the house was out of the question. I walked down streets I’d never walked before, through parts of the city I didn’t know. After the day I’d spent, I avoided anywhere familiar, preferring surroundings that meant nothing to me. I stopped in different pubs and whiled away the time, nursing a drink. These were places I’d never visit again. Walking and walking, close to midnight when I got home. I didn’t turn on the lights and went straight to bed, setting the alarm for eight o’clock. It took some time to go to sleep but eventually I did.
In the morning, I left the house as soon as I got out of bed. The first one at work, I greeted the others as they arrived.
“What a lousy morning,” D’Arcy said. “November is a bleak month.”
“Not to worry, it’ll be the weekend before we know it,” Jamieson remarked.
They seemed much the same. If anything, too much the same, as though putting on a performance and acting normal.
“Can I borrow your calculator?” D’Arcy asked.
Usually, he’d take it without asking. Maybe it meant nothing but I couldn’t be sure. It was hard to be sure about anything anymore.
Later, I met Cormican in the corridor. He looked almost surprised to see me, mumbled something I didn’t catch and continued on his way.
I kept myself busy, finished the report I’d started on Tuesday and slipped into the routine of the workday. No one referred to my day off, and I said nothing about it either.
Mark Keane has taught for many years in universities in North America and the UK. His recent short story fiction has appeared in Liquid Imagination, Superpresent, Raconteur, Into the Void, Night Picnic, Firewords, From Sac, Dog and Vile Short Fiction, the Dark Lane and What Monsters Do for Love anthologies, and Best Indie Speculative Fiction 2021. He lives in Edinburgh (Scotland).