The Romance of Unconnected Lives
Underneath her feet the leaves were drying and beginning to crack. She always changed her walk this time of year, lifting her feet higher than usual to really crunch down on the dried leaves. Not obviously higher, just a little. Unless she was walking through a bunch of leaves, in which case she would keep her feet close to the floor, letting them shuffle along like she was told not to as a child. She always had flashbacks to her childhood when the leaves fell in the autumn. Running ahead of the parents, jumping on every leaf she could find.
She smiled briefly as she walked. The nostalgia was a welcome distraction from her current predicament.
It wasn’t a predicament, really. Well, it sort of was. Jane had read the quarterly report not two hours ago and it wasn’t good. It wasn’t exactly bad. But it wasn’t good either.
After reading the news, Jane calmly got up from her desk, tidied up and left the office. This was her routine when she needed to seriously think. She never read reports like this one in the morning hours for precisely this reason. No, Jane would wait until the bulk of the day was done, make sure she had no urgent deadlines or requirements, then read the reports.
This way, if she needed to, she could take the time to reflect on the situation and plan the next move accordingly. It also helped that the quarterly report was always released on a Friday afternoon, giving her the weekend if need be.
After leaving the office she would jump in a taxi and take it about 10 – 15 minutes, depending on traffic, to the last bridge within the city centre. It was a big city centred around the river and there were five main road-bridges connecting the two sides.
She’d then get out and slowly walk back along the river’s edge towards the town centre. It wasn’t exactly the river’s edge. The river’s edge was down below her. She walked on the concrete path next to the road which ran alongside the river. To her left was a three foot wall with the river about 10 feet below and on the other side of that wall.
The journey would take about an hour walking slowly, 30 minutes walking normally.
It was here where she walked, the leaves from the trees lining the road running along the southern bank of the river, providing the fleeting, nostalgic smile.
‘Ok what’s the plan?’ she thought. Her mind focused on business. ‘We didn’t have a brilliant quarter. Why? Was it just a fluctuation? The previous quarter was fantastic, so we have some breathing room.’
‘Yeah, but the previous quarter saw an abnormally large amount of investment.’
‘True, although we do occasionally get quarters like that.’
‘Yes, but we can’t rely on them to keep us afloat.’
‘Of course not. And we aren’t. Excess money made during those months is saved for times like these.’
‘But we still need to analyse this quarter. What can we learn from it?’
Her mind went on and on.
Jane’s predicament lay in her company’s ethos. Inherently they were an investment company, and they thrived because they turned a profit on the majority of their investments. That was how the game worked. Jane knew that was how the game worked.
The problem lay in Jane’s determination to have her company be a socially aware investment company. All her friends (except Anette) thought it was ridiculous, a catch-22, an oxymoron, a juxtaposition (Jane still wasn’t 100% sure she was using the third word correctly, but her friend said it once in school to sound fancy and Jane liked it, so she used it from time to time.)
Investment companies were, as it was so often told to Jane (usually by those with little business experience), places that were looking to make money off of other people with good ideas. There was no moral high ground there. They give you money so they can get more back in the future.
But Jane never saw that. She realised the need for such companies, and she saw an opportunity in them to help people: an opportunity to invest in cities, in communities, in ideas. That was always her dream.
And she also didn’t want to operate on a small scale, only helping a few people with a few investors. No, Jane wanted big. She wanted to make a difference on a grand scale. She knew the importance of the small scale (it’s why she invested into small-scale companies and organisations that targeted the local communities). But her place was on the grand stage, a place where great change could be made.
The trouble was the reality of the situation meant Jane was part of a giant investment company. A company that had to make money, and a lot of it, in order to keep operating.
So Jane found herself walking the strange line between her company and her heart. She knew neither could win outright. She knew she had to compromise. The more money they made, the more they could give away. But only if they acted wisely.
Jane managed this juggling act by being honest and open to her employees about the direction of the company. The rest of the workforce knew her salary, or at least could find out if they wanted to, and they knew each other’s salaries as well. It was a place of transparency.
Not everyone was thrilled when she first broached the idea.
Nobody whose salaries were reduced liked it. A few people left. A few of the supporting staff left too. But she held firm. She tried to be as fair and as wise as she could. She made sure the work environments for everyone were healthy and enjoyable. And shortly after her ideas were implemented, the benefits started pouring in.
These decisions opened JRR Investments to completely new opportunities and possibilities. They found they were making just as much money as before and pumping more of the profits back into organisations doing real good in the world. Most of the companies they worked with didn’t care as long as financially things stayed the same.
And they did, mostly. Changes happened and some business partners were dropped, others acquired. It was all done wisely and with maturity. And at the end of it all, when the smoke cleared, the company was strong and more focused than ever.
But moments like this would still occur. Some quarters would still be bad, and the pressures to make money – from society, the company’s investors, and her own mind, made things very difficult at times. Jane quickly found a riverside walk to be a necessity when trying to maintain a clear mind.
The wind was a light breeze which swept along the river from the sea a hundred miles ahead of Jane. It caused a light rustling in the trees and broke loose a few more leaves for Jane to tread on. One landed in her hair, quickly entangling itself with the wind-swept strands that had pulled themselves loose from her hastily-made ponytail.
‘Thanks for that,’ she thought. Another welcome break from the current train of thought.
The river was a series of relaxed ripples, bunching up into thicker vibrations near the edges. Occasionally a small sandbank would be exist where mini-breakers, about three inches high, would ‘crash’ against the sand. Jane would look at them, imagining herself a surfer the size of one of those little green army men.
She continued on inside her mind, weighing the options ahead of her, contemplating various changes that could be made. A meeting would take place first thing Monday morning with the investors and various higher-ups. Every quarter saw the same meeting at the same time. This was where the real work would be done, hashing out some of the issues of the last three months, learning from them, and planning ahead. Jane just used this time as a preperation for the meeting, a private reflection to gather her thoughts and think about options.
She would walk and think until she reached the third bridge of the five. This was by far the more interesting side of the city. Bridges four and five were where she worked, the financial hub. There was nothing really interesting there unless you liked tall, shiny buildings. All the real culture and essence of the city was on this side.
Bridge one was more open, with an element of calm before the storm of the city. Bridge two was where most of the governmental buildings were. That sounds boring, but actually these buildings were several years old and tourists from all over came to visit them. Bridge three held the more artistic among the city. Well, it held their houses of performance. This was where the orchestra houses were and the theatres and outdoor performance areas.
There was a book shop here that Jane really liked as well. It was part of the national chain of bookshops, but it had imbedded itself into the environment well and it had a lot of quirky books and eccentric characters who frequented it. About a week after ‘the incident’, Jane found herself in this bookshop staring at a book by that man she bumped into. For a laugh, she bought it. It would be something they could talk about if they ever met again.
It took her a little while to actually get around to reading it, but it wasn’t bad. Not really her style, but she could see why people liked it. She flipped through to the back of the book when she bought it to see if there was a photo of this guy, but she had no luck. And she kept forgetting to Google him when she had the time. It wasn’t exactly a priority for her, but she was curious.
At the end of each of her walks, Jane would spend a few minutes in this bookshop, browsing for any new and interesting titles. By this point her mind would almost certainly be made up on what to do. She knew she couldn’t succumb, couldn’t bow to social pressures. But she also knew she couldn’t be foolish or unwise with her company. This entire venture was a balancing act.
Like a juggler in the circus, except… well, not.
When Matt was a child he quickly learned that jumping on a non-crunchy leaf was an incredibly disappointing experience. The build-up of anticipation to get the maximum crunch only to hear a ‘fthh’ when your feet landed was the stuff of nightmares, so Matt quickly learned how to tell the difference between a dry, premium leaf and a second-rate just-fallen-from-the-branch anti-climax of a leaf.
It didn’t always work, but it staved off displeasure approximately 93% of the time.
Matt’s eyes scanned the ground in front of him for suitable leaves. Now that he was an adult, he couldn’t exactly run and jump on the leaves. But if he was subtle, he could slightly alter his walk to hear that satisfactory crunch as much as possible.
He had a skill, a trick he had learned while growing up refusing to be confined to a normal adulthood. The trick allowed the child inside him to play with the leaves, scanning the ground and changing his path to crunch on as many as possible, while the adult inside him analysed whatever it was that needed analysing.
Today’s analysis was a serious one.
Kyle, the unrelenting sociopath that he was, had set Matt up on a date the night before… without telling Matt.
‘Ok, perhaps ‘sociopath’ is the wrong word,’ Matt thought as he walked down the street, along the southern side of the river, past the fancy governmental buildings that held actual adults with actual problems.
Matt was not a fan of spontaneity and did not appreciate Kyle’s efforts. Actually, though Matt would never admit this, that was a lie. Kyle’s spontaneity was the only thing that got Matt out of the house and into social situations. Had Kyle broached the subject, Matt would have certainly said NO. So Kyle didn’t. He just organised it and brought Matt along.
It wasn’t really a date either, kind of. It was a group of people, Kyle’s friends, who by process of osmosis were also Matt’s friends, getting together. Kyle had the group so Matt wouldn’t feel too uncomfortable. In that group was a date that Kyle had specifically planned for Matt.
The planning of it was actually all rather sophisticated.
The group had met at a bar, one of those bars with pool tables lining one wall and shuffleboards and arcade machines scattered around. There was even table tennis.
Matt stuck to the pool tables initially. When he was a kid his family lived near a pool hall, and Matt and his dad would often waste away the afternoons playing pool. Despite its complete clash with the rest of Matt’s personality, he really loved it and occasionally played with Kyle.
But Kyle was a mastermind schemer, and Matt soon found himself intermingling with the group, playing table tennis and shuffleboard as well as pool, and, as Kyle had intended, spending the majority of the evening chatting with Kate.
Kate was nice. They got along well. Something about Matt meant he wasn’t much of a go-getter when it came to relationships. He was content by himself. He had no distaste for companionship, he just found himself OK with himself. Because of this, he often found himself the pursue-e and rarely the pursuer.
As Matt walked down the street, still letting the child in him scan for dried leaves (he’d got some good ones), he thought about this and what the next move was – if there was a next move.
He could tell she was interested in meeting again. Matt was terrible with social cues and reading body language, but she had explicitly said when she left that she would love to see him again, and after being assured by Kyle that, yes, that does mean she wants to see you again, he decided that she did in fact want to see him again.
The question was, did he?
It wasn’t that he didn’t. He really liked talking with her and she seemed like a great person. He just wasn’t on the hunt for a relationship, and thus wasn’t really proactive in acquiring one. Should he change that? Should he initiate the next meet up? He wasn’t sure.
Was this apathy a sign that he shouldn’t? Shouldn’t he feel like he had to see her again? Or was that just in the movies? Was his apathy (apathy’s the wrong word), was his lack of gumption (oh, that’s good, Matt thought), was his lack of gumption just a sign that things were still in the early stages and he shouldn’t hold any significance or meaning on it?
Matt didn’t know.
It was approaching noon and the afternoon breeze had yet to materialise. The sun was about to hit its peak before beginning its descension. The only sound was of the cars driving past, and the time of day plus the lack of use this road got meant even that sound wasn’t overbearing.
The river was still, the wake of a boat occasionally breaking the silence of the water. A boat full of tourists floated past Matt. This city had tourists all year round. Many of the inhabitants knew not to venture into certain parts of the city where the attractions lay, especially during the summer months. If you absolutely had to, you put your head down and weaved as quickly as possible through the mass of people.
A few birds floated on the water – Matt didn’t know which species – hunting whatever fish remained in the polluted city river. A few pigeons hopped along in front of Matt, moving out of his way whenever he came close enough. The pigeons in this city were not timid pigeons.
Sometimes Matt would see other birds, bigger birds, birds that hunted the pigeons – but mostly, as with all major cities, the only birds within sight were pigeons; lots and lots of pigeons.
It was late – well, late for a Thursday night. It wasn’t that late because everyone else had actual jobs and had to work today – Matt still woke up early. The Tales of Rex, Matt’s current working title, was making progress and he spent much of the morning building on it. But around 11am he decided he needed to take a walk to think about last night and what to do next. He didn’t want to jump into anything, but also didn’t want to give up something that could be a good thing. It was a real juggling act.
Kate was 5’6” with heels. She was a sports therapist, something Matt initially found quite intimidating. Matt didn’t do sports, at least not well. She had met Kyle through another process of osmosis; her friend was in the group that hung out with Kyle, she merged with this group through that friend, and thus she knew Kyle. And from the moment she did, Kyle decided he was going to have to set her and Matt up.
But Matt wasn’t sure. And he wasn’t sure if his lack of sureness meant anything. He often doubted – correction – he always doubted things like this. He always second-guessed until the second-guessing became quadruple-guessing and that became octuple-guessing and that became sexdecuple and that became (his personal favourite) – if he remembered correctly – duotrigintuple. But by then his head hurt too much and he stopped guessing.
Matt once had a long debate about whether triple-guessing follows second-guessing or quadruple-guessing follows-second-guessing. Matt claimed that, although it initially appears to be increasing linearly (i.e. second, third, fourth, etc), it actually increases exponentially (i.e. second, fourth, eight, etc), and therefore it had to be quadruple-guessing. To support his conclusion, he used a three-pronged argument:
Prong 1) Each second-guessing was linked.
Prong 2) Each second-guessing built directly off the last second-guessing.
Prong 3) After the second-guessing started, one could not simply go back to the start and begin second-guessing again. Once down the rabbit-hole, there was no way of going back without starting from the beginning (though that would still abide by these same three rules).
Conclusion: Therefore, if each second-guessing builds from the last, then the next second-guessing must be a multiple of (2), built on from the previous second-guess. This would mean that the first thought would be the first guess. The second thought (A.K.A. the first doubt) would be the first second-guessing. The second second-guessing couldn’t then be the triple-guess, it would have to be the fourth-guess (AKA the quadruple-guess). After four comes eight and after eight comes 16, etc.
Matt had a weird mind. But he won the argument. Both parties decided that, so long as the train of second-guessing remains unbroken, each guess is twice the number of the previous guess. If however the train was broken, then in order to calculate the number of guesses one must add the number of guesses on the second train to that of the first train. Matt once even drew a chart to show what he meant by this.
Just in case anyone was curious.
By the time Matt’s thought process got this far, he found himself half-way between the third and fourth bridge and decided he’d head back home after he reached the fourth one. This was really, he thought, the most interesting part of the walk as the financial centre was up ahead and, let’s be honest, if you don’t like shiny buildings or everyone wearing suits it isn’t really a nice place to walk around.
Matt usually walked to the fourth bridge. There were some neat little tucked away artsy shops just before that bridge that most people missed. He liked strolling past and popping in to see if there was anything interesting. He once found a tiny little watch-sellers shop with bespoke designs that played on our notion of telling time.
When he got to the bridge, Matt crossed it and headed to the underground station. It wasn’t a long journey back to his house and this time of day the underground wouldn’t be busy at all. He debated just walking back, but he really should get to writing so he decided against it.
The Tales of Rex needed work.
Jane and Matt walked down the street, one only hours before the next. While each walked, the river walked beside them, a slow, mellifluous mass traveling in the opposite direction. A hundred years of aptitude had led to a river full of pollutants. The stories of children going down to the river to play were decades out of date.
The city within which they made their home was beautiful. But it was a beauty built on the drive and ambition of the city’s inhabitants, a shrine built by humanity for humanity; it was a beauty built on the architecture of the city, the swirling fusion of nostalgic three-hundred-year-old bricks standing proudly next to shiny new steel-and-glass resplendences; it was a masterpiece assembled on the construction of parks dotted around the city, fortresses of nature in and among the man-made.
Webs of buses, underground trains, cars, taxis, ubers, motorbikes, scooters and cyclists interlinked the city in a giant, tumultuous mass. This movement held the city together, kept it from drifting apart into its separate boroughs, its separate communities.
Thousands of people travelled the same journey as thousands more each day, ensuring the sustainability of the city; yet most knew but the tiniest fraction of everyone else. Most knew only themselves who walked that particular route.
Had Matt decided to continue writing until the afternoon hours, he could possibly have walked next to Jane without even realising who this woman was, his mind too focused on another. Had Jane made the decision all those years ago to release the quarterly reports on Friday morning instead of Friday evening, she could have walked the street in the late morning, perhaps passing Matt as he stopped to watch the boats and the birds. Perhaps they would have met again, for the second first time.
Neither knew the other, despite ‘the incident’, and neither cared enough to find the other. Why would they? They each had lives, each had dreams and visions and directions. They were just two people, connected – or not – in a bizarre, convoluted, and somewhat abstract way.
When Matt got home he ate some lunch and went back to writing at his desk, where he sat for several more hours. In the late afternoon/early evening he got up and decided to go to the gym. He needed the treadmill to think.
When Jane got home she changed and went straight to the gym, running her usual roundabout trail to get there. Had her glancing look been anything more as she walked into the gym, past the machines and towards the swimming pools, she probably would have noticed him.
But she didn’t, because nobody ever does. Her mind was too full of work and thoughts. And she didn’t actually know who he was. He was just another human being in and amongst the crowd, as completely unware of her as she was of him.
His only real significance being that he was in fact one of the humans, not one of the machines, and therefore stored in Jane’s mind, however briefly, as ‘another person at the gym’.
If you would like to read more by William Potter, please click here.