A tiny brown wren, tail cocked in the air, trilled its liquid song from the new willow fence. Nearby, a chiff-chaff chanted the repetitive call of its name. A queen bumblebee burred, her legs loaded with balls of pollen for her hungry offspring. A brimstone butterfly fluttered by, investigating the flowers on the willow bower, its bright yellow wings a flash of sunshine.
We gazed into the hole I’d dug. Next to the bones was a new body, the shallow pond-shaped hole like nature’s opening arms pulling him back to the earth.
Chapter 1: Fifty
I walked resolutely, deep in thought. It starts today, I vowed, because if not now, then when? Monday actually would make more sense. But either way, by this time next Saturday it will all be different. Probably I’ll still be going to the local with Jo, but… but what?
I sighed, and stopped to watch a bluebottle feeding on a smear of excrement on the pavement.
‘That fly has a more productive life than I have, Jobo,’ I declared. ‘Cleaning up our shit, pollinating plants.’
‘Such an accountant,’ she mocked, glancing at an imaginary watch. ‘Mid-life crisis at fifty years precisely.’
With her grinning face, rotund form and baggy orange jumper, she reminded me momentarily of a space hopper. I returned to watching the action on the pavement, where another fly had alighted on the excrement.
‘Has a better sex life too,’ I informed her, ‘although the earthworm copulates for three hours at a time.’
‘No one can compete with that. Anyway, you don’t want to be bothering with all that slimy nonsense.’
The soft cooing of collared doves floated on the autumn air. They mated for life, and a pair nested in the front garden of the young couple who always walked to the pub holding hands.
We walked on past a hedge of sparrows who were unashamedly polygamous. The swaying poplar tree by the pub was alive with the din of starlings roosting together for comfort and warmth after a summer in pair bonds.
‘I must be the only species shacked up with a lesbian, who doesn’t even pay rent.’ I proclaimed.
‘Don’t worry, mate. My software will make me rich and sort out your mid-life crisis.’ She pushed through the door and headed for our table.
I got the drinks in automatically. I did worry. Too much was riding on it. The Costing for Nature software had been held up for the last three years as the shining beacon that would redeem my job, reverse my complicity in the climate crisis, and justify Jo’s rent-free status. Jo had done the coding, and I’d spent evenings and weekends inputting the environmental data. It was ready at last and on Monday I’d be pitching it to my firm of accountants.
‘I’ve been thinking...’ I said, after the first long gulp of beer.
‘I’m fifty Jo, I’ve spent half of my life in a job I hate. I’ve been getting by on the hope that the new software will solve everything, but they probably won’t go for it.’
‘You’ll be fine. Show me your pitch. Pretend I’m the head honcho,’ she slurped her beer expectantly.
‘Okay.’ I psyched myself up into sales mode and loosened up, moving my shoulders and easing my neck out. I took a gulp of beer then gazed at Jo, imagining her to be the head of financial accounting, Martin Brigham. ‘The Costing—’
‘Too much going on with the eyebrows Timbo.’
‘The tilt is too pronounced, makes you look anxious.’
‘Okay.’ I pushed my eyebrows back into horizontal mode. ‘We need to include nature—’
‘Take the pleading look out of your eye. You need to be confident, assured. This Costing for Nature accounting software is the best thing since sliced bread.’
‘Right. The CFN measures environmental—’
‘We already do loads for the environment. We do our best,’ said Jo as Martin.
I lowered my eyebrows until they glowered forcefully. ‘It’s not enough to do our best,’ I boomed, ‘we must do what is necessary!’
‘Is that bad?’
‘Depends if you can pull it off.’ Doubt entered her eyes. ‘Forget it for tonight, it’s your birthday.’
‘Forget it? If I don’t make a stand at fifty, when will I? I was complicit in the financial crisis, but I refuse to be complicit in the climate crisis.’ I banged down my glass.
‘You do alright financially though don’t you?’ She drained her pint and nodded toward the bar.
I gazed at her, eyes narrowed, suddenly suspicious. Had she been dragging out the software on purpose? Was it just an excuse not to find a new job? She was chronically lazy after all and it was no surprise when she was made redundant three years ago. It had followed the incident when she’d hastened into the lift at ten am. ‘Late?’ the man in the lift had inquired. ‘Always,’ Jo had cheerfully responded, unaware she was talking to the CEO.
‘What?’ inquired Jo, noticing my look.
‘I’m just thinking you haven’t changed since I first met you.’
‘Really?’ She looked surprised, which was fair enough. Thirty years ago, she’d been petite, long-haired and hyperactive. Now she was just short. Short hair in a blokey cut, plump from beer and crisps and doing nothing, and plain until her face lit up with mischief. But I still couldn’t tell if she had my back or was just exploiting me.
‘Do you even care about the software at all?’ I asked.
‘Ah. I know what you’re thinking,’ said Jo.
‘You’re worried about cocking up the pitch. I gave up three years to work on it, but mate, I did it for you as much as for me, and it was fun working with you on it. Best case, this software will sort out your mid-life crisis, make my fortune, and save the world. But if it doesn’t, I won’t blame you.’ Her eyes shone with sincerity. She rattled her glass.
By pint three, Jo had jollied me out of my trepidation, and was taking the mick out of the Rugby. On the pub television, New Zealand was playing England in the World Cup and the All Blacks were performing the Haka.
‘It’s supposed to be fearsome, a Maori battle cry,’ I told her.
‘Pah! That’s nothing.’
‘What do we have then?’
‘Morris dancing?’ I spluttered.
‘Bring it on then!’ She stood up and did a hop and a skip and looked at me expectantly.
‘I’m not doing the Haka.’
She did another hop and skip and made a sudden lunge towards me. ‘Diddly dee,’ she sang in my face.
I fell back in my chair, caught unawares.
‘Gotcha.’ With great precision she lifted up one knee and hopped and skipped in a circle clockwise, then lifted up another knee and hopped around the other way, beaming at me ferociously each time she came back to face me.
I glanced around. People were looking over.
‘You’re disturbingly good at that. Are you sure you’re not a secret Morris dancer?’
‘Just for that...’ She grabbed some napkins from the neighbouring table and waved them triumphantly. ‘Fight you lily-livered cringeling.’
‘Right!’ I puffed my cheeks and bulged my eyes. ‘Ooh! Ah!’
She danced back in mock fright then chucked the clean napkins over her shoulder and picked up a couple that were smeared with ketchup.
‘Not the dirty ones!’
She danced forward and flapped them in my face and danced back again.
I tried some tongue wagging and slapped my hands against my body a little too hard, trying not to wince. ‘Yah!’ I bellowed in response.
She danced back, her plump body jigging about with greater vigour. ‘Diddly, diddly, diddly, dee!’ she cried, lunging forward and fluttering the napkins in my face again.
I shouted with laughter and fell back in my chair, clutching at the table to avoid tipping. I wiped my cheek and my hand came away red with ketchup.
Jo jigged on the spot, bright-eyed with victory.
‘Okay, Morris dancers win.’
We’d attracted the attention of the old man at the bar, a seemingly permanent fixture. He raised his pint in acknowledgment. Jo sat down finally and raised hers back.
‘What’s the difference between him and you?’ she nodded over to the guy at the bar.
‘Ten years and me.’
‘Well, if I wasn’t around, that would be you wouldn’t it? Sat at the bar, all alone, muttering into your pint.’ She sat back, happy to have proved her indispensability to my life.
My laughter died on my lips. She was right. All that stood between me and the lone man the bar was her and my work, and I hated my work. Now the pitch was imminent, I saw clearly I’d been hanging too much on it. Even if they bought the software and put me in charge, I’d still be single, still working a sixty-hour week, sat at a desk, day in, day out.
‘Cheers for that Jo, lovely observation, thanks.’ I wiped away the ketchup with a clean napkin.
She downed her pint and looked at me expectantly.
‘Forget it, if you want another you get it. It’s my birthday and you didn’t even get me a present.’
‘Yes, I did. I forgot. Hang on.’ She produced a crumpled voucher from the back pocket of her baggy jeans with a flourish.
I looked at it. It was a voucher for a life-coaching session. I sat up.
‘Oh my days! That’s what I need, a new life.’ I beamed at her, heartened suddenly. ‘This is unusually thoughtful. I’ve felt so trapped, it would be nice to talk to somebody. They help you reframe things don’t they? Deal with your past. It would be hard to talk about, but maybe it’s time. Then go forward into a new future—’
‘One thing though Timbo, it’s Charlotte.’
‘She’s started a life coaching course.’
‘Charlotte your niece?’
Jo swigged her pint and nodded.
I slumped back in my chair. ‘What does she know about life?’
‘Yeah, but you’ll do it right? She said she needs a good mark for the practical.’
‘So basically my fiftieth birthday present is Charlotte’s homework. Cheers.’ I drained my pint and set the empty glass down next to hers.
‘Go on then, I’ll sort you another, if you want to take it to pint four?’
‘I feel obliged to.’
‘Cos you’ve turned fifty, to prove you can take it? Cos we both know Timbo, on pint four there’s a tendency to get a wee bit over emotional.’
‘No, because you’re buying.’
We called it a day after the fourth pint, which Jo had wangled on the house on account of my birthday, and staggered home.
Outside in the fresh air, I brooded on her words.
‘Look at them.’ I gazed with envious eyes at the couple ahead of us. They were holding hands and had turned into the house with the lovely garden. ‘I don’t even have a garden.’
‘Oh no. I touched a nerve. Come on Timbo, it’s just cos you’ve turned fifty.’
‘But you’re right,’ I burst out. ‘Other people have stuff in their life they’re passionate about – their partner, their garden, their work. I’m half dead most of the time, and most of the time I don’t even realise it but...’ I tailed off, not wanting to admit that those moments of random hilarity with Jo were the only times I felt alive. An image of a little boy crying flooded my consciousness suddenly. An image printed indelibly on my memory – the boy I’d hurt, bawling. Crying so, so much. He’d be an adult now, probably with his own kids. We’d left the next generation such a mess. If I could just make it better... It hit me with the force of a great revelation how much I needed the environmental software to work. I grabbed Jo and gazed earnestly into her eyes. ‘I’ll give the pitch my best shot.’
‘I know you will mate.’
‘It has to work. Otherwise I can’t do it anymore Jo, I can’t take the guilt.’
I looked up into the sky, the grey clouds parted for a moment revealing the stars beyond. A nip in the autumn breeze roused a sudden confidence. I could do it. They were accountants after all, and it didn’t matter which bottom line you looked at, environmental bottom line, social bottom line, financial bottom line, this came up trumps each time. ‘I can do it a hundred percent.’
Jo checked my eyebrows and nodded satisfied.
Chapter 2: The Pitch
I rehearsed my pitch on the train all the way to Waterloo, drawing strange looks from the couple sitting opposite, who were no doubt wondering why my mouth was moving silently and my eyebrows were wavering between imploring, glowering and deadly serious.
At Waterloo, I approached the usual mix of homeless, beggars and Big Issue sellers, rummaging in my pocket for some change. The smart-suited man ahead of me made the mistake of giving a fiver to the bolshy guy at the end. Or maybe it was on purpose. I’d noticed the more money he was given, the longer his tirade would be.
‘Fiver wouldn’t even pay your dry-cleaning bill you rich tosser,’ Bolshy Guy hurled at him, deftly pocketing the note.
Smart-suited man shook his head, shuffling from polished black shoe to polished black shoe as the tirade continued.
‘The world would be better off if you didn’t exist. If you didn’t bother with your dry-cleaned suit and stayed at home and did sweet fuck all. Smart-guy-city-tosspot,’ he accused, peering up through overgrown eyebrows and shaggy hair.
He had a point. I’d calculated the environmental impacts of laundry using Jo’s software and could have informed them about the high carbon footprint of washing clothes and the contribution of dry cleaners to air pollution. I decided not to interject and walked on past ‘smart-guy-city-tosspot,’ who stood patiently accepting the abuse. The tirade might go on for a while and I couldn’t afford to be late. Anyway, I didn’t need my daily dose of psychic self-flagellation, because today I would be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Instead, I gave a fiver to the friendly chap by Waterloo Bridge for a Big Issue. His cheery smile of thanks was mirrored by the wagging tail of his dog that I couldn’t resist patting. I smiled at him reassuringly. ‘It’s all going to be okay,’ I told him, ‘lovely dog.’
I walked the familiar route over Waterloo Bridge and gulped in a lungful of the bracing wind, taking in the open vista of the Thames and the Houses of Parliament etched against the cold grey sky. A cormorant perched on an old barge, drying its wings. Gulls circled raucously above. I could just make out crabs picking amongst the debris on the muddy banks where the tide had receded. Nature in the heart of the city.
Last week the bridge had been occupied by Extinction Rebellion protestors. Part of me had been thrilled to see them. Hordes of young bearded, pierced and tattooed protestors beating drums, chanting and waving banners: ‘Save the Earth’, ‘Rebel for Life’, ‘Wise up, Rise up’. There had been families too, mothers with pushchairs, dads with toddlers on their shoulders. But no amount of smiles and thumbs up on my part could disguise my city suit and complicity. They’d chanted, ‘this is the sixth mass extinction,’ and in my paranoia and guilt I’d been sure it was aimed at me.
I got to work with twenty minutes to spare. I made a cup of tea and sat on the plush sofa. I ignored the pile of Financial Times and car magazines scattered over the low table and got out the Big Issue. With a shock, I took in the headline: ‘Parakeet Mystery still not solved.’ Oh my days! It must be a sign. I read quickly. Parakeets were taking over. Birds that, despite their beautiful plumage, were destroying habitats of garden birds. They’d taken over in Surrey and London and were now spreading across the UK. For years, Jimi Hendrix had been blamed for freeing a pair of parakeets in Carnaby Street in the sixties, but now it seemed that it wasn’t his fault after all. The article concluded that there were several incidents across the years, but the tipping point seemed to be a pair of parakeets set free in Surrey in the mid-eighties. My stomach lurched and I ran for the toilet.
I hated our office toilets, the scent of the air freshener worse than what it disguised. And they were pretentious, with toilets that automatically flushed the moment you got off them, or sometimes, unnervingly, when you moved a bit too much on the seat. I washed my hands quickly. It must be nearly time for my pitch. I hoped Simon, the financial director, wasn’t going to be there, with his intimidating beard. Jo would often reassure me that there was nothing wrong with being a ‘baby face,’ but then she’d smirk. I regarded my pale freckled face in the mirror and longed to be more hirsute. I didn’t even want a beard necessarily, just the feeling that beneath my skin were follicles of thick, dark, bristly hair bursting to come forth. Then I’d feel equal to the task.
I headed to the conference room and sat down amidst the pot plants in the waiting area. ‘By valuing the ecosystem and everything that depends upon it, we will protect it,’ I whispered earnestly to the Areca Fern and Rubber Plant. ‘Unless we cost for nature...’
I stopped quickly as several suited men and a woman trailed out, leaving Martin and Simon at the table. Through the glass walls, I saw Simon open up his laptop and show something to Martin. They talked animatedly, probably working out how inputting the environmental and social impacts of each project would affect the overall costs. I stood and paced to relieve my nervous tension, muttering under my breath, trying to control my eyebrows. Just as I’d pushed them from an anxious forty-five degree tilt up down into a menacing glower, Martin beckoned me in. I forced my brows horizontal again and entered with the gait of a confident man who was bringing them the best thing since sliced bread.