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Keeping Time

Keeping Time

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BACK in the room he checks his office email. There are fewer and fewer people left at work now, and his work load seems to have grown exponentially over the past four or five years. It’s evident from the number of emails he has received in just the past seven hours — the time it took to fly from one country to another, retrieve his baggage, clear immigration and customs, get to the hotel from the airport, check in, freshen up.

Inbox: 32 unread.

Most of the emails have to do with the same thing: the water problem. It’s always the water problem now. Everywhere he goes, he always finds the same damn thing. It’s in the water, in the rain, in the rivers and lakes; it cannot be dammed up, it cannot be stopped. The inhibitor only slows it down, but its spread and its effects are largely irreversible.

Always a different country, always the same story. Mike feels like the angel of death, arriving on the scene only to tell people what they already know, confirm what they already suspect.

He reads the emails but decides the replies can wait. A glance at the bedside clock: 01.51am.

He turns the lights off in the bedroom. Clad only in his pajama bottoms, he steps out onto the balcony to smoke. He has only recently taken up this vice; there’s poison enough in his system not to have to worry about adding a little bit more.

He leans against a wall, lights up, takes a long, slow drag, blows out the smoke in tiny, successive puffs. He hasn’t yet learned the slight contortions of lip, tongue and mouth needed to blow smoke rings; this is as close as he’s ever come.

Beneath an inky sky, the city is quiet, its stillness punctuated only by the occasional bleat of a car horn or rumble of a train. The cities of his youth — Manila, where he was born, New York, Tokyo — were bustling, noisy, claustrophobic with their masses of people. Even Boston, where he stayed while in graduate school, teemed in the daytime. That’s all just a memory now. The world’s biggest cities, and its smallest, its poorest and wealthiest, all are in the same boat: half their populations decimated, the other half just waiting. If not for the computers running farms, manufacturing, logistics, transport and communications, power grids, things would have ground to a complete halt years ago. That’ll happen soon enough.

The sliding door to the adjacent balcony opens, and a woman steps out. She has left a light on in her bedroom, unlike Mike, whose balcony is shrouded in darkness. He is happy to observe her, unobserved. With the hotel virtually empty, she has not bothered to put much on before venturing outside: she is wearing only a pair of black satin panties. Her back is turned to him as she talks softly into a mobile phone.

Mike catches fragments of her end of the conversation — something about a funeral, about not being able to go, how sorry she is. Her voice is low and raspy, as though she hasn’t spoken to anyone in days. Even from behind, Mike notes that her body, bathed in the dim amber light from the bedroom, is in very good shape. It does not have the usual sag and droop that afflict fat people who lose vast amounts of weight. He decides she must be relatively young, her skin still elastic. He focuses too long on her backside and does not realize that her telephone call has ended.

When she turns around, the first thing she sees is the tiny pinpoint of fire at the end of his cigarette.

Mike starts, his breath rattling out of him. He is unprepared for the way she looks: darkly beautiful, with a haunted face, her long hair only partly covering her breasts.

A natural courtliness finally kicks in and he steps out from the shadows; it would be better, he thinks, not to be perceived as a peeping tom. He prepares to introduce himself, to be polite, to shake hands, but his throat locks just as he is about to say hello. He fails to reckon that his imposing stature might spark some alarm.

She steps back, crossing her arms over her chest, her mobile phone resting on her right breast. In an instant she turns and disappears into her bedroom, the sliding doors clicking shut, the light going off.

Mike feels an odd sense of disappointment and something else — a sensation of disequilibrium, like stepping off after a harrowing roller coaster ride. He retreats into his unlit room, closing the doors to the balcony. He is not breathing right, and his head feels suddenly too large, too heavy for his body.

He finds the bed in the dark, lies down, breathes slowly and deeply; but the feeling will not go away.

He recognizes it finally as something he has tried not to think about in years, buried far below the surface of his hectic yet well-ordered life.

He has to touch himself before he can get any sleep.

***

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