The front room of 23 Woodview Gardens was largely identical to every other front room along the street. It had some walls, a floor, and a pair of alcoves too small to accommodate anything useful. It had a bay window, a door leading out into the hallway, and a light hanging from the ceiling—in fact, as front rooms go, it had all the usual features you might expect. Unlike all the other front rooms along Woodview Gardens, however, this one was a complete mess. Crisps had been trodden into the carpet, newspapers were flung across the sofa, and the television was being used as some sort of makeshift clotheshorse—though by the size and smell of it you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an actual horse. Wallpaper was beginning to flake away around the skirting boards, the light switch had a one in ten chance of giving you an electric shock (even if you weren’t touching it), and a strange smell lingered in the far corner like a ghostly vapor refusing to be exorcised. It was fortunate the curtains were permanently drawn—had any passersby caught a glimpse of this room, they might have thought they were walking past an animal enclosure.
In a sense they were walking past an animal enclosure, except the animal in question was the man who lived there—Geoffrey Stamp. Geoffrey was an average height, average looking man with pale skin, a round face, and olive green eyes. He had a skinny build, narrow shoulders, and arms that looked disproportionately thin for his body. At first glance, it was difficult to determine his age. With a week’s worth of dark stubble blurring his jaw line and scraggy chestnut hair drooping over his forehead like an unkempt bush creeping over a garden wall, he could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty.
In actual fact, Geoff had turned twenty-seven a few weeks ago. The occasion wasn’t marked with him throwing a big birthday party or having a couple of friends over for a drink—the day just passed without incident, like the first two hours of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He’d received a few cards. Some were from old friends he was on the verge of losing touch with, a couple were from some distant relatives he’d last seen when he’d just entered puberty, and one was from an insurance company who somehow knew his date of birth. “Happy Birthday Mr. Stamp,” the impersonal, automated letter had wished him in two different fonts. “As you’re now another year older, have you considered taking out one of our fantastic life insurance policies?” He hoped that whoever had decided send out that sort of letter to people had life insurance—they needed it.
His parents had also sent him a card all the way from America. They’d sold their house a few years ago, moving away from London because of his father’s job, which was something to do with IT. Not very interesting. Apparently it was a big opportunity he couldn’t afford to turn down, so they’d taken it, leaving Geoff behind to find a place to live and fend for himself. He was old enough now, they’d said. It would be good for him. Geoff visited them once a year and spoke to his mother on the phone every now and again, although the conversation was the same every time: Had he decided what he wanted to do with his life yet? Had he found a job? And did he have a girlfriend?
You could understand why she was concerned. Most people of Geoff’s age had started to settle to down into a career. Perhaps been in a relationship for a few years. Started to think about marriage. Taken out a mortgage on a place. That sort of thing. But not Geoff. He was still single. And unemployed. The only job he’d ever held down for a significant period of time was as a paperboy (for ten years), and he’d been fired from that a couple of years ago because he was told he was too old. He wasn’t sure why he’d stayed being a paperboy for so long. Maybe it was the same reason he’d made no real effort to find another job since. It wasn’t a lack of ambition that was holding him back—he just lacked direction and any sort of skills or qualifications you would expect to find on most people’s CVs. One thing was for sure though—he couldn’t see himself working in an office environment. Sitting at a desk all day. Typing numbers into a computer. Passing someone the stapler every now and then. That wasn’t for him. He knew he was capable of something more, but until he discovered what that was, he didn’t want to burden himself with employment. He preferred to live a much more rewarding lifestyle, which basically consisted of him playing computer games.
Lots of computer games.
At this precise moment in time, however, Geoff was doing something else—he was asleep on the sofa, his feet hanging over the armrest at one end, his head nestled in a cushion of old magazines at the other. An empty cereal packet lay across his chest, rising and falling slowly with each breath, and his left arm had flopped over the side to the floor, his limp hand dangerously close to knocking over an old cup of tea. Every now and then he would mutter something incomprehensible or rub his face with the back of his hand. He was dreaming, although it wasn’t about anything job related. In fact, if you really want to know, he was dreaming about fishing.
Fishing was somewhat of a recurring dream for Geoff, although he wasn’t entirely sure why. He wasn’t a fishing enthusiast, didn’t know anyone who went fishing, and didn’t even go fishing when he was younger. His childhood was spent sitting on the swings in concrete playgrounds, cycling up and down council estates with his friends in East London, or sitting in his bedroom playing Sonic the Hedgehog. He supposed there was an underwater stage in Sonic the Hedgehog that used to give him nightmares, but that was about the only connection he could think of. Otherwise, there was no reason for him to be dreaming about fishing whatsoever. He didn’t even like fish, for goodness sake.
And yet here he was, sitting by his imaginary lake, fishing rod in one hand, pickle sandwich in the other, teeth chattering in the crisp morning air. He was slumped on his usual bench, feet squished into the gray mud beneath him, arms hunched close to his chest. The lake was quite large, probably the same size as a football pitch, with a small island of tall trees and thick vegetation in the middle. The water was calm, reflecting the overcast sky above, and a few reeds were sprouting up in odd clumps near the banks, as if the lake had undergone a failed hair transplant.
One thing that had been bothering Geoff recently was the fact that he could tell when he was dreaming. He didn’t know whether it was because he was asleep so often that he was now accustomed to the sensation, or whether … A bite! Geoffrey dropped his sandwich, disbanded his psychological ramblings and grasped the rod with both hands. This was a slight overreaction since whatever he’d caught wasn’t putting up much of fight. He reeled in his lifeless catch, wondering what kind of metaphor for underachievement would emerge from the water today. A boot maybe? A tire? An old rucksack? Every time he dreamt about fishing, he always ended up hooking some piece of worthless junk, so you can imagine his surprise when the thing on the end of his line turned out to be a fish.
Geoff looked at it. A fish. It began to writhe around desperately on the hook, trying to get back in the water. What did this mean? Was he actually going to achieve something today? Would something fish related influence his life in the near future? Or had he simply caught a fish? It spoke.
Geoff wasn’t perturbed by this. All kinds of strange things happened in his dreams. Some things he talked about, others he didn’t.
“Geoff?” The voice sounded familiar—it sounded like Tim.
Back when he was a paperboy, Geoff had faithfully delivered The Times to 23 Woodview Gardens for seven years, or rather to the person who lived there—Tim, who was much more interested in reading the paper than the house was. Tim was the reason Geoff had been able to remain out of work for such a long time, offering him a place to stay when he got fired. He was a little bit older than Geoff, a little bit taller than Geoff, and a little bit more employed than Geoff. At least, Geoff assumed Tim was employed—they never really spoke about what he did for a living. All Geoff knew was that Tim worked from home most of the time, analyzing reams of data on a computer. He had a small study next to his bedroom upstairs: walls plastered with line charts, desk overflowing with graphs and complex handwritten equations. Geoff didn’t understand any of it. Quite often Tim would have to go traveling as part of his job. Wouldn’t say where—he would just leave the house and return a few days later. For Geoff, this was perfect—he had no interest in whatever Tim did for a living, and Tim never really expressed a desire to tell him.
They’d struck up a friendship within the first year of Geoff delivering the newspaper to Tim’s house when Geoff was caught staring at him through the front window. Tim had been playing a computer game in the lounge, and Geoff had stopped to watch. Their opening conversation was a little bit awkward, with Geoff having to explain why he’d been standing outside Tim’s house for the last ten minutes, but they soon discovered that they both had a number of shared interests—namely the playing of computer games and the watching of someone else playing computer games.
As a landlord, Geoff couldn’t really fault Tim. He tolerated Geoff’s aversion to housework, never asked him if he was looking for a job, and rarely brought up the subject of rent, which he had consistently failed to pay for the past two years. In fact, if it wasn’t for Tim, Geoff would have had no choice but to settle for the career he was dreading, sitting in a gray office in a gray suit, thinking gray thoughts. It was such an amazing coincidence that he should find himself living in a house on his old paper round with no pressure to do anything, sometimes he couldn’t believe his luck.
But he wasn’t happy about being woken up.
“What is it?” Geoffrey replied to the fish. He assumed Tim was talking to him in the real world—his voice manifesting itself in his dream as the voice of the fish.
Either that or he needed help.
“Come on Geoff. Get up …”
Geoff rubbed his eyes. The fish now had hair.
“You’re a fish.”
“Yes, I’m a fish. Wakey wakey.”
Suddenly, Geoffrey was blinded by an unbearable light—Tim must have opened the curtains. He felt a tugging on his foot.
“You need to wake up, Geoff,” the fish said.
Geoffrey let out a small noise from his mouth and reluctantly opened his eyes, extending one hand in front of his face to shield his gaze from the sun. The picturesque lake slowly dissolved into the less pleasing aesthetic of the front room, and Tim now stood in front of him where there had previously been a talking fish. His friend wasn’t quite in focus yet though—Geoff could make out the blurry outline of his tall figure, the blob of brown hair on top of his head, and the black-rimmed glasses, but that was about it. He closed his eyes and opened them again as if rebooting his brain. That was better—he could see much more clearly now: the unimpressed look on Tim’s face, the slogan on his t-shirt that was far too witty for this time in the morning, and most importantly, the cup of tea in his hand.
“Is that tea for me?” Geoff said optimistically, brushing the cereal packet off his chest and sitting up.
“What’s wrong with yours?” Tim said, nodding at the mug at the foot of the sofa.
“I see,” he said, passing him the cup.
Tim looked round at the television screen and picked off the assortment of clothes Geoff had chosen to pile on top of it.
“You really have to stop using the television to dry your stuff out,” he said. “It’ll overheat again.”
Five t-shirts and a pair of jeans later, he revealed a dusty screen displaying the words:
“Oh—I’d forgotten I was playing this,” Geoff said, rummaging through the sofa cushions for a moment before pulling out a joypad. “Where did I get up to?”
“What game is this?” Tim said, tossing Geoff’s clothes into a corner.
“Space Commando,” Geoff answered, positioning a cushion behind him and taking a sip of Tim’s tea.
“I see. And what do you have to do?”
“You have to save the world,” Geoff said, picking up a headset and putting the earpiece in his ear. “You play this commando guy who basically goes around shooting the crap out of aliens.”
“And what is that thing you’re wearing?” Tim said. “You got a job in a call center or something?”
“This?” Geoff said, positioning the headset’s microphone in front of his mouth. “It lets you talk to other players over the Internet.”
“Sounds fascinating,” Tim said, picking up a large stack of plates and carrying them into the kitchen.
“Don’t know whether you’re interested,” he shouted from the other room, “but there’s a job being advertised in the local paper. I think you should apply.”
“Get out of the way!” Geoffrey screamed into his microphone. “I can’t hit it if you’re in the way!!”
“What?” Tim said.
“Nothing,” Geoff said. “Just talking to this idiot online.”
“I don’t know why you get so angry when you play that thing,” Tim said. “It’s not real, you know.”
Regardless of it being real or not, Geoff was still getting very annoyed with Space Commando. His hand-eye coordination was never great after he’d just woken up, and he was having a bit of trouble aiming his character’s ultimate weapon, the Death Bringer, at one of the alien’s weak spots.
“So what do you think?” Tim said.
“The job in the paper!”
Geoff wasn’t really listening. He was taking too long trying to get a lock on a particularly large alien, and before he knew it, he was killed by enemy fire and greeted with another “Game Over” screen. He threw the joypad to the floor in frustration and thought about what Tim had just said.
“So there’s a job in the paper?” he said. This was strange—Tim had never spoken to him about getting a job before. So why today?
“Yes,” Tim said. “Not sure what it is, but you don’t need any qualifications. You don’t have any, do you?”
Having failed most of his exams at school due to a lack of interest in any of the subjects, the only qualifications Geoff had to his name were a knot tying badge from Scouts, a third place rosette from a talent show, and an “I beat PC Gamer at Doom” t-shirt.
“No,” Geoff conceded.
Tim came back into the room. “I’ve circled it,” he said, tossing a newspaper on Geoff’s lap. “Not playing your game?”
“I think I need to wake up a bit first,” Geoff said, taking off his headset. “I keep pressing the wrong buttons.” He glanced down at the paper and read the job advert aloud.
“Long established tour operator seeks holiday representative to liaise with a variety of clients. No experience or qualifications required.”
“Well?” Tim said.
“I don’t know. A holiday rep?”
“It’s not every day you see a job in the paper that says ‘No experience or qualifications required.’” He stretched a hand out to Geoff, indicating that he wanted his tea back.
Geoff offered the tea to the pile of clothes Tim had chucked in the corner.
“You really need to see a doctor about your hand-eye coordination problem,” Tim said, pulling Geoffrey’s arm in his direction and taking the tea. “How long does it usually take to wear off?”
“I don’t know,” Geoffrey said. “I’m never able to look at my watch to tell.”
* * *
Geoffrey didn’t like this at all. He didn’t want a job. He was happy sleeping all day and playing computer games all night. It was an unrewarding lifestyle that suited him just fine, at least until he’d discovered what he wanted to do with his life. But by midmorning, he had half-heartedly written a letter of application to this tour operator company, or whatever it was. If anything, just making the slightest bit of effort to get a job would prevent any rent-related conversations with Tim, which always made him twinge with guilt.
“It’s finished,” he called up the stairs.
“Good,” Tim replied. He sounded like he was in his study. “Now go and post it, will you?”
“What, you don’t want to hear it?”
“Not really. Envelopes are by the front door.”
Geoff was still having some trouble controlling his hands, and it took him a couple of minutes to stick a stamp in the corner of an envelope and put the letter inside.
As he sat at the bottom of the stairs slipping his trainers on, he noticed a female silhouette approaching through the bubbly glass of the front door. It stopped on the doorstep, rifled through a large shoulder bag for a few seconds, and popped a letter through the mailbox.
Geoff was particularly fond of this silhouette. It belonged to Zoë, the postwoman, whom he had known for many years back from his paperboy days. In the past, they’d often keep each other company as they walked the streets in the morning, Geoff delivering newspapers, Zoë delivering everything else. She was a bit of a tomboy—always wearing baggy jeans that snagged under her grubby trainers and large jumpers that disguised her slim figure. She never wore dresses or skirts, rarely put on any makeup, and usually had her long dark hair tied in a pony tail. Her voice was slightly deeper than you might think to look at her, her left ear had four piercings in it, and she had a small tattoo of an owl on the back of her right shoulder. When she wasn’t working, she played guitar in a band. With large eyes and a wide mouth, she didn’t have classically beautiful features, but nonetheless Geoff thought she was incredibly attractive. She was just so easy to talk to. Conversations felt effortless and natural, he found it very easy to make her laugh, and she was always happy to offer words of encouragement or advice. Somehow, he felt like a different person around her, as if she was able to flick a switch in his mind and fill him with a sense self-worth. He’d often thought about asking her out on a date but could never muster up the courage.
Geoff sprung to his feet and flung the front door open, smiling. Zoë stood right in front of him. They hadn’t met up for a quite a few weeks, and seeing her again made him forget the world around him for a moment, so much so that he failed to notice that he’d just scared the living daylights out of her.
“Jesus Christ—you startled me Geoff,” She laughed, pressing her hand to her chest.
“Oh, Sorry,” Geoff said, “I’m, err … I was just leaving. Posting a letter, funnily enough.” He held up the letter as if he somehow needed to prove it.
“So how you keeping, anyway?” she said. “Found another job yet?”
It was like asking a fridge if it had taken up tennis.
“No, nothing,” Geoff replied, “But this letter is a job application, as it happens.”
“Oh, cool - what’s the job?”
Zoe raised her eyebrows.
“What?” Geoff said.
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s just… not the sort of job I’d expect you to go for... Doesn’t being a holiday rep involve meeting lots of people, being overly enthusiastic about everything, that sort of thing?”
“Are you saying I hate meeting people and being enthusiastic?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. That’s what I like about you.”
“You’re right,” Geoff said. “But it was Tim’s idea – I’m just applying to keep him happy.”
“I see,” Zoe said. “Oh - that letter is for you, by the way.” She pointed down at the envelope she’d just delivered. “Don’t see many addressed to you these days …”
“For me?” He picked it up. That was unusual. He hadn’t received any mail for weeks.
“Have you applied for any other jobs recently? Maybe it’s an acceptance letter.”
“Nah—It’s probably just another letter from the bank asking me if I’m still alive.” He held the envelope in between his teeth, put his coat on, and stepped outside, closing the door behind him with a click.
Zoë laughed. “Seriously,” she said, “aren’t you going to open it and see who it’s from?”
“I was being serious,” Geoff said, stuffing the letter in his coat pocket. Since reaching his overdraft limit a while ago, Geoff hadn’t been near a cash machine in months. The banks were nervous—after all, they were normally so careful about who they lent money to, so it was only natural that they wanted to make sure he was OK.
Zoë followed Geoff up the garden path and out onto the street, sifting through a few more letters.
“Which way you heading?” Geoff asked, hoping it was the same way he was going.
“Just to the end of the street, then back to the depot,” Zoë replied, not looking at him.
“Oh, okay,” he said, trying to hide his disappointment.
As he watched her walk away, a small voice in his head suggested perhaps now might be a good time to call after her and ask her out on a date. Nothing serious – just lunch or something.
“Hey, Zoë?” Geoff said.
“Yes?” Zoë said, turning around and smiling.
It was at this point that another, more forceful voice in Geoff’s head pointed out that asking Zoë out on a date was a ridiculous, terrible idea, that she was way out of his league, and that he should quickly extract himself from this situation with some vague suggestion that they meet up again at an unspecified time before he seriously embarrassed himself and destroyed their friendship forever.
And on no account must he ever have any silly ideas about asking her out again.
Geoff found himself unconditionally agreeing with this new course of action. What was he thinking?
“Let’s catch up again soon, okay?” he said.
“S-sure,” Zoë replied, her smile fading.
Geoff watched as she walked off.
* * *
Within ten minutes, Geoff had posted his letter, bought a bar of chocolate from the corner shop and returned to the house. Tim was in the kitchen eating some cornflakes, examining a batch of papers he had sprawled across the kitchen table.
“How’d it go?” he said, not taking his eyes off his work.
“How’d it go?” Geoff replied. “I went out to post a letter, not run a marathon. Does posting a letter really warrant a ‘how’d it go?’”
Tim rested his spoon on the table and looked up.
“What’s gotten into you?”
“Nothing.” Geoff sighed, sitting down next to Tim. “I saw Zoë just now…”
“Oh,” Tim said, looking down at the floor. “And how did that go?”
“How it always goes. For a split second, I almost asked her out on a date, and then my brain went ‘Noooooo! Don’t do it! So I bottled it and just came across a bit weird.”
“I’m sure you didn’t look weird,” Tim said. “At least, no more than usual.”
“Thanks. Speaking of weird though - she had a letter for me.”
“A letter?” Tim said, raising an eyebrow. “For you? Now that is weird. Who was it from?”
“Don’t know,” Geoff said, taking the envelope out of his coat pocket. “Let’s find out, shall we?” He tore it open and pulled out a single, crisp sheet of paper. The paper felt thick and expensive with a soft grain to it that almost caressed the tips of his fingers.
Geoff looked at the letter in silence.
“Well?” Tim said, leaning over to read it as well.
“Dear Mr. Stamp,” Geoff read aloud, his voice trembling slightly. “T-thank you for applying for the position of holiday representative. I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to attend an interview, which will take place at five o’clock this afternoon at our London office—please see the enclosed map. We look forward to seeing you. Y-yours sincerely, Ruth Ashmore …”
The letter was written in very bad handwriting as if the person writing it had nothing to lean on. Geoff looked inside the envelope again. Tucked at the bottom was a small map. He took it out and laid it flat on the table. It showed a very small area of Westminster in Central London with a red arrow pointing to a building off one of the main roads.
Geoff was more confused than the time he’d tried to work out why the words “flammable” and “inflammable” meant the same thing. How on earth had these people managed to reply to him before he’d even sent his application? He scratched his head in stereotypical puzzlement, thankful that at least his hand-eye coordination had improved.
“Err … That’s my head,” Tim said.