The King of a Vacant City


Overworked and unappreciated by his boss and by his girlfriend, young executive Edmund Neale wants to be left alone. One apparently ordinary Tuesday morning, he wakes up to find he is: everyone else in the city in which he lives has left.

The King of a Vacant City invites us to wonder how we’d behave if we thought nobody else knew what we did. How much of our lives is mindless routine? Are we still good people, when we think no one is watching? What would you do if you woke up one day to see everyone else had gone?

Chapter 1: Monday

Monday would be the last afternoon in which Edmund Neale longed to be left alone. Yet, more often than not, he already was.

Edmund sat engrossed to his office desk, in another of his suits and cotton shirts with pressed long sleeves and cuffs. People would’ve said he was handsome, as business uniforms conjured handsomeness in any man who wore them; the clothes his job required became more expensive as he progressed through his career. His clean-shaven cheeks were sharp and lean, his brown hair kept short enough to allow air behind his ears and past his collar. The first lines of what might be his age, thirty-four, slipped from the corners of his eyes. Edmund often rubbed his fingers over them trying to massage back their youthfulness. He hadn’t done enough to be so old so soon.

Office furnishings were clean and functional, modest without unnecessary trimmings. Managers wanted companies to appear profitable but not so profitable as to be rich at the customers’ expense or, worse still, complacent. Hired pots of green tree plants with polished leaves but no petals or pollen adorned some offices and reception areas. The calming colours of the offices, without marks or imperfections, were those that management consultants determined were the most conducive to people working.

Edmund’s fashionable black leather shoes pressed against the carpet floor he couldn’t see. Startling him from his concentration, his office door burst open. “When will it be ready?” boomed the chairman of directors. His face tanned from more leisure in the sun than Edmund knew, Hugh Garrett was a portly man with a thick moustache: something more to frighten people.

Edmund was drafting the company’s submission to a government authority. “I should finish it tomorrow morning, Mister Garrett.”

“We expect it this evening.”

The time was already five o’clock. “I didn’t know.”

“You should’ve known.”

“My girlfriend has tickets to a concert at the conservatorium tonight.”

“You better get cracking.”

Edmund contemplated saying something more, before acquiescing. Nothing ever changed for what he said.

“Sacrifice breeds success, Edmund,” proclaimed the chairman, in another of his phrases. Edmund needed to work hard whether he already was successful or was still trying to succeed. “We all make sacrifices.”


“I’m going out for a time,” said Garrett, almost certainly headed to corporate hospitality or another secret meeting, befitting his perception of executive status. “You call me after seven thirty if you need anything.”

The concert began at eight o’clock. “Understood.”

“Good,” said Garrett, clicking his fingers twice in rapid, brash succession, hurrying Edmund back to work as he might call a steward. He pulled shut the door as he departed.

Edmund at his desk tried to finish his long chore, between the interruptions of the telephone and colleagues pushing his door open to ask or tell him something. If they didn’t close the door when they departed, Edmund closed it.

Hanging from the corridor and meeting room walls were large framed photographs of company businesses. Low partitions separated the secretarial and clerical desks from the corridors and each other, where people who were willing to encroach upon a line between their working and other lives discreetly affixed photographs of their loved and loving ones. Glass walls sealed the few individual offices.

At around about five thirty, the figure approaching Edmund beyond the thickened glass wasn’t a colleague. Candice was dressed for work in a full blouse and skirt, but smiled for after-work. Her red lips enhanced her rounded, pretty face and glistening blonde hair, although she was more beautiful than she realised without needing to do anything about it. That natural, unearned beauty might first have drawn Edmund to her; too many people strove to make themselves less attractive than otherwise they were. Edmund stood up from his desk.

Candice opened Edmund’s office door without needing to knock. In her hand was a plastic shopping bag she gave him. “I bought you this to wear tonight,” she told him. “You don’t want to look like you’ve come from the office.”

Taking the bag, because he should, Edmund opened it. Inside was a striped blue shirt. “Garrett insists I finish this submission tonight and it still isn’t good enough,” he told her. “I don’t know if can make it to the concert.”

“You promised me you’d come, Edmund; you’ve done this to me again. Instead of doing something special, I end up alone while you make love to your career.”

“Can someone else go with you?”

“Not this late, and before you ask again: No, I won’t go alone. I’m not going to sit with my hair made up and in my best evening dress among a thousand happy people and an empty seat beside me.”

“I’m sorry, honey.”

“You’re always sorry, Edmund.” She grabbed the bag back from him and started to turn away. Edmund reached forward and grabbed his office door before she could close it on him. She turned back to face him. “My father gave us these tickets because he thought you’d enjoy the Bach concertos, not so I’d have a ticket for my handbag.”

“I’ll pay for everything, Candice: the tickets, the shirt.”

“It isn’t the money or the concert,” she said, thrusting the bag back at him. “I work too, but I find time to see you. I’d rather be with you than without you.”

“I don’t do anything I don’t have to do, but I have so much to do.”

“Why burrow in your office if it’s not to do what you want to do? You don’t have to make money you don’t have time to spend. You could come to the concert, finish your work in the morning, and Hugh Garrett will have to live with it.”

“Would you have me lose my job?”

“You can find another one.”

“This is all I can do,” Edmund confessed, dissatisfied with the blandness of his reply. The door was becoming sore in his hand and he let go of it. His other hand lowered the shopping bag to his side.

Candice sighed. “Your success imprisons you as much as failure would’ve condemned a lesser man.”

Worse than her anger, was her disappointment. “I can see you for breakfast,” he told her.

“I’m having breakfast with friends. I thought we’d talk about the concert. We might talk about you.”

“I can see you tomorrow night,” persisted Edmund, moving towards her. She pulled away. “I’ll buy you dinner at Descartes’.” The restaurant was close to the building in which he worked and was the easy expensive place in which Candice liked to eat, with chef’s specials every day and petit fours afterwards.

“Will I get a table by the window so I can wave up to you at your desk?”

Her words would not distract him. “I’ll see you there at seven.”

“I’m not sure,” said Candice, the tone in her voice too serious. “The only meal I can be sure you’ll eat is in your office.”

“I can’t do whatever I want to do,” said Edmund, looking around his office box. “I’ll call you in about an hour to tell you if I can make the concert.”

“Call me to say you’re coming. Don’t call me to say you’re sorry you’re not.” She left, striding back along the office corridor and away.

Edmund watched her leave. When she’d gone from sight, he left her shopping bag and shirt on the floor behind his desk.

Beside it was his black leather satchel, in which he carried work papers. Edmund also carried a colourful brochure for holidays to Fiji upon which he often mused aboard the train, picturing long-legged Candice in swimwear on the sand. Unable to commit to dates away from work to go there with her, he’d been carrying the brochure in his satchel for two months.

Early evening became a late autumn night outside. The telephones ringing on other people’s desks became infrequent, as did the electronic mail messages appearing on his computer monitor dominating Edmund’s desk. The colleagues who’d sporadically diverted him from his work throughout the day and those who hadn’t, sitting at their desks and meandering about the corridors, progressively left their offices at the end of their working hours. The offices around him didn’t feel as empty as they were.

A building cleaner in his checked flannelette shirt and un-ironed trousers emptied the wastepaper basket beside Edmund’s feet while Edmund persevered, trying to ignore him. After vacuum cleaning the grey carpet floors of other offices, rooms, and corridors, the cleaner knocked on Edmund’s office door of and looked at him through the glass wall, Edmund shook his head to send him away.

Soon after seven o’clock, Edmund remained far from finishing. He conducted most telephone conversations from his office using the base-set microphone and speaker, which left his hands free to type or turn paper pages, but Candice objected whenever the sounds through her telephone earpiece echoed to the hollow tones of open speakers. For her, and to save himself from her consternation, he held the telephone in his hand, while his eyes perused the computer screen and working words he’d drafted. “I am sorry,” he told her.

“You don’t need a girlfriend,” she told him. “You need a studio portrait photograph to adorn your desk and seldom pause to notice.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“You can try.” She hung up the telephone.

Without reason anymore to rush his work, Edmund took a pen and scribbled a line through the note in his desk diary about the concert. He slowly turned the page back to the previous week’s entries: pending chores to complete and records of telephone conversations. The empty page for Saturday reminded him they’d eaten dinner together then. Turning another page back, the last entry for Thursday night had been a performance of The Cherry Orchard, with a line struck through it. If their relationship had ceased meaning anything to Candice, then the best record of their time together was Edmund’s diary.

For thirteen years, he’d expended every working day and more days and nights among small offices in big buildings in one city or another, where thick multiple-glazed windows kept outside all senses of other worlds. Within the hazes of grey, the city skyline of building blocks and reaching shapes once seemed such a carousel, with brightly painted unicorns reflected in glass mirrors and peppy melodies playing without words, but years had passed since Edmund last felt very much for them: those stone, steel, and concrete structures crafted from kits of industrial design. He hadn’t awaited anything or dreaded anything, aspiring only for the intermittent tasks of interest to him. No longer referring to his career as being ambition, he undertook the pattern of his weeks, his conversations across meetings and his documents and correspondence. The carousel had become a treadmill in black rubber, moving much too fast for Edmund to step away. He could only leave by jumping off, but he mightn’t be able to jump back on again. He didn’t know where he would be without it.

Edmund under lights sat confined to his corporate desk. Sitting there, where nobody could see him, he wasn’t handsome. When his neck became sore, he loosened the tie around his collar. He stretched his back and legs from his chair. Long white fluorescent lights from the ceilings flickered too rapidly for people sitting under them to notice.

The company maintained stocks of transient, tasteless meals that people working evenings, holidays, and weekends didn’t need to pause to savour. Not bothered to use the kitchen oven, Edmund poured boiling water into a cup of beef soup packet mix.

His mind wandered to Candice and the concert, before he dragged his concentration back to the company objective. He didn’t have the time to let her distract his tired attention. Time was always pressing and all the participants at a seminar Edmund attended received clocks like the small grey one atop the filing cabinets facing his long desk.

Hanging nonchalantly from frames that filled his office wall were Edmund’s aging university degrees. More than a mirror of his past, the menagerie of scrolled italics under glass had been a ticket to a future not yet cast upon him, but his corporate title and professional accreditations only mattered because they lay printed with his name on matte-paper business cards.

Office telephones rarely rang at night, letting people concentrate upon their work, but Edmund answered his telephone before his recorded voice had the chance to reply. “Neale,” he said, utilising the microphone and speaker.

“Where’s the submission?” boomed the chairman’s voice.

“It should be ready within the hour, Mister Garrett.”

“What have you been doing?”

Edmund’s fingers close to the telephone flicked the chairman’s intrusive, insulting voice. They were Edmund’s secret insolence, the private revolution in his mind, relieving a little of his frustration without incurring aggravation; Edmund would’ve known if the company operated surveillance cameras in the offices. “Preparing it,” he replied, his words not drawn to reflect his thoughts. “I won’t leave the office until I’ve finished.”

“Good,” replied Garrett, without sentiment. “Tomorrow I want you working on that joint venture proposal. You do that well and the directors will notice you.”

Edmund replied with no more sincerity than had been conferred on him. “Thank you, Mister Garrett.” The directors never noticed the work that Edmund did, unless they didn’t like it.

The connection ended and Edmund resumed working, cloaked in a cogent anarchy of papers and materials. They fed his fractured mind with arguments and intuition, while he drank mugs of lukewarm coffee as he’d drunk them through the day. Littered by the keyboard were little metal clips that once held paper sheets together, which his impatiently idle fingers twisted from their manufactured form into random, useless shapes. His distant abstract brain struggled with a problem and a pressure until it reached an incremental resolution, when those fingers vented their energy typing letters on the keyboard.

The submission that had been almost interesting to Edmund early in its unfolding argument became more gruelling with every revision. Words that once flowed through the computer screen ground against his weary eyes. The facts and inferences from them that he inscribed were those that he already knew and that some people believed. He rubbed his hands through his hair and over the skin around his eyes, massaging his muscles to stay awake. He glanced at the time in the corner of his computer screen and wondered why he did.

Long after midnight, much too late to see Candice at her home, Edmund finished. He transmitted the draft submission to the directors’ computers and filed the papers he wouldn’t need to read again too soon back in the cabinets of his office. The papers he might soon need to check he placed back into neat piles along the front of his desktop, beside the piles of papers of his next most pressing projects and a larger pile of clear plastic sleeves containing papers of lesser chores. His printed copy of the submission consoled him his chore was complete, until somebody instructed him to change it.

Loose pens and blank sheets of paper he returned to the top drawer beside his chair. Bent paper clips he swept into his hand and into the rubbish bin on the floor. Most of the pale desk surface was clean when first he saw it every morning and clean again at the end of every day; menial tasks helped his mind slow down from working.

His jacket had been hanging from the hook behind his office door for more than fifteen hours when he dressed back into it, checking his wallet was still in the inside pocket. He took his mobile telephone from the shelves behind his desk, hoping not to hear a telephone ring again that night. The cleaners had long left the floor and gone to wherever cleaners went. The odours of cleaning fluids had dissipated leaving the building without any defining smells. Nothing in the offices ever smelt.

Carrying his satchel on his shoulder and Candice’s shopping bag in his hand, Edmund ran his tired fingers over the panel of black plastic switches by the door from the reception area, extinguishing the ceiling lights above him, around the reception desk, and throughout the empty premises. His keys locked shut the doors; the security card he needed to enter the building and offices out of working hours wasn’t necessary to leave them. Someone coming to the office in the morning earlier than he arrived would reopen them.

“Ground floor,” said the computer voice made to sound like a woman’s voice, speaking from a panel in the lift. It excused him from the building.

More cars than usual moved along the city street so late at night, but Edmund was too sleepy to think about them. The only pedestrians were a uniformed policewoman gently leading by the hand a homeless man, wearing a blanket for a coat above his refuse clothes and holding a polystyrene cup. It reminded Edmund why he worked so hard.

Waiting at the rank that night, shining under street lights, was a single peculiarly white taxi. Through the windscreen, the elderly driver watched Edmund approach. Traveling alone, Edmund normally sat in the front seats of taxicabs. That night, he had no mood to listen to conversations that taxi drivers made. He opened a rear door.

“Have you heard the news?” the driver asked him.

“Just take me home,” said Edmund, closing the door beside him and telling the driver his home address.

“Don’t you…”

“Please,” Edmund interrupted, offering him a token courtesy more than he felt like giving. “I’ve too much on my mind.”

The driver studied him for a moment, before nodding. “You want time alone.” Facing Edmund, a crucifix hung from the driver’s rear-vision mirror.

Edmund turned his head towards the policewoman helping the homeless man into her police car, while the taxi pulled away from the kerb. Harsh lines of lights rolled past the windows, while Edmund sat in the back seat with his arm across his satchel and shopping bag resting against his thigh. Rising thoughts of Candice threatening to end their relationship before it had ever gone too far competed with receding thoughts about the submission he’d surrendered the day and night to make, without distracting him from noticing where the taxi went. “This is not the quickest route,” said Edmund.

“I thought we could avoid the worst of the traffic,” the driver replied, watching the street ahead of him.

“It’s the middle of the night.”

The traffic was busier than Edmund was used to seeing so late at night, but he dared not remark upon it. In the absence of anything more, the only measure of his success had become the perceptions made by people he’d never before seen and never saw again. Success was simply keeping what he had.

“Up here on the right,” said Edmund, guiding the driver to the kerb outside the apartment building in which he lived, much like those around. He checked the meter display as the driver told him the fare, contemplating paying less than that amount because of the route the driver took. He would not waste his time in a dispute.

“Thank you,” said the driver, accepting Edmund’s company credit card. He processed the fare and charge before Edmund entered his security number into the credit card terminal. “You get what you need when you ask the right person,” the driver told him, “although it mightn’t be what you think you want.”

“My card,” said Edmund.

The driver returned Edmund’s credit card to him. “Good night.”

“Not so far.”

The taxi driver laughed. “Be wary of what you want, Mister Neale. You might get it.”

Everything in his apartment was neatly in its place, until Edmund dumped his satchel and shopping bag on the lounge room floor. The answering machine for his fixed-line telephone hadn’t recorded any messages, as he’d pretty well expected. (Sometimes he wondered why he bothered keeping a home telephone.) He disengaged the machine so it wouldn’t start to play before he reached the telephone, as Edmund normally did when he returned home.

Something thumped a window and Edmund turned around; the only open window in his apartment was a small one high in the bathroom. A bird must have struck the glass, although birds didn’t normally fly at night.

He hung his jacket and trousers on a coat hanger in his bedroom cupboard and dropped his shirt, socks, and underclothes in the washing machine in the small laundry beyond the kitchen alcove, to clean next weekend. Dressed into his lazy grey tracksuit too tired to brush his teeth, he crashed into his double bed for one. His soft pillow held his head, while his crumpled sheets enveloped him.

He’d not switched on the television set or radio. They wouldn’t have taught him anything anyway.