Fiction | Breathing lessons


You get in early to the Department of Prosperity and Initiative, which you’ve been doing since the restructure of 2018. As government departments go, it’s nondescript. It works in the way that gumboots work. Not pretty but it does the job.

You arrive at seven, card swipe, and in through the front, up the lifts, and on to the double sliding doors as the cleaners waltz around empty cubicles. You go to the gents at 7.05 and grab a coffee at 7.10. You are not exactly ‘killing it’. Your nipples show through your shirt. Your shoes make farting noises when you walk and your hair is problematic. It’s boofy, unmanageable, part pillow and part Brillo-pad.

Old girl Deborah sees you, laughs, and you’re not sure what’s so funny, so you say ‘Boom!’ and she laughs again, and then she’s gone, back to the west or the east quadrant of the office floor—you can never tell which way is which—and you wonder if it’s too early for a second piss.

But instead, you soldier on because you have a job to do. And you’re okay with that until you reach reception, and you see rows and rows of name tags, none of which are Bella’s.

*

The previous Wednesday, Bella came in like a cockatoo, fast at first, and then gently stopping in front of your desk. For a second, you were struck by the vision, afraid she’d be startled by sudden movement, but she stood there, smiling, waiting for the end of your phone call. She grew impatient almost immediately and waved her arm frantically left to right, like a windscreen wiper.

She argued for the presence of trivial conversation to stop things from becoming too deep. She told you she’d jumped out of a plane and you said you once walked from Nedlands back to Mount Lawley.

She told you her dietary requirements and, usually, that would have been weird but with her it felt necessary. She talked until her boss came in and then she suddenly grew hurried, flitted out to the rest of the endless office space, and you were left with a broken water feature and no bird.

*

Lately, you’ve been struggling to breathe. Everything feels suffocating. You’re all bladder and no valve; you fear you will never again sit opposite her and drink a coffee, that you have no keys in a room now full of locks.

You walk outside of your level six open-plan office floor onto the floating walkway. The building starts to spin and you find a real source of concern. At six floors up, it’s better to be wowed by elevation than the thought that you’ve again lost hold of the ground.

You stare down at the floors below, which are bigger and more expansive than yours, like steps down to earth. The building breathes, in and out, and it is nice to consider something calmer than you are, and more willing to take a breath.

You hear the building snoring. You think it’s saying, ‘Please, just leave me for a bit, I’ve dozed off, and it’s warm, and I don’t want to worry about infrastructure just yet.’

You do a breathing exercise Bella taught you until things finally slow, lessen, and reduce. You whisper thank you, though it’s not as if she can hear you.

You tell her about the building and its sleep apnoea. You ask if they make sleep masks that big and whether she could sleep next to a building that noisy. You ask what she might say to soothe a tower block’s anxiety were it to become self-conscious about wearing such a contraption. What she might say to you if you told her you were feeling increasingly anxious about your job, your life, yourself.

*

Bella was on crutches for a bit. She used them like a boss, all strong-leg swinging through.

While she was on crutches, you were sure to talk about mobility and the power of movement. You told her how this one guy could backspin for ten minutes until he wasn’t just doing a backspin, he was a backspin.

You told her you could knee-spin for ten seconds continuously, provided you had a suitably large square of linoleum.

She told you she could dance and you said, ‘Shopping trolley?’ You stood up, mimed it perfect, even with the wonky wheel, even as the others looked on, embarrassed. She laughed and laughed and the others looked down and so you did it again, even crazier, and thought I am going to find more ways to make you laugh.

*

You sit at your desk and do sit-at-your-desk type things like emails, file management, and keeping up with Teams. Teams is great for meetings, conversations and integrations. Teams cannot help you with your life, your family, or why you’ve chosen to ignore your higher calling.

You sit at your desk, a wave from old girl Deborah as she walks past, her hand raised high, so you’ll see it from behind your large set of monitors. Deborah jokes daily with you. She says, ‘Oh God,’ and ‘Here he comes,’ with a theatrical roll of her eyes and then smiles, as if to say, ‘Come on, let’s have some fun with this.’

You ask her how she is and she says, ‘Well, I’m here.’

You want to say, ‘Me too,’ although you’re not, not really.

That afternoon, she drops you off a worn copy of Who Moved My Cheese? It’s more pamphlet than tome, the ‘I could write a book!’ of the business world.

‘What’s this?’

‘Change is coming,’ says old girl Deb. ‘Have to be prepared.’

You study the cover. The ‘V’ in ‘Moved’ has been replaced by a triangle of Swiss cheese that would be more at home in a Garfield cartoon. The Daily Telegraph describes it as ‘One of the best business books ever,’ and you wonder whether it was the presence of the cheese, or its ability to move, that lifted it into the upper echelons of text-based corporate tosh.

‘Why’d you bring me this?’

‘You’re going to need it. They keep moving the cheese.’

‘But I don’t want them to move the cheese.’

‘Nobody does,’ says Deb. ‘But that’s the thing: you need to move with the cheese.’

Your mouth opens involuntarily, a goldfish yawn, and you shut it just as quickly. You try to respond but nothing comes out, only bubbles of air. ‘Move with the cheese,’ she repeats, pointing to the triangle of Jarlsberg on the cover. She lets the book drop to the desk, nods once, and escapes out of an office side door, her lanyard card swiped by so fast that the click comes only just before she swings the door wide open.

You stay there, sat at your desk, and it feels as though the chair is melting into you. It seems, as sunlight shifts through slits in that sky-dome of a ceiling, as though they have now sealed the doors.

*

Bella has a dog that’s more smoosh than bone. She posts pics of it on Instagram, this plushie of a pup, and you wonder what happens once the camera phone clicks. If she was happy or sad, grateful or disconsolate.

She told you she had always wanted to be a spy and said, ‘You probably think that’s silly, right?’ You said, ‘No way, that’s fantastic!’ You told her you were once a spy but not a particularly good one.

You’d been working at McDonald’s and had been told to go into Subway to check out the competition, only they saw you taking notes.

It got worse. They tagged you by the sky-blue polo shirt you were wearing. A near-perfect disguise but for the tiny golden arches sewn into the top-left corner. You ask what she would wear as a spy extraordinaire and she says dungarees. When you ask why she says, ‘So many pockets.’

Eight became 8.10, 8.30 and 8.45 when she was around. Work became the most excellent party.

Time passed. You learned things you knew you’d think about once this job was gone, and the building gone.

You figured there would always be more minutes, seconds, hours, and there is, time stretches out like chewy, only it’s not as if that matters now.

*

Your world is dimming light, clouds of grey through the glass ceiling. You’ve kept a tally of tasks undertaken:

• an email on communications protocols for your boss so he knows you know your protocols and what protocols are in general in a nebulous, generalist sense
• your WDP, or Work Development Plan, where you visualise goals that would elevate you into upper management if you were a completely different person
• your thoughts on the corporate structure—not welcome, or requested

No sign of such ‘drudgery’ with Bella in a room. Just words like ‘interesting’, ‘excitement’ and ‘amazing’. A snort of a giggle, clear-rimmed glasses, and a genuine enthusiasm for life.

You add one last point:
• The cultivation of a mutually beneficial, evenly distributed friendship of undeniable and  indefatigable joy, wonder and curiosity.
And then:
• Creation of a time machine. Specifics not yet ascertained.

*

One Thursday, 8 am, after two weeks away, Bella comes into the office. Her brow is furrowed when she sees you and she jogs those last few steps.

‘Dash.’

You see her, kind of, only the building is breathing shallow and fast and you can’t focus, not even for a second.

‘Dash, you’re having a panic attack,’ she says. ‘Come outside, come sit on the grass.’

You think Bella will be awkward as you sit there on the grass. You fear she will see a side. But if she does, she likes it, or sees it as an essential part of what makes you ‘you’. She stays with you, holds your hand, and it’s so damn quiet you’re damned if you can work out what this means, her hand in yours, or can understand why it means so much that someone cares.

Your employee manual states any number of things but it does not say, ‘When all else fails, find someone to hold on to.’

*

The building creaks and groans. The cafe staff downstairs say, ‘Did you hear that?’ and then turn up the TV, Sunrise playing as if to balance the breathing. They say, ‘Man, check out Kochie, he’s so incredibly well-dressed, so knowing, so undoubtedly on top of his game and maybe one day we can be that presentable, that brown-bread functional in the face of joy and wonder.’

They might say these things. It’s likely that they don’t. I mean, shit, they can’t even get the froth right on a cappuccino.

You go there at ten. You state your order every time and sometimes they make it with soy and sometimes they make it with milk, like it doesn’t really matter what you’ve ordered.

Jobs are precious things. They help with that whole ‘getting up to face the day’ thing. They ensure you don’t just shut up your house, curtains drawn, and stay in bed, with your sheets pulled up and over you.

You tell HR you miss Bella when she leaves. They tell you people come and go like supermarket shoppers in this place. They warn you that to resist change is to resist the kaleidoscopic cavalcade of feelings that is life in the public service.

They don’t say that. You wish they would say things like that.

*

When she left, Bella said ‘I’m going to miss you so much.’

She never said that. You wish she had said that. You’re glad she didn’t say that.

She said, ‘Sometimes, I don’t reply to people if they’re not already in my inner circle.’ It broke your heart into tiny pieces until you realised she was trying to be kind. She was trying to say, ‘Don’t freak out from the distance. We’re moments, not months, and that is okay.’

You wish you’d done more to get into her inner circle. You think maybe her inner circle is the harder job. That, by being in her outer circle, you get the best of her and she the best of you, and it’s okay, that space. It gives you a sweet, flawed but still functioning time machine with which to remember and to reminisce.

If you close your eyes, and focus on your belly, thoughts dance down deep. They sound like hers and feel like hers, and maybe they are, or they’re yours, or they’re thoughts co-mingling between the two of you, saying:

I saw you, and I could tell that you saw me.
The world was growing grey but you came and threw a colour all over the walls.
Good people make a difference. In fact, they’re the only thing that ever does.

You don’t know what to think. You say, ‘If you can hear me, make the lights blink.’

*

You decide to read Who Moved My Cheese? on a shortened lunch break, on account of a call you need to make to confirm that The Valve Company in Kewdale still makes the KB Type Diaphragm Valve, the one for solids handling. Once that’s confirmed, you can call your boss to confirm its ongoing status as the go-to valve for all things solid, and he can head into his 1pm meeting and say, ‘We followed up, and I can confirm that they still make the KB Type Diaphragm Valve. So please, everyone, there is no need for panic or distress. The valve is safe, we can continue to handle solids, and peace has once again been restored on our sometimes troubled, wondrous, unknowably complex blue-green planet.’

But first, you have a puzzle to solve involving mice with first names, and heavily laboured dairy-based metaphors for fulfilment, in which said mice learn stuff in the space of roughly ninety-four large-font, well-spaced pages. You read it where you and Bella once sat, only today it’s more a picnic than a panic attack, and it’s a nice day, the clouds tiny wisps over the ever-stretching, snow globe sky of blue. You fly through the book, it’s comically short, and it turns out that it doesn’t matter who moved the cheese, only that the cheese has moved. Your job, then, is not to miss the cheese but to find more cheese like a distracted sous chef or a mouse who’s up for existing in both the literal and metaphorical realms.

You head back to the office, and you never make the call about the KB Type valve. You give your notice instead, because Bella did that, so maybe you could do it too. Maybe that is what’s required from certain folk when faced with the perpetually indifferent, or often distracted.

Perhaps, when their heads start to spin, such people need to find some air, take a spell, and go again once they’ve regained their breath.

*

It’s Friday, 3 pm at DPI. You wear denim jeans on Deborah’s recommendation. She says it will make you seem more ‘fun’.

You feel less fun. A man in kid’s clothes. A dad at a rodeo. The feeling that you get when you open up a packet of assorted creams and none are left except for the orange.

Your notice now handed in, and soon enough, it’s your final day at DPI. Some people come by, a few with whom you did not always get along. You’re not sure why. But you tried and they tried too.

They say, ‘Good luck.’ You want to say, ‘I’m terrified,’ but instead you just say, ‘Thanks.’

Breathing in and out. The building, wheezing with age.

You thank the desk for not collapsing. You acknowledge the chair for holding your weight. You thank the doors for opening. Thank work for the coffee, which you still do not like but which you now appreciate, for it encourages the thought that there is better coffee somewhere near that you must now seek out, however hard it is to do that alone.

You thank the way the door beeps, right on cue. This time it’s not your boss or any one of those suit/shirt/power-dressing automatons that wander through the doors and on to project management. It’s old girl Deborah, a bittersweet smile, and a box of Roses Chocolates.

‘You seem surprised to see me.’

‘I was expecting Bella,’ you say.

‘She’s gone, she left,’ she says.

‘I know,’ you say.

‘Come on, you sad sack,’ says Deborah. ‘I’ll walk you out of the building.’

*

Months later, you catch up with Bella.

The time machine has malfunctioned, so suddenly you’re plunged into your future, rather than the past. Time has been cruel. There’s no new job to speak of; your t-shirt needs an iron and you nearly missed the bus.

Monday morning: some boho cafe on the ground floor of the Chamber of Commerce, Leverage and Capital Gains, all artistic coffee cups and golden, crispy, unforgettably flaked pastries. You’re you, in distressed jeans and a faded grey tee that says, Be kind. Bella wears a cream top, black pants and jacket. She looks like the kind of person who could talk you through patent policy or debrief you on the key points of Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation. You know ‘no-nonsense federal thinktank participant’ is one of her many disguises, so you do not draw attention to her attire.

Instead, you sit cosily in the corner at a table made for two in a building made for trade.

You ask Bella if she will be your friend. She says, ‘I am your friend,’ and you know that she will never get how much this matters to you.

The realisation that you’ll never fit in. Or that you fitted with her, two pieces of a puzzle, and for minutes, sometimes hours, light shone through the glass ceiling of your circular building, and the minutes felt like lifetimes, and you were better for her presence, her thoughts, and her feelings.

Saying, ‘I want this life and the next to get to know you.’

Saying, ‘We only get this once.’

You meet her gaze, and say, ‘I don’t know if I’m doing this right.’

She says, ‘Well, if we’re not, then it’s a joy to fuck things up right by your side.’

 

In time she says, ‘I’ll have to go soon,’ and in time gets up to leave and you see that it is time to take another breath.

It hurts to breathe that deep.

But you know that it is keeping you alive.

 

 

Laurie Steed

Laurie Steed is a novelist and short story writer from Perth. His work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, Island, and elsewhere. He won the 2012 Patricia Hackett Prize for Fiction and is the recipient of fellowships from The University of Iowa, The Baltic Writing Residency, The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, and Writers Victoria. His debut novel, You Belong Here was published in 2018 and was shortlisted for the 2018 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards. His second book, Greater City Shadows, is the winner of the 2021 Henry Handel Richardson Flagship Fellowship for Short Story Writing from Varuna—The National Writers’ House.

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