Carlton was a diminutive man with a rotund belly and a shock of tawny hair that swished from side to side as he shifted his head like a curious sparrow. He would drift through the working days in our publishing company brushing past his colleagues wordlessly in perfumed high-rise elevators, impossibly tight hallways and the tearoom where everyone gathered at mid-morning for an extra caffeine fix. He designed book covers for manuscripts that wove magical realist tales of invisible animals and children lost in ethereal kingdoms – fantasy worlds that seemed to give him sustenance, something maybe his surrounding environment couldn’t.
One tedious afternoon as I was avoiding my work, I flicked through a home design magazine and was stunned to discover one of the photos inside featured a family scene of a wife and two children wearing strained smiles, as if they were on holiday in a mysterious city. It was a strange thing because Carlton had the picture of the exact same family perched beside his PC monitor, next to a polyester flower poking out of an empty vase. The photo had been there since he’d joined our company three years ago. I would often catch him gazing at it longingly, occasionally kissing his fingers and then pressing them against the image. Other times he would wipe it clean of dust with an eyeglass cloth and once or twice I noticed him stifling a smile as if he was engaged in some kind of secret communication with the photograph.
This was most disquieting and captured my imagination even more than the by-the-numbers cloak and dagger thrillers that landed on my desk for editing every week.
At lunch every day, Carlton sat on the long steps outside the British museum where pigeons pecked at the stale breadcrumbs the tourists had scattered on the concrete under expansive autumn skies. I decided to follow him one day – casually taking a seat beside him, unwrapping my sandwich that immediately flopped apart in my hands. Carlton looked alarmed at my presence and I couldn’t help but pity this poor lonesome soul who looked like he could curl up into a protective ball.
“We should have dinner with our families, sometime,” I said, breaking the awkward silence.
Carlton nervously swiped a strand of hair from his eye as his hand trembled. In an attempt to put him at ease I pulled out my wallet and flashed him a picture of my wife and two daughters. The laminated cover was beginning to peel and the snapshot was losing its lustre.
“My wife, Victoria, who I met at Uni and my two little girls Becks and Katie.”
Carlton was lured in and stared intently. “They’re beautiful. So beautiful,” Carlton said, his eyes brightening. “They could be models.”
“Actually, Victoria was a model once, but that’s another story. Your family look lovely too.”
“What do you know about my family?” Carlton said, warily. “Look, I have to go, I’m running late on a book cover.”
“Well, see you tomorrow? Same time, same place? And think about dinner, yeah?”
Carlton hurried away, frightening a band of birds that dispersed like skittles then swarmed back to continue scavenging.
Over the next few weeks I forced myself on Carlton at lunch outside the museum, peppering him with questions about his family and watching for any twitches fluttering across his face so I could find some insight into his nature, but I could never be sure how to interpret his somewhat slow and lugubrious expressions and in the end I was none the wiser.
However, in time we engaged in deeper and deeper conversations – about historic artifacts and his love of design which led him from art school to his current job illustrating stories. He avoided discussing his family life in the main but finally I pinned him down and we agreed a date for our families to meet for dinner.
As I waited outside Carlton’s door with my wife and kids stretching and itching in our uncomfortable formal clothes that we only wore for funerals and downtown shows, I actually believed there was a chance his family would be the same as the ones pictured at work. After all, in the time I had got to know him I found him to be a gentle spirit with his feet firmly on the ground. So, when his front door swung open, I was shocked to see his family were nothing as advertised.
There was no dusty blond hair or rosy cheeks, no clean white teeth neatly aligned and no hypnotic gazes straining forward, looking to a captivating future. In fact, Carlton’s wife and two boys looked weary with fleshy brown bags under their eyes as if they had been locked in a padded cell for hours, the only light coming from a grey moon beaming through a solitary window.
Dinner got going and Carlton kept topping up my wife’s wine until she began to sway – glossy lipstick smeared across her glass, hair tousled as she ran her hand through it repeatedly. After some time, I excused myself and poked around the house.
I heard the kids hound each other with rabid shrieks as they played charades in the children’s room. I snaked along to the master bedroom where I found family photos resting on almost every surface – joyful photos of Carlton and his family all looking fresh as if they’d just stepped out of a cool summer lake. But clearly these photos were from the past, representing older versions of themselves and I questioned what had happened from then till now. I lay on the king-size bed for a while, watching a couple of flies chase each other around the room in a frenzy.
“You know,” said Carlton, as I re-joined the party at the dining table, “the museum charts thousands of years of civilisation and yet they use stolen artifacts from foreign countries, exhibiting them as if they were their own and this is carried out by a highly respected institution – no one batting an eyelid.”
Victoria leant towards Carlton with her chin resting on her palm and said flirtatiously, “What’s your point?”
“Nothing, to be honest, I just thought you might find it interesting, unreal even. More wine?”
I interrupted, “You’ve made a fool of yourself as it is, Victoria, and you’re embarrassing everyone else with your antics. It’s time to leave.”
I wiped my mouth on my napkin, manoeuvred myself out of my seat and said, “I’ve got some things to say to you on Monday, Carlton.”
As we drove off Carlton waved us away, balancing himself against the front door in a drunken stupor, his wife lost in the shadows as she lurked behind him in the lobby.
Looking back on the evening I was struck by how unfazed she was by her husband’s behaviour. She just seemed bored by everything – not in the slightest bit concerned he had ignored her all night. And I certainly didn’t appreciate the way Carlton was looking at my wife.
Victoria collapsed into bed once we arrived home and in her groggy state she fell asleep the instant her head hit the pillow. I watched her sleep and decided to take a picture of her in repose. She embodied a purity as she rested, an angelic quality that she was no longer able to match in waking life. I was reminded of a time when I felt I really knew her.
On Saturday and Sunday, I was put through my paces playing hide and seek with my girls and then lulling them to sleep every night with picture books about princes and princesses kissing in fields of gold as fishermen sailed on riverboats holding flowers.
I don’t remember exchanging more than a couple of words with Victoria throughout the whole weekend. Unless we were fighting this silence was normal these days and I had no idea how to transform the situation.
Monday morning, I was on the bus travelling to work as the suffocating smog seemed to be more toxic than ever. Out of the blue, my heart constricted as I pictured my wife in the throes of passion with Carlton. I saw him forcing his lips against hers and ripping her blouse – sighs morphed into wretched moans. Then I was overwhelmed with images of my children locked in his bathroom, rattling the oversized door handle as ghouls stalked them from behind the shower curtain.
I had formulated many ways I would confront Carlton – imagining the variety of tones and postures I would employ. I was a bundle of nervous energy when I saw him at his desk as he gazed solemnly at his screen and I couldn’t tell if he was in this world or the next. As I neared him, I got a whiff of his roll-on deodorant and then I realised his picture was nowhere to be seen – not on his desk, his monitor, not even pinned to the wall behind. For some reason this sparked a furious rage within me.
I tapped him on the shoulder and he swivelled, completing the movement with a warm grin.
“Friday was fun, right?” he said.
“Listen, Carlton,” my voice a little too intense for a Monday morning, “you might have convinced everyone else but I’ve got you sussed. I know your sick mind and I’ve had it with your games.”
“What games?” he said. “I really don’t appreciate your accusations. What exactly is your problem?”
“Where’s your fake photo of your so-called family? Explain that.”
“What photo? Look, I’m busy, let’s discuss this at lunch, OK? Hopefully by then you’ll have calmed down.”
“Don’t patronise me you fat little prick.”
I pushed Carlton aside and rummaged through his work surface. Soon enough, a small group of my colleagues had gathered around, watching in bewilderment as I began to empty the contents of Carlton’s drawers onto the floor.
Breathless, I gave up and gradually, as everyone became bored, they fanned out, returning to their jobs, bemused. Before I could walk away Carlton grabbed me firmly by the arm.
“My family life has seen better days. I thought you’d understand, that’s why I let you into my home. Take a look at your own family, maybe you’ll discover you’re in the same boat.”
He released me and as he began to organise the jumble of paperclips and mechanical pencils piled up on the floor like kindling, I felt winded. I quietly seethed at how easily Carlton had got under my skin when I was the one who was supposed to be the strong, dominant personality.
I never caught sight of Carlton’s photo again – maybe he had hidden it, maybe he’d hung it up at home, maybe he’d destroyed it – but eventually I stopped fixating about the image and I let the puzzle seep out of my mind, slowly fading day by day.
Carlton fell back into the aimless interactions of the office, giving courteous nods to clients and colleagues, interacting with them only when necessary and avoiding me wherever possible. He portrayed a man completely at ease with his life though, as if he had purged an evil spirit. I often caught him looking cheerful as he loitered by the elevators before lunch, staring out of the tall windows across the town, while gobbling digestive biscuits.
In contrast I had been greatly bruised by our relationship. I couldn’t escape thoughts of supermodels acting out scenes of vacant lives. Visions of fake smiles and forced hugs.
Finally, I decided to fight my doubts and demonstrate my love for my family in a way Carlton refused to do. It was more of a gesture really, pretty feeble, but it was a start. I printed out a wide selection of snapshots of my wife and kids, capturing times before Victoria and I got caught up in so many misunderstandings and fights that even led to the subtle possibility of violence. I bought some frames to mount the pictures, attempting to give them due respect. I placed them proudly and openly on my desk like holiday decorations.
I refused to let my family slip away from me like Carlton’s, even if it meant pretending we were united in a way that only existed in a plastic world. There was much more to be done but as opposed to Carlton, who seemed to bask in the embers of a failing marriage, I was determined to persevere.