Our Daily Bread, by John Crowley
The revolving doors moved him and he stepped out into the street. A great fog had shrouded the city, which smothered its life and deadened its skyline. The wind pressed heavy against the stretching bones of the London Wheel, which sought to see everything but saw only the fractured red glow of the distant towers, whose light seeped through the clouds like the flame of a flickering candle through the crevices of a closing hand.
A raindrop fell from the heavens and came crashing down onto the man’s head. He had escaped the workplace, and headed eagerly to his favourite lunch spot, hoping for a moment of silence and a bite of a sandwich. His spotted blue tie flung itself at his left shoulder, then, having been straightened back into the centre, onto his right. His head sank low into his chest as he cowered to the mercy of the wind.
Monday had thus far been stillborn. The promise of a week of fresh opportunity had seen him stapled to his desk in a way that struck him as surprisingly similar to the previous Friday. For the last three weeks he had established lunch as the centrepiece of his day- where he would leave the office and go onto the streets to consume his food. This had been a major change in his life, for, as far back as he could remember, his home-made lunch had waited for him in the communal fridge. The thick layer of sickly yellow margarine lay beneath the thin ham, squashed between the pieces of bread. This was gift-wrapped by his wife in a cellophane skin, which squeezed the margarine into the corners and dampened the crusts. Enough was enough. Besides, the communal area in which the communal fridge sat was a soulless room. All talk revolved around business, and each individual occupied their space whilst weighing up their competition across the carpet. Crumbs fell from loose mouths as they tried to establish themselves as the authoritative voice on who was next for the chop. A place without conversation would provide the only solace from incessant gossiping.
He drifted towards his chosen café with the other businessmen in a silent parade. They marched in uniform, their mouths hanging open, ready for their feeding. His thoughts fell back to the day he was forced to join them, his office lunch having been marked by the most recent of rumours to grace the room.
“I hear Richard will be fired by the end of the month” someone had said across the carpet in a gloating tone. He had shuffled in his plastic chair and began to twist the corners of the cellophane wrapper. A cold silence set in, broken only by the constant buzz of the machines. So quietly he had been sat in the corner that no one had noticed his presence, or maybe they had and were trying to undermine him. It didn’t matter, he didn’t care. He retreated further into his cave, and looked forward to the bits of bread that had remained dry. The room now seemed so obviously drained of thought and life that he became numb. The next day he set out, looking for a place in which he could think clearly and fill the stomach which drummed heavily at his bones. The café he had eventually found had nothing particularly defining about it- the coffee was hot and black, the sandwiches were cold and expensive- but it stood beside St Paul’s Cathedral, looking onto the impressive building with a pious kneel. From the relative quiet of the café window he could peer onto the steps of St Paul’s, looking in as if he wasn’t a part of the life that filled them. Tourists fell from the cathedral like coins from a slot machine; the city’s people staggered in ones and twos as if on pilgrimage, turning their backs to the grand entrance when they got near, while their eyes stared distantly into the lines of shops and businesses that littered the pavement. All around them creatures moved. The pigeons’ tensed, scrawny necks plunged at the floor, scraping their mouths against the pavement to peck at the crusts that had been left behind. And what they left behind the street cleaners came at. Swooping from dark corners of London, their fantastic fluorescent feathers were striking to the passer by, yet distracted them from realising the souls beneath the formless garish green. Into their bins the strewn food from the eateries moved; some unopened, some untouched, but still unwanted. They swept away the food so that they could buy their own. They scrubbed at a diseased floor that would never be cured. He walked up the road towards St Paul’s. An advertisement hanging from a shop blocked his view of the marvellous building and he peered round it only to be greeted by a larger sign with an arrow pointing in the opposite direction towards a burger joint. As the entrance eventually manifested itself, the fog had painted a thick grey over the intricate details. The crowds of the stairs had not noticed, and the shimmering gold of the crucifix glinted upon their heads with an approving nod.
Nearing the cafe, his thoughts fell upon his home. Shortly after his departure from the daily office feasting, his manager had called him into his office. His round table invited the pilgrim and he took his seat accordingly. The news came in a quick, cold thrust. The next three weeks would be his last; he was surplus to requirement; the machine had jammed and he would have to be shredded. It was possible that he was now liberated, but his real talents would not be able to feed his family and so he would simply wander into a similar job, with less pay and thinner walls. His eyes refocused on the world around him. The chosen café stood before him, decorated in slogans and prices. But though the red glow inside seemed inviting, he felt a sudden panic rush over him. The faces around him became diffused with the dead eyed stares of his co-workers, the red light pulsated and he became suffocated. He felt as if there were a deadweight, compressing and compacting him into the tightly canned crowd. His anonymity had been violated, and the idea of impending conversation came at him like a tube in a tunnel. He felt the cellophane wrapper coming over him, squeezing him in to the corners, and sealing in the air. His thoughts could not grow and live in this atmosphere. Where did one escape in a world in which every nook and cranny was filled with people and things and ideologies?
The rush of the wind came at him, whipping at his exposed ankles where the raised socks did not meet the upended trouser legs. He turned to face his accuser, and before him stood the grand entrance of St Pauls. The bells chimed with a heavy a blow which resonated across the square, causing a frenzy of movement like sheep called to order by their shepherd. And he, feeling the hysteria within him, quickened his step towards the doors without a thought for where he was going.
A small queue of tourists sifted through the internal entrance, and he came to the till. The worker serving was small and timid, with a vegetating brow, curling around his spectacles. Despite the incense that wafted into the passage and the dim hum of an organ, the worker did not seem to be consumed by the spiritual air. His stubby fingers jabbed at the till; sighs leaked from his mouth as he received yet another fifty pound note for the twelve pound price. The cash register and his worker were caught in a limbo between the two congregations, pulled this way and that; they existed only in the waiting room, praying for their number to be called. The worker was handed a sweaty twenty pound note, and gave a ticket to the man. The till’s teeth clamped shut with a menacing snarl and the queue shuffled forward once more.
The revolving door moved him and he stepped into the grand hall of the cathedral. A crisp packet tussled with the sole of his shoe, eventually escaping, and was carried off by the wind, scattering crumbs among the masses like communion to the hungry. A smell of blown-out candles hung in the air. Large groups of tourists clustered around statues, the flash of their cameras beating at the weary brows of forgotten saints. The man hovered near the back aisles wondering whether to go in further, but the price of the ticket was worth at least three lunches and he was compelled to go in by guilt. He slowly began to tip-toe through the endless rows of old wooden benches, his feet occasionally interrupted by piles of shopping bags scattered around the legs of the pilgrims as they hung to the benches like carcasses; their hands nailed to the wood, their heads dropped as if in deep thought. And all around them were icons of the forgotten martyrs; their faces caught in the stained glass windows, their bodies lying solemnly in marble shells. He walked up the long passage which was shaded from the glare of the electronically motored celestial lights. An elderly man lay beside him, fashioned in a cold hard stone. Pain and anguish crept through the furrowed brow on his pious face, but his lips sank softly towards his chin and there seemed a sense of equilibrium in his dead state. Of course the sculptor had intended this, but to the man it nonetheless seemed to represent a truth and reality that was forgotten.
His legs stirred again and pushed him towards the magnificent altar. The thick slab of marble was draped in golden covers and blood red sheets. And on the altar grew tusks of white candles, grasped tightly by their effulgent golden stands. Though they were not alight, the dense beams of the stands burned in the face of Christ, who drooped from his crucifix in the middle of the waxen towers. The gleam dissolved his features from afar, but the man could not take himself to move closer to discover the face on the cross. Eventually the glow around the altar became too intense, and he dropped his eyes from the crucifix and stared at his feet.
Despite the decadence and beauty of the place, he did not want to stay any longer and was reminded of his hunger as his stomach began to rumble. He would drop back into the flow of the crowds, like a pebble into a canal, and eventually find himself back in his work chair. He trudged towards the ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ signs, motivating himself to take another step with the slim chance that he could buy a ‘St Paul’s Sandwich’ in the shop. But as he came closer to the exit, he began to notice a small cove hidden away from the main hall. It was striking because it was cast in darkness, with only a dim light flickering. The darkness and emptiness grasped the man by his hand and led him in.
The space was stripped of any of the magnificence of the rest of the building, and only a single candle struggling in the dark could be immediately perceived. By the candle knelt an old woman, her face was tightly wrapped in a headscarf and so her features could only be seen where the flame was stirred so as to catch fleeting glances of her stony face. The man stood piously behind her, staring at her still body, wishing not to disturb her moment of silent devotion. She, who had probably only a mitre in her purse, seemed so rich in her simplicity. Her mouth gently opening and closing, her eyes drawn; she could speak freely in a world where conversation had become a means to an unperceivable end. While all around the cathedral, hordes of bodies buzzed but said and felt nothing, she penetrated their noise with her delicate mutterings.
The natural flame curled and stretched in the darkness, burning strongly but being flung from left to right as if it were despised by the wind. Despite its movement, the flame looked only at the woman, and lit her face in obsequious deference. He was consumed by a need to speak to something, to translate his fears into words and incantations; to alight a flame that burned for him. But in his life, only the flashing screen of his office computer was illuminated, preventing the gentle darkness from drawing him in and pulling forth threads of thought and contemplation. His family would of course always be there, but his voice called for an ear which did not judge and did not know him.
Despite her age she looked defiant in the face of the wind. Her back refused to stoop or cower and her stomach seemed full and satisfied. His thoughts fell to the hollow frames that trudged the streets of the city, brandishing coffee cups like symbols of devotion to a noble cause. God was absent in his life and he had concluded so at an early age- his reasons were honest, but there lay something in him that yearned for belief. There was something missing in the casino of the market world, where happiness was measured in fleeting successes and failures, where the blinding lights grabbed hold of lust and desire and made one forget about anything else. He could not find a cause, a way to satisfy his hunger, a flame to light his path. He had not found it in religion either, where from a young age he was taken by his parents and forced to recite words that did not speak to him. But this old lady, whom he did not know, had a tangible atonement in all her simplicity and silence. He began to feel he had lingered too long and risked disturbing the old lady from her prayer. His eyes fell to his watch, whose hands seemed to grasp at the half hour mark and sentence the man to his office space. He turned through the gift-shop, ignoring the claws that grabbed at stationary embellished with Christ’s face on, and left through the grand wooden doors. A solitary piece of paper with the ‘Our Father’ written on was conjured up by the wind, sucking it towards the exit, but as the man left, the doors slammed, and the paper was cast quickly into the corner.
All around him was fog and cold and sterility. The synthetic red light of the distant towers seeped through the grey and he stepped towards it as hunger grabbed hold of his being, turning the cogs from within.