This is where it starts. Our long and fruitful relationship with Sunbright starts right here. With a toilet cleaner. As yet unnamed. And for which I must have an identity, nay complete personality, along with campaign strategy by next Monday morning. I take the bottle home; it sits snugly, smugly, sticky with dried champagne, in the leather fold of the SAAB’s seat (‘Ugly car, ugly bottle,’ I’m paraphrasing an old line for gin – can’t use it here). The bottle is a small sick-smelling ghost in my presence, a miniature malevolent Casper. God how I long for ghosts that are friendly, at the very least. The white litre bottle - it illumes in the wet-night-swishing dark of the car. It lights up, rhythmically, a dull orange glow, from passing street lights. It hums along with Phil Manzanera who is playing on the CD. It follows me indoors, when I arrive, tiptoe, so as not to wake – even my Mum, who is wheezing gently and dribbling demurely in front of the telly. I shake her softly, wake her, and she smiles dreamily and pads off to the room she uses at this place.
It gets underfoot on Saturday outings. Then it shares my bedroom. I try a bit in the ensuite. So I suppose it spreads its little bit of Sunbright into the harbour, via our sate-of-the art aerating system. It stares at me all weekend, and all through a week that vanishes.
Till Monday. The next Monday.
Which is now. And the Sunbright meeting is in two hours time.
I grump past Intella Hobson, front desk (we call her the ‘Director of First Impressions’ and she does well in that regard). Pick up my mail, plump down at the desk. It’s late in the morning. Head hurts.
A paper aeroplane is tacked to my computer screen – nose deliberately bent. It’s the other Mark’s way of sending messages:
Let's talk about the Friday night awards.
After the Sunbright thing
– let’s learn to win
I wince again, roll eyes skyward. And wearily reach for a coffee cup.
First, the mail, e- and otherwise. It’s an old habit of mine, now even more acute, given the possibility of an explanation, a note, anything, from somewhere in the far south of Portugal. I skip the recogniseable mailouts.
Just then, Intella comes in, bearing a box, about shoebox size, oddly light, and from which emanates a soft scuffling noise.
It is wrapped in brown paper. It has holes poked in it, with a pencil. It is tied up with old-fashioned hemp string. It is addressed to me.
It has a smaller envelope on its side, tucked in under the string. It says, “Read please, don’t delay.”
The note inside says:
In this box is the answer to your Loo Blue problem.
Read it and see.
And then, if you’d like to hear from me again,
just throw the flyer out of the window;
and I’ll get back to you just when you need me.
For once, I slow down. I sit bemused. I mull over the note. I pick at the envelope it came in.
It’s an old-fashioned letter in an old-fashioned envelope, thick, orangey manila, with a white label pasted on.
I can see the label is pasted over many others. My name is enunciated in the most precise handwriting I’ve seen for years, written in what’s obviously an ink pen.
There are a few spots around sharp corners in the characters, as if the nib has snagged, and flicked a fine spray of ink ahead of itself.
And then I realise: this was written with an old-fashioned quill pen!
The envelope has a pleasing weight, and solidity. I heft it, turn it over: nothing on the back, no sender’s name, except for a curious outline, something that looks like a stretched, though incomplete, turtle. Like a rough monogram. Done with the same pen.
So to the box. The scurrying continues from within.
Then comes a sound, the unmistakable soft liquid call of a pigeon. In its gentle way, it says: “Hey! I could use a bit of light here; a bit of air; some flight, and freedom to return to where I came from.”
And I think: What am I going to do with a pigeon in the office? Of course I’ll toss it out the window.
With a quick flash of irritation (they’re all too common these days), I realise I’ve found myself in an elaborate entrapment. Is this another clever promotional gimmick? If so, then my SOH will expire. This on top of the complicated entrapment as engineered by Vicki, which is wearing very thin too. Entrapment. It has become a familiar feeling lately.
But this entrapment, now, is in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Somehow I see the element of charm in it. So a rueful smile breaks through the crust of tetchiness. And that’s something that new to me too.
Is the bird alone the answer to my Loo Blue problem, as promised? Yeah right, the cynic in me kicks in. Or is there something else in there? Something that could be useful?
So I peel back the brown paper, gently lift the lid of the old shoe box. A pigeon, tense, expectant, looks back at me.
I can see another envelope under the bird. Only one way to get at it.
So I cup my hands gently about the bird. I admire its colouring – pure white primaries and tail feathers, pastel liver mottling on its back feathers, and its head in a darker form. Intensely bright blue eyes.
The bird is warm, and frankly, quite lovely. It doesn’t struggle in my hands, and cocks its head to look at me. It’s more alert than any creature I’ve encountered.
And I can see it’s an athlete. It just wants the freedom to fly again. Back to where ever, and whoever, sent it.
But the windows don’t open in this air-conditioned building.
So I wander through the office, reverentially cradling this precious cargo, past the front desk, picking up a few interested hangers-on along the way.
In the carpark, I hesitate. Smile at my small crowd. Some window washers join the fringes of the group. Then I lift my hands together, opening them at the apex of swing, in a kind of supplicant gesture. The bird explodes into wingbeats, the first few of an impossible arc, seeming almost to touch wingtip-to-wingtip, above and below its proud little body. Chest out, all power, it rises above me, near-vertically for the first instant, then gathering force forward, faster and faster. I appears to be at top speed after only half-a-dozen wingbeats.
“Better acceleration than the SAAB,” I remark ruefully, but no one hears me. We are all enraptured.
It is extraordinarily beautiful, but within seconds it is gone, flying purposefully upwards.
The bird circles the building twice, traveling ever faster. I’m aware of our heads spiraling in unison as we watch it, fixated.
Then it heads out over the harbour, and out to sea. The moment is over.
We are quiet. Cedric Longshaft provides his brief trademark snort. Which translates as, “How ‘bout that – whatever it was.”
Frown purses his bottom lip, and tries to follow the birds flight, shading his eyes with an Economist magazine.
Intella starts an uncertain, one-person applause, but stops half-clap when no-one follows. She shivers her two upright hands, with a wistful smile at me, and I remember she was once in a kapa haka group.
We troop back inside. Gin heads off for another latte at the café opposite.
Sitting on my desk, an empty box that until a minute ago housed a pigeon. And in it, another envelope, and inside that…
…laid out, and annotated in exactly the way I had come to insist on, all caps (so the reading of it is measured) with even the words to be emphasised, underlined. Only all hand-written, in that same confident, feminine hand.
A script for a 30 second spot.
LOOK. I COULD WASTE YOUR TIME WITH SUNNY-SOUNDING CRAP ABOUT THIS STUFF
BUT THE TRUTH IS,
IT’S TOILET CLEANER.
SURE, IT’S WELL MADE, FORMULATED BY THE QUALIFIED PEOPLE WE PAY TO DO THE JOB.
AND, NO, THEY DON’T ALL WEAR WHITE LABCOATS.
YES, IT’S PLANT-BASED, AND SO IS BIODEGRADABLE.
NO, IT’S NOT TESTED ON ANIMALS.
AND YES, OF COURSE WE SOURCE THE INGREDIENTS FOR IT IN A SUSTAINABLE WAY.
THE PACKAGING IS RETURNABLE
BUT THAT’S UP TO YOU.
YOU KNOW THE RIGHT THING TO DO.
SO I SUPPOSE
I COULD ANIMATE LITTLE
GOBBLY GREEN MONSTERS
TO INHABIT YOUR TOILET BOWL,
MAKE A CATCHY JINGLE,
JUST TO SELL THIS STUFF.
BUT I THINK WE’RE ALL TIRED OF THAT OLD SHIT.
AND FRANKLY, I’M NOT KEEN TO INSULT YOUR INTELLIGENCE.
IT’S TOILET CLEANER.
IT WON’T HAVE A SILLY NAME.
JUST THIS LITTLE SPIRAL LOGO ON THE BOTTLE. SO WE CAN ALL SAVE A LITTLE TIME.
IT’S TOILET CLEANER.
WHAT CAN I SAY? IT WORKS.
BUT IN THE END, IT’S JUST TOILET CLEANER. IT PROBABLY WONT CHANGE YOUR WORLD.
JUST BUY IT.
Here’s the coincidence. Not that an anonymous script landed on my desk, the very morning I needed it, on the very subject I needed it to be on.
No, it was that the mood of this writing was just so apt. So exactly like I felt that morning. So oddly honest. So different from my normal writing, as one of the many and ardent pimps of materialism. So removed from what I had set out to be.
I had dreams of writing that mattered, all those years ago. Dreams that died, and dried into a floppy disc (that’s how long ago!) resting in the top drawer of my desk at home. The desiccated remains of a collection of short stories that would re-define the genre. Stories about people in unresolved circumstances. (Ha! That’s a laugh. Disc duplicates life). That reminds me – I should save it and back it up, before that lonely computer disc slides into the sea with everything else. Or I could just start the stories all over again. And the novels, started and halted. Maybe if I could start on them again, they’ll have a new heartfelt pain this time, more authentic.
But that script, it was as if I looked into the lens, and spoke as if to someone on the other side of the world. Someone who knew. (Another thought: how did she know? And how did I know it was a she? I scanned the notes for any clues, but there were none.)
But then, old instincts kicked in. Two words. There were two words that didn’t quite fit in that script.
That PROPERLY. That PLEASE.
They jangled. Too needy. I reached for a pen, scribbled them out.
Then I dutifully scratched out the words ‘CRAP’ and ‘SHIT’, and replaced them with blander words I know the Advertising Standards Authority will allow for prime time air – ‘BUMPF’ and ‘GARBAGE’. Which is a pity, because ‘CRAP’ and ‘SHIT’ (in caps) were just fine for the job.
Now the script was perfect.
I could sell it to anyone.
The concept nailed. Mental high-fives prevailed.
And so I sat back and sighed. Me and an empty box in my office. And a script that worked.
I kept the box. Took it home for Frank, and Hazel and Holly. (You’ll notice I use their names in a different order each time, to avoid any hint of favouritism – it’s a quirk of mine.)
They loved the story about how the box with the bird inside came to me, and how I set it flying home. So did my Mum, who sat in on that evening’s story-telling, a rapt look in her eyes. She even clapped excitedly as the bird took off. Holly was misty-eyed. And I must admit, I told the story well.
The kids even gave the pigeon a name. They called it Munts. Privately, I thought the bird was too beautiful for that kind of name. But hey, irony abounds in this weird new world of ours.
And we all went to sleep a little easier that night. And for me, not before I retrieved the disc of old stories, and put it in my laptop bag. “There must be an IT boffin at the office who could open it for me,” was my last thought before sliding away...