- The Polyphony Team
by Molly Mahoney
Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 2 First published April 2020, Manchester
(Photo: Victoria Langford, 2020)
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.
- T. S. Elliot, The Waste Land
Oliver Wilson sat on the train. He stared out of the window, scratching his greying scalp and wondering when the skyline had become so monotonous. The thick smog outside blurred his view of London. He remembered when he used to slide his glasses from his face, rubbing at the glass; still blaming his marred view of the world on a stubborn speck of dirt. But the conditions of the world outside the train couldn’t be blamed on dirty glasses. No one was sure who to blame anymore.
He began to cough loudly as they pulled into London Bridge Station. The eyes that peered at him over the top of discoloured fabric remained unconcerned as he choked. He’d been in a rush for the train and had forgotten his mask. Oliver left quickly, habitually pulling his briefcase closer, suddenly feeling self-conscious. His white tie singled him out from other passengers. The whole carriage knew - he was an oilman.
Oliver generally enjoyed his walk from the station to work, even if it meant he had to bring a fresh shirt with him every morning. The one he was wearing was always tinged with grey by the time he had reached the office. Departing from the station, Oliver made his way across Hungerford Bridge. He quickly buttoned up his jacket, concealing the incriminating tie. A passerby had seen him do this, spitting onto the dusty pavement. The gluey substance splashed, lacquering the shine of his leather shoes. He didn't see their face as they disappeared into the haze.
It had been government policy since 2023 that all personnel involved in environmental conservation should wear green ties to work. Being easily recognisable meant they could jump queues for public transport, used frequently since all cars were banned in the city. This luxury was not afforded to Oliver, so he stuck with the trains. They were expensive but much less crowded than the free ecotrams that crisscrossed through the city.
“Why should they get to work any faster?” Oliver had complained to his colleagues at the office. Heads shook in disbelief, and jokes about hippies taking over the tram routes were fired around the room.
Those whose professions were in conflict with environmentalists wore white ties. A facade of innocence and a guise of naivety, they littered the necks of gammon-faced businessmen. Oliver’s wife, Miriam, had been against the whole scheme. She was worried that he’d marked himself as a tangible target for the aggression felt worldwide. Safe behind her green tie, she hadn't been far wrong. Oliver never understood the abuse he suffered, firmly believing the effects of the climate crisis were so widespread that the actions of his company made little difference. He would never confess the insatiable nature of his bank account; it leaked oil, coating his money and his mind.
Although that morning, he had to admit, he missed the melodic rhythm of the Thames accompanying him on his commute; slapping slowly against the bank. The walk had never really felt the same since the river dried up.
The route from the bridge to the South Bank was eerie. Metal tree covers, absent of trunks, appeared like cold, empty vases. Although purposeless now, they disrupted walkers and blocked paths, reminding commuters of what should have been there. Jubilee Gardens still bordered the promenade, no longer a garden but a rotting wasteland. The flowers were odourless in the uncaring air. Grass no longer covered the barren expanse. The rusting London Eye stood as a haunting reminder of people’s ignorance. Nobody was willing to pay to board a capsule, to cast their eyes across the city and witness its dilapidated misery.
The fortress of offices lunged into view and assaulted Oliver’s gaze, staring down from the sickly skies. Angry red graffiti ripped like wounds across its concrete skin. The building was the ideal canvas for environmental protestors. Oliver sighed as he read the latest editions, noting bitterly the phrase that marked his own office window:
Then came the needle-sharp sound of a truck reversing. Turning swiftly around, he saw a bright yellow vehicle manoeuvring down a familiar side street. Curious, he noted the menacing bulldozer on its back, wondering what it was here to demolish.
After a near depletion in global resources of clay, buildings were no longer simply knocked down but intricately taken apart. Brick by brick. It was like a strange jigsaw puzzle. It reminded Oliver of the ones Miriam and he used to complete on Christmas day, laughing as they jammed pieces into spaces that didn't quite fit.
Oliver recognised the alleyway, although he hadn't been down there for many years. Tempted by the promise of nostalgia, he walked towards it. This used to be a common detour for him after work. He’d stop by a little florist shop, hidden away from the bustle of the city, where flowers grew silently. He’d often get Miriam a dainty bunch of flowers (usually bright tulips or delicate carnations), protecting them fiercely from the elbows of other commuters as he made his way to St Thomas’s Hospital. He pictured the vase by her bedside, and the last time he’d seen it. Empty - there had been no one left to bring flowers to.
“Thank you so much for these, darling. But you really don’t have to keep buying them for me. I’m surprised they're still allowed to sell cut flowers.” she said, looking guilty down at the bunch of tulips, but her hands betrayed her, still clutching the stems. It was as if by holding them tighter she could keep them alive a little longer.
“Oh never mind that. The flowers aren't all gone yet. I’d keep bringing you them even if the world was actually ending.” Oliver laughed.
This had been an ongoing joke between them, this nonsense about the world ending. Or Oliver had thought so, but Miriam often looked less than amused.
“The world is ending, Olly. I’m not sure how you manage to keep on ignoring it.”
“It’s my job to keep things as they are. Think about how it would look for the company if I started kicking up a fuss. They pay me to do my job, not care about the planet.”
“Why can’t you just care?” she said, exasperated.
Oliver couldn't remember where the conversation went after that.
Miriam hated the company and was ashamed of Oliver’s job, rarely discussing it in the presence of others. Sometimes she couldn't even look at him properly. She would have breakdowns, sobbing loudly about how much of a hypocrite she was for marrying him. But Oliver still would not quit. Her will to save the planet was slowly replaced by a pervasive feeling of self-loathing. She knew exactly who she had married. She had married an oilman. Her declining mental state and the even quicker deterioration of her marriage made their friends uncomfortable and people stopped coming over to see them. Then Miriam got sick and the strange couple were left alone.
Their relationship was a never-ending battle between the survival of his job and her idealism.
Staring at that same florist, the building wilting like a neglected plant, Oliver felt an unusual pang of regret. He should have listened to her. The shop’s painted letters had crumbled away and the glass windows were splintered and cracking. The delicate illustrations that had decorated the walls were faded; buffed away by the grit-filled winds. It was as if something so beautiful couldn't survive in such a chaotic world.
Just then, a mechanical screeching penetrated the air. The bulldozer began to swing slowly back and forth, a monstrous pendulum building momentum.
“You can’t do that!” Oliver shouted to the wan-faced builder.
“Couldn’t do anything with those bricks anyway mate, this building is a wreck. The bricks are no good,” the builder yelled, oddly calmly, over the sound of the machine. He’d observed Oliver’s suit and professional aura, and thought he’d been referring to the demolition laws.
“Please don’t knock it down!” Oliver begged, standing in front of the building like a stubborn weed.
“There are no flowers left to buy nowadays, mate. What’s the point of a florist? Now move.” Oliver staggered towards the end of the alleyway. The bulldozer swung.
Sitting in the office that day, Oliver felt empty. He stared blankly as suits shouted down phones and meaningless statistics spread through the building like a disease. The red paint continued to drip down his window. The incessant drilling of the telephone did nothing to drag his mind out of the growing abyss of regret. He hated himself for having been unable to save the shop.
Then a flow of determined chanting rose from the streets below. Peering down, the view slightly obscured by the paint, he spotted a colourful crowd of activists. Bold banners sprung up from the clustered group and the double glazing of the window barely silenced their shouts. This wasn’t an unusual sight. Oliver usually snapped his blinds shut, not before attracting a number of angered gestures in his direction.
But today he kept on looking. He didn't feel anything as he watched the hundreds of people progress further into the city, although he knew what they all felt for him. Their eyes were lit up with the same impassioned blaze. Those eyes saw him as the enemy. But even amongst all the anger, there were still shows of compassion. Strangers shared the weight of each other’s posters and signs, eager to help anyone who contributed to their cause. There was something unsaid but understood by all involved. Oliver could never be a part of that. In that moment, he had never felt lonelier. Miriam had never felt so far away.
“Don’t worry lads; it’s just the crazies out and about again!” Someone behind him shouted. The office roared with cruel laughter.
Oliver stood up suddenly, knocking the telephone to the ground in his haste. Faces turned to stare at him, eyes rolling at the sight of another soft boss who couldn't take a joke. He stared back at them all and began to laugh. It was a manic rumble that erupted from his chest and shook him where he stood. The workers continued to stare, many mistaking the outburst for another coughing fit. People didn’t laugh like that these days.
“I get it, I finally get it,” he spat out in-between his choked laughter.
“Because I’m the bad guy, right? I’m the monster, I’m the killer? I don’t care about the world?”
The office was silent. Nobody recognised the oilman anymore.
“I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.” he mumbled manically, his fists gripping his hair. Then he quietened, and as if suddenly remembering he had somewhere else to be, Oliver marched right out of the office door.
He promised himself he wouldn't return. There was nothing to come back to anyway. The crowd could have him. He didn't care.
The last his colleagues saw of him in the office was his white tie, lying on his desk; waiting for the end of the world.