He could taste it in his mouth. Nathaniel was full to the living brim with anxiety and had no idea why. So far as he could recall, last night had been yet another in a never-ending series of ordinary nights. He had eaten dinner in front of the television. Washed the dishes and laid out tomorrow’s clothes on the chair in his bedroom. He had changed into his pyjamas and brushed his teeth for exactly three minutes. He read a few pages of a book, the plot of which he was struggling to keep a hold.
When he switched off his bedside lamp at ten o’clock, he had felt the way he always felt. Which is to say, he didn’t feel much of anything. Other than slightly tired, of course. Or, at worst, mildly numb. But the next morning he awoke to find that he felt entirely different. By ‘different’ he didn’t feel rested or rejuvenated or any of the residues you might associate with a good night’s sleep.
It was as if it had entered his blood while he was sleeping. His stomach was churning. His skin was brittle. His eyes had been invaded by blood vessels that weaved across his pupils like a cracked eggshell. Underneath his eyes hung, not so much bags, as an entire collection of suitcases, each of them packed full of worry. Even his hair looked anxious. Billowing tufts that sprang from his head as if trying to escape.
He got up and looked in the mirror and immediately decided that he should not go to work. In fact, he should retire. It then occurred to him that thirty-two years of age was too young to enter retirement, and he decided to call in sick instead. He washed his face and then stared at his reflection. ‘I do this every day’, he thought to himself. ‘How can today be any different?’
He returned to bed and lay down. But even as he tried to sleep, the anxiety inside him was completely awake and unwilling to even close its eyes, let alone nod off. It then occurred to him that this had all started in bed and, perhaps, bed was part of the problem. In fact, maybe the best thing he could do was get as far away from bed as possible. But where? If he went to the kitchen, it might not be far enough. If he went down the street, he wouldn’t have anything to do and that was hardly likely to make him feel better.
‘I should go to work,’ he decided, quickly sitting up. Nathaniel hadn’t yet called in; and having changed his mind, it was time to change out of his pyjamas. As he showered, he pictured himself slipping on the soapy residue that sits on floor of the bathtub. Even under the hot water, Nathaniel felt a cold chill run through his body.
He cautiously turned off the shower taps. With great care and not a little skill, he planted his wet feet on the bathmat. He wrapped a towel around his torso and proceeded to smear shaving cream over his face. He turned on the sink tap and ran the razor under the stream. Through the steam and water, he looked at the razor glistening. Nathaniel had cut himself while shaving many times before, and nothing much had ever come of it. He wondered what might happen if he cut himself and the bleeding didn’t stop.
He took a tissue from the tissue box. He lifted the razor to his cheek and paused. He stared at his reflection and then at the razor blade. He leaned over and plucked five, ten, perhaps even twenty tissues from the tissue box and spread them all around. The hot water continued to run and he continued to stand in front of the mirror. Underneath the shaving cream, his face was a knot of determination. But as minutes wore on, the steam from the tap overcame the mirror until his face disappeared altogether.
‘It’s no use,’ he thought, putting down the razor.
Nathaniel wiped the shaving cream from his face before returning to his room to dress. He put on his pants and short-sleeved shirt. He slipped into the shoes he had cleaned the night before. He fastened the top button of his shirt and wrapped the tie around his neck. As he tightened it, all he could think was that a tie was really nothing but a noose with a pattern on it.
He felt the anxiety in his stomach start to surge up towards his mouth and he quickly loosened the tie. Nathaniel walked back to the bathroom, folding the necktie in two. He went to the study where he picked up the stapler, before marching back. Breathing heavily, he held the tie up to his throat and stapled it to his shirt.
Nathaniel entered the kitchen and picked an apple from the fruit bowl. In the morning light, he thought he could see just the slightest shade of pesticide covering the skin. He thought about how easy it would be to suffer poisoning at the hands of an apple. He could be found dead with a piece of Sundowner or Granny Smith wedged firmly between his teeth and the authorities would never think to arrest the apple. Nobody, he reasoned, ever suspects fruit.
He put down the apple and finished packing his bag. He clipped it together, stood up tall, and moved towards the door of his apartment. The handle was cold as he gripped it. The puffy white flesh against something so cold and solid put a chill through him. He recoiled, drawing his hand up to his shoulder.
It didn’t feel safe to walk out his apartment door and into the broader world. The potential for disaster seemed too great. To step through that door would have been, he thought, utterly reckless. Stuck in the doorway as if in limbo, he tried to break the problem down. Firstly, he could wait for the feeling to pass. But what if it never passed? What if every morning from now on, he awoke with the same sense of unease? He would, it occurred to him, never leave the house again. Which, both practically and economically, had little to recommend it.
If only he had something to protect him. Something that stood guard against all that bad luck. Nathaniel knew of people who treated bad luck as a matter of superstition. They wore objects to ward away all the evil that hangs in the air like atmosphere. Some people have a particular item of clothing or a rabbit’s foot they think brings them good luck. But when push invariably comes to shove, a rabbit’s foot never did anyone any good. Certainly not the rabbit. Fat lot of good it did him.
As Nathaniel looked around the room, his head snapped back and forth and eyes flashed. Beside the writing table he saw a waste paper basket. In a moment of inspiration, he tipped it over and emptied out discarded bits of paper. He lifted it high above his head and slowly lowered it onto his shoulders. It rested there, but the wire mesh pressed against his nose and threatened to grate it off completely. Regardless, he decided to have a look at himself in the mirror. Carefully, he walked down the hallway; his arms outstretched before him like Mary Shelley’s monster. He looked at himself for just a moment.
‘Hmm,’ he hummed. ‘Too Ned Kelly,’ he said. He lifted the waste paper basket up off his head and gazed at his own reflection, until a thought occurred to him. Years ago, Nathaniel had owned a motorcycle. For a total of two weeks. A near miss in the Coles supermarket car park saw him reconsider. He sold the bike, but somewhere, the motorcycle helmet occupied a far-flung distant corner of a cupboard.
Pulling the door aside, he began to lunge at clothes and fling them across the room. He continued this wild excavation through to the more mysterious items at the back. His hands then struck an object, cool and round. His fingers reached out and pulled it up. It was simple and silver and had an old-style chinstrap. Back when he had owned a motorcycle to go with the helmet, it had reminded him of the type that Fonzie might have worn.
He thought it would give him some protection, but against what he couldn’t say. He looked at himself in the mirror and smiled at the sight of his solid, silver dome. Nathaniel could still feel the anxiety welling in his stomach but, he decided, it was no longer rational for him to feel this way. Now that he had the helmet, he should no longer feel intimidated. With a deep breath, he put his lunch into his bag, shut the door behind him and stepped into the sunlight.
Nathaniel caught the tram to work and sat tightly in his seat, taking care to keep to himself and keep his balance. As was often the case, the tram was packed with people the way a cage is stuffed with battery hens. All it would take, he thought, was for the tram driver to hit the brakes and rows of people would fall like human dominoes. He swallowed the lump in his throat, clutched the bag to his lap and closed his eyes.
There were a few moments where he could sense that people were looking at him. Perhaps they’d never seen someone keep his eyes closed for so long, he thought. Even after he got off the tram and started walking to work, he still felt he was being watched. Once at the office, he sat down at his work-station, took his lunch from his bag and placed it in the top draw of his desk. He was sure of it now. Eyes from every point of the room were locked onto him.
He picked up his headset and attempted to put it on over his head. The frame stretched but would not reach around the helmet. It then occurred to Nathaniel that even if it did manage to circumnavigate his head, the earpiece would be nowhere near his ear. The best it could manage was to grip to the side like a leech. Nathaniel could only think of two options. He could remove his helmet while at work, or, alternatively, adapt the headset. Clearly the first of these options was impractical. Knowing his luck, he’d take off his helmet at work and the roof would fall in. He preferred to adapt. It seemed more evolutionary to do so.
He tried to disconnect the earpiece from the frame but it proved surprisingly resilient. That is, until it snapped like a twig and little shards of black plastic sprayed across his desk. He tucked the earpiece up under the helmet and started to push the bits of broken headset into an orderly pile.
‘Birdstrum, what in God’s name are you doing?’
Nathaniel turned to see Garry standing behind him, his novelty tie running down over the surely expanding gut he thought only he could notice. Garry’s title at work was ‘supervisor’. Nathaniel had always assumed this was because the title ‘fuckwit’ was already taken. He had the type of moustache that looked as if he had stolen it from a fourteen-year old and bleached blond hair.
‘I’m not sure what you mean, Garry,’ stammered Nathaniel.
‘What’s that thing on you head?’ he answered waving a coffee mug with the words: world’s greatest lover in Nathaniel’s general direction.
‘It’s my headset, of course,’ answered Nathaniel.
‘Don’t get smart with me,’ growled Garry. Nathaniel was quite used to Garry insisting on stupidity and said nothing. ‘I’m talking about that thing up on your head. It makes you look like a knob.’
Nathaniel could feel his face heating up. For some reason, everything reminded Garry of genitals.
‘For God’s sake, go for a walk around the block and settle down. And when I get back from taking a slash, I expect to see your head in its entire, ugly glory. Without that helmet.’ With one arm still raised, Garry put his other hand on his hip, resembling a sleazy version of I’m a little teapot. ‘If you don’t take it off, there will be trouble.’ He growled, turned and walked away from the work-station, strutting like puppet with a pole wedged between the buttocks.
Nathaniel did as he was told. He was, he felt, always doing as he was told. He stood up and left his work-station. Or, at least, he tried to leave his work-station, but the earpiece was still wedged underneath his helmet. With each step, the cord ran shorter and shorter until it ran out altogether. Reaching the end of his tether, his head stopped instantly while the rest of him kept going. With his feet away from the rest of him, Nathaniel fell sharply to the floor, his head striking the nylon carpet with considerable force.
For a moment he kept his eyes closed, waiting for the pain to follow. After a couple of seconds, they sprang open. He realised that there would be no pain. There would, from that point on, only be his helmet.
That he would not have fallen at all had it not been for the helmet did not occur to Nathaniel Birdstrum. He picked himself up and began to dust himself off. As he did, he realised that not one of his co-workers had rushed to his side when he’d fallen. And this was in spite of the fact that many of them had been staring at him much of the day. He marched out of the office and onto the street, this time with his chin raised.
Out on the footpath, Nathaniel continued to march with the same determination, his arms swinging wildly by his side. Although he still sensed the turning of pupils and twisting of eyeballs in his direction. But with his chin newly raised, Nathaniel did not find it as threatening as he had earlier.
His cut his step short just as he was about to stride past an automatic teller machine. He knew that he needed some money, so pulled his wallet from his trousers. He raised his card to the lip of the machine and then stopped. If, for some reason, the machine decided to swallow the card, it would put him in quite a fix. He slowly drew the card away from the machine and put it in his pocket. It was safer, he decided, to enter the bank and make a withdrawal over the counter.
When Nathaniel Birdstrum walked into the local branch of his bank that morning, he could see the teller; a woman with a bird-like mouth and a badge on her lapel that said: Ask me about a super-saver mortgage, shaking like trifle.
It was then that time ran out. It was like a dream he’d had as a boy. Then one in which you’re being chased by something you can never remember and you feel that you’re running through water. So that no matter how hard you try, you never get away. Nathaniel strolled through his local bank branch and the room felt as if it had filled with water and everything slowed down. He reached his hand inside his trousers and produced his wallet. He peeled out his card and started to thrust it towards the trembling teller. Moving slower and slower.
Like any dream, it had to end. And for Nathaniel Birdstrum, it ended when the teller pushed the panic button and the security screen shot up out of the counter and towards the roof. Nathaniel hadn’t seen it coming, as such. He had simply reacted to a speeding blur and eminent danger. The security screen connected with the side of his helmet, making a sound like a football being kicked.
And he was flying, backwards and falling to the floor.
As he lay there, a mass of limp flesh, the teller’s terrified face was distorted and crying behind the clear, perspex security screen.
When his eyes finally began to open, all he could see was a blurred light and he wondered if he might be in heaven. As he blinked, he realised he was nowhere near heaven, because heaven, he assumed, did not have an employee of the month program. He stared at the face on the plaque, which stared back at him, and he recognised it as a less frightened version of the face he’d seen on the other side of the security screen.
A much more frightening face suddenly appeared in front of him. ‘So you’re awake?’ it said.
‘I’m not sure,’ he answered, blinking. He sat up. ‘I guess so.’
‘Why were you trying to rob the bank?’
Nathaniel laughed until he realised the man was serious. ‘I wasn’t.’
The man standing in front of him had a face like a squeezed-out accordion. He bent over and tapped his pen on the helmet. ‘Why are you wearing this, then?’
‘Because I’m afraid,’ he answered, without hesitation.
The man looked at him suspiciously. ‘Afraid of what?’
And that was exactly it. Even Nathaniel wasn’t sure. ‘Well, everything I suppose.’
‘You’ll have to do better than that.’
‘Let’s see,’ he started. ‘I’m afraid of car accidents. All that shredding metal and breaking glass, I suppose. Of car rage, naturally. Air rage. In fact,’ he decided. ‘Pretty much any type of rage.’ He thought some more. ‘I’m afraid that when I’m shopping I might leave without paying and be accused of being a thief. Or that even when I remember to pay that the security tag won’t be properly de-activated and the alarm will go off. I’m afraid of public officials with the power to punish you, but not the sense to realise they shouldn’t.’ The more he spoke, the clearer it seemed. ‘Being misunderstood. Being rejected. Or being accepted, because sometimes that’s even worse.’
‘Why is that worse?’
‘You begin to think that it’s a mistake,’ he answered. ‘Fear of heights, depths, confined spaces, open spaces, fear of commitment and fear of being left alone.’
The crinkled face raised an eyebrow. It charged upwards through the folds of skin on his forehead. ‘That’s quite a list.’
‘Yes, I know. I think I might be polyphobic.’
‘You don’t know?’
Nathaniel was ashamed to admit it. ‘I’m afraid to ask.’
The man handed him a card that read Detective Amos Samosa. ‘You can go,’ he grunted. ‘But you need to give me your address in case I have any more questions.’
After he left the bank, Nathaniel went straight home. With the helmet still on his head, he started looking though his cupboard where he found some cricket pads, an old safety visor, elbow guards and cardboard boxes. He cut down the boxes and wrapped them around his body like armour. He put on the pads, visor and elbow guards and looked at himself in the mirror. It looked like the perfect suit of armour. He sat down on the couch and lay back against the arm, before finally falling sleep.
It was early in the morning when Detective Samosa arrived at Nathaniel’s apartment. After knocking on the door and getting no answer, he was about to leave when he thought he smelt gas. He tried to kick in the door but his foot bounced straight off. He tried again and the hinge came loose and he raced into the apartment. Holding his handkerchief to his mouth, he opened the windows. There on the couch was a helmet, cardboard panels and cricket pads. Detective Samosa started to drag the body towards the open door but the pieces fell away from each other and he was left clutching nothing but a bit of cardboard.
There was nothing underneath. Nothing but a pair of safety visors. The Detective wondered whether Nathaniel had escaped. It sparked a realisation that perhaps the armour was nothing more than a way to deflect attention. But that same spark mixed with the gas, set loose a wall of fire and smoke that destroyed everything. The apartment. The Detective. And anything else that mattered.