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Alan Ashbird stared dumbfounded at the computer screen, watching the tiny counter count down slowly and inevitably to 00:00, followed by the shutdown sequence. After thirty seconds, a dark square frame was all he had in front of his eyes, instead of the application he was supposed to be working on. Alan lifted his coffee cup to his lips, remembered that it had been empty for an hour and a quarter, and set it back on his desk. Then he looked down at the floor, at the polished grey tiles that were ubiquitous in this office.
‘I don’t believe it. That’s the first time my machine threw up. I don’t believe it. I…’ He looked up at the screen again, but he knew it had no chance of coming to life again. It was a critical hardware problem, probably something with the RAM, or maybe the data cable was loose. The reboot was merely a false promise. He knew from his expertise that without any probing it had little chance of starting up again. In any case, he didn’t have enough time then to open up the machine and fix it up. He would have to wait till the next morning, and that meant his project would invariably be late. The thought made him feel slightly sick, and he lowered his head again, resting it on the edge of his desk. As he stared at the floor now, wondering if he would go into the hassle of continuing with the work on his home computer and perhaps mail it later to his office, he came to a slow realization that there was a soft red light on the floor tiles, a single long bar that lay over his shining business shoes. It took him a few seconds to figure out where this was coming from, and then he got up and walked over to the huge French windows. Very slowly he pulled apart the blinds and stood back.
A magnificent red sunset lay sprawled across the huge horizon, tipping the buildings and towers of the New York skyline with a shade of jet black and dark maroon as they stood in ghostly silhouette against the burning canvas of the sky. Here and there a few careless tints of purple or orange showed, and a thin layer of cirrus was suspended just above the glowing vermillion sun, its lower surface bright with the halo of the setting ball of fire. The glass panels and turrets of the dark ocean of office buildings caught the dying rays and lit up like little golden flames here and there. Far below at the foot of the building, the street was alive with tiny moving dots of light, and ran through the heart of the city like a thin neon snake all the way up to the horizon where the buildings grew minute and hazy, like little scratches of charcoal against the glowing sky.
Alan Ashbird, application designer at a leading software firm, a literal wizard with programming, a successful negotiator with mammoth business deals, owner of a grey Citroen, a black Jaguar, and a sprawling house at the other end of the city, was watching the first sunset of his life.
Seven years ago when Alan was starting on his present job he was merely one of the countless heads that trickle into the business every day and get fired after a few weeks, for such was the modus operandi of the job market in this city. The only difference he knew he had was inside him — a burning passion for his subject. He understood it like elementary arithmetic, and could go to such ends in his subject with mental manipulation alone as would require an organized team a whole project. With his subject he was the Picasso of art, the O Henry of word, the Kennedy of politics. He knew what he was doing and wanted to do with his subject, and it was this confident thrust in him that finally got him noticed. He got a permanent job at the firm as Junior Test Programmer. He married his childhood friend Alison and settled in the city. Initially family life took away some of his attention to work, but his priorities were soon reshuffled and he began the slow progress up the corporate ladder. He felt immensely happy inside to be doing what he was, and actually looked forward to his office hours. He was like a painter whose profession was never, ever just a job. It was his life. Seven years later, he stood a proud Chief Application Designer, and work encompassed now all his life. He did half the job that his entire team was assigned, he did overtime, and he even came over on Saturdays to keep ahead of the schedule. He returned home each night to find his daughter gone to sleep, and Alison watching TV, a nonchalant expression that had begun to hover over her face a few months back now settled into permanence. Alan would flop clumsily on the sofa, want dinner, have it and then go to sleep. The next day only began for him when he was at his desk.
Five minutes later when the sun had set and dark droplets of navy ink had begun trickling down the dome of the sky towards the horizon, Alan returned to his desk and sat down. He stared at the sleek black surface of the expensive LCD, beginning to feel a silent sprouting of tiny thoughts and conflicts in his head. From where they came he had no idea, only a dim and rather improbable notion kept tugging at his consciousness: that it was the sunset, the photons of the dying light that had travelled one and a half million kilometres from their fiery home to reach his consciousness, to nourish some old and forgotten thought. He could feel that for the first time in a long while his thoughts were not concerned with the subject of his profession or work-life. They crowded around his active mind, growing in number each passing moment, enclosing him slowly in a dense cloud of thought. And they were different, somehow in a different sense of even the word different, somehow higher, somehow more… as if packets of thought from some higher realm were being fed one by one into his mind.
Alan thought of his position now in the work hierarchy. It was a busy life, true, but he was an important person, and his company knew how valuable he was to them. He had to devote almost all his waking hours to the purpose of his organization, and he realized anew how life itself for him was now enclosed in his 32nd floor office. He thought of his childhood, of the laughter with friends, and sunsets at the beach with his parents, and once a vehement tantrum concerning an ice-cream that had dropped on the sand. He thought of the first time that he had heard the name Alison Adams, the new girl in class. He thought of the unbounded imaginations that swirled through him when he used to look up at the night sky stars. He recalled how he first fell in love with programming. That was a class in elementary BASIC, and he thought he could feel some unknown spasm of excitement every time he sat down from then on to solve a problem with his computer. He had wanted once to be able to have the life of a painter, never having to work a single day to feed himself, only an incessant dwelling in the subject of his dreams, in a world where his destiny was his profession. He had wanted a life of purpose. And all his dreams had come true. He had married Alison and taken up his dream job, and had no material deficiencies whatsoever. Yet, after some pronounced bend in his perfect life, he realized now that there had grown a vacuum where there should be a path. He couldn’t remember when he had last gone home early, when he had last taken his daughter to the park, when he had last visited the Art Museum or watched a movie or the stars of the night sky that used to be his friends long, long ago, as if in some forgotten previous birth. Life for him now was an endless string of projects, a sort of enforced order to hide the underlying void that had grown over time. What was he working for, he thought, what was the point of keeping alive to arrive at work tomorrow, if he didn’t have the time today to look up at the forgotten gifts of life, to pick up the trampled flowers and know that these were the purpose he had dreamt about when he started out, that the reason he came to work each day, the professional problems he battled with each moment in his mind, all comes down to being there to watch the beautiful sunset outside, being there to hear his daughter’s laughter. What could his work provide him with anyway, except fat money and a hollow pride? He now discovered rather suddenly that his over-eagerness for work was no longer the enthusiasm of passion he once had, only a sort of voluntary obsession, an opium to keep himself from discovering that he, Alan Ashbird, had strayed so, so far from his heart that he had lost track. It made sense no longer for him to believe that the beauty of life is all there is to it, that the evening star is the reason man keeps alive, that a loving family waiting at home is what the meaning of a hard day’s work comes down to, that there remains left no meaning whatsoever in trading today for tomorrow and never rise and look what today could have given him. There remains only a long, long series of days, all for the sake of keeping alive on the next day. Like a chain of dominoes lined up, and each one falls on the next and that on the next and so on to keep the equilibrium, until the last domino has not another next to it and drops to the ground, a vacuous, blank end to a life that had lost its purpose, where each day never learnt to stand alone as Today, and only remained an empty tool to provide a tomorrow to itself. Alan realized again, and with a sharp pain, that he was no longer his dream painter who paints because of all the love he has for life and for his canvas; he paints to have it sold so that he can be alive the next day. His dabs of colour have lost their meaning, and are little more than the labours of a worker at a factory, or the begging of a roadside tramp, begging to keep alive, when letting go of life would be so much more sensible, for there is left no meaning, no purpose, no reason to look forward to the next morning. He, Alan Ashbird, had lost himself in the metropolis called life, and he was a long way from home where he stood now.
Alan watched the last of the blue trickle away from the sky outside, and the velvety-black of night take its place in a subtle maneuver that has been repeated every evening since eternity, unnoticed. It was impossible now to connect it with the fiery red sky of sunset that had crawled into his office through the blinds. The sea of buildings outside the window was now putting on its familiar pattern of minute luminous dots as the city began to stir.
Alan reached out and took a piece of paper. On it he slowly scribbled the words Won’t be at work today. Continue with project. He pinned it to a file and put it on his desk where it would be most conspicuous. He picked up his briefcase and walked up to the French windows. He looked down to where the people were like toys and flickering dots of light whizzed by to their various destinations. The street looked beautiful, he concluded. He also wished it would be a slow journey home tonight. He wanted to have all the time to think of a nice restaurant to take his wife and daughter.
It was time to reboot.