Thomas had gone home by the time I got back from my meeting with Rachel. I finished logging my calls and e-mails for the day and then I too shut my computer down and left the office.
On my way out I passed Thomas’ vacant cubicle, which was adjacent to my own. Most people had pictures of family and friends, pets, and maybe some quick-reference sheets for various codes and contact information used during the work day. Thomas had covered his entire cubicle with colour photocopies of red bricks so it looked like he was surrounded by a brick wall on three sides. I was told before I arrived he had tried to put up a piece of guttering, but Rachel had stopped him and managed to convince him that it was a safety hazard. When I asked Thomas about his walls, he said they resembled the garage walls at his parents’ house.
And indeed they do.
Thomas lived on his own in a small bungalow in a quiet neighbourhood in a house that his parents had helped him to purchase. They wanted to encourage his independence, but also wanted him within a mile radius of their own house. He was surrounded by retirees on all sides and so there was always peace and quiet, and he had well-kept and manicured lawns out the front and the back. Thomas enjoyed the gardens, although if they started to get out of control they were another source of discomfort.
I lived in an old red sandstone farmhouse, left to me in my granddad’s will. Really, it was far too big for one person to live in, but I enjoyed having no neighbours for half a mile in each direction. The farmland had been sold off to other farmers in the vicinity, with the exception of a fifty square yards plot behind the house that I one day endeavoured to turn into a garden.
After popping home to my own house for a sneaky piece of shepherd’s pie, I drove over to Thomas’ house as the sun was setting to break the news about Monday.
I parked in his driveway beside the house and strolled over the stony path, huddled in my brown dufflecoat to the front door. A security light clicked on and bathed the front garden and driveway in golden light. I could see my breath balloon and dissipate, and I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was a smell in the air that reminded me of Christmas.
I stepped onto the brown bristly doormat in front of the solid wooden door. There was a small bronze knocker, but I remembered to use the white intercom off to the side.
I pushed the button and waited.
“What do you want?” asked Thomas, his voice oddly embedded in videogame music and Mozart.
I leaned toward the intercom. “I want to come in.”
“Ask a question.”
“Can I come in, you bastard?”
The electronic lock clicked and I opened the door and stepped out of the cold and into the hallway. A yellow rug ran the length of the polished wooden floor towards the back, and a mahogany phone chair with an old green plastic telephone sat underneath a mirror on the wall. The mirror was framed within a silver Sun.
Thomas’ gaming room was at the back to the left and the door was closed. Inside the house, I could hear the videogame very clearly. It sounded like one of his many medieval type RPGs. The Mozart was playing in a different room.
I knocked on the gaming room door and cracked it open to peer through.
The room was dark and the curtains were closed. The only light came from the huge flat screen TV by the opposite wall, which stood on a glass TV stand in between two large speakers. Games lined the shelves underneath the TV, and the bookcases lining the walls were also solid with game cases. Thomas sat hunched in a black leather armchair centered to the TV screen, a white controller clenched tight in his hands.
Rather than say anything, I stood in the doorway and watched him play - an elf riding around on horseback slashing at ogres with a sword.
“Go make a cup of tea,” said Thomas, decapitating one of the large green-grey monsters. “I’ll be in the kitchen in about twenty minutes.”
I took the hint and closed the door.
An hour later, Thomas joined me in the kitchen at the table. I put down the cards from my game of solitaire and leaned back and folded my arms. “Nice of you to join me.”
Thomas was wearing his dark blue pajamas, and squinting from the increased light between rooms. He checked the water level in the kettle and turned it on. “I had to get to a save point in the game. You can’t just pause it and save it whenever you like.” He eased around to look at my shoulder.
“That’s inconvenient,” I said, sipping my tea. I grimaced. It was cold.
“I can make you another when the kettle boils,” said Thomas. He flicked the little red ball inside the water level indicator.
I stood up and moved to the sink, tipping out the cold tea. I rinsed the cup out. “Thanks.”
Thomas took the lid off a blue ceramic pot where he kept his tea bags. He sniffed them and replaced the lid.
“Thomas, I have something I need to tell you,” I said, reaching over to put my cup down next to the kettle.
Thomas’ gaze dropped down to his bare feet and he whispered, “Oh fuck.”
“What?” I asked, confused.
He turned his head towards me but his eyes remained fixed on the kettle. “What do you need to tell me?”
“Rachel. She wants the two of us to go to Aspen to meet a potential client.”
Thomas flicked the red ball again, which was now bouncing with the hot water. “What about Moira and Phillip?”
“She’s ill and he’s about to be let go. But shh about that.”
Thomas pushed his lower lip over the upper one and nodded his head. “Where is it?”
“It’s in Colorado. It’s really nice, actually. There are a whole bunch of ski resorts, log cabin types, really cozy.”
Thomas put a hand around the tea jar and circled it once anticlockwise so that it grated on the countertop. He removed two tea bags and placed one in my cup and one in a clean cup. “When do we go?”
“Monday,” I said, watching him closely. The kettle clicked off as the water boiled and Thomas filled the cups.
“We can do that,” he said, stirring the teabags. “Can you get the milk?” I reached over to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of semi-skimmed. “I don’t want to meet anyone, though,” he continued, “and I don’t want to be cold.”
And this was why I wished Rachel had listened to me.
“It’s a business meeting, Thomas. It’s going to involve a lot of traveling through very public areas to a snow covered town at the beginning of winter. If you want to talk to Rachel, maybe she will change her mind.”
Thomas exhaled heavily through his nose. He took the teabags out with the spoon and stirred in the milk. I could see him thinking with each circle of the spoon. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll just pretend I’m someone else.”
I sipped my tea. “That could work actually. You’ll have to pretend you’re somebody who likes people and doesn’t mind being a bit cold.”
“I can do that,” he said, sipping his tea.
“Great,” I nodded, recognizing Mozart’s Requiem playing from somewhere in the house. “Thomas. Why do you have Mozart playing in a different room? You can’t hear it when you’re playing your videogames, surely?”
Thomas sat down at the kitchen table and looked up at my chin. “I don’t like silence. It gets in the way of thinking.”
I sat down opposite him at the table. He stared down into his tea. “I thought it helped thinking,” I said. “In fact, isn’t that what meditation is all about. Sit in silence and mentally pull yourself together? Shut out all the noisy intrusions.”
“Fall apart, more like,” said Thomas. “Stimulation provides rails for your thoughts to travel on,” he motioned with his hand like a rollercoaster. “No stimulation, no rails. You just crash and start to panic. It’s really jarring, silence. I hate it.”
“I’d never really thought about it,” I admitted. “What about at night, when you need to sleep. Doesn’t it keep you awake?”
Thomas looked up at the clock over his shoulder. It was 8.30.
“When I sleep I have whale noises, or sounds of the jungle or ocean. They carry my thoughts off into my dreams.” He sipped his tea. “Has Rachel given you all the information you’ll need?”
I scratched my chin stubble. “Some of it. Janine is going to debrief me on traveling and using the company credit card tomorrow, and then later we’ll both meet with Rachel and learn more about the client.”
“Then it’s the weekend and then we’re flying. Is it an early flight?”
I shook my head and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Thomas’ face wrinkled. “I’ve never flown before.”
“As you’re pretending you’re somebody else, you might never have to.”
He grinned, observing my game of solitaire still on the table. “Okay,” he said, “finish your tea and fuck off. I need to go to bed.”