A moth to a flame

5,240 words – approx. 18 minutes

Harry Dent waited until he was in the doorway of the ground floor of Bellway House before taking his coat from where it had been draped heavily over his arm, and swinging it onto his shoulders in a single, practiced movement. Although the weather outside was furious, the third-floor flat he shared with Caroline was hemmed in on all sides, and so rarely got cold. While he imagined the other occupants of B-way, as they had taken to calling it, to be shivering in their kitchens’ morning chill, the warmth stayed with him until he reached the front door. There were only one such flat on each floor of the block, and Harry was proud of his foresight in having chosen one of them. After two years it was no longer an active pride, but something deeper that pulsed through him, heavy and warm.

The door of the block was solid and old, and Harry had to strain to open it – an effort not helped by the force of the wind pushing in the opposite direction. No-one else came to the door as he struggled, but eventually, by wedging his foot against its lower edge and pivoting his body out of the small gap he created, he was out, and could start his morning walk to work.

September had howled in, and the sky glowered overhead and trees swayed like drunks as he neared Lambeth Bridge, their branches arching and whispering. Ever since they had moved into the flat Harry had made this journey every day, there and back, but it still felt invigorating. While others recounted tales of tube delays or traffic snarl-ups in long-suffering sighs, he could (and did) think back with pleasure to the forty minutes he had spent, entirely responsible for the pace of his progress.

As well as clearing his head, Harry’s commute had the additional benefit of making him neither early nor late. Out of instinct he checked his watch as he stepped onto the bridge: 8:40. Right on time. The City rose like a mountain range to his right as he crossed. Here he was exposed, and like the other pedestrians streaming over the river he pushed his head down, and concentrated on taking one step at a time into the buffeting wind.

He could hardly feel his feet by the time he reached the office, and stamped them on the scratchy mat inside in an unsuccessful effort to generate some heat. The building that Henderson’s Art Supplies now occupied had previously housed a large butcher’s, and they had never found a way to entirely remove the fresh smell of raw meat that now mingled with the tang of antiseptic and worn carpet. The office was around half-full when Harry entered. That meant delays somewhere.

Harry took his seat at his desk and stretched, staring up at the white curved ceiling that gave the ground floor its hangar-like feel. He decided that he would keep his coat and gloves on today. It was a small assertion of his individuality, a brief glimpse of his unpredictability. Whether his colleagues would notice immediately or whether it would dawn on them mid-morning he didn’t know, but glee bubbled in him as he imagined their reactions. As people trickled in he saw several glance in his direction and slightly furrow their brows, causing him to fight back a smile; he knew what they were thinking, but they didn’t say anything, which only swelled the balloon of laughter that pressed against his ribcage.

But there was only so long he could continue to look round to see who the latest red-faced entrants were before he would need to do something more productive. The science of office work, he had come to believe, was really the art of dividing up the day, and this was something he considered to be one of his greatest skills. But like all great skills, it was in its essence simple.

It went like this: the first half an hour of the morning was ‘settling in’ time – a chance to familiarise himself with the workplace, and to prepare for the tasks ahead. Emails would be checked, sorted, filed and starred, and actions to be taken noted down on the yellow lined pad in front of his keyboard. Then, at half past nine, Harry would make his first coffee of the day. He once had read an article in The Atlantic that said the body was most receptive to caffeine between 9:30am and 11:30am, and between 1:30pm and 3:30pm, and he now adhered strictly to this schedule. Upper lip submerged in milky, unsweetened coffee, he would then return to his desk for the most productive period of his day. This was when he would process orders, raise invoices, and respond to queries, being sure to schedule his emails to be sent at intervals throughout the rest of the day.

At around 11am began the period he termed ‘pre-lunch’, a time for a preparatory browse of the internet and consideration of the lunch options on the menu posted on the staff intranet, which needed to be weighed against his rudimentary knowledge of local sandwich shops. Then there was, of course, lunch itself, which Harry took early whenever possible and for the full 30 minutes specified in his contract. On warm days he would spend it outside, but today he would probably spend 20 minutes in the canteen then return to his desk for the final ten, compensating for the unpleasant weather with a little extra non-work-related browsing time beyond the allotted lunch period. After that came another period of settling in, a truncated reprise of the start of his day, followed by a little more work and a second coffee in the two-hour afternoon window when the body’s caffeine supplies were naturally depleted.

A Slate article Harry had once read (and bookmarked, although never returned to) informed his general approach to the parts of the day that remained free for work. The article had, drawing on the research collaboration of a psychology professor and a labour economist in Canada, explained the simple fact that the average worker is productive for an average of three hours in a workday. This revelation made an immediate impression on Harry, who found himself nodding vehemently at his screen as he read it; it seemed like some always-known but never-articulated fact that had suddenly been illuminated and made solid. He did nothing so crude thereafter as to time the periods in which he worked, but his mental stopwatch was sufficiently developed to cause him a pressure that seemed to risk pushing his eyeballs from their sockets if he strayed far over this limit. And this scientific fact was justification for his usual afternoon activity, which consisted of short bursts of work interspersed with further browsing, or work on the outline of his latest story. To invest any more time into his work would have been both inefficient and to have reduced the value the company got from every hour of his actual effort, a creative accounting that served him well.

“Harry, what are you wearing?” The sigh belonged to a man in a stiff-collared shirt with a tie that sloped across his stomach at a 20-degree angle. He sat in the chair opposite Harry and blew out his cheeks.

“Just a bit chilly,” said Harry in a comically flat Mancunian accent. The man didn’t smile.

“Well, take it off and ask Linda to put the heating on if you need. It’s not how we do things at Henderson’s, we’re a business.” Harry often joked that if you cut Paul he’d bleed matt white. It was one of the things he hated about his boss, as was the way he would steeple his hands in front of his face and breathe, sotto voce, “Same shit, different day.”

Paul steepled his hands in front of the face and breathed, sotto voce, “Same shit, different day.”

“Where’s Diane?” asked Harry, still in his coat.

“No idea – doesn’t she get the Northern Line?” Harry shrugged with his face. “It’s a nightmare, signal failure at Bank. It’s a wonder no-one gets crushed to death in those things. Could you take that off?” Paul was not a man for confrontation, and it was likely that with a little resilience Harry could keep his coat on without any further ramifications. But he decided he had poked Paul enough for now and removed it, along with his gloves. He stretched his legs below his desk, feeling their satisfied ache from the morning’s stroll. It was nearly time for his first coffee.

“Drink?”

“Yeah, go on then, cheers.” Paul took his coffee black with two sugars, an aggressive, syrupy mixture that Harry was sure compensated for something. Just the hot, sour smell of it made his head hurt. By the time he returned carrying the two mugs, Diane was at her desk, trying to unloop the scarf that wound around her neck. Harry had always found her slightly unattractive, which after a time he had concluded was down to the expanse of skin between her lower lip and chin.

“Ugh, that was horrible,” she said in a general way. Neither Paul nor Harry replied – it was the start of Harry’s working time, and he wouldn’t have it interrupted. Paul, meanwhile, was looking worriedly at his screen, scratching the side of his open mouth, conveying the impression of a man who had politely removed himself from such frivolous small talk to attend to the secret burdens that he, as a mid-level manager, took it upon himself to bear.

Exactly what it was that Paul did at his computer all day had never been clear to Harry. He wavered between believing that the layout of the office, with his and Diane’s monitors facing Paul behind them, was designed to allow Paul to keep an eye on his subordinates, to wondering it if was, in fact, to obscure Paul’s own lack of activity. The arrangement of desks required some care on Harry’s part not to telegraph his extracurricular interests, and he had taken to working on his writing in email drafts, so that if Paul were to look up and see Harry’s screen it would appear that he was taking commendable care in the composition of an email, rather than agonising over the most appropriate tense, or whether he meant ‘eructation’ or ‘eruption’. If anyone at Henderson’s knew that Harry Dent in administration spent a large portion of the day engrossed in story arcs, character development, and the theory behind establishing an engaging sentence rhythm, they never mentioned it. Harry ached for the day when someone, perhaps Moira, would walk through the glass-panelled office that he shared with Paul and Diane, and ask what he was doing while he was writing. It hadn’t happened yet, but he was liable to lapse into forgetting this, and encounter the world as though his secret was out.

Whatever the truth of his boss’s actual level of work, Harry had recently come to the conclusion that he wanted Paul’s job. The realisation had surprised him at first, as he thought of himself as someone uninterested in such small pursuits as a career, but the idea had quickly dissolved into his everyday thinking. Provided that he still had the time to write, what was the harm in moving up the ladder? Nevertheless, his desire had lain dormant for several weeks except in idle chatter with Caroline, until he had, last night, made it public for the first time.

The audience to Harry’s ambition were John and Cecilia, friends of Caroline’s brother. They had announced their visit at short notice, explaining that they were just going to be in the area, and that it would be lovely to see them. Quite why they would find it lovely Harry didn’t know – he had no recollection of meeting them, and they were only vaguely known to Caroline. But she had accepted their self-invitation immediately, which Harry had disliked but kept quiet about, and now here they were. “It’s so warm!” they exclaimed while unloading their coats onto Harry, and he had proudly explained that this was because the flat was entirely bordered by insulating inside walls, keeping the heat in and reducing their bills. While Caroline wafted clouds of steam from the windowless kitchen and tried her best to block the whirring row of the extractor fan, Harry was left to make small talk with these creatures.

“How’re you? How’s work?” John asked this as though the questions were interchangeable. His face was improbably round, and marbled with some skin complaint or other, and he spoke as though he was chewing something. He was sat on the armchair, leaving his wife to take her place on the sofa with Harry in the uncomfortable chair that, with no vertical connection between its base and back, rocked disconcertingly. Harry strained to remember if he had met the man before – he couldn’t place him, but he looked as though he worked in finance.

“You know, you know. Still going strong,” Harry answered. He was horrified to then discover that the only thing he could think of to add was, “And you?”

“Ah, you see, well,” started John. “It’s all rather interesting actually.” As he spoke, the slow prickling realisation that he had met this man before stole across Harry. A swig from his beer gave him the excuse to let his mind drift to memory, where he realised that the man’s primary interest and topic of conversation was-

“-moths, is that they’re actually very under-studied compared to butterflies.” A spray of John’s disdain blotted Harry’s sleeve at the mention of the offending lepidopteran. Once he had recovered himself, he continued: “So, you know the phrase ‘like a moth to a flame’?” He waited until Harry had nodded, then he made a satisfied sound as though some theory of his had been confirmed. “Well, no-one in fact knows why they do that. Isn’t that incredible? It’s such peculiar behaviour, and it’s a phrase we all know, but no-one knows why it happens! Of course, there are theories.”

At this, he stopped and turned to Cecilia, who was perched mantis-like on the sofa, watching her husband with her hands on her knees. Her mouth was thin and smiling, and Harry could imagine sharp, punching mandibles hiding behind her mottled lips. John smiled at her as though she had asked him what those theories were, and when he began to elaborate Harry realised that this was a double-act they had played countless times.

“For many years, the dominant theory among lepidopterists was that they navigated by the moon, so mistook flames and other lights for it. Moths, that is, not lepidopterists.” Harry smiled palely at John’s obvious delight in his joke, and wondered how long this would continue for. He looked towards the closed kitchen door, then back to Cecilia, who was looking at her husband with a bashful love. “However,” he went on, “it is far from established that moths do, in any case, navigate by the moon, and so we can safely discount that hypothesis until the underlying theory has been proven. And I for one don’t believe it in any case, for a simple reason: if it were true, on a clouded night there’d be chaos in the skies!” At this he sank back into his chair, nodding absently to himself and drumming his fingers arrhythmically on the armrest. No-one spoke for several seconds, and Harry had the feeling that he was being regarded and appraised, although for what he had no idea. He was frantically thinking of appropriate questions, all of which seemed to have deserted him, when John started up again with an indeterminate sound from the back of his throat as though he had suddenly been stirred from sleep.

“But it is true that many moths make a,” he paused to give a small snort of anticipatory satisfaction, “beeline to light sources. My preferred explanation at present is that the waves emitted by flames are on some of the same wavelengths as pheromones secreted by female moths. So a moth to a flame in actuality is a perfect metaphor for attraction, and love.” He looked sickly into Cecilia’s watery eyes, and Harry could take no more.

“You must get bored of them,” he broke in, a confidential, encouraging smile on his lips. “Do you not ever just want to kill them?”

He’d meant it as a joke, but John stared at him, expression hardened in shock. “No, no they’re beautiful creatures.” He said this as though, in his uncertainty over Harry’s seriousness, he wanted to be sure he had guarded against the oblique threat to moths that sincerity would have represented. Cecilia, unable to sit directly at her husband’s side, pursed her lips, and Harry was dumbfounded into a silence that continued until Caroline came in, cheeks sweating and red, to find all three avoiding eye contact.

“Did he say,” she cried into the void, “Harry might be in line for a promotion!” Harry looked towards her in mock complaint.

“Darling, I hadn’t wanted to, it seems boastful.”

“Nonsense,” she said, still watching her guests’ reactions rather than his. Her next remarks were addressed to Cecilia: “And it will get him away from all those women. Did you know, there’s only one other man in the office!” She gave a short, high laugh. Cecilia, whose eyebrows had risen to accompany her cooing at Harry’s news moments ago, now made a sound that pitched somewhere between knowing and scandalised on Caroline’s behalf.

John, meanwhile, was looking at Harry with renewed interest – clearly, this was cause for a revised evaluation. Harry had a horrible premonition that this man was about to make some comment about him having served his time, or about the company knowing talent when they saw it, something that brought them stickily into one another’s confidences, a smug boys’ club, jowly congratulations. He could almost taste the port, and knew he had to say something before he was suffocated entirely in that smoke-filled future.

“It’s nothing to worry about, I tell her,” said Harry to John, who blinked heavily and remained mute. And it was true, although his words carried a weight of regret with them that was only lightened a little at Caroline’s stiffening.

“Well anyway, we’re both very hopeful!” she said. “And then of course there’s his writing.” If Harry would do that, seemed the subtext, she could do this. “He writes the most fantastical stories, don’t you dear?” She’d chosen her words deliberately, he was sure, his wordsmith wife.

“Oh, I’ve always loved reading,” said Cecilia suddenly, as though she had been asked a question. Harry looked at her in surprise. “But I’ve never felt the need to write.” A more sensitive soul than he, thought Harry, could take that as a criticism. But instead, he was able to reverse the apparent slight and further lower his opinion of Cecilia: he had never understood nor entirely trusted those people who could consume but felt no desire to create. It seemed a one-way street, a loaded agreement, something selfish.

“How marvellous,” said John obliviously, clapping his hands and, after the negotiation of such a potentially hazardous section of conversation, restored to the persona of an interested guest. “And what sort of thing do you do?”

Harry sat smiling a tight smile as Caroline explained that they were about all sorts, really: there was one about a long-distance lorry driver who transported his victims’ bodies to Alaska – oh yes, he was a murderer, how had she missed that out! – and one that’s from the point of view of a schizophrenic working in a charity shop, with a wonderful bit about a missing tooth.

“Ooh, very good,” chorused John and Cecilia. There was an awkward silence that Harry’s palsied grin wasn’t even close to filling.

With a jerking movement, Cecilia reached across the divide between the chair and rapped John’s fleshy arm. It seemed like she might snap against his large frame. “We should show them to Alan Borthwick!” she said.

“Yes!” said John in the empty, surprised manner of a man who did not want to. But there was no escape. Seeing this, he explained: “Alan is an old friend, works for a small publisher in Goodge Street. Quite niche, specialist stuff, you know. Lots of foreign works. I –” He paused for just a moment. “I’m sure he’d be happy to take a look at what you’ve got.” He added with an edge of hope at the remaining, shrinking way out, “That is, if you’ve anything that is, er, fully finished?”

His hope was in vain. Harry did indeed have something fully finished, and he hurried upstairs, forcing himself not to miss steps in his haste; he didn’t want to look too eager, too desperate. To calm down he made himself look around the bedroom when he went in: he spent three seconds on the bookcase, three on the bed, and three on the wardrobe, the door of which stood ajar, a red dress slumped drunkenly half off its hanger. He could hear the low murmur of conversation in the living room below.

When they’d first looked round the flat, Caroline had taken some convincing. “It’s so clean and empty, and tidy,” she said upon seeing the master bedroom. The previous occupants had removed everything but the bedframe, and there was something skeletal about the way it sat on the bare floor. “It makes me nervous. Serial killers always have tidy rooms, don’t they?” It had taken the combined efforts of Harry and the estate agent – a pudgy man in his late 20s with a badly-fitting suit, dyed yellow hair, and a Toyota Yaris – to talk her round, and when they left the block having agreed to put in an offer Harry had gripped the man’s hand a little tighter than usual, and given him a solemn nod in recognition of their unspoken co-operation.

After he adjudged he had spent an amount of time upstairs that would not risk making him look excessively keen, Harry got down on his hands and knees in front of his bedside cabinet. He reached under it, arm outstretched, to where he kept his finished works, in bulldog clips for precisely the purpose of showing to any interested person. He felt giddy when he retrieved the one he wanted, so to anchor himself he directed his attention towards the bottom of the first page:

Linda was in the bedroom when he came in. She sat leaning forward with her arms gripping the underside of the bed, hair covering her face. At her feet an empty wine bottle lay on its side. He couldn’t see a glass.

“Darling, is that the Chablis?”

“You bastard.” It was a statement.

Reading the passage was intoxicating, invigorating. It was what he liked to think would one day be considered the classic Dentian style: witty, sophisticated (Chablis!), but underpinned by a sharp pathos. He felt, at that moment, that he could have written a thesis on just those few lines, so carefully layered were their meanings. He bounded down the stairs, taking two or three steps at a time.

Cecilia and John eventually left at half past ten, full of chicken casserole and with promises of coming contact from Alan Borthwick. By now a little drunk, the frame of his vision swaying like a television’s poor reception, Harry took Caroline to bed for the first time in months. He woke with a lack of hangover that seemed to validate his actions the previous night, and he was pleased to discover he had the energy to masturbate in the shower – it was important to reassert his independence. He felt happy and hopeful as he walked to work, but by the afternoon he found himself looking up lepidoptery online, impatient to disprove what he remembered of John’s theory.

At around twenty to five his desk phone rang, interrupting his reading of an article that seemed to offer plausible proof of John’s folly. Heart warmed, he picked up the phone on the second ring to an impossibly chirpy saleswoman, whose bright battery of questions about printers and photocopier toner he answered with dull, patient monosyllables until she exhausted her arsenal and went away. He replaced the receiver from a few centimetres above its cradle, and the resulting clatter drew a questioning look from Diane.

“Are you alright?” She asked this somehow reproachfully, but Harry was equal to her. He squeezed his face into a sad smile and nodded several times, the first three with closed eyes. The overall effect was to seemingly ignore Diane’s tone and simply, humbly be grateful that someone had noticed his pain – while at the same time refusing any offers of help. It was a difficult line to tread between responding too bluntly and too sarcastically, but Harry did so with deft expertise.

“Herbert!” The voice of Bruce Henderson, founder and owner of Henderson’s Art Supplies, boomed through the office. He could never get Harry’s name right, and at various times since Harry’s appointment had tried Henry, Harvey, Hank, and on one particularly memorable occasion, Hamish. After that incident Harry had toyed with the idea of arriving at work the next day in a kilt and carrying a set of bagpipes, and even went so far as to find a tartan cap rimmed with luminous orange tufts. But, as he had explained to Caroline (it was early on, in the days when she would listen raptly to his work-talk), he eventually decided that the joke would be lost on his colleagues.

“Ah, Herbert,” said Bruce as he opened the door to the glass enclave. His hand left a ghostly imprint, like a chalk outline. “I tried to call you but your phone’s engaged. Can I have a word in my office?”

Harry noticed, for the first time, how large Bruce Henderson’s eyes were. They bulged like lightbulbs from his doughy, red head, but Harry could see that this was the only head in which those eyes could make sense. He nudged the receiver of his phone fully into place with his index finger and exited through the door Bruce held open for him. As he did so he saw Bruce nod to Paul, who furtively glanced at his boss then fixed his attention on the screen, refusing to catch Harry’s eye.

Harry’s heart beat faster. This was it. This was the promotion.

“Would you mind if I?” he asked, as they reached the first floor. Bruce inclined his head and gestured permissively. There was no rush.

The gents’ smelled oddly of condoms. At first Harry couldn’t place the scent, but it came to him as he relieved himself, staring at the picture above the urinal. It was a picture of a man gurning, standing cross-legged with his hands over his crotch, with a stark warning in large letters that excessively frequent pissing could indicate irritable bowel syndrome. But that was just one more thing that Harry Dent had no need to worry about.

He zipped up his fly and rinsed his hands. There was no soap, although he banged the dispenser a couple of times to make sure. It felt as though there was a fine film on the parts of his fingers that had touched his cock, or where he’d splashed urine, and it seemed it might show up on anything else he touched, like those adverts for kitchen cleaner where the germs glow green and the kid spreads the fluorescent danger with his curious, playful hands. This didn’t bother him at first, but then he realised that Bruce and Paul must both have done the same, and the rear right-hand side of his skull began to ache.

But the ache had disappeared when he walked into Bruce’s office. It was small, but it was his: his selection of business books next to the desk, his sleek laptop sat on top of it, his family photographs decorating the walls. And Bruce himself behind it, pouring Harry a whisky into a curved tumbler. It was perfect.

“Sit down, Harvey.” Harry considered correcting him, but decided that could wait. He’d never been in here before, and the walls seemed to be expanding. To steady himself he focused on a poster above Bruce’s head: This is to certify that I, Bruce Henderson, crossed the Arctic Circle on January 12th 2003.

“Are you gonna drink that or read poetry to it?” demanded Bruce, whose own glass was empty. Harry threw it back – it was neat, and the shock of it hitting his throat nearly choked him. He stifled his reaction at the cost of splashing a little on his cheek, which he tried to wipe unobtrusively away.

“I’ll level with you,” Bruce was saying when he had recovered. “It’s been a hard year for us. A really hard year. Price per litre’s through the roof, and no-one cares about fine brushes anymore – it’s all about vision, not execution.” Harry heard this and was more grateful than ever – the promotion would be even sweeter, even more hard-earned against such a clouded business outlook.

“…understand you’ll be disappointed, as it’s certainly not something we want to happen.” In his reverie Harry had lost the thread, and his mind scrambled backwards to comprehend it – no promotion? Just a bonus? – but there was more coming every second. It was like digging holes during an avalanche.

“…course, to provide you with a reference as required. I’m sorry, Harvey.” Bruce Henderson’s big marshmallow face creased in pain as he held his hand out to Harry, who shook it dumbly. “Take your time.” As he left Harry alone, palms down on the table, Harry remembered that neither of them had washed their hands. For the next several minutes that was the thought that dominated his mind; it wasn’t until he tried to lift his arms and found them lifeless, flat weights that he realised what had happened.

He staggered from the office; the floor had taken on a revolving quality. He made it to the bathroom and planted his hands on the wall either side of the poster he had seen earlier. He found himself needing to piss again, and wondered if perhaps he should see the doctor.

But no. He had more pressing matters. His coat was on the rack in the hallway, not over his chair, and he was dimly glad that he didn’t have to see Paul or Diane. It was already dark outside – so early now – and he walked blindly until he reached the bridge. As any man in his situation would, he considered jumping, saw a future shadow of himself stand on the railing and tip his weight forward with arms outstretched. But instead he found himself looking at the glittering studs of light that winked back at him from the surface of the river. He felt something pass near his face, not quite brushing it. He flinched, pinching his eyes tight, and took a step back. Afterwards he couldn’t be sure whether there had been anything at all, but when he opened his eyes again, just for a moment, it seemed that the river was teeming with thousands of fluttering moths. Another blink and they were gone, but the ghost of the image remained and he shuddered, momentarily forgetting his news. He wrapped his coat around him and headed for home, where it was warm.

Author’s note:

Something a bit longer for the Easter weekend. I wrote this at about the same time as Sweet Tooth, and it shows – there are lots of similarities in the structure, and a fascination with coats in both (I won’t say any more about the pair to avoid spoilers). Harry might be an idiot, but he’s my idiot, and I hope it works out for him.

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