Jonathan Spencer felt that his wife didn’t understand him at all. There he was, working every hour God sent to meet the mortgage payments on their pretty little house in the suburbs, putting food on the table for his children and all she could do was complain that he was never there. That he never paid her any attention. That he had no idea how hard it was to raise three such demanding children. He couldn’t help but think that she exaggerated; when he looked in on the kids at night as they slept they seemed perfectly angelic.
The more she complained the more time he spent at work and he began to dread the weekends when the brooding storm of the preceding days would suddenly erupt.
‘Not in front of the children, dear!’ he would beg her, a remark that would provoke further outbursts of rage, as she would tearfully declare she wished she had listened to her mother and never married him at all.
Jonathan began to come home later and later each night, passing the evening hours under the harsh white glare of the office lights, drinking instant coffee from the machine and envying every carefree soul on the street below their freedom as he looked out of the window, checking his watch to see if his wife might be asleep yet.
One evening his eyes fixed upon a homeless man wearing an oversized coat who walked around in circles aimlessly. Now there’s freedom, Jonathan thought; no other worries than how to fill his belly each day and where to sleep each night – the poor fool doesn’t know how lucky he is!
On a sudden impulse he got two cups of thin, sickly sweet coffee from the vending machine and took the elevator down to the ground floor. Ignoring the curious look of the security guard, he walked out into the street to meet the tramp and immediately regretted not bringing his jacket with him, so crisp was the night air.
‘I can’t find it,’ the homeless man told him, ignoring the outstretched offer of a cup of coffee.
‘Find what?’ Jonathan asked.
‘My box! I’ve lost it – have you seen it anywhere?’
Jonathan’s first urge was to flee to the cosy retreat of his office and the security of his spreadsheets but he felt a charitable urge to humour the poor man.
‘There, there, I’m sure you’ll find it, this box of yours, was there anything special inside it?’ he said, this time successfully managing to set one of the cups of coffee in the homeless man’s hand. He received only a blank look in return, however, and so he smiled and asked: ‘Well, anyway, what’s your name, my good man?’
The tramp’s lips moved as if to answer but then froze and it was apparent from the sudden look of panic on his face that he no longer remembered. Trembling, he dropped the coffee on the ground, turned and ran away.
That helpless, lost expression haunted Jonathan throughout the evening and when he finally turned off his computer and made his way to the company parking lot, he wasn’t entirely surprised to find a cardboard box on the hood of his car. Shaking his head ruefully, he was about to throw it in the gutter but hesitated – there was something so good and reassuring about cardboard, after all. It had such a straightforward and useful function, qualities so rare in the complicated, modern world. So he threw the box on the back seat and drove home. Who knew but he might even meet its owner on the way?‘I met the strangest man today,’ he said as he walked in the door but the words dried up in his mouth as he saw his wife’s face, quivering with rage.
‘And I married the strangest man who spends more time with his computer than he does with me!’
Five minutes later, Jonathan walked out of the house with his wife shouting behind him, ‘Why don’t you sleep at your office as you seem to live there!’ He heard the sound of one of the children crying, awoken by the row as he marched indignantly down to his car. Did she think that money grew on trees? For whom was he working so hard, after all?
He got in the driver’s seat and briefly considered renting a hotel room and perhaps buying some company for the night – as many of his colleagues did. But somehow he knew that no matter how bad things got he just wasn’t the kind of man to make that kind of betrayal. Finally he decided to just stretch out on the back seat and found the cardboard box there. Who would have guessed it would come in so handy? He smiled to himself as he placed his head inside to block out the light from the street lamps.
He slept longer and more sweetly than he had in months. So deeply, in fact, that he only awoke at noon the next day. He glanced at his watch in panic and drove down to the office without a shower or change of clothes. He was surprised to see no other cars in the parking lot, however, and the security guard couldn’t quite keep the smile off his face when he informed Jonathan that, it being a Saturday and all, no one else had come to work that day.
Jonathan drove slowly home, puzzled at his mistake. He bought some flowers for his wife on the way and spent an uncomfortable Saturday trying to be the model father and husband. A strained peace prevailed but even as he cooked the pasta and helped his oldest child with her homework, he could only think of one thing.
The cardboard box in the back of the car.
He began to worry someone might break in and steal it, no doubt imagining it contained something valuable. Announcing that he was just popping out to get some milk, Jonathan hurried out to where his car was parked down the road and with some relief found the box waiting for him on the back seat. He opened the door, climbed in and patted it fondly. He then felt the strong urge to put the box on his head.
Well, why not? he chuckled to himself. What harm could it do, after all? Checking that no one was coming, he picked it up and, placing it on his head, he found…instant peace. His problems, his worries were all now on the outside, far away. Inside there was only the present moment, warm and secure. It was such a good and restful place that he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t found such a simple solution before. Emerging an hour or so later, he felt strong and ready to tackle the world again but also a little self-conscious. Were those teenage boys on the corner over there laughing at him? A man sitting in a car with a box on his head probably did seem a little foolish to those who didn’t understand. He’d better find a quiet place to keep it.
Jonathan’s wife watched through the window as he walked over to the storage room at the side of the house with a cardboard box under his arm and a slightly furtive look on his face. So that’s where he’d been, she smiled to herself. The next day was their youngest son’s birthday and she was glad that as absent a father as her husband had been recently, at least he remembered the most important things.
‘What do you mean you forgot?’ Jonathan’s wife howled at him the next morning. ‘Have you any idea how important today is to him? Get out and don’t come back without a present!’
Jonathan backed apologetically out of the house and winced as the door slammed in his face. How had he ever forgotten his son’s birthday? Of course, it was useless to point out that it was Sunday and all the shops were closed. Perhaps though he might find something in the storage room that would do, maybe an old cricket bat or a pair of boxing gloves…
He found nothing but a dusty old stamp collection and a broken fishing rod that might do, however. He briefly considered giving his son the cardboard box – did not children often have more fun with the packaging that the toys? But he doubted whether his wife or his son would see it that way and besides, it was his box. The only thing in his entire life that truly did belong to him. He heard his children come awake and run outside to the front garden, their excited voices lifting in play. How had he ever forgotten his son’s birthday? Feeling an overwhelming urge to drown out the shame for just a moment, he put the box on his head.
He removed it only when the sun had long gone down and the house had fallen quiet. The moment his head emerged he felt truly ashamed of himself and threw the box into the corner of the storage room in a fit of despair. Miserably, he let himself into the house and climbed the stairs to his bedroom, not daring to look in on the children. He could tell from the sound of his wife’s breathing that she lay awake in the dark and she flinched when he tried to put his arm around her.
‘Are you having an affair?’ she whispered without turning to face him.
‘Come now, Lydia, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever-‘
‘Lydia? My name is Laura!’ she screamed and buried her head in her pillow, sobbing uncontrollably.
When Jonathan returned from work the next evening he knew in his heart what he would find: the house was empty. There was a note on the table but it didn’t seem worth reading . He knew by now he was beyond the point of no return. At least now he wouldn’t have to hide it any longer. His wife had taken most of the furniture with her and so, bringing the cardboard box into the house, he set it in the middle of the living room. He got down to his knees and crawled in.
The next day (or was it two days later?) he got dressed to go to work but found he couldn’t remember where it was he worked or even what he did, exactly. He drove in increasingly unlikely circles for an hour or so and then just went home. To his box. It was the only place that made any sense any more.
He stopped washing and ate only what he found in the refrigerator that offered him less and less appealing combinations each time he opened the door. The phone rang from time to time but he couldn’t imagine who it might be or what they could possibly want from him. His first contact with the outside world for weeks came only when he eventually responded to a persistent banging at the front door and met some rather determined-looking men who informed him he had to leave the house as it now belonged to them.
He nodded and walked out of the door with the cardboard box under his arm, wearing only a pair of slippers and a dressing gown.
Once out in the street he understood what the men had really been after and grinned to himself at how neatly he had fooled them. Still, he had better not take any more chances – even now he could feel the eyes of everyone in the street staring at his box! It was surely only a matter of time before they tried to take it from him! Just let them try! He snarled viciously at an old lady who happened to glance nervously at him as she passed.
He slept with his head in the box in parks, cemeteries and the doorways of shops. He would clutch it close to him when he went to silently beg a little of yesterday’s bread from a bakery or to use the toilet in a fast food restaurant. At other times though he took to hiding it in increasingly imaginative places. But no sooner would he walk away, chuckling to himself at the ingenuity of his hiding place than he would be overcome by an attack of nerves and hurry back to retrieve it. Until eventually came the terrible afternoon when he completely forgot where he had hidden it. He roamed the town looking for his box far and wide, asking everyone he met whether they had seen it. But to no avail. Day after day his every waking moment became obsessed with the search until a fortnight later he grabbed the sleeve of a passing priest and stammered:
‘Have you…have you seen it anywhere?
‘What have you lost, my son?’
But he couldn’t remember.
And so he joined the ranks of those who came before him, the procession of lost souls who walk the streets, searching for something, they just don’t know what exactly.
I expect you’ve seen them.