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Payment to the Universe

by Annabel Banks

Margaret is the boss, so you suppose it’s okay that she leaves early. Actually, you’re glad. By five to six the offices are empty, quiet-aired. The cupboard of cleaning supplies is just large enough for a chair to fit between the boxes of bleach and stinky rags, so you can sit and look at the list of jobs for that night. Margaret is always careful to mark up the set of instructions on the dry-wipe board. They are always the same, so you don’t know why she bothers. Sometimes it’s written in red, sometimes in blue, but closes with the same smiley-face whose smile is more pointed than a curve. It means business.

           You drop your tabard over your head, screw in your earbuds—blue, blue, electric blue—and drag the vacuum cleaner from its corner. Atrium first, then the halls, sucking the day’s skin cells from the nylon pile. The first room is meant for visitors. Photographs of rural landscapes, oil wells, some school prize-giving where everyone is in animal masks, have been blown up, poster size, and bolted to the wall. You rub a cloth over the fields and faces. Turn out the light when you leave.

           The second is more of a kitchen, although there are no appliances. Thai food in paper boxes, piles of fruit, apples and bananas arranged in balanced displays. On the far wall, rows of toothbrush holders have been fixed to cheap plastic shelving. You counted them once, when you were either curious or bored. Thirty across, five rows down. One hundred and fifty brushes, and never enough toothpaste. In the evening’s hush you can take a moment here. You bring out your own brush from the pocket of your tabard and have a cheeky scrub, give some minty spit to the bin you then tie up and lug downstairs to the skip.

           Up some stairs, down some stairs. Blue, blue, in your ears, and you’re not allowed inside this room at all, but that’s why you come here. An accident of opportunity gave you pass, and you’re not about to give it up with any fake attempt at decency, of notions of "the right thing" so carefully primed in your childhood. There is a water jug on the safe with three glasses, but you know better than to touch it. A pile of papers to shuffle, straighten, glance through. A fleshy lump in the corner, quivering, a bag on its head.

           It’s this last you’ve come to stare at. You cough loudly, so it knows that you are here, so it will call out in that language you don’t understand. Doesn't matter what the words mean. You know it wants to be touched, to be able to see. The twitching is less than yesterday, even less than the day before, but perhaps that’s acceptance rather than anything more final.

           You think about touching it, as always. Consider uncovering its eyes, letting it take an unrestricted breath, to moisten its lips with water. Daydreaming these actions always makes you feel kinder. It’s a payment to the universe, so perhaps the cigarette you’ll have on your walk home won’t be the one to give you cancer. Perhaps the earlier bus has been delayed just enough that you can catch it and avoid waiting in the dark, singing pale blinds drawn all day.

           You close the door and make it back to the cupboard. Your mouth is still too minty for smoking, so you'll grab a coffee from the machine by the second floor toilets. The price has gone up, but you’re not about to complain. You like this job. It fits with the hours you keep.

Author's Note

This piece came swiftly as a first draft, but the themes are my constants. My work worries at the edges of expected behaviour, at our performative nature and at the bargains we make—with ourselves, with other people, with the sky. I am interested in the difference between shame and guilt as I find it easy to be callous without anyone looking. I expect you do, too.


The song the protagonist has on repeat is Bowie’s Sound and Vision. This came late into the drafting, and it was only after submitting to matchbook that I discovered the song closes with the words "drifting into my solitude/over my head." This describes both cleaner and other. Perhaps I knew this, perhaps not. Perhaps there was a cool muse humming in my ear.

Annabel Banks read English at Cambridge before gaining her Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently writing up her practice-based poetry PhD while lecturing in English and Creative Writing for Falmouth University and running poetry workshops in ruined buildings and archives. Banks' work has won some prizes, most notably the Cambridge University Ryan/Kinsella poetry prize, the “Other” Prize for theatre, and the Whitechapel Journal short fiction prize. Her short fiction has been collected in a number of anthologies and is most recently published by Litro. Recent poems can be found in Inky Needles, Envoi, Jungftak, Dirty Chai and Lockjaw. Learn more at or tweet @annabelwrites.

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