The accountant

28 October 2011

The accountant sat at her desk, reading from a sheaf of papers. She made notes in the margins intermittently, indulging in a compassionate chuckle or tender smile as she inscribed her thoughts. The work would never be done, and she relaxed into that thought today as on every other.

Her assistant’s inquiring knock resounded softly about the small yet towering room. “Please, do come in,” she replied cheerily, sitting back into her chair and lifting her gaze to where the client would appear.

The door directly opposite her opened and her assistant appeared momentarily before stepping back and making way for an immaculately dressed man cradling a mass of untidy paper. Some pieces were square, others rectangular. Many were crumpled and apparently aged, others unsullied. The largest of them did not exceed the span of the average hand and the smallest were barely visible, mere wisps of things; but all were very much there. The assemblage, in its entirety, was not something that a person could carry, a mare’s nest of unattended to and disunited marginalia.

In contrast, the hems of the client’s finely pressed tweed trousers reclined perfectly over a pair of pointed brown leather shoes that were polished to a hermetic shine. A fiercely crisp yellow shirt was sealed with a precise Windsor knot in an inlandish Argyle tie, and his arms and trunk were ensconced in an impeccably deep, dark woollen blazer.

Whilst the client’s clothes would have conveyed to the average onlooker an air of calculated comfort, the accountant, so skilled and experienced, stripped him of them with the slightest glance. She smiled into his pointedly groomed face, taking down in a second the arrantly shaved cheek, jowl and chin, coiffed side-whiskers, and sculpted eyebrows. She lingered little on his beautifully buffed and powered pate, skirted with light brown hair that effortlessly traversed the contours of his ears and nape, before bringing her eyes, and smile, to his.

The client gazed nervously back, his eyes doing the shuffling for his feet. The accountant leaned back in her chair, expanding the expanse of the gentle tableau before her. She gestured as usual to her assistant, who motioned the client inside and swiftly enclosed him in the office.

He remained standing before the door, his position at the centre of the wall behind him emphasising the attended nature of his appearance. He made no move to the chair that sat on his side of the accountant’s desk, keeping his eyes daintily fixed on her whilst looking everywhere else. She relaxed, waiting for her advantage to play itself out.

The client absorbed the details of the vaulted room in which he found himself (for his path there was now so much of a labyrinthine stagger that he could not say whence nor why it began). At the apex of the wall in front of him, many feet above, a thin window traversed the width of the room. Whether it allowed any light in he could not say, swallowed up as it would have been by the fluorescence that spilled out from the single lit tube in the middle of the ceiling, beside which languished a defunct and dusty twin.

There was nothing at the floor end of the room bar himself and the accountant, the two chairs and the desk. On the functional, drawerless latter sat an idle banker’s lamp in green glass and polished brass, the accountant’s now neatly discarded papers, and a small ceramic dolphin on a scratched wooden plinth. The accountant herself rested against the back of her chair, inviting the client to take up the vacant place opposite with a wordless inception.

“Please, do sit down,” ventured the accountant finally, regarding the client softly.

Gathering himself behind his manicured exterior, the client made the movements necessary to take his seat. Not a paper fell to the floor as he did so; not one of them moved even the slightest.

The accountant allowed herself an audible exhalation as her client elegantly placed himself at the lip of the chair. Her eyes swept over the fascinating fardel that preceded the man now sharing her office, and she wondered just how far it exceeded itself. She could not begin to penetrate the depths of that morass from where she was, but she felt her brain begin to salivate as her work commenced once again.

“Well, hello. What can I do for you…?” She raised a single eyebrow, requesting a name.

“Mr Ex,” replied the client. His voice was soft, intended, and inviting to her, she noted.

“You have a desire to remain anonymous?” she asked.

“No, not Mr X, Mr Ex, e-x,” said the client. “As you can imagine, that’s a common mistake. My name often confuses, particularly hoteliers. Or rather, they are not so much confused as somewhat disappointed. It’s usually laughed off.”

“Indeed, I’m sure it does and is, Mr Ex. It’s quite unusual. But do you have a first name?” enquired the accountant, folding her arms gently across her midriff and clasping her hands together.

“Well… yes… I do,” hesitated the client.

“Do you think you can tell me what it is?” she asked.

“Is that how you do things here, Ms…?” he questioned.

“Helen. My name is Helen. And yes, I do like to approach my work on a first name basis.”

Mr Ex paused, moving his hands about the papers, which nevertheless remained as they were. Unsure for a moment, he tested the weight on his feet, raising one slightly above the floor, replacing it, and sitting back slightly on the chair. Adjusting himself to the new position, he restraightened his back and relaxed. “It’s Daius; my name is Daius,” he, not quite blurted, but said with a definite something of suddenness.

“Hello Daius, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” returned the accountant with a smile. She sat forward in her chair and placed her arms on her desk, fingers still entwined about each other. “How can I help you today? I assume it has something to do with what you’re carrying?”

Daius bowed his head slightly to look at the papers in his arms. He seemed surprised to find them there, letting his eyes range over them for a few seconds, his head leaning slowly and slightly to one side like a dog watching an ant dart about between its paws. He brought his face back up to look at the accountant. “Yes, Ms.., Helen, these. These. These… papers. They’re a mess. Aren’t they?”

“I would definitely say – I do definitely say – they constitute a mass Daius,” she said cheerily. Daius frowned… just a frown.

“I’m hoping that you might be able to help me approach them,” he thought out loud. “I mean, they’re right here, so I don’t mean move towards them, or make a proposal of some sort to them, or try and reach them, or something like that. I mean begin to tackle them, but not in the way one might on a pitch, or if one were equestrianally inclined. That is, I believe it’s time that I engaged, or dealt, with them. And I believe you provide assistance under such circumstances?”

“Yes Daius, that’s right, I can provide help in some cases,” she replied. “And I can tell you already that I believe yours is one of those cases. I just have one question.” The accountant paused. Daius waited.

“Oh, please, do ask,” he hurried.

“Which of the two fluorescent light tubes on the ceiling of this room is working? Don’t look up!”

Daius looked at the accountant, who returned to resting back in her chair.

“I’m sorry,” said Daius. “I was a little surprised. It wasn’t the question I was expecting.”

“I should think not,” replied the accountant. “It would have been quite strange if it was. What question were you expecting?”

“I wasn’t,” said Daius, defensively. “I mean, I was expecting a question – because you had said you were going to put one to me – but not a particular question.” The accountant looked at him. “The one closest to the window,” he ventured.

Something feinted across the accountant’s face. She leaned forward again, placing her elbows on the desk and her linked index fingers against her slightly open lips. “That’s incorrect,” she said, allowing her fingers to nestle into the groove above her chin. Daius’ left eye twitched and his lips blinked out a silent murmur.

The accountant lowered her hands to the desk, leant over it towards him and whispered whilst looking him tightly in the eyes, “I’ll be very happy to help you Daius.”

Daius, surprised, found some space between his vertebrae and sat up a little straighter. “Oh,” he quaffed. “May I ask about the question?”

“It was simply a question,” returned the accountant. “Nothing for you to worry about. That’s not why you’re here, is it? You need some help with those, don’t you?”

Daius repeated the exercise of noticing the confetti of papers that adorned his lap. “Yes, that’s right. Thank you.” He tranced out the words, looking back up at her. “I thought, perhaps, we could begin by deciding on a system, a scheme, an approach, a syntax, a…”

“Yes, I’m sure you did. And do,” said the accountant with a grin. “It is big, isn’t it?”

“I’m sorry, Helen?” replied Daius, his eyes narrowing.

“I’m merely remarking that there’s quite a lot of papers there,” said the accountant. “In fact, I’m sure there are more than you can possibly carry.”

“And yet I am,” he said. He looked back down at the papers. The accountant took the opportunity to note how the fluorescence meandered off his powdered head. Daius looked up at her quizzically. “How are we going to sort them out?” he asked.

“Some of them are very tatty,” observed the accountant. “I take it you’ve been holding on to them for some time? And others appear to have only been with you for a short while. Is that right, Daius?”

“Yes, that is correct,” he said slowly. “That’s correct. It keeps growing. I’ve ignored it for quite some time now. But, earlier this week, it started to feel rather heavy, although I have no more trouble carrying it now than I did…” He stopped speaking abruptly. “I’m sorry, is this part of the service?” he asked shortly.

“I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t pertinent, now would I?” she replied. “I am, as I’m sure you’re aware, a professional. Indeed, if I wasn’t, a man such as yourself wouldn’t be sitting in my office, would you?”

Daius’ swallow was audible. He felt his oesophagus glisten and retract. He… yes, he squirmed a little, and felt, unbecoming.

“Can you tell me how long you’ve been without the use of your arms?” The accountant threw the question across the desk.

Regathering his disposition, Daius retorted, “I really can’t see how that is relevant. I have come to you for help. Does it matter how old these papers are or are not, or for how long I’ve been burdened with them? What matters is how we’re going to order them. For the life of me I can’t work out how I find myself in this position, but I do, and I’d appreciate it if you could fall in on me with this one. Helen.”

The accountant smiled. And winked. It was a very quick gesture, although far from slight. There was very little woman in it, but a plethora of person. Daius coughed, managing to stay on the right side of a splutter. The papers moved not a bit.

“Yes, Daius,” she offered, sitting up straight. “I’d like you to look at the papers please.”

“Shouldn’t you look at the…”

“Look at the papers please Daius.”

He looked down. And back up at her. He thought he could see a glower at the corners of her eyes.

“You know how to look Daius, and you are going to look. Imagine that amongst those papers, at the heart of your – burden, I believe you called it…” Daius shuddered slightly without noticing. “Within that bundle is what you want, where we start. Yes, I approach these things differently, but you came to me and now you are here; that much I believe we can agree on. So, look.”

The temperature at the back of Daius’ head, beneath the hair he had held on to, was increasing. But he looked. He looked at the papers. He looked into his collection of papers. He felt the distance between him and the papers start to contract, the two ideas linking arms and beginning to swirl out together across a brightly polished parquet floor. When he looked back up, he defined ‘bewildered’.

“It is a big pile Helen,” he agreed.

“Oh, I think it’s bigger than that, don’t you Daius? If I’m not mistaken, there are at least twice as many pieces of paper there than there are,” lilted the accountant. “Do you know what an interleaf is Daius?”

“No,” he puzzled.

“It’s a blank leaf inserted between the leaves of a book. A page that isn’t a page, all of which, incidentally, are leaves which aren’t leaves, but that’s by-the-by. Probably. So an interleaf is something which is there, which is supposed to be there, but which, in another sense, isn’t there, isn’t what it is. Although it clearly is. Do you understand?”

Daius allowed the accountant’s words to float through his head, tasting each one singly before ruminating on their composite. And his mind lit up, momentarily, but long enough for him to say, and not without excitement, “So it is with the interleaves, the superfluous, that our ordering should begin?” He looked at her with a hopeful smile.

The accountant smiled back. “No, that’s not quite right Daius, not quite right. If we’re going to approach this correctly you must see that nothing here is pointless or unrequired, because those words don’t make sense, do they? That is, you’re carrying those papers around aren’t you?”

“Yes,” replied Daius.

“Then how can any of them be without a purpose?”

Daius moved into his chair, slowly sliding backwards on his posterior until his closely aligned knees spelled out a right angle. Puzzlement crept up his spine, tickling his vertebrae almost into submission. He looked to his right, at the wall and away from the accountant. He coughed, or at least tried to, instead releasing a small, deep chirrup from the back of his throat. He turned back to face the accountant.

“Helen,” he began. “Helen… no, I do not understand.”

“Why did you come here Daius?” she asked.

“Because I need your help.”

“What is it you need my help with?”

“These papers.”

“What sort of help do you need with those papers?”

“I require help to deal with them. They are clearly in a mess.”

“Why are they a mess Daius?”

“Because I have collected them here, just here.”

“Why have you collected them?”

“Because they are my papers Helen.”

“Are you in the habit of collecting things that aren’t yours?”

“No, that is why they are MY papers.”

“Then, if they are your papers, they are YOUR papers. Do you see?”

The accountant looked across the table for tokens of frustration. As she did so, his impeccable appearance revealed the slightest signs of disarray. The knot in his tie was a little loose, just enough so that she could see the fractured corner of a collar button. A single crease had worked its way into his shirt at the centre of his chest and peered out from behind the tie. A light stubble meandered across his chin.

Daius felt something creep swiftly from the tips of his fingers, along his arms and into his shoulders. It spoke to him of an untold but well loved joke. He tensed and relaxed the trammelled muscles, arguing for respite from a freshly found yet unsettlingly familiar fatigue. As he did so, a sussuration danced softly about his hearing, stroking forgotten and sleeping corners of his mind to an inert yet definite arousal.

He found his lower lip beneath his top row of teeth, whilst his tongue attempted to articulate over and back on itself. The muscle billowed to crowd a mouth that was ulcerated and arid. His molars threatened to crumble from the inside, leaving shells that would purloin the little saliva that remained to him.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for as long as it took. He was here, he was in this office, with the accountant, with Helen, asking for help, receiving help. He had chosen to be here and chose to remain. She – the accountant – Helen – she was waiting. His body was his own, as usual. There was very little about the situation that was strange or difficult. He told himself.

“Yes, Helen,” he ventured, timidly perhaps. “These are my papers. Including the int-… the inter-… the interleaves, yes…”

The accountant simply sat, regarding him, waiting. He attempted to look at her eyes, to look at her, but found it simply impossible. His pupils bounced away from hers like repelled magnets. On the third attempt they snapped to her right and he was looking at himself.

On the wall, at exactly the height of their heads, was a frameless mirror. It enclosed the image of his face perfectly, revealing nothing behind or beside him. Daius looked. Something had shifted, either in his face, or was it in the quality of a mirror? He touched his cheek without moving his hands; it was rough with bristles. He startled back at himself, not knowing where next to inquire.

“Where did that mirror come from Helen?” he demanded.

“Oh, I bought it in the south of France; it’s a cliché you see,” replied the accountant. “And it has no frame.”

“But…,” started Daius. But he stopped. The anger felt its way out from the back of his neck, the base of his skull itching, and flowed around to clasp his temples and eyes. “Are we going to start this work or are we not!” he exclaimed. “I suppose I’m being charged for this ridiculous hemhawing am I? I can tell you I’m very tempted to leave here now.” His hands itched.

“I believe that’s a very good idea Daius,” she said without pausing. “If a little premature. I’ll come with you.”

The vexation snapped back to his neck and drained into his spinal cord with a tickle that spread out and through his nervous body. His face elongated slightly. “Excuse me?” he pried.

“I’ll come with you,” repeated the accountant, standing up and looking down at his errant confusion.

Complicitly, Daius stood. A slight rustle accompanied his movement. He turned around and looked at the chair he had just vacated, then down at his trousers, noting with a mild consternation that a crease on one leg had fallen away. He brought his brows together in a frown that found itself taunted by one raised corner of the nearby mouth.

The accountant walked around her desk to the door behind Daius, who stepped away from the chair but did not turn. “If you’re wondering if you can bring the dolphin, you can,” she informed him.

“I don’t think that I can,” said Daius, still with his back to her.

“Well, I’ll bring it with us, just in case,” she said, walking back over to the desk and picking up the ceramic figure with her left hand. “Shall we go?” she asked when she was back at the door, taking its handle. “It’s just through here.”

When Daius turned hesitatingly to face her, he revealed the dejection that she had so confidently expected. His body had sunk a little into itself, the shoulders gaining something of a droop and his back beginning to bow. Together they supported a face that begged timidly for direction. “But, these papers,” he gestured.

“Bring them with you of course,” she said cheerily. “It’s the papers that we’re here for, isn’t it?”

Daius nodded. He – at least he thought it was he – shuffled precisely the two steps to the door, crackling as he went. The accountant opened it.

The dark, fluorescent lit corridor that had been there when Daius had entered the office was gone. The assistant, and his desk, was no longer to be seen either. In their place was an open outdoor space, saturated with the warmth and light of a beneficent sun. Daius could feel its energy gambol in through the doorway and flit about his head and hands. He imbibed it, drawing it down into and up through himself.

Straightening a little, he looked at the accountant. She stood expectantly, still holding the door’s handle, and smiling at him. “After you,” she invited.

With the decisiveness of someone who fears they will otherwise hesitate, Daius plunged the couple of steps out of the office and felt thick, living grass under his feet. He looked down to confirm that he was no longer wearing socks or shoes. He lifted one foot a little and moved it back and forth slowly, caressing his sole with the dark green blades, before putting it back down and repeating the movement with the other foot.

On hearing himself chuckle, his head snapped up and leant back, glorying in the warmth of the blue sky above and around him. He walked a few more steps from the doorway and the delight of his surroundings enveloped him in a playful embrace. He looked down at himself with a laugh as he discovered his jacket and tie gone, the two uppermost buttons of his shirt undone and its sleeves rolled up to the elbow.

Daius almost spun around, to find the accountant, who had left the office and was closing the door, still with her back to him. She bent down to remove her shoes, which she placed neatly next to each other behind a small rose bush to one side of the door. “I have to make sure these are out of sight,” she said as she did so. “I’ve lost so many pairs it’s a wonder I even bother wearing them anymore.” She turned around to repay Daius’ laugh with a smile that had grown broad and deep. “Look,” she suggested, gesturing out into the park with both arms wide, the ceramic dolphin still clasped in one hand.

The scene lilted before Daius, dancing at his eyes and seducing him into its gentility. The extremities of his body diffused with the surroundings, blending with its colours, sounds and scents. The grass expanse was bounded by a thick circumference of stately trees, the entrance to a wood whose deep fragrance danced over with the breeze to tempt him to it. A small, bright stream wove across the path that might take him to that forest, tinkling out a tune of timeless, ever changing serenity. And everywhere, in a chaos of symmetricity, the violence of the colour of life prostrated its beauty before him.

The accountant walked over to stand beside him, relishing the communal solitude of this place. She looked sidelong at him, being careful not to break his reverie, and glanced down at the verbiage that filled his arms. The playful breeze was fondling the papers, stroking them as if in an effort to coax them onto it. She listened to the gentle song they made as they brushed against one another, experiencing their own life as intention began to seep away. Looking back at Daius’ enraptured features, she saw that he was anywhere but with the cacophonous account that filled his arms.

“Daius,” she said softly. He turned to look at her. “Would you like to take a walk with me?”

“Yes Helen, I think that would be just fine,” he smiled back.

She gestured for him to lead the way, and as he did she watched him intently, noting every movement, every small sound of delight he made as something drew his attention. As he walked on, the papers began to visibly move, unsettling into each other, corners raising and flapping, but Daius hadn’t noticed. As their whispering grew to a rustle, she waited tautly for him to look down, for a belt of panic to lash itself across its face as he saw his hold begin to loosen.

A particularly bright and promiscuous crop of flowers had caught Daius’ interest, and as he altered his path to approach it the accountant saw one of the pieces of paper working its way free. Its fellows drew back so as not to hamper its egress, seeming to will it on, the first and foremost. Her hand gripped the ceramic dolphin a little tighter, her gaze moved rapidly from Daius to the papers, and her breathing slowed as she felt the moment approach.

The moment. It was all in the moment. The blissful, expansive moment in which all shrank to a glorious, bounded macrocosm. Her breathing stopped, and she stood, watching.

The paper pushed and pulled itself the final millimetre. For the shortest of times it was caught, unmoving, suspended in a space all of its own. Then it was taken up by the warm air, cradled upwards, before one corner gracefully slipped up and over its opposite. The paper picked out its final steps on the path to the earth, its grace entwining with the most irresistible of affinities in an adagio to overshadow any human dancer.

Daius was not aware of his loss until it brushed against the grass, alerting him with the most delicate of sounds. The panic that the accountant had been expecting immediately rose into and flooded out of his eyes. She saw him rush back into himself, his muscles taut and back rigid. He looked down at the papers in his arms, appalled, and then to the single transgressor, the liberated at his foot. As he began to move towards it, her entire body tensed. The world slowed.

Daius left his feet where they were, twisting his body slightly in a paroxysm of fright so he could reach around and down for the escaped paper, one hand coming away from the heap to grab for it. The distress that so clearly waxed across his face played out in his taught, grasping fingers as they made for their quarry.

Then Daius blinked. In that instant, a small, naked boy darted out from behind the flora that had until moments ago embraced Daius’ full attention. Immediately the boy was in view, the accountant could see his bright eyes were locked onto the scrap of paper that lay on the grass. His bounteous grin led him to it, making his way swiftly around the unwitting Daius, who faced away from the redolent youth. Silently he passed the older man, bending almost imperceptibly to take up the paper, and as quickly, he was gone.

A rustle from a nearby bush drew Daius’ attention for a second, and looking up he saw a single bird taking to flight just above it. Puzzled, he found himself half bent over, as if he were reaching for something. He looked down. Nothing. Not even an itch on a toe. He smiled to himself, a confused old man, and righted himself, his unemployed arm returning to cradle his burden.

Daius took a last look at the bright orange of the Canna that stood before him, and turned around to find Helen looking at him, grinning.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they,” she said.

“Yes they are,” replied Daius. “This whole place is beautiful Helen. And my, you do have a beautiful smile.”

“Indeed it is, Daius,” she agreed.

“Shall we walk on?” he asked, looking into the accountant’s eyes.

“Yes we shall,” she smiled back, taking his arm, and leading him on.

Copyright Dan Sumners 2011

  1. […] I didn’t come anywhere close to success with the Bridport Prize,  so you can now read The accountant online. Other stories remain under consideration with Dark Tales and the Writers’ & […]

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