x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Moving Messages by Stephanie MyIchreest

Before his alarm pierced the still morning air, before the children awoke and demanded breakfast, before his wife sat up in bed next to him, Ryan lay awake, pondering his life. His eyes took in the dimly lit room: miniscule dust particles danced unhurriedly through the air, fuelled by some hidden draft and lit like jewels in the dawn sun. The dust moved slowly over the matching dark timber furniture and plaid blue and red bedspread, swirling and sashaying through the room. A nice room, thought Ryan.

He tilted his head slightly to take in the sleeping form of his wife. Her breath was slow and regular, and the dust particles moved faster as they were caught in the current of her exhalation. He knew every inch of her skin, ever fibre of her being. He reached instinctively to smooth her hair from her face, and she murmured sleepily in his direction. His mind then turned to the day ahead. The traffic: negotiating the hectic roads and unpredictable drivers. His office: the red partition that sectioned his desk from the rest and the endless noise that reverberated, incessantly, through his head. There was never calm, never quiet. His days were filled with asperity. He thought of the pile of papers on his desk for review, the unfinished to-do lists, the endless emails that arrived with a soft, insidious beep every few minutes. Beep, beep. The messages came all day, all night. Each message had to be read, filtered, filed and actioned. Beep, beep, beep. Ryan remembered the 27 red flags in his inbox, all for Urgent Attention.

The anxiety came quickly this morning. Ryan could feel his chest tightening, could feel the thick black band across his forehead. Blinking at the black spots appearing in his peripheral vision, Ryan slid out of bed and walked downstairs to the kitchen, upsetting the delicate stillness between night and morning and causing the slow floating dust to spin and whirl dramatically out of his way. As he placed the ageing copper kettle on the stove for his morning coffee, he could feel his hands tensing into closed fists by his side. His mind raced through the tasks he was required to do today: none of them difficult - he was sure a trained seal could do his job. But together, the tasks represented a psychologically insurmountable peak; the Everest of responsibility.

A soft padding and intermittent creaking told him that his eldest son was awake and on his way downstairs in search of breakfast. Furious at himself for allowing stress to affect him so early, Ryan reached into the cupboard to locate the necessary items: bowl, cereal, milk, sugar. He hesitated with the sugar and then replaced it in the cupboard. "The kid's eating way too much junk," he thought to himself.

Stress was something they talked a lot about at work. The Human Resources department had run several workshops on "how to deal with stress", "exercises to minimise stress". All lip-service! Ryan thought of the chart pinned to his red partition titled "the main causes of stress". He thought of the number of times he imagined tearing the chart from his red partition wall, ripping it into tiny pieces, and dumping the remains unceremoniously on his boss's desk. This thought brightened Ryan's mood slightly, and he smirked to himself in the semi-darkened kitchen.

"Dad," mewed a gentle voice, interrupting his anxious reverie. "Dad." Ryan looked up to see little Jimmy standing at the kitchen table, the wisps of his sandy coloured hair just visible over the top of the stained pine surface. Ryan's face softened at the sight of his boy, pyjamas askew, thumb in his mouth. As he stepped towards the boy, cereal bowl in hand, a red flashing caught his attention. There, on the table, lay his handheld smartphone, blinking at him, reminding him of his unread messages.

Ryan felt repulsed, yet unable to resist the draw of the electronic device. As Ryan reached for the smartphone, Jimmy once again called to him, his wide brown eyes searching Ryan's face. "Dad." "Not now!" barked Ryan, turning from his son, the small, cold, grey device clutched in his hand. Ryan entered his password and watched, transfixed, as his inbox began updating. As each new message rolled on to the screen, Ryan searched the names, subject heading. He could feel his heart beating faster; thumping rhythmically, each beat alternating with the beep, beep of the incoming messages. Thump. Beep. Thump. Beep. There it was: his boss'a name, sent at the impossible hour of 3.27am. Such emails were becoming more regular, each seeking out some unfinished task, a report, a missing email or document.

Jimmy's small figure stood motionless, watching his father watching the illuminated screen. His mind cleared of all else, Ryan manoeuvred the tiny mouse button and opened the email. As his eyes scanned the text, Ryan's body tensed, his hands curled once more into tightly wound balls. The band across his head tightened. Upstairs, the baby started crying. Ryan's breathing; shallow, quick. On the stove, the kettle screamed, steam pouring ferociously from its spout.

'Dad', wailed Jimmy, pointing at the stove. Whirling around, Ryan took two quick steps towards the shrieking kettle. The crying of the baby increased in tempo, the shrill cries reverberating through the three-bedroom townhouse. Damn it, why hasn't she gone to the baby! The thought flashed furiously through his mind. Before he reached the stove, the smartphone in his hand beeped once more. Beep.

The bowl in his hand released instantly, an instinctive, reflex action. He watched in horror as the bowl arced gracefully towards the table; towards his son. In that split second, Ryan mind snapped, releasing itself from the restraints of responsibility. The noise, the stress, the anger; it was all gone, replaced with an unexpected quietness. He felt his mind transported: past memories flashed through his mind. He saw his childhood bedroom with its fading and curled posters of idols long forgotten; he saw himself lying on his back in that room, reading a comic and day-dreaming about wild adventures. He saw a young Ryan waxing his surf board, sunburnt and salty; riding wave after wave, exuberant, carefree. He saw the blue sea, felt the hot sand under his feet and cold ocean spray on his face.

Jimmy screamed. The kettle shrieked. The baby cried. But Ryan stood still, calm in a whirlpool of chaos. Stepping out of the room, Ryan walked casually to the front door and opened it, standing in his boxer shorts and T-shirt in the doorway. A slight breeze made his skin prickle, and gooseflesh broke out along his arms. Leaving the door open, Ryan wandered into the garden. He could feel each blade of grass, perfectly firm, green, under the soles of his feet. He breathed in deeply. Slowly his lungs filled with the morning air, alive with the scents of the waking city. As he stood there, he felt the chill slowly leave his skin as the first rays of sun caressed his bare arms and flickered gently over his face.

Ryan took another deep breath and reached up to the sky, stretching his arms high above his head. He could feel the muscles in his lower back twinge, and he turned slowly from side to side, releasing the tension in his spine. As he turned, Ryan spotted his old surf board leaning against the wall of the garage. He walked over to the board and his finger traced the grainy, waxy surface. He pressed one palm against the surface and his body flexed with remembered manoeuvres and emotions. Ryan felt his pulse rising and lifted his other hand to the board.

Ryan was shocked to see the smartphone still clutched in his hand, and the metallic cool of the machine contrasted starkly against the worn grooves of the surf board. Taking a quick step back, Ryan dropped the device, which landed on the concrete floor with a sharp crack. He stepped slowly away from its mechanical, red-flashing exterior: his hands raised as though a lion tamer backing away from a beast, releasing himself from an all-consuming monster.

In that instant, Ryan's mind was made up. It's not worth it. Turning, he strode back to the house, back to the crying baby, the shrieking kettle, his howling child. Within five minutes both he and Jimmy had changed clothes and were standing back in the kitchen, which now felt strangely calm and quiet. With a swift movement, Ryan squeezed the tube of sunscreen and rubbed it deftly over his son's shoulders and chest. Jimmy stood gravely, aware something out of the ordinary was happening. He was surprised by the wry smile on his father's face and by the relaxed and easy way he was carrying himself. It was so different to the rushed, aggressive way his father normally moved through the house.

Turning obediently to face Ryan, Jimmy smiled and spluttered as the sunscreen went into his mouth. Ryan's eyes met the dancing eyes of his son and the two stared at each other for an instant, transfixed by the mirror image irises reflecting the face of the other: one set of eyes surrounded by soft, unblemished skin; the other, surrounded by lines and heavily hooded lids. Ryan reached up, smoothed the last bit of cream from his son's nose and pulled the boy tenderly against his body.

Jimmy was taken aback at first by the feel of his father's arms around him, but leaned in against the broad warmth of his father's chest. "Come on, son," whispered Ryan, "time to go." Hand in hand, father and son walked through the house, out the front door, beach towels in hand, and into the glorious sunshine. As they walked, a cool breeze waltzed around their legs, picking up the fine grey dust that littered the pathway. The breeze twirled and whirled through the garden as though alive and rejoicing in its new found freedom, its twisting dance illuminated by the sun and the sparkling dust. Ryan gasped in astonishment and pointed the apparition out to his son. Smiling, the two continued, hand in hand.

On the floor of the garage, a new message arrived with a soft, solitary beep. Vote for this story at our online poll: www.thenational.ae