Leo spent that whole Saturday reading. First it was the letter that came by special delivery. When the doorbell rang, he called to Sophie forgetting she had gone out for the day with her friend Jules. So he opened the door in his dressing gown, signed for the letter, read it, dropped it on the kitchen table, then padded up to the spare room to sit in the quiet and take in the news.
He sat on the bed and stared without really looking for an hour. His phone buzzed once or twice which he ignored. Then he thought he would sort out the boxes in the the wardrobe.
They were large plastic boxes full of children’s toys, ancient video game consoles, school reports, old payslips, and all the detritus that first started accumulating when he moved out of his bedroom at his mum’s house and in with Sophie and some other friends, and only grown in volume as the two of them hopped from flat to flat, eventually ending up in this one.
At the bottom of the second box were his teenage diaries. Five volumes, each a planner with a date on each page but no year. He could tell from the handwriting what order they went in, and could figure out the years from whether he was luxuriating in his success with girls, acing his exams, or getting his first car. The fifth volume was completely empty—that would have been when he was old enough to get into bars without a fake ID. No time for journaling then.
He was still sat on the edge of the bed, absorbed in his own story from a decade earlier, when Sophie returned and came upstairs holding the letter.
“Oh Leo,” said Sophie, “that’s a shock.”
His role had been up for redundancy for some weeks, but Leo had never taken seriously the possibility that they might chose to let him go. As the only one in the small company in marketing and PR, he had thought he was safe. But no he wasn’t safe, and he wasn’t even to go into the office on Monday. The letter said that his logins had already been disabled, and that they would be in touch to arrange an exit interview shortly.
“Jobs,” said Leo, “I’ll get a new one.”
“You’re not going to get a job playing games and not leaving the house,” said Sophie.
“I’m looking for something,” said Leo.
Over the last two months the spare room had become Leo’s so-called home office. The PC was set up as a gaming system, and the plastic boxes had been unpacked. CDs, unlistened since the early 2000s, now covered the shelves. The diaries, all four volumes plus the empty one, were scattered on the desk and on either side of the bed. Leo would sleep in here if he stayed up reading them too late.
“I was an incredibly lucky kid,” said Leo, “and everything came my way. It must have been some way that I held myself. I’m looking for what it is. So I can get it back.”
“You just need to carry on with the applications. Four rejections is nothing. There’s tons of stuff in marketing. But do that tomorrow. Come downstairs this evening,” said Sophie, “let’s do something tonight.”
“I’m busy,” said Leo, “finding the luck.”
“For fuck’s sake Leo. If you want to be lucky then start by going outside.”
At 3am he woke up with the heavy taste of whisky still in his mouth, cheek stuck to the pillow. Sophie was in the other room, in their bedroom. The flat was quiet. The streetlamp outside shone through the naked window onto the diary left open on the spare room bed.
It was the fifth volume. He didn’t remember looking at that. It was open to the page for June 5th, one week from today’s date.
Leo blinked gummy sleep from his eyes. Where the page should have been blank, there was a single sentence: Leo gets a job.
Handwriting so terrible that it almost looked like another person’s. And why write about himself in the third person. Drunken wishful thinking.
The atmosphere in the flat deteriorated.
A week later, Leo’s phone rang. An old boss. Would he like to come and work at this hot startup. Marketing. Great money.
Yes of course he would.
“Do you have an extra carrier bag for these sweaters?” said Jules, arms full of clothes as she came down the stairs.
Leo was sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle of beer. Sophie had moved out—they were trying some time apart. Jules piled the sweaters by the front door on top of the travel case of shoes, clothes, and toiletries that Sophie had asked her to collect.
“Can I get you a beer?” said Leo.
“Sophie will be back from work soon,” said Jules, “we’re going to the cinema.”
“Tell her I’ll call her tomorrow. Three years can’t disappear overnight can it. We’re just cooling off for a bit. Now I’m working again it’ll be fine.”
Leo finished his beer, fetched two more from the fridge, and opened them both. Jules left hers on the table where he put it, and stayed standing in the door.
Leo and Jules had been at school together. Then a few years ago Jules and Sophie met and became great friends, which is how Leo and Sophie had met.
“Leo—I don’t know. Perhaps. Sometimes people grow apart. Sophie’s ambitious. She wants to travel. You…” Jules looked at the takeaway boxes stacked on the kitchen bin.
“She said we never go anywhere and I’m a slob. I think that’s unfair. I’ve been trying to go to the gym, but this new job, you know you have to make an impression. And get to know everyone. It’s about networking.”
“Networking at the pub,” said Jules. “As for the gym, well it’s about priorities isn’t it. You’d find time if it meant something to you.”
Leo looked at his beer.
“Besides”—Jules had heard all of this from Sophie—“it’s not about the gym. It’s about having energy, a bit of pride in yourself. Like, come on, what have you done since Sophie moved out last weekend?”
“It’s not like when we were kids,” said Leo, “I’ve lost something. The job’s great. I know I’ve put on a bit of weight. But I remember those summers… There was that one we all did tons of swimming, remember that? Out to the river every day. And the parties at your place. Every Friday. Things used to just happen. They don’t anymore.”
“Things never used to just happen.”
Jules is right, thought Leo. He was still at the kitchen table, now on another bottle. He had brought the diaries downstairs. The day with the rope swing, the day they met those lads having a barbecue and ended up driving over an hour to the beach and there was a huge sound system there. Things happened because they all assumed they would happen. The entitlement of youth.
You make the future by deciding it, thought Leo, so what I’m going to do is I’m going go to the gym and I’m going to get in shape, and then Sophie will come back to me.
He opened the almost-blank fifth diary and turned it to the day exactly 30 days in the future. Hey Sophie, he thought, here’s some ambition for you.
He wrote: I’ve lost 5kg and I’m looking great.
“Leo, I care about you,” said Sophie, “but this isn’t going to work.”
They were in a quiet wine bar for the fourth time that month. Their table was round, meant for more than just the two of them, and at the front by the windows which had been pulled back entirely to let in the cool air of an early summer evening. Neutral ground.
Before, thought Leo, they would have sat closer, 12 o’clock and 3 o’clock. Today they were almost opposite.
“I’ve done everything you said. Look,” said Leo, “we’re out. We’ve come out and we’re doing something. I’ve been going to the gym. Look at me!”
“You’re looking well,” said Sophie.
“I’ve been going every day,” said Leo, “it’s easy somehow. I’m eating well, not even tempted by Domino’s, that’s gone, I’ve lost weight. Look at me. I’ve turned it around.”
“I realised that we’ve both been changing for a long time,” Sophie had said in the bar.
Leo had poured himself a nightcap when he arrived back home. Alone. He would have to find a new flat. He sat in the kitchen. He hadn’t switched on the lights but the light from the hall was good enough to read the diaries, just about.
What had changed? For four golden years, everything had gone his way. He could see it right here, in neat unrushed letters, he had journalled it all. He had enjoyed so much luck. Where had it gone. More whisky.
Sophie had said: “I didn’t mean you should go to the gym. I meant you should do something. Get up and do something.” Then she had started talking about how she would stay with Jules for the time being, and would come and pick up her stuff soon.
But he had done something, right? He promised he would look after himself. He wrote that he would go to the gym and then went to the gym. Just like the job. Decided and done. He opened volume five to that day. Leo gets a job, it said, in scratchy writing. And lo and behold he got a job. Although he hadn’t done anything to get it. It just happened. Not that either helped him with Sophie.
Leo continued leafing through and stopped at today’s date. There was something written there already, in the same unfamiliar hand: Leo realises that he needs to say exactly what he wants.
I get it now, thought Leo, and turned the pages until he reached exactly one week in the future.
Sophie came back to me, he wrote in the diary.
Leo paused the game and stretched his arms wide in the spare room. Sophie had asked him if he wanted a cup of tea probably fifteen minutes ago, but she hadn’t brought it up yet.
It was a Saturday in September, early afternoon. Sophie had indeed come back. The evening she was supposed to come and pack up with Jules, she arrived on her own and said to Leo that she wanted to give it another go. They had hugged, and talked until late, and Sophie had said that she understood people changed, and Leo should be Leo. They went to work, she cooked and saw Jules from time to time. They hadn’t been away that summer. It was peaceful.
Leo went downstairs to the kitchen to see where Sophie had gone.
There she was, sitting down, writing something. It looked like an effort, even watching from a few feet away. Leo stepped into the room slowly, carefully. Sophie was writing on the back of a large envelope. She held a biro pen clenched tight in her fist, and Leo could see the tendons stand out on her shaking arm. She hunched over the paper—there were just a few words—and with a rigid pose and a clenched jaw forced out clumsy letters. He moved closer to read.
LET ME OUT, Sophie had written.
She turned and looked up at Leo who was standing over her shoulder. Her eyes were wide and darting, the only free part of a body which was fighting hard against some invisible force. Her mouth trembled open then slammed shut, teeth biting into her lip.
Leo backed out of the kitchen then turned and ran up the stairs to the spare room. He grabbed volume five and pushed the pages to get to today’s date.
Leo can make everything okay, it said, in that spidery scratchy hand.
Leo took a pen from the desk.
He held it above the page.
Everything is okay, he wrote. Sophie loves me.
Back downstairs he walked tentatively into the kitchen as Sophie was dropping torn-up paper into the bin. She turned easily, and looked at Leo with clear, calm eyes.
“Let me get you that tea,” she said.
Subscribe to receive new stories by email. Fortnightly.
We are all Upsideclown: Vic, Jamie, Neil, Matt, James, George, and Dan. Material © its respective author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org