31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 5: “6:19’’ by Miranda Hill

May 5, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Sleeping Funny

Sleeping_FunnyThe soullessness of modern urban life comes under scrutiny in the gentle satire of Miranda Hill’s “6:19.” The story focuses on Nathan Faulk, a mid-level civil servant (“number eight on an approvals list of eleven”) in the employ of a Provincial Government minister. Faulk is a PR flack whose responsibility is to vet speeches and communiqués issuing from the minister’s office. His job exists at the confluence of politics and advertising, and Faulk spends his working hours crafting spin. Like most office drones, he is also concerned with covering his ass: when one of his colleagues gets fired after the minister embarrasses the government in a speech to an autoworkers’ union by forwarding a message contradictory to their own, Faulk worries that he will find himself in the line of fire, since it was he, at the behest of his direct superior, who delivered the speech to the minister early.

Everything about Faulk renders him a stereotype of the 21st-century office worker: he drinks overpriced lattes, eats trendy takeout paninis, wears Italian leather shoes, and is permanently welded to his Smartphone.

But the most important thing about Faulk, at least for Hill’s purposes in this story, is that he commutes to work from the suburbs. Along with countless other anonymous passengers, Faulk packs himself into commuter trains twice daily, abandoning his car at the suburban kiss-and-ride in the morning and retrieving it in the evening.

The move to a house near the second-last westbound station on the commuter line was one of the “high-stakes bets” placed by Faulk’s wife, Belinda, a woman with a yen for interior design and “an eye for potential”:

She had a feel for the “good bones” of houses, for neighbourhoods, opportunities, for things on the cusp of becoming something better. And Belinda’s ability to make selections – confident, profitable selections – had given Nathan some of his greatest moments of satisfaction and surety. Properties, cars, vacation spots – Belinda knew how to recognize the value of something not-quite discovered and to land the two of them in the midst of it, like second-wave pioneers, better equipped than the previous immigrants and ready to reap the benefits of settlement just before the boom.

But the price that Faulk pays for adopting a commuter lifestyle is that he ceases to take notice of his environment – everything is reduced to a blur of sameness and repetition. When a station announcement for a stop called Long Branch is read out during one trip, a fellow passenger sniffs, “This used to be Long Branch,” leaving Faulk, who has never before registered the name of the stop, wondering “what had happened to the Long Branch the woman thought she knew. But the question of Long Branch – its origins, its present – left Nathan as soon as the train departed the station.”

What shakes Nathan out of his torpor is a series of strange events on the evening train that departs the city at 6:02 p.m. Due to a scheduling oddity, the 6:02 train must pull over onto a side track to allow the 6:13 express – travelling in the same direction – to pass. This too, is something that Nathan has never noticed prior to the Monday on which the story opens; when he does realize he has been taking a less direct train, he becomes incensed at the wasted minutes he has sacrificed. For a not-quite-Master of the Universe like Nathan, there can be no such thing as downtime, and the greatest sin is a sin against efficiency.

Having realized that the train must pull off onto a side track, however, Nathan has also realized (by consulting his Smartphone, naturally) that this occurs at precisely 6:19 each night. More strangely, when he looks out the train window, regardless of what car he finds himself in, he notices the same backyard, in which a woman is planting bulbs. The woman becomes the avatar for a series of increasingly dreamlike events over the course of the five-day work week during which the story unfolds, and Nathan finds himself first intrigued with her, then increasingly fascinated.

Hill plays with notions of volition: each day, Nathan attempts to revise his schedule so that he can catch the 6:13 express train, and each day he is stymied by forces beyond his control. How much of our lives is predetermined, Hill asks, and how much is subject to our own will? The irony is that Nathan’s inability to follow through on his desire to catch the more efficient express train is the very thing that sets in motion events that might – potentially – push his life in an entirely different direction.

It is also no accident that the woman in her yard is planting bulbs. The juxtaposition of the natural world with Nathan’s manufactured world of trains and Smartphones is not coincidental, nor is the connotation of a bulb that must be planted in the fall in order for it to bloom in the spring. At one point, Nathan stares out the train window and imagines planting a bulb with the woman: “Nathan stares down into the shallow hole and thinks of the things he is suddenly aware that the bulb requires: a depth of three inches, a cold bed, a dormant period, spring.” At another point, Nathan’s Smartphone shatters, the screen breaking into pieces “like hundreds of shiny seeds.”

The story concludes in an open-ended fashion, leaving Nathan on the verge of a decision that could change his life. Choice and coincidence have brought him to this point, but his ultimate path will be up to him. There is irony here, too, involving Belinda, whom Nathan imagines waiting at the kiss-and-ride, furious because he is late for a meeting with a decorator. Belinda, we recall, has a facility for discovering “things on the cusp of becoming something better.” The final irony is that this might just include Nathan himself.

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