It’s something Ben has always done. His father used to do it too. At the end of each day, he takes a thick red marker pen and puts a cross through the day on the calendar.
“Another day done,” he says.
Ben’s wife Nadia hates the habit. “It’s like you’re marking off prison time or something. And that red pen, it’s so aggressive! Just enjoy your days.”
He tries to explain that it actually helps him appreciate his life more when he keeps track of things, makes him feel that he’s living life to the full. He gets an immense sense of satisfaction crossing out the day—and there is never any ambiguity with a red pen; it’s a definite day lived.
Every year he buys a new calendar and puts it up on the kitchen wall. This year he has bought a particularly good one. It is called Your Most Successful Year Ever. As well as a list of monthly and yearly goals, it even has space for you to record whether you drank eight glasses of water, walked ten thousand steps, or meditated for ten minutes each day.
Before going to bed on the first of January, Ben puts his usual cross through the day. He has already made a good start on his new year resolutions to reduce his consumption of social media, and tomorrow he plans to start a fitness program.
The next morning, Ben goes downstairs to make his morning cup of tea and glances at the calendar to see what he has scheduled. He is horrified to see the whole first week of January has been crossed out.
He rushes upstairs to Nadia, who is still in bed scrolling through cat pictures on her phone.
“What day is it?” asks Ben.
“Monday.” She frowns at him. “Ben, are you okay?”
“The 9th.” She holds out her phone. There is no arguing with the digital display on the home screen.
Ben can’t believe he has lost a week. For years he has been tracking his every move. Indeed, since reading about the Pomodoro technique a year ago, he now breaks his days into twenty-five-minute increments of work and leisure. Every minute is accounted for. Until now.
He goes into his office and turns on his computer. He works as a freelance financial consultant, and it looks like he has spent the whole week doing the accounts of his good friend John. There is an email, dated yesterday, with the final spreadsheets attached. It certainly looks like his work. He telephones John and, without telling him what has happened, asks if he has received his email.
“Yes, thanks for that. Great work, as usual, Ben. Send through the invoice, and I’ll get that paid for you. I haven’t had a chance to look through it all in detail yet, but we can discuss it when I come to lunch tomorrow. Nice of you and Nadia to invite me.”
“No problem,” says Ben. As he hangs up, he wishes he had asked who gave the invitation.
Over lunch, Ben asks Nadia to run through the last week with him. What had they cooked, what had they talked about, had they made love? He can’t remember any of it.
“It was just an ordinary week, Ben. Nothing special.”
He wants the details. Did he have his vitamins? Did he take any exercise?
“You know I have no idea! I don’t keep track of little things like that.”
Ben can’t believe Nadia is not taking this more seriously. Even his phone is no help; it seems that’s the one resolution he has managed to keep, his screen time is practically non-existent.
With a shaky hand, Ben crosses through the 9th of January. Nadia tells him to make an appointment with the doctor in the morning and reminds him that John will be coming to lunch.
“It’s been great seeing so much of him, while you have been doing his work. Such a nice man and so spontaneous!”
When Ben wakes the next day, the first thing he does is reach for his phone. It isn’t there. He runs down to the kitchen; the calendar says it’s the 1st of March. He flips back to January and February; every single day has been crossed out.
Something about the house is different. The kitchen, which is usually clean and tidy, with a place for everything and everything in its place, is in chaos. There are takeout cartons and pizza delivery boxes strewn all over the counter, and the bin is overflowing. The stench of the rotting remains of a portion of fried chicken makes him gag.
He runs back upstairs, splashes his face with cold water, and goes into the bedroom. The other side of the bed has not been slept in, and his side looks like the sheets have not been changed in some time. He throws open the wardrobe doors. His wife’s clothes are gone. He searches through drawers in the bedroom, through the cupboards in the spare room, and in the bathroom cabinet; not a trace of Nadia.
Ben sits on her side of the bed, head in his hands. The last thing he remembers is turning out the bedside light at the beginning of January. What has he been doing with his life since then?
He takes a deep breath, heads back downstairs to the kitchen. He needs to find his phone. He needs to telephone Nadia and find out where she is. He wonders if John knows.
In the kitchen, the calendar has fallen off the wall and is lying on the floor among the debris. Every month crossed through with a red pen.