Rebecca Reader

You Never Really Touched Anything in Your Whole Life

All humans on Earth would fit inside a sugar cube, says the scientist on the car radio. You’d just need a giant trash compactor with infinite crushing power. After bundling the humans in, you’d activate the hydraulics to squeeze out the yawning wastelands of atomic space between their nuclei and electrons. With the wastelands gone, the world’s population would be a single cubic centimetre of residue. People aren’t sixty percent water, says the scientist, they’re almost a hundred percent nothing whatsoever. They’re zilch, nada, diddly squat.

“Happy Monday!” says the radio host and “Sweet Caroline” comes on.

I park the car and check my eyebrows in the rear-view mirror. The grey hairs are twice the length of the black ones, so I smooth them down with spit. Maybe this emptiness I’ve felt of late is just me cottoning on to a truth of physics. Maybe it’s not the male menopause. Neil Diamond stops crooning, and I walk my personal void across the carpark and into the lift at Student Loan Operations. Every fourth morning or so, the lift jams. Today happens to be a fourth morning. And here I am, Martin Moon, stuck in a cube. A sign in the lift says “Maximum 8 Passengers”. I take a pen from my breast pocket and add “billion” and a small insertion mark. Life is all in the details.

I rise to the sixth floor, drop to the fifth, rise to the sixth, drop back to fifth. A mechanism whines under the strain, then dies. The lift does life’s ups and downs, it does resignation, it does harmless mimicry which is nothing to be afraid of. I’d even say that when Mondays are as dire as they are at Student Loan Operations, a lift bouncing on its own cable is a pleasure ride minus the amusement park. Not everyone thinks so. I was in the lift once when Phil, our in-house psychiatrist from Floor One, stepped in with a claustrophobe he was steering by the back of the blouse. He watched her hyperventilate while he took notes and chewed gum.  

The guy on the radio said that the human sugar cube wouldn’t be the type of cube you could drop in your chai latte. The cube would weigh several billion tons. If you forklifted the cube into your cup, the cube would crash right through the bottom, straight through the table, the foundations of your house, and several miles of rock. You wouldn’t get any sweet tea. You’d get a journey to the centre of the Earth and 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Kim, my boss, is just as deadly. It’s like she’s already had her atomic space removed, she’s that oppressive. Her desk is on a raised platform that looks down over our island of ten desks, and she runs our team like a banana republic. The republic has its own martial law. If you don’t process fifty student loans a day, you’re given ten extra the next day as punishment. If you ask Efficient Evan on the desk opposite how to fix a bungle, thus bypassing the official chain of command, you’re summoned into Kim’s back office, her “Interview Staging Space”, known on the ground as “In Serious Shite”. People say things like “Don’t call me between 4pm and 5pm because I’ll be In Serious Shite” or “Martin lands himself In Serious Shite more often than a dung beetle.” When you find yourself In Serious Shite, Kim always begins by asking where you see yourself in a month’s time. It’s the word equivalent of a gun barrel tracing a love heart on your temple. If all eight billion humans were as deadly Kim, the cube would weigh several trillion tons. You’d get a journey to the centre of the Earth and a rendezvous with the galactic centre.  

I text Kim to say I’m stuck in the lift. It’s one minute after nine and today is when the student loan applications start blizzarding in. Kim texts right back to ask if I’ve pressed the alarm.  Yes, I say, of course I’ve pressed the alarm. I haven’t pressed the alarm. I’ve been unscrewing my flask of tea and opening my packet of raspberry tartlets. The lift man usually takes twenty minutes, but I’d like twenty years. I’d like two decades of not doing the job I only do well on one day of the year. After the annual staff Christmas party, I fill my empty tea flask with leftover prosecco. Then I go back upstairs, drink the lot and issue twenty loans straight off without checking whether the applicants have even enrolled for study. I add “That’ll yuletide you over” to the approval letter. On this one day of the year, I hit my quota and Kim always says I’m turning a corner.

There was a time when cafés had bowls full of sugar with corners. Now it’s sachets. I don’t remember the last time I saw a sugar cube. I google “Where are all the sugar cubes?” and someone has already asked that question on Quora. The answer is “Try looking one shelf higher or lower than the shelves at eye level. Keep looking. The cubes are there.” Kim always knows where I am. It doesn’t matter whether I stand or sit at my desk, Kim is always watching me and my career progression. Looking back, I lied when I told her in the interview that I was a self-starting workplace ninja, passionate about helping students into debt, and happiest when hitting the ground running. I don’t thrive in a high-octane environment. Glancing at myself in the mirror on the lift wall, my tartlet soggy from a dunk, my legs crossed like a child’s, I see I thrive in a cubic environment. I was certainly happy running the motel, which was one big cube divided into lots of smaller cubes. But a psycho I’d refused an extra mini sewing kit to claimed online that she’d found an artery’s worth of blood in the shower. The motel was on top of a hill and Janice, my receptionist, was the same age as my mother. Everything was against me after that.

I thought the motel had given me transferable skills. At the height of running it, I could remove four carpet stains, change ten sets of bedsheets, and fold twenty bath towels into bishops’ hats in the space of an hour. I listed “familiar with most software” as a skill on my CV. But linen doesn’t answer back. You rip a big hole in it by accident, you use it to hide an unexpected corpse collapsed against the trouser press until the police arrive—it says nothing. At Student Loans, no matter how much I pussyfoot across my keyboard, no matter how respectfully I press the Enter key, I trigger so many warnings and error messages it’s like I’m flying a jet on a single engine that’s just sucked in a flock of condors, the cockpit forever spiralling towards a mountainside on the Andes. Even when I get things right, students’ lives flash past me so fast I feel I’m earning my living by dying on behalf of others.

I press the alarm and Meg answers. I’d quite happily die for Meg. Meg works for Down to Earth Lift Repairs based on the Isle of Skye, half a world away. Outsourcing allowed Student Loan Operations to slash its lift maintenance costs by half and tip a loyal and local firm into bankruptcy. But on the plus side, it gave me Meg. Each time Meg answers, she says “Saluton”, even though the chance of a customer speaking Esperanto is nulo, then “Please state the nature of the issue”, even though the issue is always the same because Down to Earth only deals with broken lifts.

“Saluton,” says Meg. “Please state the nature of the issue.”

“I’m stuck on the fifth floor.”

Meg never asks where. She just knows.

“Many breakdowns today?” I ask.

“One in Llandudno. One in Ketchikan. One at the tax office right down the road from you. This will be my fourth. Our franchisee, Gavin, will be with you soon.”

“How long do you think?”

“Are you alone?”

Meg has never asked this before. I fix the top button on my shirt, sweep my hair back over my parting which is widening faster than the socio-economic divide. As far as I know, the intercom doesn’t have a camera.


“How long do you need?”


“When would you like to be rescued?”

“It’s up to me?”

“Clients often prioritise time and space over actual rescue.”

“I get to decide?”

“The rescue wouldn’t be a rescue if we took you out of the lift and locked you in a mortuary.”


“Are your colleagues cold, Mr Moon? Does your workplace stink?”


“I’ll send Gavin along in two hours. Adiaŭ for now.”

The intercom goes dead. I text Kim. “Meg says the lift guy will arrive in a couple of hours.” Then I set my phone to silent. Kim stalks me every chance she gets. She pulls up a chair and eavesdrops on my calls to clients. If I scribble stuff down on a sticky note, she says, “Martin, the emotional crotches have to go.” She says this so often that Efficient Evan has started sticking notes to his flies when we go downstairs for coffee. Kim hates anything that smacks of accuracy rather than speed. Pens wind her up tighter than a boa constrictor. “Martin,” she says, snatching my stationery, “you haven’t got time to deep dive into cases. The only thing I want you to bring to the table is speed.” She’ll be even worse today with the peak hitting, and with the Commissar having just come down from Head Office to huff and puff his testosterone all over our happy little sweatshop.

It has only been an hour since I spoke to Meg, but I’m breathing faster and shallower than normal. I hit the intercom.

“Saluton,” says Meg.

“Will I suffocate, Meg?”

“Lifts are never airtight,” she says. “You’ll always be able to breathe.”

“You spoil me,” I say.

“Two hours are enough?” asks Meg.

“Make it three.”

The Commissar is the head honcho. He flies business class down from Loans HQ and practises visible leadership by walking up and down between the rows of desks with his bonhomie and his polka dot waistcoats. He came down yesterday to throw a last supper of afternoon tea and prepare us for the peak. While we were dipping Cheezels into onion dip, he confessed we were understaffed by twenty-one and that we would need to stretch, but not break. “I want high productivity,” he said, “not a surge in mental health days.” He had a ball of rubber bands at the ready. He took one band off and looped it across his thumb and forefinger. “Stretch,” he said, “and soar.” The band hit a strip light and dropped dead in the bite-size bratwursts.

I imagine the lift cables breaking and my head becoming separated from my body. I saw that once in a horror movie. I intercom Meg. “Could the cables break?”

“That depends. Any rats in the building?”

“Quite a few,” I say.

“With tails?”

“No, real rats.”

“Take four hours. Your lift has a built-in shock absorber, so if all the cables fail, you’ll get slammed around a wee bit, but your head will stay on. Probably.”

We’ve all seen the rubber band ball before. The Commissar pulls it out before each of the twice-yearly peaks. The ball never gets smaller, so part of his $400-an-hour job must be to maintain the ball. He keeps the ball in his trouser pocket because he’s not afraid of it looking like a third testicle. When he’s parading his visible leadership through our office, he stops to ask people if they’re happy at work. He bounces the ball on their desks while he’s waiting for an answer so he can’t hear the truth. No one ever talks about the ball or asks him about it. We all know what the ball means. It means that cowpats of chaos are about to hit the fan.

Psychotherapist Phil also carries a ball with him when he takes clients into the lift, but his ball is made of putty. When the lift jams, he tells clients to dig their nails into the ball and focus their attention on something concrete, but not on the sign for maximum load which always makes them worse. They normally stare at the poster urging Student Loan Operations staff to use the stairs for health and wellbeing, because there’s a picture of a stairwell with an arched window looking out over a mountain at sunset. A week after the poster went up, Kim locked the staircase saying that it posed a security risk, like terrorists would naturally prefer to fit a cardio workout into their act of terrorism than risk hardened arteries for the cause by taking the lift. The only terrorist within a hundred miles of Loan Operations is Kim and the only step she’ll ever climb is the next one on the pay scale. I emailed Kim when she shut the staircase and said, “Kim, the staircase is also the fire exit.” She emailed back and said, “That’s why there’s a ladder on the outside of the building.” I replied, “The ladder is coming away from the wall, and what about staff with vertigo?” She wrote back, “Vertigo or cremation. One of our corporate values, as you well know Martin, is freedom of choice.”

I’ve run out of raspberry tartlets. I hit the intercom and ask Meg how many calories there are in paper.

I hear her tapping her keyboard.


“Is it toxic?”

“Plant cellulose. Undigestible, but not toxic.”

“Good to know.”

“You still fine, Mr Moon?”

“Sure,” I say, chewing on a corner of poster.

“I’ll tell Gavin to do the job at the tax office first.”

Meg is obliging. There’s nothing she won’t do to keep a man trapped in a lift. Kim on the other hand has texted to say that she tried to “leverage the fire brigade”, but they won’t come unless the lift is actually on fire. She ends the text with three dots. “…”

I text back, “I don’t have matches,” and the reply is, “Shame. But since you’re not burning through the loan applications either, I’m going to consolidate some space by streamlining your desk.”

My pens and sticky notes aren’t the only things Kim hates. She also hates my snow globe paperweight of the Golden Gate Bridge. She says snow globes hold nothing down but everyone back. I imagine her hands all over my globe and then I remember the guy on the radio saying, “You’re so empty, you’ve never really touched anything in your whole life.”

I ring Kim. “Technically, you’ll never be able to touch my stuff.”

I hear paper tearing.

“The first of the emotional crotches,” she says.

I’m not a philosophical or religious kind of a guy, but I wonder whether a person can be morally accountable if they are largely space. Kim is trashing my space, but really her space is trashing my space, which might mean no one is really trashing anything. I conjure up Kim as a vast empty space punctuated by an eight billionth of a sugar cube’s worth of matter, but then I hear her vast empty space clattering something into what sounds like a rubbish bin.  

“Up yours, Jong-un,” I say.

“Martin, I actually don’t have the bandwidth for this right now.”  

“And I actually don’t have no sticky notes left,” I say, opening my workbag to take out the fresh batch I brought especially for the peak. That’s when I remember that yesterday, the Commissar was foolish enough to leave his ball of rubber bands on the table beside the onion dip and that I was clever enough to stuff it in my bag.

The guy on the radio said that if an atom were a cathedral, the nucleus would be a fly. I sketch fifty cathedrals on fifty sticky notes and add fifty flies for the number of applications we are expected to process each day. I stick the cathedrals all over the lift walls. Then I walk from one side of the lift to the other, asking the flies how they are and whether they are content with their work conditions. I flick rubber bands at them for the gratifying thwack of rubber against paper. The Commissar’s ball shrinks to the size of a marble. I check my phone. Kim has texted me.

“Martin, I’m watching the security camera.”

I never noticed the camera. Sure enough, there’s a tiny glass bluebottle smashed into a ceiling tile.

I text back. “Why? Were you feeling insecure, Kim?”

“Insecurity isn’t one of my core competencies.”

Kim’s core competency is corporate jargon. When a situation goes badly, she says, “Now, Martin, what learnings from this will empower you going forward?” and when a situation goes well, she says, “You’ll soon be shoulder-tapped for a role higher up the food chain, Evan, if you keep getting time-sensitive jobs done yesterday.” Evan calls them “wank words”. I lay down and start counting wank words with spindly legs jumping over fences made of sugar cubes. It’s not long before I crystallize into sleep.

I wake an hour later when the lift bounces for the final time up to Floor Six and the doors are cranked open. Gavin is standing there with his wrench and Kim is swinging her swipe card round on her lanyard. I sit up. She stops swinging and looks at the sticky notes.

“You OK?” says Gavin.

“Totally sweet.”

“Martin, we need to talk about where you see yourself in a month’s time,” says Kim.

“Right here,” I say, stepping out onto the landing. “A free man, an uncaged spirit, heading down the stairs to climb a mountain at sunset.”

“Please make your way to the Interview Staging Space, Martin.”

She points at the giant padlock on the staircase door.

“Fine, Kim,” I say. “But I’m just going to collect my stuff, then leave.”

“That won’t be possible, Martin.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your stuff has been moved.”

“Where, Kim?” I say as we pass my desk. Nothing is left except for the computer and the double-sided sticky tape I’d used to fix Prisoner Smurf to the top of the monitor. Kim swipes her card to unlock In Serious Shite. Inside, the Commissar is fully at ease in the only easy chair. He’s holding a mini battery-operated fan an inch from his nose because no window at Student Loans Operations opens wider than half a human head. The window frames a drab watercolour of antennae, ventilation ducts and skinny pigeons. Purple graffiti on a satellite dish reads “Fight apathy, or don’t”.   

“Bring us some tea, Kim,” says the Commissar.

Kim sits down at the table and rings Efficient Evan.

“Bring us some tea, Evan,” she says.

Efficient Evan arrives three minutes later with tea, milk, and sugar cubes. The Commissar drops four cubes into his cup.     

“Sugar cubes,” I say. “Don’t often see those these days.”

“They’re for senior leadership only,” says Kim.

“No time to rip sachets, eh?” I say.

“Correct,” says the Commissar. He squints at me like he’s just seen a speck of acumen stuck to my eye. Then he puts his hand in his pocket and gives me my snow globe.

“Do you know,” I say, “the last time it snowed properly on the Golden Gate Bridge was 1976, but I can make it snow whenever I like.” I blizzard up the Golden Gate right there in front of them.

Kim glances at the Commissar.

“A man who’s prepared to steer a whole climate is my kind of man. Sugar?” says the Commissar.

I take a cube from the bowl and drop it into my tea. I hate sweet tea, but I want to know what it’s like to dissolve mankind.

The Commissar turns his fan to top speed and papers flutter up from Kim’s clipboard.

“A guy on the radio this morning,” I say, “said that atoms aren’t truly empty—the space between the nucleus and the electron is full of wave functions and quantum fields. An atom is like an electric fan. It looks like it’s full of gaps, but then you turn it on.”

I stir the global population anti-clockwise and some of it slops out of the cup.

“Let’s talk about how you’re tracking,” Kim says.

“I guess I’m not,” I say, looking at the ducts, the pigeons and the apathy that also aren’t tracking anywhere.

“When Kim said the cubes were for senior leaders, Martin,” says the Commissar, “that was a clue.”

“A clue?”

“We called you to the Staging Space for a reason,” says Kim.

I look from Kim to the Commissar and draw my hand across my jugular.

“Far from it,” says the Commissar. “How does ‘Executive Success Enabler’ sound?”

“Classic wank words?” I say.

“Or just a promotion, Martin,” says Kim, rapping the tip of her ballpoint on the clipboard.

“A man who is cunning when he’s in a tight spot for four hours, is a man we want in the Executive Success Enabler position,” says the Commissar.


“In the lift, Martin, you developed critical awareness of the pointlessness of sticky notes,” says Kim.

“I did?”

“You pivoted in your approach towards them by wasting a whole block,” says Kim.

“Pivoted? Me?”

“And there was something intuitive in your use of the rubber bands,” says the Commissar. He taps the side of his nose. “A pro tip for you—the staff photos on our website are perfect for target practice.”

Kim unclips the papers on her clipboard then reclips them with a petulant snap.  

“Martin, I think what we’re saying is that today you have displayed all the competencies we’re looking for. Shrewd manipulation of a situation for your own advantage; an astute urge to shirk low paid, labour intense jobs; willingness to dupe colleagues; and an aptitude for survival by aggression,” says Kim.

“Compression, Martin,” says the Commissar. “Squeeze a man, and out comes the best of him.”

I lean back and put my hands behind my head, which suddenly feels like it might crash through the floor.

“Welcome to the Senior Leadership,” says the Commissar. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a brand-new ball of rubber bands. I reach into my pocket and pull out my marble-sized ball. We exchange balls. The Commissar drops mine in the bin. He shakes my hand. Kim shakes my hand. I get a company cell phone. It’s a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of chrome so strokable that I realize I’m finally touching something in my life.

“Time to remove the tea tray, Kim?” says the Commissar. 

Kim puts the cap back on her ballpoint and says, “Please action the removal of the tea tray, Martin.”

I ring Evan and say “Evan, the tea tray.” Evan doesn’t need verbs, he’s that efficient.

A gust of chlorinated sewage laced with battered fish makes Kim shut the window with a bang, and the skinny pigeons splash upwards and head for the hills where the sun has only just burnt through the clouds. I’m a pigeon, briefly freed, newly promoted, freshly caged. To all the skinny pigeons of this world, fly fast, fly high over mountains at sunset. Say adiaŭ to apathy. Slice sharp through the stale air of success. Land softly like salutons on the Isle of Skye and tell Meg I’m sorry. Knowing Meg, she’ll say,

“Nenia problemo, Executive Success Enabler.”

And I’ll say, “Dankon, Sweet Meg.”

“I’ll rescue you properly next time, if you like.”

“Would you, Meg? I promise to nurture my inner pigeon.”

“Pigeons get fat on the stale crumbs of capitalism, Mr Moon. Then all they can do is hang around town centres waiting for more crumbs.”

“You’ve got a point, Meg.”

“You know what else I’ve got? I’ve got all the space inside yourself you never explored.”

“What’s it like, my space?”

“It’s like Talisker whisky from my very own Skye. There’s a whisper of peat, the boldness of the Cuillin peaks, the brawn of a Highlander with a caber.”

“Funny you should say that, Meg. My first act as Executive Success Enabler was to enable successful transit down the staircase by breaking the padlock with a crowbar.”

“In that case, what are you waiting for Mr Moon? Jump in.”

And once again, there I’ll be. Martin Moon, stuck in the lift and roaming through space.

Rebecca Reader

Rebecca Reader took courses with Gotham Writers Workshop before completing her MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington | Te Herenga Waka. Her MA portfolio was a collection of poems inspired by the life and art of the British-Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington. Rebecca’s stories and poems have appeared in the journals Landfall, Takahē, Turbine, Mslexia, and Prole, and in the anthologies Solamente en San Miguel and Arbolarium.