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Mr. Farthingale awoke to a freezing cold room and the overwhelming suspicion that life was meaningless.

Whether this was a deeply held conviction or merely a product of his current circumstances was difficult to say. What little warm air existed in the room had been carefully harvested and stored beneath his heavy down comforter over the course of the previous night. He was loath to pull it back. The predatory chill of early winter circled round him like a school of sharks, awaiting just such an exposure. 

But there were chores to be done. Goodness, were there chores! Mr. Farthingale could think of nothing more grotesque than to be faced with chores on a cold, gray Saturday morning in early winter. If only he had had something with which to brace his spirits – a decent night’s sleep, or a lit and glowing stove, or even a warm cup of coffee waiting beside him on the nightstand – he might have been able to face the day with, if not exactly vim and vigor, then at least a sort of neutral resignation, a lack of bitterness towards life and the hand it had dealt him. As it was his situation was nigh unbearable, and he lay like a paralytic staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, wondering how he had ever got into such a mess.

The cover was back. Mr. Farthingale had done it himself, almost without knowing. It was a reflex he had developed long ago out of necessity, lest he one day think too long on the merits of not getting up, of staying wrapped forever in downy warmth and the rest of the world and its chores be damned. Much as he expected, the cold air moved in for the kill. Mr. Farthingale was prompted to action. He started sharply, then shivered, before pulling himself upright on the bed. With his feet dangling over the side he groped around for his slippers, cringing whenever he missed and his toes made contact with the bare floorboards, which at this unfortunate hour had all the aspects of a sheet of ice. At last his skin grazed something soft and warm and altogether more forgiving; Mr. Farthingale sighed as his feet slid inside, feeling something like relief that this first and most difficult hurdle had been cleared. 

He now could stand up. He did so and almost immediately reeled. The cold buffeted his upper-body, which unlike his feet was ill equipped to deal with such an assault, and teamed with his still-drowsy condition to rob him of balance; he stumbled about the room herkily-jerkily, like a punch-drunk marionette. 

Draped across the armchair in front of the stove, in the opposite corner of the room, Mr. Farthingale spied his robe. He made a dash for it. He had occupied the chair the previous night so as to do some reading before bed and had foolishly forgotten to bring the robe with him, the crackling fire at the time lulling him into a false sense of security as concerned his own warmth. Snatching up the garment, he found the armholes and squirmed his way inside, only to leave out a terrifying yelp. Like everything else in the room his robe had not been spared the night’s ravages. It was every bit as cold as the floorboards; colder, even, if that was possible. Mr. Farthingale grit his teeth and proposed to wait it out, knowing that this punishment was only temporary, a penance before the salvation his own body heat and its silk wrapping would eventually provide. 

What diverted Mr. Farthingale’s attention and helped ease this painful process was the question of how the robe should have gotten so cold in the first place, situated as it had been directly in front of the stove. He shuffled over to the antique apparatus, and taking up the pair of tongs that dangled from a hook on the adjacent wall, removed the lid and peered down inside. Lo and behold, two full logs, barely singed, remained in its cast-iron belly. The fire had died prematurely. More than ever, Mr. Farthingale gave serious heed to the idea of purchasing an electric radiator. Perhaps to modernize wasn’t always such a bad thing, if it could rid him of the sorts of torments he now faced.

‘Modernize’! The very word made his flesh crawl. It was synonymous with vapidity, shallowness, and degradation of morals. Mr. Farthingale believed he was existing in an age of unchecked raillery. He mourned this, most acutely in the evenings as he sat before the hearth in his study, alone. In the mornings he often put forth this accusation to his charges, whom he suspected as some of the primary culprits in this rapid devolution. His earnest pleas only led them to mock him with increased fervor. One had to wonder why he bothered at all, knowing the abuse that awaited him in his crusade. But then, as was already noted, there was something of the penitent in Mr. Farthingale; it was quite possible he welcomed the laughter and derision, saw it as cleansing him of some minute sin the rest of the world neither noticed nor cared about – a sin, perhaps, which existed only in Mr. Farthingale’s mind, but which weighed on his heart like a thousand albatrosses and transformed his life into a morbid balancing act of guilt and self-flagellation. No, he decided, he would not buy a radiator.

Mr. Farthingale worked as a fourth-grade teacher at St. Lucy the Blind Elementary School. Though he loathed every second spent there, he much preferred that time to his days off. Work, if nothing else, gave Mr. Farthingale a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and his particular profession allowed him the unique opportunity to address the problems he saw enveloping society head-on. Many avenues exist in regards to educating youth, and the one Mr. Farthingale had chosen was undoubtedly of those less traveled. He himself had dubbed it the ‘Victorian Way’. Though the State had long ago outlawed his ‘Eleventh Commandment’ (a staunch length of hickory which had once been the leg of a nineteenth-century dining room chair; Mr. Farthingale had come to agree with the State’s decision over the years, being, after all, not without his progressive side), he still took a decidedly hard line when it came to discipline. Anyone caught talking during lecture was made to stand at the front of the room with outstretched arm and a piece of chalk placed in his or her upturned palm. For each time the chalk was dropped or the child’s arm grew tired and fell, he or she was made to stay after school and write on the blackboard a hundred times a psalm of Mr. Farthingale’s choosing. Penalties for cheating were even more severe, and required the child to remain standing on his or her head in a corner of the room until he or she had correctly recited the familial succession of Abraham, all the way up to, and ending no sooner than, Hezekiah. The fact that none of the children actually took part in any of these punishments or even paid attention to Mr. Farthingale longer than it took to fire a spit-wad at his ample forehead hardly mattered. What mattered was that the sin had been exposed. The child’s shame lay bare for all to witness, and if he or she cared not to make amends it mattered little to Mr. Farthingale, as he knew judgment would be meted out a thousand-fold more terrible and swift on the other side.   

Mr. Farthingale left the bedroom and lurched down the hallway to the kitchen door. As he opened it and stepped inside, he noticed a large, grayish cloud had appeared and was hovering ever so intimately about his head. It was his breath. The kitchen was even colder than his bedroom had been. The reason for this, he noted almost immediately and with dismay, was that he had neglected to close one of the windows, a window he had opened the previous night in a fit of rage, a fit of rage precipitated by the unexpected malfunction of Mr. Farthingale’s washing machine, which had led him, after several hours tinkering with the engine of this foul offspring of the Modern Age, to rip out the offending gear and heave it with all his might into the front yard. It took only a second for Mr. Farthingale to size up what all of this meant: he would have to wash his clothes in the sink, in the middle of winter, in a room with no heat. Such were the perverse and perfectly orchestrated pranks Fate played. Not that Mr. Farthingale believed in Fate. Fate implied randomness, implied a blamelessness in the ill that befell one. But nothing was random, and no one was blameless. Life itself was a blot on His canvas, and to live the greatest sin of all. Mr. Farthingale filled the sink, and taking up a sweater from the basket on the floor, plunged his hands into the icy water. Pain wracked his joints, turning into a dull numbness that crept slowly up his arms, like a hand reaching up from the grave, as the weight of a thousand albatrosses lifted from his heart.  

     [Forever after at]


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