The Infinite Woes of Being a Hero by David Johnston

I fantasise about quitting all the time. I storm into human resources, slam my notice down on Adam’s desk, say something witty and cutting, then spin on my heels and strut out of there like I’m King Arthur. On my way out of the office I sweep my colleague Megan off her feet and into my arms before heading to the stables, where I steal one of the company horses and ride off with my love into the sunset. I hear the staff applauding and cheering from the windows as we disappear over the horizon.

‘WOOHOO!’

‘YOU SHOW ‘EM BARRY!’

‘YOU THE MAN!’

‘BARRY, BARRY, BARRY!’

That’s the dream.

But therein lies the problem: it’s just a dream. I won’t quit — no matter how much I hate it — because I have bills to pay. And if I’m being completely honest, I’m rather accustomed now to designer clothes, expensive holidays and meals at fancy restaurants. The fact of the matter is it pays exceptionally well to be a knight in shining armour (so I guess I’m stuck here).

It wasn’t always this way. I remember my first day on the job; I’d only just qualified and felt like I was on top of the world. They presented me with my armour and my very own squire, named Percy. He was a great little kiddo: always eager and full of smiles. A bit too panicky to be honest — the daft sod feared his own shadow — and his face looked like an army of acne had set up camp for a prolonged siege, but his heart was in the right place.

And my horse! What a beauty she was: a destrier. I can remember thinking at the time that she was the finest of breeds and I was the finest of men — how arrogant I was in my younger days! I named her Cheval, which is the French word for horse. A bloody ridiculous name, but at the time I didn’t care because it sounded noble and exotic and the ladies loved it. She died three years ago this June, did Cheval. I miss her every day.

It felt like all my dreams had come true that day. Sir Godfrey of Bandarion, who was Knight Commander at that time, dubbed my shoulders and told me to arise, Sir Barry of Bognor — not the sexiest name for a knight, granted, but I didn’t care. The crowd cheered and clapped and I felt like a rock star. I was a knight; I’d made it and I wanted the world to know it. The first thing I did when I got home that evening was post a picture of me astride Cheval with a smug grin on my face. That will show all those bastards who didn’t like me in school, my angry twenty-something brain screamed in triumph.

The first few years on the job I was riding high. The princesses loved me: my flowing golden locks, athletic physique and shining armour. I’d break down the locked door to their dungeon or tower — kidnappers in this sector are rather short on imagination — sweep them off their feet and over my shoulder, then kill the guards and slay the dragon one-handed. I’d whistle for Cheval and she’d come striding over the castle wreckage and bear us away over the fields.

We’d usually stop for a quickie in the woods on the way back to whatever fiefdom they came from, and then I’d ride up to the city gates victorious and hand them over to the King and Queen. And in that moment, I was the hero: the valiant Sir Barry who had saved Princess [Insert Name Here], heir to the Kingdom of Dibble-Dabble (or some similarly far-fetched, stupid name).

I dated a few of the princesses and it was fun for a while, but it never worked out. Once they realised I didn’t rule my own kingdom or possess mountains of gold, the passion mysteriously disappeared.

Those were the good years: I was hitting my targets so the bosses loved me, winning melee and jousting tournaments, and getting VIP treatment at all the bars and clubs. And the money just kept flowing in a river of bonus payments. I sat atop my pedestal of ego and opulence and looked down from the clouds on everyone else.

But then the honeymoon period wore off and things began to change. The reality that I was going to do this for the rest of my life sunk in and I struggled to find the same joy in the day-to-day. The bottle of wine (or two) with colleagues after work became bottles of wine at home, alone. And then the incident with Rapunzel happened.

Rapunzel: what a bitch! She wasn’t even a real princess.

For some reason, this kid’s parents agreed to give their only child to a sorcerer that lived in the woods. Low and behold, the sorcerer turned out to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic and locked Rapunzel in a room at the top of a tower with no door, stairs, or any other way in or out. How she got any food or water is anyone’s guess. Anyway, eighteen years later Rapunzel’s mother and father decided that they wanted to be parents again and hired me to rescue her.

When I arrived at the tower, I went through the usual protocol: shouted up to her and introduced myself, told her who I worked for, reeled off the standard legal disclaimer and informed her that I was here to rescue her. That’s when she told me about the door situation. I stood silent for a moment and tried to think of a plan of action.

‘Why don’t you climb up my hair?’ she shouted down to me.

‘What!?’ I shouted back, totally bewildered, but she said the same thing again.

The girl was clearly not well — all that time in solitary, perhaps. I pretended I hadn’t heard her and offered to get a ladder, or some rope, but she insisted on climbing her damn hair. I tried to talk her out of it but she was adamant.

‘For crying out loud, just do as I say and climb my hair you stupid knight!’ she screamed down at me.

So I did. And boy, did she complain about it: screamed her lungs out as I climbed, rubbed her head and cried as we made our way back to her parent’s house, complained constantly about the bald patch just behind her ear. Never said thank you for rescuing her, mind, not once.  

Well, a week later I was called into human resources and Adam — I hate that guy —informed me that Rapunzel’s parents had made a formal complaint, and the company had been contacted by a personal injury law firm who were demanding compensation for her injuries and hurt feelings.

‘That’s outrageous,’ I said. ‘What are we going to do about it?’

We aren’t going to do a thing,’ Adam hissed back at me, spittle flying out of his mouth and landing on my gauntlet. ‘You are going to fix this and formally apologise, and I will try to limit the reputational damage you have caused this company with your idiocy. If you’re lucky, you will keep your job.’

My face flushed with anger. Emotion screamed at me to stick the job up Adam’s rosy backside, but rationality questioned whether the bank would accept that as a valid reason for missing a mortgage payment. So I gritted my teeth, wrote out the formal apology and managed to look so pitiful that Adam agreed to settle for a written warning and a twelve-month development plan.

After the Rapunzel situation, the work stopped being fun. Getting out of bed in the morning became a chore. It was all targets and numbers. Work/life balance went out the window. The hours got longer and the bonuses got smaller. Expected to do the work of four knights at once, the pressure began to affect my mental health. I started seeing a therapist — in secret, of course, as knights in shining armour do not need therapy — and that helped me get through the days.

I never wanted to be a knight, to be honest, but my parents and teachers were adamant I choose a real career. Music was my passion; I wanted to be a musician, write songs and tour the world. Dad was having none of it.

‘No son of mine is doing music,’ he yelled at me. ‘And if you think I’m paying for you to go to university to do some pretend subject like that, you’ve got another thing coming.’

This argument went on for a few months, until I decided to become a knight just to avoid the grief. I put my dreams of being a rock star aside to live their dreams instead; my therapist says that’s probably why I have so much repressed anger.

University wasn’t too bad. I went to Oxford — on one of those scholarships they hand out to the working-class smart kids — and rocked up with my poor-kid-quota stamp plastered across my forehead. My family were so proud.

I loved the practical training and excelled in my studies. Even so, some of the people at Oxford were intolerable: students and lecturers alike. I can remember in our first etiquette seminar we each had to introduce ourselves (where we were from, hobbies, etc). When I mentioned my comprehensive school, one of the students, Oscar, blurted out in front of the whole seminar in his pompous, breathy voice: ‘You went to a comprehensive school? How quaint.’

The whole class laughed, including the lecturer. I’ve never wanted to hit someone so much in my life; it took all my strength not to throw a chair across the room. Instead, I just smiled, got up and calmly left. Then I punched the shit out of the boy’s toilet cubicle until my hands were bloody.

It was the thought of qualifying that kept me going. I naively thought that once I had finished university, I would never have to deal with those pretentious idiots ever again. But of course, the Oscars and the Tarquins follow you into the working world and instead of studying with them you end up working with them, attending meetings with them, going to networking dinners with them. So all you can do is smile and pretend that you don’t dream about decapitating them in a jousting tournament.

Networking with them is the worst. They spend the entire night in the toilet, four people to a cubicle, all with serious cases of the sniffles and coke smeared across their faces, looking like they’ve sneezed into a sherbet dip bag. It keeps me going through the long hours, Oscar said to me with a chuckle at last year’s Christmas party, when I pointed out that he had white powder all over his nose. This is a guy who is now a senior director at my company; a man who shouts, hey, old compy!, every time he sees me and spends his days leering over the female employees. What is the world coming to?

Despite all the above, I could tolerate Oscar and the office nonsense if the clients were grateful, like they used to be, but these days they are a nightmare. Spoiled brats who spend their days posting on social media about how terrible it is to be locked up in a high tower, only to complain when yours truly comes to the rescue. The stories I could tell about these millennial princesses would make a kettle boil.

Snow White, for example: her real name is Claire, she changed it because she thought it sounded more magical. Seriously. Surely, when you live with seven fellas and none of them even try to rescue you from the Wicked Queen, it should ring alarm bells about your attitude.

Another princess told me to chill out when I broke down her cell door and said we had to leave immediately. There was a fucking dragon hot on my heels and she expected me to wait five minutes while she updated her apps on the castle wi-fi! What a psychopath.

On one particularly painful job last year, I had to make my way through a snowy, enchanted forest, battling wolves and vicious rose bushes, then fight off an unexpected onslaught from magical crockery as I entered the castle. With a maniacal fork sticking out of my leg and hurling abuse at me, I finally located the princess, who chose this moment to inform me she had fallen in love with her captor and wanted to stay.

‘Why the hell didn’t you let us know,’ I yelled, as a bad-tempered candlestick pulled at my hair. ‘A simple text or email?’

She looked at me like I’d shaved her dog without permission and then presented her with an invoice. ‘I forgot,’ she said, then carried on texting.

And I’ve already told you all about Rapunzel. Fuck Rapunzel!

Then the epiphany hits me like a speeding train: why on earth am I still doing this job? I hate it, and it’s time I got my act together and quit. I’ll give them my notice first thing tomorrow — it’s already typed and in an envelope on my coffee table (it has been there for months). But then I hear Dad’s voice.

‘What else are you going to do, Barry?’ he says. ‘You’re not trained to be anything other than a knight. Stop daydreaming and live in the real world. Singing won’t pay your bills, son, and we both know you’re not going to quit.’

It’s tragic but he’s right, I won’t quit. I’m too old now to take the risk, too scared of change. It’s pathetic. So I’ll go in tomorrow and put on my fake hero smile and my dented and dull armour; say hello to the love of my life, Megan, who doesn’t even know I exist; supress a psychotic episode when Oscar shouts, hey, old compy!, across the office at me; sit on top of my stupid, smelly horse that isn’t Cheval and go rescue some ungrateful princess; then go home and down three bottles of wine and cry into a bowl of ice cream about the infinite woes of being a hero.

About The Author

David Christopher Johnston is a fiction writer from Derbyshire, United Kingdom. His work focuses on mental health and wellbeing, and the impact of the modern world on our safety and sanity. He devotes much of his time to projects raising awareness and reducing stigma about mental illness. In his spare time, he enjoys music and hiking in the British countryside with friends and family. If you would like to read more of David’s work, several stories are available on his website: www.davidchristopherjohnston.com. Or follow him on Twitter for information about his upcoming short story collections: @AuthorDCJ.

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