A smack and then a kiss
by Ian Probert
It wasn’t so much what she said that got to me, rather it was what she didn’t say. If I think about it, really think about it; if I put myself in her shoes and try to imagine what I might have come up with if the roles had been reversed I’m sure that it would have been an unholy struggle for me to hold back the bitterness… the swearing… the years and years and years and years of repressed anger. I simply wouldn’t have been capable of her level of economy, her sheer streamlined elegance. And that, I suppose, has to be worth something.
For the record, the telephone conversation itself must have lasted all of six seconds, if that. I had just enough time to say: “Hello?” in the sort of voice I use when I’m taking phone calls from numbers that I don’t recognise on caller display, and she had just enough time to say: “I thought you’d like to know that your father’s dying,” before slamming down the receiver. Ten words: I thought you’d like to know that your father’s dying. Ten simple little words: I-thought-you’d-like-to-know-that-your father’s-dying. What nuances her sentence contained and, on the face of it, what a cruel – some might say thoroughly deserving – way for a mother to inform her only child of the impending death of his father.
The words were delivered in an earthy, breathless South Devon accent which, to me, seemed to have raised several degrees in pitch since last we spoke. It was a familiar voice and yet in many ways it was unfamiliar. It was as if the person on the other end of the line wasn’t really my mother: it was someone else doing a pretty good impersonation of the way that she talks but you could just about tell that it wasn’t her. But it was her – of course it was her.
The slight note of sarcasm contained in the phrase: ‘I thought you’d like to know…” brought the memories flooding back (‘like to know…’ what an odd choice of word; how on earth could she imagine that any reasonable person would like to know that their own father is dying?). The way that she chose to use the auxiliary verbs in their contracted form: instead of saying “you would like to know…” and “your father is dying…”, she said “you’d like to know…” and “your father’s dying…”. This apparently insignificant grammatical device implied unwarranted intimacy and had the effect of trivialising the enormity of her statement. The more I thought about it the more I could not escape the conclusion that the calculated nature of her message indicated a significant element of predetermination.
How long had it taken her to come up with those words and that curt approach? Had she sat in front of the fire night after night trawling through a long mental list of what she intended to say to me or could it really have been a bona fide act of spontaneity? Even worse, even more sinister, had he helped? Had they concocted the sentence together? Had those ten little words been the product of their combined intellects?
Although I know that it shouldn’t have, there was also the power thing that bothered me: the fact that she had managed to maintain complete control in the six or so seconds that we interacted; that it had been she who called me out of the blue (I can honestly say that I wasn’t even sure that she knew in which city I lived, let alone what my phone number was); that it had been she who had opted to forego any introductions and launch straight into the business at hand. And that it had been she who had terminated our one-sided dialogue before I’d had time to take in anything. That ten-word sentence had been more than three quarters through before it had even dawned on me that I was speaking to my mother for the first time in what was it… fifteen… twenty years? It irked me. I found it frustrating that the phone had gone dead before I was able to formulate any kind of response. I felt somehow robbed. And that, in a nutshell, was my overbearing emotion when I replaced the telephone receiver: I felt robbed: not sad or worried or nostalgic or whatever else one is supposed to feel in such a circumstance, but robbed. Something had been stolen from me – I hadn’t, I have to confess, the faintest idea what had been stolen but its loss disturbed me nevertheless.
Marie – naturally – made all the right moves. She noted the change in my facial expression and placed a comforting arm around my shoulders and made various cooing noises. She poured me a drink and lit me a cigarette and told me soothingly that everything was going to be all right. We switched off the TV and put a record on – I shan’t tell you which – and huddled together on the sofa for a while. We tried to make the best of what had turned out to be a pretty shitty Sunday evening. Then, at one point, she looked at me earnestly and said: “You’ll have to go and see him, John… you do know that, don’t you?” And even though I wasn’t yet ready to admit it, I could sense that she was right.
Part One: A Smack
Monday, 8:45 a.m.: Whenever people ask me what I’ve done with my life I’m sometimes inclined to respond by telling them that I’ve had a sort of Orson Wellsian career in reverse. Okay, it’s a cliché – I know that – but it’s still a clever sort of cliché, I think; one that works on a number of levels. Firstly, the statement establishes intellectual or even sociological complicity with the other party: it assumes that a/ they know who Orson Welles is (you’d be surprised how many people don’t these days); and b/ that they are aware that Orson Welles’ first movie Citizen Kane was, in fact, far, far superior to any other that he directed throughout the remainder of his life. This analogy, I believe, also tells the other person a great deal about me: it presents a picture of an individual with a history, someone who used to be a high achiever (something which in itself suggests strength… ambition… intelligence… self-control… single mindedness… all of these sorts of things) but is now relaxed enough, has developed enough of a sense of humour, is not too uptight to be unable to poke a little fun at himself. Whatever the reasons for its success, I have to report that the Orson-Welles-in-reverse approach has always been something of a trump card for me. Rarely does it fail to bring a smile to my inquisitor’s lips, seldom does it not succeed in demolishing a few awkward barriers; it’s an instant ice-breaker.
This is what I find myself thinking about during the Monday morning ten-minute walk to Highbury and Islington tube station. Not about my father. Not about my mother. Not about the past, not even about the present. But how clever, how witty I can be when I want to be. And I’m not thinking about Citizen Kane because I’m due to meet someone new today and I’m working out how I’m going to impress them. I’m not even thinking about Citizen Kane because it happened to have been shown on TV over the week-end. I’m thinking about it because I just wanted to think about something, and all I could come up with is Orson Welles and Citizen Kane.
I made my Citizen Kane, I suppose, at the age of 26, when I was given an unexpected promotion that saw me become one the youngest managing editors in partwork history. Up until then my life had been nothing out of the ordinary: a comprehensive school education among the blurred sibilants of South Devon; O-Levels, A-Levels; university; a year or so spent travelling; followed by the commencement of what people like Sue Rogers in marketing are fond of calling a ‘career’. I chose publishing as my career, or rather it chose me. This happened way back in 1984, when, at the age of 22, I picked up the Monday morning Guardian media pages and saw something in the job ads which I thought I could do. In anticipation of this I typed a CV, composed an appropriate letter and soon began work as an editorial junior in a London publishing company named Catalyst Publications that specialised in partworks. As simple as that. Up until that moment the idea of working in ‘the media’ had never even occurred to me; more to the point, the idea of working in any field whatsoever had never occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, with the exception of teaching (the thought of which sent a shiver of horror down my spine) my mediocre degree in history seemed to qualify me for precisely nothing. However, within days of starting work I was struck by the divine realisation that I had, perhaps, stumbled upon my vocation in life.
Let me tell you straight away that I am under no illusions as to the relative merits of working in the world of partworks. Partworks are the arse end of publishing: I knew then and I know now that what I was spending my days doing was never going to be of any great literary significance. Partworks, if I can sum up the genre as briefly as possible, are those magazines you see advertised on TV (usually just after Christmas time because the advertising rates are cheaper) with titles such as Camcorder Success, The Teddy Bear Collection or Practical Ironmongery that you collect weekly and file away in a gaudy laminated cardboard binder (invariably given away with issue one, along with a cheap plastic ‘free gift’ of some description). A triumph of artifice over substance, partworks range in subject matter to anything from gardening, to knitting, to cookery, to war, and to mass murder; in fact, you name any subject at random and someone has probably produced a weekly partwork series based upon it.
To work in the partwork industry it is not necessary to be an expert in any field. Over the years, without really having the faintest idea what I was talking about, I have written for, edited and even managed partwork projects dealing with such diverse subject-matter as do-it-yourself, serial killers, boxing, myths and magic, amateur watercolouring, athletics, sex, the supernatural, fascist dictators, football, cookery, World Wars I and II, flying saucers, computers, micro-wave ovens and astrology, to name but a few examples. I can honestly say that if I were to dig out file copies of any of these incredible works of art and examine the fruits of my labours I would be unable to recall exactly what my contribution to them was at the time. Still, the money was and still is pretty good, the people are generally okay, and I’ve now reached the age where it’s too late to change.
I still don’t really know how the Orson Welles thing came about. All I can say is that one minute I was the fresh-faced new boy, taken on to work on a history partwork because I happened to have a degree in history, and the next I was running things: giving people orders, telling people off, meeting strangers at airports who carried pieces of cardboard bearing my name, taking expense account lunches, shagging secretaries. I was in my mid-twenties and getting paid a small fortune for something that I was literally able to do with my eyes closed, or so I thought. You could say that I was rather pleased with myself at the time.
Naturally, I’ve since tried to analyse just what it was that my employers found so impressive about me back then. It couldn’t have been the looks, although in my own defence enough women in my time have admitted to me that they find me attractive (to redress the balance: it’s also unfortunately the case that a fair number have also made it clear to me that they do not); and it certainly wasn’t the razor sharp intellect: although I’m by no means stupid I have learned to appreciate my limitations in the brain cell department. So what was it about me that appealed to them so much? I believe in retrospect that it was probably attitude that did the trick. Intentionally or otherwise, I think that my success had something to do with body language: somehow I was able to make myself look better and sound more important than I actually was; likewise, I had the ability to appear more learned and intelligent than I had any right to be. It wasn’t something that I set out to do, it just happened, I was as much victim as I was perpetrator. I’ve met people like me, I think: nowadays I can spot them a mile off. They’re all bluster and fluster, all attitude and platitude; they’re like a clockwork train going round and round a toy track; always moving forward with apparent purpose but in reality never really going anywhere.
It didn’t take long for my personal clockwork train to run down and for people to begin to notice that I was not all that I appeared. Two years were all that it took for the powers that be to realise that the odd clanger that I dropped was not an aberration; that, in fact, the real aberration occurred when I actually did something worthwhile or sensible or intelligent. After overseeing a succession of abject failures (how many of you will remember Practical Pottery, The Puppet Collection or Simply Science!?) I was called into my immediate superior’s office and quietly stripped of my powers; in time-honoured fashion I was told that the office was undergoing a little ‘restructuring’ before being handed a crudely oversized wad of money and politely told to bugger off and seek alternative employment. Which is why, thirteen full years later, thirteen heavy, grey, gelatinous years later, I happen to be working where I am today, as a partwork editor in the offices of Gravity Publications, 17a Dean Street, W1.
As you will imagine, I’m not really sure how one is supposed to react upon hearing the news that one’s father is due for an imminent date with his creator, although in all honesty the admittedly meagre background information that my mother supplied last night ought to have been enough to have set me pondering the various implications of her ten little words. When she informed me with her contracted auxiliary verbs that my ‘father’s dying’ did she mean, for example, that he was dying in her arms right there and then at that at very moment after, say, an accidental fall down the stairs or something? Or was she telling me that he was suffering from a fatal disease (cancer, I have to admit, was my immediate assumption, it’s the usual favourite, isn’t it?), in which case implying that he probably had at least six or seven months, possibly a year or more, to go? These were the things I suppose I ought to have been thinking about when I got up this morning but the truth is I did nothing of the sort. I didn’t stare into the bathroom mirror and examine the lines on my face and get all philosophical or anything like that; I just took my usual shave: taking care to avoid the scar beneath my chin and making sure that my sideburns were even. Moreover, as I climb onto the tube and scramble for a seat I don’t find myself staring blankly past the other commuters and pondering the meaning of life; sure, I can’t deny that at certain moments during the journey I do occasionally catch myself thinking about my father and all that’s happened – I’m not made of stone; but most of the time I do what I normally do: I fidget in my seat and sniff and crave a cigarette and flick through the pages of today’s Daily Mirror. (Which, as usual, I discard when I reach my stop at Leicester Square and replace with a copy of The Guardian.)
I’m roughing up my copy The Guardian to make it look a little less pristine as I approach the entrance to the office suite where thirty or so other people with their own roughed up copies of The Guardian are sitting behind giant computer screens. My giant computer screen is situated at the far end of the fifth floor, close to another giant computer screen that has Louise sitting behind it. She follows my progress as I move towards her, nodding occasional ‘hellos’ at my colleagues, then, as usual, she dips her head and pretends not to notice my arrival. The air conditioning keeps up a steady hum as I lower myself my seat, “Good morning Louise,” I announce, probably a little too jauntily for a person who just heard that his father is dying. “How was your week-end?”
Louise and I, as is indicated by the perfunctory grunt she allows herself in response to my greeting, have been going through something of a sticky patch lately. Louise is thirty-one years old and possesses the spectacular body of someone who works out in the gym for at least two hours a day. The clothes she is wearing today: tight fitting ski pants, loose translucent blouse with plunging neckline, have obviously been specifically selected to show off the results of all that hard labour. For the past two weeks Louise has been trying her best to ignore me.
“Very nice thank-you, John,” I say mockingly, in the manner that one might address a small child who is playing at ignoring you. “And how was your week-end?”
Louise swivels towards me in her chair and her facial features instantly remind me why she spends so much time in that gym of hers. She gives me a look of utter disdain. “Grow up, John,” she scowls, quickly returning to her keyboard.
In my job it’s easy to get away with doing nothing all day if you want to. You arrive around ten/ten-thirty, you have a coffee in the smoking room and read a roughed up copy of the Guardian or chat to your fellow smokers. You go back to your work space and take a look at what everybody else on your project is doing, you fiddle with your computer for a while, change the desktop pattern, experiment with its alert sounds. You take another smoke, another coffee, check your e-mail, send some e-mails, take another look at what everybody else on your project is doing, write a few captions, check to see if there are any replies to the e-mails you sent earlier. Have a third or fourth coffee, engage in jocular conversation with any colleagues who happen to wander casually past your desk, make a few phone calls, arrange lunch, take lunch, come back from lunch twenty-minutes late, check your e-mail, see what everybody else on your project is doing, have a smoke, take another coffee. You get the picture.
Things at GP, however, have not been going too well lately. There’s a definite air of panic about the place. A succession of ill-tempered staff meetings have left us all under no illusion as to the hazardous nature of our futures. It’s heads down time at the moment; everybody seems to be making an extra special effort to look like they’re working, myself included. However, I know that fallow periods such as the one that Gravity is currently experiencing are nothing unusual in the partwork business. I don’t wish to sound blasé but, really, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this sort of thing occur. It’s a storm in a tea tray, really. There might be one or two redundancies coming up to give everyone a kick in the pants but in reality nothing too dramatic will happen.
Still, at times like this it’s best to make the effort. Although I certainly wouldn’t turn my nose up at the big pay-off I’d be due if the powers-that-be happen to decide that it’s me they’d like to make redundant, I don’t particularly want to leave Gravity. I’m comfortable here: I know what is expected of me, I know what I can get away with, and the idea of working somewhere else, having to make a special effort to fit in, being polite to strangers… well, I’m not saying that I couldn’t do it if I had to but I see no reason to put myself through that sort of hassle if I can possibly avoid it.
For this reason my colleagues at Gravity are been recently witnessing something of a return to my Orson Welles days. For the past three weeks I’ve made a conscious effort to appear a little more dynamic than usual, a little more on the ball. Nothing too severe – just ephemera, really. My voice, for example, is a little louder than it usually is, my attention to detail a little more pronounced. My demeanour is a little more serious than the one people have become accustomed to; I’m more likely than usual to point out others’ mistakes. In other words, I’m doing what I have to do to get by.
Today, though, I can’t seem to get the father business out of my head. It keeps drifting in and out; I keep seeing his face. It’s only natural, I suppose, but I wish it would go away and leave me alone. It drifted in, for example, when I bumped into Phil the designer in the smoking room this morning where, in time-honoured fashion, he asked about my week-end. Just for a moment I felt tempted to shake him up a little. But I didn’t. According to me I went to the theatre with Marie on Friday night, I had dinner with friends on Saturday night and did a little decorating at home on Sunday. Phil seemed satisfied with this response but I couldn’t help wondering what his reaction might have been if I’d told the truth: that I went out drinking on Friday night and came in some time after three to find Marie simmering with rage in bed, that Marie and I stayed in for most of the day on Saturday and watched TV with a bottle of wine in the evening, and, oh yes, that I spent half of Sunday sleeping and received a phone call from my mother in the evening, who told me that my father was dying.
Eventually I have to tell somebody. I don’t know why but I feel that the information my mother gave me last night ought to be shared with someone. I sit through two hours of silence with Louise and I sit through a three-hour meeting with Steve Gibson from editorial and Julian Harris from design that spills over into lunch (it didn’t really need to: like me, Steve Gibson from editorial and Julian Harris from design have been desperately trying to give other people around them the impression that they’re busy), and I sit through another three hours of silence with Louise and finally I call Dave from accounts and beg him to come and rescue me. We meet downstairs in the foyer and head up the road to the Ship.
In many ways Dave from accounts represents just how much I have evolved as a person over the years, how much more relaxed and tolerant I have become in my old age. Dave from accounts is in his mid-twenties but probably looks ten years older. Dave from accounts has longish black hair cut in a style that is a sort of grown-up descendant of the hair cut that your mother used to give you when you were eleven years old. Dave from accounts is small and squat and seems to sweat rather too much for someone of his stature and has a pot belly that is even bigger than mine. Dave from accounts always seems to wear the same suit: a shiny grey effort whose better days have long since bidden a sad farewell. In short, Dave from accounts is exactly the sort of person I would once have avoided like the plague. Not only that, Dave from accounts is the sort of person I would once have despised with every fibre of my being. But now, three or four evenings a week, I find myself sharing a table with Dave from accounts and his shiny suit in the Ship: bitching about work, talking about football, eyeing up women. And I actually seem to enjoy it.
The Ship is already three-quarters full when we arrive. I can see one or two faces that I’m on nodding terms with, although it’s fair to say that I’ve never actually had a real conversation with any of them. While Dave gets the drinks I search for somewhere to sit, eventually finding some spare seats at a table occupied by a couple of women in their early forties. I politely ask if the chairs are free and the women look a little startled before reluctantly beckoning me in. I sit down and pretend not to eavesdrop on their conversation and stare over towards the bar as Dave shares a joke with the Geoff the pub landlord. Dave and I are both on first name terms with Geoff the pub landlord. Joke over, Dave dodges through the crowd clutching two lagers, his briefcase suspended precariously under his right armpit, a Silk Cut fixed between his teeth. “Beverages!” he proclaims in triumph as he takes the seat next to mine.
Dave from accounts always calls Lager ‘beverages’, it’s one of his little quirks, further ammunition in an apparently endless quest to make himself as unattractive to the opposite sex as possible. Dave also calls cigarettes ‘nicotine sticks’ and breasts ‘love sacks’; there are any number of possible permutations for the method in which Dave chooses to describe a visit to the toilet. Dave utters these arcane phrases in a voice that is a sort of cross between Prince Charles and George Saunders, the old actor who supplied the voice of Shere Khan, the tiger in Disney’s Jungle Book. Dave talks like this all the time: in the pub… during meetings… on the telephone… when he is trying to chat up women. Quite why he does this, I long ago gave up worrying about; one can only assume that Dave believes that other people find his eccentric manner amusing.
I’m thinking about how I can bring up the subject of my father. I’ve already decided that just blurting the whole thing out would be uncool and I’m getting ready to maybe turn the ensuing conversation to the subject of families, maybe I’ll ask him how his parents are or something like that. But Dave, it seems, has got other things on his mind: he’s noticed the two fortysomethings at our table and is pulling faces at me like Benny Hill used to do when he was spying on a scantily clad girl. I sit back and wonder what on earth someone of his age could possibly find attractive about these women. Dave carries on doing this for several seconds until one of the women notices and actually stops drinking her gin and tonic or whatever it is and glares over at him.
“Hot news, Johnny-boy!” Dave announces, managing to ignore the woman’s stare completely. “Rumour has it that the man upstairs has been sharpening his knife.”
Even though I have asked him not to on countless occasions, Dave always calls me Johnny-boy. Similarly, he also calls Phil the designer ‘Phyllis’ and Kate from production ‘Katrina’.
“Oh, yeah…” I say.
“Yes, word is that someone big is for the chop.”
Dave leans forward conspiratorially and lowers his voice, as if what he is about to say is of national importance: “Put it this way,” he says, “six of our projects went down last week and those six projects were the all the brainchild of a certain person whose office is located somewhere on the third floor.”
“You mean Michael?” I ask.
A smile forms on Dave’s lips and he taps his nose knowingly. “Could be,” he says. “Could very well be…”
“Don’t be stupid, Dave,” I say.
The display on my digital watch reads 9.45 p.m. before I am finally able to coax the conversation around to my father. In the intervening four hours or so Dave and I manage to drink another seven lagers between us, to dissect in obsessively intricate detail the probabilities and repercussions of Michael Dean losing his job, to decide whether Kevin Keegan’s undoubted abilities as a man motivator will ever really be able to compensate for his inherent tactical naivety; and to thoroughly piss off the two women at our table. (They finally leave around eight-thirty after Dave tries to engage one of them in conversation and proves himself incapable of preventing every other word coming out as an obscenity).
It is while there is a lull in the conversation that I make my play: “I had some bad news last night,” I say, as soberly as possible in the circumstances.
“What’s that, Johnny-boy?” laughs Dave, totally impervious to my change of mood. “Marie finally up the duff?”
“No,” I say coldly, “Marie isn’t pregnant. My father’s dying.”
Dave continues to smile for a moment. Then through a fog of alcohol the penny finally seems to drop. “You’re kidding,” he says.
I shake my head. “No, I’m not kidding. I got a phone call from my mother last night and she told me he was dying.”
“What?” exclaims Dave, suddenly looking puzzled.
“I said, I got a phone call from my mother and she told me he was dying.”
Dave sits back in his chair and tugs on his Silk Cut. He looks at me for a moment, checking to see if I’m playing a joke or something. Then he says: “But you told me they both died years ago.”
It’s raining when I leave the Ship and I can’t be bothered to push through the steaming crowds of tourists so I take a taxi home. Yes, it is entirely possible that I may at some point have told Dave that my parents are both dead. This is just one of a number of stories that I began telling about ten years ago when I decided one day that I’d had enough of the questions. At the time it seemed to me the perfect response: once I told people my folks were dead they usually got all embarrassed and awkward about it and were less inclined to bring the subject up again.
The taxi hits the traffic on Tottenham Court Road so I dig out my Erikkson and check for any messages. To my surprise I see that there are seven in all:
Message One: “Hi, John it’s Marie – call me as soon as you get this.”
Message Two: “John it’s me again – call.”
Message Three: “John, it’s Marie yet again – how many times do I have to tell you about keeping your mobile switched off? What’s the point of having a mobile if you never turn the damn thing on? Call me.”
Message Four: “John, it’s now eight-thirty and there’s no sign of you. Call me please.”
Message Five: Blank.
Message Six: Blank.
Message Seven. “John, it’s me again for the fiftieth time. Look… your mother called earlier and I think you’d better get back to her as soon as possible. Just switch your fucking phone on will you!