“You could tell that she loves you very, very much.”
“Don’t be so fucking sentimental, Marie.”
“You could, you know – you could tell that she really, really loves you.”
I’m actually shaking now. I feel flushed and shivery and slightly stoned. The act of my mother contacting me for the second time in 48 hours has actually provoked a physical reaction in me. I feel sick and angry and guilty. “Look. Marie, you spoke to her for, what was it, twenty fucking minutes? How can you tell anything from twenty fucking minutes?”
“She seemed like a nice woman to me.”
“What do you mean, ‘she seemed like a nice woman to me’? Even fucking Attila the Hun could manage to make himself sound nice for a twenty-minute phone call. You’d invite Adolf fucking Hitler over for lunch if had an Oxbridge accent!”
“There’s no need to be abusive, I’m simply telling you what I felt when I spoke to her. I could just sense that she really loves you, that’s all. Why don’t you phone her, John? She left a number, she wants you to call.”
“Turn the record over, Marie.”
According to Marie, my mother telephoned at around six-thirty this evening. When Marie answered the call my mother immediately began to cry. Evidently, the pair of them had had quite a little tête-à-tête. While I’d been watching Dave tell some forty-year-old woman in the pub that she was a fucking hardbody (his words, not mine), Marie and my mother had been busily getting acquainted with each other. Now, as I look over at Marie, with her short black hair and her pretty little face and her trendy looking yellow sweater, I can’t help feeling annoyed. The idea of these two separate phases of my life converging against my will leaves me crushed.
The last time my mother saw me I was probably in my early twenties: I was two-and-a-half stones lighter and had an earring in my left ear. There were no stray white hairs in my eyebrows, there was no sign of a double chin, and words like ‘sentimental’ and phrases such as ‘turn the record over’ were not a part of my standard vocabulary. The last time that Marie saw me was this morning when I left the house dressed in the style of one of those men in their late-thirties who wear jackets and blue jeans and think that this somehow implies unconventionality, the hole in my left ear lobe long ago healed, a concertina of hollow sagging flesh in the area where my flat chin used to reside. How could my mother and Marie possibly imagine that they were talking about the same person?
My original assumption, it transpired, had been correct. It is indeed cancer: stomach cancer with secondaries in the spine and liver. It had apparently started out as a nagging ache in the pit of his stomach and had progressed within weeks to a searing pain that made it impossible for him to move. The doctor had given my father six weeks. My mother told Marie that she wanted me to come over and, ‘make peace before it is too late’.
I’m lying in bed. Marie is snoring gently beside me. Thanks to my fucking mother I’m finding it impossible to sleep. What did she mean ‘make peace’? What was she talking about? As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing to make peace about. I’m not at fucking war with anyone, for Christ’s sake. If you don’t speak to someone for a couple of decades it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re at war with them; diplomatic relations may have been severed – sure, I’ll concede that – but I don’t spend my time plotting military campaigns or planning night-time bombing sorties against him and her, I just get on with my life like everybody else does – like her and her fucking phone calls and her fucking ‘make peace’ ought to.
Tuesday morning, 10:15 a.m.: I’m sitting in Michael Dean’s office on the third floor, my head heavy, my body craving fluids; the morning sunshine drains in through his window like it doesn’t really want to be here. I can empathise. Michael’s desk is large and black, piled high with slips of paper and colour proofs. On every wall there are shelves containing bound partworks of all sizes and descriptions: the complete history of Gravity Publications Limited. In six weeks time my father is going to die of stomach cancer. Michael has just closed the door and is looking anxiously in my direction. “What have you heard?” he asks.
Michael and I have know each other for close on seventeen years. We first met when I was in the middle of my Orson Welles period; in fact, it was I who gave Michael his start in the partwork business. Back in 1983 I employed him as a junior sub on a science project (the world-renowned Simply Science! no less). Now he’s my boss. “Heard about what, Michael?” I reply.
“Listen John, don’t fuck about with me – you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Lately, Michael and I have been having this sort of conversation quite a lot. Like it did for me all those years ago, there is a suspicion lurking somewhere that Michael’s clockwork train has begun to run down. He knows it and I sort of guess it. Michael is managing editor at GP and he is responsible for all our launches. For the last two years everything that the company has put out has flopped. Because of our history, Michael sees me as some kind of confidante. Deep down, I suspect he knows that that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Come on, John – what have you heard?”
“Then you’ve heard something?”
“Well… Just a rumour…”
“What do you mean ‘sort of’? Either you’ve heard a rumour about me or you haven’t.”
“It’s probably nothing really.”
Michael pauses for a moment. He is about the same age as I am except that his hair has turned completely white and he wears bifocals; I can’t help wondering if he finds me as ancient looking as I find him. He picks up an A4 printout and fiddles with it absent-mindedly. “Well?” he urges.
“Oh… someone in the pub last night was saying that they thought that there might be a reshuffle being planned upstairs,” I mumble matter-of-factly.
Now why did I have to say that? Sometimes my levels of denseness even manage to surprise me. If I’d have just used my head I could have fobbed him off with … oh, I don’t know, some sort of story or other, it wouldn’t have been that difficult. Instead, Michael’s looking at me like his eyeballs are going to pop out and bounce on to the desk. Great: now I’m involved in his paranoia.
“A reshuffle involving myself?”
I shrug my shoulders, trying to restrict the damage but manage to do the opposite. “Perhaps…”
“And who said this?”
“Come on Michael – you know I can’t tell you that.”
Michael sighs heavily and rubs his face with the heel of a clenched fist. “Listen, John,” he says, unable to hide the fatigue in his voice. “I haven’t got the time or the patience for all this. We’ve known each other far too long to be playing silly little games. Just do me a favour and tell me who said it … please, just tell me who said it.”
Once again I shrug my shoulders. “It’s only rumours…”
Michael interrupts me before I have time to finish my sentence. He pulls himself closer to me so that I can smell the worry on his breath. “Okay, let me put it this way,” he says, slowly and deliberately. “It’s no secret that the writing’s been on the wall for some time. And it’s no secret whose head is likely to be on the chopping block when the time comes, But I’m telling you right now, John, if you don’t do this for me I’m going to make sure that when the moment arrives you’ll be coming along for the ride. When they drag me away kicking and screaming you’re going to be right there beside me. You can bet your life on it.”
Michael’s face moves away from me and I find myself momentarily surprised by his outburst. Normally, Michael is Mr Cool, an expert at maintaining his composure; he must really be scared. The situation is far worse than I’d imagined.
“Oh come on Michael,” I mutter. “It won’t come to that…”
“Who told you, John?”
“Come on Michael…”
“Who told you?”
“Dave Bennett from accounts.”
Sarah from personnel’s leaving do: she stands in the corner of the O-Bar holding her big fat belly in both hands, surrounded by a group of people wearing suits, some of whom I vaguely recognise. A good 95% of the employees at GP have turned up and they’re all sticking to their collective tribes. At one end of the bar are a group of six or seven designers: all long hair, goatees, waistcoats, black jeans and platforms. At the other end are a selection from editorial: round glasses, a little more serious than their artier colleagues, copies of Hello! hanging out of chic looking hold-alls. Standing by the door are half a dozen or so people from accounts: suits, ties, wedding rings, giant erections, peephole bras (only joking). Me, I’m a little more cosmopolitan: I’m sitting at a table with Dave from accounts and Phil the designer. We’re all holding bottles of Spanish lager with limp slices of lime skewered to the rims. “Tell him, Phyllis!” yells Dave. “Tell him.” The place is full of heaving bodies. I feel surrounded by dripping flesh. It’s so crowded I can hardly move my arms.
Dave, as is evident from the moustache of white powder that adorns his upper lip, has just taken some of Phil’s cocaine. His face is burning crimson and he seems unable to wipe a sickly grin from his face. Phil slouches beside Dave looking equally pleased with himself but marginally more in control than his co-conspirator.
“Tell him!” urges Dave once more, his voice quickly absorbed by the Latin beat of some CD that’s playing at fifty thousand fucking decibels.
But my mind is far away. I’m thinking about Michael and the threats he made to me earlier today. I’ve never seen him like this before; he was like a different person. I’m thinking about the implications of his outburst, of how it might affect me. It’s no secret that Michael’s a complete cunt: you don’t get to be managing editor with being a complete cunt. But I didn’t realise that he could be this big a cunt. I’m thinking about what he could possibly do to stick the knife in. How would he carry out his threat to get me the push as well if it came to the crunch?
“If you don’t tell him I will!” shouts Dave in the distance.
Let’s be rational here: what could Michael possibly do to affect me if and when the moment arises that Mary from personnel chooses to wield the knife? What could he do? Tell her, ‘by the way, Mary, do me a favour before I leave and sack John Price in editorial, he’s completely crap at his job’. She knows I’m crap anyway, that’s no great revelation. What’s she going to do about it? ‘Right-o Michael, here’s John’s P45, give it to him on your way out will you.’.
Dave has fought his way over to me and his hand is on my thigh. “Johnny-boy,” he gasps, “You’ll never guess who came on to me yesterday!”
I turn to face him. He is sweating so much that it looks like he has just left the sauna and then gone on a ten-mile run. “Let me see…” I yell, pretending to concentrate. “Yes, that’s it – nobody at all, absolutely no-one!”
Phil laughs into his beer bottle and Dave pulls a face at me. “You git!” he growls.
“Go on then Dave,” I call. “Who came on to you yesterday?’
Dave’s crimson face shines in triumph and he takes a deep breath in, one assumes, an attempt to prolong the tension. “Only fucking Lorries, that who!”
“Lorries?” I frown. “What are you talking about ‘Lorries’?”
“Not Lorries!” he yells. “…Lorries!”
I look over at Phil and shrug. “How much has he taken?” I ask.
Dave gets to his feet and hangs over me, moving his head close to my ear, his breath smells of cigarettes, alcohol and chewing gum. “Lorr-ies,” he blasts at the top of his voice, deafening me. “Lorr-ies!!”
Unfortunately for Dave, his shout coincides precisely with the end of the CD that is playing. And it doesn’t just fade out like most records normally do but comes to an abrupt halt with a dramatic drum roll. Suddenly the room goes quiet and contents of the O-Bar turn in unison to face the curious little figure with the shiny grey suit who is shouting ‘Lorr-ies! Lorr-ies!’ at the top of his voice. From the corner of my eye I watch as Louise stops talking to a group from editorial and glares over at Dave and then at me, shaking her head in disgust. Then the music starts up again. “Right… gotcha!” I shout.
I’m in a cubicle snorting my third line of the evening. I’m feeling clear headed and in control. I’ve had six or seven bottles of the Spanish beer with the lime on top but I don’t feel remotely drunk. I’ve got a twenty-pound note in my hand and I’m rolling it in the traditional manner. I’ve laid out my line (courtesy, as always, of Phil the designer) on top of the toilet cistern, which is scarred by brown cigarette burns and scattered with a few crumbs of cocaine left by a previous occupant. I inhale deeply, sucking the white powder up into my nasal cavity, feeling it drip slowly down the back of my throat, numbing it, anaesthetising it.
I’m feeling good. I head back out to the others and find Louise standing in the queue for the ladies’ toilets. I run my eyes over her, over that body of hers, over that face, in this light vaguely Neanderthal in appearance. From where I’m standing it looks like someone has taken the body of Pamela Anderson and pasted, oh, I don’t know, the head of Hilda Ogden onto her shoulders. As effects go it’s quite an astonishing one. But she’s not such a bad sort really, I’m telling myself that as I stumble towards Louise and try to compose an opening sentence that is at once articulate, witty and designed to show her that I, too, am not such a bad sort. “Louise,” I say, managing to achieve none of these ambitions, “you’re looking absolutely gorgeous tonight.”
Louise turns towards my beery frame with the facial expression of a person who has just discovered a stray lump of dog turd floating in their soup. “John, you’re drunk,” she says simply.
“Look Louise,” I say. “Why don’t we stop all this and call a truce?”
“Stop all what?” Louise asks defiantly.
“You know what I mean,” I reply. “The silences… the bad feeling… the moods…”
“I see,” says Louise. “And you thought that by complimenting me on my appearance, I’d just fall into your arms like a good little girl. That’s typical.”
“That’s not how it is Louise. I was just trying to be nice.”
“Well go and be nice with someone else.”
Some of the things I do at Sarah from personnel’s leaving do before I make my way home to my bed:
I dance with some fat woman from IT.
I have long, lingering conversations with Steve Gibson from editorial and Julian Harris from design about Michael Dean’s eminent demise.
I flirt with some young designer from the cookery project who must be all of nineteen and manage to frighten the life out of her.
I snort three more lines of cocaine and lose a £20 note.
I think about my mother and about what I’m going to say to her if she phones again.