Smack – Chapter 03

Chapter Three

 

The next time my mother phones it’s Wednesday evening and I’m sitting at home watching TV. The call comes at 9:30 p.m. sharp and I even before I pick up the phone I instinctively know that it’s her. “John, it’s me,” she confirms.

“Yes, I thought it might be,” I say measuredly. Good start: admittedly nothing too earth-shatteringly memorable but firm and to the point and in control.

“John – sniff – we have to talk. All of this has – sniff – it’s been going on for too long.”

“Look, crying won’t do you any good – there’s nothing to talk about.” Oops. Slight error of judgement there. Of course she thinks that there’s something to talk about, she wouldn’t be calling to talk to me if she didn’t would she, stupid? Still, you’re holding it together: you’ve managed to side-step her tears and you’re still in control.

“John, how can you be so cruel? Your father’s dying, you know…”

“Don’t talk to me about cruelty, mother, that bastard wrote the fucking book on cruelty…” A little bit too aggressive, perhaps, but I think that the ‘mother’ bit redeemed it. Nice and formal: keeping my distance.

“But John he’s changed… he’s a different person. You wouldn’t recognise him if you saw him…”

“You’re wasting your time, mother. Let me put you straight before this goes any further: As far as I’m concerned you and that fuckhead of a father of mine ceased to exist when I walked out on you on Christmas Eve nineteen-fucking-eighty-one. Any blood ties which we may or may not have had have since become invalid…”

“…John…”

“…No, shut the fuck up for once in your life and let me finish what I was saying…”

“…Don’t be…”

“Don’t be nothing! Just shut the fuck up!” You’re losing it. Calm down. Get back in control. “Listen mummie dearest, as far as I’m concerned the fact that I dropped out of your womb and that fact that he may or may not have supplied the jism are irrelevant. Now I’m very sorry that the old fucker is dying – really I am – but we’re all going to die sometime, that’s the way things work. If he thinks I’m going to scamper round to his bedside and help him get rid of his guilt he’s got another thing coming.”

“But that’s not the way it is, John.”

“Leave it mother, just leave it. Just put the phone down and go back to your life. Leave me alone. Forget about me. Forget that I exist and leave me alone to forget that you exist. It’s the best thing for both of us.” That’s better. Keep it cool, keep it cool. Almost over and done now.

“But John…”

“…No ‘buts’, mother. Just put the phone down and let’s leave it at that.”

“John…”

“Put the phone down, mother.”

“But…”

“Put the phone down mother.”

“But…”

“Put it down.”

 

 

 

The phone goes dead and I find myself almost feeling sorry for my mother. Even so, I have an overwhelming urge to climb to my feet and leap into the air like I’ve just scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final. Yes, that’s what I’m going to say. That’s the way it’s going to be.

 

 

 

The next time my mother phones it’s Wednesday evening and I’m sitting at home watching TV. The call comes at 9:30 p.m. sharp and I even before I pick up the phone I instinctively know that it’s her. “John, it’s me,” she confirms.

I can’t deny that I’ve been doing a little rehearsing over the last couple of days: wondering what I’m going to say and do when I hear her voice. I’ve been reluctantly asking myself questions that I haven’t had to think about for a long, long time. It’s only to be expected, really. More than anything else, though, I’m struck by the unfairness of the situation: not, I hasten to say, by the fact that my father is going to die in six weeks time – although whatever my personal feelings about him might be I can’t help but feel sorry for him – but by the effect that these telephone calls are having on my life. I mean, all right, the poor guy can’t be having the greatest time of his life right now but there’s no need to involve me in his misery.

“John – talk to me,” says my mother.

Talking was one of the first things I’d intended to do when my mother called, but somehow the words just won’t seem to come out. They stick at the back of my throat. I manage to make some kind of noise but anything that remotely resembles a recognisable word stubbornly refuses to emerge. Then I do something that I hadn’t really been planning to do. Before I know what’s happening I’m slamming the phone down like its suddenly acquired a 2000 volt charge. Marie stands beside me watching the whole sequence of events with an appalled look on her face. There is a brief silence as I look at her and she looks at me, shaking her head in a combination of sadness and exasperation. Then, like Basil Fawlty wading through the blancmange to see if the duck à l’orange is hidden inside, I snatch the phone off its hinges and check that the line’s dead. It is.

“That was clever.” says Marie.

“Think so?” I say petulantly.

“No,” says Marie.

“Oh,” say I.

 

 

 

Twelve hours earlier: I’m walking to the tube and I’m feeling slightly drained and pissed off. I stop at the cash dispenser on the way and Carol is sitting beneath it with her smelly dog tangled up in her legs. “All right, John,” she says happily in a cockney accent that is destined never to be authentic. “How’s it going?”

Carol is wearing a large dirty looking khaki coat and Dr. Marten boots that have inexplicably been painted silver. She has peroxide blonde hair and a large ring through her nose that surely has to be painful; in her hands she holds a crumpled paperback and a half-dead roll-up. We’ve known each other on and off for about six months. “Been better,” I mumble.

In fairness, I have to admit it is highly unlikely that I would ever have given Carol any money in the first place had she been in her fifties with an Irish accent and equipped with the ruddy complexion of some of the other down and outs that hang around this area. My self-delusion doesn’t quite run quite that deep. The simple fact is that I found Carol attractive when I first encountered her so I gave her the contents of whatever happened to be in my pocket. I doubt very much that I’m the only man to have done this. Since then we’ve gradually got to know each other, inasmuch as we’ve progressed beyond the nodding terms stage to the How’s-it-going terms stage.

Carol must be in her early twenties and for the life of me I can’t understand how a girl like her can be content to spend her days sitting underneath cash dispensers begging for money. If you gave Carol a bath and maybe did something about that nose ring she wouldn’t look out of place strolling down a Paris catwalk. She looks like kind of Tank Girl meets Claudia Schiffer. She’s no fool, either. She’s bright and articulate and knows how to use her looks to get what she wants; which is a pity, really, because all that Carol seems to want is a handful of loose change; so maybe she isn’t that bright, because if she was as bright as I think she is she’d have moved in with a pop star or a minor member of the royal family or something by now and wouldn’t be hanging around in the streets getting rained and snowed on.

“Come and tell Carol all about it,” she purrs.

She’s flirting, can you believe it? But then she usually does – and I, naturally, would be disappointed if she wasn’t. She wants me to give her some money so she’s flirting with me. She’s instituted the preamble to the human mating ritual with someone who to all intents and purposes might as well be a hundred and fifty years older than her and come from a different planet, an alternate dimension. And now I’m reaching into my pocket and pulling out a couple of pound coins and I’m handing them to her. Crowds of commuters pass by me in the street as I make my contribution to Carol’s crack habit, or whatever it is she does with the money. One or two of them stare at the middle-aged philanthropist and his young ward, shaking their heads knowingly.

 

 

 

This female isn’t quite so pretty. It’s 2.15 p.m. and I’ve called Louise into a spare meeting room to see if we can sort things out. She sits across a table from me, in a metal and cloth chair, her body – that body – all tensed up.

“Louise,” I say in my official voice, slightly blurred by the couple of beers I had at lunchtime, “when we began working together on the project two months ago I told you that I disliked hierarchy. Now, I didn’t know you very well and you didn’t know me but I thought – I hoped – that we would both be able to behave like professionals.”

“So did I,” agrees Louise in a kind of whisper.

“Well, let’s face facts, shall we – that isn’t happening is it? I mean… these silences have got to stop, Louise. It’s not professional. We don’t have to like each other but at least we can try to talk to each other during working hours.”

Louise says nothing. Just sits there staring at me.

I continue: “Look, Louise, whether you like it or not I’m your boss. I don’t want to have to throw my weight around but I will if I have to. So I’m asking you, I’m asking you politely… I’m asking you stop all the moods and the silences.”

Again Louise says nothing. Again she just sits there staring at me. Then, just as I’m about to say something else, she lets out a snort of laughter.

“My moods? My silences?” she says, suddenly animated. “You’re a fine one to talk. I’ve worked in partworks for more than ten years and I’ve never met anyone moodier than you.”

Now it’s my turn to snort. “Don’t be ridiculous, Louise.”

“You’re renowned for it, John,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that you’re well-known for your moods. Everyone knows it.”

“What do you mean ‘everyone’?”

“Everyone in the company knows about your moods. Most people can’t stand you. Did you know that, John? Most people can’t stand to be around you.”

“Don’t be silly, Louise.”

But now she’s in full flight: “That’s you all over, John. It wouldn’t ever occur to you that people don’t like you. You’re so arrogant and full of yourself. You think that you’re God’s gift to publishing but the truth is I’ve never met anybody as incompetent as you…”

“I think that’s enough…” I say, in a futile attempt to interrupt her torrent.

“Yes, that’s right, tell me to shut up when you don’t like what you’re hearing. You work in publishing, John; you work in communication – it’s your job to communicate with people. But you don’t have a clue, do you? Yours is the only opinion that counts, isn’t that so, John?”

I’m getting angry now. “Louise,” I say. “I think you’ve said more than enough. Now listen to me…”

“No I won’t listen to you, John. I won’t listen to an idiot like you. I will not acknowledge you as my superior. My boss is Michael Dean, not you. If you don’t like it take it up with him. Just let me get on with my work and I’ll let you get on with yours. In the meantime I’d appreciate it if you didn’t come up to me outside working hours pissed out of your brains. Frankly, I find it intimidating: you scare me. If you do it again I’m going to complain.”

Before I can do anything Louise springs to her feet and heads quickly for the door. “If I were you I’d see a psychiatrist,” she says.

 

 

 

Nice one.

I’m sitting behind my giant computer screen carefully avoiding looking at Louise, who is carefully avoiding looking at me. This is what can happen when you’re given authority but don’t have the power that’s supposed to go with it. Now that I’ve failed to sort Louise out by talking to her there aren’t really that many options open to me. I can’t just fire the mad bitch. If I want to do that I’ll have to go and see Michael Dean and try and persuade him to instigate disciplinary procedures. Except I don’t want to do that because if I do I know that he’s going to enjoy every minute of it. It’ll be like going up to a teacher in school in tears and moaning: ‘Sir… Louise won’t talk to me… tell her…” Complaining to Michael would be tantamount to admitting that I’m incapable of controlling my team, something that would amuse him no end. Not only that, the story would be all over the office within the hour and whatever is left of the Orson Welles years would be wiped away by the gossip and the Chinese whispers.

Louise is almost an anagram of ‘lousy’ (lousie? Is the plural form of lousy ‘lousies’?). The name also contains the words ‘louse’ and ‘lose’, and ‘lies’ and ‘soul’ and ‘silo’… oils, and soil… isle…les – as in les-bian. This is the best I can do – I’m sitting at my desk now trying to get my own back on Louise by making up silly little anagrams of her name. How old are you? Thirty-eight-years-of-age and you’re sitting at your desk with your beer belly straining against the belt of the jeans that you bought a size too small so that it would encourage you to lose weight, and all you can do to settle this dispute, this adult dispute, this adult situation, is to turn away from the source of the problem like a coward and call her names. Nice one.

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