Thursday, 8:15 a.m.: Marie has never met my father, this man who is going to die in six weeks time. Nor, for that matter, has she ever met my mother, the wife of this man who is going to die in six weeks time. She is, however, not alone in this. I’ve just done a little mental arithmetic: I’ve counted up all the people whom I consider to be real friends (five in all (if that number seems small, try it yourself – you may be surprised at the outcome)) and none of them have ever met or even heard me acknowledge the existence of my parents. It’s kind of ironic really, because when it comes to other people’s family problems I’m the voice of reason. If you’re having hassles of a family nature, give me a call; you can’t buy the sort of advice that I’m liable to dole out. You’re sure to be getting examples of this sooner or later.
It’s Thursday morning and Marie is pulling her face at me – that face – the one she uses when she wants to get across the idea that she’s fed up with me. “Look Marie,” I say to her as she sits tensely at the kitchen table shovelling great spoonfuls of some yoghurty-type substance into her mouth. “Let’s be rational, shall we? What real difference – I’m talking real difference – would it make to your life if I decide that I never want to speak to my parents again? You’ve put up with this situation for six years and it’s never seemed to bother you before.”
It’s a good point, I think: I don’t believe that many people out there will be able to argue with such cold logic. I mean, if it were Marie that was having family troubles I’d be big enough to keep a respectful distance if that was what she wanted. I wouldn’t be sitting there with that mean look on my face, venting all my anger and frustration on that poor yoghurt.
But then that’s always been the fundamental difference between Marie and I: somehow she always manages to take things a lot more seriously than I can ever do. She has this kind of internal rage. Let me give you an example: she’ll get really angry, I mean really, really pissed off, for instance, if some politician or other gets caught with his pants down, honestly – I kid you not. Me, I’ll just snigger a little like most people do, try to savour the poor idiot’s public humiliation; but Marie, she’ll go ballistic; start ranting on about how he’s supposed to be the custodian of public morality, about how he should be punished for letting down the people who voted him in, about how they should bring back the rope for people like him – things like that. I genuinely believe that she’d lay into the poor guy – physically assault him – if their paths should ever happen to cross in the street.
Then there’s the other side of the coin: Marie, for reasons I shall never understand, will, for example, burst into tears at the first sight of a starving Ethiopian kid on TV. I mean I’m not saying that images like that do not fail to move me; I mean, all the usual sorts of thoughts pass through my head on such occasions: the unfairness of it all… of what a shitty life that kid’s destined to lead… about how lucky I am to be sitting in my nice comfortable living room overseeing his misery on widescreen with Dolby surround… about how I shouldn’t really take things for granted… of how there but for the grace of God go I… thoughts of this nature are inevitable when you’re confronted by the sight of some skinny bundle of ribs clinging to its emaciated mother’s sagging breast. Such images are supposed to affect you: they are after all the product of how many hours of meetings for the men in braces? How many tonnes of sandwiches consumed as the advertising campaign begins to take flight? How many hundreds of lines of the white stuff greedily snorted in pursuit of divine inspiration… and I’m talking about the sort of divine inspiration that is enough to encourage people like me to sit in their comfortable living rooms and part with their hard-earned. I guess that’s the real difference between us, Marie and me, she lives in a more black and white world than I do, a more wrong and right world. She’ll see the little Ethiopian kid on TV and start to cry straight away like she’s just heard that her grandma’s been run over by a bus; she’ll be on the phone as soon as the advert’s over – ready to keep trying the line for hours if it’s engaged – giving her money away to these people; trying to make a difference. Me, I’ll sit and ponder the injustice of it all for a while and then eventually conclude that nothing I can possibly do will ever make a difference. I guess it means that Marie will have a better chance of passing through those gates when the time comes to tot up all the points.
I arrive at my desk to find a small florescent magenta Post-It note attached to my computer screen. It’s in Louise’s handwriting and it reads: ‘Michael Dean called 9-15 a.m.’.
I turn towards the author of the message, who, predictably, is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge my presence. “Louise,” I ask, “Did he say what he wanted?”
Louise is wearing tight blue jeans and a white cheesecloth blouse, she turns slowly to face me, a pained expression on her face. “Did who say what who wanted?”
“Yassir Arafat,” I reply.
“Huh?” she says.
“I’d like to know what Yassir Arafat wanted when you took a phone call from him this morning.”
“Don’t be facetious, John”
“Well maybe I was referring to Michael Dean,” I continue. “Considering that according to this extremely informative little Post-It note I have here in my hand Michael Dean happens to be the only person to have called me this morning.”
Louise tuts and shakes her head; she mutters something under her breath.
Quick fade to Michael Dean’s office: we’re both perched on leather chairs, his overburdened black desk separating us. Things are definitely looking up – Michael has what appears to be the makings of a huge ugly boil on his left cheek. Must be the stress of it all. “Nasty,” I say.
“Oh… don’t talk about it,” he groans. “It started coming up yesterday afternoon, the bloody thing kept me awake all night.”
I’m reminded of that film, the one where Richard E Grant grows another head on his neck. “Looks like a freeze job,” I say.
“You know, a freeze job: they freeze it and then stick a needle in it – messy business.”
“Oh…” says Michael, unimpressed.
Here we go again. I can feel it coming. Any second now Michael’s going to start giving me the third degree. What have you heard? Who said what? You’ll get it if I get it… I’m finding it difficult to control my internal groans of anguish. Thank Christ it’s almost Friday.
Michael glances over towards the door of his office, almost as if he’s expecting someone to burst in at any moment. “John,” he says, suddenly lowering his voice. “We’ve been friends for… what is it… twelve… thirteen years?”
“Seventeen,” I say.
Michael looks surprised. “Seventeen? Is that right? Seventeen? My word… it’s amazing, isn’t it?”
“It does indeed.”
Then Michael stops for a moment and just stares at me, right between the eyes. He stares at me until it begins to get embarrassing and I find myself grinning sheepishly and looking away. “John,” he says.
“John, I’m doing this now because we’re friends. I’m doing this because I want to see if there’s any chance whatsoever that we can somehow repair the damage before it starts to get out of hand.”
Suddenly I feel like lighting up in Michael’s smoke free office. “You’ve lost me,” I shrug.
“John… there’s no easy way of saying this…” he announces ominously. “We’ve had a complaint about you. I haven’t done anything about it yet because I wanted to speak to you first.”
“Yes, a complaint – someone has come to me and complained about you.”
“That’s not important.”
I let out a snort of laughter, which, under the circumstances, probably isn’t the most sensible thing to be doing. I’m finding it hard to take Michael seriously; even though this is most definitely not his style I’m expected him to crack up at any moment. Perhaps he’s finally developing a sense of humour; they say that people do strange things when they’re entering their death throes.
“I wouldn’t be laughing If I were in your shoes, John. This is about as serious as it gets.”
I say nothing and try to compose myself in my chair.
“I’ll start from the beginning shall I?” continues Michael, gathering up some sheets of A4 paper, on which are scrawled a few hurried looking notes. “Yesterday afternoon I had a visit from a member of staff who came to me, I might add, me in a state of some distress…”
“Who?” I ask again.
Michael stops talking for a moment and gives me a look that is designed to encourage silence. “This person,” he continues, “alleges that you’ve been… how shall I put it … harassing her outside working hours.”
“Harassing her?” I frown.
“Yes, harassing her.”
“What sort of harassing?”
“Well… um… sex-ual harassing.”
“You are joking, I hope?”
“No, unfortunately I’m not… I was as surprised as you when she made this accusation,” sighs Michael. “Unfortunately, however, we have no choice but to take her seriously.”
“So it was a her, then?” I say. “A woman?”
Quite rightly, Michael seems unmoved by my dazzling powers of deduction. As I find myself frantically trying to apply a sense of order to what he has just told me Michael even allows himself the briefest glimmer of a smile.
“Let me get this straight,” I say. “You’re telling me that someone – a female member of staff – is claiming that I’ve been sexually harassing her after work?”
“That’s about it,” confirms Michael.
“Well that’s absolute rubbish! …You know it is.”
Now I suddenly find myself running through a mental list of potential complainants. If you want to be pedantic about it there’s a good half a dozen or so women who work at GP who could quite justifiably make a complaint of this nature against me. But equally, if I wanted to be just as pedantic I could quite justifiably lodge a counter claim against those same half dozen women. I’m talking about the sort of things that everybody does in an office like GP. The mostly innocent but always compulsory flirting that goes on about the place… the dirty jokes and sexual innuendo hurled around the office on an hourly basis by both male and female staff members… the Christmas Party snogs… These things are supposed to happen – and I’m no less immune to being drawn into doing them than anybody else is. But everything I do is innocent, I’m sure of that – it means nothing. I might, for example, occasionally sneak up behind Sylvia in accounts and do the old two fingers in the solar plexus thing, make her shriek and giggle a little; but then it’s not unheard of for her to do exactly the same thing to me when I’m leaning over a desk on the fifth floor. That’s the way things go around here – around everywhere, I guess. However, to actually claim that I’ve gone out and physically imposed myself upon a female member of staff is way off the mark. It’s not the sort of thing I do. If it was the sort of thing that I do, I doubt very much that it would have taken fifteen years for someone to finally take offence.
Then, completely out of the blue, I suddenly get a flashback: I’m remembering that young designer at Sarah from personnel’s leaving do. I’m recalling how I wouldn’t leave her alone until she agreed to let me buy her a drink, I’m reflecting upon that appalled look in her eyes when I forced my fifteen-stones of sweating blubber into that seat next to hers. Surely not?
“Surely it’s not the new designer?” I say. “The one who’s been working on the cookery project?”
Michael and his boil frown over at me like a judge who has just received fresh evidence in a murder trial. “No it’s not Elaine… Elaine Preston – if that’s who you’re talking about.”
“Then who is it?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say.”
Why can’t he tell me? If someone’s making an accusation like this don’t I have every right to know? It was a different story the other day when he wanted to know what Dave from accounts had been saying about him in the pub. I raise my head to face Michael’s accusing stare and find myself running my eyes over that boil of his. It’s going to hurt when they come to lance it. Really hurt.
“And he wouldn’t tell you who made this accusation?”
“Oh John, you do get yourself into some right old scrapes.”
Needless to say, Marie isn’t taking this very well. In fact, now that I’m sitting here face to face with her I’m beginning to wish that I’d followed my instincts and not informed her of my predicament at all. “But I haven’t done anything,” I say.
Marie looks at me: a lopsided kind of look, like she’s not quite convinced that I’m telling the truth. “Are you sure you’re telling me the whole story?” she asks.
“Marie that is so hurtful.”
That’s another good way of demonstrating the difference between Marie and I: because you can be sure that there’d be all hell to play if she’d been accused of sexual harassment at work and I’d just asked her that question. But you can’t blame her, I suppose. After all, Marie has worked in, is still working in publishing – that’s how we met for Christ’s sake – and Marie is living proof of my penchant for infidelity. In fact, I’ve often found myself asking this question: how can Marie ever really trust me, when for the first four months of our relationship she was the ‘other’ women? She knows the lies, the deceit, the duplicity, that I’m capable of. It’s hardly the sturdiest foundation on which to build a relationship.
“It’s Louise, isn’t it?” says Marie.
“It’s that stupid little cow, Louise.”
“But I’ve never even touched Louise. I mean who in their right mind would want to…”
“I’m not saying that, stupid. Think about it John: who’s been ignoring you for God knows how long at GP?”
“Louise,” I say.
“And who at GP currently can’t stand the sight of you?”
“Louise,” I admit. “But according to her she’s just one of many.”
“So who do you think has accused you of sexual harassment?”
“But I’ve never even got within ten feet of Louise…”
Marie emits a heavy, exasperated sigh. “Wake up, John. Use your head.”
“Well I suppose you might have a point.”
“There’s no ‘suppose’ about it, John. Stop being so stupid for once in your life. Louise is the one – take my word for it, I’m right. You know I’m right…”