At approximately 7.15 a.m. on Friday morning I’m awakened by the sound of the telephone ringing. It was gone five before I finally managed to fall asleep and the last thing I need right now is another conversation with you-know-who. I lie in bed and listen to it ring once, then twice. By the third ring Marie is stirring next to me: “answer it!” she urges, semi-conscious.
I stay where I am while Marie flops out of bed and scurries downstairs. I listen as she picks up the telephone and then I find my naked fat body wobbling after her, making frantic ‘I’m not here!’ gestures as she speaks into the mouthpiece. As it happens, it’s not my mother – it’s one of Marie’s work mates. They talk for three or four minutes and I slump back into bed feeling more than a little relieved. Then I hear Marie replace the receiver; and almost immediately the telephone begins to ring again. There’s silence for a few moments. Finally, Marie calls out to me: “John… it’s your mother.”
“John,” she says.
Here we go again.
“Yes,” I reply wearily, “what can I do for you now?”
“John, you’ve got to stop this…”
Very cryptic, my mother. This is something that I don’t remember about her at all. Maybe it’s a quality she’s been working on over the past decade or so. Maybe it’s too much time spent in front of the Guardian crossword or Countdown or something.
“Stop what,?” I ask.
“All this… this silliness…”
Great. She’s calling me at seven in the morning to tell me to stop being silly? I wasn’t aware that I was being silly; thirsty, yes, in dire need of a cup of coffee and maybe a few dozen Paracetamol, certainly, but silly in the Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer sense, no. “Let me get this right…” I say. “You’re calling me at seven in the morning to tell me to stop being silly? I wasn’t aware that I was being silly.”
“C’mon… you know what I mean…”
So now I’m a mind-reader? We haven’t spoken for close on twenty years and she thinks she can call me out of the blue at this time of the morning and predict my thoughts? Actually, that makes her a mind-reader too. Both of us are mind-readers. “I’m not a mind-reader, mother… take my word for it, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, John… We’ve got to stop these games…”
I really don’t need this at seven o’clock in the fucking morning. “Look mother,” I say. “You can’t be calling me at seven in the morning… it’s a bad time.”
“Don’t you – sniff – think it’s a bad time for us, too?”
Uh-oh. Here come the waterworks again.
“Well if it’s a bad time for you too, then why call?” Good one.
“You know what I mean…”
Great. Now we’re back to the mind-reader/cryptic stuff.
“No I can’t say that I do.”
“John, stop it… you’ve got to stop it – sniff – you’ve got to come and see him while you still can… he wants to see you – sniff – if it’s money that’s stopping you I’ll send you the fare.”
What? Pardon? Hold the back page. Hang on there a moment. Did she just say what I thought she said? If it’s money that’s stopping you I’ll send you the fare? Did she really just say that?
“I can’t believe that you just said that. Are you actually trying to imply that the reason I haven’t popped down to see you since nineteen-fucking-eighty-one is because I’ve been unable to afford the bus fare? Just what planet are you from?”
“Don’t swear, love.”
Don’t swear ‘love’? This is beginning to really get on my nerves. That sentence was no accident – that’s parental reproach and parental affection in one neat package. That’s a bit like a clip round the ear followed by a cuddle. A smack and then a kiss. Just how old does she think I am? Just who does she think she’s dealing with?
“Okay, that’s just about enough,” I sigh. “I’ve just got up, I’ve got to get ready for work, and the last thing I need right now is a conversation like this…”
She stops me. “Well when can I call?’ she asks. “I’ve tried in the evenings and you refuse to talk to me – what have I ever done to you?”
This is the plan: I’m going to saunter up to Louise’s desk like nothing’s happened. I’m going to say good morning to her like I usually do and get ignored by her like I usually do. And all the time I’m going to be checking Louise out, gauging her reactions, scrutinising her movements, watching her eyes, studying her body language.
“Morning, Louise,” I say, sauntering up to her desk like nothing’s happened.
“Morning,” she mumbles, shyly, weakly, guiltily.
“And you didn’t say anything?”
It’s lunchtime and I’m sitting in the Ship with Dave from accounts eating a plate of fossilised sausage and chips. “No, I’m telling you… I didn’t say a word – it didn’t come from me.”
“Well are you sure you didn’t tell anybody?”
I shake my head. “I didn’t Dave – honest, I didn’t say a thing to anyone…”
Dave and his shiny grey suit aren’t happy. Earlier today he was called into Mary Bridges from personnel’s office and given an official reprimand for ‘malicious gossip’: gossip of a malicious nature. According to Dave a senior member of staff had complained about him talking about Michael Dean in the pub the other night. Dave wants to know how this senior member of staff managed to find out about his malicious gossiping.
“What about at Sarah from personnel’s leaving do?” I ask. “Let’s face facts, Dave, you were coked out of your head that night – I wouldn’t put anything past you when you’re like that.”
I’m so believable sometimes. Really. If I have any real talent at all in my body it’s for deception: specifically at times like this. I’m championship class. Dave’s frowning across from me at the table now, trying to work out how to reconcile my words with his interpretation of what is likely to have happened. He knows for a fact that the only person around when he was stirring it up about Michael Dean in the pub was me. He’s also ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent sure that he didn’t tell anyone else about it at Sarah from personnel’s leaving do. And yet he sitting there, getting more and more confused, more and more taken in by my butter-wouldn’t-melt demeanour. You can almost hear the rusty cogs grinding away inside that head of his.
“No, John – I haven’t spoken to anybody else about it. I’m pretty sure of it…”
“Well,” I shrug, “Somebody must have said something and I’m telling you right now it wasn’t me – what about Louise?”
I’ve added the last bit as an afterthought. It just came to me in a flash. I know that Dave hasn’t told Louise and he knows that he hasn’t told Louise – frankly, the idea is ludicrous – but a seed has been planted nevertheless.
“Why Louise?” Dave asks cautiously.
“Well… I believe that way that you chose to describe it to me on Monday night was that she’d been ‘coming on’ to you?”
“Perhaps you told her.”
Dave is suddenly wriggling in his seat uncomfortably, even more confused. “What’s the matter?” I ask.
Dave swabs his forehead with the palm of his hand. “The bitch!” he exclaims under his breath.
Now I’m confused.
It’s 1.50 p.m.: I’m purposefully back at work early from lunch so that I can sit at my desk and watch Louise return from her lunch date with Michael Dean. Louise, however, appears not to have taken a lunch break: she’s sitting where she usually sits, reading a woman’s glossy and dipping a plastic fork into a container of some salady-type concoction from M&S. The plot thickens.
According to Dave, he’d been hassling Louise to come for lunch with him for some time. Apparently, she finally agreed to his demands on Monday. They ended up in the basement of the Star Café on Newman Street, where, according to Dave, she climaxed their rendezvous by fluttering those Neanderthal eyes at him and rubbing his thigh.
Now back to the real world.
A brief translation of what I’ve just told you:
Dave, as you may have already concluded is man of dubious ethics, spurious principles and fucking goddamn awful taste in women. (Dave, in fact, has no taste whatsoever in women, they simply fall into one of two unevenly, it has to be said, balanced categories: women who will go out with Dave and women who won’t.) I could dwell on what on earth possessed Dave to think that Louise was a woman worthy of pursuit, but I shan’t waste anybody’s valuable time; it’s simply impossible to even attempt to try and perceive the world in the way that Dave perceives it through his eyes. It would be like trying to work out what your pet budgie would make of things if you took it on a visit to an exhibition of Post-Impressionist paintings at the Tate. I’ll leave it at that.
What I can be reasonably sure about, however, is that if Louise agreed to have lunch with Dave on Monday she did so because she had reached her limit: she’d have been literally ground down by the war of attrition that he’d have been waging against her: phone calls… letters… e-mails… cups of tea… Dave would have spared none of the resources available at GP in his quest to make Louise succumb to his grey-suited charms. (How could I have not been aware of this if it was going on?)
Now, if I close my eyes, I can see him dragging her into the basement of the Star, a place known as much for its relative cheapness as for the sparseness of its lighting. Once ensconced within the darkness, Dave’s next step would have involved an attempt to impress Louise. And, in view of the fact that Dave would have been be unlikely to succeed in doing this if he chose to resort to any of the standard devices that men adopt when they want to impress women, i.e. looks, intelligence, charm, wit, sensitivity, braggadocio, money, etc., it doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to visualise him endeavouring to regale Louise with what he knows; not, I must stress, what he knows about the world in general or anything like that… politics and stuff, but what he knows about his world – and his world is GP.
So, to simplify the chain of events: Dave fancies Louise; Dave bombards Louise with requests for a date; a worn-down, shell-shocked Louise eventually acquiesces to Dave’s demands; Dave takes Louise to the Star Café; Dave buys Louise a cheap meal and then proceeds to tell her all he knows about how Michael might be getting the push; Dave looks deep into Louise’s Neanderthal eyes; Dave tries to rub Louise’s thigh but is fought off; Louise goes to see Michael Dean and tells him everything that Dave said about him. (Why would she do this – I had no idea they were so pally?); Michael Dean calls me into his office the next morning and tries to find out everything I know about how he might be getting the push; Louise and I have words and she tells me that I ought to go and see a psychiatrist; Louise – if Marie is to be believed – goes to Michael Dean and complains that I’ve been sexually harassing her; Michael Dean calls me into his office and tells me that someone – not necessarily Louise – has accused me of sexually harassing them; Michael Dean promises to take my anonymous complainant out for lunch and talk some sense into them; and, finally, I arrive back early from lunch in an attempt to witness Louise coming back from her, alleged, sense talking session with Michael Dean only to discover that Louise has been sitting here all along and has, in fact, not gone out for a sense talking session lunch with Michael Dean at all. Confused? You will be…”
If this is indeed the case a few questions:
Firstly: why did Dave not tell me about his lunchtime tryst with Louise when I was out drinking with him on Monday night – why did he leave it until Sarah from personnel’s leaving do? Possible answers: 1/ Dave was too drunk and too preoccupied with giving me the hot news about Michael Dean; 2/ Dave was too preoccupied with swearing and making obscene gestures at the two forty-year-olds who were sharing our table; 3/ Dave forgot.
Secondly: Why did Michael Dean insist that I tell him the source of the rumours about the eminent loss of his job if Louise had already revealed the source to him? Possible answers: 1/ Michael Dean wanted someone to substantiate Louise’s story; 2/ Michael Dean was simply playing his usual power games – he wanted to see how easy it would be to get me to spill the beans (if this is the case, even he must have been disappointed with my pathetic efforts); 3/ Louise never went to see Michael Dean in the first place.
Thirdly, and more importantly: If Michael Dean is taking the person who accused me of sexually harassing her out to lunch for a sense-talking session, why is Louise sitting here eating salad? Possible answers: 1/ She’s refused to go out to lunch with him and is standing by her story; 2/ They’ve put off their lunch date until another time; 3/ It isn’t Louise who’s been doing the accusing.
And if it’s not Louise who’s been doing the accusing, then who could it be? There’s only one way of finding out…
People are gradually drifting in from lunch as I stroll to the other end of the office and artfully duck around a corner so that Louise cannot see what I am doing from her distant position behind that giant computer screen of hers. I pick up the nearest telephone and call Allison, Michael Dean’s secretary.
“Hi, Allison,” I say. “Is Michael around at the moment?”
“No, he’s still at lunch,” comes the reply. “Any message?”
“No, it’s nothing important – I’ll catch him later.”
“Allison?” I ask.
“Who did Michael go to lunch with?”
“I’ve no idea,” she replies.