Saturday, mid-morning: Marie has caught me at a low ebb: she knows it, I know it – and that’s the only reason I’ve agreed to do what I’m doing right now. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a clever bit of psychology on her part or an obvious one. Whatever the case, she most definitely has the advantage over me for the moment, in fact she’s somewhat spoiled for choice. She has a number of alternatives: she can either sit there and winge at me, in that especially shrill voice that she adopts for occasions such as these or she could do the next worst thing and give me the silent treatment. It makes no difference to her: she knows that I’d be fundamentally incapable of coping with either approach.
Before I let my shaking fingers loose on the telephone keypad, however, a little background information to bring you up to speed: even though, according to my addled brain, last night happened roughly ten years ago, events are still fresh enough in my mind to enable me to offer you a few key moments. If my memory serves me right the last time you saw me I’d just given that dreadful speech at Michael Dean’s leaving do and was preparing to lap up my quota of free drinks. You may not be surprised to discover that this is where I remained until the party began to wind down at around 8-30 p.m., by which time sobriety was just a passing memory for myself and the majority of my fellow stragglers. When the office cleaners appeared and began hoovering around our ankles we quickly reconvened in The George on Wardour Street, where about a dozen or so of us – including Michael Dean – remained until we were thrown out. It was at this point that the party thinned down a little more and Michael Dean, his secretary Allison, Phil the designer, Sonya the receptionist and myself ended up in one of those Chinese (or was it Japanese?) restaurants where you have to take your shoes off.
It was a pretty pathetic little gathering: Michael there probably because he was dreading having to go home and tell his wife and kids what had happened to him that day; Allison the secretary there for… what? …misguided loyalty? Sonya the receptionist there because she’s always one of the last to leave office get-togethers; Phil the designer there because he’d already had about fifty lines and was determined that someone should be present to bear witness to his overactive ramblings; and me there on the back of a lethal combination of alcohol, excitement, morbid fascination and guilt.
Naturally, I also had my own ulterior motives: I wanted, for example, to try to find out at some point what Michael had meant by the ‘so-will-you’ silent comment he had made to me after my thrilling speech in the office; I also had more than a passing interest in exploiting the situation in order to get to the bottom of the is-it or isn’t Louise who’s responsible for the ridiculous sexual harassment accusation. Even more naturally, though, even more predictably, the drink and the situation and Phil’s drugs made it impossible for me to do any of these things. I just did what everybody else did: told a few feeble jokes, slagged off GP from time to time, told Michael that he’d have no trouble finding himself another job; nodded sympathetically, as Michael peered angrily into space and told me that Mary Bridges from personnel was a ‘fucking bitch’; listened to a few feeble jokes, spilled sticky red sauce down my shirt and drank warm Sake. It must be the Sake that’s doing what it’s doing to my head right now. I’ve noticed this before: if I were Prince Philip or Bernard Manning or whatever I would probably note the connection between this lethal rice distillate and the generally worried, nay, positively wounded demeanour of your average Oriental type. Fortunately racism’s not my thing; in any case, Marie’s sitting too close to me.
And therein lie the origins of the king-sized, Iran-Contra-sized, stack of ammunition that Marie is currently using to feed the gun that she has pointed at my head. As I say, she’s caught me at a low ebb: she knows that there’d be no way I’d survive the sort of punishment she is capable of doling out as revenge for my turning up semi-comatose in the early hours of this morning with pores that were visibly leaking a lethally pungent combination of alcohol and monosodium glutamate when I’d earlier promised I’d be home at a reasonable hour. She also knows that I would be similarly lacking any visible means of self-defence if she chose to resurrect the sticky subject of Louise and the did I/didn’t I scenario. But by far the sharpest, the most sickly glittering facet of her three-pronged attack is the father/mother thing – she knows I can’t handle that right now; with half of my brain away on vacation I would be scarcely able to handle the subtle comic capers of Ant and Dec on Saturday morning TV. And the fact that I can’t handle another Q & A session with Marie about my perceived reluctance to face – to her mind – the rather serious issue of my father’s impending death is exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing right now: calling my mother up, with that gun ready to go off in Marie’s hand at the slightest sign of hesitation.
If there is such a thing as the best time to call the mother that you’ve had only three conversations with in 20-odd years (that’s if you include the one on Wednesday where I hung up without saying anything) then this certainly isn’t it. I’m actually finding it difficult to speak. In fact, right now I’d be hard pressed to approach anything that remotely resembles intellectual parity if I were to hold a conversation with an electric toaster.
Marie sits beside me watching like a myopic kestrel while I dial the number that my mother left with her on Monday night. The telephone rings four times before it is picked up. I really haven’t a clue what I’m going to say to my mother.
“Hello,” says a drowsy sounding male voice.
“Not again!” gasps Marie. “What on earth did you do that for?”
“It was just the shock,” I reply.
“The shock? Well who were you expecting to answer the telephone? Julie Andrews? President Clinton? Scarey Spice?”
“All right, all right… you’ve made your point – I just wasn’t expecting him to pick it up, that’s all.”
“Well, I think you’d better get right back on that phone and call him straight back.”
Why does Marie sound like my old maths teacher from junior school sometimes? Does this suggest that he so impressed me back then that I later specifically set out to find a sexual partner who possessed a similar range of expression, or is it merely coincidence?
“I don’t think there’ll be any need for that,” I mumble, glancing knowingly towards the telephone.
“Oh, and who are you… Uri Geller?” Interesting: now both my mother and Marie think I’m a mind-reader… well, a fork bender.
What Marie doesn’t suspect, however, is that I’ve just left my body and I’m surfing the astral plane tethered to my physical being by a silken cord. I’m soaring over the clouds like the Silver Surfer, faster than light, faster than thought, and I’m arriving unseen into the living room of my parent’s house in South Devon just in time to witness my father frantically dialling 1471 in order to establish the identity of the person who has just hung up on him. He looks a little older, obviously, his hair has turned white, and I can’t say I care much for the dressing gown he’s wearing. Curiously, however, the living room is exactly as I remember it from the last time I was here: even the wallpaper has the same drab pattern. Now, as my father dials my telephone number, I’m quickly making the return journey: sailing on dazzling waves of colours and heat, re-entering my body, settling once more into the physical, making it back just in time to catch the first ring of his call. I bet you didn’t know I could do that, did you?
I pick up the telephone: “What did you do that for?” says the voice of my mother. “He was sleeping and you woke him up.”
“Do what?” I reply, which, even by my standards, is a pretty lame type of response.
“I just called 1471,” she says.
“Oh,” I mumble, my head thumping. “I must have misdialled.” From beside me Marie lets out an audible hiss of exasperation, then she snatches the phone from my grasp.
“Susan, it’s Marie,” she says brusquely. “John called you because he wants to try and sort out this mess.”
Since when were my mother and Marie on first-name terms?
“Yeah… I’m really sorry about that – you know what he’s like,” she continues.
No. No. No. My mother does not know what I’m like. I haven’t seen the fucking woman in twenty fucking years.
“Yeah… I’ve been trying to talk some sense into him,”
To paraphrase the immortal words of Graham Taylor: do I not like this. “Hel-lo… I am actually here, you know,” I say, waving my arms about like an idiot.
“Yes, he can be stubborn,” says Marie, managing to look over at me and ignore me at the same time. “Hmm, is that right? … how’s he feeling by the way?”
Hmm, is that right? Hmm, is that right? What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Have you heard that the cost of butter has gone down 12p in price? …Hmm, is that right?’. ‘Have you heard that Margate has been invaded by creatures from Jupiter? … Hmm, is that right?’. ‘Do you know that water in Australian plug-holes flows in the opposite direction to the water in our plug-holes? … Hmm, is that right?’. What’s that supposed to mean?
“Hel-lo,” I say again, putting an imaginary megaphone to my lips.
“Oh, that’s just awful – Susan, I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“Hel-lo – are you receiving me?”
Marie covers the mouthpiece with her hand and tells me to shut up. “Look I’m going to put him on again,” she says, turning her attention back to my mother. “Let’s hope he’s mature enough to hold an adult conversation.” She places a special kind of emphasis on the words ‘adult’ in a way that is really impossible to describe here.
My head is ringing. My throat is dry. My brain feels like its been put in a liquidizer, and now I’m really pissed off… unbelievably pissed off. I’m seeing crimson, orange… blinding flashes of magenta. I yank the telephone away from Marie, literally wrench it from her hand with such venom that she involuntarily backs away from me. Now I’m almost shouting into the receiver.
“How dare you!” I yell. “How fucking dare you!”
My mother attempts to says something but I instantly silence her. “How dare you involve Marie in all this? She knows nothing about it at, she’s got nothing to do with it! And how dare you start comparing me with that bastard if that’s what you were doing! Now listen to me… listen good: stop fucking calling me! Got it: stop calling me. If you do it again I’m going to get our fucking number changed. Stop calling me, do you hear? Stop calling me!”
I slam the phone down, trembling with rage.
“You called her,” says Marie, staring to cry.