Monday morning, 6:58 a.m. Marie is speaking to me at last:
“I hope you realise that I hardly got any sleep last night,” she says cattily, most of her body buried beneath the duvet. “All this business is making me ill.”
“Well now you know how I feel.”
I’ve just entered our bedroom after my second night of exile in the spare room and I’m fishing around in the wardrobe for a clean shirt. Today is going to be an important day: with the skirmish for Michael Dean’s job due to commence imminently I want to look my best. This is not to suggest that I count myself among the potential candidates for the vacancy created by Michael’s unexpected ousting – I’m not that naïve; it’s simply that instinct is telling me that this is exactly the right sort of occasion to be dressing up smart for. It’s my want-to-be-taken-serious look: the thinking is that if I can manage to make myself appear smart and on the ball then there’s a better chance that others will manage to be persuaded that I’m smart and on the ball, too.
My preparation for a day that is likely to be strewn with landmines and half concealed man-traps has, it must be conceded, been less than ideal. After my strange afternoon with Carol I was forced to endure another evening of silence from Marie, who sat on the sofa in the living room most of the time pretending to read a book, wearing an expression on her face which suggested that I had just buggered Bambi. “Oh come on… stop it…” I had aimlessly pleaded from time to time. “All I’ve done is what I’ve been doing since the day we first met – I don’t recall you ever worrying about it before because I happen to have struck my parents off the Christmas card list.” However, as I anticipated they would, the ramparts remained securely in place. You’ve got to give this girl her due, when Marie gets her mind set on something she’s unmoveable – were it not for the fact that I have more pressing concerns I’ve half a mind to check out what the record for prolonged silence is in the Guiness Book Of Records and put Marie’s name forward to Ross – or is it Norris (?) – McWhirter.
I even had to cook my own meal last night. Okay. Okay. I realise as I say this that I’d better clarify this statement if I’m to remain the living embodiment of New Man in your eyes. What I mean is that it was Marie’s turn to cook the Sunday dinner (you see – we take turns cooking the Sunday dinner, how New Man is that?); we were going to have a nice pork joint that Marie had purchased on Wednesday from an overpriced butcher’s in Hampstead. We were going to have crackling and gravy and crispy roast potatoes and apple sauce… all that sort of thing. I was quite looking forward to it, actually. But it was not to be: the pork joint never in fact made it anywhere near the oven, instead, it ended up feeling sorry for itself on floor of the kitchen after Marie had casually hurled it there during one of our non-exchanges; an action that was intended, I suppose, to illustrate her rising indifference to my rising appetite.
A quick word of advice: if your boss has been sacked on Friday and it’s Monday morning and you’re dressing up smartly in the hope that you’ll create the right impression as the dust settles, don’t prepare for the coming storm by eating a microwaved Indian menu for two the night before from a supermarket which, for legal reasons, must remain unmentionable. Furthermore, if you do decide to prepare for said occasion by eating a microwaved Indian menu for two the night before, try to ensure that you follow the instructions on the packaging so as not to end up sitting at the dinner table with your meal half-frozen. Your stomach won’t complain quite so much the next morning, and nor, one assumes, will the people at work whom you are hoping to impress.
“I’m going to stay home today,” Marie informs me as I carry my bundle of smart clothing into the spare room. “I don’t feel like going into work.”
“What’s the matter?” I ask suspiciously: suspiciously because I have an idea what’s about to happen.
“What do you think’s the matter?” exclaims Marie. “It’s you that’s the matter.”
“Look Marie, it’s not me that’s the matter it’s my fucking mother…”
“One more swear word and I’m not talking to you ever again!”
“…it’s my mother that’s the matter. I’m an innocent party. I’ve done nothing to no-one.”
Marie groans to herself and burrows deeper under the duvet. She’s wearing her oh-what-a-martyr-I-am-I-could-play-the-lead-role-in-Joan of Arc expression: her lower lip is trembling, her eyes are red and swollen.
“Look Marie, if you’re thinking of doing what I think you’re thinking of doing, then don’t. You know that today is an important day for me and the last thing I need right now is you-know-what.”
Carol is back in her usual place when I make my customary early morning walk to the tube, her scruffy dog is now back at its owner’s feet. Carol sees me approaching and let’s out an exaggerated wolf whistle. I’m power dressing: I’m wearing a very smart looking grey suit, my shoes are polished and I’m even carrying a briefcase.
“Morning Mr Publisher,” she smiles as I pass by.
“Morning Carol,” I reply, slipping her a few coins and passing quickly on. “Can’t talk right now…”
Work: The memo fairy has not been idle over the weekend – when I reach my desk there are three waiting there for me. Louise is sitting across from me at her own desk, already perusing the three identical memos that have been placed on hers.
This is what they say:
From: Mary Bridges, Head of Personnel
To: All staff members
Date: 26 November 1999
This is to inform you that Margaret Blackmore will be replacing Michael Dean as Managing Editor. I’ll sure that you all join me in wishing her success in her new position. She will be speaking to all members of staff individually over the next few days.
From: Allison Harris, PA
To: All staff members
Date: 27 November 1999
In this year’s staff poll (11/11/99) it was decided that the office would remain non-smoking. The usual smoking rooms on the third and fifth floor will, of course, still be available for smokers.
From: Mary Bridges, Head of Personnel
To: All staff members
Date: 27 November 1999
The management have asked me to regretfully inform you that there will be no Christmas bonus for staff members this year. The reasons for this are manifold and will be covered in greater detail in our end of year report.
On a more positive note, the management have asked me to reassure you that there are no plans at this moment for staff redundancies. They remain confident in your ability to help GP return to a position of market prominence in the continuity publishing community.
Okay. Let’s go through these one by one: First of all, the real, real bombshell. Margaret Blackmore? Margaret Blackmore? Who the fuck is Margaret Blackmore? Everyone around me in the office is silently asking themselves this question right now. Actually, we all know who Margaret Blackmore is: mid-forties, possibly even mid-fifties, grey hair, glasses, too much foundation, plain looking, dumpy. Margaret’s only been at GP for a year or so and she’s proved herself so capable of blending into the background that everyone around here has rather forgotten that she exists at all. Margaret is – that is, was – head of the GP book department. Her role, in time-honoured fashion, is – was – to take to take old copies of partworks and wrap them up in fancy new binders and try to sell them back to a public that has bought them once or twice already. Hardly the most dynamic thing in the world to be doing but ideally suited, it seemed, to a person of Margaret’s anonymous carriage. How, then, does someone like this end up taking over from Michael Dean? The logic of the whole thing leaves me totally confused.
The memo is dated Sunday; what this means is that management must have already had her earmarked for the job when they sacked Michael Dean on Friday – possibly even a long time before that. This is just completely bizarre. Putting Margaret in the job is kind of like replacing Tony Blair with Mr Blobby… Bill Clinton with Kramer from Seinfeld… Alex Ferguson with Mr Bean. The whole thing is well… just too weird.
Louise seems to be sharing my opinions as well. She doesn’t actually speak to me and I don’t actually speak to her but I aim a long, weary sigh in her general direction and she kind of fumbles with it in mid-air before catching it and shrugging a little.
Encouraged by this show of solidarity I ask: “What do you think?”
Louise pauses for a moment before replying, as if to let me know that what she is about to do is one of the hardest things she has ever had to do in her whole life. “I think it’s quite good, actually,” she mumbles dryly.
“Quite good,” I exclaim, genuinely surprised by her reaction. “What do you mean ‘quite good?’”
“Smoking’s a filthy habit,” she explains.
“Very droll,” I say in disgust, leading us nicely on to the question of the second memo, a memo that was apparently issued independently of the other two this morning and having no real significance to events other than to remind me that I need a cigarette right now.
As for the third memo: well that’s probably quite a clever one, quite deftly done. The underlying implication, I think, is that GP are using Michael Dean as an excuse not to cough up any bonuses this year, whilst coating the message with a little sugar at the same time by letting everyone know that their jobs are safe. It’s crafty. They taketh then they giveth away…
“And what do you think about this bonus thing, then?” I persevere.
“Some people don’t deserve bonuses,” she replies dryly.
At 12.15 p.m. I’m finally called down to see Margaret Blackmore. I guess this tells me a lot about my position in the pecking order at GP because I’m about number ten in the list of people she’s seen today. She started with the department heads soon after nine this morning and has been giving everybody approximately fifteen minutes of reassurance ever since. Sylvia from editorial was one of the first to go down. When she returned she was all smiles: apparently Margaret’s a real cutie.
I knock on the door to Michael Dean’s former office and enter. “You wanted to see me,” I say breezily.
Margaret is sitting where Michael Dean used to sit; she’s power dressing too – in fact, she’s had something of a makeover. If you squint your eyes a little it could almost be Joan Collins sitting there. Even so, it’s all a little wasted on Margaret: no amount of refurbishment is going to repair the damage that time has done to this one.
“Sit down, John,” she motions from behind the piles of rubbish that still cover most of Michael Dean’s former desk. “It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you, too.” Although obviously that’s not strictly true: surprised to see you would be better… or shocked… or fucking amazed to see you sitting there in Michael Dean’s desk would be more appropriate.
“You’re probably a little surprised to see me sitting here,” says Margaret. “…Most people are.”
“Not really,” say I. “I’ve heard that you’ve been doing a great job in books so it doesn’t come as that much of a surprise. The only real surprise is how quickly they’ve sorted things out – I expected it to take weeks, if not months.” Good answer.
“Well speed is of the essence.”
“Erm… yes, I suppose it is.”
Margaret fiddles about in Michael Dean’s detritus and produces a brown cardboard folder. “I’ve been looking at your staff assessment,” she informs me, although the cardboard folder looks like nobody’s been near it for about three decades. “It’s impressive.”
“Thanks,” I say, genuinely flattered. “That’s good to know.”
“Yes… um… you’re definitely one of Gravity’s finest assets.”
“That’s even nicer to know.”
“Yes… I think that you and I could work well together.”
This is a little more disturbing. I don’t like the way she just used the word ‘could’ when ‘will’ or ‘shall’ would surely have been a whole lot better. If I’m honest, this is what I’ve silently been waiting for and, when it wasn’t being distracted by Marie’s silences and Carol’s black eye, what my mind has been preoccupied with for most of the weekend. The big worry for me is still the sex thing: what with Michael Dean’s sudden disappearance, coupled with my inability to bring the subject up during the Chinese meal that we shared on Friday night, I remain in limbo as to what is happening with all that. I’m still yet to make my mind up about whether it’s Louise or the designer from the cookery project who is responsible for this absurd accusation; I’m also unsure as to how far Michael actually took this business before he left: did he go and see Mary Bridges from personnel and report the complaint? Or did he do nothing, which means that right now all the evidence is likely to be sitting there amongst the rubble on his former desk?. Call me paranoid but this what I’m imagining the could work together thing is all about.
“I’m sure we will,” I say. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Yes… well… I’d just like to reassure you that your job here is safe for the immediate future. You’ll find that I run a tight ship but if you’re fair with me I’ll be fair with you.”
Is it my imagination or have you noticed as well that almost everything Margaret says is a cliché? “Yes… that sounds… fair.” I reply.
“Good… because if you’re happy I’m happy.”
There – there she goes again!
“Yeah… I’m happy… it sounds good,” I say.
Margaret smiles at me: what with her and her makeover and me and my smart suit, it’s like we’re both at a wedding reception or something. Then she says: “Do you have any questions? Time is at a premium and I’ve got others to see…”
Well apart from the obvious one, which you know I’m not going to ask, I haven’t really. “Not really,” I say. “Other than to let you know that if there’s any way I can help you settle into the new job you’ve only got to ask.”
Margaret’s smile broadens, warmly it seems to me: “That’s nice,” she says. “I’m sure there’s every chance I’ll be taking you up on that.”
“That’s what friends are for.” Ugh! Did I really just say that?
“Yes… yes it is…”
Well, well, well. This is a bit of a turn up for the books… Sylvia from editorial was right: Margaret really is a bit of cutie. When I said earlier that I was looking forward to working with her I was not actually lying. A little dim, a little slow, maybe, but Margaret is certainly an improvement on Michael Dean. Not only that, she gave no indication that she knew anything whatsoever about the harassment thing. It’s beginning to look like I’m off the hook. Has this really just happened? Thank-you God. What a tremendously fine start to the week: it really does look like Michael Dean has not reported the sex thing to anyone. If I’m right it means that I’m completely in the clear. Now all I’ve got to do is to find out who my mystery complainant is and convince her that she’s got it all wrong, and everything is back on track. That is, if you excuse Marie, and what I very much suspect the next stage of her tantrum is likely to be… and my mother… and my father, of course.
As luck would have it I’ve got an immediate opportunity to try to begin to set the record straight. It’s lunchtime and I’m in the Ship with Dave from accounts; I’ve just acquired lager and we’re both feeling rather pleased with the way things are panning out. Then I notice Elaine… Elaine Preston – the young designer whom I may have got a little heavy handed with at Sarah from personnel’s leaving do last week. She’s just come into the pub with some young guy from production: his eyes are all over her.
Actually, you can see why I might have done what I might have done last week: Elaine is a real cracker – long curly hair cascading over her shoulders, skinny but not anorexic, cute face, long sensual neck. If I was ten or fifteen years younger Elaine would be exactly the type of female that I’d be endeavouring to fill in my long winter evenings with. If I didn’t have other things to think about there’s a strong possibility that I would be feeling more than a little frustrated right now. I mean, at what age do we suddenly cross the line and mild flirting becomes blatant harassment? I’ll bet Elaine would have just giggled shyly if the guy standing next to her had come up to her at Sarah’s from personnel’s leaving do and did what I’m supposed to have done. Then, she’d have quickly decided whether or not he was her type and then either given him the brush off or ended up snogging with him in a taxi home. Alternatively, she could have left him dangling on a string – let the poor boy think that he’s in with a chance and milk his pulsing testosterone for all it’s worth. This is the side of the line that I find myself standing on these days: women – girls – like Elaine think so little of what I’ve become that they can’t even be bothered to leave me dangling on a string. They’d rather I kept my big, fat sweaty distance.
I make small talk for fifteen or twenty with Dave while I wait for Elaine’s companion to go to the toilet before I make my move. Elaine is standing alone at the bar when I come up behind her.
“Hello there,” I say jauntily. “It’s Elaine isn’t it? You’re on the cookery project aren’t you?”
Elaine jumps slightly and turns towards the sound of my voice. She doesn’t recognise me at first – it’s probably the smart suit that’s throwing her – then there’s a slow glimmer of recognition followed by a weak – a very weak – and nervous smile.
“Oh, hi,” she stutters. “How’s it going?”
“Not bad,” I reply. “I was sitting over there and I saw you come in. I thought I’d say hello.”
“Oh… well… hello then,” she false-smiles.
“Listen, I’m just getting a drink – would you like one?”
Elaine’s face drops when I say this and I realise straight away what my mistake is. As we are all only too aware: what I’m supposed to be doing here is clearing things up; the impression I’m hoping to create is of someone who is friendly… helpful… jovial… unthreatening… adjectives of this nature. However, what I fear I might actually be doing is the very thing I’m trying to avoid: There seems to me a fairly strong chance that by offering to buy her a drink Elaine believes I’m making sexual overtures towards her again. Any second now I’m going to ask her out to dinner or something,
“Um… no thanks. I’ve got one already… thanks.”
Acutely aware that my window of opportunity is limited by the quantity of liquid that Elaine’s partner has so far consumed this lunch hour, I decide to lay the matter to rest once and for all:
“Look,” I say awkwardly. “I’m sorry if I came on a bit strong at that leaving do last week. It was only the beer talking – I hope I didn’t offend you.”
Elaine looks puzzled.
“You know…” I continue. “I didn’t mean anything by it… I was just being… friendly.”
“Oh right…” she says, looking anxiously towards the door to the men’s toilets.
“I mean… I’m practically married, you know. It’s not the sort of thing I usually do.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Look… let me buy you lunch or something some time to make it up to you…um… if you like.”
Elaine smiles nervously at me. “Oh, there’s no need for that…” she says,
“Oh… all right then… um… whatever,” I say.
I move slowly back to my table, where Dave has been watching my Henry Kissinger impersonation with ill-disguised interest. I’m not sure that this exercise has been entirely successful; when I left Elaine she was looking just as freaked out as she did at Sarah’s last Tuesday. As if to confirm my suspicions I watch as Elaine’s suitor returns from the toilets: after a brief conversation with her, his eyes dart over to where Dave and I are seated and then he quickly looks away when he realises that we are looking at him.