Smack – Chapter 17

Chapter Seventeen

Ten-nine-eight… Wednesday morning: I’m standing in the office elevator with an incredibly tall guy from accounts who only started working here last week. We’ve both said our good mornings and we’ve both mentioned how much we hate elevators and he’s just asked me the time and I’ve replied nine-fifty-eight, but my mind, not surprisingly, is on the girl that I’ve left sleeping in the spare room. Actually, notwithstanding the fact that I’m still wondering what on earth was going through my head when I decided to invite Carol back to stay last night, I’m inwardly feeling rather pleased with myself. I’m pleasantly surprised that I could be so noble: noble enough to rescue a damsel in distress (well… pay to rescue a damsel in distress), noble enough to give the poor waif a bed, and noble enough not to risk ruining things by attempting to climb into it with her – even though I wanted to so badly that I had trouble sleeping last night for thinking about her. This is the reason for my somewhat unwholesome appearance this morning: unshaven, slightly frazzled around the edges, a little more puffy about the face than usual. Not, I imagine, what you are supposed to look like when you’ve just spent the night being all chaste and virtuous.

Seven-six-five-four… Yet even though I’m pleased that I kept my dignity and managed to keep Mr. Hyde locked away in the broom cupboard, I can’t help but feel a twinge of concern: the fact is I’ve left far too many doors unlocked for comfort; not physically – although when I think about it this is not strictly true – but consequentially. What I mean is that, for the moment at least, I’ve ceased to be in full control of my life. My whole future, it’s gradually beginning to dawn on me, is now dependant on a small number of factors that are so trivial… so nondescript… so undramatic… so neither here nor there… that is seems quite senseless of me to be prepared to put so very much on the line when there’s so very little to be gained. Let me tell you what I’m talking about – how’s about this for a possible scenario? Even though, in the letter I wrote to her this morning before leaving for work, I specifically asked Carol not to answer the telephone, who’s to say that she’s going to take a blind bit of notice of me? All it needs is for Marie to call home (although I know it’s unlikely she’ll do this – in the event that she would want to speak to me she’ll call the office) and for Carol to pick up the telephone and I’m sunk without hope. I won’t even try and contemplate the conversation that they’d have, but I can anticipate the probable aftermath. Marie, no matter how much I will plead my ignorance, my nobility, my sheer Good Samaritanness, is simply not going to believe that I did not take Carol home for one reason and one reason alone. If you see it from her point of view the facts simply do not add up: after all, I’ve known Carol for six months and never once mentioned to Marie that I’ve become a major contributor to the keep-Carol-in-cheese sandwiches-benevolence-fund; if I even attempt to concoct some sort of reason for this oversight it’s only going to make matters worse; likewise, if I decide that my best policy is to deny that I’d ever set eyes on Carol before and put forward the notion that I rescued her and her nose ring last night in a fit of humanitarian compassion, Marie’s going to wonder where this surprising trait has been hiding all these years while she’s been sobbing her heart out in front of TV images of starving Ethiopian children and I’ve been sitting next to her on the sofa completely unmoved. The very least she could do is accuse me of profoundly selective humanitarian compassion. Then there’s Hillary next door, Scenario Number Two of a possible twenty thousand or so: all it takes is for Carol to emerge from the house during one of Hillary’s frequent take-the-dog-for-a-walk-and-nose-through-the-neighbour’s-front-windows-at-the-same-time excursions and once again I’m up the creek without a paddle. Hillary and Marie send each other postcards when they’re on holiday, Hillary and Marie chat to each other whenever they bump into each other at the shops, Hillary and Marie lend each other cookery books. I have every confidence in Hillary’s ability to somehow let it slip that she witnessed a young girl with peroxide hair and army fatigues leaving our house dragging a dirty looking dog behind her while Marie was away at her mum’s.

I don’t wish to go on about things but these are only minor considerations. There are, I am forced to consider, even more alarming, even more thought-provoking possibilities dangling from the rusty gallows that I see before me. What if, for example, I’ve severely misjudged Carol and she’s waited until I’ve left for work and then called up a few of her drongo mates (Brian, perhaps?) and right now they’re rifling through the contents of our house? Through our private possessions? Through my crap CD collection? Through Marie’s knicker drawer? I’m going to have a fabulous time explaining that one away to Marie… to the police… to our insurance company. So, when you look at things objectively, this is what I’ve just gone and done: I’ve entrusted my entire future to some girl whom I hardly know who lives in a squat and begs in the street for money. I guess that invalidates my membership application to MENSA. I’ll bet Marie will think twice about ever running off to her mother’s again.

…Three-two-one… My thoughts have left me more than a little unnerved as I reach my desk and greet the recently reformed Louise. However, as I take my seat and start to pull off my jacket Louise does something that I’m utterly unprepared for: my face, no doubt, a pale mask of surprise, she proceeds to ask me if I’d like a coffee. She does this in such a way as to suggest that this is a routine that we always go through at this time of the morning. This is certainly an unexpected development – only two days ago Louise was refusing to acknowledge my existence now she’s making me coffee, could my little talking-to have really been that successful? Perhaps Louise plans to slip some arsenic into the mix. Or maybe she’s fallen victim to a tropical disease or something that has addled her senses… Marburg or Ebola, perhaps. Actually, looking closely at Louise I can see that there’s something not quite right about her. I can’t quite put my finger on it but there’s something about her that seems… well… different.

…Zero: Then I notice Louise glancing anxiously over my shoulder at an object lying on my desk: it is an envelope. The envelope is white and unaddressed but, as it’s been left on my desk, I assume it’s for me. I start to open it and Louise quickly scampers off towards the kitchen, apparently to prepare my customary morning coffee like she always does. Then I notice something else: I don’t know why I didn’t notice it earlier but I’m suddenly aware that the whole of the office is completely silent. Nobody is making a sound. You could hear a pin drop. There are no phones going off in the background, there’s no rumble of idle chatter, no surface laughter: all I can hear is the tap-tap-tapping of computer keyboards. And yet everyone seems to be here: it’s not as though half the staff have come down with the flu or anything; as I look down towards the other end of the office I can see about twenty people: they all seem to be going about their work as if in a trance. The view reminds of a scene from the Stepford Wives.

Feeling ever more confused, I frown a little and shake my head and turn my attention back to the envelope. Inside is a small hand-written note, it reads:

Dear John

Would you come and see me in my office as soon as you get in this morning.

Thanks

Margaret B.

I’m beginning to feel distinctly disorientated as I approach Michael Dean’s former office. On the way down here I strolled the whole length of the fifth floor and people were still acting like they’d been hypnotised by Paul McKenna. Nobody looked up as I made my way down the corridor; nobody said hi or good morning or whatever; it was as though I’d suddenly ceased to exist. To add to the confusion there’s somebody I’ve never met before standing outside Michael’s office: he’s in his mid-twenties, greasy, six-foot four, about nineteen stone of muscular blubber, a neck like Mike Tyson’s. He’s wearing a blue uniform made of nylon or something. Not a publishing type at all. He sees me coming and he ignores me, too.

I knock on Michael Dean’s office door, which still has his name plate screwed to the outside. I hear the sound of muffled talking for a moment and then the voice of Margaret Blackmore calls out to me: “Who is it?”.

“Me…” I reply. “Um… John… John Price – you asked me to come and see you.

“Oh… hold on a moment please, John.”

I move my head closer to the door and hear more muffled talking. Finally, a different female voice invites me to come in.

Margaret Blackmore is sitting in the Michael Dean’s old chair; she’s obviously been doing a little refurbishment. All the rubble has been cleared away from Michael’s old table and it now smells of Mr. Sheen. There is a picture of two children (Margaret’s, no doubt) in a silver frame resting in the middle of this wooden rectangle of glistening order. Sitting in a chair next to the one that Margaret invites me to sit in is Mary Bridges, Head of Personnel. I’m getting a bad feeling about this.

I lower myself into the seat and cross my arms and wait to see what happens next. Margaret looks at Mary and Mary looks at Margaret and then they both look at me and then Margaret looks away, finally Mary begins to speak.

“Hmm… John,” she announces in an embarrassed, awkward sort of voice. “I’m afraid we’ve got some rather bad news for you…”

There is a pause while Mary waits for my reaction but I say nothing. I just cross my arms a little tighter and try to keep looking at her between the eyes.

“I shan’t mince words, John,” she continues. “I’ve been asked to tell you that the company has decided to terminate your employment… I’m afraid… sorry… John.”

It takes a special kind of person do to a job like Mary’s. It has its good points, of course. For instance: Mary gets to write letters to job applicants telling them that they’ve been accepted for employment by GP – that can’t be such a bad thing to do; she also gets to send memos to staff members telling them when they’ve got a pay rise or what the size of their bonus is going to be this year, again, that can’t be such an unpleasant thing to do. However, is it really worth it for all this?

“Terminate my employment?” I say. “What do you mean ‘terminate my employment’?”

“Well… I would have thought that was fairly self-explanatory,” says Mary.

I’m looking at the official mouthpiece of Gravity Publications. This middle-aged woman dressed in grey or fawn or pastel or whatever word it is they use to describe the colour of the anonymous skirt and blouse she is wearing. I’m looking at her and I’m actually feeling sorry for her: you can see that she is nervous, she can hardly stop her hands from shaking. The official mouthpiece of Gravity Publications: the woman they employ to do the dirtiest of their dirty laundry. I’m looking at her now and I can’t help but feel sorry for her.

“I didn’t get that,” I burble, even though everyone present knows that I did. ‘Could you… um… say it again?”

Now Margaret Blackmore pipes up: “It was thought that it was in the best interests of the company – and yourself, John – if there was a parting of the ways.”

“Well you’ve change your tune,” I say vindictively to Margaret, remembering our conversation yesterday afternoon. “What happened to all this, ‘you’re one of Gravity’s finest assets’ business?”

Margaret stiffens in her chair. “Um… yes I might have said that,” she admits. “But… um… things have changed since… it was decided that… it was decided that…”

Mary cuts in: “It was decided that GP needed a fresh start.”

“Right…” I nod. “You mean out with the dead wood…”

“Put it any way you like,” says Margaret, her composure slightly restored. “But the simple fact is that your services are no longer required at GP. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.”

“Margaret,” I say peevishly, turning abruptly to face her. “Is there ever a time when you don’t talk in clichés?”

Margaret says nothing.

“Hmm… John… there’s something else…” Mary says, sheepishly. “We’d… um… like you to leave straight away.”

“I beg your pardon?” I say, moving my gaze away from Margaret.

Mary adjusts her anonymous skirt with a slow deliberation. “We’d like you to go right now. We want you to go and clear up your desk and leave the building as soon as you’ve done so.”

And then suddenly everything catches up with me: it’s like an angry mob has been let loose inside my head: my father… my mother… Marie… Carol’s Brian… Louise… Michael Dean… the designer from the cookery project… Margaret Blackmore… Mary Bridges… it’s like they’ve all been meeting up in secret and decided to take turns picking on me. I’m suddenly terribly fatigued and horribly energised and developing what feels like a heavy cold; I’m hung over and pissed off and guilty and lonely and depressed and hunted and wounded and humiliated and hot and cold and suicidal and ecstatic… and all of these emotions bubble up inside me in a great sticky broth and I find that my only way of expressing my confusion and hurt and anguish is to climb to my feet and shake my fists at these two middle-aged women and cry: “This is going to fucking cost you… you know that, don’t you! This is going to fucking cost you!”

But it’s not going to cost them very much; not as much as it should cost them. This notion is introduced at some point in the ensuing chaos and does not really surface until much, much later; but by that time it is far too late.

What happens next is difficult to articulate. All I know is that my head is trapped inside my body and the outside world is first smothered and, finally, totally obscured by my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions. I’m like an astronaut in a space suit, a deep sea diver in a diving bell, someone has placed a wet towel over my head. I watch events unfurl but somehow do not feel part of them: I lose my connections, I’m no longer piloting my own space ship, my head feels out of its depth, my ears are full of soap.

I watch as the door bursts open and I see Johnny-blue-uniform charge into the room like a rhino. He says: is everything all right Mrs Blackmore? And she says: no it isn’t actually and he says, with exaggerated resolve: right! and then I’m being pulled from the room by my arms and I try to go back inside and I’m told: I wouldn’t do that if I were you, sir, and I’m thinking: why is he calling me sir? Who is he to call me sir? And then I’m being forced towards the stairs and when we’re out of earshot of the others I’m being warned: if you don’t behave yourself you’ll get my fist in your face, and I’m thinking: who is this? why is this happening to me? Things like this don’t happen at GP; then I’m suddenly back on the fifth floor and people are still ignoring me and I’m marched down the corridor still held by the arm and I catch occasional glimpses of people’s faces as they pretend to work and then I’m seeing Louise hop quickly towards me and then she’s moving warily out of the way of me and Tyson-neck; and then I’m back at my desk where the envelope that I opened fifty years earlier is staring at me accusingly.

I’m sitting breathlessly at my desk, suddenly conscious for a moment or so. The towel momentarily lifted from my brow. The young meathead in the blue uniform is standing five or six paces away from me. His eyes follow my movements: he looks worried and guilty and menacing all at the same time.

This is a situation that I never for once imagined I’d be the focus of: I’ve seen it happen to other people a couple of times over the years but I never anticipated it would ever happen to me. The rationale behind the idea of having people in my position escorted from the building is fairly self-apparent: ostensibly it is to stop disgruntled employees from erasing any valuable office computer files in a fit of pique, or, even worse, copying valuable office computer files on to a zip and taking them to rivals or whatever. It happened to a picture researcher named Mike Gibson a few years ago and I was one of the appalled onlookers who stood by and watched. Such desperate measures are unusual for GP; on the rare occasions in the past when someone has been sacked it’s fair to say that proceedings have been conducted in a rather more civil manner, as in the case of Michael Dean only last week. It’s usually only those members of staff whom GP fundamentally does not trust – the loose cannons, the manic depressives, the ones who look like they could do with a fortnight at the Priory – who are given the back-handed compliment of this kind of treatment. I guess that says quite a lot about what they think about me.

I hear a voice. The meathead speaks again. “I’m sorry,” he says, looking at his watch, “but I’m going to have to hurry you. You’ve only got four minutes left.”

Four minutes? I’ve got four minutes to rifle through the drawers of my desk and gather up anything that I would like to keep as a memento of my fifteen years service at Gravity Publications. I open my top drawer: a diary, some pens, some letters, an old key-ring, some out of date lottery tickets. Which of these trophies would I most like to preserve?

While I’m thinking about this I see movement in the foreground. Louise appears from nowhere and heads for her desk, then she sees me still sitting here and turns on her heel. For no particular reason I yell as she retreats: “Where’s my coffee, Louise?”

Then the meathead edges closer. “Please… hurry up…” he urges.

I turn on him, breathing heavily, veins probably popping out of my forehead. “Look Sonny-boy,” I say, acutely aware that it is the first time in my life that I have ever called another person, Sonny-boy. “I’ll leave this desk when I’m good and ready… understand?”

But Sonny-boy doesn’t. “Look, John… calm down…” he says. “I’m only doing my job… I’ve got to have you out of…”

“What the fuck did you call me?” I yell. “You don’t call me John… do you hear? You call me Mr. Price, understand?… I wasn’t aware that we’ve been introduced… where did we meet … at the Nuremberg Rally?!”

Sonny-boy seems unimpressed by my attempts at irony, instead he reacts to the sound of my voice, or rather its volume. He moves towards me purposefully.

This is where it gets all starts to get a little woozy again. The next thing I know I’m on my feet and I’m actually swinging a punch at this solid wall of fat and muscle towering over me. I see Sonny-boy bend his back and scornfully avoid the blow, then I see his arms coming towards me and suddenly one of them is around my neck: he has me in a neck hold and I’m shouting and spluttering and screaming curses and obscenities. And as he squeezes, the smell of his sweat – my own sweat filling my head, I can hear him saying something, sometimes clearly sometimes ill-defined, as if my head is bobbing up and down in water: “Blurm down… Take it blurm-blurm… Blurm-blurm… If I blurm-blurm will you promise that you blurm-blurm anything?”

Then I’m nodding, and nodding again and I’m being released; the vice is being loosened from around my neck, and I’m standing upright, arching my shoulders and yelling: right… somebody call the police! But nobody does and Sonny-boy holds me back when I try to reach for a phone. From somewhere a plastic carrier bag is thrust into my hands and Sonny-Boy is telling me: you’ve got two and a half-minutes. Now I’m like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, filling the bag up to the top with anything I can lay my hands on: marker pens… staplers… paper clips… meaningless slips of paper. Then I’m moving towards my computer keyboard.

“Not the computer,” I’m being told as Sonny-boy hauls me forcefully away.

“But it’s got personal stuff on it…”

“Sorry… no-can-do…”

Now I’m being watched by everyone’s shocked faces as, hugging my plastic carrier bag of goodies to my chest, I’m dragged the way I came. Then I’m being hauled down the stairs and shoved through reception, where a number of surprised clients stare open-mouthed as I make my exit. It’s like I’m being ejected from a night club by an overzealous bouncer. Then all of a sudden there’s a burst of white light, almost like a camera flash going off, and I’m standing alone in Dean Street, surrounded by tourists and traffic wardens; young office workers smoking cigarettes in street doorways look over at me distractedly. Then someone, an old man, is ambling by and asking me what the time is: he calls me ‘Sonny’: it’s ten-twenty-six.

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