For a moment or two I think about going back inside but Sonny-boy is standing guard at the door, keeping a watchful eye on my every movement. From the look on his face he seems to be enjoying my misery, which I most certainly am not. I’m panting like a dog and I’m sweating so much that my shirt is sticking to my back; there’s an icy wind drilling through my bones and once again it’s drizzling. I don’t know what I should do next.
In a daze I walk for a while in any direction, passing the French House in Dean Street and eventually finding myself dodging through the crowds in Berwick street market, staring blankly at the vegetable stalls, no longer feeling like I have any right to be walking the streets of Soho. I’m now a foreigner… an interloper: it feels like every person in the market – in the whole world – knows what has just happened to me. I’m embarrassed and hurt and aching and in pain, I want to cry. I want to kill somebody. Fifteen years at GP has just been wiped away in less than half an hour – how could they do that to me? Why would they do that to me? What have I ever done to deserve treatment like this? Now I’m mad: cursing under my breath like one of those angry old tramps you try your best to ignore in the street, I’m wading through the herds of tourists, still carrying the plastic bag full of biros and staplers and whatever else I grabbed in the panic. I vanish into the crowd…
3:15 p.m.: Carol is back in her army fatigues – she’s lying on the sofa with the TV remote in her hand, distractedly scanning the digital channels, looking like she lives here. I enter the room and she immediately switches the television off and lays the remote down on to the carpet. “Oh hi, John,” she says, smiling sweetly at me.
In the confusion of the past couple of hours I’d almost forgotten all about Carol; I’d certainly not been expecting her to still be here when I got home. Last night, the thought of this girl, her lips… her breasts… her body… her young-ness… had kept me from sleeping. Now I just want her to go away.
“Still here?” I reply, failing, I suspect, to hide my irritation at her continuing presence.
“Want a coffee?” she asks, the second female today to make such an offer.
I don’t really but I say yes all the same. I watch as Carol climbs to her feet and skips into the kitchen. Then I follow her.
“Crappy weather again,” I tell her.
“Yes… awful,” she replies.
“How did you sleep?” I ask. This, if I think back to my university days, would be what anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski refers to as ‘phatic communion’: that is, speech whose primary function is to maintain conversational contact between people, rather than expressing or conveying any meaning.
“Oh… wonderfully,” she gushes.
“Good… excellent…” say I. “I’ve slept in that bed a couple of times myself and I’ve always found it uncomfortable.”
“No…” says Carol. “It was very nice, the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages.”
I’ve already decided that I’m not going to tell Carol about what’s happened. I don’t know why but it just wouldn’t seem in character: I’m supposed to be the stable, sussed-out one; the model for what life could be like for Carol is she only got her act together and found herself a job. Except now I don’t have a job and I don’t want to tell Carol that I don’t have a job. A person like the person Carol thinks I am isn’t supposed to have problems like the one I’ve just been landed with. I don’t want to involve Carol in my humiliation, I don’t want her to see me with the entrails of my mortality hanging out of my stomach: that isn’t what my relationship with Carol is supposed to be about. This is what I’m telling myself as I try to think up a joke or something nondescript to say to her, but deep down I know that I don’t want to tell Carol that I’ve just lost my job because I’m ashamed. It’s not because I’m being brave and bloody minded, like John Wayne hiding a bullet wound from the leading lady he’s just saved from some outlaws, it’s because I’m being a coward. I’m scared of what my telling Carol would do to the image of myself that I have constructed for her.
“There were some phone calls for you, earlier on,” Carol gatecrashes my worries and immediately introduces another two dozen into the mix. “That was why I decided um…to… hang around.
“You didn’t answer them did you?!” I snap, suddenly frantic with worry. Now I’m once again running through that imaginary conversation between Carol and Marie. Part of me wants to reach out and throttle Carol.
“Relax,” she says. “Of course I didn’t.” Carol turns towards the corridor, where the answering machine is blinking accusingly at me.
Message One: “Johnny… are you there? It’s Dave. I’m at the office. Call me back as soon as you get home…”
Message Two: “Hello John. It’s Mary Bridges… it’s about twelve-forty-five. I’m calling to see if you’re feeling okay. I don’t know whether you’re there or not, John… I can’t tell you how sorry I am about what happened. I really didn’t want it to happen that way. Could you call me at the office, John, there are some things that we need to discuss…”
Message Three: Blank.
Message Four: “Johnny it’s me again, it’s one-thirty and I’m in the Ship. Call me on my mobile.”
Message Six: “Johnny, it’s ten past two. I’m still here with Phyllis – we both think they’ve behaved like real cunts to you… We’re gonna be here all afternoon… We’re not going back to work… Come and have a beverage with us.”
“And that’s about the long and short of it, I suppose.”
I’m sitting on the sofa in the living room, Carol is lying across from me on the floor sucking on a roll-up. In actual fact, these are the exact same positions that we occupied last night… what was it? fifteen… sixteen hours ago? Fifteen… sixteen centuries ago? I have an extra large brandy in my hand and I’m smoking my third spliff in an hour with fingers that just won’t stop shaking. It is now just after five and already dark outside. Now here’s a thought: who would have imagined that Carol would have turned out the winner? That, instead of me doing my Professor Henry Higgins bit and plucking this poor young thing away from the gutter, I would end up being hurled unceremoniously towards the gutter myself. That’ll teach me for being so smug.
“The whole thing is so… so… uncivilised,” says the girl who begs for loose change under cash dispensers and gets beaten up and robbed by her boyfriend for a living.
“Yeah… that’s one way of putting it,” I shrug bleakly.
“And they’re allowed to do that to you?”
“Allowed to do what?”
“You know… to just throw you out of the building like you’re a criminal or something?”
“It seems that way,” I say.
“It’s just so… uncivilised.”
I feel it worth mentioning that in my current state of mind sex has now become the minorest of minor issues. I’m no longer looking at – or even looking away from – Carol like’s she’s some kind of walking wet dream, I’ve stopped fantasising about her as a ridiculously unattainable sexual object and now what I’d really like her to do is behave as the other woman in my life would do if she were here. Right now Carol… sorry Marie, would be giving me hugs … making me cups of tea… pouring my brandy for me… giving me little pecks on the cheek… trying to make me feel a little better about myself. Such gratuities, I am sure you understand, would not have come without a certain cost attached to them: but I’d have been prepared to put up with the inevitable bits of chastisement so long as it didn’t get too heavy, which I’m sure Marie would not have allowed to happen.
However, I ain’t getting any kisses or hugs or cups of tea from this one: it’s too early in our relationship for all that. We haven’t been going out together for six years and we haven’t lived together for five; we don’t watch Newsnight together three or four nights a week and I’ve never queued up with Carol in Boots while she bought her sanitary towels; I’ve never had sex with Carol and she’s never had sex with me; she’s never seen me cry at the end of a movie or giggle at celebrity TV bloopers. It would be wrong to expect the hugging and kissing bit without having already gone through these other parts of the bonding process. Still, at least she’s making the effort. She’s staring, I feel, with genuine sympathy at the strange bloke who’s been giving her money for the past six months; the man who bought her cheese sandwiches, and paid off her sort-of-not-really boyfriend last night and then invited her back to his place and didn’t try to sleep with her. She’s taken the whole day off work so that she can be with this person, so I guess you have to give credit where credit’s due. It’s unlikely, it has to be said, that she’s doing this for any selfish reason; she’s not after my money or has suddenly decided I’m a dead ringer for Tom Cruise and is hoping that a little sympathy will encourage me to rip off my clothes and expose my washboard torso. It’s nothing to do with sex. In fact, I can safely say that there is not a single part of me that would not remain resolutely unmoved if Carol were to suddenly fish out my copy of ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ by Joe Cocker and start doing a Kim Basinger-type strip-tease on the living room carpet.
Then Carol asks me what I’m going to do next and for the life of me I don’t know. In the best matter-of-fact voice I can muster, I try to tell her that I’ll just have to get another job – which ‘shouldn’t really be that much of a problem when you consider my experience’ – but I’m not sure that I sound too convincing when I say this. We sit in our relative positions and drink the brandy and get more stoned and I think about phoning Marie at her mother’s and telling her what’s happened. I want to and I don’t want to: I want to because I know that it is something that I’m going to have to get over and done with sooner or later; I want to because I need Marie at my side right now, I need her sharpness, her common sense, her inner rage – I need her to screw up her face like she does and tell me what gits they all are; I need her to be on my side. I don’t want to because I don’t want to: I can’t face having to tell someone else my grim little story for the second time today, I don’t want Marie to see me like this – so puny… so pathetic… so derailed.
It is during a convenient moment of brief silence that the telephone begins to ring: we’re sitting in the quiet, Carol and I, there’s no music playing and most of the lights in the living room are yet to be turned on. Carol’s ears prick up and she looks over at me from the floor. I don’t want to answer it – there is never any question about this I my mind, and I know that had Carol not been sitting here across from me on the carpet I would feel under no pressure to do so. Why would I want to answer the telephone? Who in the world would I possibly want to speak to? But something inside me knows that my refusing to answer would only make matters worse. I just can’t surrender to my fear, to the sick feeling that runs deep down into the pit of my stomach, and I just can’t allow myself to slip another couple of notches in Carol’s estimation. I would gain nothing in doing this. And so I reluctantly climb to my feet and I answer.
“…John… it’s me,” says my mother.
Carol watches me as I digest this latest piece of information. She sees me pick up the receiver and hold it to my ear. She hears the faint crackle of somebody else’s voice on the line. She regards my features with a mixture of surprise and curiosity as I make my reply, snarling with misery, enunciating every syllable, slowing the words down, emphasising every vowel, every consonant: “Fuck… off!”