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Dangerous – why I wrote the sequel to Rope Burns

The birth of Dangerous

I was never close to my father. In fact, to call our relationship ambivalent would be like suggesting that Tom and Jerry had the occasional spat. Indeed, if one single act sums up our relationship it is probably his refusal to see or speak on the phone to me as he lay in bed at home in the months before he died of Motor Neuron Disease. Others may have been able to offer an opinion as to why he didn’t want to see me at the end of his life; but I believe that he and I both knew the reason. It undoubtedly had something to do with his lack of confidence in my ability to keep quiet about a family secret that I’m sure he would have preferred to take to his grave with him.

He died in 2014 and even though I’d only seen him a handful of times in the preceding decades I did my fair share of crying. I didn’t expect to but I did. Initially it was a song entitled Call Me A Rainbow by a relatively obscure Brighton-based band called The Mummers that would set me off. Every time I played this song, which was a lot, I just couldn’t stop the tears from coming. It got to the point where even thinking about it was enough to make the waterworks begin. Eventually I had to just keep away from the song.

I didn’t know why I was crying. I still don’t. Even though it’s no great revelation that the death of a parent is supposed to be an unhappy event I was seriously surprised that it hit me this way. I was even more taken aback when the frequency of my tears began to escalate. Being home alone a lot because of what I do for a living I found that scarcely a day went by when I did not break down. Sometimes I cried on my own, two, three, four times’ a day. Sometimes I would cry in front of family members, sometimes in front of friends.

Being a big hairy bloke, this behavior began to trouble me. Eventually, some six or seven months after his death I went to the doctor. He told me I was probably suffering from depression and immediately put me on something called Citalopram, a commonly prescribed anti-depressant. Unusually for me I actually began ingesting these little white pills without researching their side effects or questioning my GP’s decision. I guess I was desperate.

Amazingly Citalopram made a difference. I no longer felt like crying. In fact, I no longer felt like anything: I couldn’t be happy and I couldn’t be sad. I was just stuck in the middle: a zombie-like hinterland with senses dulled and blunted. Unfortunately, there were also other effects: my arms and legs would periodically tremor to a degree in which I thought I was displaying the early signs of Parkinson’s. I could also no longer have sex. It just wasn’t working for me down there.

So I stopped the pills and paid another visit to the doctor. This time he suggested I see a therapist.

Being a big hairy bloke, the idea of therapy made me uncomfortable; in my mind it seemed like something that other people did. I also saw it as a sign of weakness, which I’m aware makes no logical sense. But I went.

My therapist turned out to be Chinese with, shall we say, not the most fluent grasp of the English language. This meant that speaking to her was a painfully slow exercise. The meaning of every other word had to be explained and she simply refused to laugh at any of my jokes. It was a frustrating experience. However, in the middle of it all something unexpected happened.

One day for no apparent reason I started talking to my Chinese therapist about boxing. More than two decades ago I was a boxing writer for a number of magazines and newspapers. I even edited a boxing trade magazine. I was in my mid-twenties and it was a very exciting time for me. However, I gave it all up, I explained to my therapist, when a friend of mine, the boxer Michael Watson, was almost fatally injured during a world title fight. Before I withdrew from the sport for good, however, I wrote a book entitled ‘Rope Burns’ which sought to explain why I was never going to write about boxing again.

For almost 25 years I had almost nothing to do with boxing. All of the many contacts I had made in the sport, some of them good friends, were forgotten about. I gave up reading about the sport and I gave up watching it. My experience with boxing was, I thought, very much consigned to my past.

However, not long after my father died I had read about the death of Boxing Monthly editor Glyn Leach at only 54. Glyn was only a couple of years older than me and we had worked together on the magazine that he ended up editing for over two decades. Out of respect I had attended his funeral and bumped into dozens of faces from my past, some ex-boxers, some boxing writers whom I had known years earlier. It was a bittersweet experience for someone who was still raw and disturbed by the death of his father. In the pub afterwards, however, people were coming up to me that I had never met and shaking my hand. They seemed to know me even though I didn’t know them. Some of them told me that they were writers and had read and admired ‘Rope Burns’ in their younger days. Needless to say this was good for the ego. Whatever the case I felt a lot of love directed towards me that night.

Perhaps in retrospect that was why I had brought up the subject of boxing with my therapist. And perhaps that’s why in the weeks that followed my conversation with her I began to take her suggestion that I consider writing about boxing again a little more seriously.

And so I began making contact with people whom I used to know in the boxing world a quarter of a century earlier. I had no idea why I was doing this and I hadn’t a clue where it would take me. All I knew is that I felt an urge inside me to talk. To talk to someone. And it ended up being boxers whom I offloaded on to.

My interviews, if you can call them that, we unconventional to say the least. Most of the time I ended up talking about myself, which must have struck my subjects as being a little peculiar. However, their kindness and patience shone through. Before long I began to understand what it was that had attracted me to the world of boxing in the first place. Almost to a man, these so-called hard men of the ring proved themselves to be sensitive, generous human beings. Somehow they seemed to understand and sympathize with what I was going through.

Then in February after meeting up with a handful of names such as transgender boxing manager Kellie Maloney, former world champions Steve Collins and Colin McMillan, my progress hit a rather substantial bump in the road when my daughter fell gravely ill. I ended up abandoning my little writing project and spending the majority of my time at her bedside as she fought to overcome a hole in her lung and pneumonia. She was in hospital for almost three weeks but just as she was discharged fate played a rather unexpected card.

Literally the day after she left hospital I discovered that the ex-boxer Herol Graham was in the ward next to her, also gravely ill. And for a reason that it took me a long time to work out I ended up spending a lot of time at his bedside. There seemed to me to be an element of fate at play: back in 1991 I had not been there for Michael Watson as he lay gravely ill in hospital. Now, here was I attending to the needs of a boxer from my past who had mysteriously dropped in to my lap.

The period I spent with Herol I would almost describe as life transforming. As he got better so did I. And as I got better it seemed to me as if a dam had burst. For eight months I ended up meeting people from my past and sharing incredibly emotional experiences with them. Tears were shed and laughter was enjoyed with these so-called hard men of the ring. Due to these experiences I also ended up confronting my mother about that secret I shared with my father that I mentioned earlier.

The result of this is ‘Dangerous’, my unlikely sequel to ‘Rope Burns’, due out on 15 September 2016.

I could say a lot about the book but truth be told I’m not sure of its value. I’m hoping that I’ve managed to come up with something emotionally moving, important even. However, a part of me suspects that what I might actually have created is something that takes self-indulgence to a whole new level.

I’d rather leave it to Andrew Fairley, another writer and the only person except myself to have read the book in its entirety. This is what he emailed to me the day after he started it:

Christ, Ian.

You don’t hold back do you? I’ve rarely come across a text that comes straight from the heart as this. You may disagree but I think it’s truly brilliant mate, and I’m not just saying that.

Some of the prose is beautiful – ‘a world where black men fought and white men thought’ – and what you’ve written grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. It has that rare quality of staying in your mind even though you’ve stopped reading.

I’m on page 80 (thanks for that, I’ve barely done a stroke at work!!) and will finish it tonight or tomorrow morning and let you know what I think once I’ve finished.

It’s remarkable. I think you’ve written another classic and if this doesn’t win awards, I don’t know what will.

Blimey mate. Many thanks for the privilege of reading this — you can rely on me for publicity. Average writers like me come along every day of the week , but you really do have a very special talent indeed.

Andrew  

Of course, it’s always nice to get a good review. But I’m sure that others will not be quite so positive. I’m already stealing myself for this statistical certainty.

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The Comeback — Chapter 04

Posting this while on holiday in Portugal.
CHAPTER FOUR

Paula Chan stood in the back room of Dino’s Gym that served as his makeshift office. ‘He wants to fight,’ she said. She was well spoken, probably educated, no real trace of an accent.
Dino sat back in his chair behind his desk amid the disorder, papers spilling everywhere, old fight posters peeling off the walls. ‘With all due respect darling,’ he said. ‘I think Ollie knows what’s best for Ollie. Don’t you?’
‘Well that’s the problem, isn’t it?’ said Paula. ‘He doesn’t, does he? He never has done.’
Standing sheepishly beside his girlfriend not saying a word was Oliver Long. Equally unconventional outside of the ropes, Long was wearing some sort of three-piece suit accompanied by trainers that were falling to pieces. The beads in his dreadlocks hung over his shoulders like baubles on a Christmas tree. The odour of cheap after-shave was unable to mask the smell of sinsemilla on his breath.
‘Paula, he’s in no condition to fight. He’s got a cut in his eye or haven’t you noticed that?’
‘A cut that you caused,’ said the girl. ‘Or haven’t you noticed that?’
‘That’s not fair,’ said Dino dejectedly. ‘It was an accident, you know that.’
‘Was it?’ said Paula.
Dino frowned. ‘What’s that’s supposed to mean?’ he said.
‘Well what kind of manager messes around like that with only three days to go to the fight?’
‘It was an accident,’ repeated Dino grimly. ‘And it’s probably gonna cost me a fortune.’
‘Cost you a fortune? What about Ollie? He needs that money, Dino. He’s desperate.’
‘Ollie’s always desperate…’
‘I’m not joking, Dino. He wants to fight – don’t you Ollie?’
‘Yeah certainly… For sure… That’s right boss,’ said Oliver to both or either of them, sounding to all intents and purposes like somebody had just asked him if he took sugar in his tea.
‘He can’t fight, Paula. He’s got a cut. How many times do…’
‘He can fight.’
Dino shook his head in frustration. ‘Just how do you work that one out Paula?’ he sighed.
‘The doctor said it’s not too bad. He doesn’t need stitches, you know.’
‘Well that news to me,’ said Dino. ‘Good news for a change.’
‘And he’s a good healer… He’s always been a good healer. Haven’t you Ollie?’
‘Well I can’t disagree with you there darlin’,’ said Dino.
Paula Chan crossed her arms. ‘Cut out the fucking ‘darling’,’ she said. ‘This isn’t Victorian times you know. He’s fighting and that’s that.’
Dino stood up and moved closer to Long. He took a long hard look at his boxer’s injury. ‘I’m sorry Paula,’ he said. ‘They’ll take one look at that eye and call it off. He’s cut, Paula. There’s no other way of saying this. He’s cut!’
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ said Paula.
‘Oh come on…’
‘Look away a second.’
‘What?’
‘Look away. Go on… Do it…’
Dino was on the verge of losing his temper, which was a rare thing for him to do and a complement to the persistence of Paula Chan. Even so, he did as he was told and turned his head away from his fighter.
‘You can look now,’ said Paula Chan after a couple of moments.
Dino once more stared into the eyes of his boxer. He moved even closer. ‘What’cha do?’ he asked.
Paula was holding a jar of foundation in her hand, the sort that would cost you a couple of quid on the high street. She smiled.
Even Dino looked surprised. ‘Well I have to say… It’s… It’s pretty good.’
‘It’s more than just pretty good,’ said Paula. ‘It’s pretty fantastic.’
Suddenly thoughts were going through Dino’s head. Maybe his boy could still fight. Perhaps Long could do it after all. Maybe they could just about pull it off. Even with that cut he still had more than enough for the Italian. ‘He’d have to make sure that Rossi stays away from that eye,’ he said.
Now Oliver Long was smiling. ‘Nobody touch Ollie Long,’ he said.
‘I gotta think about this. I don’t want to put you at risk. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I did.’
‘Nobody touch Ollie Long,’ repeated the boxer, puffing out his chest.
‘He’s only got to last until the opening bell goes,’ said Paula. ‘And then we can say that he got cut in the first round.’
‘I dunno…’
‘He needs the money,’ said Paula. ‘You need the money.’
Both of these statements were true.
‘I gotta think about it,’ said Dino. ‘I could lose my licence over this.’

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Smack – Chapter 33

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It isn’t going to be easy but I’m going to leave Marie. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to sit her down and tell her that the week or so I’ve spent on my own has given me a taste for solitude and that we ought to think seriously about packing it all in while we’re both young enough to find other partners and she is still able to have babies, etc. Or I’m going to get rid of Carol – that’s the best thing to do: I’m going to tell her that even though she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met in my life there’s simply no future in it for us… the age difference is just too much… when she’s my age I’ll be almost as old as her father: I’ll have liver spots and a prostate condition and a flabby old man’s arse: I’m going to be sensible and point out to her that I might seem mature and experienced and glamorous right now but sooner or later she’s going to find herself seeking out a newer model. Or I’m going to be totally honest: I’m going to tell Marie that I’m dumping her for a younger woman with a nose ring… that it might seem ridiculous and that I’m probably making a complete and utter fool of myself… but I’m in love and when you fall in love you owe it to yourself to try and give things a chance to work with the person you are in love with; it goes without saying that Marie’s not going to take it particularly well – I can tell you that for nothing – but I owe her this much at least; we’ve been together for six years and she deserves to hear the truth, however painful it might be. Or I’m not going to tell Marie anything: I’m going to use a bit of Gravity’s 30k cheque to find Carol a cheap place to live so that I can go and visit her whenever I want to; this way neither person gets hurt. Yes, that’s that it. Surely this is the most sensible thing to do.

So many choices, so little time.

It’s 5.11 p.m. and we’ve just passed Exeter. Now that we’ve cleared the city the traffic seems to have thinned out; I’m hoping to be in London by around nine. Carol is sitting beside me, Ralph is asleep in the rear. Whenever my thoughts have permitted it I’ve been having a bit of a Q and A session with Carol, trying to lay to rest a few things that have been bothering me. First of all, I realise now that there was never any need to stop off in Dartmouth town centre and set fire to Jez’ bedsit or hack him to pieces with a machete. It turns out that Jez is merely another ex (Jez, Brian and me – for the rest of our lives the three of us are going to be bound together by what we’ve all done with Carol) and it was never that serious anyway; Carol just slept with him every now and again when she was feeling lonely (well you won’t be lonely any more, my dear). Secondly, her father pays for all that posh gear by selling sculptures: he’s an artist – the Turner Prize-winning sculptor Reg Bailey, no less; along with Linda Lusardi, Peter Cook, Joe Strummer, the small one from the Krankies and Henry Cooper, one of the most famous people I have ever met face to face. Perhaps that’s what I found familiar about him earlier, I realise this with a little ping of relief as the motorway flashes by me, he doesn’t look like me after all – Carol didn’t pick me out of the crowd because I reminded her of daddy – he looks like Reg Bailey, the bloke who pops up in G2 or the Sunday Times colour supplement every now and again. Carol, of course, remains oblivious to my excitement at meeting her famous dad, she just carries on chatting, talking about this and that, filling in the spaces.

 

London looms on the horizon like someone has taken a giant cigarette and stubbed it out with a giant hob-nail boot. After the fresh air of South Devon it’s quite a shock to return to the city and realise what you have been breathing in all this time. It’s not yet nine so we’re well on schedule; as soon as I get home I’m going to wipe that message from Louise on the answer phone clean and take a long hot bath. Maybe Carol won’t be too adverse to lowering her beautiful body into it beside me. I’ll even let her use Marie’s green shampoo if she wants to. Then I’ll open a bottle of wine and order up a take-away, Thai, perhaps, and she can lie in her position on the carpet in one of Marie’s dressing gowns and for a while at least, we can lock ourselves away from the outside world. This will be her last night and even though I know that I’ve got to make sure that she leaves very early tomorrow morning so that I can tidy things up again ready for Marie’s return, I’m going to try my best to make sure that we both have a good time.

I’ve not yet mentioned the clearing out in the morning bit to Carol but I can sense that she understands. Nothing’s been said but I think that she’s shrewd enough to realise that there are a lot of other things to get sorted out before we can even think of taking what’s been happening to the two of us any further. I don’t like to send her back to the streets, I feel like I’m abandoning her, letting her down, but for the moment at least it’s the only option I have open to me. I’ll give her money, of course, I’ll make sure that she’s alright and I’ll try to think of a way that we can see each other again as soon as possible. For the time being, however, we have this one last night: and this time there will be no games, we both now know where we stand with each other and we can simply relax and enjoy the experience of being alone together.

We hit the city and head northwards, and suddenly I’m finding myself wishing that I had spent a little more time down in Devon. I watch the people scurrying through the glistening streets: young women in smart two-pieces with over-determined expressions on their faces; newspaper vendors with flabby beer guts barking out instructions to passers-by; fat businessmen in suits carrying briefcases and umbrellas; lines of intimidating teenage youths blocking the pavements; black taxis throwing their weight around on the roads; police cars and road-works and queues and fluorescent lights and dirty air and tramps and bouncers standing outside clubs and stretch limousines and car horns and movie posters and hamburger stands and statues of long dead famous people. Suddenly I don’t feel quite so at home among all of this; and I’m not even sure that I’ll be able to feel at home even when I get home.

Carol, apparently, is harbouring similar misgivings: we reach the Islington border and she turns to me and asks: “Can you drop me off at the Angel, then?”

“What did you say?”

“I’m sorry… I’ve got a few things to sort out…”

Can’t they wait until the morning?”

“No… not really… I’ve really got to get them sorted.”

We’re stuck in traffic in Liverpool Road, only ten minutes from home. Only ten minutes away from unbolting the front door and switching on all the lights and wrapping Carol up in my arms and breathing in her wondrous aroma. It’s now 9.45. p.m. and all the shops are closed around here except for a pub and an Australian restaurant. The blood has suddenly drained from my face, my fingers rest on the steering wheel, numb. I am smoking a cigarette, the fumes making my eyes water. “What sort of things?” I ask.

“Nothing really…” replies Carol. “Just things.”

What was I saying about expecting the unexpected? What was I saying?

“Look… don’t be ridiculous Carol,” I urge. “Come and stay for one more night… you must be exhausted.”

“I’d like to but I can’t… I’ve been staying at your place for… what is it… almost a week? I was only supposed to be there for one night… I’ve really got to get back to the squat and see if everything’s alright.”

“Well that’s all right… I’ll come back with you and help you check it out – then we can go back to mine and get a shower and something to eat.”

“No it’s okay… I’ve got food at home.”

“But Carol… I’m not just going to abandon you like this.”

“Well… I would have had to leave tomorrow anyway.”

Ahhhhh. That’s it.

A heavy sigh of relief.

So this is what it’s all about: Carol is annoyed that Marie is coming back tomorrow and is trying to let me know that she’s annoyed; you can hardly blame her, I suppose – why didn’t I think about this before? In effect, what I’m about to do is reject Carol in favour of another woman and she’s angry and disappointed that I’m doing it: of course she’s going to be pissed off about my doing this.

“Oh Carol,” I croon. “Just because you have to leave in the morning doesn’t mean that I’m going to forget all about you… don’t worry… I’ll look after you.”

Carol frowns back at me. “I don’t want to be looked after,” she says. “And I wasn’t worried that you were going to forget me – I’m not going to forget you either.”

“What?” I exclaim.

“Listen, I’ve had a brilliant time… really brilliant… but I’ve really got things to do now. I’ll see you again another time if you like…”

What does she mean, she’ll see me again another time? What does she mean, ‘if you like’? It’s my mother who’s supposed to say things like ‘if you like’– not Carol. I thought that it was kind of taken as written that we would be seeing each other another time – lots of other times, in fact.

“Oh…” I splutter.

And now I’m stone cold: I’m sitting in the car with all my joints gummed up with cement, I’ve suddenly come down with Reg Bailey’s arthritis, I’m Oats stepping out of Cook’s tent: I’m just going out – I may be some time. And I’m suddenly aware of who I am, of what I am, and of what I’m doing with myself at the moment. I’m a thirty-eight-year-old man sitting in a car with a twenty-one-year-old girl, making a complete and utter prat of himself.

But still there are questions that I need to ask: Is it me? Is it something I’ve said? Is it because of Brian? …or Jez? Is it because I’ve already got a girlfriend? Is it something I did wrong at your father’s house? Is it the way I dress? Is it because I’m older than you? Would it help if I got a nose stud? Am I crap in bed? Is my knob too small? Is it my taste in music? Is it because I don’t have a job? Is it because I don’t speak to my father? Why can’t I have sex with you now when only this morning you seemed perfectly happy with the idea? Why have you suddenly un-chosen me?

 

But I don’t say any of these things. I don’t say them because I’m thirty-eight-years-of-age and I know that there are no answers to any of these questions. I’m old enough and ugly enough to recognise when it’s time to call it a day. And I’m not going to further humiliate myself in front of this woman by telling her what I really feel about her. But even as I’m weakly celebrating my good sense I’m inwardly turning on Carol: I’m thinking about the past few days, about the money I’ve spent on her… the food… the drink… the cigarettes… the hash… the free lifts… the meals… the clothes… the caravan… Was all of this simply the price I had to pay for what happened last night? And what about all that business of her using blackmail to try to get me to visit my father? Would Carol really toy with my emotions like that just because she wanted to spend an hour in her own father’s company?

Now the traffic’s moving again and I’m suddenly calming down slightly: It’s Carol’s face that does it for me. I’m looking over at her beautiful, flawless features and I’m realising that she isn’t capable of such deviousness. More than Carol’s lack of knowledge of Greek plate-throwing traditions; more than her inability to realise that if she attacks a party of rugby players in a restaurant it’s the man accompanying her who’s going to catch it; more than the nose ring, and the pierced belly button that I discovered lay beneath her T-shirt yesterday; more than her youth and more than my lack of it, this is the real difference between Carol and I. She could never have planned for any of this to happen; it isn’t in her nature. She’s just living her life; if she thought that sleeping with me would have affected me like it has, she simply wouldn’t have done it in the first place. It feels like I’m being dumped but this isn’t her dumping me: because there was never anything to dump in the first place. Except in my head, that is. It’s all a question of priorities – priorities and perceptions.

The truth of the matter, if I try to think about it rationally, is that Carol probably views what we did last night and this morning in much the same way as I view what I did with Louise last Thursday night. In actual fact, in Carol’s eyes I probably am Louise: I’m somebody she slept with by accident or co-incidence or whatever it was, somebody she slept with whom she doesn’t want to sleep with again. To me, what we did together was one of the most exciting things that has happened to me in years and years and years; to her it had no more significance than walking up to a stranger in the street and asking him for a light – she wouldn’t expect that person to get all hurt and offended if she then asked another person for a light or bought herself a box of matches, and she isn’t expecting me to act like an explorer who has just planted the flag that gives him exclusive rights to all her territories.

I drive her down to the Angel and stop the car by the tube station. She reaches over and cuddles me for a moment and pecks me on the cheek and thanks me for everything and tells me what a great time she has had. It’s Tuesday night and it’s raining again and if I were to walk along Upper Street I’d probably bump into Brian on his way to the King’s Head or whatever (will Carol be spending the night with Brian tonight!?). It’s been almost exactly seven days since I slipped him that twenty and whether I like it or not I’ve got to concede that I’ve had my money’s worth.

Carol climbs out of the car and pulls out her black plastic sack of possessions; Ralph hauls himself out of the rear and arches his back on the wet pavement, evidently recognising where he is, at least one of us glad to be home. While he is doing this, Carol dips her head back inside the car and gives me another kiss on the cheek: “I hope everything sorts itself out for you,” she says.

I turn to her, for a moment losing my self-control: “Carol…” I say, with a casual desperation. “This is so stupid… why don’t you come and stay one more night…?”

Carol, says nothing; she shakes her head patiently. Then she gives me a final kiss, this time on the lips. “Bye, John… thanks,” she says gently.

Carol exits the car but just before she shuts the door she reaches back inside one last time and for a moment I think that she’s changed her mind about coming back home with me. “John…” she says.

“Yes…” I reply expectantly.

“Go and see your dad… don’t let him die without giving yourselves a chance to sort out whatever it is that’s happened between you… nothing can be that bad…”

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Smack – Chapter 30

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Monday afternoon: Our semi-conscious snogging session is not discussed but nevertheless something has changed between us. Carol is a little more formal than I’ve become accustomed to, a little more polite, a little less connected. For my part, I am rather more jolly than usual: brighter, sparkier, more pleasant and unassuming than I usually am. Underneath this façade, however, I’ve spent the day fending off a busy, well-ordered queue of panic attacks.
It was after the three of us left the caravan this morning and found a tea shop in the centre of Brixham that it really hit me for the first time that I no longer had a job. When I passed my credit card over to pay for breakfast I found myself suddenly concerned about money and the impact that the lack of it would have on my life now that I didn’t have a regular monthly pay cheque coming in. And it wasn’t just the money that was bothering me.
Off the top of my head I can think of more than one or two people who would find it unfeasibly amusing if I were to give them a run-down on all that has happened to me over the past fortnight. To me, though, I find it all so unfair: not unfair because I’ve just lost my job or because my father’s about to die or because my girlfriend has run off to her mother’s or anything like that – these are, after all, the sorts of things that we all have to deal with at some point in our lives – but unfair because everything’s happened so fast that I have been unable to give any of these issues the attention that they truly deserve.
My second panic attack came a little after breakfast while Carol and I were doing ten minutes of sight-seeing before returning to the car and pointing it in the direction of our next port of call. It was after Carol had gone off to post a letter or something that I took the opportunity to check my messages at home on my mobile. There were three in all: the first was from Marie, who told me in a surprisingly sympathetic tone of voice that it was Sunday afternoon and that she had decided to come home on Wednesday (not yesterday or today as I had assumed, which is quite a relief, actually) and that she was calling because she thought that we ought to have a chat before then and that even though she thought it would be a waste of time she’d try me on my mobile. The second call was from BT, who informed me that for twenty quid a month or whatever I could reduce my monthly phone bill by 45%. The third was from Louise, who apparently does have my home number after all. Like Marie, she also suggested that we ought to have a chat sometime and left me her home number. It was at this point that the second panic attack set in: all of a sudden my mind was full of crazy paranoid visions of the future – in the blink of an eye I’d gone from an image of a bitchy Louise confronting Marie and gleefully spilling the beans about what we’d recently been up to between the sheets, to an image of a bloated, heavily-pregnant Louise appearing on my doorstep demanding maintenance and asking me what I’d like to call the baby (we’ll name it after one of Louise’s distant ancestors, shall we: Lucy). Can you imagine the full horror if I was to discover that Louise was pregnant with my child? This second panic attack was not exactly helped when I then checked for any messages left on my mobile only to find another one from Marie, apparently made a little after Carol had accidentally answered her call in the car yesterday afternoon. This one was decidedly less friendly than the earlier one: it told me to call her back straight away because she hasn’t got a fucking clue what’s going on.
After this came the father-and-mother panic attack; the what-must-Carol-be-thinking-about-what-I-did-to-her-this-morning panic attack; the, oh-god-where-did-I-park-my-car panic attack; and, finally, the stop-having-panic-attacks-and-grow-up panic attack. Then, by around mid-day, my thought processes finally began to settle down a little; and, with Carol jabbering on politely about this and that, I made a few decisions:
Firstly: The mobile phone. How am I going to explain to Marie why a woman’s voice answered my mobile phone when she called me on Sunday afternoon? Solution: That’s quite an easy one, actually – I’m going to tell her that I’ve lost my phone… I’ve left it in the pub or it’s been stolen or something like. Nothing too unbelievable about that one.
Secondly: The trip to Devon. How am I going to explain to Marie the motives behind my sudden unexpected change of heart a propos my father? Again another fairly self-evident one: all I need to say is that Marie was right all along – that she was perfectly justified in endeavouring to convince me to see my father before he died and that, furthermore, she was also correct to run off for a week so that I’d have the time and space in which to reach this conclusion. It goes without saying, of course, that this response is far more preferable to offering the real reason, which was that a beautiful squatter with a nose ring and a tatty dog – who I let stay in the house during Marie’s absence – mock-blackmailed me into doing it. My way, Marie gets to think she convinced me to do the right thing by sheer force of will, which is bound to make her feel pleased with herself and help to heal a few open wounds. This approach has the added bonus of giving me a little ammunition in the event of a future border skirmish, during which I’ll be able to point out how wrong Marie was about my going to visit my father, and that she really ought to get it into her head that she isn’t always right about everything.
Thirdly: Work. This one’s connected with the money panic attack that I had earlier on. Now that the dust is beginning to settle a little it’s gradually dawning on me that I’m going to be owed a rather large sum of money by Gravity. What is it for fifteen years employment? It’s at least a month’s pay for every year, which means that I’m due a cheque for at least 30k. This softens the blow somewhat. As soon as I get home I’m going to call Mary Bridges from personnel and read her the riot act. If I play my cards right I could end up with a lot more than the figure I’ve just mentioned.
Number four: Louise: I could be misreading the signs but I rather got the impression as I was leaving Louise’s house the other morning that she was viewing our boozed up fucking session as the start of something big. It was almost as if she was thinking that she had been granted access to my trousers because there’d been this insatiable, overwhelming attraction burning away inside us all these months. I’m sure she’s expecting dinners and flowers and trips to the cinema and all the rest that goes with it. I’ll have to be careful with this one: too brutal an ending and there’s no telling what she’ll do to exact her revenge. One thing’s for sure – I don’t want her ringing up Marie out of the blue and informing her that we’ve suddenly fallen passionately in love with one another. For this reason I’m going to do what that old Stranglers song advises one to do: I’m going to let her down easy. I’m going to take her for a drink or whatever and try to use good old fashioned body language to let her know the way that my loins are thinking. Instead of dumping her, I’m going to keep a discreet distance and let her get tired of me, I want whatever interest she has in me to quickly dwindle away to nothing. There is, of course, still the minor problem of her leaving that message on my answering machine. Which means that I’ve got to get back and erase it before Marie returns on Wednesday, something which I fully intend to do.
Number five: Carol: Carol is now out of the house, so she’s no longer a problem. What I’m going to do is drive her to her friend’s place in Dartmouth, wave goodbye to her and Ralph, and then turn the car in the opposite direction and head off home. If I’m lucky I’ll be back by early evening; and from that point on I intend to keep my relationship with Carol strictly confined to the undersides of cash dispensers.
Number six: My father: He can fuck off and die.
 
“Pretty please…”
Were fifteen miles away from Dartmouth. It’s 12.10 p.m. and Carol is puckering her lips at me like Marilyn Monroe in the poster for The Seven Year Itch. Carol is endeavouring to get her own way again, her earlier politeness has evaporated away to nothing, as has my uncharacteristic unassumingness.
“You can ask me as much as you like, Carol, but my answer will stay the same… as soon as I’ve dropped you off I’m heading back to London.”
“Please…”
“No Carol.”
“Please…”
“No…”
“Please…”
“No…”
“Please…”
Actually, the pendulum’s swinging back the other way once more: because now I’m going over the events of this morning again and I’m trying to work out in my mind just what exactly Carol’s game is. A few moments ago Carol repeated yesterday’s offer: she asked me again if I’d like to spend a few days in Dartmouth with her and her buddies. At first I thought she was still being polite and I told her no thanks, but it was too late: already her words had managed to bring a whole new perspective to our earlier moment of bleary-eyed intimacy. Up until then I’d been thinking that our snog this morning had been nothing more than the behaviour of two half-asleep people reacting purely on instinct upon waking up in a strange place to find themselves lying next to someone else of the opposite sex. Now I’m not so sure: I’m not so sure because if Carol is really so appalled by what occurred this morning surely she wouldn’t be asking me what she’s me asking now?
“Please…”
“No…”
“Please…”
“No…”
“I’ll tell Marie…”
“You’ll what?”
“I’ll tell Marie that you let me and Ralph stay in your pl…”
“…Shut up Carol.”
 
We arrive in Dartmouth: a carbon copy of the last town that we passed through; another west country clone-zone full of trees, cutesy old Victorian fisherman cottages, country pubs, boats, fish and chip shops selling kebabs and beefburgers, country bumpkins; the cheerful monotony of these picturesque vistas drains the soul. I drive through the cobbled streets and Carol directs me to Jez’ house. We park and she gets out of the car clutching her black plastic sack with Ralph galloping cheerfully behind her and I get ready to bid her farewell but she stops me in mid-sentence and tells me not to be so silly – the least she can do is get Jez to make me a cup of tea to send me on my way. I tell her no thanks again but she insists. I say okay, I will, but I won’t stay for long because, as you already know, I’ve got to get back to London.
Jez turns out to be a white male in his late twenties with blonde dreadlocks, a goatee and a mobile phone clipped to the belt around a pair of tatty combat trousers. He breaks into a smile when he sees Carol, wrapping his arms around her and hugging her. He looks me up and down suspiciously when we’re introduced, then he invites us into his bedsit, which is small and dark and dingy with no TV, a tiny kitchen area with a knackered out old fridge, a sink overflowing with unwashed cups and plates, a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar propped up against an old table, an ancient bed partially hidden by a wooden screen that divides the room into two areas.
Carol asks Jez for tea but he shrugs and tells her he hasn’t got any, which slightly relieves me. Instead, he reaches inside the fridge and pulls out a four-pack of Special Brew. He snaps one open and throws another at Carol, then without asking me if I want one, he hurls one over in my direction, too. I almost drop it. I have to say that sipping Special Brew with Swampy the animal rights activist was not really what I had in mind for this afternoon. There’s an antagonistic quality to his movements, almost as if my refusing to accept his can of beer would somehow confirm everything that he’s been thinking about this straight looking old bloke that has just turned up out of the blue with Carol. The ridiculous thing is that even though I know that Jez and I will probably never set eyes on each other again for the rest of our lives, I can’t stop myself from joining Carol and Jez on the carpet and I can’t stop myself from opening the can of beer he has given to me, and I can’t stop myself from lifting it to my lips and pretending that I’m enjoying it.
Jez moves over to the window and flicks on a tape in a battered old circa 1974 radio-cassette player. The opening bars of the Doors’ ‘The End’ start up. “This is the end… beau-ti-ful friend…” chants Jim Morrison as I glance over at Carol uncomfortably. I can’t help thinking that the singer’s maybe got it right this time. While Jim entertains us, Jez opens a drawer and pulls out a large plastic bag full of grass; for some undisclosed reason he looks over to me and nods. So I nod back, smiling a little.
Over the next half an hour I discover that Jez is unemployed (surprise, surprise); that he doesn’t want to get a job (ditto); that he doesn’t eat meat; that he earns money by busking on the streets; that Ronald MacDonald is evil and is part of a huge conspiracy to take over the world (I already knew that); that he’s been in prison twice for breaking into animal research laboratories (I almost tell him that if it’s a pet he’s after he should try a pet shop); and that the world is likely to end next April because all nine planets will be in conjunction. He’s a wealth of fascinating information is Jez.
I have a second can, this isn’t because I want to but because Jez’ desire for me to have a second can is stronger than my desire not to. While I am doing this Jez demonstrates his seasoned pro smoking status by rolling three separate joints and distributing one of them to each of us. Ralph, squatting at Jez’ bedside, gets a soup bowl full of water for his troubles and some biscuits to chew on. For people who are supposed to be so into animal rights, Carol and her illuminating associate seem curiously indifferent when it comes to treating the poor animal with anything remotely resembling compassion or respect.
By three o’clock I’ve had another two spliffs and I’m on my third can of Special Brew. I give Jez some cash so that he can go and get some more beer and I’m left alone in his squalid hovel with Carol. “What time do you plan to leave?” she smiles innocently.
“Well put it this way,” I reply. “It looks like you’ve got your lift back to London.”
“Oh… how could you think such a thing!” says Carol, genuinely offended, it seems, by my calculated assumption
 
A little after seven we stumble out into the cold evening with Jez leading the way. Ralph gets to stay indoors with only the radio for company. We go to a pub in the centre of town and meet up with about a dozen or so other young men and women who all look like Jez and Carol. I find a table inside and talk to one or two of these people. I am treated as a mild curiosity: they ask me what I do for a living sort of sneeringly and I say with forced pride that I am unemployed like them. This patently fails to impress them. We talk about music and they run through a long list of singers and bands that I have never heard of; I tell them about my punk rocker days, about how I saw the Sex Pistols at the Screen On The Green, about how I saw the Clash at the Hope and Anchor; and even though I did neither of these things this information patently fails to impress them, too.
Towards closing time, Carol mysteriously disappears for about twenty-minutes or so, leaving me alone with her cheerful chums. When she returns she is dragging two other down and outs behind her: “This is Steve and Flynn…” she tells me. (Flynn? What sort of a name is that for a girl?) “They say we can crash in their spare room tonight.”
 
We crash in Steve and Flynn’s spare room. I shan’t bore you too much with descriptions and suchlike, except to say that Steve and Flynn’s spare room makes Jez’ place seem like the Ritz. On one side of the room is a solitary easy chair that looks like it has been picked up in a January sale in a skip, in the centre of the room is a single mattress on the floor with, for some reason, a well-thumbed copy of Bridget Jones’ Diary lying beside it. The only light in the room is provided by a candle. While Carol goes off to the piss-hole that is Steve and Flynn’s bathroom and does whatever it is she has to do, I idly flick through the book, drunk and stoned,.
In the middle of this, Flynn comes into the room and asks me if everything is all right. Flynn, I’m yet to explain, is a chubby vegan from Wales with enough metal wedged into her bloated cheeks to supply the source material for a small cruise liner. I tell her yes thanks and she tells me how great Carol is and I say yes she is.
Carol returns and I leave the two women talking and head off to the bathroom, acutely aware that it has been two days since I’ve taken a shower. I strip off by the sink, grabbing an emaciated piece of soap and rubbing it under my armpits and over my balls. I’m not entirely sure why it is suddenly so important that my genitals should smell of soap.
When I get back to the room Carol and Flynn are giggling. They stop when I enter and we all have a conversation about something. Flynn’s eyes are gleaming, or is it merely all that metal confusing me? Then she shakes me by the hand and tells me she hopes I have a good night’s sleep. I look at my watch as she exits: it is 12.43 a.m.
 
Carol blows out the candle and suddenly the room is in darkness. Neither of us says anything but I can hear the rustle of her removing her clothing. I sit in the chair, suddenly trembling even though the room is not cold. Carol gets into bed and after a pause that really does last an eternity, whispers: “You’re not going to sleep there, are you?”
I mumble something in response. I have no idea what I say and neither, I assume, does Carol.
“Look…” she urges. “Don’t be so silly…”
I move over to the mattress, my trembling now overpowering my whole body, and climb underneath the blankets. I awkwardly lower myself alongside Carol, making sure that were are not touching, which is a difficult, if not impossible thing to be attempting on a mattress of this size. Then I say: “Goodnight, then.”
“Goodnight.”
We lie together in silence. From elsewhere in the house someone is playing a record, Jeff Buckley or somebody like that. I try to listen for a while; occasionally I can hear Steve and Flynn and somebody else’s voice cutting into the music. I’ve still got all my clothes on and have no idea how much of Carol’s clothing remains intact. I start to unbuckle my jeans because I’m realising that if I don’t I’m never going to be able to sleep. “I’m just taking my trousers off,” I say, trying not to sound too guilty. Carol makes the same Homer Simpson noise that I heard her make the other day: “Doooohh…” she says.
The jeans come off, as do my socks. They lie uncomfortably and a little forlornly on the floor next to the mattress. I’m now wearing just a T-shirt and a pair of boxers shorts, through which the smell of my soapy balls must be clearly apparent. I turn my back away from Carol and close my eyes and try to get to sleep but my sixth sense tells me that Carol has her eyes open. I feel her move closer to me; I feel her breath on the back of my neck. She is trembling too.
We stay like this for a long time; I’m afraid to breathe, my body is paralysed. Finally Carol sighs sleepily and whispers: “I’m cold…” And before I can do anything her body is spooning mine, an arm wrapped around my belly, her hairless thighs touching the backs of my own. “It’s okay, isn’t it?” she asks softly.
Now I suddenly have an erection, which, obviously, because it wants to humiliate me, has managed to slip out of the side of my boxer shorts; the boxer shorts themselves are also in on the plot: they have wrapped themselves around my waist so that the front has now relocated itself in the crack of my arse and the back is tangled up in my pubic hair. With Carol pushing her body closer to me I reach down, slowly, casually I’m hoping, to readjust the offending garment. I slip my throbbing dick back inside and lift my bottom off the mattress so that I can attempt this tricky manoeuvre. Lord knows what Carol must be thinking I’m up to. Then, without warning, I feel a hand creep over my own so that I’m left cupping my own balls with her hand covering mine, afraid to move lest Carol should discover what I am hiding underneath.
Then Carol quietly starts to kiss the back of my neck, nibbling it gently, and I shudder involuntarily so that she pulls away from me for a moment and gently whispers: “Are you all right?” Her hand is still on top of my own.
“Ye… yes…” I whisper, my teeth beating a Rumba in time to my shaking body.
Then Carol gets back into position and is kissing my neck again and I’m suddenly thinking about this morning; maybe Carol wasn’t quite so sickened by what we did as I thought she was. And now I’m turning around to face her and wrapping both my arms tightly around her body. Carol is wearing a T-shirt and knickers and no bra. It’s dark but just about light enough to make out her features. From this proximity they are astonishingly beautiful. My nose is three or four millimetres away from her own: I have never in my whole life been so close to a woman this gorgeous.
Suddenly our lips are together: our faces are grinding away in a hot sticky mixture of saliva and teeth and steam and electricity. And I’m reaching under Carol’s T-shirt and frantically cupping her right breast in my hand, kneading it, rubbing the nipple with my thumb. And I’m grinding my crotch into hers and she’s grinding her crotch into mine, and she’s gasping and I’m gasping and she’s reaching down and getting her hand caught up in my ill-positioned boxer shorts. Yes… I really think that I might just have misjudged her this morning: there is now every possibility that the focus group will go home happy, after all.
Now she has her hand clamped around my dick and she’s easing down my tangled boxer shorts and they’re getting caught around my knees and I’m pulling apart from her for a moment and kicking them away from my ankles. And her tongue is in my mouth and she is running it along the underside of my front teeth the way Marie used to do when we first met.
Marie.
Marie.
I jerk myself away from Carol, suddenly haunted by a vision of Marie; suddenly aware of what I’m doing. I feel an arctic rush of guilt: it travels down my spine and finishes up at the tips of my toes. And I’m sitting up in bed, my dick in pain, panting like a dog, breathless, shuddering uncontrollably. “We can’t do this…” I groan.
Carol rolls over on to her back and looks at me. Her T-shirt is pulled up to expose the breasts I had been man-handling a few moments ago. “It looks like we are…” she smiles.
“But why…” I splutter. “What can a girl like you possibly see in a sad old fart like me?”
“Ssshhhh…” says Carol, placing a finger on her lips.
“But…”
Carol pulls down on my shoulders and hauls me back on to the mattress so that I’m lying flat on my back. Then she hovers over me and hoists her T-shirt over her head. “Shut up, John…” she says, lowering her open lips on to my own.

Location:Whitehall Park,London,United Kingdom

0

Smack – Chapter 03

Chapter Four

Thursday, 8:15 a.m.: Marie has never met my father, this man who is going to die in six weeks time. Nor, for that matter, has she ever met my mother, the wife of this man who is going to die in six weeks time. She is, however, not alone in this. I’ve just done a little mental arithmetic: I’ve counted up all the people whom I consider to be real friends (five in all (if that number seems small, try it yourself – you may be surprised at the outcome)) and none of them have ever met or even heard me acknowledge the existence of my parents. It’s kind of ironic really, because when it comes to other people’s family problems I’m the voice of reason. If you’re having hassles of a family nature, give me a call; you can’t buy the sort of advice that I’m liable to dole out. You’re sure to be getting examples of this sooner or later.

It’s Thursday morning and Marie is pulling her face at me – that face – the one she uses when she wants to get across the idea that she’s fed up with me. “Look Marie,” I say to her as she sits tensely at the kitchen table shovelling great spoonfuls of some yoghurty-type substance into her mouth. “Let’s be rational, shall we? What real difference – I’m talking real difference – would it make to your life if I decide that I never want to speak to my parents again? You’ve put up with this situation for six years and it’s never seemed to bother you before.”

It’s a good point, I think: I don’t believe that many people out there will be able to argue with such cold logic. I mean, if it were Marie that was having family troubles I’d be big enough to keep a respectful distance if that was what she wanted. I wouldn’t be sitting there with that mean look on my face, venting all my anger and frustration on that poor yoghurt.

But then that’s always been the fundamental difference between Marie and I: somehow she always manages to take things a lot more seriously than I can ever do. She has this kind of internal rage. Let me give you an example: she’ll get really angry, I mean really, really pissed off, for instance, if some politician or other gets caught with his pants down, honestly – I kid you not. Me, I’ll just snigger a little like most people do, try to savour the poor idiot’s public humiliation; but Marie, she’ll go ballistic; start ranting on about how he’s supposed to be the custodian of public morality, about how he should be punished for letting down the people who voted him in, about how they should bring back the rope for people like him – things like that. I genuinely believe that she’d lay into the poor guy – physically assault him – if their paths should ever happen to cross in the street.

Then there’s the other side of the coin: Marie, for reasons I shall never understand, will, for example, burst into tears at the first sight of a starving Ethiopian kid on TV. I mean I’m not saying that images like that do not fail to move me; I mean, all the usual sorts of thoughts pass through my head on such occasions: the unfairness of it all… of what a shitty life that kid’s destined to lead… about how lucky I am to be sitting in my nice comfortable living room overseeing his misery on widescreen with Dolby surround… about how I shouldn’t really take things for granted… of how there but for the grace of God go I… thoughts of this nature are inevitable when you’re confronted by the sight of some skinny bundle of ribs clinging to its emaciated mother’s sagging breast. Such images are supposed to affect you: they are after all the product of how many hours of meetings for the men in braces? How many tonnes of sandwiches consumed as the advertising campaign begins to take flight? How many hundreds of lines of the white stuff greedily snorted in pursuit of divine inspiration… and I’m talking about the sort of divine inspiration that is enough to encourage people like me to sit in their comfortable living rooms and part with their hard-earned. I guess that’s the real difference between us, Marie and me, she lives in a more black and white world than I do, a more wrong and right world. She’ll see the little Ethiopian kid on TV and start to cry straight away like she’s just heard that her grandma’s been run over by a bus; she’ll be on the phone as soon as the advert’s over – ready to keep trying the line for hours if it’s engaged – giving her money away to these people; trying to make a difference. Me, I’ll sit and ponder the injustice of it all for a while and then eventually conclude that nothing I can possibly do will ever make a difference. I guess it means that Marie will have a better chance of passing through those gates when the time comes to tot up all the points.

I arrive at my desk to find a small florescent magenta Post-It note attached to my computer screen. It’s in Louise’s handwriting and it reads: ‘Michael Dean called 9-15 a.m.’.

I turn towards the author of the message, who, predictably, is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge my presence. “Louise,” I ask, “Did he say what he wanted?”

Louise is wearing tight blue jeans and a white cheesecloth blouse, she turns slowly to face me, a pained expression on her face. “Did who say what who wanted?”

“Yassir Arafat,” I reply.

“Huh?” she says.

“I’d like to know what Yassir Arafat wanted when you took a phone call from him this morning.”

“Don’t be facetious, John”

“Well maybe I was referring to Michael Dean,” I continue. “Considering that according to this extremely informative little Post-It note I have here in my hand Michael Dean happens to be the only person to have called me this morning.”

Louise tuts and shakes her head; she mutters something under her breath.

Quick fade to Michael Dean’s office: we’re both perched on leather chairs, his overburdened black desk separating us. Things are definitely looking up – Michael has what appears to be the makings of a huge ugly boil on his left cheek. Must be the stress of it all. “Nasty,” I say.

“Oh… don’t talk about it,” he groans. “It started coming up yesterday afternoon, the bloody thing kept me awake all night.”

I’m reminded of that film, the one where Richard E Grant grows another head on his neck. “Looks like a freeze job,” I say.

“Pardon?”

“You know, a freeze job: they freeze it and then stick a needle in it – messy business.”

“Oh…” says Michael, unimpressed.

Here we go again. I can feel it coming. Any second now Michael’s going to start giving me the third degree. What have you heard? Who said what? You’ll get it if I get it… I’m finding it difficult to control my internal groans of anguish. Thank Christ it’s almost Friday.

Michael glances over towards the door of his office, almost as if he’s expecting someone to burst in at any moment. “John,” he says, suddenly lowering his voice. “We’ve been friends for… what is it… twelve… thirteen years?”

“Seventeen,” I say.

Michael looks surprised. “Seventeen? Is that right? Seventeen? My word… it’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“Time flies.”

“It does indeed.”

Then Michael stops for a moment and just stares at me, right between the eyes. He stares at me until it begins to get embarrassing and I find myself grinning sheepishly and looking away. “John,” he says.

“Michael?”

“John, I’m doing this now because we’re friends. I’m doing this because I want to see if there’s any chance whatsoever that we can somehow repair the damage before it starts to get out of hand.”

Suddenly I feel like lighting up in Michael’s smoke free office. “You’ve lost me,” I shrug.

“John… there’s no easy way of saying this…” he announces ominously. “We’ve had a complaint about you. I haven’t done anything about it yet because I wanted to speak to you first.”

“A complaint?”

“Yes, a complaint – someone has come to me and complained about you.”

“Who?”

“That’s not important.”

I let out a snort of laughter, which, under the circumstances, probably isn’t the most sensible thing to be doing. I’m finding it hard to take Michael seriously; even though this is most definitely not his style I’m expected him to crack up at any moment. Perhaps he’s finally developing a sense of humour; they say that people do strange things when they’re entering their death throes.

“I wouldn’t be laughing If I were in your shoes, John. This is about as serious as it gets.”

I say nothing and try to compose myself in my chair.

“I’ll start from the beginning shall I?” continues Michael, gathering up some sheets of A4 paper, on which are scrawled a few hurried looking notes. “Yesterday afternoon I had a visit from a member of staff who came to me, I might add, me in a state of some distress…”

“Who?” I ask again.

Michael stops talking for a moment and gives me a look that is designed to encourage silence. “This person,” he continues, “alleges that you’ve been… how shall I put it … harassing her outside working hours.”

“Harassing her?” I frown.

“Yes, harassing her.”

“What sort of harassing?”

“Well… um… sex-ual harassing.”

“You are joking, I hope?”

“No, unfortunately I’m not… I was as surprised as you when she made this accusation,” sighs Michael. “Unfortunately, however, we have no choice but to take her seriously.”

“So it was a her, then?” I say. “A woman?”

Quite rightly, Michael seems unmoved by my dazzling powers of deduction. As I find myself frantically trying to apply a sense of order to what he has just told me Michael even allows himself the briefest glimmer of a smile.

“Let me get this straight,” I say. “You’re telling me that someone – a female member of staff – is claiming that I’ve been sexually harassing her after work?”

“That’s about it,” confirms Michael.

“Well that’s absolute rubbish! …You know it is.”

Now I suddenly find myself running through a mental list of potential complainants. If you want to be pedantic about it there’s a good half a dozen or so women who work at GP who could quite justifiably make a complaint of this nature against me. But equally, if I wanted to be just as pedantic I could quite justifiably lodge a counter claim against those same half dozen women. I’m talking about the sort of things that everybody does in an office like GP. The mostly innocent but always compulsory flirting that goes on about the place… the dirty jokes and sexual innuendo hurled around the office on an hourly basis by both male and female staff members… the Christmas Party snogs… These things are supposed to happen – and I’m no less immune to being drawn into doing them than anybody else is. But everything I do is innocent, I’m sure of that – it means nothing. I might, for example, occasionally sneak up behind Sylvia in accounts and do the old two fingers in the solar plexus thing, make her shriek and giggle a little; but then it’s not unheard of for her to do exactly the same thing to me when I’m leaning over a desk on the fifth floor. That’s the way things go around here – around everywhere, I guess. However, to actually claim that I’ve gone out and physically imposed myself upon a female member of staff is way off the mark. It’s not the sort of thing I do. If it was the sort of thing that I do, I doubt very much that it would have taken fifteen years for someone to finally take offence.

Then, completely out of the blue, I suddenly get a flashback: I’m remembering that young designer at Sarah from personnel’s leaving do. I’m recalling how I wouldn’t leave her alone until she agreed to let me buy her a drink, I’m reflecting upon that appalled look in her eyes when I forced my fifteen-stones of sweating blubber into that seat next to hers. Surely not?

“Surely it’s not the new designer?” I say. “The one who’s been working on the cookery project?”

Michael and his boil frown over at me like a judge who has just received fresh evidence in a murder trial. “No it’s not Elaine… Elaine Preston – if that’s who you’re talking about.”

“Then who is it?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say.”

Why can’t he tell me? If someone’s making an accusation like this don’t I have every right to know? It was a different story the other day when he wanted to know what Dave from accounts had been saying about him in the pub. I raise my head to face Michael’s accusing stare and find myself running my eyes over that boil of his. It’s going to hurt when they come to lance it. Really hurt.

“And he wouldn’t tell you who made this accusation?”

“That’s right.”

“Oh John, you do get yourself into some right old scrapes.”

Needless to say, Marie isn’t taking this very well. In fact, now that I’m sitting here face to face with her I’m beginning to wish that I’d followed my instincts and not informed her of my predicament at all. “But I haven’t done anything,” I say.

Marie looks at me: a lopsided kind of look, like she’s not quite convinced that I’m telling the truth. “Are you sure you’re telling me the whole story?” she asks.

“Marie that is so hurtful.”

That’s another good way of demonstrating the difference between Marie and I: because you can be sure that there’d be all hell to play if she’d been accused of sexual harassment at work and I’d just asked her that question. But you can’t blame her, I suppose. After all, Marie has worked in, is still working in publishing – that’s how we met for Christ’s sake – and Marie is living proof of my penchant for infidelity. In fact, I’ve often found myself asking this question: how can Marie ever really trust me, when for the first four months of our relationship she was the ‘other’ women? She knows the lies, the deceit, the duplicity, that I’m capable of. It’s hardly the sturdiest foundation on which to build a relationship.

“It’s Louise, isn’t it?” says Marie.

“Sorry?”

“It’s that stupid little cow, Louise.”

“But I’ve never even touched Louise. I mean who in their right mind would want to…”

“I’m not saying that, stupid. Think about it John: who’s been ignoring you for God knows how long at GP?”

“Louise,” I say.

“And who at GP currently can’t stand the sight of you?”

“Louise,” I admit. “But according to her she’s just one of many.”

“So who do you think has accused you of sexual harassment?”

“But I’ve never even got within ten feet of Louise…”

Marie emits a heavy, exasperated sigh. “Wake up, John. Use your head.”

“Well I suppose you might have a point.”

“There’s no ‘suppose’ about it, John. Stop being so stupid for once in your life. Louise is the one – take my word for it, I’m right. You know I’m right…”