Sunday, 26 February 2012

Waiting For The Man

(Velvet Underground - Waiting For The Man)

He stepped into a room that reminded him of a thousand others. The walls were painted off-white, the carpet was oatmeal. Polite landscapes hung in unobtrusive frames. There was a second door on the far wall. A small, neat man sat behind a large and highly polished mahogany table, his fingers steepled. 

“Hello,” the man said, and smiled.

Anthony didn’t reply. He wasn’t sure where he was, or how he had got here. He seemed to be expected. Maybe this was some kind of appointment? The man sat very still behind the table, smiled encouragingly, but did not speak again. 

“I’m sorry,” Anthony said, “I think I’m not well. I’ve forgotten…“ he tailed off, trying to find the words.  “I’ve no idea what I’m doing here – I don’t even know how I got here.”

The man looked concerned, tutted, went back to smiling. Memories slid around each other like colours in a toy kaleidoscope. Anthony remembered a meeting in a hotel, an expensive dinner, too much wine, some cigars, sitting on the bathroom floor, the smell of expensive soap, crushing blackness.

“Look, what’s going on? Is this some kind of practical joke?”

“In a sense.” The man looked amused.

Anthony decided that enough was enough. He turned and pulled angrily at the handle of the door, but it wouldn’t open.

“You can’t go back out,” the man said quietly.

“Who the hell are you to tell me where I can and can’t go?” Anthony remembered the advice of his doctor. He stopped, put the palms of his hands together, then pushed them away towards the floor and was calm again.

"You’re just a little late for that," the man said. "No offence.”

“ I’m fine. I just want to know what’s going on.”

“Of course. You’re a dead man.”

“If you’re threatening me I’ll--"

"I’m not threatening you. Just answering your question.”

“I’ve had enough of this.” Anthony walked forward, fists balled.

"Can you feel your heart beating?”

Anthony stopped. Normally when his temper was up, he could feel his heart bouncing in his chest, the thud of blood in his ears. Now he could not feel any of it. He pulled the expensive fabric of his shirt open, and slid a hand onto his chest. Nothing. No thump, thump, no rise and fall of the breath. He felt very strange, and took a step backwards on the soft, silent carpet.

The man smiled encouragingly. 

At first no words would come. Then suddenly hope flooded in. “It’s just a dream isn’t it? In a minute you’ll vanish and I’ll walk out and the sky will be custard yellow and I’ll see someone from my old primary school riding a bicycle and talking to a fish and then I’ll wake with a slight hangover...”

The man smiled again, drummed his fingers on the table. Shook his head.

Anthony snorted. "So this is heaven, is it? Looks like a dentist's waiting room."

The man raised an eyebrow, said nothing.

“Ah. Not heaven then. You don’t look like I expected.” 

“Well, that is the general idea.”

“So where are the eternal fires of damnation then?”

The man frowned as if he had tasted something unpleasant. “Metaphor and fantasy. The unpleasant work of narrow minds. None of that here.”

“So what is there?” 

The man shrugged. “What you see.”

“I’m not impressed. Not much in the way of torment.”

The man laughed. Anthony looked at him for a long time. The man sat back in his chair, sighed, examined his fingernails. "There’s nothing stopping you from leaving at any time.”

“Leaving?” Anthony said. “How?”

The man looked at Anthony with rather a pained expression. “Through the other door, obviously.”

“I can just go?”

“Mm-hmm.” The man was back to considering his fingernails.

“Right. Purgatory, then. A salutary lesson.” Anthony moved towards the other door on the far side. The man did not look up but took the time to wave a hand vaguely in Anthony’s direction.

“Goodbye now.”

Anthony reached out a hand, and tested the door handle. It was unlocked. Without a backwards glance, he opened the door and walked through.

He stepped into a room that reminded him of a thousand others. The walls were painted off-white, the carpet was oatmeal. Polite landscapes hung in unobtrusive frames. There was a second door on the far wall. A small, neat man sat behind a large and highly polished mahogany table, his fingers steepled.

“Hello,” the man said, and smiled.

Sunday, 19 February 2012


(Sabotage: The Beastie Boys)

“You ready, wonder boy?” Gerry laid a hot hand on Nick’s shoulder, like an uncle about to give unwanted whisky-breathed advice on how to handle the girls.

Nick nodded, although he didn’t feel ready to speak, let alone give the most important presentation of his career. His throat was dry and tight, and a nerve jumped in his neck.

“Deep breath, son. Then walk in, head held high, shoulders back, and give the buggers what they want. This is your big moment, my son.”

Nick swallowed, and felt like he was going to choke. Gerry was right, now was his time. Deliver today, and he’d be in there himself, the youngest person round the walnut boardroom table. Paid more than he could think how to spend--although Jen would have plenty of ideas--he'd be locked in, tied down, committed. Give him another ten years and he’d be Gerry, with halitosis and a protégée, having spent a decade doing nothing but things that he didn't care about. He’d tried talking to Jen, but she’d just stared at him as if he was mad and said, “Nick, you don’t have to care. Who the fuck cares?”

Gerry slapped Nick’s back, the same way he did when he made a sexist joke about a waitress, and Nick took a ragged breath, pushed the heavy door open and walked into the boardroom.

A dozen men in dark suits looked up and nodded. Nick paused, gave them the hundred-watt smile, shot his cuffs, walked confidently to the front of the room. The laptop was on, his presentation already loaded, already checked, nothing left to chance. He felt as if there was thick glass between him and the world, like the last time he'd had flu. When he had run through his presentation with Jen the night before, he came to a halt at one point, as if he had forgotten how to speak. She frowned and made that shape with her mouth he didn’t like, and told him he had to do better than that on the day, their futures and all her plans depended upon it. 

Nick pointed the remote, switched the projector on from stand-by, ready to go. Slide after slide of 
graphs and charts and single bullet points that had taken him an hour each to get right. The white tape of the finishing line was in sight, and he knew what it would mean when he burst through it in triumph. One of the boys. A company man. Golf days and cigars. The new house that Jen had already designed a hundred times over, space on the drive for her Range Rover and his Lexus and still room for more when the other company men and their botoxed wives came for the regular dinner and drinks, lots and lots of drinks.  It all came down to the next half an hour. Do this, and his life would be set, a triumphant procession from good school to good university to girlfriend to good job to fiancee to promotion to wife to a seat around this table until early retirement and nothing to keep him from the golf course other than angina.

“Gentlemen,” Nick said, and he didn’t need to add anything else because there wasn’t a single woman present. “I am here today to show you the sales plan for the Minerva Project, the single most important development in this company's history, and a project which will revolutionise the packaging industry forever.”

Nods around the room. An expectant silence. An encouraging wink, from Gerry. 

“But I have to show you something much more important than that,” Nick said, and the fog lifted and he felt alive. “Gentlemen, I am going to show you something more awe-inspiring than the Minerva Project, something that will mean you never forget today, something which shows the depth of my feeling about this company, about you all as colleagues, about everything.”

As he undid his trousers and the shouting began, Nick looked out of the boardroom window, and watched a gull lazily drift and bank through a cloudless blue sky.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants

(Wild Beasts: Braving Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants)

Jim was disappointed by the clairvoyant's house. He'd expected a new age nightmare of crystals and candles, and so much incense that his breath would catch in his throat. Her house was disappointingly ordinary: a neat end of terrace with beige carpets, neutral walls and art from Ikea.

She didn't live up to his expectations either, just a middle-aged woman with her hair tied back, an exhausted look, and a top he knew she'd bought at Monsoon, because his wife owned the same one. He'd expected something more...dramatic. The clairvoyant had come highly recommended, which was why he was there to expose her as a fraud for the entertainment of his readers.

"Put your hands on the table, please."

"Palm up or down?"

She shrugged. "Whatever you feel comfortable with."

He put them palm up. She reached out her hands, rested the tips of her fingers gently on his. Closed her eyes for a moment. Then opened them again, looking past Jim and towards the curtains, as if she could see very far away.

"You're not married," she said, and it was all Jim could do not to smile. That'll be news to Marion, he thought. "But you will be, one day." She closed her eyes again, not long, but longer than a blink. "It will be a little sad, because you will find out that she is not able to bear children."

I should hope not, Jim thought. One's enough for me.

The clairvoyant looked at him with compassion. "But although you will always wish you could have become a father, you will find happiness of a kind."

"Of a kind," Jim said.

"Yes," she said, but didn't go on to elaborate. Another long blink. "You miss your brother."

"I do," Jim said. Apart from every other month when we play golf.

"I see him," she said. "In the other world. He is at peace."

Not unless my sister-in-law has changed beyond recognition, he thought, and had to bite down on his lip so that he wouldn't smile.

As he drove home, he started to write the article in his head. He'd make something more dramatic out of  the woman and her house, something a little more exotic, it would be interesting for the readers and would also make her seem more calculating.

When he walked through the front door, the photo was gone from the wall. He'd paid a fortune for an hour in a studio for the three of them, and then spent ten times that long arguing over which photo they'd have enlarged and printed on canvas.

No-one was downstairs, and when he went upstairs, no-one was there either. Ben's room was half-full of boxes, the rest taken up by a dusty multigym. Jim walked into their bedroom, dull and slow like he was underwater. He stared at the un-made bed, at the sheets that needed changing a month ago, at the one bedside light. He slid the fitted wardrobe door open, and saw his clothes. Just his clothes.

When his mobile rang and he saw that it was his sister-in-law calling, he knew what she was going to say even before she said it.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Caught By The River

(The Doves: Caught By The River)

Alex stood on the narrow iron ledge two hundred feet above the river and tried to be brave. The wind grew impatient and tugged at his jacket, and he tightened his fingers on the girder. He'd never been in charge of anything in his life, so he didn't want to let this one opportunity be taken from him.

Up behind him, cars hissed on the wet road. Down below him, the river waited.

Alex held on tight with one hand, fished his cigarettes from his pocket with the other, managed to maneouvre one into his mouth. He didn't really want it, but it gave him something to do while he waited to become brave enough, and it made him think of condemned men coolly waiting for the firing squad and soldiers joking while they waited to go over the top, and that made him feel a little better about the fact that he couldn't take one step forward. His hands were cold now, and he fumbled his lighter. It hit the ledge, bounced out into the darkness, down to the water. He spat the cigarette after it, and that's when he heard the footsteps.

Now, he thought.  Now, before they come. But his arm wrapped tight around the girder and he didn't move.  Alex had spent a lot of time looking up at the bridge from down on the riverside, he knew it like it was a friend, knew its moods, its habits. Hardly anyone walked across at night, but then he never had been very lucky.  The footsteps stopped and there was silence for a minute.  Then a man's voice said "Hello". Alex nearly went then, and for a moment he was hanging between the iron and the air.  He tightened his hold.

"Go away."

"I can't do that."

"Yes you can. Just walk away, just keep going, just pretend that you never knew that I was here. This has nothing to do with you. Just fuck off."

There was a pause, as if the man were considering this.  "No, I don't think I can do that."

Alex felt angry in a petty way, like a child told to put down a toy in a shop, and realised that he had spent a lot of his life feeling that way. This was his moment, his time.

"You come near me and I'll jump, I swear to God, I'll do it now."

"OK. Then I won't come near you."

They both stood in the night, listening to the rain plinking off the bridge. The river slid on below Alex, deep enough and fast enough that it would catch him, and carry him, and sweep him out into the sea.

"It's not a very nice night, is it?" the man said.

Alex wanted to punch him, punch him in the face, hard. He had never hit anyone before, even though he had often wanted to, but now he knew he really could. Or rather, could have done had the bridge not been in the way, and had he not been frightened of falling off the ledge, losing his choice, losing his moment.  This was meant to be his time, and now some bastard was talking to him about the fucking weather. "Fuck off."


More time, more rain.

"I am sorry," the man said. "But this is the best place. And if I stand around up here too long waiting for you, I'll do what I've done a hundred times before and I can't bear that again."

There was a shuffling noise from above and the man slid down onto the ledge a few yards from Alex. He wasn't as old as he had sounded, barely into middle-age, his brown hair plastered down over his head by the rain. He was wearing a suit and a raincoat, and looked as if he was on the way home from the office.  He looked at Alex and smiled, said, "Sorry for pushing in," and stepped out into space. Alex shouted something, he didn't know what, and his hand gripped so tight around the girder that it hurt and he watched the man drop down, arms and legs out like a starfish, raincoat flapping around him in the wind, all the way down until the black river caught him and took him in and then he wasn't there any more.

Alex felt sick. He stared down at the dark water waiting to catch him, and thought of that terrible long fall. The rain stung his face and this felt like it mattered very much. He felt alive in a way that he had not done for years, and he turned to climb back up to the road. But the iron bridge was very wet, and his hands were very cold, and he never had been very lucky.