This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
I’m a little bit suspicious of people who smile on the Tube; specifically, commuters who smile to themselves. I have no problem with foreigners in fluorescent cagoules, laden with maps and sheaves of leaflets espousing the many joys of anybody’s-guess waxworks and open-top bus rides in the rain. They’re abroad and don’t know any better. Smile away. And gabbling, reeking lunatics holding onto empty liquor bottles for dear life are often very cheerful and capable of creating their own blissful space in otherwise sardine-packed carriages, like penicillin in a Petri dish. They can smile all they want to, though preferably nowhere near me. But that bloke in a suit who, without any obvious visual or aural stimulation, is just bloody smiling - well, he bothers me. What I want to know is - what’s so funny, Smiley? What entitles you to be light of mood when all about you, whey-faced drones with their shark-dead eyes are drowning in quotidian gloom?
Worse, The Smiler, snubbing his nose at propriety, is invariably keen to broadcast his anarchic streak. So he’ll catch your eye to rub it in. He wants you to know there’s a party in his head and you’re not invited. And That’s when I get to thinking - and I’m sure he knows this - have I done something to amuse him, something I ought to be embarrassed about? Has he spotted a matted glob of blood on my collar, unwitting evidence of a careless shave? Or do I have a hole in my crotch revealing my ‘Oh crap, it’s Monday’ pants (they were a birthday present, by the way, which I wear on Tuesdays pursuant to my own anarchic streak, thank you). And anyway, why’s that funny? A bloody collar, an unstitched seam, a witty pant? Ok, maybe I’m being a bit over-sensitive, maybe it’s not me at all or, indeed, anyone else in the carriage. Maybe something funny’s just occurred to him.
I don’t care. I don’t like it.
That’s the thing about the London Underground. People forget who they are; that they got on the train with distinct and, in many cases, complex personalities. Yet once ensconced within the sterile anonymity of the seething warren, arcane rules of non-engagement kick in. The haughty, physical defence of personal space; the flickering, fascinated eyes watching stations hove into and out of view, stations they’ve flickered at a thousand times before; the intense ‘I’m reading, don’t disturb me’ po-face. Woe betide anyone making eye contact. That’s why The Smiler stands out. He’s not to be trusted.
But, you see, that morning, it was me who broke ranks. I’m normally a pack-dog, an automaton, a leave-me-alone merchant, someone whose mind is ostentatiously elsewhere. But I was smiling - yes, to myself - a smile interlaced with the odd gentle convulsion. Maybe, hopefully, it was me pissing everyone else off for a change as I ran a mental video of the night before. Me, in the kitchen, clattering about, hopeless-dad-fashion, trying to conjure a meal for Millie and Katia under cover of the laboured comedy routine of which they’d long since tired. Undeterred by their indifference, I ploughed on. Where was the pasta? What the hell’s spelt when it’s at home? Which one’s the special pasta saucepan? How long do you boil it for - or do you fry it? Do you need to add meat to Ragu or merely slop it on cold from the jar? In truth, I didn’t know the answer to too many of these questions. Millie wore the weary look she’d inherited, gene-for-gene, from her mother, eyelids fluttering, barely tolerating my ineptitude and ham-fisted witlessness, while Katia smiled wryly as she chewed on a waxy rod of cheese of indeterminate colour whilst skim-reading a Jacqueline Wilson book I’d have found too racy and sophisticated at eighteen, much less eight.
Sunday evening meals were invariably my domain and I took the responsibility extremely semi-seriously despite my absence of domestic skills. Lisa always seemed to be on top of it when she was in charge, not militarily, but with that languid efficiency that mums do so well. But she’d gone out to her book club meeting to discuss some impenetrable Nabokov treatise - which she’d actually packed in after thirteen pages (as it turned out, she’d got further than most) - so I couldn’t refer to a higher authority. Soldiering on, I finally got the water to boil, chucked in the penne with a flourish - a steaming splash burnt my hand (important lesson there) - and stuck the Ragu jar in the microwave. Yes I took the lid off, come on. As I collected the requisite plates, cutlery and glasses, I began to sing ’Home,’ the all-time Michael Bublé classic. In my book anyway. The kids pointedly ignored me, embarrassed for and by me, so I waltzed closer to them, knives and forks for dancing partners, forcing the poor things to cower at the table. Katia pulled her book around her face in an attempt to insulate herself from the crooning nutter, while Millie stifled a smile as she coloured in a pencil-drawn map of Ireland, Peru or possibly Jupiter in her exercise book. I leaned down, singing into first Katia’s, then Millie’s ear. They cringed theatrically.
’Come on,’ I pleaded, ‘you always used to love it when daddy sang to you.’
’That was when we were young,’ said Millie, now seven.
I smiled and picked up the song where I’d left off, upping the volume extravagantly and losing a little tonal accuracy in the process. Millie looked up dolefully, half covering her ears, wincing. ‘The thing is, Dad, your singing…’ she said. I nodded, awaiting her sweet little put-down. ‘It’s shit.’
Shit? I blame the mother. I never say ‘shit’ in front of the kids. Ok, I might occasionally slip it in if it’s contextually appropriate, like ‘what’s this shit you’re watching kids?’ Otherwise? Never. But, even allowing for Millie’s little cuss - in fact largely because of it - I was The Smiler on the train that morning, a contented man breezing along, not a care in the world.
Funny how your life can change in an instant.
I battled my way up the escalators at Holborn station, slipped, Astaire-like, through the snapping jaws of the automatic barrier and skipped up the final set of stairs into the hazy sunlight. The cold morning air was thick with fumes, the traffic jammed and furious, but I didn’t care. I was awash in smugness, still congratulating myself on those brilliant kids of mine, my wonderful, tolerant, capable wife, my overall domestic bliss. I observed the poor bastards whose lives couldn’t possibly be as rich as mine, trudging to wherever they were doomed to spend yet another pointless day.
I floated east along High Holborn, all but whistling a happy tune, arriving outside my office building within a couple of joyous minutes. I spun through the revolving door, nodded at the security guy - who, as ever, looked down at his desk gravely as though he had several pressing security issues on the go and couldn’t possibly allow himself to be distracted - and, eschewing the lift, hopped up the three flights of stairs to my floor. I bundled through the double doors and strode sunnily into the open plan office area where half the staff were cranking up for the day. The other half, like me, were late. I nodded with what I hope could never be interpreted as condescension at the handful of underlings lining the path to my executive office tucked away in the far left hand corner. A couple of yards from my door, I was intercepted by Pete Moore, my immediate superior. Of course, he was only superior in terms of job title, salary and perks - and, ok, he lived with a young Spanish model in a Docklands penthouse, had a first class Oxford degree in some social science or other and drove something silver and supercharged - but that’s not how you judge a man, is it?
We went way back, me and Pete. In fact, I started at Edmonds & White IT Systems a month before him and was, briefly, his boss. But Pete was all thrusting ambition, a ruthless operator who lived to work - when he wasn’t spending his vastly inflated salary on exotic holidays and expensive women. His greatest skills were licking the right arses and looking ferociously busy even when he wasn’t, a deadly combination with which I could never compete. Good luck to him. The poor guy had no family to coddle him in their warm, loving embrace after a hard day’s work. I wouldn’t have swapped anything I had for anything of his. Ok, That’s not strictly accurate, but I don’t want to split hairs over anything as vacuous as money, status, property or stunning señoritas.
He placed his hand gently on my elbow and guided me away from my office and towards his. ‘A word?’ was his sole, solemn remark.
Pete’s cavernous suite was cold, not because of the surfeit of smoked glass, the soulless décor or the absence of family photos, but because of his face, his manner. You always know, don’t you?
’Got a problem, mate,’ he said, his voice flat, foreboding.
’Don’t tell me. Those morons at Delta-D complaining about the network again?’ I could already feel myself drowning, but didn’t yet know why.
’No. They’re fine.’
’Yeah,’ I scoffed without conviction, ‘had to work my butt off to get them onside. Bunch of complete…’
’We’re letting you go.’
’Mike? We’re letting you go.’
’Ok mate. Let’s do lunch later, yeah?’
’Mike. I’m not pissing around. This isn’t coming from me.’
’Look, I’ve got stuff piled up on my desk, so….’
’They thought it’d be better if I told you.’
’Ok. Now, I may look cheerful enough, but I’m actually beginning to get a bit worried, Pete. I thought,’ I chuckled pitifully, my heart thudding, lungs barely able to replenish the oxygen they were hyper-exhaling, ‘…I thought I heard you say you were letting me go. But obviously...’
’Elliott and Barry hauled me in last thing Friday. They’re making you redundant. No other way to say it.’
I let that one sink in as I struggled to breathe. ‘They can’t do that.’
’They can. They have. I’m really sorry, mate. You think this is easy for me?’
’Oh poor you,’ I said with desperate sarcasm, ‘you’d better sit down.’
’My hands are tied, Mike.’
’Why me? What about…what about Arnie? He’s useless. Or Denise?’ I was pleading now, pathetic, emasculated. This was as good a point as any to slump into the über-modern, supremely uncomfortable leather armchair reserved only for the best clients. Pete stifled a wince.
’She’s on half what you’re on…and, you know…’
’Big tits,’ I mumbled in a sad echo of the mock-laddish banter Pete and I occasionally engaged in before his accession to executioner-in-chief. And Denise did, indeed, have a sizeable bust, which didn’t excuse it, I know, but we’re men and we can’t help ourselves sometimes. But right now it wasn’t remotely funny, even if everyone tacitly acknowledged that Denise’s rise was largely due to the tongues-out enthusiasm generated by her most prominent physical feature.
’She’s pulling in the business, Mike; making the boys upstairs happy.’
’Big tits do that,’ I said, shaking my head like a defeated schoolboy, ‘I’m at a massive disadvantage.’
Pete rolled his eyes as though this sexist nonsense was, belatedly, beneath him. He’d invented it, the bastard. ‘What can I say?’
’I’ve been here longer than Arnie.’
’But Arnie’s just nailed that Freestone contract,’ said Pete, hammering home another irrefutable nail in my coffin, ‘otherwise he’d probably have been the one to go. You know business is bloody tough. Someone had to take the bullet.’
’Someone?’ I knew all of this, of course, but you never quite see it coming. ‘Didn’t you argue on my behalf? Didn’t you tell them how unlucky I’ve been? I mean, if I’d pulled off that deal with Virgin, Elliott and Barry could’ve fucking retired.’
’But you didn’t.’
I pinched my thumb and forefinger to within a centimetre of each other. ‘I was this close.’ I wasn’t even in the neighbouring solar system.
’They think you fucked it up. And right now, it’s costing us to keep you on. You’re not bringing in the fees. You’re not even paying for yourself.’
’Costing us?’ I whined. ‘Us?’
’Them. I mean them, the company,’ Pete said in a hollow display of personal loyalty of which he then thought better. ‘Well no, I don’t. It is us, isn’t it? We all have to make our contribution. I’m part of the family here. We’re all in this together.’
Pete sighed. I wish I could say this was hurting him, but the guy was a consummate actor whose prime concern was covering his own backside.
’And, Mike. How long have we known each other? Of course I pleaded with them on your behalf,’ he lied. ‘Come on.’
’I was top fee earner...’
’In 1998, Mike.’
The internal phone buzzed and Pete held up an apologetic finger as he rounded his desk to take the call. He spoke sotto voce, but I cupped my ear. ‘Yes. Yes,’ he whispered, ‘won’t be long. I’ll pop up in a minute. Ha, ha. Coffee’d be great. Any croissants? Mmm. Ok.’ He put the phone down, turned to face me and quickly readjusted his features until they settled on the sympathetic mien he’d probably practised before I came in.
’Is that how you pleaded for me? Over a nice plate of croissants?’
’Stop it Mike.’
’But I’ve got kids and a wife and a mortgage…all that shit. What am I going to do? I’m forty-two.’ It was lame, after the event. It wasn’t going to help.
’We’ve put together a really good package. Six months’ salary. And you can keep the gym membership until the end of the year. Uh?’
’Great. I’ll jog to the bankruptcy court. My God, Pete. Six months’ money? After all these years?’
’And...you can keep the car.’
He’d obviously kept that up his sleeve in case I had the temerity to whinge. Hardly a clincher. ‘Oh, magnificent. Can’t afford to fill it up, but maybe I can fold the seats down and move in when the Nationwide forecloses on my fucking mortgage.’
’You’ll find something in no time. You’re a good man.’
’Look, fuck the package. Why not reduce my basic, load it in favour of commission? It’ll motivate me. Maybe That’s what I’ve been missing.’
’My hands are tied Mike.’
My mouth opened but nothing came out. I was all done begging. I gulped in some air and whimpered, ‘But I’m forty-two.’
’What about Lisa? She’s earning good money, isn’t she? You’re not going to starve.’
Which was true, of course. My financial protestations were born of shock, indignation, humiliation, not the facts. Lisa comfortably out-earned me; had done for years. Maybe that made me easier to get rid of. But I still needed a reason to get up in the morning. And I was only forty-two. Did I mention that?
’That’s it for me. Who wants someone of my age in this game?’
’The references will be great and….’
’Yeah? Michael Kenton worked for this company for 17 years. He is reliable, capable, trustworthy and diligent. That’s why we got rid of him.’
’No-one’s going to take that inference. People in the business know it’s tough. The competition’s horrendous. There are new companies sprouting up as we speak, ready to undercut us.’
’I know,’ I muttered, ‘I know.’
’Hey, and…tell you what, I’ll see if I can have a word with David Lewis at Crack-IT. I heard he was after someone experienced on the technical side.’
’Yeah, right,’ I sulked.
’That’d be perfect for you. Maybe sales isn’t your thing any more. You were always a techie at heart.’
’Yeah.’ I squeaked up off the armchair and gestured at the door. ‘I might as well…’
Pete laced a smile with his best approximation of tragic empathy and put his arm around me, but felt immediately uncomfortable and turned it into a stilted pat on the shoulder.
I trudged out and slunk along the corridor, dead man walking, until I reached my office. It already looked deserted. There was no point sitting down, no point settling into my comfortable little kingdom; better to clear it out and clear off. I rifled through my desk drawers, finding all sorts of items I’d forgotten I had - a liveried letter opener, my Top Fee Earner plaque from 1998, a useless, frayed felt tip pen given to me by Millie who insisted I use it at work. I removed the family photos from my desk - the gap-toothed ones of the kids in their prim, ill-fitting school uniforms, the one of my parents when they still had a future, the yellowing shot of me and Lisa looking lean and shiny-faced, toasting the camera in a long-forgotten restaurant in Mykonos. I dithered over the pens, the calculator, the plastic ruler, the stapler, all of which were company property, then decided to take the lot. Screw you, Pete, screw all of you. I win!
I piled my sad little bounty into a couple of the Tesco bags I kept in my bottom drawer. It was pathetic. I was pathetic. Two plastic bags full of useless crap. Was that all the last 17 years had amounted to? I stood by the door, my bags hanging limply from one hand, my empty briefcase from the other, and looked around the room one last time. I almost bade it farewell, then realised it was only a bloody room, one in which I was no longer welcome.
What was I going to tell Lisa?
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