Song In The Wrong Key

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Chapter 4

You’d have thought that, after two weeks of battering away, someone, somewhere would have come back wanting to interview me, but you’d be wrong. I’d followed up my initial half-hearted foray into the IT jobs market with a more concerted blitz the next day, and an even wider, more indiscriminate shit-shovel the day after that. Now I was applying for vacancies whose job titles I didn’t understand, much less their specifications. I even applied for vacancies in Watford and Hemel Fucking Hempstead, for God’s sake, all to no avail.

All the while, I was waiting for Pete to deliver on his promise to give my name to David Lewis at Crack-IT, a niche company with whom Edmonds & White had occasionally ventured jointly. Was it just an empty promise thrown into the muck, flailing words of comfort to make himself feel a little less guilty? The shit, sitting there eating croissants while I was no longer even a thought in his mental out tray. All those years. For what? My anger and sense of rejection instilled a certain bullishness in me that usually only raised its ugly head when shouting at old ladies for going too slowly in their Austin Allegros or at unshaven, hefty yobs in baseball caps driving white vans, with whom I was often violently verbally aggressive, provided our respective windows were closed and they couldn’t see me. But I had nothing to lose but my pride which had long since sailed.

’Great to hear from you,’ said Pete in a tone that suggested quite the opposite.

’How’s business?’

’Ahh, well, actually…’

’It’s all right, I don’t give a fuck,’ I said jovially. And I didn’t.

’No, fair enough.’

’Listen, Pete, I won’t detain you - you’ve got Denise’s tits to

ogle, haven’t you? - so the thing is, remember you were going to have a word with David Lewis about me?’

’Er, yeah. Course,’ he said, memory jolted.

’What did he say?’

I was interested in the precise nature of Pete’s ensuing lie. ‘David? He’s been away. On biz, I think. Left him a message, so...’

I think I’d have been happier with ’he’s not interested’ or, ’they’re fully staffed right now and don’t need any losers’ or better still ’sorry, I’m a complete prick - forgot to call him because you’re lower on my list of priorities than trimming my nasal hair.

’Ahh. Right,’ I said.

’No luck with the job hunt?’

’I’m forty-two.’

’Oh look, come on mate, That’s not relevant. You’re a good guy. Loads of outfits out there are looking for dudes like you.’

Guy? Dude? If I didn’t need the bro’ so badly, I’d have told him to fuck off. ‘Well why not email me a list of them and hopefully none of the 796 companies I’ve approached so far will be on it.’

’That bad?’

’You know it’s that bad!’ I snarled, instantly regretful.

’I’m sorry mate.’

Mate, now? A dick like him doesn’t have mates, and if he did, I wouldn’t be among them. ‘Fuck off with your sorry,’ I snarled again with less regret. ‘Be sincere for five minutes, will you? You didn’t even call him, did you?’

But I was spitting vitriol at the wrong person. It wasn’t Pete’s fault, it was mine. I’d spent the last five years achieving very little, on the warped understanding that I was indispensable. And now I was paying the price.

’I’ll call him…again. Ok?’

’Yeah, call him!’ I snapped, still high on indignation. I needed to

negotiate a quick route from there to grateful before his guilt turned sour. ‘Sorry Pete. It’s…just a bit difficult at the moment.’

’Leave it with me, yeah?’

I think Pete was probably a decent man, deep down…just an inveterate prick.

Stranger things…er…can’t remember the rest of that saying, or if I’ve ever known it. Happen at sea? Happen at sea! No. Can’t be right, can it? What the fuck does that mean anyway? You probably get the gist. David Lewis, of all people, called me the very next day, just as Winona of Slappers.co.uk and I were making acquaintance. Actually, it was David Lewis’s office, but that was just as good in my book. A young lady called Fearne asked me to tell her if I had any time available the following week for a meeting. It was a toughie. I shuffled The Times which was open on my desk on a sports page, as though rifling through my diary to find a slot in my heavy schedule, little thinking that any IT man worth his salt would have been making little clicking noises on his Blackberry. ‘Can’t do Monday,’ I said, ‘meetings all day….er…got a window on Tuesday morning, then it’s Friday after that.’

’David was hoping you could come in on Monday at twelve.’

’I’ll move some things around.’

It felt weird being in a suit and tie and those slick, shiny shoes again, weird to be up in town for a meeting in a big glassy building, like I’d been given a temporary pass back into the human race. For some small part of that day, I wasn’t going to be Mr Track Suit breakfasting on grease with nowhere else to go but a small room dominated by an evil computer with nothing useful to say for itself.

David Lewis, it turned out, had had things moved around on him. He wasn’t there when I arrived at twelve sharp on Monday and wasn’t going to be back until three. Did I want to wait? What, with all my pressing appointments? Lisa’s words were still ringing in my ears as I settled in a small, magazine-free, halogen-lit box inside another larger one. ‘Look the part, be confident not cocky, ask questions, show interest in the company.’ Or something like that. I hadn’t been able to take it all in, not whilst brushing my teeth with my bruised balls hanging loose, but I’d interviewed enough hopefuls over the years to know that first impressions are the most important. And my first impression of David Lewis was that he was an arrogant, discourteous motherfucker. He had my number, so why didn’t he, or ‘his office’ call to rearrange? Fearne, a stout blonde in a suit that probably fitted her before Christmas, was apologetic and, after a ring round, managed to find someone else to see me. Someone else. That should have been my cue to leave, but I had time to waste.

Phil Watson was a senior underling in David Lewis’s department. Phil was very wide across the face, the shoulders, the hips, the widest man I’d ever met, in fact. His face was pock-marked, squared off, all cheekbones and jawline and he was probably considered ruggedly handsome in some quarters. Combed-back, thinning hair, held needlessly in place with lashings of gel, exposed a widescreen forehead which balanced the open, gleaming smile he flashed briefly as we shook hands. Poor Phil. I’d been ‘Phil’ myself, often, when Pete couldn’t be arsed to see a candidate. And there it was, in Phil’s eyes, unmistakeably, the desperate look of a man asking himself ‘fuck’s sake, why me?’

Phil led me widely into his office and parked himself in his wide chair like some very wide thing. We exchanged pleasantries, battled gamely through a difficult silence, chuckled a bit then got down to business. Such as it was. So, who was I exactly? I explained the Pete/David Lewis connection, which did little to alleviate Phil’s confusion. He knew of Edmonds & White, of course, but didn’t know Pete. Frankly, it sounded like he hardly knew David Lewis. I gave him a breakdown of my dazzling career without mentioning the word ‘redundancy’ preferring to make the whole thing sound voluntary, like I’d taken time out to seek a new challenge. After a minute or two of this tortuous fibbing, he asked in his estuary accent, ’So you’re looking to come and join us.’ Yes, Wide Phil! Spot on! This was incredibly upbeat and promising. I nodded enthusiastically.

All hope withered in an instant.

’Trouble is, we haven’t got any openings - none that I know of, anyway. If anything, we’re streamlining. One of our clients just went under...’ Phil made a sad, wide face, ‘...took a bloody big contract with them. So, really, until we’ve generated some new business, we need to watch our numbers.’

’Aha,’ I said thoughtfully.

’So - sorry, confused - what is it you actually do? Are you a sales guy?’

’I have been working on the sales side, yes.’ I don’t know why that sounded so naff.

’Hmm. Well, actually, that might be of interest.’

Hope rose a notch but ebbed instantly because I knew what was coming. Phil leaned forward, planting his meaty forearms on the desk, blocking out the light from the window as he loomed, wider than ever. ‘So have you nailed down any decent contracts recently?’

Was 1998 recent or would that be stretching it? Most of my other triumphs in-between had nestled somewhere between insignificant and loss-making (or loss-leading, as I preferred to characterise them). I had no option; the old ones are the best: ’I was this close to landing a monster deal with Virgin. Monster. Fell down at the last hurdle because we couldn’t fulfil one tiny little requirement. Bloody heart breaker.’

’Virgin? Wow.’

Yes, it was impressive, wasn’t it? Wait until I told him about the Microsoft and Shell contracts I didn’t get. ‘But, you know, That’s business, isn’t it?’ I said, waxing sage.

Phil nodded sympathetically. ‘And...apart from Virgin…?’

’Oh, there’ve been some pretty chunky ones,’ I said. Had Phil’s training covered bluster-spotting? ‘Er, Delta Communications? Know them?’

Phil shook his head. Was I really going to elaborate upon the contract I’d secured to maintain three PCs and a server? It wouldn’t have paid my train fare. ’But, it is tough out there, as we all know.’ Which said it all. I had no more to add to that insightful dazzler.

Phil recognised the floundering idiot facing him for what he was, a floundering idiot with nothing to offer a company which wasn’t buying anyway. ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll have a chat with David and he or I will get back to you. That sound reasonable?’

Never mind reasonable. Downright unbelievable. We shook hands and I sloped away accompanied by the glassily smiling Fearne who guided me downstairs and out the front door. Back amongst the shattering decibels of New Oxford Street, I stood for a moment, loosened my tie, then headed for the nearest Starbucks. I placed my empty briefcase on a table and drank a skinny latte, notwithstanding that I hated coffee, even one diluted in sweet, frothy milk. I thought the caffeine might buck me up. It didn’t.

So Pete’s gesture was empty, a sop, a guilt-assuager. He must have known there was nothing for me at Crack-IT. I could’ve been sitting at home idly strumming my guitar, or getting acquainted with Yazzmyn (sic) at Hairymuff.com rather than traipsing into town getting my hopes up. Net loss: £5.90 train fare; £3.70 latte and little cake; priceless self-respect, such as it was. I removed my suit, my still crisp white shirt and sensible tie and pulled on an old track suit. It was beginning to fray a bit at the cuffs and ankles but felt worryingly like something I was supposed to wear on a weekday. I made myself a ham sandwich and sat staring at the garden without registering, much less savouring a single mouthful. It was after two and a long, empty afternoon stretched ahead, followed by an even longer, emptier evening. Whither the next 25 years? I could have done without Lisa’s triumphant beaming smile as she barrelled through the door at 6.45. Bea was still there with fifteen minutes left on the clock. What the hell was going on in our universe? Lisa was fit to burst. She cornered Bea in the kitchen for a moment, dispensed some instructions, then led me into the back lounge, leaving the kids to chomp on some fruit cubes whilst transfixed by a staggeringly unfunny American teenage sitcom on Nickelodeon.

’I’ve got it!’ she trilled.

’Got what?’

’I’m going to be the new Creative Director.’

’Wow, great,’ I acted. ‘Fantastic.’

’And I told Rupert, there’s no point paying me all that money if I don’t have complete autonomy.’

’So…?’

Pause. Gush! ‘I’ve got complete autonomy.’

’Brilliant.’ I gave her a little hug, but she felt like a coiled spring and was way too wired to care. ‘I’m thrilled for you, I really am.’ And I was. I think.

She wriggled free. ‘So I say whose work we display, I deal with the artists, I’m in charge of layout...that place is going to be sooo different this time next year.’

’How much?’

’Very different. By miles.’

’No. How much money?’

’Oh. Almost half as much again. Believe that?!’

Bloody hell. This was a bonus, given our circumstances. Financially, we’d be back to where we were before I lost my job. But this agreeable news was tempered by the dawning, unavoidable reality; she was soaring off into the professional stratosphere, a dot on the horizon I could barely see from my ever-deepening trench. Lisa flung her tailored jacket onto the sofa and started unbuttoning her silk blouse. She had that look in her eyes, hungry, needy, determined to blow off the steam generated by all this excitement. But hang on, the kids were in the next room. What if they were to wander in to ask for a Cheese String only to find their parents sweating, grunting, connected at the groin? Or worse, Bea, though I imagine she wouldn’t have recognised human sexual activity if she was taking part.

’It’s not official yet, so don’t tell anyone, ok? It’s going to put a few noses out of joint so, you know, a bit of diplomacy’s required before it’s announced’

’Who am I going to tell?’

’No-one. I’m just saying.’

’But who would I tell? Seriously. I don’t know anyone,’ I said, unnecessarily tetchily

’All right, all right,’ she said, letting it pass.

’Sorry. No need for that.’

’Come on,’ she said, cajoling me like an errant puppy, ‘let’s celebrate.’

Lisa marched out determined not to be brought down by my spikiness, and started heading upstairs as she continued to strip. We were, at least, going somewhere with a lock.

’Oh, I dunno,’ I demurred, trailing behind her like a sullen child. ‘Not particularly in the mood right now - really exhausted...’

’No, you twerp,’ she said, swivelling at the top of the stairs to deliver a condescending chuckle. ‘Let’s go out. I’ve offered Bea time and a half.’

She was already splashing the cash. ‘Out?’

’It’s on me.’ Hmm. Hadn’t we had a joint account for the last sixteen years? Admittedly my current contribution was somewhere between negligible and non-existent, but surely I merited credit for past performance. Perhaps not. Yet another sad step on the road to total emasculation. Hmm. She barged through the bedroom door, cheeks blooming as she charged around on jet fuel. She was down to her pristine bra and panties now, her lithe, satin-skinned body shimmering in the half-light of a bedside lamp. I stood there with my green, 95% nylon track suit hanging off me like a sack and I’m pretty sure I’d never looked sexier. But I’d forgotten that Lisa’s sex drive was principally tension-led. When she was happy (or, as in this case, delirious) she was already fulfilled. She grabbed her towelling robe and spun out of the bedroom towards the bathroom. ‘Ten minutes and I’m ready. Get something decent on.’

’What’s wrong with this?’

’Don’t be an idiot,’ she said, unamused, before gliding out on a carpet of air.

People change - and just because it’s a tired cliché, doesn’t make it any less true. Lisa was so far removed from the girl I married, I barely recognised her sometimes. I mean, even now, even knowing her like I knew myself, I remained entranced by her staggering physicality; the liquid ebony hair, the porcelain skin, the pouty lips, the knee-disabling smile. And beyond the fabulous beauty, she was ineffably bright, a polymath who could throw all the balls - plus a few sharp knives - up into the air and keep them floating serenely above her head until she plucked out the things that mattered. A good mother. And a good wife, by which I mean she’d always been solicitous, kind, a loyal friend and confidant who stuck by me even when I dipped below acceptable standards, even as our relationship faltered. But Lisa’s life had been spiralling away from mine for a while. She now operated in a world I didn’t understand and in which I had no interest. I couldn’t blame her for being seduced by her glamorous work environment. It must have been jarring to return, night after night, to the mundane plod of suburban Chiswick, kids, obstreperous nannies, prosaic domesticity, financial realities…and me. I’d changed too, of course, a bit better here, a bit worse there but, in essence, I was always a little bit average. Here’s the list, for what it’s worth: I’m not stupid most of the time, I’m reasonable looking, I can be amusing when I’m in the mood, I’m reliable and I’m a pretty good dad. An honest working man (was), a family man, never strayed. All very worthy, but I’m struggling to find anything there that marks me out from any other ordinary Joe. I was beginning to think that Lisa felt she merited something more than that. And she probably did.

I don’t like nouvelle cuisine. There’s a reason. It’s shit. Not the most layered critique, but there you are. I thought it had had its day, that restaurants had recognised that diners want something wholesome and tasty to eat as opposed to an aesthetically interesting arrangement of lonely scraps. I’d only just about bothered to make myself a soulless tuna sandwich for lunch, another symptom of the insidious apathy which was threatening to consume me. It had left me feeling empty but not especially hungry. But now we were here, in an actual eating establishment, I fancied something to eat. A decent steak, a few veg, some chips, maybe a slab of Banoffi Pie to finish, something real, chunky, Proletarian. But as I studied the menu at St Aubin, an achingly minimalist restaurant in the Fulham Road, I struggled to find something worth making the effort to chew much less swallow. Anything vaguely edible - a bit of lamb, for example - came served on a bed of braised stinging nettles with a shingle and cognac sauce and buffoon-udder terrine. Well you get the idea. I settled on ’veal tenderloin medallions wrapped in San Daniele Prosciutto, creamy pumpkin polenta with Brussels sprouts chiffonade and a wild foraged mushroom jus,’ although my barren plate suggested that the kitchen had pretty much run out of all of the above.

Lisa looked ravishing in a slinky, low cut silk dress whose provenance was a mystery. I’d certainly never seen it before. From her ears dangled earrings that looked suspiciously like genuine precious metal embedded with gemstones rather than the silvery, fake-pearl-type thing I tended to plump for when her birthday came around. A present from an admirer, or was she already spending her pay rise? I didn’t want to know either way. She was effervescent, bursting with plans and ideas for the gallery. I spent the evening nodding, congratulating, smiling and offering the odd observation of my own which she acknowledged sweetly but mentally dismissed before the words had left my lips. It was her night and I was delighted for her. She’d worked hard for this accolade, maybe too hard, and I didn’t doubt that she’d tackle the role with commitment and innovative brilliance.

Later, as the waiter disappeared with my empty dessert plate - which was more or less how it had arrived - she kissed me quite unexpectedly on the cheek as though her surfeit of bliss needed some form of physical expression and I happened to be the nearest thing to her. I guess it was not unlike the joyous hug I gave a bloated, reeking oaf sitting next to me when Chelsea scored in the Cup Final. Couldn’t get his stink off me for a fortnight.

It started to rain soon after we left St Aubin and we cowered in the doorway of a furniture shop so trendy it appeared to stock only a single steel chair. It wasn’t going to stop any time soon and Bea would be getting itchy, so I dashed off - gallantly, I thought - to get the car which was parked at least a quarter of a mile away. In perfect synch, the rain began pelting harder until it formed a single massive raindrop. I got to the car, patted my waterlogged jacket pockets, shouted, ‘Fuck!’ into the sky and ran back to Lisa who was dangling the key from her little finger. She studied my sodden hair, laughing with, not at, me I like to think, then leaned into my chest, heedless of the monsoon soaked into my jacket. Then she kissed me full on the lips, her warm, slick tongue probing my mouth, droplets of rain diluting her saliva. I hardened instantly, something I’d considered physically impossible a couple of hours earlier. It was the first time we’d kissed in a street...probably ever. She drew back, her eyes wide and fiery, and thrust the key into my hand. ‘Quick,’ she said, ‘we need to get home right now! Fucking run!’

I was breathless before I scurried away, adrenalin propelling me towards the car in something approaching a world record for a man of my age, height and weight with an erection jutting into his flies. I needed to look that one up. I squelched into the driver’s seat breathing hard, switched on the engine and sped past 30 in first gear. I was there in seconds. Lisa ran towards the car through the downpour, her already snug dress now a saturated second skin. Once inside, she immediately sunk her hand into my groin and began kneading me. She nestled her head into the crook of my shoulder, panting like a small dog. Softly, she said, ‘Darling. I was waiting there for you and I realised I’ve spent all evening talking about me. I’m really sorry.’

’S’all right,’ I gasped magnanimously, foot to the floor. I didn’t honestly give a fuck. Not then.

’No, but it’s not.’

’You’ve had a good day. A great day. You’re entitled.’

’I feel terrible. Selfish bitch.’

’Don’t be silly.’

’So come on, tell me about your day. All the details. Everything.’

I broke the world speed record for penile detumescence by miles.

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