’What the fuck do you mean?’
Marcus was clearly taken aback by my sudden vehemence. ‘I’m sorry, bro’,’ he said, ‘we just feel you’re not really…right for this company.’
’What, you mean this tin pot, piece of shit little repair shop? It’s not even a company. It’s just you and some anonymous bloke who never does any fucking work. Who else is going to go out and do all the shit you can’t be bothered getting off your fat arse to do yourself?’
I had a feeling I might be burning bridges here.
’We need someone. It’s just…we feel you think it’s all a bit beneath you.’
’We? Who’s we?’
’Me and Alex.’
’Yeah, Alex, right. Where’s fucking Alex? How does Alex know this is beneath me?’
’Look, you’re a really great guy, Mick, but…we made a mistake. We should’ve brought in a young kid to train up rather than someone more…mature. You’re over-qualified.’
Mick? I was Mick now? ‘But I’m doing the work. With my eyes closed.’
’That’s kind of the point. We need someone a bit eager who’s not going to bugger off when something better comes along, someone who’s going to grow with the company. I know you’re looking, Mick.’
’Mike, and nothing better’s going to come along.’ This I knew for a fact. ‘I like it here. I’m settled. And I’m not looking around, actually.’ I sighed and looked right into his walrus eyes. ‘Was it the guitar?’
’Did you think, there’s a guy who’d rather be singing for a living?’
’Due respect, Mick. You’re not going to get anywhere at your age, are you?’
’Fair point. Good point,’ I said, slightly hurt despite his having hit the nail so firmly on the head. Like I said, the boy had a gift. ‘And exactly my point. I’m a stayer. I want to help you build this place up to be the best…’ I struggled to imagine what it could possibly ever become the best at, ‘…computer maintenance company in the Crouch End area…and Hornsey.’
’The guitar had nothing to do with it, Mick. It’s about fitting in and…you kinda don’t.’
That took the shine off, I can tell you. Even the gathering excitement over my lunchtime rendezvous with Faye Lester took a hit. Ok, PC Repair (Crouch End) Ltd was a shithole, the work was dismal, Marcus was a prat and the job was utterly without prospects. But it was a job. I was earning a small wage for doing something, the one thing, at which I was actually quite good and feeling like I had at least this, if nothing else, to offer.
I think it’s called self-worth and, for what it’s worth, I felt very little as I checked myself over in the toilet mirror at Jaques where I’d arranged to meet Faye. It seemed as good a place as any for a quick catch-up over a light bite, the kind that doesn’t get stuck in your teeth or slathered on your chin. I was early, of course, Marcus having finally plucked up the courage to sack me at around eleven, and not before I’d removed some stray bric-a-brac from the printer in the bric-a-brac shop (BricBats (sic)). My brief, fiery defence only lasted five minutes, so I now had two hours to kill, the first of which I spent walking hollow-eyed around Crouch End, a place which now felt alien and unwelcoming, like the hotel you’ve just checked out of. Kevin didn’t mind me wasting the second hour sitting in Jaques; at least it looked like he had a customer. It gave me time to ponder this latest black hole and, like all matters of the universe, it left me feeling confused, hopeless and utterly faithless. And now I was about to have a clandestine meeting with a woman who still stirred feelings within me years after they should have been laid to rest. Wasn’t I in enough shit? Curiosity was at the root of it, I suppose, but why expose myself to the possibility of re-igniting the flame? Mine only, of course; Faye never offered me more than gentle, platonic affection. And, hang on a minute, I loved Lisa. It was long term love, ingrained, if a little weary, a little under strain. Which made us no different to millions of other couples in twenty year relationships. Underneath remained a solid core upon which we’d built a family unit and made a life for ourselves. Maybe I just wanted to feel interesting and fresh in the eyes of somebody else rather than the aimless, fibbing, floundering nobody I felt I’d become in Lisa’s.
I shivered hard, a combination of the cold - there were too few customers to justify wasting valuable resources on heating - and nerves. A droplet of mucus formed just inside my left nostril which I dabbed away with a serviette. Kevin sauntered in from the kitchen and sat at the table. ‘Listen. Really liked your set the other night,’ he said. ‘Fancy doing another one Thursday?’
’Oh, thanks.’ In other circumstances, I’d have been pleasantly surprised. ‘I appreciate that, I really do, but I think I’m hanging up my guitar.’
’What? That’d be criminal, man,’ he said in an accent which only now struck me as faintly Scottish.
’Well, you know, I just wanted to get back on the horse and see how it felt. Mid-life crisis sort of thing. Got it out of my system now.’
’The wife?’ he said with astonishing perception.
’My wife? Hah!’ I protested, like a man under a thumb. ‘Not at all. It’s other things, you know…like...yeah, mainly my wife.’
’You can’t let art be strangled by people who don’t appreciate
She ran a bloody art gallery. She was art. But there was a strong argument to suggest she didn’t appreciate my chosen form. ‘Well, you know, it’s not just...I mean, it’s unsociable hours, late nights, and there’s work and the kids and everything.’
’Come on, Mike. Come and do a full set for me Thursday night, forty minutes, fifty quid. I know it’s not a fortune, but...you’re a musician, man. Music is your mistress. You’ve got to follow the muse.’ I waited for the next tortured aphorism. ‘Anyway, Eric fucking Trevillion’s let me down this week, so the evening’s all yours.’
’So. Wow…’ I flustered as we settled into our chairs.
’Yeah. Wow. You look terrific, Mike,’ said Faye, surely without meaning it.
I did forty-two with wrinkles, slightly thinning, greying hair, missing teeth, a paunch; Faye did it with peachy skin, dark hair (she can’t have dyed it, not Faye) and luminescent eyes that twinkled, untarnished by the years. Her smile sparked tingles in places that hadn’t tingled in a while. She was leaner and taller than I remembered, although as a student she tended to slope around in trainers rather than the steepling black boots she now wore beneath a sharp grey trouser suit. My first task - and this had been worrying me for a while - was to avoid any kind of arousal when she kissed me on the cheek, a battle I’d fought and lost when we last got close. But her kiss felt strangely dry, detached, unsensual, and I survived unscathed.
’No, but you really do look terrific,’ I said, my cheeks flushing with the banality of it all. Fill the silence. Fill it! ‘So you’ve got some work on locally today, yeah?’
’Yeah, little project at a hotel up in Muswell Hill.’
’Interesting.’ I nodded sagely.
’No it’s not.’
Kevin arrived at our table, wedged into the draughty bay window area which doubled as the Thursday night stage, to save us from further vacuity. He placed two menus on the table. ‘Specials today are the lamb and the cod,’ he said, ever more Scottishly.
’Oh, gosh, no,’ said Faye. ‘I can’t eat anything cooked at lunchtime. I’ll just have a salad or something.’
’Salads are there,’ said Kevin, pointing at the word ‘Salads’ on the menu, just in case.
’Give us a couple of minutes,’ I said, even though I’d spent much of the previous hour learning the menu by rote.
Kevin bowed and retreated, then raised a private eyebrow. He knew this wasn’t Mrs Kenton. Faye and I studied our menus with fake industry; it was easier than being the first to start the conversation proper. How, where, do you pick things up after twenty one years? Is there a protocol? This was a whole new person in front of me, someone who bore a strong resemblance to a girl I once loved but who was now a stranger. As I probably was to her. ‘So...you’re divorced?’ I said. Cracking start. Subtle as a horse. But it drew a smile.
’How’d you know that?’
Because I’d looked up her profiles on Friends Reunited and MySpace and searched Google until it ran out of information, That’s how. It’s all there if you scour, but it was a step away from stalking. ‘Heard it from...someone at...know what? I don’t know how I know.’
’Well I married a bastard.’
’Of all people. You always got everything right.’
’It wasn’t Ray, was it?’
’Ray?’ she spluttered. ‘That loser? No!’
’See? I always told you he wasn’t good enough for you.’
’Compared to the guy I ended up with...’ Faye stumbled, then steadied herself. ‘...the guy I ended up with was more interested in his business and his cars and his stupid boy-toys than me. And he also had a bit of a penchant for screwing anything in a skirt…or trousers…in fact anything with a respiratory system.’
’And it all started so well. Model husband for three years, then... don’t know what happened after that. Must have been something I said.’ Faye smiled, but there was pain in her eyes. She waved a dismissive hand. ‘Ach, water under the bridge. Being single is so much easier.’
’Course. Doing what you want when you want without some…man…screwing everything up. Recommend it.’ Faye was a little bit pricklier than I remembered. Probably with good reason.
’You’ve got to be lucky, haven’t you?’
’Absolutely. Like you.’
’Yeah,’ I chuckled, but I wasn’t interested in talking about me. ‘So you’re…not with anyone at the moment then?’ I said, unlike a man happily ensconced in a 20 year relationship.
’Actually, I am. Louis, and he’s just a…really, really nice, normal guy. Couple of years now.’
’Oh...because I sort of got the impression you preferred being single.’
’Depends, doesn’t it? It’s better than being with a bastard.’
I smiled as my heart plummeted into my shoes like a faulty lift. And I know I shouldn’t have felt so deflated. I mean, what Faye was doing with her life, with Louis, shouldn’t have affected me either way. Not now.
’So what about you?’ She might have done some reciprocal research.
’Me? I dunno.’
’Oh it’s all so...ordinary.’
’Ok, well...’ My voice came out flat. I couldn’t help myself. ‘I’ve, er...well ok, I’ve been married...eighteen-odd years, two smashing little girls, seven and eight, work in IT...sort of...I like sport and cinema...That’s about it, really.’
’Does it?’ Oh God. I hadn’t prepped for this bit at all.
’Successful marriage, kids, career. What more do you want?
’Yeah, well…everything’s…you know…I’m happy.’
’That’s great, Mike.’
Did I just say happy? ‘Yeah. Lucky man. Very lucky.’
Faye smiled and started studying the specials blackboard. Which should have been my signal to move on. She’d read between the lines and tried to bale me out, but suddenly I was having none of it. If she and, whassisname?...Louis...had found happiness, I had to parry her, show her it didn’t bother me, that I really was very bloody happy. ‘Yeah, well, you know, it’s a long time to be married and...course, lots of stuff happens, but it’s been great and she’s a fantastic girl, Lisa…That’s her name, by the way, Lisa...very successful lady, much more so than me.’ I laughed, meaning to sound self-deprecating but sounding like a goon.
’She’s just been made creative director of a big art gallery in town. Works like a demon. A demon. And doing really well, really well. Well deserved, too. Very well deserved.’ This was how teachers at parents’ evenings talk when praising a child they can’t quite remember.
’Which gallery?’ said Faye, being polite.
’Marc Rouillard. In Mayfair?’
’I know it,’ said Faye. ‘Very posh.’
’Well, I married way above my station. You probably expected me to do that.’
’I’d hang onto her if I were you.’
’Yeah. Definitely. Absolutely.’
Kevin finally, mercifully, appeared to take our order. I questioned him in detail about every dish on the menu, a throat-clearing exercise saving me, if only momentarily, from blurting any more rubbish in the direction of Faye. Maybe this cheery interval would make her forget everything I’d just said. She ordered cheese salad while I, having cross-examined the poor man into oblivion, eventually plumped for the ham and cheese toasted sandwich which I figured I could eat without looking too clumsy. Kevin beat a slow retreat, looking confused, bowing obsequiously until he finally escaped into the kitchen.
We had the place to ourselves apart from an old man in a shabby suit two tables away who sat reading something by Brecht whilst poking at a dry tuna salad. Only the gentle clack of fork on plate punctured the silence, so I launched in with something benign, that old staple: ‘people we used to know.’ I’m sure Faye was equally relieved to be back on safer ground. Finally we began to relax, reminiscing, laughing and speculating about the many idiots we used to know at Brunel. We moved on to films - in which I was expert, of course (it’s all on the CV) - music and even politics, something we’d both had a studenty dabble at, though we only went on anti-Maggie marches if it was sunny and there were plenty of pubs along the route. Which was not to say we didn’t hate her, of course.
The old warmth was now coursing through me, the attraction as strong as ever. Stronger. Unhealthily so. But I was buzzing, just like twenty year old Mikey used to, entranced by this woman he could never have. More than once I had to stop myself from squeezing her hand, settling instead for the odd matey tap on the arm. Even that sent a frisson through my fingers. Was it obvious I was feeling this way? No idea. I couldn’t gauge her at all. Inscrutable Faye. She gave me nothing to go on, never did. I tried to match her airy indifference, but couldn’t tear my eyes from hers, even when nibbling at my tricky little side salad (shredded, browning endive, two cherry tomatoes, slice of cucumber, river of oil). I was flirting, couldn’t help it, and realised this had always been my default mode in her company. I was needy, helpless, foolish. Even now, I just wanted her to like me back the way I liked her. Half as much would do. You’d have thought twenty years, a wife, two kids and a career down the crapper might have cured me.
I’d never been unfaithful to Lisa. In fact, beyond the odd cyberspace liaison with Tyffany and her porno sisters, it’d never really entered my mind. There was a time, soon after Katia was born, when Lisa was devilishly depressed leaving me to fumble uselessly around the periphery, unable to help. I found myself getting close to a woman in the office, Martina, a thirty year old from Poland with beautiful eyes and a seductive accent. She liked me and I was flattered. But nothing happened, not even a kiss. Maybe I just enjoyed feeling desirable again, like I mattered, but I knew I would never follow it up. But this was Faye. She was of a different order altogether. Faye and I had history, even if we interpreted it a little differently. This was as close to unfaithful as I’d ever been, and we were only at a table in a third rate bistro eating a fourth rate lunch.
Faye left me on my own for a few minutes while she went to freshen up, a sudden loneliness that hurt and made me realise that this was going to be over soon. Then what? We’d filled in the last twenty years, however sketchily, like long lost friends do. What more was there to say? We hadn’t met with a view to anything more. We both had lives to get back to. Me and Lisa, her and...who was this Louis character anyway? What did he mean to her? Was it serious? Hang on. What the hell was I thinking? He wasn’t the competition. He was her boyfriend and I was married. It wasn’t my place to start interrogating her about him.
’So tell me about Louis,’ I said, five seconds into the resumption. Faye had emerged from the washroom, a vision as she strode through Jaques, butonepatentlywith other things to do. If nothing else, this might keep her here a bit longer.
’Louis? He’s a...a very sweet, generous man and...and I really like him.’ Bland, non-committal; it wasn’t my business. She checked her watch. ‘Think we could...?’
’I’ll get it,’ I interrupted. Luckily, Kevin wasn’t about. ‘When he comes back.’
’Sorry, it’s just...got to get back.’
’Yeah. Me too, me too.’
Faye stared at the table, sheepish for the first time. ‘Mike, I’m so sorry. I didn’t ask you anything about work.’
I waved a hand. ‘Doesn’t matter. Boring as hell. And you’ve got to go.’
’They can wait another ten minutes.’
This wasn’t going to take ten seconds. Let’s see. Perhaps I could tell her how, having recently left my high-end IT systems maintenance/sales job after seventeen years to seek a fresh challenge (having hit the glass ceiling), I joined a cutting-edge outfit which was aiming to float within five years, and I was the last piece of the jigsaw. I could even offer to show her around our hyper-modern offices one day as she was a surveyor who would appreciate that sort of thing - oh no, silly me, I’d just left them (we weren’t singing from the same hymn sheet) to seek another fresh challenge.
Shit. Even embellished, it was a sad, sorry odyssey. And it said
everything about me. I was never exotic, never special, a serial
nobody. What had I ever achieved?
’Tell you what isn’t boring, though,’ I said, about to play my one miserable trump card, the insignificant morsel that might persuade Faye that I wasn’t a complete loser. Did I say insignificant? How many men of forty-two have a singing career? Certainly not me, but it was all I had left, and it wasn’t nothing, given that everything else was. Would Faye be remotely impressed? She’d probably remember me playing, unremarkably, in smoke-filled college bars and at one or two evenings-in. But if it didn’t do anything for her then, why would it now? Fuck it. It was too late to go back. I had to tell her, had to.
’What?’ she said.
’This. Where we’re sitting. The stage!’ I boomed theatrically, arms akimbo, hoping this cryptic opening would intrigue her. ‘This definitely isn’t boring.’
’Well they have live music here on Thursdays...’
’Oh. Right,’ she said, fumbling in her bag for her purse. I was losing her.
’So, er, guess who stormed it here last week?’
’You’re looking at him.’ My face burned; sweat pooled above my top lip. This was unbridled, embarrassing crassness. I was truly twenty again, an immature little twerp trying to impress her with absolutely nothing.
’You’re singing again then?’
’That’s great,’ she said, sounding like she couldn’t have cared less.
’Well, you know. You’ve got to give the people what they want.’
’Absolutely.’ Faye extracted her credit card but I waved it away. ‘You sure?’
’My treat.’ I dabbed my forehead. Stay with it. ’So, anyway...it
was my first live performance in God knows how long.’
’Right. You were quite good, if I remember.’
’Yeah. You had quite a nice voice.’
’Well thanks quite a lot.’
Faye chuckled, a mother humouring her four year old son. ‘Good for you, Mike. Seriously.’
’I just got the urge to get up there and do it again and it went really well, amazingly well.’
Faye tucked her credit card into a slot in her purse and looked me in the eye. Was that pity? ‘It’s nice to be able to do something like that when you’re…you know, you’re...our age.’
And there it was. I was just a stupid old fool hanging onto something that had long since sailed. ‘You don’t have to be a young kid to sing, Faye. As long as there’s an audience who want to listen…’
’Yeah, no, you’re right. Absolutely, Mike. I didn’t mean it like that.’
’You should come and see me one night.’ There! Gauntlet thrown. ‘I’ve improved since that night everyone pelted me with spit and bottles in the Three Tuns. Not much, but a bit.’
Faye smiled. ‘Yeah, well maybe I will.’
Make of that ‘maybe’ what you will, but it had a strong whiff of finality from where I was sitting.
Outside, we exchanged hollow promises to stay in touch, swapping phone numbers like you do. It made it a notch more personal than social media messaging, but it would still take one of us to actually call the other and I couldn’t see that happening. I closed the cab door behind her and watched, mesmerised, as she settled. A warm, pungent fug seeped from the window through which I kissed her cheek. Then the cab chugged away and I’m pretty sure I heard her say, ‘Have a great life,’ as it disappeared
into the mist shrouding Crouch End Hill.
’Chazmeister! The Chazzah!? Anything?’
’Mikeyman. Mikeyyyyyy! Nothing. S’up, my son?’
Boys never grow up, in case you hadn’t noticed.
’Fancy a snifter after work?’ I said, my hand frozen solid to my mobile phone.
’Ooh, tricky,’ he said. ‘Tell you what, I can get away around seven-thirty? Too late?’
’Nah! Perfect. I’ve got to be in town later anyway,’ I lied. ‘Outside your gaff?’
Chaz was my confidante, someone with whom I could discuss anything. I could tell him things I couldn’t tell Lisa because, well, Lisa was the subject of most of those things, and she and I were done talking. We knew where we stood, even before she learned of my latest professional calamity.
The truth was, I couldn’t go home. I was feeling wobbly, my body no longer centred, like a top running out of spin. Seeing Faye had messed with my wiring. That hour or so with her wasn’t nearly enough. I needed more time to look at her, hear her voice, inhale her, so that I could carry her inside me for the next twenty years. Home was the last place I wanted to be feeling like that. It represented everything that was stale and staid and it was about to become my prison once again; the same walls, the same furniture, the same hopeless tomorrow. Even the love of my children couldn’t change that.
Chaz emerged from his glassy office block at seven forty-five by which time my lips were purple. I’d got there early, parked myself in Starbucks until they threw me out and waited for him in the perishing cold of Baker Street rather than sit like a lemon in reception. I always felt uncomfortable in places where I had no business. He apologised, gave me a playful hug around the waist, then hailed a cab. I began to thaw out on the way to his favourite boozer, The White Horse in Beak Street, where the small miracle of a free table in a relatively quiet corner made me think life couldn’t be all bad. Three pints saw us through all the usual infantile banter, before we moved on to: (Me) ‘So, how’s work going?’
(Him) ‘Pretty good’ (Translation - I’m the Managing Partner of a Magic Circle accountancy firm, raking it in. It’s fucking great). ‘How about you?’
(Me) ‘Got fired by a twenty-three year old hippy with the brain of a mollusc.’ (Translation - got fired by a twenty-three year old hippy with the brain of a mollusc).
’Shit!’ said Chaz with a theatrical spit of his Green King. ‘No!’
’Back to square fucking one.’
’I turned forty-two and lost my job, then I lost another, same reason. That’s what happened.’ I took a steadying sip of alcohol. ‘I can’t really blame the kid. Would you want to work for your dad?’
’Jesus, mate. What you going to do?’
’Fucked if I know. I mean, that one took me God knows how long to pin down.’
’Christ no. We’re on eggshells as it is.’
We shrugged and sighed in unison. I was feeling warm now, a bit fuzzy; I’d drunk enough to numb me up for the ghastly, pride-swallowing moment that was to follow. ‘Listen, mate. If you’ve got anything, anything at all, I’ll grab it. I need to get out of the house in the morning and come home in the evening and actually do something vaguely useful in between.’
’Bloody hell, Mikey. I don’t know. You didn’t want to do the driving.’
I splayed my hands in bitter defeat. It was better than nothing.
’Listen. I’ll talk to personnel in the morning, ok? Let’s see if
there’s anything a bit more you.’
’Thanks mate,’ I slurred, like a sad old drunk