A free lunch
After checking in, James had taken two beers up to his room with him to help him with his unpacking. He was sharing with Fred; Toby was in the room next door. Toby was going to read Out of Africa and have a sleep. They would meet at the bar at half past five – no valuables, no watches and as much money as they were prepared to spend on beer, or have stolen from them.
James and Fred were now lying still on their beds, uncomfortable with the heat.
The beds weren’t great either.
“How’s your mattress?” Fred asked. “This one’s as lumpy as boarding school custard.”
“It’s not exactly like sleeping on a bed of tits, but it will do.”
They stared at the ceiling fan, their faces pink and shining, grateful to be able to relax and know that they were on holiday for a further eight weeks. A far longer time than any of them had taken off since they had all started work after university seven years before. They sipped on James’s beers. Due to the angle of his head propped on a single thin pillow folded against the headboard, as he glugged from the bottle James kept dribbling beer into the depression at the base of his neck. He didn’t seem to notice or care. It was hot enough to feel constantly damp and even though they had cranked the decrepit fan up to its maximum until it sounded like the Chinooks coming in to pick up the wounded, it was ineffective.
“Should go for a run, Freddie,” said James. Fred normally didn’t tolerate the diminutive of his name. With James he secretly liked it. He wouldn’t have much option if he didn’t. Never had he experienced a friendship as open as the one that had grown with James. The South African’s unreserved manner was such that if he liked you, you were his friend and there wasn’t much you could do about it. Fred had public schooling, and he was fonder of James than his traditional upbringing would ever allow him to demonstrate without a loosening of his stiff upper lip. He was sure that James understood that without a big show of modern-man hugging and emotional outpouring.
James continued, “I know it’s a bit hot to be running, but we could get to know the city a bit, stretch our legs after the flight.” He tipped glugs of beer into his mouth. “I dig doing that when I arrive somewhere. Not sure this is the place though.”
“I’m pretty sure it would be fine,” Fred spoke without shifting his gaze from the chuffing fan. “I’m of the opinion that we’ve heard too many bad things about this city. Granted, the Lonely Planet preaches caution regarding Nairobi more than any other city I’ve ever visited or even read about. But we’ll go for runs in other towns.”
James laughed. “Oh we’ll have runs, alright.”
“Undoubtedly. Trots too.” Fred smiled. “Anyway, for the moment, it’s just as nice to be lying here drinking beer and not starting our trip on a bad note by getting hustled. I’ll be honest, flying and airports and taxis and logistics and all that rushing around patting your pockets to keep finding tickets and stuff tends to stress me out a bit.”
“Ja, agreed. Hard to believe we’re here. Seems like yesterday we were lunching in London, discussing how much my job sucked. Time’s flown since then. Things have changed a lot.” James swigged and pulled the bottle away with a sucking pop. “Expect they’ll change even more in the next few months.”
“I hope so; it’s what we’re here for.”
They lay in silence, sipping the Tusker beers, the big bottles sweating in the muggy room. Fred idly kicked a foot, which, due to his height, was hanging a long way clear of the bottom of the little bed.
“It all seems a bit sudden, doesn’t it?”
“I know. One day I get a shit bonus, the next we’re in Africa.”
“One day we’re eating poached talbot in white wine sauce, the next we’re eating Nile perch in what kind of sauce.”
“You think you get Nile perch here? We’re a long way from the Nile.”
“I saw it advertised.”
“You going to eat that kind of shit.”
“Why not? We won’t be eating talbot for a while. No Chablis either.”
James sighed. “Don’t remind me. I’m trying to be happy. Can’t believe I’m not going to see white wine for two months.”
Fred’s thoughts drifted back some weeks to a day at his law firm. It was a quantum leap of context from The Gateway Hotel.
He had been sitting at his desk, his headphones on, playing Handel, because he had heard that baroque music was best for concentration, which was something he was struggling with right now. He had a large financial transaction on the go and was wrestling with the legal documentation. But it was a sunny autumn day outside, the air beautifully clear, and from the fortieth floor window he could see far across the Thames to Greenwich Park, where he would far rather have found himself at the time: sitting on a bench reading the paper and sipping a coffee.
But he wasn’t there, he was sitting in his office reading legal documentation. He was always sitting in his office reading legal documentation. Docs, they called them. Another set of docs. His job entailed negotiating, drafting and reading docs. The docs were then read by the bankers who paid his firm huge amounts of money, and then the docs were renegotiated again to encompass some nuances of whatever financial transaction they were supposed to reflect, the required changes made by Fred overnight, and given back to the bankers the following morning to reread.
Eventually, after a long and arduous process and many threats from either side to walk away from the deal, the docs were all signed and everyone received a fountain pen and a Lucite tombstone for their troubles. After the champagne was finished, huge sums of money then went from one bank to another and hopefully back again over the right number of years.
Fred had one document on his left side, a long elegant finger held in place over a particular clause, while his right hand was scanning through a comparative document to see if any changes hadn’t been properly incorporated. He’d been at it for two hours, and he sighed and leant back in his chair. He ran both of his hands through his mop of curly black hair, which had become too long, and left them behind his neck. He craned his head around and yawned extravagantly.
A low trill sounded and he looked at his incredibly swanky desk phone to see James’s number flashing on the screen. Happy to be distracted, he pulled out his earphones, collected the handset with a languid move and said, “Yes, mate, what can I do for you?”
“You can come to lunch with me. You can’t say no.”
“No, no. I said no ‘noes’”
“I have piles of work to do, James.”
“So do we all, but I need to chat about something. Make some of that work go away.”
“The piles I have to do are only the super-critical stuff. The less important stuff I’ve already made go away. This is all important.” Actually, he thought, there’s nothing ever not important. Or so it always seems at the time. Look at all this crap; I can’t face it today anyway. Fuck it, I’ll go.
“Alright, where and when?”
“Yes, Fred, you lanky wonderboy. Meet me at The Blue Cheese in Fleet Street. How long will it take you to get there?”
“Half an hour if I leave now.”
“Then why are you still on the phone?”
Fred looked at the piles of docs he needed to read. Some he actually did need to read because clients were paying him to, and others he was reading for his betterment – periodicals, law journals and the like. You could fill every hour of your life with work in this job, he thought, and how much of it actually did feed through to money, and to more enjoyment of life? Probably not much. Especially if you were working too much to enjoy spending any money anyway.
He grabbed his coat against the autumn winds and walked out to catch the tube from Canary Wharf. It would be good to go back to The Square Mile, the bit of the old City where he had started his career, before the Canary Wharf skyscrapers had sprung up like reeds and they’d all moved out here to have underground shopping malls, modern pub chains that looked and felt the same as each other, glass buildings and pedestrianised streets. He missed it, The City, with its ancient squat grey buildings and traditional feel. At least you remembered you were in London. Canary Wharf was really a money factory, it could be anywhere on earth.
As he walked up Fleet Street from Blackfriars tube station, he saw James coming the other way. They waved at each other and both smiled. It was nice to see him again. Fred felt immediately more cheerful. James was wearing chinos, a blue checked shirt and a hacking jacket. He looked as English as you get. That was the funny thing about James. One moment he was a brash South African telling outrageous sexploit stories about his university years that would make Caligula cough and look down at his sandals, and the next he bedecked himself in red corduroys and hacking jackets like he had lived all his life on a farm in Suffolk. It wasn’t functional clothing either. It wasn’t like he ever went hunting or fishing. The only bird hunting he did in that jacket was working the beat up and down King’s Road.
“How’s this pub, hey?” James pointed at the low dark wooden door. “You’ll have to crawl in there, Fred. They didn’t make them six six in the 17th century.”
Fred stooped through the door. “I need a torch as well,” he said. “Or a firebrand.”
“It’s great, but there’s a million little rooms in here. Where do you want to sit?”
“Wherever I don’t have to sit bent double like I’m in the Black Hole of Calcutta.”
“Let’s go down to the bottom, it’s where the chow is anyway. And the hottest waitress.”
“God, I should have guessed.” Fred creaked down the stairs, settled himself behind an old wooden table and dumped his coat next to him. He drummed his fingers on the smooth table with its knots and whorls while James went and asked for two pints of ale. In what Fred presumed was an attempt to be true to his English gent aspirations, James only drank lager if it was hot. Otherwise, he pretended to enjoy the real beers.
As they sat clutching their pints, a waitress appeared. She was pretty, Fred had to admit. Trust James to have spotted that and committed it to his endless memory bank of women to track across the Greater London district.
“Can we see the wine list, please.”
“‘Yes, James,’ you mean. I’ll pay for it, but I have things I need to discuss and for that, we need a bottle of Chablis.”
“I should never have agreed to come here. I have work to do this afternoon.”
“Well, you’re here now.”
“So I am. What is this matter of such gravitas?”
“We’ve just had our appraisal meetings. And it was not my finest hour, I tell you.”
“No doubt you will,” Fred smiled to himself. He enjoyed ‘guy time’ with James. The chitchat was entertaining, and he loved James’s clear thinking. It had drawn him to the sometimes brusque and always forthright South African when they had first shared tutorials in their postgraduate years. James was one of a few South Africans in the same college as Fred who had come to the UK to add some credibility to what sounded like a three-year holiday-camp undergrad degree back home.
Some people give off energy, and others sap you of yours, Fred thought. James is an energy giver. He’s full of pep, full of enthusiasm and generally leaves everyone around him feeling fairly bullish about things. Perhaps it was to do with his lack of reserve. He wears his heart on his sleeve most of the time.
James was full of angry energy that day.
“I think appraisals are such a load of soft fresh shit anyway. Used to see the point of having them. But this was a joke. Now see little point in them. There’s way too much subjectivity involved.”
Fred grunted his acknowledgement. He was watching James’s hands; they were clenched on the table in front of him so tight that the knuckles were white. He was clearly very cross and Fred was pleased he had made the effort to meet up with him. He was talking quickly too. James carried on talking without interruption. He spoke fast and energetically, his blue eyes flashing. But he always spoke fast and energetically. There was often little pause in his speech, and he swapped topics so quickly, in what was as close to a stream of consciousness as someone not on drugs could manage, that his audience often lacked the energy to compete. They listened bemused and amused. Fred listened now.
“Went into the room with my ‘mentor’. You know: the fuckwit who’s supposed to ensure that your career is not careering off track. This smarmy bastard gives me one of those false laughs: one of those ‘well, let’s get this tedious process over with’ type greetings as he sits down. I immediately got that foreboding that you get the moment someone with bad tidings sits opposite you. The body language is so easy to read. Palms spread on the table in front of him, shifty little eyes flicking around the room.” James spread his palms down on the white table cloth. Fred couldn’t help but notice his perfectly groomed fingernails.
“Could just see from the neatness when he placed his pen and notebook squarely on the desk that he wanted to be somewhere else. Displacement activity. Finally he steeled himself for some forced eye contact and took a big inhalation followed by a nervous chuckle and said, ‘Right, where should we begin?’” James paused and took a huge swallow of his pint. Paused again and finished it with another big swig.
“‘Just tell me the numbers, you little fucker,’ I wanted to shout and yank him up by the collar, but I smiled nicely and listened patiently to his lead-up about my performance this year and what a slack excuse for a consultant I am. Even fearing the worst didn’t prepare me for the insulting small change they tossed in my hat. Think I even let out a snort of laughter. I got two fifths of fuck all. Once I’ve paid for lunch, it’ll almost all be gone. OK, maybe we’d need to drink a lot more really nice wine and get snot-flying drunk but it’s certainly not a deposit on a house or anything.”
“That’s a bit of a bugger.”
“Bugger them! I hate criticism at the best of times and always like to reply with an excuse. But this time I almost had to accept what he was saying.”
“Which was?” Fred looked up from the menu and sipped his pint.
“What this reedy little tit said was – and bear in mind that when I last spoke to the guy after New Year he was all positive and we agreed on a decent grade for my work thus far – what he said was, that everybody thought I wasn’t performing and they graded me subpar.”
“All the senior honchos who sit around and agree on who deserves accolades and who deserves a kick in the arse. They’ve all got their little favourites’ clubs and empires. Hence no pay rise and a bonus that wouldn’t buy a bonk in Bangkok.”
The waitress returned and James gave her his undivided attention while they ordered.
“Just to play devil’s advocate here for a minute, but what was subpar about you, besides, obviously, the plethora of general character stuff I know already?”
“I’m not being proactive enough,” James said.
“Meaning I’m waiting for the work to come to me. Not making myself available enough, not selling myself, that sort of shit. Not seeing what projects are coming through the door and getting myself noticed.”
“Why aren’t you?” The wine arrived. Fred tasted the Chablis and poured a glass for both of them.
James sipped his and swilled it around his mouth. “This is an indifferent wine,” he said.
Fred laughed loudly. “James, you are indeed a wanker.”
“But it is.”
“Yes, it is. But who actually talks like that?”
“You’re one to talk. Literally.”
“Yes, yes, that’s very funny. Double entendre and all that,” Fred chuckled, and said, “Let’s get back on topic here. Why aren’t you being proactive?”
“At the moment, I’d say that the company has less going for it than a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest. Probably why they’re keen to skimp on bonuses. So, I almost think, why should I be proactive? I know it’s a bad attitude. But fuck, man, it’s not my job to bring work in. I’m not in business development. It’s my job to do the work when these tight-fisted bonus-denying characterless sons-of-bitches have won the business. And I was hired for my specific skills. Not to rip clients off by being deployed to projects that I know less about than their cleaning staff.
The food arrived and, again, James’s anger was replaced with smooth charm, calling the waitress by her first name and smiling with eye contact. The anger returned the moment she left.
“They ask me to do some piece of shite presentation to kill time and then I don’t do a good job. ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,’ says my mentor. ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s also worth doing badly,’ I told him, ‘but this job’s not actually worth doing.’
“This guy, my mentor, my tor-mentor, said that it’s a tough environment out there. With pride in his voice, can you believe that? Like it’s competitively glamorous; you need to be the best of the best of the best type of thing.” James adopted a movie-style American accent: “’Get out there, slick. Go get ’em, kid, you can do it. Show ’em what ya made of’ – and then what? Am I supposed to get psyched up by this?” The accent again, “’Yeah, man, yeah! I can do it! I’m gonna kick me some ass!’”
The American was gone. “I think it’s a highly demeaning environment, scrabbling around for titbits of really crappy project work, making PowerPoint slides and drafting business proposals. Sycophantic shit like that. I know it’s not for me, and frankly I couldn’t be bothered.”
Fred sipped his wine slowly. He had almost finished his meal, while James’s plate was still half full since he’d been talking so much.
“Eat up, James.”
“Sorry.” He wolfed down three quick mouthfuls
James fumed on, “I think the company is up to shit. People are going to start voting with their feet. I’m thinking of stealing a march on them and getting out there in the job market before it’s flooded with This Place Sucks Ltd. financial consultants jumping ship.”
“You’re going to quit?” Fred asked, with such surprise that he almost choked on his last sip of Chablis. “You’re actually going to quit?”
“Yup, just talking through it now with you has confirmed my decision. Funny how thoughts somehow clear up when you’re at lunch. Especially if you’ve had two glasses of wine. I appreciate you listening to all this, Fred.”
“I’m listening because I’d find it quite difficult to interrupt you at this point. But I couldn’t agree with you more. Lunch certainly is a better time to work through problems than at three in the morning while wrestling with a bout of insomnia. Then even a few unpaid parking fines can cause anguish. Things do seem good when you’re sipping Chablis in a restaurant, even if it is indifferent.”
“Lying awake churning thoughts and staring at the ceiling is not thinking a thing through, Fred. That’s catastrophising. Pure and simple. It’s always best to consciously leave problems like this for times of lucidity.
“Or when we’re full of liquor,” James continued, laughing. “Helluva clever then too.”
He finished his talbot, scooped up the last of the white sauce with a piece of potato, and looked Fred in the eye: “Here’s the crunch, Fred, here’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
Fred’s eyes widened, “I thought you just wanted to tell me you were quitting.”
“I did, but there’s more to it. I think you should quit too.”
“Admit it – you’re bored too, running on the treadmill. You’re restless, Fred. We never had a gap year, and if we carry on going here, we’re never going to. You’ll get married to Eleanor, have kids, move to Surrey, and it’s all over.
“OK, don’t quit. Take a sabbatical then, just eight weeks, get some of the restlessness out of the system and then you can dive into your career properly.” James sat back, “Let’s go on safari.”
“You read too much, James. Too much Hemingway, to be precise.”
“Not enough. Come on.”
“OK, I admit, I’m a bit burnt out too. But we’re too old to go backpacking.”
“They let you on those things until you’re thirty-five.”
“What things? Not those scruffy overlanders. Have you gone barking?”
“Would Eleanor let you go?”
“She never sees me anyway. If she thought it would make me reassess my job, she’d probably clap me out of London.”
The waitress returned with the bill, and this time James didn’t even look up as he took it from her hand. She looked slightly put out, but James focussed all his attention on Fred. He could concentrate when he needed to.
“Just think about it, Fred. Eight weeks is not long. They won’t fire you. In fact, they won’t even alter their decisions about whether to make you a partner one day or not. But you’ll be more ambitious, and more driven. And you might have grown a beard and contracted some lifelong parasite.”
Fred laughed and got up to go.
“Just think about it,” James said, putting the money on the table and picking up his jacket.
They shook hands on the pavement, said their goodbyes and Fred clattered his way back to Canary Wharf on the tube.
He sat at his desk, a big cup of coffee in front of him. He felt slightly sluggish from the wine, so wasn’t terribly motivated to work. Instead, he sat and thought. Am I happy in my job? Reasonably. The work isn’t great – sometimes not particularly cerebral and other times very stressful. The hours are often ridiculous. But I’m fairly proud of myself. I like saying that I’m a lawyer, working on big securitisation deals and this and that. I suppose it isn’t really what I’d love to be doing, but it earns a good crust.
Am I happy with my life? Maybe. I have a very pretty, professional girlfriend who makes a great companion and with whom I can discuss my work, and hers. I think that kind of thing is important.
Something doesn’t seem quite right though.
He was sick of referring to people with Capital Letters: The Lenders, The Parties, The Shareholders. It was starting to impinge on his normal life. He had started to leave notes for The Milkman, and refer to The Shopping List. He now even thought about his Girlfriend.
He knew from seeing some of the bickering communication-bereft disasters around him that relationships were often sustained through habit. Fred was starting to have the nagging worry that his relationship was going that way. It unsettled him when he found himself sitting in a restaurant with Eleanor, toying with the cutlery and saying nothing for minutes on end like an old retired couple perched on the promenade at Brighton. Comfortable silences were one thing, but nothing to say to each other, surely that wasn’t good?
If there ever was any passionate magic, he was pretty sure it was gone, but he wasn’t sure if that was a natural progression, or the comfortable stage of a relationship that had the advantages of the people involved being able to indulge in bad habits and not have to try continually to please each other. Or else they were both just too busy and tired to indulge in one another. It wasn’t really where Fred wanted to be at this young stage of his romantic prime. They were footloose and fancy free, making good money, sans commitments. They weren’t grandparents; they weren’t even parents. This was the time they should have been at their most energetic.
He wanted to be spooning ice cream into Eleanor’s mouth and playing footsie in restaurants, making one another desperate to get home and tear each other’s clothes off. He didn’t want to be communicating in nods and grunts about whether he’d like a nice biscuit with his tea or whether it was a bit chilly for this time of year, like some twenty-first-century Darby and Joan.
Fred felt restless. James was right. It was so hard to know whether the grass just looked greener on the other side of the fence, but actually tasted astringent once the fence was jumped. He was resigned to the fact that restlessness would probably always be a factor in his life; he was a perpetually unsatisfied kind of person. Even relaxing on a tropical beach with a book and a gin and tonic, he would find something not quite fitting his needs. Not enough Angostura bitters, wearing the wrong hat, that kind of thing. He tried to quiet this disquiet but he also accepted that it was a part of his character and he should learn to work around it. In love, work and health.
Normally the very worst of it, the genuine feelings of dissatisfaction, feelings of “what am I doing with my life?” tended to hit Fred post-holiday. Especially when returning to London in the middle of winter. That’s when he really started to ask himself the big questions. So he felt anxious that he was doing it now, at a time when things were progressing smoothly and it was the back end of summer. It was like catching himself catastrophising and sweating the small stuff, such as unpaid parking fines, in the middle of the day, not just at three in the morning.
Was this the foreboding of an impending midlife crisis? he thought. Had life settled into a comfortable pattern, and if so, was he supposed to enjoy it? The thought of leaving behind all the days of fun, travel, and spontaneity was disturbing. Coupled with this was the declining novelty of being Mr Big in The City. There were thousands of people working in the financial district. And they all thought, or pretended to think, that what they were doing was hugely important and worth making large sacrifices for. Blowing off family engagements at the weekend at the last minute because some deal was going to close the next day and the Conditions Precedent needed to be checked. There were the Capital Letters again.
The more Fred thought about it, the more he realised that he only had a few choices. Or was that one choice and a few options? Does two choices mean you have four options? Anyway, his paths suddenly became clear to him.
He could bury himself in work for another year or two and make it as partner in his firm. After that, the money would flow considerably more freely, and he could delegate the workload somewhat. But until then it would mean sacrificing his family and friends and putting in some really ugly hours.
Or he could jump the fence and work for a bank or a corporate as an in-house lawyer. Then he could be the one writing comments into a Doc and sending it to a lawyer at five o’clock asking that it be redrafted by morning.
It was like hanging onto a rising balloon. Either he was in or he was out, but he must make the decision now, while he could still jump. He needed some time to make that decision, and maybe two months of playing Hemingway-Hemingway with James around Africa would give him headspace for some blue sky thinking. He chuckled at his internal management speak.
Eleanor would threaten to cut his nuts off at the suggestion, of course. But maybe they needed some more clarity there too. They were running parallel paths, politely interested in each other’s careers, but relentlessly pursuing their own goals. It wasn’t a partnership, and if they wanted to take it to the next level and think of children and Labradors and station wagons, one of them was going to have to pull out of the race. If he put it to her like that, maybe she would encourage him to go away and come to a decision about their future. Because, at the moment, there wasn’t one. There was only a present. An equilibrium. Homeostasis. And it was bound to get boring before too long.
He leant back in his chair and put his hands on the top of his head. He slowly ruffled his curls.
Well, why not? If Eleanor wanted to be a career woman, he could be a stay-at-home dad. He could rip her power suits off in the evenings and bend her over the wingback chair and get the old show your female boss who’s really boss fantasy going.
But he did need to think it through and, at the moment, he couldn’t think more than one day ahead. Getting a sabbatical from work would be the easy part – he would tell them he was powering up and recharging his batteries to come back for the big blitz towards being made a partner in the firm. Getting a sabbatical from Eleanor would not be so easy, but he was sure that if he presented it in the right way, she would have to see the sense in it. He’d also have to convince her that the tour truck or bus or whatever they went in would not be full of Swedish girls with Brazilians, but that shouldn’t be hard. He was convinced that any quick Internet surf on a Lonely Planet site would yield some seriously unwashed people. Come to think of it, that might be the hard part for him.
He took some disinfectant gel out of his desk drawer and rubbed it on his hands at the thought, put his earphones in, put some baroque music on and plunged into The Docs.
The steady whump-whump of the fan pulled Fred from his thoughts and back to the syrupy heat of The Gateway Hotel room. “What you thinking about, Freddie?” James swilled down the last of his beer.
“I was just running through that day you got your non-bonus. Led to this in a way. ”
“Me too. I’m so glad to be shot of that shit, man. Even though I still have no idea what I’m going to do when I get back from this. The more I look back on it, the less I can believe I put myself in that dog-fuck-dog environment. They were the most depressing years of my life I reckon. But I’m as free as a bird now and, boy, am I going to enjoy it for a while. It’s fantastic to feel this relaxed. If I was any more relaxed, my head would drop through my arse.”
James held the beer bottle upturned against his mouth until the last drops of foam had slid down his throat. “Have we got time for another quick beer before we head to the bar?”
“Not for me thanks, James. But you’re on holiday now. Do what you like. I’m going to have a shower and sort out my backpack so that I know where everything is. I imagine we’re not going to be enjoying much in the way of wardrobe space on this shabby truck, so I need my ducks in a row of military precision.”
“OK, I’m going to nip down and grab one more. You shower first.”