The Phone Man Gets Disconnected
When it hits the fan, you had better duck. If you find yourself up that particular creek, pray god you have a paddle.
There are those who think that life is shit and there are those who think that life is the shit. The first is probably easiest to swallow. It must be hard trying to get a kick out of life when all around you people are raring to talk about the shit they’re in, the shit they saw go down, the shit they watched on television the night before, the shit-head who lives next door, the shit-for-brains they share office-space with, the shit the world calls food today. Everything is shit. Conversely, if you know shit, then you know nothing, so nothing is also shit. It doesn’t appear to make sense, but then shit can be crazy sometimes. There was a time when it was frowned upon to say ‘shit’ and generally people still do, as a matter of course, teach their young to avoid the word, but this is only delaying the inevitable and everyone except the insanely religious knows it. Shit has become part of the culture, the once untouchable finally handcrafted into new, wondrous forms, adding both its richness and colour to the language people speak and the pavements they walk, a figurative reminder of where it all ends up depending on your shade of pessimism.
And shit can be anything; it is what you are ordered to take with you when a relationship ends disastrously (the shit you have in your house is more or less the same, only lighter in emotional weight); if the shit you know is serious, apply for a job at Oxford; if the shit you’re into is serious, get yourself some protection. Depending on tone, inflection and delivery, shit can be an insult or it can be a term of endearment, for male members of the species anyway. At times it means surprise, at others anger, and in some cases it simply means ‘oh dear’. Shit straddles the moral spectrum; it can be good, it can be bad, shit can even be holy. And of course, shit can also be just that, honest-to-goodness shit, human, animal waste.
Cities, the great urban canvases upon which modern life is painted, are full of shit, both the raw, physical product and the abstract, conceptual variety. Huge networks of pipes, metal intestines in perpetual peristaltic motion, carry torrents of the former around the city’s underbelly; the rest is dreamed up by the bipedal creatures sleeping in the beds above ground.
It is four a.m. and the city of Birmingham mostly sleeps. In a twenty-four hour world, night and day have moved beyond the simple spin of the Earth and across the city there are still people working or going about their business, manning the late-shift, guarding factories and office-buildings, people filling trays with cheap jewellery to be distributed to familiar jewellery chain stores, and people breaking into familiar jewellery chain stores to fill their pockets. There are prostitutes and police officers, criminals and insomniacs prowling the streets, looking for reasons to justify a nocturnal existence, sometimes finding more than they need, sometimes nothing at all. Beneath the city, the shit roars, there’s so much of it. Birmingham is vast, England’s second city, so the stream is endless. But it is underground, out of sight, and so most people sleep soundly, in sunlight or moonlight, safe in their cosy, self-constructed, media-aided realities, content to believe that shit remains nothing more than a word.
One such content is Chester Guberson. His world hasn’t been tainted by shit. Chester won’t let it. He hasn’t got time for it. Curled up beneath the quilt on his king-size bed, in the bedroom of his large, Solihull house, Chester sleeps the sleep of champions and dreams of objectives being ticked off a list the size of the universe. Chester sleeps soundly because he has imposed an order, a structure, on himself; his worldview, he thinks, is unwavering.
As to who he is, Chester Guberson is the kind of man who will tell you, without need of asking, that he has got style, that he knows what to wear and how to wear it. Chester will tell you that he knows about music; he will tell you about his ability, his gift, to charm the ladies. Chester works out at the gym – everybody there knows him, attendants and calorie-burners alike – and is proud of his sinewy torso. Chester also pays a lot of money for the maintenance of his teeth, which he endeavours to keep in immaculate condition. This is of the utmost importance because during the day Chester is expected to smile a lot. And he does smile a lot. It is the smile of the rugged, square-jawed model posing in a tailored suit or fun pair of pyjamas on the pages of a mail-order catalogue, looking at his watch or pointing at some unseen but clearly fabulous sight on a distant horizon. His colleagues at work, with a little push in the right direction from the man himself, call him ‘Chester Cat’ in honour of his glowing smile. Chester sells mobile telephones.
In fact, nobody sells mobile phones like Chester. He is the top salesman at his branch and his commission rate, unlike his penis, is huge, throbbing and intimidating. Chester knows that soon he will probably be made an area manager. To a lot of people, this might sound about as thrilling as the ascension from bog cleaner to check-out boy in a fast food joint. The prospect for Chester, however, is an exciting one; it tickles his ambition glands, because Chester understands that money and status are important. He believes with the profound certainty of a zealot – the twenty-first century euphemism for an idiot – that the image of success, if not success itself, is one that naturally engenders respect in those fortunate enough to be standing in its presence. Every now and then, when the profits are high, Chester attends the conventions set up by the mother company in plush hotels or conference centres. He will do the rounds, network with his peers and listen in on other people’s conversations. On such occasions, Chester is always accompanied by his senior at work, who will invariably boast in nauseatingly proud tones that “Guberson here could sell mobiles to a mute.” Such is the mindless, redundant drivel only to be expected from the slack mouths of those who really, truly believe that selling stuff, any stuff, is a worthy, stimulating vocation; those who have entirely bought into the idea that commercial enterprise is the only enterprise.
The name of the company Chester works for is Communicom. It has franchises everywhere, all over Britain, but the majority of them are in Birmingham. At the age of twenty-nine, Chester, a relative new-comer, could be considered past it in the greedy, thrusting world of the crap-hockers. This does not bother him in any way at all; Chester knows with cock-sure confidence that his record speaks for itself and that the references he can expect will be the sparkling biographies of a natural salesman. Chester believes he is a man going places.
It is early afternoon, the beginning of September, and once more Chester, affecting a boyish, fake humble smirk, is charmingly reticent about accepting the special bonus cheque for the best sales figures over the last bi-monthly period. His colleagues clap and cheer graciously, while on the inside they twist mental knives, flaking with conceptual rust, into Chester’s stomach. In the private joy of their imaginations, Chester’s smile – a garish symptom of his unbearable smugness – is also sliced away, one thin lip at a time, with those same razor-sharp, oxidised blades. For while his colleagues call him ‘Chester Cat’ as he purrs about the office, the truth, regardless of what Chester might think he knows about himself, is that when he isn’t around, they and anyone else who knows him more than just a little, can’t stand him.
It is Chester’s habit on these occasions to declare that dinner will be his treat later on that night and who better to accompany him than the team he considers not simply as colleagues but family, without whose friendship and support he might never have received the juicy extras in the first place. Thus, ostensibly, they remain comrades-in-arms, best pals standing shoulder-to-shoulder against the heavy buffeting of market-force winds. The offer is effectively superficial and superficially effective. The ritual ceremony of gratitude and platitude is quickly, mercifully over and a small, empty champagne bottle and several plastic beakers are swiftly cleared away. Bill Thompkinson, the branch manager and in Chester’s unvoiced opinion a senile old fart, retreats back into his office to play patience on his PC and contemplate retirement. Before shutting the door, he puts his head out and says, ‘Right, I’ll leave you lot to get on with the business of business, then.’ When nobody responds, he grins stupidly and disappears, the door softly clicking shut after him. In five minutes they will open up for the afternoon stretch.
‘What you get, then?’ The question comes from a pale, bone-like entity in an oversized suit. The face is a Picasso construct of blotchy, pasty angles.
‘A fair old whack, Gavin, a fair old whack,’ responds Chester, leaning back against the polished glass of a display cupboard showcasing the latest innovations in handheld communication devices, attractively laid out like shiny new cars improbably stacked in a transparent space-station. Chester never tells anyone how much he has earned, preferring vague none-statements over exact amounts. Such reticence might be considered odd in one so apparently obsessed with success but Chester, who does indeed believe that wealth is to be flaunted – he really wouldn’t be Chester if he didn’t – also feels that it is not to be spoken of in too specific detail. Better to be enigmatic about it, he thinks, to leave them guessing, not that anybody particularly wants to guess. In Chester’s mind, it is dangerous to let on just how much he is worth. He certainly doesn’t let on to those classed, technically at least, as his equals. Such information is for the ears of prospective employers only, or will be soon, anyway. Perhaps the real reason behind Chester’s silence is that he knows exactly how much a prospective employer might think he was worth: naff all. But such a supposition would require a certain amount of honest self-knowledge and objective reasoning that Chester sadly lacks. Then again, having a shallow, single-track mind is all too likely an invaluable character trait as far as anyone who might want to give Chester a job may be concerned.
‘He never tells,’ says Yvonne and turns her perfectly made-up face to Gavin. Gavin is, nominally, the new boy. It is the common wisdom of universal office law that there has to be a new boy. Gavin however is neither new nor a boy. He has been working at Communicom for just over a year now. An air of gormlessness, combined with gruesome, blood-red, apparently mid-pubescent skin hides his true twenty-five years and has conspired to cast him in the role of new-boy-in-perpetuity.
‘It’s like a game,’ Yvonne continues, sounding very bored by the whole thing. ‘Little boys enjoy little games.’ She isn’t looking at Chester or Gavin as she speaks but seems to be engrossed by a far more interesting speck of residual lunch in her lap. Yvonne has full lips that are clearly designed by God for the express purpose of kissing and a sharp tongue that puts most people off from trying. She pouts for an instant – and Gavin feels an involuntary twitch in his M&S pants – before turning her large, opaque blue eyes to Chester for a fleeting glance of disapproval. Chester watches her as she flicks her head, swinging her thick black hair from her eyes and tucking it behind her ears with slim, manicured fingers. They all fantasise over Yvonne. Even Chester, always careful never to mix business with pleasure, sometimes feels himself drawn to her cool severity, her stern sexiness.
Brian Dinks, otherwise known as Fudge, is the fourth member of the team. Just as the fabric of existence demands the presence of a new boy in every office, it also calls for the role of a disgusting bastard. Thus Fudge. He voices his typically dirty-minded suspicion that Gavin seems unable to wait until he gets home to contemplate the fine curves (“jiggly jugs” are the words Fudge actually uses) that move fluidly about beneath the silver-grey sheen of Yvonne’s blouse. Fudge points out that Gavin spends a lot of time in the toilet and always comes out looking flushed and breathless. Though not quite so red in the face as he becomes when Fudge periodically yells out such powerfully witty gems as, ‘Oi, Gav, I 'ope yow woiped yow jizz from the seat this toime,’ or, ‘Yow bin spankin the monkey ower Yvonne again?’ Yvonne’s reaction to these outbursts is always the same: a withering look cast in Fudge’s direction and a face that expresses a queasy distaste at the prospect of existing, in any form, in Gavin’s mind.
Fudge is sidling up to Gavin now. ‘It’s loik this,’ he says, his accent languorously, thickly Brummie, ‘our Chez down loik t’talk about how much more he gets than the rest on us. Thinks it moit make us jealous, in’t that roit, Chezza?’ Chester just shrugs. ‘Very cagey about it, if yow arsk me,’ Fudge continues, putting an insincerely pally but frankly flabby arm around the younger man’s shoulders, squeezing him until he winces.
‘Leave him alone, Fudge,’ says Yvonne.
Fudge looks surprised for a second but then moves his face conspiratorially into Gavin’s neck and whispers, the same way most people shout, ‘Yow’re in there, mate. Itai’ now secret that Yvonne loiks em young an’ inexperienced. A virgin loik yow ought to be getting her juices flowing loik Niagara Falls.’ Fudge now looks around the rest of the office, hoping for a little approval. Chester says nothing. He wants to hear what Yvonne has to say. She always says something.
‘You tosser, Fudge,’ she says eventually. She looks Gavin up and down, as though disinterestedly studying a child's unimaginative science project, before fixing her gaze on Fudge. She cocks her head towards Gavin. ‘He might be a spotty little berk,’ she says (Gavin says nothing; he just stares at his feet and pretends to be somewhere else, in a magical kingdom inside his mind, far from reality, where Yvonne is begging him to rescue her from an enchanted tower), ‘but he stands more chance of getting a real woman than a rude, fat pig like you, you sweaty tit. And,’ she adds quickly, seeing Fudge about to butt in, ‘at least he takes five minutes in the morning to brush his teeth so I don’t feel like I’m being spoken to by an arse stuffed with garlic.’
‘Unlock the door,’ says Fudge, though it comes out more like a growl. While Gavin goes to open up, Fudge moves his overweight bulk back to his desk and sits down heavily with an annoyed huff.
‘Okay children,’ coos Chester; he thinks it makes him sound clever. ‘Remember, professionalism at all times.’
‘Bog off,’ mutters Fudge under his breath.
Chester chooses not to react. Instead he shakes his head, pitying what he obviously considers a poor simpleton.
It is six o’clock and the Communicom doors are finally closed. After a fruitful afternoon, and having arranged to meet in a pub that Chester found a few days earlier during lunch, everybody has gone their separate ways. Chester’s car, a silver Audi, is parked in a small side street, ten minutes walk away from the commercial centre which houses the phone store. Chester looks up at the sky as he opens the door. There are grey clouds moving in. Maybe it will rain, he thinks. Chester eases himself into the driving seat, fastens the seatbelt and checks the side and rear-view mirrors. Happy that the Audi is not at risk, he pulls out and heads in the direction that will take him to the main road leading out of the city centre. At the first red traffic light Chester slots a CD into the car stereo and the plush interior is gradually filled by the nasal whine of Madonna, singing of the joys of a material girl. He nods his head to the rhythm.
He peers up once again at the sky. The clouds are closing in tighter, merging into a dark mass that rapidly swallows the remaining light of day. Chester drums his fingers on the steering wheel. No doubt about it, he tells himself, it’s going to piss down later. He drives past endless concrete buildings, as dank and miserable as the grumbling nebulae above, old factories that have fallen into disuse. The car glides along steadily, heading towards the road that will take Chester into Solihull and back to the comfort of his home, a far cry from the crumbling grey structures that whip by the windows. There is no sense of architecture designed to inspire here; all is purely form and function, walls to keep the wind out, a roof to keep the rain out. None of this depresses Chester though. He is not one to waste his time pondering on the miserable aesthetics of drudgery, for that is surely what working in a factory amounts to, he believes. If people’s lives are dull and uniform, says Chester, it is because they have not applied themselves properly to their tasks, because they do not believe in themselves, because they lack the necessary ambition that separates the men from the boys. Chester has seen natural-history documentaries on the television, he even has boxed DVD sets, so he knows as well as anyone that life is about survival of the fittest. He concentrates on the road ahead as the first few drops of rain burst against the windscreen. Chester sees himself with unerring clarity as a survivor, a proud member of the exclusive fittest club. A decent environment, he thinks, as he passes a fluorescent orange sign standing outside an evangelical church, proclaiming that man has further to fall if he is not on his knees, is not a natural human right; it is earned, like position and respect. The fact that Chester’s family is basically loaded, that ease and comfort are only a phone-call away, conveniently plays no part in these rare philosophical calculations of his. Chester thinks of the bonus cheque neatly folded in his wallet and smiles; not the smile he reserves for customers, but the self-satisfied smile, almost a sneer, of secure arrogance.
The Audi is now travelling down Stratford Road, approaching the turn-off onto Warwick Road, passing the run-down or boarded-up shops and diminishing curry houses that proliferate along its length. Chester wrinkles his nose at the idea of Indian food – it will be steak and chips tonight, thank you very much. He never eats curry. He doesn’t eat Chinese, Italian, French or anything else from outside the UK, either. Not knowingly. Chester doesn’t trust them. He won’t tell you that, not in so many words; instead he might tell you that he once suffered an unfortunate incident involving clams or that he simply has a sensitive stomach. The plain truth is that Chester Guberson is a bigot. He might not actually believe it himself – the conscious human mind is adept at blocking out that which it has no wish to perceive – but it is true all the same.
This latent racism has a great deal to do with Chester’s father, who picked up his own Aryan habits from his father, one Wilhelm Guber. Wilhelm was a particularly fervent nazi during Hitler’s rule of Germany, while the country was going through a severe psychotic episode, slaughtering anything that wasn’t uber. Wilhelm’s fondness for casual brutal violence earned him the name ‘Flick-knife’ amongst those unfortunate enough to live under his jurisdiction. Most of the Gubersons, with perhaps the exception of Chester’s sister, are xenophobic to some degree. They never mention it in public, of course, and in that they are very much in tune with Chester. The real problem for the rest of his family, however, is that Chester still passionately denies the fact of his deeply ingrained bigotry even to them. Chester is unwilling to accept any negative personality trait; the concept is alien to who he thinks he is. And who is that? Add ‘genuinely nice guy’ to Chester’s sad list of delusions. His family, of course, has never been fooled; they just worry about Chester’s grip on reality.
If Chester moves fast enough, he is able to go through the world leaving the impression of a sociable go-getter with flair. But it is only an impression. Chester is a big disappointment to his family. He has taken this knowledge and, over the years, trained himself to become happily unaware of it. All manner of deep psychological damage is the result. If he ever decides to think about it, Chester might be able to sort through the breakages and see if there is a way to put some of the pieces back together. He won’t think about it, though, because he has forbidden himself to do so, and so the psychoses have been locked in and, with nothing better to do, have embedded. He doesn’t really want to know who he is; he is happy to stick with the personality he has come up with on his own. His older brothers, York and Lancaster, are doctors. His younger sister, Chelsea, has a Masters in archaeology and is off in the jungle scrubbing around for nuggets of amber. Chester looks up to his brothers, although not for their part in caring for, or appearing to care for, the sick. He respects the fact that they are raking it in, that they have big, beautiful houses and small, beautiful wives. On the other hand, Chester thinks Chelsea is wasting her time. Where is the profit in academics? Where’s the profit in digging up old bones that museums hope you will donate to them?
Buckingham Guberson is Chester’s father and is both the eldest son of Wilhelm and the first to have borne the surname Guberson. All members of the family had to take the name of English cities; the next generation would be christened with them. Wilhelm believed this would help his family’s integration into British society easier. They escaped to England masquerading as Jewish refugees when it had become clear that Hitler’s plan, and the rest of the country, was going up in smoke.
Buckingham worked hard. It gave him a certain satisfaction knowing that he didn’t really need to. A small family fortune of stolen wealth from the war would have seen him live a life of ease if he had wished it but Buckingham was intelligent enough to know that nothing lasts forever, so he made sure the fortune grew rather than dwindled away through indolence. He became very big in plastics, then in lighting and finally in electronic components, his private firm growing in all that time until he sold it, three years earlier, for an incomprehensible sum of money. He then packed himself and Chester’s mother, a deceptively timid woman called Victoria fifteen years younger than Buckingham, off to some wealthy retiree’s playground in the sun on the Spanish coast. Chester misses his mother not being in the same country. There is a small corner of his mind that still recognises that she is the only one who really loves him. She loves him regardless of what the family see, though certainly not what Chester sees, as his embarrassing choice of career. Buckingham is truly mortified and baffled by it. He did everything he could to convince Chester that sponging of he and his mother would be aeons more acceptable to them than Chester having such an ordinary job. Why it was that Buckingham did not want the youngest of his sons to follow in his own footsteps is a mystery. There was always something wrong with the way Buckingham dealt with Chester; for no apparent reason, his father simply didn’t like him. Chester is not really stupid, but he has been made to feel that he is and so he has developed a character which exists perfectly on that plane. Chester takes his father’s disapproval of his job as a secret code for ‘prove yourself to me, my boy’. His father, however, is being quite sincere.
It isn’t so difficult to drive from Birmingham to London every few weekends but Spain? It just isn’t convenient for Chester to fly off to mainland Europe and back so he spends all his time in Birmingham. Very infrequently, he travels down to visit his brothers. For all that he respects them, and he would never admit this, they intimidate Chester, what the two of them represent, their achievements, their values. Chester’s efforts, though surely the harder, appear weak and laughable in comparison. Away from his family, however, Chester feels different; he revels in who he has become, the success story to be made, a credit to the concept of capitalism and opportunity.
Chester is moving at speed now, overtaking cheaper cars with a conscious relish as he nears Acocks Green. This is the final place he will pass through before entering Solihull. Although Solihull is in Birmingham, at the same time it is not. It is a separate metropolitan borough and has earned itself an urban mystique that people associate, wrongly, with tennis players just because one, or maybe even two of them, lived there once. It is pretty enough in a modern, clean, functional way, although you could easily imagine it as the setting for the Village in a remake of The Prisoner. Some resent the unmerited snobbery of Solihull, some aspire to it, even though the idea is little more than that, a self-fulfilling abstract. The only real difference is that the streets have a few more trees and the houses are a bit bigger. Posh yet not, the perfect place to live for a man with an identity disorder.
Up ahead Chester sees the small tunnel which, like a magical gateway, opens onto his inner-city Narnia. A neighbour once told him that to experience that wondrous change fully, he should simply take a bus. On the Solihull side, the gleaming, luxurious bus would travel along beneath a canopy of trees, but once you emerged from the other side of the tunnel you would instantly find that the bus had disappeared and instead you were sat on a horse-drawn carriage, if you were lucky, splattering through the mud caked streets of Birmingham proper. It says a lot about Chester that he still finds this immensely funny.
It could be that Chester is clinically psychotic but then, clinically, who isn’t? Chester can ingratiate himself with people and can come across as fairly likeable, as long as there is never time enough to scratch beneath the surface. He is also by degrees aggressive and pushy, though he manages to keep these characteristics bottled up for most of the time. He holds prejudices he does not acknowledge because they clash with the character he is attempting to forge, a character that is moulded from the repressed knowledge that his family views him as a joke and the more deeply repressed knowledge that he tends to agree with them; a character that is in essence a gross misrepresentation of both what Chester thinks his father wants and what he thinks about himself. Chester is good at smooth-talking certain kinds of women, he may even have a knack for getting relationships started, but he has no capacity to maintain such partnerships. Invariably it is Chester who is ditched, usually after a very short time, when his girlfriends either get fed up with his disinterest and despondency or start to feel uneasy at the dark knot of insecurity they instinctively recognise nestling beneath the cheap veneer of the surface.
The simple truth is that Chester cannot have anyone else in his life because eventually he will always begin to see them as a threat to the control he has over that life, the precious independence which proves to his brothers that he is perfectly auto-sufficient and destined to make a triumph of his existence, the independence which acts as the tiny thread of surety that holds Chester together. He becomes surly when anyone gets too involved, flops into sulks, because in the end intimacy makes him doubt himself. In his experience, simply as a result of shared intimacy, the other person more often than not assumed they then had the right to criticise him or make suggestions, just as Chester’s father had always done, to make him veer away from the ends and goals he had, with much thought, set for himself. For Chester, success is not achieved by listening to what everyone else has to say; success is being stubborn, choosing a path and sticking to it no matter what. Once you stray, you are lost. And Chester will not be lost. He knows he is destined for greatness, he can feel it.
Chester Guberson is a perfectly dysfunctional human being, a contradiction of emotions and desires, of improbable dreams and unworkable schemes; so in many respects, a comparatively normal member of modern society.
The Audi turns easily into a small tree-lined lane leading into a similarly arboreal cul-de-sac. Chester parks in front a semi-detached house with a large bay window and a pebble-dashed façade. The house has been bought with family money – Chester might be a very good mobile phones salesman but none of his peer group has ever been that good. He quickly gets out of the car and runs to the front door; the rain is bombing down now. Beneath the porch he checks his watch and sees that it is almost a quarter to seven, giving him a good two and a half hours to get ready for the evening. These are always big occasions for Chester, buying dinner for his colleagues, magnanimously sharing the rewarded fruits of his labour. He is King then, the Lord to whom all are in thrall; his generosity, his condescension, famed and favoured, talked of and gratifyingly appreciated. Chester will play his part of salt-of-the-earth lord-of-the-manner; playing the part is a key aspect of the weird, but not as uncommon as you might think, amalgam that is Chester Guberson.
He enters the house and immediately picks up a small remote-control device from the sparkling glass-topped surface of his living-room coffee-table. He points it at an expensive hi-fi unit and the house takes over from the car in providing airspace for sound waves that twang and vibrate with Madonna. Chester worships her; she is his personal icon of success. He has all of her albums. Smiling, Chester throws his briefcase – it is slim, hand-made leather – onto the sofa he did not buy from Ikea and walks over to the telephone. He presses the message key.
A sensual female voice warmly informs him, ‘You have noo messages.’ For a second the smile on Chester’s face flickers, but then it is gone. Now he looks happily puzzled, as if receiving no messages is an occurrence he is unused to and not an almost everyday occurrence. He shucks his jacket off and hangs it over the back of a chair sitting in front of a polished wooden writing table in the corner of the room. On top of the table, the thin, plasma screen of his home computer is glowing a frosty blue as it gently hums into life. While he is waiting, Chester opens a small drinks cabinet beside the writing table and takes out a bottle of whisky. He pours himself a double, watching the desktop icons on the screen jitter nervously until they quickly achieve a solid virtual stability. By the time he has returned the bottle to the cabinet and turned back to the screen, everything is ready. The picture of his mother he uses as wallpaper is staring benignly up at him. He doesn’t bother to sit down. Chester leans over and takes hold of the mouse with his free hand, clicking it over the familiar Google icon. He clicks again to enter his email account, letting go of the mouse to type carpediem24161783 and then his password. He clicks over the log-in box.
His mail forms a list of names of on-line job-finding agencies, split here and there by emails from colleagues in Communicom’s other branches. There are one or two ageing messages from his brothers, a fairly recent one from Chelsea and nothing much else. Chester’s mother never sends him emails; she prefers to write letters he remembers her saying. If it is something urgent or about family matters in general she always gets Buckingham to mail him. Chester’s communication with his father has been reduced to a dispassionate news script. There hasn’t been many of those lately either, he acknowledges without emotion. The last one is pretty low on the list; you would have to scroll down quite a bit to get to it. There is nothing there of any interest to him. Taking a healthy swig of his whiskey, he goes into his ‘favourites’ list and chooses the address that will take him to his preferred porn site. Chester’s tongue runs against the back of his teeth as an image begins to coalesce. He stares at the woman. She is in a black latex body suit with an open crotch and two holes that expose her pierced nipples. Chester already likes the way she seems to be digging her sharp boot heel into the naked buttocks of a zippered and manacled man on his knees and elbows. Chester picks up another, slimmer remote control device from beside the keyboard and points it at the curtains. They slide across the window with a satisfying whirr. Chester undoes his trousers and lets them drop around his ankles.
Ten minutes later Chester is no longer in the room, but he can be heard upstairs in the shower, singing Papa Don’t Preach in a loud, exuberant voice.
‘Yow gonna eat them chips?’
Gavin is leaning his head way back, away from Fudge, whose own pink mug is once again pressing in disconcertingly close, applying a humid facemask of boozy breath. Chester watches the young man consider his options and settle on the easiest. ‘No,’ he says, his nose wrinkling, and pushes the plate towards Fudge. ‘You have them.’ Fudge launches into the remaining chips with a fierce, animal gusto. Chester and the rest of the party stare at the guzzling monster in fascinated, appalled silence.
They are sitting at a sturdy wooden table in a traditionally decked-out, newish pub called The Fat Bishop. The tavern stands on the bank of a canal running through the back of the city-centre, one of many recent renovations and improvements to the hitherto long-neglected barge-way. The interior of the pub is typically uniform, with seats upholstered in regal purple, heavy wooden beams, darkly planked flooring and a mix of low, square or rectangular tables for punters after that restaurant feel as they sit down to their pub grub, and tall, slender circular tables ringed by high cushioned bar-stools. Over by the entrance, fruit machines and quiz machines make strange, high-pitched warbling noises. A long bar-area takes up the length of one of the walls. A few young, neutral-faced men and women dressed in matching t-shirts with the name of a local brewer printed on their chests stand between the stretch of wood and an enormous mirror and selection of spirits that stands behind. Other members of staff mill about the main floor and tables, collecting glasses and dishes from some, delivering steaming pieces of battered fish or steak pies to others. Chester and his entourage are sitting at a table beside a window looking out onto the prize view of twinkling lights that float on the stewed black surface of the canal outside, reflections of street lamps and the neon signs of the other bars and restaurants that line the banks. Chester had confidently booked the table the day before.
The group is coming to the end of the main course, not that there had been starters, unless you count crisps, and Fudge, as usual, is engaged in his habitual vacuuming of anything left on everyone else’s plates, except for what remains of Yvonne’s chicken salad – since she has eaten the chicken, there is nothing left to pique Fudge’s belly-influenced curiosity. He squashes the last few chips into the plate to soak up the gravy and the microscopic strings of beef fibre from Gavin’s meat pie. Chester has left nothing of his rare steak and rustic potato wedges, but then he never does; waste is not in his vocabulary. Thompkinson is smiling pinkly and swaying slightly over his plate, which has already been Fudge-wiped of its batter and scrag, fish and chip remnants. After just an hour, the franchise manager is already docile drunk. No doubt they would have to spoon him into a taxi before moving on to a club.
Chester finishes the remains of his cider and stands up. He enjoys this since it offers him the opportunity to tower over his colleagues – at six foot, he is the tallest member of the group. ‘I’ll get another round in,’ he tells the others, waving his hand over the table in an expansive gesture.
‘Bring the puddin’ menu back,’ says Fudge before washing down his final mouthful with the dregs of his pint.
‘I’ll give you a hand,’ says Gavin, getting up to stand beside Chester, clearly grateful for the chance to get away from Fudge, who is only half drunk – by his standards anyway – but twice as revolting, if only for a couple of minutes. The man himself now looks over to Thompkinson, who has his eyes closed and is happily humming an unrecognisable tune. Fudge winks at Yvonne. ‘Just me an’ yow, then,’ he says with a dirty leer on his face.
‘I’m going for a piss,’ says Yvonne pointedly. She picks up her handbag and starts to manoeuvre herself around the table.
Fudge leans back in his seat, looking glum, and watches Chester, Gavin and Yvonne move quickly away. He gives the plates another once over, to see if he has missed anything, and finds a lone pea hiding beneath the edge of a plate. He picks up the soft, puckered pulse and rolls it between his fingers, considering whether to eat it or not. In the end he decides to flick it at Thompkinson instead. The dozing manager snorts briefly when the pale sphere bounces off his cheek but betrays no other sign of consciousness.
Over at the bar, Chester is checking himself out in the mirror. He does this from the corner of his eye, lest anyone should suspect his vanity. His dark brown hair is combed back and held in place by an expensive gel that can only be bought at his personal hairdressers. His eyebrows are smooth and symmetrical, tweaked and tweezered to perfection; beneath them, his grey eyes peer admiringly back at him. Chester’s face retains some of the colour he picked up during his summer holiday in Corfu but is beginning to revert to its original, lighter tone. He thinks about going for a UV session at his gym but doesn’t like the idea of turning orange. Thinking about the gym, he stands up straighter and turns a little, to get a better view of his stomach. Chester works out three or four times a week but still his body stays only just on the healthy side of skinny. Even so, Chester likes what he has. Maybe, if he knew what his body was about to do to him, he would think differently, for Chester’s world is about to take an unexpected, grave turn for the worse.
For a while, Chester is happy, scanning the bar and listening to Gavin regale a young, pencil-moustached barman with a joke. The barman is impassive, except for a twitch of the mouth when he assumes Gavin has finished his story. The barman, already world-weary at the age of nineteen, considers this the polite minimum on his personal spectrum of appropriate responses. Then suddenly, right out of the blue, Chester feels his intestines wrench savagely. Gavin watches as Chester turns white and a stricken, deeply confused expression creeps over his face. ‘Gav,’ says Chester, blinking furiously and struggling to put a couple of notes in Gavin’s hand. ‘You seem to be… ah… getting along okay here,’ he says, a strained smile trembling on his lips. ‘So I’m just… going to… er… talk to God on… on… the, ooh, porcelain telephone, if… you know… what I mean.’ Chester tries to give Gavin a hearty, matey wink but the effect is noticeably diminished by his rapidly yellowing skin and the beads of sweat breaking out over his brow. ‘Yeah, alright,’ says Gavin, laughing nervously, trying to look like he has understood what Chester meant. Chester in return gives him another forced grin (Gavin suddenly finds himself thinking of corpses) and a comradely pat on the shoulder before shuffling awkwardly over to the staircase, assailed less by the tumultuous contractions threatening to punch through his stomach wall than by a severe attack of existential angst that begins with the question, ‘Why is this happening to me; me, Chester Cat?’, and will spiral quickly downwards from here.
The urge to empty his bowels hits Chester with a suddenness and ferocity he has never experienced before, and is becoming increasingly more urgent. Chester imagines a wild animal trapped in his belly, desperate to escape before it suffocates. He clenches his buttocks with all his strength as he tries to lift one leg after the other to mount the seemingly endless Everest of steps that lead up, so far up, to the toilets. A few puzzled heads have turned to watch. Sweat now falls from his face to the scuffed wood below; there is so much of it, the perspiration makes tiny, globular puddles in the dust. What the fuck is happening? Chester asks himself again and again. His stomach churns and bubbles and Chester believes he can actually hear his guts pop and fizz. His mind begins to spin as another bowel-twisting spasm shudders through his body. He arches his back in a spectacularly acrobatic movement and slams his two hands hard against his backside, whirling about to lean heavily against the balustrade. He must have cried out because now everyone in the pub is staring at him. Gavin and the barman are gawping, Fudge has a look of predatory anticipation on his face, even Thompkinson has become sufficiently aroused enough to lift his head and keep his eyes fixed in one direction. Chester hears an intake of breath from above as a pair of heels comes to a sudden stop. He turns his head and sees Yvonne looking down at him in a state of semi-horror. She opens her mouth to say something but then freezes as Chester begins to whimper. The noise builds, gathering force slowly until Chester is finally obliged to scream; a terrible scream of bewildered anguish and pain. Chester’s arse explodes and the shit bursts from his body like a blast of rank cherries and rotten cat-food fired from a muddy cannon.
In the future, when asked to talk about what had been witnessed, Yvonne will swear that for one brief yet eternal instant, she had seen the backside of Chester’s trousers balloon outwards and the expensive material slowly, chillingly darken. Gavin will claim that he sometimes wakes up at night, roused by the memory of that awful sound – and it will have pleased him to know that in that respect, at least, he and the barman were on exactly the same wavelength.
So now Chester lies broken at the bottom of the stairs, his whole world turned upside down in the space of a few minutes. He has soiled himself, in front of his colleagues – and with that alone he sees that returning to the office will be impossible; Fudge will make sure that everybody in Communicom finds out what has happened and that will be the end of Chester – and in public. His credibility, his reputation, his stature and power have all been decimated in a second. What horrible twist of fate is this? Things were going so well, he was so close to climbing another rung on his ladder of success. The smell of shit seeps up trough his trousers and snakes its way into his nostrils, the smell of insurmountable shame. Roaring impotently, Chester leaps up – no small feat after the beating his body has just taken – and runs from the pub, leaving a frightening stench and a silent, shocked crowd of drinkers in his wake; silent but for Fudge’s tear-rippled laughter.
Outside, in the cold air of night, Chester stumbles alongside the canal, tears of mortification stinging his eyes and pricking at his cheeks. He sniffs hard and tries to pull himself together. Think, Chester, get a hold of yourself. He knows that what has happened is not natural; people don’t just shit themselves like that out of nowhere. This has been done to him, he realises; someone put something in his food. Probably that fucking Fudge, he thinks. Yes, he remembers hearing Fudge laughing as he fell into the night. A slow rage begins to build up inside Chester, momentarily subsuming the unpleasant sensation of faecal matter cooling uncomfortably against his skin, as he strides purposefully in the direction his car is waiting, beyond acknowledgement of the stares he attracts.
Fudge, vows Chester, is going to pay.