A Safe Distance

A Safe Distance

By Malcolm Sharps

If there was a maximum to the number of hobbies one person could actively pursue in a life, Netta must have been approaching the limit. Some hobbies, like football refereeing and folk dancing, appeared grossly inappropriate for a woman of her size. And learning Japanese, though a more cerebral pursuit, hardly seemed like a closer match to her personality. Badge-making was her latest passion and badges multiplied on her capacious bosom like some form of miniature armour plating. Love was the theme of Netta’s badges and each one bore the name of one of her loves: celebrities, sportsmen, actors, pop singers, television personalities. There was no name of a boyfriend because Netta didn’t currently have one. Not at that moment, not within anyone’s knowledge of her. Instead, the name ‘Kenny’ appeared on the largest badge in very visible, bright letters. Kenny Orwell was the office manager and he was in no doubt whom the badge referred to.

“It’s preposterous, outrageous.” said Kenny. “It has to stop. I’ll have to tell her, issue some kind of order.”

But Kenny wasn’t the ordering about type and the office was run as a close little unit and it was so easy to upset someone.

“No doubt she thinks the world of you, Kenny.” I said.

He had a sorrowful expression on his face and I felt sympathetic towards him for the way he was handling this cringingly embarrassing situation with his customary reticence and poise.

“It was the same thing on Vanu-vau, exactly the same. A look, a word taken the wrong way. Always the misunderstandings. Can you ever escape them?”

Kenny was referring, once again, to his job before becoming our office manager, a period in his life that he had left many thousands of miles behind in the South Pacific, but it remained vividly present through the deep colour retained by his skin, his sun-bleached hair and a peculiar softness in his tread when he walked, as though he had not yet become accustomed to the hard earth thrust of the big city beneath his feet. He had asked me to join him at lunch one day when we were both rather new to the department and he told me more about life on Vanu-vau, his Pacific island paradise.

“I thought the moment I arrived on the island ‘this is a mistake’. Imagine, twelve atolls spread out over one hundred and fifty miles of Pacific Ocean, and half the population of ten thousand decide to live on twenty-five square miles of one island. The capital consisted of a mass of corrugated-roofed hovels huddled together. It had all the tropical allure of an industrial estate in Luton, an industrial estate with its own High Commissioner too, awful, self-important ass. As though he was High Commissioner of Canada. I wanted to stroll the balmy beaches in the evening – but I had my work cut out stepping over the poops – the locals do it down on the beach, everywhere. It wasn’t even a particularly lovely island, a lot of palm trees and sand, yes, but flat and featureless, and the Yanks and Japs had left quite a mess behind them, holed landing crafts, supply containers, still there, most of it, rusting on the beaches and will be until they sound the final retreat. I remember going to sleep the first night and saying to myself ‘What have you let yourself in for, Kenny?’ I really didn’t know.”

He stared at me with piercing, melancholic eyes. They seemed more intensely melancholic because their lids were steeped in the deep tan conferred by the constant outpouring of sun of Vanu-vau. He was a serious man, serious and rather sad but it didn’t prevent him from smiling a lot. He would smile in order to reflect or reassure, to fix his listener in that slightly disconcerting way of his before speaking; he would say his piece then return to his natural seriousness.

“But, do you know something, Matthew?” Kenny called me by my full name when he was going to tell me something important.

“I went for a walk next morning and I discovered what was really beautiful about the island. The children surrounded me as I walked and they all wanted to speak to me. I was a new face to them. But they had no shyness at all about them and it was as if they already accepted me as their friend. “Mister” they called me. We were all ‘Misters’ who came from outside to work on the island. And I have never seen such beauty in my life as those children. You see, it was in their eyes, such purity, such a lack of suspicion, such trust.”

His own eyes stared significantly into mine and I felt more than a little uneasy in the gaze of that serious, melancholy man and had to look away. Today I was having lunch with Kenny again. Lunches at the company were staggered so that the department was never left entirely empty. We arranged them in pairs on a very informal basis; practically, it was a matter of whether one of us had stored up enough gossip to share with someone else over the precious one hour of the mid-day break. Everyone lunched at some time with everyone else, although Hugh never lunched with Netta and old Frosty usually chose to take his lunch alone in a quiet corner behind the Daily Mail. Mr. Frost had been with the company longer than anyone else and was its conscience and memory, as well as its Chief Elder and Constitutional Guardian should someone of whatever degree decide not to follow customary office practice. Exemptions were not to be made even for office managers.

I was relieved that Kenny had suggested Darling’s, that wouldn’t make such a hole in the monthly salary as some of his more favoured eating places. I’m sure, like everything else, he took that into consideration.

“How are you getting on, Matt? I’m rather concerned about you.”

I knew what he meant – sufficiently, if not entirely. You see, I had only recently been transferred to Mail Order, a definite demotion for one who had descended from such a lofty height as ‘Europe’, one of the Specialist departments. It was intended as my extermination department, the place where I would serve out my ‘destruction through work’ sentence to the end. The gesture was clear enough, management had decided the transfer was legally less risky for the company than giving me the sack; but I wasn’t expected to last out there for long.

“Any grumbles?”

“I’m loving it. Why not?”

Out of some childish qualms I had about telling outright lies to the boss, I told myself I was speaking innocently about my smoked mackerel. It was Darling’s best, succulent, delicately smoked to give the flesh a hint of darkness suggesting the oak it had been smoked in. It was also free of treacherous bones, all of which considerably assisted my deceit.

“It’s just that I, well, I will want you to get a little faster at getting the orders out. It isn’t quite what you’re been used to, I know.”

Kenny looked ill at ease. I knew he didn’t like to put pressure on people. No one except for the other manager, Mr. Briggs, that is. He had no misgivings about pressuring Mr. Briggs, making him account laboriously for every drawing pin and paper clip, pressing him sometimes to the point of enraged protest. They coordinated their work like two Generals on a battlefield; allies who hated each other more completely than they could any enemy.

“I suppose I’ll pick up speed in time.”

We looked down at our plates as we cut earnestly into our orders, both of us suspecting the emptiness of that supposition.

“No problems with the other staff? Don’t let Hugh’s silliness distract you. Netta? She doesn’t disturb you, I hope? I know she does Hugh.”

“Oh, Netta’s all right in her way. We get on fine, just fine.”

I realised he might be looking for support in the badges affair. Perhaps edging towards an appeal for some personal backing to spare him the nuisance of making a more direct request himself.

“Look, if it were me, I’d tell her right out the badges have to go. Tell her it’s in the company’s dress code or something. Or even that’s it’s a health and safety matter. The glare is damaging our eyesight, causing us to make mistakes in the orders.”

Kenny seemed bemused this time rather than worried: I could see that much of his manoeuvring and posturing in the office was a kind of play acting; there was another side to Kenny being played out somewhere where all of these little office scandals were not of the least account.

“I did make it clear the first day – short of giving her a direct command – that I didn’t approve. But you’ll never guess, Matthew.”

His eyes had their characteristic wide, portentous stare to which the glare of the Pacific skies had added depth. “Netta has asked me for a date.”

“No!”

There was a considerable curling of the mouth. The eyes remained sadly liquid.

“Well, she assures me it isn’t a date. She just needs a partner. It’s such a sad thing, with anyone else I might have broken down and said ’yes’. But I don’t want to encourage her. You see, all her friends are married or are engaged and she’s going to a reunion of old girlfriends and they’ll all have partners except her.”

“Is it any wonder?” I replied without displaying undue sympathy.

I couldn’t get over-emotional about Netta’s situation. She struck me as a hyper-active case, desperate to find new directions in which to expend her excess energies. Life had barred her from using up her vitality in the conventional ways, so she pursued challenges at whim, the obscure and the mundane, the reasonable and the outlandish, the hopeful and the hopeless, national folk dancing, football refereeing, learning Japanese, and now her pursuit of Kenny, the most hopeless challenge of all.

“Matthew, I don’t think you realise what it’s like to be really lonely. I was lonely more than once in my life, desperately lonely. Ugly people become lonely. We take it that it’s part of their lot, don’t we? But loneliness turns everyone ugly. Even the most beautiful. I don’t claim that for myself but I know what loneliness did to me. If it hadn’t been for Talu I’d have gone crazy on Vanu-vau. He wasn’t anyone you would notice as special but he had a curious power, he always managed to make me calm. It was his gift. And he showed me such beauty also, things I might have missed without him. One day I said to him I was sick of the island. I wanted to get away. Oh, how I hated the talk amongst the group of ‘Misters’, corrosive stuff, ex-pat gossip and tittle-tattle when they weren’t putting the islanders down, treating their simple, spontaneous ways as mere foolishness. I hated their impersonations most of all, the way the islanders mispronounced words, to me it was something magical. Talu told me we could take a ride on a fishing boat. Just before the boat turned over the opposite arm of the reef we could dive off and swim to another island. That was Vanu-pai. The island was so close to Vanu-vau but hardly anyone lived there. And it was just like I’d imagined a tropical island paradise should be, with the purest sandy beaches and amazingly clear blue waters and, of course, the perpetually radiant blue sky. I asked Talu why Pai seemed so much more beautiful than Vau and he told me a sad little legend. Vau and Pai were lovers once long ago and they were destined to be married but Pai died before their wedding, swimming out into deep water in order to find a pearl to give Vau on their wedding day, so she still retains her virginal purity.”

A half-smile curled the subtly expressive mouth once more and he gave me another disconcerting stab with his eyes of liquid sadness.

*****

The next day I took the later break and asked Netta to join me at Mason’s. Mason’s was situated in a consciously unimproved cellar towards the river. Many found the air of Dickensian dilapidation charming. It was sometimes vexing to have to sit on broken chairs and hunt for your food in the dark: blind man’s buffet, as I called it. But at least finally the food was worth finding. Sangé sirloin that you could actually chew until it liquefied in the mouth, and coarsely grained ham bearing no resemblance to the polythene sheeting it might have been wrapped in. It was my first visit to Mason’s in a while and my first lunch together with Netta that week. I felt I’d been saving up a lot. I didn’t hold back.

“Netta, you are completely off your box! What are you trying to achieve? Kenny isn’t bi, he isn’t mildly gay, he isn’t even queer with a passing interest in a hetero fling or two. He’s your regular nine bob note, a bigger queen than Elizabeth Two. Why do you persist in this utterly futile exercise?”

Netta was stung by my attack and swelled to the fullness of her mass, a flushed Valkyrie in bearing and magnitude flaring at me in the darkness.

“I don’t care. He’s a gorgeous man, gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. And I want everyone to know that I love him and I’ll always love him.”

“But you’re embarrassing him. If you love someone, why should you want to embarrass them?”

Netta stuck her bosom forward adamantly.

“Kenny isn’t embarrassed.”

“Not embarrassed? If it wasn’t for the Pacific tan you’d see him turn the colour of bright beetroot every morning. You’re lucky he hasn’t sacked you.”

Her bosom thrust out indignantly again.

“What for?”

“For being improperly dressed. For using your badges to make improper suggestions.”

She was the one who reddened at this. Red was her native colour. Even in the gloom it was remarkable. Her long, straight hair hung like a horsetail in flaming scarlet, from the roots the colour seeped down her temples into the expanses of her cheeks. Even her eyelashes were copper red and gave her eyes a hazy, uncomprehending quality.

“I know that I’ll never love a man as I love Kenny Orwell. Maybe that’s unreasonable, but love is unreasonable.”

I had the impression that she was quoting from some romantic film she’d seen. It was one I wasn’t sad to have missed.

“That’s more than unreasonable, Netta. That’s plain, childish perversity. You’re only –  what is it? – twenty eight years old? Kenny could easily be your father. You’re a eighteen stone, country dancing, football refereeing, Japanese learning woman. Kenny’s an eleven stone, stayed, conservative businessman. He reads the Telegraph, looks at how his shares are doing and then does the crossword. It doesn’t even look like a match on paper but take a glance below at the minimum requirements, the truth has to be faced, you’re the wrong sex, and even if you were the right sex, you’re twice too old for Kenny’s taste. Don’t you know the age he prefers?”

When I concluded, Netta directed a half-profile of noble defiance towards me and froze. I lowered my eyes and used the pause to sample my quiche, regretting my choice immediately: an undistinguished cheese, egg and bacon pie which screamed out for a few genuine, tender, patiently cured, smoked lardons. It was just my luck to find the weak item on Mason’s usually fine menu. It was turning into a disagreeable lunchtime.

Having recovered, Netta turned her full face in my direction, she wasn’t exactly an ugly woman but her face lacked precise definition, like an assemblage of features put together by uncertain witnesses for a ‘have you seen this person recently?’ poster. You were unlikely to have seen her before, but unlikely not to have seen someone like her.

“I knew that you’d look at this as just something commonplace and physical. It isn’t. Kenny is the best man I know in the whole world. He’s decent and kind and good and he’s the only one in the company who cares anything at all about us as people. John Briggs and all the other managers couldn’t care if we lived or died, as long as they got the work done. I know who I am. That’s been made clear to me often enough. I know he could never ever love a person like me – even if he were straight. But I want the world at least to know how much I love him.”

It all sounded like more of the same dreadful film script. Fortunately, I could sometimes reason with Netta. She was a scholar manqué but she lacked tuition. When you could guide her thoughts a little, they tended to follow rational lines. Sometimes she was patient with my arguments to the point of tenderness, sometimes she could even agree. However, she was only able to reason systematically if she had no emotional stake in the process.

“Well, let’s examine that idea. You want the whole world to know that you love Kenny, right? So you go around with a badge that says ‘Kenny’ on it. I know who Kenny is, you know, Kenny himself knows, Mr. Briggs knows, so does Hugh, Brad and old Frosty. Who else knows? Besides that, who else knows who Kenny is?”

Netta was sullenly resistant to answering.

“Is there anyone outside the office who knows what the badge means?”

She was reluctant to speak for a time but eventually she had to admit the answer was: “No one.”

“Well, all of us, all of us here, know who Kenny is and that you love him. We’ve all got the message, Netta. Isn’t it time to change the record?”

*****

At Ronaldo’s Café I took one of my infrequent lunches with Hugh, infrequent because he was rather too young to sustain my interest for a full sixty minute break. Hugh had joined the company as the summer temp and was still awaiting his exam results prior to University. He was boisterous, dandyish, gauche and had lived a protected, privileged life, but his imagination was coloured by a wild, wide, highly chromatic reading palette that was heavy on Swinburne, Poe, Beardsley and Wilde. Lately, he was actively perfecting a viciously cruel humour which wasn’t heartfelt, merely defensive and ornamental. Netta was frequently the object of this humour. The two were natural enemies from the first, a state which they each managed to moderate by ignoring the other’s existence. After some initial failures, they were able to maintain the pretence for seven and a half hours a day, though they might be sitting only three feet apart while doing it.

“What do you think would be the most delicious way in which to die, Matt?”

For Hugh, it seemed like a perfectly normal topic to start off a lunchtime conversation.

“I’ve never given it a moment’s thought, not to dying, nor to the manner.”

“I’ve been discussing it with our German visitor, Otto.”

“You’ve got a German visitor – how marvellous for perfecting your case endings.”

“Hmm, he’s my third cousin or something of that sort and very, very distantly related to the Hapsburgs – but everyone is on my German side of the family. We sort of got onto the topic of death and glorious ways of dying.”

“How very German. All those lovelorn Romantic poets and the cult of Werther.”

“I have a preference for being flayed by fishing rods with clusters of hooks on the end of each line. I have this vision of the flesh being picked off my body in slow, exquisite tugs of agony.”

He grinned and added brightly:

“Of course, the experience would depend entirely on who was doing the flaying.”

The idea seemed too complete in itself to require a comment from me; in any case, I was making progress with Renaldo’s excellent Brie and wedge of spongy, inadequately Gallic baguette. Renaldo’s was one of the few places in London where the Brie could be relied on to be in a suitably fugitive state, arrested just at the moment the creamy centre was about to take leave of the white rind. It was a pity about the leathery bread.

Seeing that I wasn’t either scandalised or particularly amused by his outrageousness, Hugh discovered that his store of decadent revelations was exhausted and sank into a posture of abject misery.

“The problem is, I’m stuck something rotten on my third cousin.”

I chewed vigorously and swallowed down the small pieces of rubber which lingered about my teeth with the help of a quick swig of dry white.

“I thought you liked Kenny.”

“Oh, that. That was just a father fixation, my last schoolboy crush. I was over that in a week. This is something cosmically generated. I feel I’m following the impulse of the Lifeforce, whatever that is. It’s something ethereally spiritual and at the same time basic, purely animal. I mean, I know we shouldn’t be bestial about these sorts of things, but he’s just the most wonderful hunk of raw sex.”

“So what’s the problem?”

As if I couldn’t guess.

“The problem is that he’s absolutely oblivious to the fact that I’m even alive.”

“He talks to you about death. Sounds to me as if he does know you’re alive. Logically speaking.”

Seeing that I wasn’t taking his tragedy seriously enough, Hugh snapped impatiently.

“He knows that I exist. As some sort of curious entity, perhaps. But he feels nothing of me, my being. As far as he’s concerned, I’m just an amusing child. Maybe not even an amusing one.”

I could see the problem. Hugh with his mat of untameable hair, his glasses, his eruptive skin, protruding teeth and excess of gums, was very much a terrible vision of the brainy schoolboy. It would have taken more than an act of imagination to have transformed him into an object of desire to the casually amorous eye.

“Well, have you let him know the way you feel about him?”

“Heaven forbid!”

“Well, if it makes you so unhappy, I should have thought to show your feelings would have helped to clear the air.”

“What if he hates me and says so? I’d kill myself!”

The new jacket with the dominant lapels, the startling red shirt open at the collar, the way Hugh tried to hold himself, all these attempts to engage with the world of adulthood, were cancelled out by a recession into childish misery.

“Well, if somebody hates you because you love them, they aren’t worth loving, are they?”

Hugh wasn’t interested in such rational modes of reasoning.

“But Otto’s like a God and I’m nothing. The very lowest of mortals.”

“Gods sometimes take pity on mortals.”

We know as we throw these scraps of comfort that they are to be received with the scorn and dismissal which perhaps they deserve; still we throw them, where indifference or silence would have been less thoughtless.

“Anyway, how am I supposed to tell him? I can’t just blurt it out.”

“There are lots of ways, a gift, an accidental touch, a certain way of speaking, a look. I’m sure the way will come to you if you let it happen naturally.”

This was all viewed as more thoughtlessness. Hugh became so entirely subdued, I thought if he didn’t lift himself above his misery, tears would shortly begin to flow, but he suddenly erupted in such a frightening fashion. From inconsolable misery he broke out in a flash into his abominable laugh, an uncontrollably blaring donkey bray which rang out unrestrained against Renaldo’s steel and formica, so that the diners nearby looked round at him in concern.

“I know, I’ll make a badge! Just like the ones that Netta wears. That’s what I’ll do. I wonder if Netta will show me how to make one? Should I put ‘Dear Otto’ on it? Or ‘Darling Otto’? Or just simple ‘Otto’?”

Hugh’s bray sounded maniacally; it was dangerously infectious. I couldn’t help laughing.

“You’ll say nothing at all to Netta. You’ve already upset her enough.”

“Why not? The way she upsets me. That woman! My worst nightmare come to life. Freda from Elm Street.”

I didn’t want to encourage Hugh but the donkey bray set off something in me, it was a klaxon of mischief, a summons to follow the ways of misrule. I couldn’t prevent myself adding to these imaginings.

“Just as long as you don’t put ‘Otto, the Most Wonderful Hunk of Raw Sex’ on it.”

Hugh enclosed the idea gleefully with a terrible display of gums.

“Oh, how perfectly marvellous.”

Then, as soon as it began, Hugh’s braying stopped and he was sober again.

“Some people just can’t take it when you tell them that you love them. It’s happened before. They just run away. Would you run away, Matt, if it happened to you?”

Hugh must have caught a recollection of his third cousin again because a new look of agonised rapture came over him.

“Sometimes I do long to die. And the most wonderful death would be to be crushed into an insensitive pulp by Otto.”

*****

The time came around for another lunch with Kenny. We agreed on Lau’s, though it would cost me a quarter of the week’s salary; still, the crispy duck was something of a miracle.

“Well, the badges have stopped. Thank you, Matt. I believe you put in a word with Netta.”

“I’m not sure that was the reason why they stopped. Perhaps another hobby came along, scuba diving, who knows?”

I noticed the way Kenny’s shirt cuffs projected just beyond his jacket sleeves as he spooned into his chicken and sweetcorn with dropped egg. There was the perfect amount showing evenly around both cuffs, just like in a tailor’s advert. My cuffs always slumped down to my fingers if I tried such a stroke; that’s why I pulled them up into the sleeves of my jacket for safety. I appreciated what Netta felt about Kenny, such a civilized man, so attendant to details, emotional as well as physical. I imagined the way he would have struggled to keep his cuffs perfect in the humidity of the Pacific islands, the perfect Englishman pitched against the rigours of the tropics. And it seemed to me that the whole purpose of the Empire had been to prove the race by frustrating every true tendency in its nature, placing it in the most uncongenial, inhospitable, inappropriate parts of the world, and then judging its performance by the strictest domestic standards of a Surrey tearoom. I wondered, was there anything more to it than masochism? I didn’t warm to the enterprise of Empire much, in any case. And I didn’t like many of its products I’d met. Kenny was something of a late saving apology.

“How are things going, Matt?”

I knew where his thoughts were. I was no faster than I had been at the beginning of the month. Kenny’s interest was more detached this time. He knew I wasn’t going to stay the course much longer in the department, anyway.

“I hope Hugh isn’t distracting you from your work.”

“Hugh? I hardly notice him.”

“He can come out with the most bizarre ideas. I’m always concerned that it may cause offence to someone.”

Kenny rested his white spoon in the empty bowl, as if indicating an end to conversational preliminaries.

“Where did I get to in my tales of Vanu-vau? Ah, yes. I told you about my first trip to Vanu-pai.”

He recalled the moment and was only his eyes for that instant. Reflective pools as wide as warm coral lagoons. A waiter’s arms swept between us magically replacing empty dishes with precariously full ones, steamy and glistening.

“There were more trips back to the island after that – I used to wait for those times to come round. But that first trip! I remember walking along empty stretches of golden sand and I tried to imagine it as endless and that the walk would go on and never end. We saw a group of people down on the beach, a crab catcher was cooking some crab in coconut cream. He wanted to give it to me, the ‘Mister’, as a gift, but I gave him some money from Talu and me. We ate it – so miraculously fresh – and sat watching the foaming ocean crashing onto the shore. Later I asked Talu how we could meet the fishing boat back to Vanu-vau. He laughed and told me there wouldn’t be one until the following day. Of course, I knew it all along, dear boy.”

I asked the question which had been forming in the air for a while, but had not been asked because I sensed already the answer would not be without pain; there could be no felicitous reason for a man to willingly renounce paradise.

“Why did you eventually decide to leave Vanu-vau, Kenny?”

There might have been a reticent cast in his eyes but I felt there was no real resistance to telling me everything, he would have come to this point himself at some time, regardless of my asking, it might even have been his prime purpose.

“One evening I was expecting Talu in my room. Three islanders burst into the building –  the doors never needed to be locked, you understand. They didn’t put a finger on me, though they looked as if they had a mind to. You can imagine, some of the islanders grow into giants – their close relatives are the Samoans. The one who did all the talking was Talu’s father. He told me to behave the way a ‘Mister’ should and keep away from his son. He told me Talu’s brothers would make sure Talu didn’t try to see me again and I should keep to my place amongst the other ‘Misters’, otherwise they could make a lot of trouble for me.”

The removal of the emptied rice bowl, which in true Lau’s fashion disappeared from the table in a pair of hands belonging to an otherwise invisible waiter, allowed Kenny a short, reflective breath. A replenished bowl appeared before he resumed.

“That’s really all. It’s a very small island. There are no secrets. I was pretty well finished there after that. I wrote a resignation letter, packed my bags and took a plane and then another and then another and finally dropped my bags down in dear, chilly, grey London. It didn’t let me down, Victoria was suffering floods when I arrived. I ran to the taxi through puddles that reminded me what trouser bottoms soaked in cold water felt like.”

Lau’s legendary crispy duck had never seemed so lacking in savour as at that moment. It was an effort to swallow. I didn’t know what to say and accepted that whatever I said would be inadequate.

“It’s an unfortunate thing,” I managed.

Kenny was elegantly philosophical as he handled his chop-sticks in masterly fashion, directing a single slice of water chestnut towards his provocative mouth.

“There are those even less fortunate. I had a little capital. On my salary I was able to get two squalid rooms in South Ken. Most of the others around me seem to be able to manage only one and even more squalid. And there are physical comforts wherever one goes. Compensations. Attractions. Invitations. London has its solaces, its own exotic offerings. Fortunately, London keeps one’s secrets better than the South Seas.”

He smiled the smile of the practised seducer, a smile only incidentally of the present, reflecting on a history of neat triumphs, gloating with confidence on the outcome of further adventures, chancings of luck which would eventually produce a strike, a score, a win. For the first time I felt some dislike for Kenny. He had relinquished paradise so recently and already could play a virtually painless game of wistful regret with it.

“But don’t you miss Talu?”

His reply was tangential, languorous, not deliberately evasive.

“He was the dearest boy. He had a calming effect on me. No one else has ever quite had that ability.”

He was calm now also, far too calm for my liking. I wanted him to be moved to tears, to be a recognisable reflection of myself, always a dupe to love, suffering after so many batterings, hurting still from the one before the last. I willed him to show me more concern for his loss than this. He looked up from his dish of king prawns that seemed so immaculately fresh they might still have been capable of movement.

“I picked up my bag and moved on – not for the first time. Not for the last. Even beauty begins to lose its appeal after a time, as I’m sure you must have found. Vanu-vau, in its benevolent wisdom, spared me that disillusion. What seems at first like a disaster may be viewed from another angle as a relief, the presentation of new opportunities. As I say, there are physical comforts wherever one goes. If none of this had happened I would still be on an island in the Pacific enjoying the sun and the blue ocean, but I would never have met you, Matthew.”

He directed another of his disconcertingly steady looks at me. A hopeful gleam was in his eyes. I changed my mind and found I couldn’t finish the last few mouthfuls of Lau’s deep fried battered pork.

*****

I really longed for the simplicity of lunching with Brad, a little unstressed conversation between the two increasingly stressed halves of the office day. I wasn’t due another meeting with Netta for a while, but she insisted, a matter of importance, the timely need for a word. Brad accepted the postponement with an understanding shrug. We somehow decided on lunch in the un-nostalgic murk of the Ostler cellar bar, but only because it meant one of the shortest trips from the office, certainly it wasn’t because of any distinction in the cuisine. Wisdom told me to keep off the subjects of Kenny, Hugh, badges, love. But what little remained still seemed to be attended by its own hazards.

“How is the refereeing going?”

Netta’s copper lashes blinked in a double-take, as though she suspected – wrongly – she was being baited. Her tone indicated I had already been told this many times.

“I was awarded my referee’s badge in April.”

“Oh, I just thought you might have refereed a match since then.”

“No. Why should I?”

The response was accompanied with a full bodily pout.

“Sorry, it was perhaps naive of me to expect that after qualifying as a referee you might referee an actual football match. Foolish question.”

She drew herself up into her red Valkyrie stance. I thought she was going to explode, but she suddenly changed mode, deflating rapidly, a manoeuvre involving considerable self-control; her voice transformed also, becoming girlish and vulnerable.

“Matt, you wouldn’t like to help me, would you?”

I decided to commit myself to nothing.

“It depends what help you want.”

“It’s just that…a group of my old school friends I haven’t seen in years are meeting for a dinner dance…”

Her cadences remained considerably less mature than the woman she was, I would say by at least sixteen years. She proffered a folded sheet of white paper on which something was printed.

“I just thought perhaps you wouldn’t mind being my partner for the evening, Matt.” she invited coyly.

What little appetite I had for my paté and salad vanished. The mind was focused elsewhere, I imagined myself dwarfed against Netta’s thrusting frontage being propelled about the dance floor under the amused eyes of the world. I attempted to lever some mottled mush up towards my mouth, and at that moment I realised what my vegetarian friends had warned me of all along was true – what I had on the end of my fork was made out of the mangled bodies of dead animals.

*****

I told myself I wasn’t running away from Kenny and Netta, but it was clear that a number of what Kenny always referred to as ‘misunderstandings’ were about to occur. The truth was the very opposite of the word: everyone was about to understand far too much and not be at all happy with the addition made to their knowledge. If I was going, the reason was that I had never been intended to stay. Work in Mail Order was killing me, as it was meant to. Vernichtung durch Arbeit was progressively performing its task. No amount of uproariousness and office intrigue could disguise the fact that the thing I was putting into envelopes, sealing up and sending off, never to be seen again, was my own chance of finding a more fulfilling life.

If there was a match of a kind between Hugh and the richly gamy cheeses at Renaldo’s, and Lau’s special businessman’s six-course lunch fitted Kenny’s love of elaborate ritual and precision, the combination of steak and kidney pie and three veg. at The Pheasant, washed down with several pints of best bitter, suited Brad’s company perfectly. The simplicity of both was a welcome change.

“Brad, you’ve joined me for the crowning moment of the week. You are about to discover the secrets of a great many mysteries.”

“I’m all ears. Well, go on.”

I was feeling in a dramatic mood and by the clock on the bar wall I still had fifty-five minutes for the performance.

“I don’t want to reveal all my secrets to you at once, that would destroy the mystery.”

“Matt, I am but a simple man and all your ways are mysteries to me.”

Brad and I were similar in age. He’d come down from Leicester to join the company soon after graduating and was only in Mail Order as part of his training course. He was sensible, open, hard-working and with this company or with another would do well in the future. He had a decency and tolerance which we all availed ourselves of in times of crisis and perhaps from time to time abused. That is often the wage of decency and tolerance.

“I’m only an amateur at this kind of thing, so I’ll probably perform the kind of trick which would earn the scorn of any professional magician – I’m going to reveal my greatest secret first, Brad.”

“Come on, Matt, I’ve just grown myself a second pair of ears. Put me out of my misery.”

“When we’ve finished this delicious pie and watery cabbage and I’ve downed another pint of two weeks matured in a plastic bucket best, I am going to walk out of here and I have no intention of returning to the company with you.”

“Dental appointment?”

“I’m not having a tooth extracted, Brad. I’m extracting myself from the whole damned show. Never to return. Not ever again.”

Brad took time to comprehend all the implications.

“Wow! That is a secret. You haven’t told anyone or handed in your notice?”

“I’ve had a wonderful time working here but now I think it’s time I got a serious job. To go through all the hoo-ha of farewells, I couldn’t stand it. Like the man said, ‘always leave them wanting more’.”

Brad was highly amused by all of this. “Please, what are the other secrets. I’m desperate to know.”

“One of them is that you are to be my successor taking on my unofficial departmental duties. You’ll strive to keep Hugh from aggravating Netta and Netta from disturbing Kenny. You’ll go to Lau’s occasionally with Kenny and listen to him recalling Vanu-vau with one tearful eye. When he complains about Mr. Briggs, you’ll say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the appropriate places. You’ll keep everyone sweet, as I know you can, even old Frosty.”

“It’s a true honour, Matt. But what have I done. Why me?”

“You’ve earned it. You’re the only one in the department that could have put Sigmund Freud out of a job.”

Brad laughed and then hesitated. I understood that he still didn’t quite believe in all of this.

“Is it really true? No! Are you really not going back to the office? What are your plans?”

This was the biggest mystery, the one I wasn’t sure of myself. I hadn’t thought it out any further than the next few days. But keeping the future from myself preserved my faith in it.

“I’m leaving London – that’s the only thing I’m sure of – then maybe I’ll leave England for a while. Find myself a palmy beach, a desert island paradise, like Kenny.”

Brad frowned, not too gravely.

“But I won’t have anyone to have fun with now.”

“You’ll get a chance to re-use all your old jokes on my replacement.”

The frown became that of a disappointed schoolboy. I think he was glad to fabricate emotion in this way in order to evade expressing the level of real regret he felt.

“Then I won’t have anyone to be serious with either. No one who talks any sense.”

“You’ll be transferred to Buyers in a month. Serious people in there, all of them.”

Brad looked at me doubtfully.

“That’s different. They are seriously serious.”

“I know, I can’t help you out there, you’re on your own. I’m saying good-bye to you and trusting you to say good-bye to all the others for me. I’ve made you an accomplice in my cowardice, I’m afraid. But that’s not all.”

I had Netta’s piece of white paper with the printed invitation on it, handling it with the respect and circumstance which was its due.

“The revelation of my final mystery.”

Poor Brad had the uneasy look of a man in a foreign country looking for the WC who doesn’t understand the signs and suspects he has just walked through the wrong door.

“What I’m about to give you will not only guarantee a memorable evening, it may well turn out to be your ticket to a new life.”

“What is it?”

“A dinner dance.”

Brad twinkled comically.

“Are you inviting me?”

“I must be the one person in Mail Order who wouldn’t. You are to accompany one of the world’s most delightful and talented young ladies. You’ll have a romantic little dinner in one of London’s more exclusive spots. The company will be sophisticated but not elitist, radical with a hint of chic but still in touch with their natural…roots. When the band strikes up you’ll spin your partner wildly about the floor, dance will follow dance effortlessly and sublimely until finally you are alone together and the stars are your only light.”

“I don’t like the sound of this!”

“Your partner is a woman who offers more than conventional charms to the man of discernment.”

“It sounds worse and worse.”

“A woman whose abilities range from the artistic to the athletic and linguistic.”

“It’s Netta, isn’t it? It’s Netta! What a thing to leave me with. Netta! A dinner dance with Netta! I don’t believe any of this, Matt. This is another of your jokes. A lunchtime wind-up.”

Brad shook his head and drank his beer. We both became less vocal as we were nearing the last few drops in the glasses. Now we sat in silence and waited. It seemed that the whispers and murmurs of the pub enclosed us in their intrigues. The bar was near full and London was disclosing its secrets, using the lunchtime to shape the featureless office day, transforming this sixty minutes into the writing up of the latest episode from a continuing story, a tale with a recurring set of characters and a limited range of locations. The tale had heroes and lovers, enemies and villains, scandals and rumours, slights and resentments, triumphs and disappointments. It also had much that was funny or incomprehensible or both, though sometimes the time for laughter came much later and the time for understanding only when a safe distance had been achieved from which to dispense clement judgements.

Now that the entire house of cards of office life was collapsing around me, it was beginning to seem like the whole experience had been no more than an invented story. And not one single card was worth picking up and holding onto. I looked around me marvelling at the conviction with which the others still believed in it all, still maintaining their part in the insubstantial pageant. Work was different from the rest of life; those people we never invited into our lives were not to be taken so seriously. Kenny carrying his world in his bags thousands of miles from one life to another knew that well, that was why so often he seemed, like his straying smile, to be not fully present.

But somehow I knew I would remember Netta, Kenny, Hugh and Brad for a long time to come, and not be able to think of them simply as characters in a story who moved and spoke in a certain way, but as people I had let down and valued enough to want their forgiveness, their understanding of what I had done.

Brad shook his head again.

“I don’t believe it. You walking out like this. Lumbering me with a night out with Netta. It must be a joke. It must be. I don’t believe it.”

The clock on the bar wall was nearing one.

“It must be a joke. It must be.” said Brad one last time.

We finished the beer and parted with our final wishes to each other, then went off separately to find out how the joke ended.

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