Some days I play a game where I get to be someone else. It’s a way of convincing myself I won’t be staring out of the same grimy window when I’m 50. I’ve been at Gosling and Marsh for sixteen years next Friday, but I don’t expect any fuss. It’s not like I’m going to be chucking streamers or blowing up balloons. Sixteen years and I’m still looking at the same drab expanse of pebble-dashed concrete. There used to be ivy growing till someone chopped it, leaving an odd-looking clean patch where the leaves used to be. They’ve never painted it. It’s a memorial to the death of nature. They ought to have a blue plaque on the wall: Nature lived here until 1986. I’ve never seen a bird in the Square; just dripping silver birches and bare patches of sticky mud where the grass refuses to take.
We’d all like to escape the daily grind and do something different. Every day I do the same things. I eat corn flakes, brush my teeth, run a razor across my chin and stroke the cat. I sit and listen to the scrape and grind of the Northern Line. I dodge cracks in the pavement and avoid the homeless guy with a coil of facial hair like a watch spring. Reading is my escape. I’m into the Scandinavian cops. Misery is cool.
‘Have you sorted the April reports, Chunky?’
Fleming perches on a desk opposite and rearranges his crotch. His trousers are tight, so the pocket lining shows. He wears a tie-pin that looks like a crocodile clip. I nod. Chunky is what my friends call me, not Fleming.
‘Nearly there,’ I say.
He stares at me. Fleming has been watching Prime Suspect. He thinks an enforced silence will make me blurt out the truth. Instead I wait him out and he scowls at me, knowing he’s been forced to talk first.
‘Good. They’re already late. See that they’re done by the end of today.’
Brenda gives me an apologetic look.
‘He’s under a lot of pressure,’ she says.
She’s wearing a mohair shawl and amber beads that she fiddles with continuously.
‘Have you done the report?’ she says.
‘Almost,’ I say.
Brenda bites her bottom lip.
‘You’d better finish it, Brian. If you don’t-‘
I raise a palm to wave away her concerns.
‘It’ll be done, don’t worry.’
The monthly report provides feedback on Gosling and Marsh’s performance. I haven’t completed a new report in two years. I just change the month and year and cut and paste stuff. I work on a plausible variable of eight per cent. We go up or we go down. Sometimes I let us dip for a few months so I can announce an improvement and the directors get to feel they’ve made a breakthrough. No one’s noticed yet. No one challenges a pie chart. Statistics carry a certain weight of authority. Fleming feels this is a vital part of our ‘analytical toolbox.’
I get up and push my chair under the desk. Brenda’s eyes widen.
‘You’re not going out?’
‘Yeah. But I won’t be long.’
I go into the kitchen and swill out my mug. There’s no tea towel so I shake it dry and spoon in coffee. I cross the office, stirring, and slump back into my seat. Brenda frowns.
‘I thought you were going out.’
I put my feet up on the box of new brochures. These are Fleming’s pride and joy. There’s a photo of him pointing at an art installation we funded in Stoke. I stare at the Square, then close my eyes. Time to get out there and explore. I decide this afternoon, Matthew, I’m going to be Detective Lars Wolff. I’m investigating a series of murders linked to medieval literature.
I’m speeding through a Swedish winter in a black Saab 93, linking parchments to a series of torture killings in a meat packing plant. Insomnia is a constant threat so I mainline coffee to keep going and blink away the shards of dancing white lights. I’m estranged from my wife and I don’t have an office of my own. If I did, the furniture would be minimalist and stylish. I’m dressed in an Italian tailored suit with a cashmere scarf and wire-framed glasses. I enlist the help of the mysterious, yet troubled and stunning English literature professor Maria Van Sturm. At first she hates me, but she’s vulnerable and soon she’s pulling a pencil from her hair, letting it cascade about her shoulders.
‘Are we keeping you up?’
Fleming stands in the doorway, his meaty forearms folded on his chest.
‘Just on its way,’ I say.
‘It’d better be. Soon as you’re done I want to speak to you in private.’
Out in the Square a blackbird pecks at the arid ground.
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