Jew finky nose-wearers bin. Ian Driss woke up and mentally noted it. It was the last thing in his dream. It was printed on a white card that a taxi driver held above his head as Ian drove a golf trolley through the airport arrivals hall. He was being chased by men in overalls who were trying castrate him with wire cutters. It was lucky he could fly.
Anubis Hotels. Standard rooms, standard fittings, standard things. Nice things. A few seconds after seeing the Anubis logo on the lampshade and the curtains, he remembered where he was and what he had to do. He looked at his watch and it was light enough to read the numberless face: about six-thirty. He’d woken before the alarm and was surprised at how refreshed he felt. It must have been the organic herbal sleeping tablet he’d taken the night before, after arriving late from Charles de Gaulle airport: Sleeptite sleeprite, to make you sleep deeply and peacefully, with no drowsiness on waking. It did what it said on the packet.
He had plenty of time to mentally prepare for the meeting. Meetings still made him nervous. He’d been with the company for a year and it was only recently they’d let him go abroad on his own to present to big clients, so he was glad of that quiet time in bed to go over his presentation. He did the whole visualisation thing like they taught you at management training: arrive at the offices of Leclerq and De Meer by ten o’clock, shake hands and introductions over coffee, do the presentation, one-hour working lunch, two-hour in-depth meeting to reassure the senior execs about the applicability of the Ryder Test, then shake hands, depart. He didn’t know them yet and had only spoken to them once in a conference call so he pictured some generic exec French faces, male and female, some ebullient and trusting, some quiet and cunning. One highly intelligent woman to ask penetrating questions about details he couldn’t possibly know but could jot down to take back to the psychs back at base. That reassured him, seeing his whole day laid out like that, as if he’d already lived it and it was safely in the past.
He had thirty minutes thinktime left till the alarm would go off. Random clouds of thoughts drifted past, blobby and inconsequential, not worth stopping. And then, Alison appeared, kneeling in her lounge, holding up Cameron so that he could try to walk his first steps. She was holding him beneath the arms and supporting him intermittently as he tottered and fell, tottered and fell. Her face was laughing and telling a silent story, but that was okay—just the sight of her made him feel better.
His arms behind his head, the duvet pulled up to his neck, he looked at the ceiling and watched the movies in his head. You know, when oddness appears, it appears slowly, like a bear sneaking up on you in the woods. It starts as an intuition, a subliminal prickling of the neckhair, and then you look around to see who’s watching you, but not too quick, because you might cause alarm or look an idiot. That’s how it started with him: a gradual feeling of uneasiness as the time advanced towards the alarm clock hour. For no obvious reason he became restless, sighed heavily, took his arms from behind his head and laid them flat on the duvet. He knew that something was wrong but he hadn’t told himself yet. That’s how cruel we are, as a species.
And then it hit him. It was getting darker. A moment’s logical reflection told him that that could not be right. You don’t wake up in the morning and it gets darker. Surely it’s the other way around, always, without exception, an inexorable rule of nature. He looked at his watch again and it was about ten past seven. The alarm had not gone off and it was now dark. He threw back the duvet and crossed to the window. His room was overlooking the car-park and, drawing back the curtain, he saw cars out there, with their headlights on. He checked his watch again—definitely seven ten. You see, that’s the kind of thing that can throw you so easily; something not happening as expected puts a spanner in the mental workshop and everything instantly goes loopy, right down at the heartbeat level. He sat on the edge of the bed, trying to make sense of it. Had he slept the whole day? Surely, that was not possible. As a diversion, he picked up the herbal pill bottle and read the small print: Do not take more than four at a time. He’d only taken one. He turned on the TV and checked Teletext. The digital clock in the corner of the screen said 19:11.
A lot of people laugh instead of panic. That’s not unusual, although it might seem absurd to a hidden observer. He laughed, and thought something like, this is fucking nuts. Somewhere else there was another line of thought already on the phone to his company and giving a plausible explanation as to how he’d managed to lose a whole day and miss the most important meeting of his career to date. He pushed that one aside for the moment and decided to get some more information from the Reception, I mean, why didn’t they wake him? He rang down and prepared a little string of schoolboy French just in case the receptionist didn’t speak English. Ah, oui, bonjour, quelles heure est-il, s’il vous plait? But the person who answered didn’t speak French, they spoke something else, I mean, every hotel you go to now is seemingly staffed with Russians or East Europeans, even in Paris. He asked the question again in English.
"It’s just past seven o’clock, sir."
"In the evening?"
"Yes, in the evening."
"I don’t understand, why didn’t you wake me? I’ve been here all day, asleep."
"You didn’t ask for a wake-up call, sir."
"Okay, but I thought maybe the cleaners would notice there was something wrong and at least knock on the door."
"You have the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on your door, sir. The hotel will not disturb you if you have the sign up."
Ian wanted to argue but wasn’t sure how. He tried to summon up a defensive line of attack but couldn’t remember if he had put the sign on his door. Why would he have done that?
"Okay, right… now, I’ve probably missed my plane. How long does it take to get to Charles de Gaulle airport by taxi?"
"Charles de Gaulle airport. You know, that big place where planes take off from."
"Charles de Gaulle? You mean, Charles de Gaulle in Paris?"
No, Charles de Gaulle, in Guatemala you twat! "Yes, that’s the one. How long?"
"I don’t think you’ll find a taxi to take you to Charles de Gaulle. You’d be better off taking a train, I think."
"I don’t have time to take a train. My plane leaves in ninety minutes."
"I think you’ll miss it then."
"Sorry? Do you know that my company spends thousands with your company every year? Can you just order me a taxi to take me to the airport please. I’ll be downstairs in fifteen minutes."
The receptionist laughed. "Well, I can order you a taxi but you’re not going to get from Rotterdam to Paris in ninety minutes."
"Rotterdam? What do you mean Rotterdam?"
"This is the Anubis Hotel, Rotterdam, sir."
"Rotterdam? That’s crazy. I’m in Paris."
"Rotterdam, sir. Walk out the front of the hotel and look, if you don’t believe me."
Ian put the phone down and part of his mind left his body, which made it much lighter so that it could float easily to the other side of the room without putting too much weight on his legs, which had suddenly weakened. There was a weirdness in his head that was scrambling around for companionship but there was no-one else home in there, just those hollow knocking thoughts telling him he’d gone mad. He sat back down on the bed and turned the TV on to check. Sure enough, it came up, Anubis Hotel, Rotterdam. He ran through the minimal facts as he knew them: My name is Ian Driss; I am thirty years old; I live in Greenwich, London; I work for Psycholex; I am in Paris to give a presentation to Leclerq and De Meer; it’s Wednesday 10th March, 2004; it should be the morning but it’s the evening; it should be Paris but it’s Rotterdam. Then he noticed the date on Teletext, and corrected himself: it should be Wednesday 10th March but it’s Friday 12th March.
You can judge a person’s character by watching how they act under pressure. Ian Driss pulled on his trousers and with no socks or shirt, just the vest he’d slept in, he left his room and walked down to the Reception. A few guests were entering the restaurant for their evening meal and turned to watch him pass, padding the carpet in his bare feet, his pale white arms hanging from the black vest. Everywhere were signs of Dutchness: posters of Amsterdam and the tulip country, a wall-length photo of the Erasmus bridge by night, and other little giveaway clues, like all the signs being written in Dutch. Ian stopped in the middle of the foyer, where a young couple had just collected their keys. The two receptionists, a man and a woman, looked at him as if they were about to laugh. He scowled back at them and walked across.
"What day is it?"
"It’s Friday the twelfth of March."
He nodded his head. "And what day did I check in?"
"What room are you in, sir?"
"Thirty-three, I think."
"Mister Driss. You checked in last night."
"Did you see me check in?"
"Not me, sir. It was one of my colleagues."
His forehead dropped onto his hand which was on the reception desk.
"Are you alright, sir? Do you need a doctor?"
He stood up and looked past them. "I should be in Paris."
They didn’t answer.
"No, I shouldn’t be in Paris. I should’ve been in Paris on Wednesday but now I’m here. How did that happen?"
The receptionists looked at each other and laughed.
"What are you laughing about?"
"Nothing, but you seem to be confused."
"You’d be confused if you’d gone to sleep in Paris and woken up in Rotterdam three days later, wouldn’t you?"
"Maybe you’ve just made a mistake."
"What, this isn’t Rotterdam?"
"This is Rotterdam."
"Look, can you just ring your Paris hotel and ask them where I am? No, I mean, ask them when I left Paris."
The receptionist got on the phone and exchanged pleasantries with the receptionist of the Anubis, Paris. He nodded a few times and then said goodbye.
"You were in our Paris hotel on Tuesday night, mister Driss, and you checked out at nine in the morning. They said that your company had rung them several times looking for you. You can use this phone, if you want to ring them."
He looked at his watch. It didn’t make sense. He turned around, dazed, the hit-on-the-head look, or the four A.M. drunk, tottering away from the bar. He walked towards the doubled glass doors that were brightened by spotlights and a mist of panic chemicals pumping out from all his glands, swooshing through every vesicle in his body. The doors opened automatically with the aid of his outstretched arm and he zombie-stepped out onto the marble steps where he was hit by a cold night wind that smelt of the sea. Above the sound of the wind he heard the low frequency thrum of ship engines, the tinkling of spars, distant whistles. He walked across the car-park, oblivious to the small bits of gravel that stuck to his feet, and stepped between the bushes onto the perimeter road. There was no traffic about, just some abandoned freight containers and palette boards dropped haphazardly in the long grass at the side of the road. He walked over, smelt the wet grass beneath his feet, and carried on until he came to the end, which was the edge of a quay that stretched as far as he could see in both directions. In front of him was a vast body of black water, moving and rippling in the wind, full of twinkling lights from buoys, little boats and anchored ships. There was no end to it. He looked up and could vaguely see the stars, switching on and off in the sea-misted air.
Some protective mechanism stopped him thinking. But neither could he run. If anyone could have seen him then, in the dark, barefoot, in his vest, oblivious to the cold, silhouetted against the vast machinery of the Rotterdam docks, looking into the water, nodding to himself, they would have thought he was a profound thinker about to make a breakthrough, all of his energies projected inwards to an elaborate labyrinth of thought. But as the waves jostled and slopped against the quay below his feet, his mind was a vacuum all the thought had slurped from. For the moment, nothing existed, and that’s what kept him sane.
Desayat alamoum protinquit. Carl Sloman turned the pages of a big book of Islamic print designs. He wanted to make use of them at the headquarters when the offices were refurbished, but he wasn’t sure if it would be blasphemous or disrespectful. He wasn’t a Muslim, practising or lapsed, but he was sensitive to the traditions and feelings of other peoples. He picked up the phone to his Interior Designer, Melanie. Barely the trace of an Australian accent was left in his speech, after it had been rinsed by Harvard Business School, ten years working on the West Coast, then fifteen years living in the Home Counties.
"Melanie, it’s Carl. I’ve found some designs we could use for the wallpaper but I’m not sure whether we should. They’re Islamic, from the sixteenth century, the palace of Akbar Khan. They’re not religious. I think it would be okay, but could you just check it out for me? Thanks."
It wasn’t Melanie’s job to check out things like that for him but over the last few months, he’d come to rely on her more and more. She billed him for whatever she did and so as long as she was happy, so was he. He opened the hardbound A4 notebook he used to record his thoughts and reflections for the book he was writing on emotional intelligence, High EQ. He wrote: (T x O) + I = SB. Trust times Openness plus Integrity equals Self-belief. Then he crossed out the SB and replaced it with ‘C’, for Confidence. That expressed the confidence he had in Melanie. She was more than just a designer—she was a powerhouse of energy and good sense who, like him, but in a smaller way, had built her business up from nothing, in the face of adversity. Throughout all the difficulties and setbacks that every new business experiences, she’d never lost her good humour, self-belief, or ambition. Just like him.
He turned on his laptop and started typing the new formula into the draft of his book when he heard one of the upstairs doors slam, followed by the seemingly deliberate thud of his son’s footsteps along the hall and down the open teak staircase. The son, his head hidden inside a hood, walked past his father’s study towards the front door without looking around.
Carl called out. "Ben."
The footsteps stopped before they reached the door but there was no answer.
"Where are you going?"
Ben’s irritated voice bounced off the high ceiling and snuck back round the corner through the study door. "I’m going out?"
"Why didn’t you say goodbye?"
"I didn’t know you were there!"
"Say goodbye now, then."
The door slammed shut. He turned around to see Ben, head down over the handlebars of his bike, like a hooded avenger, accelerating along the gravelled pathway. He turned back to the screen but couldn’t get his thoughts together, so to compose himself he reread the previous few paragraphs. Then he started to type:
Emotional intelligence is an expression of the centeredness you feel when you interact with remarkable human beings within your organisation. It is both a cause and an effect which, if sensitively nurtured, can also become an affect,…
He stopped and looked up affect in his dictionary. Then he continued:
…the emotion that lies behind successful action.
His thoughts were just getting into a rhythm when a car pulled up in the driveway and he saw Marik get out, bending over the passenger seat to pick up his leather document case. He brushed past the golden cascades of the Forsythia blooms and, with his head down, ignored the descending tiers of lawns leading down to the Japanese enclave with its elusive ponds. When he got level with Carl’s window, he looked up and his serious mouth relaxed into a smile like a razor and then resumed its normal expression. He let himself into the house and came straight to the study.
Carl shut his laptop and the first thing he noticed was a slight swelling and a receding bruise below Marik’s left eye.
"What happened to your face? Someone hit you?"
Marik covered it with his hand and gave a dismissive shrug. "No-o, I was playing tennis doubles, at the net, and didn’t duck quick enough."
"That’s not like you," said Carl, unintentionally ambiguous. Then, brightening, he said, "Did you see the Forsythia? They’ve blossomed since you were last here."
Typically, Marik wondered if this was a criticism. "It was only last week."
"I know. That’s what amazes me about it, how quick it happens: don’t blink or you’ll miss it."
Marik looked at Carl’s laptop. "I’m a bit early. Do you want to carry on working? I’ll go and chat to Frances."
Carl knew his wife was busy organising a fundraising dinner for PhilanthroPeople, one of the many charities she was a trustee of. "No, I’d only just started, I can pick up the thread again later."
"How’s it going?"
"Fantastic!" (His favourite word.) "I’m on chapter seven, which is all about harnessing the energy of sensitivity. I’m going to use that story that Spornducker told at the seminar last year, remember?"
Marik had probably drifted off by that time. "No, remind me."
"You know, that fantastic story about how he took seven of his employees trekking in Tibet and they met that village leader who’d lost all his family to the Chinese."
"Oh, yeah, I remember it now. They made him a special yellow star for accomplishment and pinned it on him."
"But the fantastic thing is, Spornducker and his people all burst into tears in sympathy with this wizened old man from another culture. That’s what I want to get across—how to empathise and not be scared to show your emotions. That’s the energy every organisation has to tune into to stay ahead. It’s so simple."
Marik would never have thought of combining those two observations to create a moral principle. He lacked the synthesising ability of his boss; he was a do-er not a thinker. He was responsible for the practical running of the organisation now that Carl had stepped back from the business he’d built up, in order to write his book and get closer to his family. They liked to meet up face to face once a week to go over the business issues and to make sure that Carl’s unique vision informed the main decisions. From Marik’s perspective, it also gave him the opportunity to continue the friendship he’d built up with Carl since he’d moved to the company from America five years before. He pulled a clipboard from out his document case.
"Right, what have we got for you? Three new customers in Norway, but you know that because I forwarded you copies of the contracts. We’re on the edge of clinching the contract with Spermatzu Personnel to process all their psychometric tests centrally. That’s a biggy, since they’re the biggest supplier of medical personnel in western Europe. We think we have the Leclerq one in the bag but there was a bit of a hitch there, which I’ll come onto."
"Good. And the rebranding?"
"Going well, although we have a problem with the banner head. Marketing think that nobody will get the link between ‘high-eq’ and Haiku. They want us either to make it ‘high-iq’ or drop it altogether. You can see their point—not many people know what a Haiku is."
"It’s our job to educate people. That’s part of the message I’m trying to get across. Businesses are not just for making profit, they have to use their unique influence and energies to grow the world. Well, we can drop the watermark and just use the Haiku itself."
"We discussed that last Friday and they say it will look a bit strange, laid out like that, if nobody knows it’s a Haiku."
"No, I don’t agree. We’ll drop the watermark and use it as it is."
"We’ve got a new kid in Marketing, Sean, he’s just finished a degree in sinology and he says the Haiku has too many syllables. Should be five/seven/five, apparently, but what do I know."
Carl took a sample of the headed notepaper and tapped out the syllables with a pencil: ‘emotion in action / a stone moved by the river / organisation’.
"It’s the first line," he said, "one syllable too many."
"Can’t you just drop the ‘e’?"
"Motion in action? That doesn’t make sense. Emotion is the key to the whole thing."
"I’ve got it! Emotion at work. Five syllables and you get the double sense of work."
Carl liked that. He wrote the whole thing out again and smiled. "Well done. That just shows the power of teamwork and openness. I’m going to use that as an example in my book, of how confronting problems together, openly, without being defensive, you can find creative solutions. I mean, I could have been very possessive of it because I wrote it but by being open to you, we found something much better."
Marik was pleased but dismissed the praise. He moved to the next item but Carl cut in.
"Sean, in Marketing, make sure his contribution is flagged in the weekly Newsletter and advance his privs. Does he have a plant yet?"
"I shouldn’t think so, he’s only been with us three months."
"Give him a plant. I’ll select something special from the nursery. Tell him it’s from me personally, will you, and thank him. Okay, what was that other thing?"
"Yeah, something a bit strange. One of our reps went missing for a few days and we almost lost the Leclerq contract as a result."
"But you sorted it out?"
"I sent a team over there straight away and pulled the situation round."
"Good man. What happened to the rep? Did he get a reprimand?"
"No, his manager wasn’t sure how to handle it. The guy is saying that he doesn’t know what happened to him, he just lost three days of his life and woke up in Rotterdam when he should have been in Paris. He must think we’re schmucks."
"You should trust everyone until they prove untrustworthy."
"He already has."
"Maybe he has a medical problem."
"You mean he’s a fruitcake, something flipped in his brain?"
"Either that or he got up to something and doesn’t want anyone to know."
"Well, I don’t think we can just take his word for it. We need to investigate. It could be espionage, but I doubt it. Even if he’s telling the truth, and he lost three days of his life, he needs attention."
"Who’s dealing with it?"
"Personnel, at the moment. They’ve given him a week off work to get over it."
"Will you take over and just keep me in the loop on a need to know basis?"
That’s what Marik wanted to hear. He wrote down NTK on his pad, as if it would remind him what ‘need to know’ meant. "Okay. I want to run some of the tests on him, just to check."
"Didn’t he do them during selection?"
"Yes, but we have new ones now, you know, the Ryder Test, and a few others."
"The Ryder Test? What’s that?"
"It’s just one that the psychs worked out to test malleability and other traits. It could be useful to show whether he could be easily influenced by someone outside."
"Fine. Could you also give him the Sloman-EQ-5, just out of interest."
"Okay. I also want him to have a full medical and psychological assessment, to make sure he’s basically sound. Is that alright?"
"It’s perfectly ethical and reasonable in the circumstances. Do you have his CV?"
Marik slid the CV across the desk. "You can keep it."
While Carl read down the CV, Marik clasped his hands before his face and touched his index finger tips together, making a church and steeple that he tapped against his nose.
"First in Psychology from Oxford. Clever cookie…"
Carl looked up at Marik’s pensive face. "What’s up?"
"I heard a rumour."
"Comspac are being investigated for fraud, false accounting, and bad advice to their customers."
"They’re one of our biggest customers in the US. We need to start thinking of damage limitation in case they go under."
"Comspac, go under?"
"Remember Enron and Andersen? It could easily happen. Who knows what state their books are in."
"How much financial exposure do we have?"
"None. I’m thinking of our reputation. Once the Press start on the autopsy, they’ll focus on the management philosophy."
"I see. What was our focus on that one?"
"What’s wrong with that?"
"‘Trust your boss, trust your colleague, trust the person you don’t know’. It doesn’t look so good when you find your boss has stolen half a billion dollars from the company and all the financial advisers have been ripping off their clients."
Carl got up and walked across to the window to watch one of the gardeners trim the lawn edges with a toucan-beaked long-handled cutter.
"Well, we can’t be responsible for the ethics of all our customers. Trust is the cornerstone of our business philosophy as well, and sometimes we make mistakes. Just make sure that the press office have got a line to give to the Press and pass it by me first."
Marik drummed his fingertips on the desktop. "If it was only that."
"What else is there?"
"You know I mentioned the Ryder Test. One of its measures is ethical malleability. It’s designed to reveal potential employees who may be prone to ethical lapses or whose ethical standards could be lowered by coercion."
"That’s a good safeguard for any employer."
"Except, some of them have been using it as a selector."
Carl’s incomprehension expressed itself as broken English. "What, they, uneth, you mean."
Marik’s voice became more empassioned and American. "That’s right, I mean, hell, we don’t sell it like that, we just give them the tests and tell them what they can do. We’re not responsible for how they use it. I mean, if a company wants to select key employees who they can mould, well, that’s hardly our fault."
Carl sat back down and thought: Why would anyone select people to be unethical? It doesn’t make sense. The main quality that had contributed to his success in business was his ability to make decisions under pressure. He was unequivocal.
"Right. We stop selling the Ryder Test immediately. And I want an inventory of all our current psytests and positive programmes, with a complete list of the customers using them. If this gets big, I want to be able to say to the world with a clean conscience, We don’t do that anymore. Can you let me have that by the end of the day."
Marik stood up. "Okay. So, no tennis today then? I’ve got my kit in the car."
"No, we’d better get on top of this, and that other business with the rep, what’s his name?"
"Driss. Ian Driss."
"Yes. Let me know what happens."
"No, just let me know."
Marik picked up his document case and walked towards the door. Carl sat on the edge of his desk and called him back. They knew each other well, but Carl still had a way of looking at people as if seeing them for the first time like a large inquisitive dog. It could make people feel uneasy because they thought he was staring through them like an X-ray machine, exposing their insides. Frances always nudged him when he did it in public and gradually he’d learnt when not to do it. But he knew Marik so well, he felt confident enough to look him straight in the eye and hold it. Unless the other person felt uncomfortable and looked away, Carl liked to converse in that way, where both speakers were completely open to each other’s every movement. He felt that it was easier to be straight with people without being misunderstood because you could see any signs of miscomprehension in their face and respond immediately. He believed that he could read people well.
"Marik, you’re sure that we haven’t been marketing the Ryder Test unethically?"
In business, Marik had always prided himself on his ability to say anything with a straight face. He looked Carl squarely in the eye. "Hell, no! Why would we do that? Until I heard about the Comspac case, I didn’t realise people would use it like that. It’s news to me."
"That’s good. We have nothing to worry about then. I’ll start coming into the office a bit more when I’ve finished my book. I realise I’ve been neglecting everyone."
After Marik was gone Carl went to find his wife. They’d had their studies built at opposite ends of the house so that they wouldn’t be tempted to disturb each other when working. She wasn’t there so he walked down the back stairs through the blue light of the indoor swimming pool and into the gymnasium. Through the wire pulleys of a weights machine he saw her lying flat on her back on a blue mat looking at the ceiling while doing rock-ups inside a frame that resembled a car’s roof-rack.
She sat up. "I’ve just finished. How was Marik?"
Normally he would have said ‘fantastic’ and told her the latest. The fact that he didn’t indicated something not right.
He laughed. "Always problems. Always solutions."
She picked up her towel and wiped some sweat from her forehead. "Tonight I have to be in London for a trustees meeting but I’ll be back by ten probably. You’ll have to eat alone. Is that okay?"
"Where will Ben be?"
"He’s staying at Amreeta’s. Come and have a swim."
In the blue water they swam through the blue light. He ducked to try and see his wife’s form beneath the water but without goggles it was just a swirl of bubbles and green haze. He was still entranced by her. She was the most remarkable woman he’d ever met and she flicked switches inside him on every level, emotional, physical and mental. They stopped after ten lengths.
With her head on one side she disentangled her matted hair with long fingers. "I should wear a cap when I swim. Now I’ll have to wash it again. I might get it cut short. What do you think?"
She always teased him like that and always got the same response.
"I’d divorce you."
"Would you? And then I’d take all your money."
"I’d just make it all again."
"You would, wouldn’t you."
"Not without you, I couldn’t."
That was a private ritual they’d repeated once a month for the past ten years. It meant nothing but always ended with an embrace. He rested his head on her shoulder and looked at the diamond pattern of the blue plastic drainage mats, thinking if he could somehow use it in the office redesign. She looked between the hothouse plants past the steamed windows and their immaculate view of the rolling English countryside, thinking of the six phone calls she had to make before lunchtime.
She kissed him on the cheek and disentangled herself. "The time! I’ve got to get on."
"Which lord and lady are you meeting today?"
"Neither. A rich young American."
"What’s his name?"
"Her name. Storm Mundy."
"That’s the one. She wants to give money for humanitarian and consciousness-raising causes."
Carl’s mood dip that started with Ben’s non-goodbye now reversed and his brain went back into posidrive thoughtspin.
"That’s fantastic darling. Tell her all about EQ."
Frances sat on the end of a teak sun-bed, drying her legs. "You don’t need the business."
"It’s not business. I want to spread the word. She could use it in her company. What was the family business?"
"Shipping, I think."
Carl tried to think out the box for an application for EQ in shipping. How would you liberate the emotions of thousands of Filipino and Russian seamen so that they energised the organisation? He played with the idea of crew-days, where crewmen would visit the head offices and take part in truth-telling sessions with the senior management. And the reverse, where senior management would travel aboard ship and muck in with the crewmen, siphoning off their discontent for positive change. From the ship’s engine-room, his mind made the metaphor of the organisation’s powerhouse being driven from below by the vast untapped energies of a hungry, inventive workforce, eager to be liberated and succeed. He could use it in his book.
He pulled himself out of the water and followed his wife along the side of the pool. He wanted to ask her why he couldn’t talk to Ben? Why could she talk to Ben? Why did Ben seem so angry with him all the time? What had he done wrong? She’d probably know, in the way she did about most things, but he suspected it would be one of those answers that involved vague negative concepts that he couldn’t do anything with, such as Ben’s character, age difference, generations, hormones, embarrassment, so he didn’t ask. Instead, as they reached the back hallway and said their goodbyes, he asked her, "Why the hell would the head of a Fortune 100 company choose to be unethical?"
"To get in first, before the competition does it?"
"Hell, I never thought of that."
Back at his desk, he opened his laptop and Cockney Cursor winked at him. Oy, Charlie, you look like you’re writin’ a book. Dyou wanna ‘and? He clicked, ‘No Thanks’ and the cheeky Cockney winked at him and said, Awwight, I’ll leave you on your ownsome lonesome. See ya! Carl wrote:
We’ve all been in the situation where someone we’re close to just doesn’t respond to us. It might be an employee, a member of your family, or even one of your customers. Inside we feel a deep frustration, a nagging sense of guilt that we are somehow responsible for that other person resisting every attempt at communication. One way of dealing with this situation is to blame yourself and become negative. The other way is to…
Whenever he was stuck he tried to think of an equation or an anecdote. He was happiest when an anecdote could be expressed as an equation, such as Communication divided by Mistrust equals Resistance. He remembered a story told to him by a CEO who’d sat next to him on a plane. The guy had told him about a senior manager who began ignoring him after he was passed over for promotion. This went on for several weeks until the CEO suggested a game of tennis in which he let the manager beat him. As they left the court, the CEO told the manager how he’d lost the game deliberately. "Haven’t you humiliated me enough?" asked the manager. The CEO replied, "I wanted to show you how winning isn’t necessarily good. Communicating your loss can be much more satisfying." The manager then opened up to him about how he’d needed the promotion to pay medical bills for his wife who was suffering from cancer. Because he spoke about his feelings, the CEO promoted him immediately and he’s now Vice President of one of America’s biggest companies.
That was the kind of emotional intelligence Carl wanted to sell to the world. He was sure that by the end of his book he would find one simple equation to express everything he felt and believed about the beneficence of business, something as simple and elegant as E=MC2. With fervour he continued his sentence.
…tell that person how much it hurts you that they don’t communicate. Let them know that the emotions of two people joined together are not doubled, they’re squared: E + E = E2.
As he finished writing the equation, Cockney Cursor popped up from wherever he’d been hiding and said, ‘Ello guvnor—do you want to know more about writing equations? Carl clicked, ‘Yes Please’.
Half way through his week off work, Ian went back to see the company doctor and have a complete medical. As soon as he got back to his flat, he phoned Alison.
"Hi, it’s me."
"Oh, hi. Hang on a second—Cameron, don’t eat the cat’s dinner, there’s a sweetie. One mo…"
While she went to sort out the baby, Ian flicked through the letters that had accumulated during the week, separating the personally addressed junk from the anonymously addressed garbage. A second sift left him with one legitimate letter, from his bank, offering him a personal beer cooler for his lounge if he took out one of their personal loans, and he didn’t even have to apply in person, just fill in the form.
"Sorry. Tell me then, what happened?"
"Oh, he did all these tests on my brain, measured my responses, took blood for drug testing, asked me if I suffered from epilepsy, black-outs, and a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t remember."
"Well, no, I don’t, obviously."
"So what do they think happened to you?"
"They don’t know any more than I do. I have to see the company psychologist next week. They want to hypnotize me."
"You have to be malleable to be hypnotized—you’re the most stubborn person I know."
"Maybe, but I still want to do it. It’s a bit freaky having a three-day gap in your life, you know?"
"I thought you had several missing days."
"I know the reasons for those, and it mostly involved substance abuse. And, I woke up where I went to sleep. The thing is, I don’t want them delving too deep."
"What dark secrets have you got hidden away that I don’t know about?"
"Well, for a start, I don’t want them to know I lied about my degree. It doesn’t actually matter that I don’t have a degree but their recruitment policies are so stupid, I just made one up."
"You deceiver, you. So you never went to Oxford?"
"I’ve been to Oxford. I had a girlfriend who lived there. And I did start a Correspondence Course with a college in Oxford, but I gave it up after three months. So it’s almost true."
"You’ll just have to tell them to confine themselves to last week, then."
"Yeah. What are you doing now?"
"Now, I’m about to feed Cameron, read him his bed-time story, put him down for the night, and then I thought I might put on my leather gear and head downtown for some drink-fuelled midweek debauchery. Or I might just stay in and watch TV, for a change. Why?"
"Can I come over?"
"Oh no, that would be breaking your two-nights per week rule and then you might start complaining that I’m getting too heavy and dump me again."
"But I didn’t come last week."
"Because you were unconscious in Rotterdam, or so you say. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were leading a double life over there. Tell me the truth."
"If you let me come over, I’ll tell you the truth."
"Okay, as long as you come over me. Oops, did I just say that?"
Ali’s house was fifteen minutes walk away. Outside the Union Hall he saw a poster for the South-East championships, a night of professional boxing sponsored by things4sale.com and Liberties Flat Grabbers. The main bout of the evening was for the Middle-Weight title, between Daniel "Deathblow" Machete, from Bethnal Green, and Simon "Psycho" Killar, fighting out of Easterhouse, Glasgow. The poster had been ripped and the date was missing so he stepped into the hall to see if he could find a flyer. The hall was nearly dark at the back but at the front, sweating beneath a double spotlight, was a black preacher, wiping the drips from his brow with a spotless white handkerchief, while further back, hidden by the semi-darkness, a large immaculately-dressed congregation of mainly black women and children stood with their hands clasped in prayer, some with their faces raised to the rafters, smiling or crying in some kind of ecstasy. Eyes at the back of the congregation swivelled round at the slamming of the door, in one easy gesture from heaven to him. He sat down on the back row of empty chairs, waiting for the right moment to leave.
"Oh, loooord, I offer YOU my prayers, for I WAS blind but noooow I see, I was lost but now, now, oh lord, because I asked and you did come unto me, I AM found and I say to everyone gathered together here, oh Lord, in YOUR house, that you have given to us for a temple so that we may come and worship you and discover the peace of your understanding, I say to every man, woman and child in this place of God’s worship, YOU can discover the peace that passeth understanding if you open your heart, I say IF you OPEN your mouth, I say IF you OPEN your soul, and pray with all your soul to the God who made you, poor creatures that we are, made from dirt and condemned to suffer until we see the light, I say to you, my brothers and sisters, that our Lord Jesus Christ has died up on the cross so that YOU shall rise up from the dirt, so YOU shall not suffer, but you shall discover HAPPINESS in the Kingdom of God, so help me Jesus—" (all the congregation go, ‘So help, me Lord’).
The preacher was on his knees and appeared to be crying, while all around the congregation there was a shaking of heads and a lifting up of hands, even towards the rafters, and lo, there was much celebration for somewhere to the side of the hall a rock band kicked off a Reggae version of "Jerusalem" and the preacher, his face turned up to heaven and his eyes closed, held the microphone to his lips and with his ample jowls a tremblin’ and his gleaming brows a drippin’, he implored everyone there, with all the might his lungs could muster, to Give it to me ONE time! Give it to me TWO time! Give it to me THREE time! He stood up and appeared to stumble towards the front of the stage but was caught by four assistants who were standing ready, and they shepherded him to the stairs so that he could join his flock, his head shaking and his blind eyes looking at the light inside.
The blind lead the blind, thought Ian, as he walked back towards the door. You don’t need eyes in a state of ecstasy.
Ali opened the door with Cameron slung beneath her left arm. He was dressed for bed in a blue towelling sleepsuit that fitted to his milk-fat curves like a second skin.
Mmm, that first kiss and smelt her hair.
"I stopped into the Union Hall to get a flyer and got blessed by a preacher man."
"He was wasting his time on you."
As he followed her towards her lounge he sang, in a screechy false falsetto, The only one who could ever reach me, was the son of a preacher man. She put the baby on the rug and shook a rattle-ball in front of his face. "Do you want a drink?"
"Ooh, yes please."
"Wine? White? Dry?"
While she went to the kitchen to get the wine he played with Cameron on the carpet and noticed the tidied flat at the end of the day. As Cameron grew, he would get used to that: now’s the time the day gets tidied so the untidiness of the night can begin.
She walked back from the kitchen with the two glasses. "How are you feeling?"
"Oh, I’m okay."
"I don’t think I’d be okay if that had happened to me. I’d be freaking out."
"Well, since nothing untoward appears to have happened and I’m all in one piece, I figure that it’s just like being asleep for too long. You don’t worry what happened while you were asleep, do you."
"Cameron, don’t take that out again, darling, please—"
Cameron paused, one hand on the box of bricks. He looked at each of their faces, blew a smile bubble from his pink lips and then tilted the plastic basket until all the bricks tumbled out. The whole time he kept his eyes on his mum’s face, as if that was the purpose of the exercise, to see what response follows which action.
"Oh, you wee…"
And then he chuckled.
"He’s laughing at you."
"He won’t laugh at me any longer." She rolled the baby on its back, undid its sleepsuit and blew raspberries on its tummy until it got hiccups.
"Oh, now look what mummy’s done. You can’t go to bed with hickedypups."
Cameron sat on the floor with a straight back, looking back at them, surprised by every hic spasm that shook his body. I wonder how long before he recognises that sensation? After the last one had died away, he looked at Ian’s strangely familiar face, the one that went and returned, not frequently enough to seem everpresent. But then, when everything is new, nothing seems everpresent and when something is gone, it’s gone forever. The baby hasn’t learnt yet, that things come back.
Once Cameron was in bed they lay on the sofa and watched a crime thriller about a cop whose wife and daughter were kidnapped by the criminal he was hunting. The twist was that the wife was having an affair with the criminal and was trying to lure her husband into a trap to have him killed. The producers dropped too many obvious clues and Ian worked it out halfway through. He gave up watching and, with his head in Ali’s lap, he looked up at her face. On the wall above her, a painting of her mother at the same age, thirty-four or thereabouts. He never asked her to specify the thereabouts because the fact that she was older than him bothered her, but not him. If she was thirty-six, she looked younger. She had her mother’s peat-black hair and coal-black eyes, but her hair was cropped short and she wore black mascara to accentuate her skin, paled by the weak Scottish sun. Her right cheek was mottled by the almost invisible scars of teenage acne, giving her face a vulnerability that was belied by the feistiness of her character, which he’d witnessed one day when she caught hold of a boy who was riding his bike through the tulip beds in the park. She had hold of him by the wrist, an outraged hurt in her voice and eyes, and kept repeating, "Why did you destroy all those flowers? Are you stupid?" And then there was the time that he completely forgot that they were supposed to be driving down to the coast one Saturday and he got a spare ticket for Twickenham with his mates. After the match they’d all gone back to his place and were on their third or fourth beer when she came in and threw everything of his that he’d left at her place onto the lounge floor: ‘Just in case you forget where you left it’.
But unless the painter had failed to catch the mother’s essential character, she didn’t have her daughter’s humour, a lens of ironic (and sometimes sardonic) playfulness which made her take the piss out of everything that took itself too seriously.
"What are you looking at?" she asked, looking down at him.
"I’m not sure."
"Oh, I know what happens. His wife is having an affair with the gangster. What are you grinning at?"
"Nothing. I’m looking at your mother."
"What’s funny about my mother?"
"She looks like you. But less butch."
She rubbed her hand over the distended breast beneath the black polo-neck jumper. "I’ve got too much milk."
"Can I have it?"
"When we go to bed."
"Let’s go now."
In bed, beneath the covers with the lights out, he took big mouthfuls of the mother’s milk from the melon-hard breasts and even before his hand went down he sensed the contractions between her legs, which made him wonder if the reflex only happened with him or was it also with the baby. He slept the sleep of animal warmth for about four hours until the baby woke him, leaving him with the ripped fabric of a dream hanging off his middlenight thoughts. As he felt Ali’s maternal weight leave the bed and heard the shuffle in the dark towards the cot, it came to him again in middlenight Dutch: Jew finky nose. He said it out loud.
Ali’s voice came back from the darkness where she turned the child and tucked him in.
"Oh, he knows all right, the sleekit wee bairn."
Cope against the barrier of the signs I look toward the inner light. In her study later that night, Katherine Malone, the company psychologist for Psycholex, rewound the tape of her first session with Ian Driss. What was that? Cope against the barrier of the signs? While it was rewinding she looked at her watch and went to the kitchen to make herself another decaff. In the kitchen there were two kitchens: the one she was in and the reflection of the one she was in in the black glass, backed by the night. It didn’t bother her that she could be seen and couldn’t see who might be there. Who might be there?
Before starting the tape again she sipped her coffee and flicked through her transcript. Something very weird going on here.
Interview time: +27.45
K: Ian, I want to try and hypnotise you to see if you can remember anything more about what happened in those three days.
I: Okay. But I warn you that I’ve never been hypnotised and I’m not very malleable.
K: Well, let’s give it a go, shall we.
I: Um, could you just stick to last week? I mean, don’t go back further. I mean, I, er, have some personal stuff there, you know.
K: Don’t worry. I’m only interested in what happened between Wednesday and Friday.
Interview time: +31.02
K: You woke up in the morning. Where were you?
I: The wrong place.
K: Before that. In Paris, can you remember waking up in Paris? You went downstairs and signed for your bill.
I: I went to sleep and took a pill.
K: That’s right. You took a sleeping pill and went to sleep. The next morning, in Paris, you woke up and went and paid your bill. Can you remember the street outside the hotel?
I: Still, a still morning, no cars. I walked to the corner.
K: What was at the corner?
I: Taxis. A small boy.
K: Did you know the boy?
I: No. He was holding his mother’s hand.
K: Did you know the mother?
K: Did you talk to her?
I: I smiled at her.
K: Did she talk to you?
I: She smiled at me.
K: And then?
I: They disappeared.
K: Did they leave in a taxi?
I: No, they walked away, hand in hand. Forever.
K: What do you mean forever? Did they die?
I: No… [subject appears to cry] They just walked away.
K: Okay, okay. You’re very relaxed. You feel secure. You’re safe here with me. In Paris, at the taxi rank, what did you do?
I: I got a taxi to Boulevard Jacques-Monnier.
K: Why did you go there?
I: To give the presentation.
K: And did you give the presentation?
[long silence; subject mumbles something incomprehensible – sounds like ‘awe sip’]
K: Can you remember the Leclerq building? When you got out the taxi, what happened?
I: I don’t know. I don’t…
K: Did you go inside?
I: I don’t remember.
K: Go back to when you stepped out the taxi. The building is in front of you. What does it look like?
K: Okay, it’s a black building. Can you see the sign, ‘Leclerq and De Meer’?
I: No. It’s just black glass. The silver flowers, open and close.
K: What flowers?
I: The ones in the glass.
K: Okay, that doesn’t matter. You are standing in front of the building. Can you see the door, the door to go in?
I: I don’t remember?
K: Did you go into the building?
K: Did someone meet you outside?
I: Someone who isn’t me…
K: Someone else met you.
K: Who met you? Was it a man or a woman?
[Subject has no further memory of Paris. His next memory is in Rotterdam.]
Interview time: +54.13
K: Can you remember arriving at the Anubis Hotel on Rotterdam docks?
[Subject mumbles something like ‘jew finky nose’.]
K: What does that mean, ‘jew finky nose’?
I: Where I’ve been?
K: Where have you been, Ian? After you left Paris, where did you go?
[subject again mumbles a jumble of words: ‘awe sip’, ‘vessel’, ‘you witch’, ‘saving tea’ ‘ours’. More incomprehensible mumbles, then subject shouts out ‘awe sip’, loudly, three times, and appears to cry again.]
I: I didn’t do it.
K: What didn’t you do?
I: I didn’t do it.
K: You didn’t go to Rotterdam?
I: Do not disturb. I didn’t do not disturb. On the door.
K: You didn’t put the sign on the door, Do Not Disturb.
I: Not in Rotterdam.
[subject is brought out of hypnosis.]
Katherine went to bed. She would need to interview him again and show him the transcript to see if he could make sense of it. She’d never known a case like this in company practice. At university and during her training at the hospital, she’d come across a few cases of dissociative identity disorder, people who had multiple personalities and amnesic barriers between them so that one could not remember what the other one did. But all of those had developed symptoms while young and normally as the result of abuse or some other trauma that caused part of the personality to sheer off, living an independent existence. But Ian Driss had no record of other experiences like this one and his medical records were clean. She was puzzled, not only by the three-day gap in his life and how he ended up in Rotterdam, but by those strange phrases she could not decipher, such as ‘awe sip’ ‘vessel’, ‘you witch’. Was the vessel a ship or a drinking vessel? Did the witch signify witchcraft that involved sipping something from a ritualistic vessel?
The next morning she got to work early and found that Marik, the MD, had made an appointment to see her at nine o’clock. She’d only spoken to him a couple of times, once after she was hired and was introduced to all the management and once at the company’s Christmas dinner, where they’d sat on the same table. His background was military intelligence, not psychology, and he made lots of unfunny jokes about the number of shrinks that worked for them. After he made a dig about her being on her own, suggesting she should hook up with one of the ‘other shrinks’ who could ‘solve her problems’, she was going to put him in his place, even if it cost her her job. Why should she put up with moronic statements just because they come from an MD? But in the end, she decided that since they would probably never cross paths again it was best to keep her mouth shut and not spoil the evening.
So she was not looking forwards to meeting him again, although since this would be a professional meeting she assumed he would be more tactful. She made sure that she was sitting behind her desk at nine o’clock and when he came in, she didn’t stand up to greet him, just leant back and smiled.
For some reason, he was grinning. "It said ‘K. Malone’ on the door, so I did."
"Sorry? I, er,…"
"Came alone, geddit?"
"Oh, right, yes, very punny."
She found something interesting that needed doing in her top draw and spent some time looking at it before resuming with a much more serious expression on her face, the kind that said, ‘You might be the boss, but I think you’re a wanker and you know it, but I can’t say that, so I will be very professional with you and don’t you dare step over the mark again.’ He wanted to know all about the Ian Driss case because Carl had asked him to find out and report back. Was it industrial espionage? If not, was he mentally unstable? If not, what?
"I really don’t know at this stage. I’m going to talk to him again today in the hope that when he sees the transcript of the hypno session it will trigger a conscious recall of the events."
"Did he hypnotise easily?"
"Very, considering that he warned me that he was not very malleable or suggestible. Why?"
"He scored quite low on the Ryder Test."
"That test has not been proven empirically though, has it. I’m not convinced that you can even test for ‘ethical malleability’ or whatever it claims to do."
"Well, whatever you think, there’s more interest in that test than any of the others, although we may have to be low key on it for a while. You’ve heard the Comspac news, I suppose?"
"Don’t tell me—they were using the Ryder Test to select ‘ethically vulnerable’ employees whom they could corrupt?"
"Jeez, you psychs really are clever. You should move into our research division, you’re wasted here in medical."
"Well, most tools can be used for multiple purposes. The final result depends on the ethics of the user not the tool-maker. I mean, Alfred Nobel invented dynamite for peaceful purposes and it ended up slaughtering millions in the First World War. And since I don’t have a rosy view of business ethics in general, it doesn’t surprise me that someone would use a test in that way. If it works, that is."
"Oh, it works."
"How do you know that?"
"I doubt that very much."
Marik raised his eyebrows and smiled his razor-sharp smile, the lips unparted. "Well, leave the business to decide that one. Could you send me copies of all your tapes and transcripts of the Driss interviews, and send me summaries of your notes as you progress?"
"No, I can’t do that. You can always come here to discuss it with me and I can show them to you, but I’m not allowed to copy and release them unless he’s under formal investigation for a breach of company procedures. Are you going to do that?"
"If I have to. What happened is totally unacceptable—he’s either lying or sick, and we need to know. Either way, he could end up leaving the company."
"He may be neither."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, he could have been drugged and taken to Rotterdam, for some reason."
"Why would anyone do that?"
"I don’t know, mistaken identity, thought he was someone else and then realised their mistake and dumped him in a hotel. Who knows?"
"Or he could have had a black-out and got lost for three days."
"That’s possible, but unlikely. He remembers arriving at the Leclerq building. With a bit more work he might remember what happened next."
"He never arrived there. We checked with them. In fact, they rang us to ask where he was."
Katherine enjoyed playing the devil’s advocate and making conjectures, particularly contentious ones. "Maybe they’re lying. Did you think of that?"
But Marik was a quick thinker. "If they were lying, they would have to be implicated in his disappearance, which then means that they would have to have a reason for doing that, and what possible reason could they have? They’re one our customers."
"So were Comspac."
"Well, financial companies have had some ethical problems in recent years, to put it politely."
"And, Leclerq do what?" she asked, expectantly.
"Well, that’s okay then. The pharmaceutical industry is a model of probity and ethical rigour."
Marik’s manner changed. "I’m not making much of an impact here, am I?" he said, threateningly, or so she thought.
"You came here to ask me to do something that I can’t do. You wouldn’t want me to be unethical would you?"
Marik stood up, walked a few paces, and held his chin while he thought. "Did you know that there was a murder near the Anubis last Wednesday?"
"This could become a murder investigation."
"Rubbish. What has that got to do with anything?"
"The murder took place at around the time Ian should have been arriving for his meeting."
"Coincidence. Ian is not psychopathic or violent."
"How do you know that? You’ve only conducted one interview with him."
"It’s my gut feeling."
"And what does your gut feeling tell you really happened to him?"
"He’s a victim of a crime. I really think he got hit or drugged, and was either taken or made his own way to Rotterdam, suffering from amnesia. But at the moment, that is just a theory. I need to spend more time with him to find out. He said a lot of strange things under hypnosis, which I’d like to try and understand."
Marik sat back down. "Such as?"
She showed him the transcript. "Here, see this, ‘awe sip’, ‘vessel’, ‘you witch’. It’s very odd."
Marik turned back the pages of the transcript. "Who was the woman with the boy?"
"A stranger. She’s insignificant."
"Why did he cry at that point?"
"I don’t know. Maybe he has some buried trauma, to do with his mother. It could be anything. It’s not my job to pursue that. He’s not having psychoanalysis. I just have to find out what happened to him and why, so that company can come to a decision about what to do."
"And you don’t think he’s lying? What if he’d just done something he didn’t want to tell anyone about and needed an excuse."
"I don’t know—a woman, maybe, a man maybe, or worse."
Katherine used that prompt to return in kind. "Is there anything worse than a man?"
Again, the thin, sharp smile that divided his face from ear to ear. "So, you won’t send me your data, in which case we shall be meeting every day to discuss how your investigations proceed. It will give us a chance to bond emotionally, in line with our new corporate vision."
"Oh, yes, I saw the mission statement on my way in. Excuse me while I fetch my sick bag."
Marik couldn’t be seen to dissent in public but he smiled and clapped his hands. "You may mock, but this company is going to make a lot of money from selling emotional intelligence to boring, dessicated business people."
Katherine looked sceptical. "The sad truth is, I suspect, that a lot of businesses are just boring and dessicated and you can’t change them by making the employees write poems that express their inner feelings at strategy meetings."
"Wait until you’ve read Carl’s book. Then you’ll change your mind."
"Oh, good, I can’t wait to get my teeth into an emotional book. The last one I read was Jane Eyre for A level."
Marik stood up to go. "Jane Eyre? The mad woman in the attic—that must have seemed familiar."
"I mean, to a psychologist."
"I wasn’t a psychologist when I was at school, Marik. Anymore than you were a… No, I won’t say that. I’m going to do my little bit for emotional intelligence."
It was one of those bright days when everything seems to exist in the imagination and everything in nature is freshly wrapped in a crisp foil of its own newness. Outside Carl’s window a branch of Wisteria leaves hung and dripped from a recent shower of rain. Beyond the driveway the parapet walls at the top of the gardens glistened in the sun. Around lunchtime or just before, he finished his chapter on creative fun with a quote from Nicolai Chichkov: ‘Laughter is the medicine of the soul, and even dead souls can be cured’. He had a compendium of these that he’d been collecting over the last few years in a large hardbound notebook, which he called his ‘compendium of wisdom’. Whenever he came across a quote that suited his purposes, in a newspaper or book, he wrote it down. He also had a dictionary of quotations which he had rifled to find ones that were relevant to emotional intelligence. His notebook was divided into sections with titles such as, ‘Intuition’, ‘Communication’, ‘Leadership’, ‘Creativity’, ‘Fun’, and so on. Whenever he needed a quote to support his argument, he could find one from figures as far apart as Groucho and Karl Marx, or Vladimir and John Lennon, Adam and Bessie Smith. He was amazed by the consistency of insight amongst the quotes he specially selected, how everyone appeared to be saying the same thing and how it reinforced the principles he’d discovered whilst working as a management adviser to big corporations.
He stopped writing and went outside. He walked across the lawns, down to the Japanese garden in order to meditate and contemplate his next chapter. In the rock garden three or four sparrows were flitting around, excitedly cleaning their feathers in hollows of sand that their bodies had made. Carl watched them for a few seconds, stepping off the path and concealing himself beneath the branches of a broad-leafed ???? tree, so that they wouldn’t be frightened away. Beyond the Japanese garden was a beech wood into which the miniature waterfalls flowed to make a stream that wound down between the tree trunks, ending up in a meadow whose tall hedges on the far side marked the borders of their land. As Carl’s eyes became accustomed to the shade, he was aware of someone moving around in the equally dark woods at the other side of the enclave of light in which the birds played. At first, he couldn’t see who it was but he soon realised that it was Ben and that he appeared to be grubbing around in the loose earth at the base of one of the tall trees, shovelling soil out with his hands like a dog. Carl stepped back onto the path and was dazzled for a few seconds as he skirted the rock garden and headed towards the steps that led down to the woods. By the time he got there and his eyes had readjusted to the shade, Ben was no longer where he had been. Carl then saw him, walking away from him towards the path that led around the base of the hill and eventually up to the house via the vegetable gardens. He called out to him and as Ben turned around, he saw him push something into the baggy pocket of his sweat-shirt.
"What’s that Ben? What are you doing?"
They looked at each other, like a wolf and a deer meeting in the forest, then Ben turned around and ran off. In the silent green cathedral of trees, surrounded by beams of broken light, Carl looked down at the hole in the earth where Ben had been digging. He saw a network of white roots, thick and matted, and between them a millipede that clambered over a pellet of black soil, trying to disentangle itself.
Back in the house, Carl saw Frances coming down the stairs.
"Frankie, have you seen Ben. The weirdest thing."
"He’s in his room, I think. What?"
When Carl became excited, his Australian accent took over, like an incredulous kid saying he’d seen a crocodile in the back yard. "I was walking down in the garden and I saw him digging with his hands underneath a tree. I mean, not just digging, but scrabbling like. And then when I calls him, he just looks at me and runs off. I don’t know what the heck he was doing but he shoved something in his pocket and just scarpered."
It was almost as if he was waiting for her to give him permission to challenge Ben.
"He was probably playing a game."
"He’s almost fifteen, darling."
"I know, but he can still play can’t he."
"But he didn’t speak to me. He just ran off, like a fox."
"Go up and ask him what he was doing?"
"You think I should?"
"Yes. Just go and ask him. He’ll tell you."
With Frances’ permission, Carl plodded up the teak stairs to the first floor. He tapped on Ben’s door and walked in. The first thing he noticed—apart from Ben under his hood playing on his games console—were the little crumbs of black earth scattered on the carpet.
"Ben, what were you just doing down in the woods?"
Ben’s thumbs flew up and down like jack-hammers on the control pad and the sound of explosions got louder.
"I just saw you digging underneath a tree in the woods. When I called you, you shoved something in your pocket. What was it?"
"I wasn’t digging."
"What were you doing then?"
"I wasn’t doing anything."
"I saw you."
"What’s all this earth doing on the floor then?"
"I don’t know. Ask the cleaner."
"Look at your hands."
Without interrupting his game, Ben looked down at his hands and snorted. "So?"
"It’s earth. What’s in your pocket?"
"How can I show you nothing?"
"I want you to."
Ben raised his voice. "I can’t show you nothing! Leave me alone!"
Carl realised that this was a test of his leadership. Of his ability to resolve conflict without recourse to threats or violence. "Come on, Benjie…"
The boy threw his control pad onto the floor and jumped up. "Don’t call me Benjie. I’m not a kangaroo!"
"Sorry, Ben. All I want you to do is talk to me. Why won’t you do that?"
"I can’t talk to you."
"I can only talk to my friends. You don’t understand."
Carl thought back to when Ben was eight or nine and they went snorkelling together on holiday in the Maldives. "What don’t I understand?"
"Anything. You’re my dad."
"That’s why you should be able to talk to me, because I’m your dad."
"But I can’t. So can we just leave it? I want to go out."
"You’re not going out until you’ve told me what you were doing."
"You can’t stop me going out."
"Oh, yes I can. If you don’t tell me what you were doing in the woods."
"Why don’t you go back to work? It was better when we never saw you."
"Ben, that’s not a nice thing to say. In fact, it’s very rude and I want you to say sorry."
"No, it’s true."
"Ben! You’re starting to make me angry."
Ben had retreated to his bed and was lying there with his arms behind his head staring at the ceiling.
"Say sorry, Ben."
Carl waited and then Frances called him from downstairs. "Carl, it’s Marik on the phone. He says it’s important."
"Okay, I’m just coming."
"Now, Ben, you wait there until I come back. You’re not to go out."
Carl went back down to his study and had just picked up the phone to Marik when he heard the front door slam and saw Ben speed off on his bike. Marik had phoned to keep Carl up to date on the Ian Driss situation, or ‘investigation’ as he called it. He wanted to start a disciplinary procedure against Driss so that he could have full access to all his medical and other records. Carl was against that and suggested that Marik let Katherine deal with it, since she was the professional; his gut instinct was that this was some kind of strange lapse of memory brought on by a trauma. Did he have any physical injuries suggesting a knock on the head? No. Did the blood tests show traces of drugs? No. Were there any witnesses who saw him leave and arrive? No. Carl still wouldn’t change his opinion, even after Marik told him about the murder near the Anubis. That’s just a coincidence.
Marik was frustrated by Carl’s laissez-faire attitude but when he pushed harder, Carl just said, "Well, try and put yourself in his position—it can’t be nice for him."
"It could be industrial espionage."
"I doubt it. What would they steal from him? A few psychometric tests that they could pay a cleaner to steal, if they really wanted them. It doesn’t make sense."
"I might suspend him anyway, just to be safe."
"I don’t think it’s necessary, but I’ll leave the details to you. Contrary to what I said last week, I don’t think I’ll be coming into the office just yet."
"I want to slow down on the book a bit and spend more time with Ben. Just a few more weeks. Just let me know if there’s a serious problem, okay?"
Carl put the phone down and went to find Frances. She was in the kitchen, putting armfuls of cut flowers into large vases.
"What did Ben say?"
"Nothing. He just ran out on me again. I don’t understand."
"He’s a teenager. I bet you were the same at his age."
"Heck, no. I might have been a bit down on my dad occasionally but I would never have spoken to him like that. We used to go fishing together and everything."
"Why don’t you take Ben fishing?"
"Do you think he’d want to go?"
"If I can get him to talk to me, I’ll ask him."
Frances noticed the change in his voice and looked over. He was standing near the kitchen door, in the middle of nowhere, his eyes misted over. She put down the scissors she was using to cut the flowers and walked across to him. She hugged him and said, "I’ll have a word with him and tell him to be nice to you. The thing is, he hasn’t seen much of you the last few years, the whole of his childhood really. It’s not surprising that you don’t have an easy relationship now that you’re home all the time. He’s used to doing what he wants."
"Hell, I’m not exactly on his case the whole time, am I."
"I know, but…"
Frances hugged him for a minute and patted his back until he felt better, then she went back to her flowers. He felt a bit embarrassed and shuffled towards the breakfast bar where he flicked through her diary. It amazed him how many meetings she managed to fit in every week, and how she still managed to run the house, socialize, keep herself fit, and read the latest novels that were worth reading. He’d become successful mainly through just sticking with it and being in the right place but she’d done it almost against the odds.
"How did your meeting with Storm Mundy go?"
"Interesting. She’s a bit wacky, in a San Francisco type way, a billion-heiress hippy, all flouncey clothes, scarves and hats. She wants to give money to ‘consciousness raising’ organisations with a universalist outlook. That’s not really our forté so I may have to turn it down. We like to help people who do things not who just think about doing them."
"But if it results in a better world…"
"How do you measure the outcomes though? All you can do is ask people if their consciousness has been raised, whatever that means, or if there are more of them that there were before. I’d rather she gave it to Africa. We’ll see. I might put an advert in the press, just to see what applications we get."
"Did you tell her about EQ?"
"No, darling, I told you—it’s not my job to promote your business. You can do that for yourself."
He held up his hands. "Okay, okay, okay… I won’t mention it again, but I might send her a copy of my book when it comes out. Maybe you could invite her for lunch?"
"Maybe. You might find her a bit too alternative for your tastes. Although alternative is the new black in your business, isn’t it?"
"That’s what my book is all about. Business needs to stop being so boring in order to compete and survive."
"How boring for our children; they’ll have nothing to rebel against."
The mention of rebellious children made him pensive again and he went back out into the garden to think. He was still bothered about what it was that Ben had been digging up in the woods and he walked over to the gardeners’ shed, a brick building near the greenhouses and vegetable gardens. The door was open and he couldn’t see anyone around so he went in. On the bench in front of the window, the sun had dried up the old newspaper on which a few seed trays and overturned plastic pots had been left. A mixed, pungent smell of soil, fertilizer, damp burlap sacks and some slightly noxious sprays. All three walls that didn’t have windows were covered with shelves that were crammed with pots and tins, balls of string, wire, cardboard boxes with white powder spilling out, rolled up green netting, gardening gloves. It was redolent of the past and Carl stood mesmerised by the timeless atmosphere, the miniature and playful world of dust that rose and fell, tumbling on the lunchtime sunbeams. For a moment he was taken right back to the cricket shed in Victoria, one of those days when he’d left his mates sitting outside watching the match and run to the shed to look for his gloves, his heart slightly excited by the imminent prospect of going in to bat. Entering the door, he paused for a moment, a sense of déjà vu, the peak awareness of himself in time with others nearby.
It lasted for a moment and then it was gone.
He became aware that at the back of the shed there was a man sitting on top of a large bag of peat. He had long hair and beard, and was sat in a yoga pose, cross-legged with his eyes shut and his upturned hands cupped gently in his lap. He was exceedingly thin and had the look of a Hindu holy man or the more ascetic pictures of suffering Jesus you saw in little churches in Spanish villages. Carl wondered if the man had heard him and tried to back out the door quietly but knocked over a rake that was leant up against the doorframe. The man opened his eyes and although Carl was startled, the man looked at him calmly and then smiled. Carl apologised.
"Sorry to disturb you, I was just…"
"That’s okay. I was just meditating—it’s my lunchtime. My name’s Peter."
Peter stood up to shake hands. Carl judged him to be no more than twenty-five, but his long hair and beard made him look much older.
"Yes, I know. Your wife interviewed me for the job."
Carl nodded and perked up. "Right, of course. And you’re enjoying yourself? Everything is going well, I hope, with the other gardeners."
"It’s brilliant. I love these gardens, especially the fact that you’re going organic. That’s the main reason I came here, so that I could help."
"Right, er, okay… Do you always meditate?"
"I try to, once or twice a day. I sometimes go and sit under a tree in the Japanese garden. I find that it has a more spiritual vibe about it."
"Yes, I often go down there to think, to get in touch with my feelings."
Peter looked surprised. "Cool!"
"Have you ever seen my son down there, in the beech wood?"
"Is that Ben?"
"A couple of times, walking with his friend, the Indian girl."
"Ah, Amreeta probably."
"You haven’t seen him digging around then?"
"I saw him digging down there."
"Is he into gardening?"
"I doubt it. You wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on him for me, would you? I mean, if you do happen to see him down there. Just let me know what you see. You know where my study is, come and knock on the window and let me know. If you don’t mind."
Peter was only too eager to please Carl, and gave a big smile. "Absolutely, no probs. If I see him again, I’ll watch what he’s up to. Hey, a mystery, I like mysteries."
Carl thought he detected a familiar accent. "Do I detect an Oz accent somewhere in there?"
"I don’t think so. I spent six months there a few years ago, travelling around, but that’s all."
"Strange, you sound a bit Ozzie. Oh well, enjoy the job and I’ll see you around."
Back at his desk, Carl felt sunnier. Cockney Cursor was down in the corner of the screen, dressed in a spivvy suit, winking at him as if he was trying to get him into an alley to sell him some dodgy gear. Carl moved the mouse to make him go away.
There are many different ways to get in touch with your feelings. Some people play sports, others write poetry; others find that flower arranging or meditation help them reach another place from where they get a different perspective on their problems. It doesn’t matter which method you choose; the main thing is that you find a way to break out of the rut of conventional thinking.
Okay, I went downstairs and paid my bill, in Paris. In Paris, I paid my bill, they said so and they saw me leave. I walked to the corner, a still day, still, I could have ordered a taxi from the hotel, why didn’t I? Anyway I walked to the corner (how many yards? —fifty, about), and at the corner there was a tabacs that was open and a little café where the taxi drivers were sitting inside the window waiting for fares. That’s right, there were no drivers in their cars when I arrived, so I stood and waited and that’s when I saw her, a woman, dark hair, long, Mediterranean appearance, walking along with a child next to her, a boy, aged about six, also dark, like his daddy, I suppose, and he didn’t want to go, he was refusing, to school, he was hanging back, pulling on her arm. I thought she would become angry, use threats or violence, but she didn’t, she stopped and knelt next to him, she hugged him, and whispered in his ear, for a long time (how long? —twenty seconds, about), because I was waiting there, I watched, waiting for the driver who had just stood up and was wiping the coffee from his moustache and shaking hands with the other drivers. That was it, that did it to me, on that Paris street with the morning traffic starting to hoot and cut across, she whispered to the little boy and ran her fingers through his glossy black hair while he gazed up at the sky, I looked too, to see what he was seeing, to feel how it would be to be six, forgetting who I was, I saw small puffy violet clouds and far above, a needle of steel, a jet piercing the deep satin skies. And then, I looked down, and the boy had turned his head slightly, she was tickling his ear with her lips and he laughed, a wild energetic laugh which suddenly animated his whole body so that he ran forward, tearing his hand away from hers and ten yards down the road he turned back to her and shouted ‘Je suis soldat’, I am a soldier, and he pretended to shoot her with a machine gun—a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a, ‘tu est mort’, you are dead, you are dead and gone to Rotterdam.
"What are you thinking?"
Alison ran her finger from his neck down to the base of his spine where the duvet had been pushed down.
She ran her finger back up and traced the pattern of hair where it crossed his shoulder blades.
"I thought you couldn’t remember anything."
"I’m starting to, since I was hypnotised. Little bits are coming back. Katherine is going to show me the transcripts."
Her finger stopped.
"Ms Malone, the psychologist."
And started again.
"What does she look like?"
Beneath her massaging fingers, his shoulders shrugged.
"Just wondered. How old is she?"
"Do you fancy her?"
He turned over and faced her.
"She’s going inside your head. It’s a fair question."
"No it’s not. It’s like me asking you if you fancy your doctor."
"He’s quite tasty, actually."
Ian climbed on top of her and held her arms against the pillow.
"Well, if you really want to be jealous, she is Irish, softly spoken, tall, with long red hair. She dresses sexily in a pencil skirt, white blouse, and high-heels. Her skin is pale as an Irish mist, particularly her breasts, which are just visible when she leans forwards and her buttons gape. When she bends over to hypnotise me, her eyes are green and shining, her breath is sweet, but her lips are slightly too firm as she kisses me like this."
She opened her legs and asked, "But does she do this for you?"
He licked her shoulder and tasted salt.
"Probably, if I asked her."
With his cock inside her, she squeezed as hard as she could.
"And can she bring you off like this?"
"Show me what you mean."
It was unfair that she could make him come so easily, especially in the morning, and he had to work so hard for her.
"I’m not waiting for you."
Ah, you fucker.
On his way back to his house to get his car, Ian walked past the Union Hall. The pavement was partly blocked by a red van with black windows and Zenith Outside Broadcasts written in large white lettering along the side and on the back. One of the back doors was open so the writing became Zen Out Broad. On the forecourt of the Hall the production team had set up a couple of cameras on tripods and some sound equipment. The female producer was running through some sound tests with the male presenter who was holding a microphone and speaking in a serious, macho voice about the upcoming boxing match.
"Both fighters say this fight is the passport for the world championship and nothing is going to stop them…"
"Can you stand back a bit—you’re too close to camera."
"Yah, that’s fine."
Milling around the steps to the hall, the two camps of boxers and their followers: sharply dressed men in shiny suits, hair all waxed and gelled, and the boxers’ obligatory girlfriends wearing infinitesimally small spangly dresses and strappy shoes. They were like two tribes, the black south London tribe and the pale Glasgow tribe, but they had more in common with each other than they did with the pedestrians who were momentarily distracted on their way to the Tube and their day of pettiness and surveillance in open plan offices. The fighters and their retinue were aspiring Hollywood, talking the talk to walk the walk with as much style as they could muster.
In no hurry to get to work, Ian hung around on the forecourt, observing the TV technicians set up their equipment while the producer spoke to the boxers and their trainers about the interview format. The presenter, in his early-forties, wore a double-breasted suit whose buttons he nervously checked in between sound tests; whenever they were ready to shoot again, he fixed a smile on his face and spoke through it, are we ready, are we ready, we’re going, we’re going, we’re going: We’re here at the Union Hall in preparation for tomorrow night’s…
The first one up for interview was Simon Killar from Glasgow, a pale young man with orange hair, cut short and naturally spiky. He was an agitated, fiery terrier who kept moving from the spot that the TV people had marked on the ground. They’d just started the interview when the producer shouted ‘CUT!’ and smiling, she politely moved him back into place. She told the presenter, ‘Go from, "Tell us what this fight means to you."’
"Simon Killar, tell us what this fight means to you."
By now, a few more pedestrians had stopped and were listening to the interview. The Scotsman, suddenly aware of the number of people listening to him, seemed to freeze. He nervously nodded his head a few times then, with a look of fiery-eyed determination, he prepared to speak, pausing as if loading a large gun with ammunition which he duly fired in a volley of staccato consonants and sliding vowels that sounded like everything you ever knew about Scotland rolled into one incomprehensible haggis of speech.
"Och, weeeeel, iiiiiim gonnnaaa eeeiiiiiarrr sipppp meee aaaiinn, n, n, n, mudderrrrr, an hooooo bifoooor fiffeeflooow doooon, eiieee tack tackbymee ooon haidddddd premonish, oop fer it."
"Sorry, sorry, sorry, Simon," said the producer, stepping forward. "Could you make a big effort to stand still and keep your head in one place and speak a little more slowly. I’m finding it hard to understand you and I’m sure our viewers will too. Otherwise it was fine. Take it again."
The presenter again checked the buttons on his suit, fixed his cheesy smile and creased his brow to camera in preparation for discussing such a momentously solemn subject as the British middleweight crown. One of Simon’s supporters shouted something in support so that when the interviewer turned to him he had his fist in the air and a big smile on his face, which under the presenter’s serious gaze froze back into its former pre-stuttering death mask. Simon fired again, this time saying something about his mother, which one of the sowf London boys heard as ‘murder’. In a deep black voice, about three octaves lower than the auditory bass range of a Blue Whale, the man – whose square head, shoulders, and knee-length coat gave the impression of a human cube raised on solid beefburger – called out to the other boxer, "’Ere Daniel, this geezer’s sayin’ ee’ll murder you." Daniel was about six feet away having his photograph taken, just pulling his jacket cuffs back far enough that the gold chains around both wrists visibly chimed with the gold rings on both hands, the chain round his neck, and the gold replacement teeth he had for the ones that had been knocked out. With all the gold on him, he looked like a pharaoh’s sarcophagus that had not been finished off yet. The look on his face changed instantaneously from that of big-eyed cuddly firm teddy-bear to snarling, mad-eyed man-monster. A needle-point of black light in his pupil grew suddenly into a tornado that shook his mini-dreadlocks like a Caribbean storm. His supporters around him, they moved towards the Scottish tribe in a pack, a primitive single-celled life form with outstretched arms and raised fists sniffing out its prey.
"’e said what, the cheeky git? I’ll get it on with you here and now you yellow scotch poof. Come on then, you won’t last a minute."
The only restraining influence on the London tribe was a white promoter who, forty years before, would have been running a gambling den and standing drinks for psycho-gangsters but was now a TV celebrity and boxing pundit. He ineffectually tried to hold them back by tugging at their jacket sleeves.
"Now, come on boys, keep it pretty for the press. Leave the aggro till you get in the ring."
When the London crew reached the Glasgow gang, there was a mêlée and ruckus the first casualty of which was the TV presenter who was ejected sideways holding his fingers over the bridge of his nose, from which blood was pouring down. The producer rushed to his aid with a handkerchief she pulled from the bag across her shoulder whilst screaming to the cameraman to keep filming. Ian stepped back from the fight and joined a group of pedestrians who’d stopped to watch the excitement, some of them laughing, others righteously condemning it but all of them unable to just walk away. Within a few seconds there were several bodies writhing around on the floor, seemingly now trying to separate the Glasgow Killar from the London Machete, who had pulled up the Scotsman’s trousers and was sinking his expensive gold teeth into the other man’s poor white calf. The Killar’s girlfriend had hold of Machete’s dreadlocks and was screaming hysterically, "Leave him alone or I’ll tear your eyes out you fookin’ animal." At this, Machete’s girlfriend, who was altogether more of a heavyweight, ran in from leftfield to rescue her man—a whirling flash of gold lamé, steel earrings, black flesh and red satin underwear, with one leg raised she aimed a waist-high kick at the other girl’s bare back. Within an inch of the target, her remaining supporting heel gave way and she tumbled forwards, her legs splayed in opposite directions, her leading heel burying itself randomly into the crush of bodies she now joined. From beneath the pile of writhing flesh, Machete’s voice shouted with suppressed pain, "Ow, my stomach, Kimberley you stupid cow. Get ‘er off me!"
One moment madness, the next sanity; as if the realisation sobered them up, that without a fighter there could be no fight, and without a fight there could be no title, and that without a title there could be no money, TV, celebrity, clubs, cars, black windows, white powder. The men disentangled themselves and reformed into their approximate groups, wiping their cut lips on their ripped shirt-sleeves, examining their grazed knuckles. Once they’d all got up, only Kimberley was left, silently sobbing, still doing the splits, unable to pull herself together. In between her sobs, the words, ‘It’s ripped’ dripped tearfully out and hit the stones.
"It’s only a dress. I’ll buy you ten," Machete consoled her, putting his arms around her chest to lift her up.
She screamed aloud, "No-oooo! My leg, it’s my leg—it’s ripped."
While they waited for the ambulance, the promoter managed to arrange a reconciliatory photo shoot on the steps of the hall, him smiling in the middle, the fighters on each side of him, their fists touching in the classic gesture of the noble sport. Then he gave an interview to the TV in which he mixed a tone of responsible concern for what had happened with one of enthusiastic hype for what was to come.
"What happened here today is totally unacceptable and has got nothing to do with boxing. Quite honestly, I was disgusted, and I’ve had a word with the boys and told them to keep their aggression for the ring tomorrow night. We want a clean fight, according to the Queensberry Rules so that we can restore the reputation of British boxing. Thank you."
Ian picked up his car from outside the flat and drove out to the M25 and the Psycholex building. Stuck in traffic, he turned on the radio for some voluntary tinnitus and in between records a gobby female DJ from up North was telling her male side-kick how she’d forgotten to wear knickers to work, and asked other listeners to phone, email or text with similar stories, "If you’ve come without yer caks, or even if you’ve coom in yer caks, we want to know!" By the time he got to the slip road off the motorway, there were idiots phoning in but they were interrupted by a News flash about a fight that had erupted at the publicity shoot for the boxing tomorrow night. They’d rushed a reporter to the scene which was now deserted but he’d spoken to an old man who said, ‘They all piled in. It was absolutely disgusting.’ The female jock managed to sound both shocked and approving at the same time. "Bleedin’ ‘eck, sounds like they wuz going for it, don’t it. Mind you, I like a good fight, don’t you, a good honest scrap, with gloves on mind, yer know, in the ring. Phone in an’ tell uz whether you think celebrities are setting a bad example, or should we just give ‘em more money."
Ian touched his id card against the wall-mounted reader and waited for the turnstile to click open. In the crowded lift a few people gave muted nods and good mornings to each other. Two of them knew each other.
"How’s it going?"
"Good, thanks. And you?"
"Moved into your new office yet?"
"Don’t like the wallpaper. It’s too bright."
"The chairman chose it, apparently."
Ian got to his office and all the other reps were out at clients, so he sat alone at his desk and looked around at the Mughal wallpaper, with its swirling arabesques and repeated geometric patterns in luscious purples and greens. Every twelve feet a pea-brained peacock looked out from the middle of a walled garden, seemingly pensive and expectant, ready to clumsily flap away at an imminent alarm. Its repeated eye seemed to observe you wherever you went. The functional noticeboards and posters had been put back in their original positions, covering up Akbar’s garden paradise with mundane information about sales figures and safety training, mission statements, and morale-boosting platitudes illustrated by crudely naturalistic photographs. The one behind Ian’s desk depicted a tropical sunset with a single-masted sailing boat sweeping into a palm fringed bay; mid way between the shore and the boat, a lone, intrepid swimmer caught with one arm raised in a vigorous freestyle sweep, supposedly illustrating the age-old wisdom Don’t wait for your ship to come in—swim out to meet it. Even the moron who designed that image must have realised the irrationality of having a swimmer swimming out to meet a large ship with huge flesh-slicing blades. Another one showed a man and a woman, hand in hand with eyes closed, leaping across a mountainous precipice; their joyous, confident faces, as they sailed blindly through the air supposedly meant Leap before you look, and together we can conquer the unknown. In Ian’s mind, they never made it: Road Runner-like, they reached the other side two feet too low, hit the rock wall and bumped down to the floor of a cactus-strewn valley where a lone buzzard watches over their paper-cutout indentations in the parched earth.
Ian was in limbo. Until the mystery of what had happened in Paris was cleared up, he couldn’t go out and visit clients like the other reps, but neither did he have anything to do in the office. How long would it go on for? What would satisfy them? What if he never found out? Would they let him carry on working there? Would anyone ever trust him again? His second appointment with Katherine was at ten-thirty and in the meantime he leaned back his executive chair and with his arms behind his head and his eyes shut he carried on trying to reconstruct his memories of Paris. The only thing he really saw clearly was that woman and child near the taxi rank. Why not the taxi ride and his arrival at the Leclerq building? Somewhere he had a Leclerq brochure with its photo of the corporate headquarters; maybe if he looked at that for a while, it would trigger his memory.
When he opened his eyes, he found Marik standing in front of his desk. Ian had seen him at a distance at company meetings, seminars, and social functions but they had never met face to face. Marik was staring at him intently but apologised quietly for disturbing him and made a joke about him being asleep.
"No, no, not at all, I was just thinking."
"I heard about what happened in Paris and Katherine is keeping me informed of your progress. It must be very disconcerting for you."
Ian grinned, bravely. "Yeah, a little, I suppose. It’s not normal, that’s for sure."
"Well, you have the company’s support. We’d like to know what happened as much as you did. If there’s anything you need in the meantime, or you need any time off, let me know."
"It’s a bit of a weird situation, but I’m feeling fine at the moment, thanks. I would like to start doing some real work again, though."
"I’ve spoken to your manager, John, about that and we think it best to wait until we know what actually happened before you go back out. For your own peace of mind, too."
"I appreciate that, but what if we never find out?"
"There must be an answer."
"You do believe me, don’t you?"
"I know that you were in Rotterdam, yes, but how you got there is…"
"Open to question. Let’s just leave it like that until Katherine has finished her investigation."
"Investigation? Is that what you think this is?"
Marik was too cunning to be hijacked in that way. "Whatever psychologists call what they do. But in the meantime, if you want to spend time at home, you can. Ring me personally if you discover anything important or you need to talk. Carl has asked me to take responsibility for this so I really need to be kept in the loop. I will talk to Katherine, but if you remember anything, no matter how trivial, I want you to tell me. Okay?"
"Okay, but at some point I’m going to have to forget about this and get on with my life. There are some mysteries that are never solved, you know."
Ian found the Leclerq brochure and went downstairs to Katherine’s office. It was a large office with her desk and filing cabinets at one end and at the other, near the large smoked-glass windows, an area for relaxing in, with a small coffee bar and four armless armchairs around a low table. When she called him to come in, he found her sat in one of the armchairs going through his notes. She was wearing reading glasses that he didn’t remember from last time, but maybe she was wearing lenses the last time. She had made a copy of the transcript for him to read and before she hypnotised him again she wanted to concentrate on what happened when he arrived at the Leclerq building and those strange phrases he used about Rotterdam. They both found the same place in the transcript.
"You see there, where it says, ‘Did someone meet you outside?’ and you say, ‘Someone who isn’t me.’ That’s a weird thing to say, but I think it means that someone did meet you. I think we need to try and clear that up because it’s crucial that we know if someone at Leclerq saw you arrive. The good thing is that you do remember arriving at the Leclerq building, because you remember it was black. Have you been able to remember anything else about that since?"
Ian thought, and slowly shook his head before answering. "No, I can’t remember much of what happened under the hypnosis, just trying to get a taxi and seeing a woman and child. Did I say I remembered the Leclerq building?"
"Yes, see page twenty-eight, you reply ‘Black’ to my question about what it looked like."
"Right, I don’t remember saying that."
"It’s likely you won’t remember anything that happened under the hypnosis, which is why we need to go through the transcripts and then you can consolidate your memories. Shut your eyes now and see if you can recover that impression you describe there."
He closed his eyes and there it was, a large black shiny building, like mirrored marble. And vaguely, he was aware of another figure near him holding out a hand, also in black, a black business jacket. He even started to hear the sound of a voice saying, ‘Welcome, mister Driss’. The more he intensified his mental effort to remember, the more the figure moved away, literally as if he was stepping back along the pavement out of view.
"Yeah, I can see that clearly now, the building at least, and there is a man there meeting me, holding out his hand, but I just can’t see his face. Every time I try to get closer to it, he moves away. Maybe if I look at the Leclerq brochure, it will help me visualise it better."
He picked up the brochure and turned to the inside back page with its glossy picture of the proud employees standing on the pavement outside a traditional stone building from the second Empire. Ian tilted it, as if trying to see around the back of the building for a black modern extension.
"That’s not the building I’m seeing. Maybe I’m wrong."
Katherine took the brochure and asked, "Do they only have the one office?"
"As far as I know, yes. But anyway, that’s the address I was going to because I took the brochure with me in my case."
"Did you show it to the taxi driver?"
"No, I just told him where I wanted to go. How weird."
Katherine made some notes and said that they would revisit the building under hypnosis. "Now, you appear to know nothing after that scene outside the building until you wake up in Rotterdam, apart from, and I’m totally non-plussed by this, these phrases here, you see, ‘awe sip’, ‘vessel’, ‘you witch’, and earlier, ‘jew finky nose’. Any idea?"
Ian laughed. "Jew finky nose—did I really say that? That’s funny."
"Well, that’s something I saw written in a dream just before I woke up in Rotterdam. It was written down the same as you have it but I think it should be ‘Dyou think he knows?’ It’s a question, you see, a kind of pun and there was a bit more to it in my dream."
"Why do you think it’s a pun?"
"Just because it sounds right, maybe in a foreign accent, Dutch or something."
"What was the other bit?"
Ian picked up a notepad and wrote it down: Jew finky nose-wearers bin? He passed it over to her and told her to read it out loud, just the sounds.
"Dyou think he nose wearers bin?"
"That’s it: Dyou think he know where he’s been?"
"Can you remember the dream?"
"Vaguely, although I didn’t write it down. I was being chased through an airport and I was riding one of those electric golf trolleys, you know they just crawl along and you want them to go fast, like bumper cars, you push the pedal to the floor but there’s no more power."
"Who was chasing you?"
"Dunno. I only remember that I flapped my arms and flew off."
Katherine sat back and exhaled, as if she’d been tensely holding in her breath for about three minutes.
"Phew, this gets stranger. I wonder if you actually heard somebody say that, while you were asleep maybe? And what about the other phrases, maybe they’re the same Let’s try them. Awe sip?"
"Vessel, I suppose. I was in a port."
"You witch, you witch… You wish, maybe, dunno. Vessel you wish. No idea."
"Okay, saving tea?"
"Saving tea, saving tea, saving tea." He tried it in different, crap theatrical accents, from Cornish to Scottish to German. "What’s the next word?"
"Saving tea hours? Seventy hours? That sounds like Dutch, doesn’t it?"
"I don’t know Dutch."
"Yes, they say it with a zed, like ‘zayvuntich’. That’s how long I was missing, about. What if there were some people there in Rotterdam, talking about me? Do you think he knows where he’s been? Seventy hours."
"We’ll have another go at that today. Do you want to start now?"
"Yes, but this bit here, what’s that all about? Subject appears to cry. They just walked away. What’s that?"
"The mother and child. Why?"
"I know, but why did I cry? And why did I cry at the end when I said ‘awe sip’?"
"It may be that you associate that image of the mother and child with some other memories you have, possibly traumatic, but not necessarily. It could be something as simple as you and your mother."
"I don’t remember my mother. She died when I was very young."
"There may still be an unconscious memory there that could be found."
"Do you think?"
"Yes, but whether or not you want to do that, I don’t know."
"I would love to have a memory of my mother. Do you think you could find it?"
"I don’t think we should even consider that in this context. I could recommend a psychiatrist outside who could help you deal with that, if you want. Think about it when all this is over. Now, let’s try hypnotising you again."
When Ian came out of hypnosis, the room was calm. He opened his eyes and Katherine was still sat opposite him. He didn’t feel the need to smile. He could remember nothing of the session,
"How long was that?"
"Not long. About thirty minutes"
"Interesting. I’ll type up the transcripts tonight and we can go over them tomorrow. We have a face for the man who met you in Paris. Again, nothing between then and Rotterdam but something more in Rotterdam. I think ‘awe sip’ refers to a person, maybe their name. You mumbled something like ‘awe sip shoved me away’, so maybe he, or she, saved you from something or you approached him and were rejected. Maybe you were looking for help."
Ian felt dispirited, as if he was at the beginning of a long trail he didn’t want to be on and would rather turn around and go home.
"I’m not sure I really want to do this anymore."
She held her clipboard and the sheaf of his notes up against her chest. Her voice was low, as if she was speaking with the utmost sensitivity. "I can understand that. But, depending on what did happen to you, you may have no choice. It may come out in other ways. Dreams, for example, or mood changes, or you may simply find yourself becoming nihilistic. Sometimes just knowing that something unknown and mysterious happened to you can disrupt your well-being at a very deep level. I won’t call it unconscious because that’s not quite what I mean, but just knowledge of a lapse can produce a deep disquiet and restlessness in your mind that can only be resolved by the passage of time, or by unearthing those experiences in a satisfying and meaningful way. I mean, something very significant has happened to you, around which your imagination is capable of weaving all kinds of stories and apprehensions. Depending on how sensitive you are to such imaginings, this could cause you problems. So I would recommend that you persist for a bit longer. I’m sure that we can find the solution to this. We may have to hire a private detective to find out how you got from Paris to Rotterdam, whether you flew, took the train, or travelled in a car, and that might give us a lot more information which along with the hypnosis will provide you with some kind of closure."
"I don’t understand why the company hasn’t done that already, hired a detective to find out what I did that day in Paris, how the room in Rotterdam was booked, and all the rest. Surely that’s the place to start."
"That would be up to Marik. I think they want to try this first. Marik has a military background, and he tends to be suspicious. He may even think that you’re lying about not remembering. I mean, you did score low on the Ryder Test."
Ian smirked. "Which one, A or B?"
"Are there two?"
"Yes. I volunteered for the pre-release tests and did both of them. Ryder A tests for ethical malleability and Ryder B tests for suggestibility."
She looked surprised. "I didn’t know about Ryder B. When did you take those?"
"A couple of months back. I think all the reps did them."
"Have you taken it again since you came back from Paris?"
"It doesn’t matter. I must have got it wrong. Right, I’ll take the tapes back with me and type them up and we can meet again tomorrow, unless you want to leave a day in between."
Ian was beginning to enjoy the time he spent with her and didn’t want to postpone their next meeting. "No, tomorrow is fine by me. Same time?"
"Okay." She smiled at him, still protecting her breasts with the clipboard.
He didn’t want to move. In fact, the hypnosis had left him with a lazy, relaxed feeling that was morphing into a faintly erotic warmth towards her. He looked in her eyes, expecting it to be reciprocated by a primitive transference.
She raised her eyebrows and with a matter of fact, tight mouth said, "Any other questions?"
He was jolted awake, by the incipient bulge in his trousers and the proximity of social embarrassment. He stood up. "No, that was good, thanks. I was wondering how much I should tell Marik."
She followed him to the door. "Why Marik?"
"He asked me to tell him everything, no matter how trivial."
The shadow of a smile swept across her face and was gone, leaving a riffled surface of intrigue behind her eyes. "Don’t bother about that. I’ll talk to him, and let him know how we’re getting on."
That evening Ian was unusually tired. He’d got back to his flat and intended to cook for himself but lay down on the sofa and fell asleep with the TV on. About ten o’clock the News impinged on his sleep and he woke up with his head in a swirl to hear the item on the fight at the boxing promotion. One of our reporters was injured today when an ugly fight broke out at an event supposed to promote a boxing match. Apparently one of the boxers had threatened to murder the other one and a fight ensued in which four people were injured. The girlfriend of Daniel Machete was taken to hospital with a torn ligament in her knee. They replayed the fight in slow motion and as it progressed, some off-screen computer wizard drew circles around fists and feet as they connected with other people. The snarling face of the Killar’s girlfriend was freeze-framed as she pulled back the head of Machete and called him something that was bleeped out. Then they zoomed in so that we could see the moment when Kimberley’s knee was ripped out of kilter. They even turned up the sound as if it was possible to hear it tearing inside the flesh, but all that was audible was her broken heel scraping along the stone, followed by two loud cries, one from her and one from the Machete. When they returned to the studio, the atmosphere was funereal. The newsreader shook her head in disbelief, ‘You’ll be pleased to know that our reporter only suffered a nosebleed and a black eye’. Then with a subtle change of mood, suitable for an upbeat infoglobule, she segued into, ‘And you can see that fight live tomorrow night, only on this channel’.
The edge taken off his tiredness, Ian went to bed and lay in the dark thinking about the session with Katherine. He wondered if he’d been suffering from some kind of delayed shock about what had happened, because his initial reaction was to laugh it off as something very unusual which he could just forget about, especially if the doctors could find nothing wrong with him and he had not been injured in any way. But as they discovered more clues to what had happened, he felt increasingly uneasy about it, as if some injustice had occurred or he had been taken advantage of. He tried to analyse why he felt like that rather than simply disturbed by having a gap in his memory and he concluded that it was the sensation of being at the mercy of those other shadowy figures who had been revealed under hypnosis—the man at the Leclerq building, the two invisible interlocutors in Rotterdam who talked about him, the ‘awe sip’ character. It was that which made him feel uneasy, that he had been powerless while they took responsibility for him. What did they do? What did they make him do? Manipulating someone else in that way could only be done with an evil intention. The longer he looked at it in that way, the more it seemed as if a crime had been committed against him, one that he had no proof for, no real evidence that it had even occurred. But the intuition was there, an uncanny sense that something bad had happened, which was worse than if he’d had conscious knowledge that something bad had actually happened. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that this was being handled in the wrong way and that the police should have been called in straight away or, at the least, a private detective who could provide a thorough examination of the facts. Once the facts were known, then they could try to fill in the blanks using his hypnosis sessions. Tomorrow, after seeing Katherine again, he would go and talk to Marik about it.
With that resolved he went back to thinking about Ali. Would she be wondering why he hadn’t phoned her when he got in like he normally did? Did she expect him to or was that a reflection of his own sense of duty? He didn’t want to have a sense of duty or necessity, he wanted things to happen naturally, from desire not routine. He tried to separate those strands from out of their relationship, what they did out of routine and what they did from desire. He couldn’t extricate them. If he didn’t phone her out of routine, how long would it be before he did so out of desire? A day, three days, a week? Or would it be out of need, because he had to have a female presence in his life?
He went back over their relationship to the day he met her, to trace its development. When they met, she was going out with a friend of his called Spaz, which was not short for ‘spastic’, like everyone thought, but was a compression of his family name which was something Turkish. Spaz was a photographer who didn’t make enough money to support himself so worked as a motorcycle courier, which gave him a lot of opportunities to take photos out and about in town. He was definitely on the up and building a reputation for himself but had not yet broken through in a big enough way to command large prices for his work, but all his friends knew that it was just a matter of time. Everyone saw in him the talent, the drive, and the determination to succeed. He was also single-minded in his desire, so that the rest of his life and relationships were organized around his work, not just practically but mentally. Photography had become the organizing principle of his life and he didn’t crave anything outside of it—everything else just came along, and normally went, he didn’t try to hold onto it.
This was true of his girlfriends as well. There was always one, but not for long. When Ian joked about it, Spaz would reply, "It’s just not worth the effort keeping them." The night Ian met Ali, they’d all been at a party together and Ian already got the sense that Spaz was getting ready to abandon her, because at the party he just left her to her own devices while he stayed out on the balcony and talked work with a load of media people. Ian and Ali spent the night talking, mixing in with other groups. She was very funny and quite cutting, in an almost offensive way which he found amusing. Most of the other women there were dressed up but Ali was dressed down in black jeans and a red T-shirt. Her hair was short and spiked, so she looked quite punky. At one point in the evening they were alone together and then she seemed different, less spiky and witty, more sensitive, as if she was sensing him, intuiting what he was like.
He didn’t see anything more of her for about three weeks and then was surprised when Spaz told him that he was moving in with her because he could no longer afford to keep up his flat and his studio.
"It’s much easier. I just move all my stuff to my studio and live with her."
"But do you want to live with her?"
"What does that matter? I’ll hardly be there."
So Ian started going around there occasionally to see Spaz but when Spaz wasn’t in, he would stop and talk to Ali. Gradually, he noticed the atmosphere between Spaz and Ali getting worse and worse, as if they’d just had a huge argument which was still hanging in the air, so that Ian was either talking individually to Spaz or Ali but never both. And then the day came that Ian went around and Spaz was gone; that morning, he’d just packed his clothes and left. Not only had he left her, he’d left London and moved to Sydney, where he’d been offered some lucrative work. When Ian rung him on his mobile and asked why he didn’t tell anyone he was going, he replied, "Sorry, mate, it all happened too quickly. I just had to take it."
He felt sorry for Ali, the way that Spaz had used her, but he also liked her and enjoyed the evenings they spent together drinking wine and listening to music. So he just carried on going over there after Spaz was gone. And then they started going out together, to the pictures, for meals, and to the odd party, but they never slept together, which Ian found strange because it wasn’t as if he hadn’t dropped hints and made the odd attempt. Like the night they’d come in from the pictures and drunk a bottle of wine with the lights down low, lying on the floor listening to music, and he put his leg across hers and started stroking her face. She didn’t stop him; she didn’t make any sign of recognition; she just let him do it, but as soon as his hand moved down to her breast, she just moved it away with her hand. It was all done without words and so little resistance that there was no way he could be offended or it could affect their relationship. But he did wonder where all this was going and she must have been thinking about it too because the next night together she told him she was pregnant with Spaz’s baby and that she’d known it for a month, which was why the atmospheres and ultimately why Spaz ran away. But she was going to keep the baby, because she was ‘over thirty’ and this might be her only chance.
Ian thought about the enormity of that decision, the inevitable financial hardship it would bring, the awesome responsibility for another life for the next at least eighteen years and his respect and affection for her increased. It was after that they started sleeping together, as if she’d squared it with her conscience by telling him the facts and that she was in no way deceiving him. She’d made it clear that she was going to have the baby on her own and was therefore not looking for support. One night they were sitting together on the sofa watching a film and he just got the urge to cuddle up with her, so he did it without asking and she let him. Within ten seconds, they were kissing and within five minutes their clothes were off and they were in the bedroom and the bedclothes were on the floor. They stayed in bed the whole of that weekend, talking, watching the skies change out the window, and having sex.
He was with her throughout the pregnancy, helping her get the flat ready for the arrival of the baby. Being pregnant made her randier, as if the full physicality of that experience released some residual inhibition from her. Maybe it was a background instinctive fear of becoming pregnant that, once removed, made her give herself to him whenever he wanted, even casually; sometimes while she was in the kitchen he would walk up behind her and start playing with her breasts and she would lean her head back on his chest and then he would just lift up her loose dress and play with her until she lent over the table and he took her from behind. It was the sex men dream of: casual, quick and perfunctory. But it was just one part of their relationship and at night they would lay for hours in each other’s arms, not speaking. As the silence grew, it had its own presence, a mystery which felt like being close to nature, as if you were suddenly at one with the rhythms of the earth, the seasons of whipped clouds and changing skies, a family member with all the beings who come into existence, enjoy, suffer, and then are gone.
When she got big, he stopped wanting to have sex with her, which he thought was something to do with it being another man’s baby in there. They’d talked about it and he’d said, "It’s like I’m firing my sperm against the head of another man’s child."
"God, your imagination is so foetid. Wear a condom if it bothers you."
He got the feeling that it was something to do with Spaz, as if Spaz had left a mark of ownership on Alison and that Ian was an interloper, a cuckoo in the nest, who had no real right to be there. In a strange way he felt that Spaz was laughing at him, for being the one who got left holding another man’s baby. He knew that all of this was totally irrational, and he wouldn’t tell Ali about it, but it bothered him nevertheless. It made him pull back from the relationship; he’d never decided to become a surrogate father and even though Ali had no desire for him to be one, he felt that that was what he was becoming. He carried on going around there just as often; they slept together and kissed, but he stopped penetrating her. Instead they used to masturbate each other, or themselves, lying side by side, and sometimes when she was in the bath he would go in to wash her back and massage her breasts with the soap and she would end by sucking him off as he stood next to the bath, swallowing his come as if it was an essential nutrient for her growing baby.
The day the baby was born, he went to the hospital with her and bought her flowers. She named the baby Cameron, after her father, although he had Spaz’s olive complexion. He asked her if she was going to try and inform Spaz, and she replied, "Why? He knows how long nine months is."
For the first few weeks, he was around at hers all the time, getting shopping for her, cooking when she couldn’t be bothered. He used to hold Cameron while she got the changing mat ready or went to clean up a really messy nappy, but he resisted behaving as if he was his father, consciously resisting paternal affection. About six weeks after the baby was born, they started having sex again, which was when he really started to feel panicky about where the relationship was going. He stayed over less, saying that he wanted to ‘keep his freedom’, whatever that was, and that he was starting to ‘feel trapped’. That was when he adopted his ‘twice a week’ rule about staying over, which broke down pretty consistently and then he would reinstate it. She had her hands full with Cameron and because her girlfriends used to come around most nights of the week, she was happy to see him whenever. Then when he wasn’t with her, he thought about her, and when he thought about her, he wanted to see her, and when he saw her, he wanted to stay over with her. Which was how it became a routine, but a routine based on affection, for Cameron now, as well as her. Although that was good, the thing that troubled him most was that they’d never fallen in love: they’d got to know each other as friends, drifted into a relationship, enjoyed being with each other but neither of them would describe it as falling in love. In the fourteen months since Cameron was born, their relationship had swelled and subsided, mostly at his volition. It was based on real affection and when he asked himself if he loved her, he would answer ‘yes’, but if he asked himself if he’d fallen in love, the answer was ‘no’. He’d tried to explain this to her, when he refused to come around one night and she was exasperated by his unpredictable behaviour, but her take on it was completely different: why do you need to have a label? It’s a mystery, just live with it!
And now there was Katherine. He knew that if really was in love with Ali, Katherine would never even enter his head. It was only the fact that he was still looking, was still vulnerable, that made him think about her. That was why he hadn’t phoned Ali tonight; not because he was tired, or worried about what he now called ‘the Rotterdam case’, but because there was an undercurrent of Katherine in his thoughts that was sheering him away from Alison. That immediately felt like betrayal, not the absence of a phone call but the implication behind it.
With these thoughts on his mind he went to sleep and had a lucid dream in which he walked through the soulless empty wasteland of the Rotterdam docks, lost amongst dead machinery, searching for affection. On a piece of rough ground he tried to have sex with Katherine on some wet cardboard while the rain came down. In a broken hut with a missing roof, Ali was breastfeeding Cameron and watching them. At the periphery was an anonymous figure called ‘awe sip’, a featureless man, monstrous and threatening, patrolling the margins like a jackal, waiting for an opportunity to devour.
If you run in the morning, you’ll die without warning. No, that was wrong. Carl tried to think of another rhyme like the ‘red sky at night’ one. It was six in the morning and he was already in the gym, pounding the running machine. The sun was up and made shadows of the gym machinery on the blue floor behind him and slanted angles on the ochre walls. If you run in the morning, you’ll be outperforming. No, that didn’t make sense. Carl had never been good with words, although he was writing a book. It wasn’t words he’d never been good with, it was poetry. He could write reports, and long reports, and even papers. He could write a long report and call it a chapter and put those chapters together in a book. That was business; he’d always done that. They taught them to do that at school, at college, and at business school. Everyone in business could do that. But there was something more he wanted, that he couldn’t get, which was to be ‘expressive’. He’d tried it at Junior school, in English, when they’d had to write poems about things that mattered to them and he’d written a poem about his dog whose name was Scratch. He loved that dog, better than any friend, and he wrote the poem to it, which began, ‘Scratch you’re my partner, When I wake up each day…’ He also wrote poems to his mother, his grandmother, his dad, the weather, the bush, the creek behind their house, the Australian flag, the beach, and a girl called Anita. That was when he was eight, but then they stopped doing that; not just him, everyone, he thought, although he didn’t know. Maybe some of them carried on writing and expressing themselves into adulthood and got that same feeling of the world coming alive inside you and finding a form in lines that rhymed. Stanzas, his English teacher corrected him, not verses.
Him and his mates stopped writing stanzas and took up sports, then girls, and then business. Then they all grew up and wrote reports, some of which were stuffed with jargon and punctuated with bullet points; others were to the point but punctuated with jargon. Others were just instructions for someone else to do something. That reminded him: he hadn’t had that list from Marik that he asked for. He’d have to ring him later. Carl had almost run his regular two miles and felt this great surge of positivity towards the coming day, an urge to get on with it. It was this feeling that had carried him through his life and had helped him be successful, he was sure of that: the power of a positive outlook—he had devoted a whole chapter in his book to it. Keep a clear head, a good regime, deal straight with people, roll with the punches, get up fighting, keep it simple, don’t make problems where there are none, enjoy your gifts and count your blessings, pay all your debts and keep it steady. That was his philosophy, which he hadn’t really thought about that much until he came to write his book. Because he was writing from a position of success, he thought he should have something to impart, to advise others on how to replicate his success; not just his, but all the wonderful business leaders he’d met throughout his career, the visionaries who were able to take great risks and reap great rewards. The men and women who made his milieu such an exciting place to be.
But as he’d started researching his book, digging into all this stuff he was quoting from – Mahatma Gandhi to Thomas Aquinas – he started thinking there was more to it than he’d thought, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was like, it was like, there was another you looking at you through a window; another you that knew so much more about you than you did yourself. You thought you knew a lot but you knew almost nothing. Or, or, or, or (the running machine slowed his pace for the last 100 metres), or you only knew about the world you’d chosen, not the worlds you’d rejected, like the poetry one. Carl realised that there were people who knew things he could never know, because it was a different kind of knowledge. It didn’t depress him; it intrigued him. He went at it with his usual optimism: ‘Hey! there’s a whole world of mystery out there, and I’m going to explore it.’
From the running machine he went to the pool and did fifty lengths, the blue water gliding off his body as he swam the Australian crawl with the compact efficiency that distinguishes the splashing amateur from the seasoned second-nature swimmer, the one whose rhythm never varies and who executes a duck turn after exactly twenty-two strokes. Through his goggles he saw the tiled floor of the pool behind a trail of bubbles, then as he breathed to the side, the green wall with the aluminium rescue pole flexed across it like a brushstroke of silver ink, then when he breathed to the other side, the splayed tropical fingers of the indoor plants, the windows onto the garden, a morning sky whitened by light. That was what it was like, seeing into another world, a quiet one beneath the waves; and then, breaking the surface, the whale’s eye, at slopping sea-level, observes a ship with men on it, a piece of green land, the waving trees. It rolls to one side to get a better look, then sinks again, back to its familiar domain. Carl finished his swim with some rolling, stretching, and breathing exercises in the deep end, holding his knees and turning somersaults under water. Without sound, the world seemed unfamiliar. That was the word he’d been looking for; it had been lurking on the margins since he’d started his sabbatical, developing a presence of its own, like that other’s face outside the window. He’d stepped outside of his familiar world and was beginning to discover that there was an unfamiliar one that was parallel to his own, and always there. There were things he didn’t understand or had been too busy to notice, like Ben; he’d need to learn again how to live with them. He’d have to start from scratch.
Carl put on his robe without drying off and padded with still-wet legs through the house, towards their bedroom. In the downstairs hallway, pausing to remove a dead leaf from the Philodendron, he looked along the corridor and saw Frances and Ben standing in the kitchen. They were having a long hug and Frances was stroking Ben’s head, which was rested against her shoulder. He watched them for a moment, thinking whether to call out ‘Good morning!’ but he was intrigued by their intimacy: he hadn’t hugged Ben since he was about eleven and it was something he missed. He regretted not being able to show him affection in that way. After five seconds, he felt like a peeping-tom and carried on up to the bedroom to get changed. From the upstairs window he watched as down on the lower lawns two of the gardeners held a voluble discussion about something, both of them vigorously pointing at the ground, pacing around, bending down, their faces animated by doubt and conviction as they tried to persuade each other of something. What? Carl opened the window, ostensibly to let in some air, but really so he could hear what they were talking about, but it was impossible: they were too far away.
He opened his wardrobe and looked at his clothes, choosing some light brown trousers and a blue shirt. Although he hadn’t had to wear a suit for months, he couldn’t stand working in clothes that were too casual; jeans and T-shirts he saved for the weekend, even though there was no real difference between those days and the rest of the week. He needed some kind of demarcation, some sense of routine, otherwise everything just rolled into one. By the time he got down to the kitchen, Frances and Ben had already started breakfast.
"There’s some toast on the side, if you want some," she said, while nibbling the corner of her own and reading the paper.
"Thankyou, darling, but I think I’ll have muesli. Everyone is up bright and early today. How are you, Ben? What have you got planned for today?"
"I’m just going over to Amreeta’s for a swim and then a load of us are going into town. Danny’s dad owns a karting track and if it’s not busy we can all go on for nothing."
"That’s fantastic!", said Carl, sitting next to him at the table. He grabbed Ben boisterously around the shoulders. "You’ll be driving like Michael Schumacher, I bet." He felt Ben pulling himself away, embarrassed. "And what about you Frankie? Are you around?"
"Oh, I have to go to this stupid meeting with a boring man from the Just Life building society. I shouldn’t be horrible, he’s very sweet, but he just goes on and on about money all the time, while we’re trying to tell him about what we do. But he wants to give us some so I shouldn’t complain."
Carl thought about his empty study and the computer that waited for him. "What time are you going?"
"Oh, not until eleven o’clock."
His face cheered up. "Do you fancy a game of tennis? We haven’t played for a couple of weeks."
"Oh, darling, what a great idea. Do you think the grass will be dry enough?"
"I just saw the gardeners out on the lawns and it looked quite dry. It should be fine."
"Let’s do that then. Oh, I’m so pleased you suggested that. I really need to get out and beat a ball around."
Carl felt pleased with himself. Everyone was happy. "Ben, do you fancy coming fishing with me this weekend?"
"Er, no dad, I’m vegetarian remember?"
"I didn’t know that. How long have you been vegetarian?"
"I’ve been vegetarian for ages, about two months. Mum told you."
"You didn’t tell me that, Frankie."
"Yes I did! You weren’t listening, probably."
"And you don’t even eat fish?"
Carl shook his head. There was no point in arguing about it because he always lost arguments with Frances and Ben; Frances because she knew more than him and was normally right; Ben because he was capable of being totally illogical and wilful when necessary. "So we can’t go fishing together, then?"
"Well, er, no, dad. I mean, fish die when you catch them, don’t they?"
"We could throw them back."
"It’s still cruel."
Was it cruel? How many brain cells did a fish have? How complex was its nervous system? Did it scream? Carl didn’t know the answers to any of those questions and wouldn’t have thought of asking them. Basic things like that he tried to keep consistent with what he’d done while he was growing up, which had served him well and kept him even. He saw no need to change them.
"Is Amreeta a vegetarian?"
"Her whole family are, it’s really cool."
Carl finished his muesli while Frances read the obituaries. Ben sat there, idly pushing a trail of sugar to the edge of the table with the side of his hand and watching it slip over the edge onto the floor. Carl watched him, bemused. Ben was in his own world, like a child ten years younger, playing. From Carl’s perspective, it was a strange thing to do, but the longer he looked at him doing it, he could see the sense in it: it was no different to when Carl took pleasure in tipping the golf ball over the edge of the hole with his putter. Ben finished what he was doing, rubbed the remaining sugar grains from his hand, shook his head and was back in the land of the living.
"Mum, can I have some money please?"
Carl arranged to meet Frances at the front door in twenty minutes and went off to check his email. There was one from Marik: bad news about Comspac—the President, Vice President, and CFO had all been arrested on multiple charges of fraud, false accounting and destruction of evidence. Carl searched through his book for all references to Comspac and found several, the most difficult to remove being the one in the Trust chapter:
At Comspac, partners strive to achieve the highest ratings in their work as ‘trusted business advisors’. It’s a short phrase but an immense responsibility to fulfil, since trust is of paramount concern to their many clients worldwide.
Bugger. He was sure he could find another example but it would have to be someone rock-solid that would still be around when the book came out in twelve months time. But Comspac were solid until two weeks ago: what was going on? He deleted the offending text and closed the document. Cockney Cursor jumped up and said, Oy mate, you left something dodgy on the clipboard. Do you wanna keep it for later? Carl clicked ‘No Thanks’.
Carl and Frances met by the front door in their tennis whites and stopped to look at the changes to the garden on their way to the court. The gardens were always changing and although Frances tried to talk to the gardeners at least once a week, there was no way she could know about everything. Today, some clumps of semi-mature Pampus grass had been planted near the Japanese garden, but she thought its razor-sharp leaves were too close to the path.
"Oh, this is no good, it will scratch people. I do wish they’d ask me before they do something like that."
And then, behind the bushes, she noticed a man standing on one leg with his back against a tree. "Carl, what is that man doing there?"
"Oh, that’s Peter, the new gardener."
"I know who he is, but what is he doing?"
"He’s probably meditating, to get closer to the garden."
Peter hadn’t heard them. As they watched, he lifted a silver flute to his lips and began playing something vaguely Indian, which echoed through the trees and momentarily silenced the birds, who then began to sing back in competition.
"Why isn’t he working? That’s what we pay him for. I’m going to talk to George about him."
"Oh, don’t do that. I’ll have a word with him. I’ve spoken to him already."
"Nothing. I just met him while I was walking around the garden. He seems like a good bloke."
They carried on walking to the tennis court, arm in arm, laughing about the flute-playing gardener. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d had a strange gardener; one of the previous ones had lived in the potting shed for three months before anyone found out. He used to wash and shave in there and kept his clothes in a cardboard box in one of the greenhouses. When Frances found out and asked him to stop doing it, he merely replied, ‘I’d rather not’, and walked away. It carried on like that for at least another month until they had the locks changed, because nobody wanted to sack him. But within a week he had another set of keys and was back, living in the potting shed with only a radio for company. Again, when asked to move out, he replied, ‘I’d rather not’ until finally they did sack him because they could think of nothing else to do. Carl and Frances were still laughing about it as they began knocking up.
Tennis was one of the games, including cricket, rugby and football, that Carl got good at in his youth. He’d never had formal coaching but him and his friends would be permanently on court during the summer months, even if they were only messing around playing fun matches with their own rules. Conversely, Frances had been formally coached but had not played as much; her shots were pure textbook, from the circular sweep of both arms when she prepared to serve to the way she stepped cleanly in to every shot with her nose directly over the toes of her leading foot and her racket finishing above her shoulder with the elbow pointing forwards. She would execute these shots, mechanically over and over again without variation, whereas Carl was a street-fighter who liked to improvise, playing unorthodox shots from ridiculous angles, frequently off-balance and falling backwards. He seemed to derive a schoolboy pleasure from making the game as difficult and dramatic as possible, and although Frances used to get irritated losing to him, she openly enjoyed his childish delight at pulling off seemingly impossible shots. And then there were the ‘diplomatic incidents’, which is what they called their exchanges over the disputed line calls. Carl would argue these just long enough to irritate Frances – ‘No, it was definitely out, darling’ – when he would concede with good humour and a secret delight in knowing that he would now have to summon all his reserves of ingenuity and faux acrobatics in order to beat her. He could normally do this just by increasing the power of his serve by twenty percent, or executing a few subtle cross-court drop shots, but sometimes he let the game get away from him and there was no way to pull it back. Even this satisfied him, because it meant that there was an equilibrium of winning and losing that pleased them both.
Today was one of those days when Carl had let things go too far and had to retrieve three match points. Having played a poor shot to the middle of the court, he hung back on the base line, expecting Frances to play one of her predictable forehand drives into the back of the court. She shaped up for the shot but at the last moment adjusted it to play a drop shot on the side line. Carl read her body language and realised where the ball was going; his face wore the expression of an eager, exuberant hunting dog as he set off to fetch it. The ball had bounced once and was almost at the bottom of the arc of its second, match-winning, bounce when Carl launched himself through the air and arrived with his racket outstretched like a cartoon waiter trying to save a precious toppling Ming vase. Instinctively repeating a shot him and his friends had played a million times at the Murrawonga Country Club, he executed a perfect cross-court drop before rolling twice and coming to a halt up against the net post. He jumped quickly to his feet, wiping the dust from his shirt with a look of delight on his face.
"Did you see that?"
Frances was already walking towards the net for the end-of-match handshake. "Yes, very impressive, but it was out."
Carl looked downcast. "Are you sure? I thought it was right on the line."
"Yes, but you couldn’t see, could you, because you were lying on the floor behind the post."
"I saw it go over, darling, and it looked well in to me."
"Yes, but it wasn’t. It dropped out."
"Well, where did the ball stop?"
They looked over but there was no sign of the ball. Carl walked around the net to look for it and found it had fallen into a deep, ball-sized hole between the tramlines.
"Hell, it’s gone down a hole. How did that get there?"
He put his hand down and pulled the ball out. "It must be at least a foot deep."
They stood, in silence, looking into the hole.
"It must be a rabbit," said Frances, eventually.
"That’s no rabbit. It’s too narrow. I bet that Ben has been digging here again."
Frances started to lose her temper. "Carl, don’t be ridiculous. Why on earth would Ben dig a hole in the tennis court? You always think the worst of him."
"I don’t darling, but I told you I saw him digging near the Beech trees."
"Well, just because he was digging near the Beech trees doesn’t mean he would dig up the tennis court. You are so annoying sometimes. Come on, let’s go back up. I’ll ask George to fill it in. Or you can ask him—I have to get ready to go into town. And tell him to have a word with Peter about not playing his flute at work. Good god, I’m surrounded by crazy people," she said imperiously, zipping her racket in its case and walking off in the direction of the house.
Carl, slightly hang-dog about losing the match on such an energetic shot, went up to the gardeners’ shed to find George, who was pricking out the seedlings for the summer beds.
"George, there’s a hole about a foot deep on the tennis court."
"Is there now?" George looked up briefly from what he was doing but didn’t think it needed more attention than that.
Carl never understood why George didn’t communicate more. What’s wrong with words? "Do you know what could have caused it?"
"Now there’s a question."
Yes, thought Carl, there is a question, now answer it. George sort of answered it.
"I’ll be going down there later."
"So you’ll look at it then."
"Since I’m down there, I might as well look at it."
Exasperated, Carl was about to leave when he remembered he’d promised to say something about Peter. He didn’t want to, and it made him feel uncomfortable, not because he wasn’t used to dealing with employees – he’d been doing that most of his adult life – but because it was Peter. There was something about him, the air of an ascetic, of someone who has been hurt by the world and is in voluntary retreat, something…vegetarian, that made you not want to cause him harm.
George stayed busy about his plants without answering.
"Did you know that Peter plays his flute in the gardens?"
George stopped what he was doing and looked dreamily into space. "That’s a difficult instrument. I have a niece who plays one. Beautiful it is, when she gets going. But sometimes it takes her a while to start."
Carl was starting to wonder what it was about gardeners. "Technically, he shouldn’t do it during work time. Hell, I think it’s great that he can be creative in that way but he should only do it outside of working hours. We don’t mind him playing it in the gardens if he wants to." Carl wasn’t sure that Frances didn’t mind it, but he would find a way around that, if it arose.
"Okay, I’ll tell him, when he comes back to work."
"What do you mean, comes back?"
"It’s his day off today, every Thursday. He comes in Saturday instead, you see, to do the watering."
"But I just saw him, an hour ago, near the Japanese garden, playing his flute."
George put down the pencil he was using to prick out the roots and pushed his cap back and scratched beneath his thin grey hair.
"Ah, he’s a strange lad, our Peter. Keen gardener though."
Carl backed out the shed and mumbled goodbye. He went and looked at the cloches that sheltered the young strawberry plants, next to neat furrows of ash in which the asparagus was grown. Then he found himself looking at the large compost heap from which eddies of heavily scented air smoked out. Inexplicably, someone had dumped a large cheese on top of it. It was riddled with holes, blue and mouldy and one corner of the circle was missing as if a wild animal had gnawed it and left teeth marks. Someone else had dumped a load of grass cuttings on top, which had rolled sideways and fallen down the slope like the sweepings from a hairdressers floor, losing the identity of where they had grown. Carl looked at his watch and recovered his sense of time: ten-fifteen. Instead of going back to the house, to the empty study full of noisy thoughts and words, he took the circular route through the Beech wood and up through the Japanese garden. He was hoping to meet Peter.
The woods must have been at least three hundred years old, and the huge trees seemed to be imbued with a presence, as if they were contemplating. Really, it was Carl’s mind that was contemplating but in his heightened state it seemed that everything had a presence, not just the trees. It must have been that Emerson he’d been reading; some line about ‘when I walk beneath the trees, it seems they drip dark thoughts on to me’. Was it Emerson? He made a mental note to check it when he got back. At the bottom of the woods he was near the spot where he’d seen Ben digging, and went to have another look, in case there was any other evidence. The hole had grown over and filled in; already the black soil was almost green, covered with a mat of moss, lichen and the tender pale stalks of new weeds. While he stood there watching it he became aware, ‘out the corner of his eye’, of someone watching him. He looked up and saw Peter, lying on a blanket, his flute by his side, smoking a roll-up. Peter waved at him and said, ‘Hi!’. That was democracy for you: everyone says ‘Hi’. If you meet the President or the King, say ‘Hi!’; if you meet the man who owns your company, say ‘Hi!’; if superior beings come down from outer space to inspect your progress, say ‘Hi!’; if God comes down in disguise and then reveals himself, say ‘Hi!’ and ask him if he’s doing okay.
Carl replied, "Yes, fine thanks. What about you? It’s a nice day."
Peter blew some smoke from his nostrils as he nodded in agreement. Carl noticed what looked like a bag of marijuana next to his tobacco tin, which Peter then hid with a large notebook that he’d been writing in.
"I thought you were off today," said Carl, cheerfully.
"I was cycling past. I thought I’d stop off for a while. It’s quiet here."
Carl nodded. He looked around a bit, at the path leading off to the thicket gate in the fields beyond. "Were you playing a flute earlier?"
Peter tapped his flute and smiled.
"What was that song you were playing?"
"Just something I made up."
Carl nodded. He looked towards the sound from the Japanese waterfall that joined that garden to this wood.
"Have you been writing?"
"Yeah. Thinking really."
Carl looked at the white page of the book with it’s regular pattern of lines and spaces. "Is that poetry?"
Peter nodded his head and looked up at the tree tops, as if he was especially pleased with the sun coming through.
"What do you write about?"
"Hmm, everyday stuff, you know, about what happens to me, what I think about, nature and stuff. Do you write?"
"No, not poetry. I’m working on a book."
Peter thought about that, and a silence later he said, "You’re working on it," like he’d been comparing that to working on the garden. "And how’s it going?"
"Very good," said Carl. "In fact, I’m almost finished."
Peter picked up a briquette lighter and relit his roll-up, which had almost gone out. "In fact, you’re almost finished. What’s it about?"
Peter’s head rocked twice from side to side while his face evaluated that piece of information. By the time his head had stopped moving, a decision in his cheeks had reached his mouth. "That sounds cool. Emotional intelligence. I think every thing is intelligent. It’s only people that can be stupid, because they have minds. Okay, you could say that other animals have minds, in a way, but not like ours. They can’t talk about it, can they? That’s what gives us the capability of being stupid. It makes us special. We’re especially stupid."
"I like to think we’re especially gifted."
Peter took another draw on his cigarette before answering. It appeared to be giving him some trouble; possibly he’d rolled it too tight. He drew in his already thin cheeks to try and resuscitate the glow. A sudden rush of smoke made him cough. "That’s right. We can be both, very stupid or very clever, and normally both at the same time, whichever way you look at it. The thing about words is…" (he coughed some more), "…is that they act as barriers as well as gateways."
Carl didn’t understand. "I don’t understand."
"Well, the mind is inherently lazy. That is, once it has a label for something, it would rather use the label than look at the thing itself. That makes perfect sense; it’s a kind of shorthand which stops us having to evaluate our sensory data anew each time we see something. Like, that thing there is a tree, possibly you even know it as a Beech tree, and when you walk towards it, you just think, ‘Ah, a Beech tree’. Now that conditioned response stops you experiencing the ‘suchness’ of the thing itself; your mind becomes clouded by the signs that you’ve created, so that the world loses its freshness and becomes dull and boring to you. That’s when you know you’re in trouble and it’s time to get out."
Carl still didn’t understand. "Is that what happened to you?"
"Absolutely!" He looked at Carl, discerningly, like he was gauging how much Carl was taking in. "My folks wanted me to do well and have a good job and all that, which I did. My father was a big-wig in the City, so I joined his bank and was on course for a successful career in investment banking. Every day I took the train into the City, sat at my desk, attended meetings, and got the train back. And then one day, the axe just fell, as they say: I couldn’t do it any more. And by that, I don’t mean, I didn’t want to do it, I mean, I literally couldn’t do. Some protective instinct inside me just rebelled completely and stopped me going into work. I couldn’t even get out of bed—I was disabled. So I lay in bed for six months watching the clouds roll past, reading books, smoking, reflecting. And then I just realised, it’s all a big con."
"Giving up your life in order to succeed. You only have one life, unless you’re a Buddhist or a Hindu. Not only that, the life you have is a miracle. Okay, it’s a pretty common miracle as far as the human race goes, but from your perspective, it’s a miracle that you’re alive, in the middle of this cosmic explosion on a planet of cooling dust with just the right combination of elements to sustain life. That’s pretty miraculous, wouldn’t you say?"
"Yes, I suppose so, now that you put it like that."
"So, I concluded that I would rather be out here where everything is 3-D and my mind is free, than stuck inside an office, normalising my behaviour so that is conforms to the lowest common denominator of that particular organisation."
Suddenly Carl found something he could grasp. "And that is exactly what my book is about! Companies should be encouraging people like you to be themselves, to express their creativity – write poetry, play the flute – whatever it is you need to do to feel at home in that organisation. You should not be inhibited, you should feel enabled so that the company can benefit from your special gifts."
Peter looked doubtful. "Well, I don’t suppose my father’s company wanted me to write poetry or play the flute." He seemed to lose his brightness then, as though a sorrowful memory shadowed his face. "You know, my life then just didn’t make any sense. It was as if I’d lost touch with my own inner story, as if my narrative had gone astray and that was making me unhappy."
"But now, it’s different?"
"Oh, yeah. Now, I don’t have anything, materially. I live in a farmer’s barn down the road there but when I wake up in the morning, I know what I’m living for and everything about my life makes sense to me. Now I feel my face fits, I’m not trying to hide it any more. Do you know what I mean?"
Carl wasn’t sure. His face had always felt fitted by the best tailors, so that special sense of alienation had eluded him. Strangely, it was only now that he got the first inkling of what that sensation might be. He left Peter sunbathing on his blanket and walked back up to the house: the hole; the cheese; Peter’s story. The hole, the cheese, Peter’s story. They all seemed to go together but they didn’t quite fit. Perhaps it was something like that Peter had meant, that feeling of disjointedness. As he crossed the gravel drive, Frances walked out the front door, dressed in a smart business suit.
"There was a phone call for you, darling, from Marik. I have to shoot. Did you speak to George?"
Carl would have liked her to take the day off and spend it with him, but he knew she had appointments. "Spoke to him. Everything is fine. Peter only plays the flute on his day off. I just spoke to Peter and he confirmed it."
"What’s he doing here, if it’s his day off?"
"Well, I don’t know. I presume he likes it."
Frances tapped her fingers on the roof of the car while she thought about that. She had been exposed to almost every kind of person in her life and nothing much phased her. "Ok-ay… he likes it here. That’s fine. I should be back for tea. If I’m not, I’ve left a lasagne in the fridge. I’ll see you later. They kissed on the lips, to say goodbye, and then she left.
In the darkness of his study, Carl started the humming computer. Instead of opening his document, he began writing a poem on a piece of paper:
You start from scratch, and don’t know how to begin,
And then he didn’t know how to continue.
Driss, dross, drip, drop, drip, drop-drop-drop, driss… Katherine woke at three and heard a tap dripping into her sleeping thoughts. Truth, she hadn’t really been asleep, or she wouldn’t say that she had, but she had. That is, she felt that she hadn’t because she spent the evening typing up the transcripts, then she went to sleep thinking of them, and then her thinking never really ceased, just became attenuated and transmuted into something altogether stranger, mixed up as it was with the dross of her day, tumbled round with a series of sounds and images that had a specific mood. The mood was suspicion, which was all that was really left of her dreams when she got out of bed to go down and turn off the tap. That suspicion took her back to her desk and the reading lamp, which made a circumscribed circle of warmth and light that she could concentrate on, leaving everything that was dark and unknown on the outside.
Inside the circle there was also quite a lot that was dark and unknown, like: why did Ian not book a taxi at the hotel reception like he normally would have done? why didn’t he go to the Leclerq building, and where did he go instead? who was the blonde (she now knew) man who met him? why were there no other memories of Paris after he arrived at the airport? how did he get to Rotterdam? there were two people with him at some point in Rotterdam—who were they? there was a third person in Rotterdam, a stranger, called ‘awe sip’—who was he? In themselves, these were mysterious questions but they weren’t the main cause of her suspicion; that was caused by the two levels of memory he demonstrated under hypnosis. He was able to recover memories of that morning in Paris up until he met the man at the ‘Leclerq’ building, and again around his arrival at the Anubis, Rotterdam. In between times was a black hole. To her this indicated that something unusual happened when he arrived in Paris and then something more unusual after he arrived at Leclerq, something which was able to obliterate his memory completely. She would have suspected a drug of some kind but the blood tests had shown nothing.
She wrote down everything that bothered her, which was quite a long list, and then she went back to mulling over the transcript. She now knew that ‘awe sip’ was a person but she still had no idea what the ‘vessel’ was, nor who ‘you witch’ referred to. Now fully awake, she turned the computer back on and searched the Web for lists of boys names: ‘awe sip’ could be African or Finnish, or anything really, depending on how you wrote it down. She tried various versions—Orsip, Oorsep, Ursip, all of which produced results that seemed to be either acronyms for state committees or some kind of flora. She remembered how the weird pronunciation of ‘saving tea ours’ had produced ‘seventy hours’ and wondered if that was also a vowel shift of some kind. She typed in ‘Osip’ and received thousands of matches, mostly Russian references. As her eye sped down the list she also saw the name ‘Vasilyovich’; she mouthed it to herself—va-sil-yo-vich. Was that a transcription for vessel-you-witch? She typed ‘Osip Vasilyovich’ into the search engine. Ah! the delusion of brainworkers that everything that can ever be known may be found on the Internet; that somehow, magically, between those two fatidic literary dates of 1984 and 2001, everything in the world was catalogued and indexed and is now available for searching and sifting. Nothing was returned, but she noted it down anyway, as a possibility.
She took her notes and sat on the settee, covering herself in the car blanket she kept for watching TV on her own, but before she’d reread two pages of the transcript she was asleep again. She dreamed she was in Paris, the mother of the child on its way to school, smiling at a stranger who smiled at her, but instead of walking away, she approached him and held his hand.
"Osip, how are you?"
"Where do you want to go?"
"To rut a dame."
"Too finer man that’s all muscle."
"A strong man?"
"He’s oiled my soil."
"He soiled your soul?"
"To find a man who sold my soul."
"Are you drunk, Osip?"
"He heard a ladle sip butter never last is mine."
"You never lost your mind?"
"Wheel ways ream amber utter damn."
"That’s true, Osip. Now come with me, I’ll make you better."
"My mutter used a may gimme butter."
"When was that?"
"Be far showers gun."
And then she was gone. To Rotterdam, in the Anubis hotel with a stranger that could have been Ian. A sign on the bathroom door said ‘Do Not Disturb’ but there was someone in there knocking to come out. She asked Ian if he was going to let them out but he replied, no, let them wait until we know the truth. She got up, naked, to open the door but pulled a blanket from the bed to wrap around herself. He caught the end of it to hold her back and said, It’s the enemy, it’s them or me, I want you to cover me and come to me, now, where sew alone in lifers brief.