The Belly of the Beast
Wake up, Ray. Ray, wake up. Wake up, we're back in Brussels.
Ray Mann opened his eyes and saw the rich colours of a woollen scarf that the woman in the seat in front of him had draped over the headrest, a vivid combination of lapis lazuli, vermilion, indigo, and Indian yellow on a black background. He turned around and looked at John Donck, who was sat next to him completing a word puzzle he'd started just after the train had left Amsterdam.
"What time is it?" asked Ray.
"Six thirty, and you've been asleep since Leiden."
"I was tired," said Ray, rubbing his eyes.
"You're always tired."
"That's because I have to get up at four-thirty every Monday morning to fly to Brussels."
"You never used to be so tired."
"You sound like my wife." He opened a bottle of still water and rinsed it around his mouth.
"She has my sympathy. Anyway, you slept all the way through Vermeer country and Escher country, you know, all those canals that go up and along and then down to where they started."
He showed Ray an Escher-type drawing he'd made of impossible train tracks. "Don't you like Escher then?"
"No. He's too mechanical."
"And what's wrong with Vermeer?"
"Nothing. He's great. It's just that I'd rather see my world through Vermeer's eyes than his world through my eyes."
"That's a very sophisticated thought for a second-rate journalist," said Donck, starting to pack his things into his briefcase.
Ray ran his finger across the finely woven material in front of him. "I did art A level."
"So how did you end up writing about food for a European trade magazine then?" asked Donck, standing up and pulling down his raincoat from the overhead rack.
"A simple twist of fate. I ticked the wrong box in the careers room."
"Don't lie to me. I remember you when you started here, all full of enthusiasm, bright tailed and bushy eyed. You still thought you were going to uncover great scoops and change the world, like in All the Presidents' Men."
"And now here I am writing about cream production in the Netherlands."
"Right! Ice-cream scoops. And you won't even be able to do that because you slept through the whole presentation."
"Well, it was boring. Netherlands cream is boring, Kristina whatsername is boring, Brussels is boring…"
"A man who is bored with Brussels is bored with…"
"Precisely," said Donck, pressing the button to open the doors.
They stood on the steps of the Gare Centrale and looked down the hill to the Grande Place where the weak Spring sun was disappearing behind a smudge of clouds.
Donck tilted back his head and sniffed. "Mmmm, smell the beer. Let's drop into the Albertine for some triple Trappist mind-benders to wash that Dutch lemonade out of our systems."
"No, I can't-I need to get an early night."
"Oh, god, you are so boring these days. You spend four nights a week on your own in Brussels, free of your family, and all you do is stay in. I think you have a woman tucked away somewhere."
"Yeah, I wish," said Ray, heading off in the other direction. "No, I'm just not sleeping well and I need to get some rest."
"Oh well, suit yourself, but I'm going on my own then. Oh, I forgot to pay you for my ticket," said Donck, calling him back.
"That's okay. I put them both on the company credit card."
Donck stopped and swung his briefcase in the air. "Jesus, how come you've got a company credit card and I don't?"
"Well, they used to trust me, you see, and I was their blue-eyed boy who could do what he wanted."
"But they've got the measure of you now, I suppose; keeping a tight rein on you. Just letting you out for little trips to Amsterdam, chaperoned by your old buddy Johhny Donck. Well, if you don't want to enjoy the watering-holes of Brussels, I shall see you tomorrow. And try to be on time for a change."
Ray walked through the park and crossed the busy Avenue des Arts towards his apartment near the European Parliament. He could have got the metro but he wanted the exercise; it seemed as if he'd been sitting down since he got the train to Gatwick at five-thirty that morning. Train, plane, train, train, presentation, train. As he walked he thought about the depressing conversation he'd had with Donck, someone who always managed to express himself in the bluntest way possible, normally spiced with a salty humour he'd acquired while drinking in the back streets of Rotterdam and watching British sit-coms. He was half-Dutch and half-crazy but Ray liked him best of all his work colleagues, even though some of the stuff that Donck called humour was, to other people, just outright rude. It's true that Ray was bored with work but that's just because they didn't write anything interesting any more. When he'd joined European Food three years before they at least used to do some investigative work, some digging around on the borders of the European Commission for interesting stories that might later be picked up by the national or international press, but these days all they ever seemed to do was write up copy sent to them by the marketing departments of food producers.
He was wondering what lay behind this change in editorial policy when he looked up from the pavement and saw the sky for the first time that day-it was incredible! The thick cloud cover had blown away leaving only three small but very high clouds shaped like blacksmith's anvils, puffy on top and flat on the bottom, which caught the last rays of the sinking sun and glowed underneath like hot copper. Even further above them was a thin wisp of cirrus, the faintest trail of white lace against a sky of densest blue turning to cobalt grey over in the east. Suddenly Ray's mood brightened and the gloomy reflections induced by the conversation with Donck were blown away. In fact, he felt foolishly elated which, when he thought about it, was a source of worry, to think that his happiness was at the whim of meteorology. So he worried about that for a while, walking down the long busy road towards the Schumann metro. When he looked up again the sky had changed and darkened; the three clouds had drifted apart and one of them was breaking up at the top, like that Escher drawing of the man's head where the top of the skull has been opened like an egg and drifts away in a spiral of paper. As he watched this, his eye caught a movement on top of one of the tall office blocks in the distance. A tiny figure like the paper cut-out of a stick man moved against the backdrop of the evening sky. And then, with a jerky scissored movement he jumped off the edge and fell straight down, his arms and legs sticking out like the limbs of a metal Shiva, the dancing god of destruction.
Ray stopped: it was too far away for him to run to the spot so he wasn't sure for a moment if he'd really seen what he thought he'd seen, but within seconds the traffic was slowing down and had soon come to a halt, a sign that something had happened up ahead. He walked more quickly and eventually came to the building. A lot of people were gathered around on the pavement and from the opposite side of the road he watched as a security guard from one of the office blocks approached with care the awning of a sandwich bar that had collapsed in a twisted pile of metal poles and blue and white nylon. Hidden in the middle of it, like an animal trapped inside a collapsed deck-chair, there was something twitching and moaning. The security guard obviously didn't want to touch it, not knowing how to begin unwrapping the horror that awaited him, and hesitated while several of the people around him called out advice. He walked forwards and picked up one of the metal poles that was still attached to the material and gingerly started to lift it over the mass in the way that you would use a stick to uncover something nasty hidden beneath a sack. But as he did so, the far end of the pole snagged on some of the other mangled metal. Up the road the sound of a siren could be heard approaching through the gridlocked traffic and the security guard used this as an excuse to wait for the professionals. Soon the ambulance had wormed its way through the ghoulish cars and the paramedics were crouched down next to the suicide bundle, which was now completely silent and still. As one of the paramedics reached forwards to pull back the cloth the crowd closed around him and Ray could no longer see what was happening but very soon their expectant hush was broken by an outbreak of muted horror and dismay and people started turning away from the scene to avert their eyes, some crying 'o my god', others just walking off up the road shaking their heads, sharing their shock with strangers. As they dispersed, Ray was able to glimpse, between the legs of two women who stood side by side, the face of a man, blue and bloodied, squashed like the head of a flattened fish with one eye crooked and twisted and the other looking at the sky. Only his head was sticking out from the nylon wrapping which made his impromptu shroud.
The police had now arrived and Ray went over and told them what he'd seen, giving them his name and address. They crossed to the other side of the road with him and he pointed to the top of the building from which he'd seen the man jump. They wanted to be clear that he had not jumped from any of the windows and he assured them, pointing up the road to where he'd been when he'd seen it happen. They nodded their heads at this and then went to speak to the paramedics, who had covered the dead man's body with a black cover, preparing to move him into the ambulance. There was nothing else for Ray to do but move on, to carry on walking back to his apartment as if nothing had happened. When he got there, he hung up his suits for the week and poured himself a brandy. He sat on his bed and went over the images in his mind, convincing himself that it really had happened. He thought that if he could talk to someone else about it, it would make it real so he rang his home in England and his daughter Jennifer picked up the phone.
"Hi, Jen, it's dad-is mum there?"
"No she's gone out."
"Do you know where?"
"To the gym I think, but she told me not to wait up for her so I suppose she's going somewhere afterwards. Why, what's up?"
"Oh, nothing really…" Ray quickly thought about if he should tell her, whether it was too disturbing, but she was seventeen, no longer a child. "It's just that I saw something horrible on the way back from work and wanted to talk about it."
"Some guy committed suicide by jumping from the top of a building and I saw it happen."
"You saw him jump?" Her voice went up at the end in that exaggerated up-speak way.
"Did he almost land on your head?"
"No, no, I was right up the road but I saw him leap off and got there a couple of minutes later. It was horrible."
"Are you upset?" she asked, with a concern above her years.
"No, no, I'm fine. I just wanted to talk about it, that's all."
"Okay, I'll tell mum. Shall I get her to ring you?"
"No, that's okay. Thanks for talking to me."
"You don't have to say that, dad. Love you. See you Friday."
Ray went to bed early but slept badly, waking up at three to go and get a glass of water. He didn't get back to sleep until about six but then had a warm dreamless sleep, not waking until about eight-thirty. By the time he got to the office at ten everyone else was at their desks and working, including Donck who had that uncharacteristically serious look about him which normally meant that he had a hangover and was nursing it gently by tidying up various files on his computer in a way that appeared like working. Ray spent the morning trying to write his article on cream production in the Netherlands but he was bored and his mind kept drifting back to that image of the stick man falling against the evening sky, each of his limbs etched into the blue like strokes of black ink. He wondered who he was and thought that he would go out at lunchtime and buy an early edition of Le Soir to see if it said anything. He tried writing the article three or four times but each time he didn't like the line he'd taken so erased it and started again. But it made no difference, the whole thing just seemed meaningless. He looked at the screen and thought to himself, what is the point of writing, Edible lactose is less sweet than other commercial sugars and improves the body, texture, chewiness and shelf life of candy products? I mean, what is the point?
He snorted to himself and shut his laptop-time for an early lunch. It was a perfect Spring day and he walked across the Parc de Bruxelles and waited with irritation while a coach full of Japanese tourists was offloaded and blocked the pavement in front of the modern art museum. Take your photos later! Take them later! he fumed inside, it will still be there when you come out, it's been there several centuries, it won't go away. He bought a paper from the tabacs on the corner and in the picturesque square of Petit Sablon found a little café with a traditional interior, dark and boring, somewhere he could read undisturbed. There were only about five other customers: two very proper matronly Belgian women, expensively dressed, with a collection of shopping bags at their ankles and, at the other end of the café, a woman with a child. At the table behind him was an elderly man drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. He looked like a retired stock-broker who still dressed as if he was going to the office. He was wearing half-moon glasses and had to arch his head over the top of his cup in order to bring his newspaper into focus, so that his whole bearing seemed strained and artificial, a caricature of an Edwardian gent.
Ray order bifsteak, frites, and chicory salad and while he waited for them to come he leafed through Le Soir looking for a report of the suicide. He found it buried on page nine and it said the man who'd died was a policeman involved in the investigation of the Dutroux paedophile investigation, one of over twenty people involved in the inquiry who had died in mysterious circumstances. His meal arrived and as he ate he looked in the mirror at the man behind him craned over his paper. He seemed to be shaking his head and tut-tutting and when Ray turned around to glance at what he was reading he could only make out the word 'dysfonctionnement'. This was a word the Belgians used a lot about themselves and their institutions. It translated as 'dysfunctional' and was normally used in a medical context, such as, your liver is dysfunctional but such was the black mood of the nation they seemed to apply it to everything from their national airline, to their trains, their banks, their government institutions, and especially their police force. Ray thought they were unduly pessimistic: maybe if their journalists were forced to travel on British trains for a while they would find their own to be fully functional in comparison.
The man saw Ray looking and started talking about the investigation, or 'cover up' as he saw it, of the Dutroux scandal.
He detected Ray's English accent. "Oh, you are so lucky with the Press in your country-they are rottweilers. If only we had your Press, our government wouldn't get away with these lies."
Although not entirely convinced that the British press were as free of vested interests as the man imagined, Ray thought that they were a lot less deferential to the establishment than the Belgian press, so he nodded in agreement. He also took it as an omen. It chimed exactly with his thoughts that he should make his work more interesting and go back to something that was at least one step closer to investigative journalism. As he finished his meal and drained the last drop of his '98 Merlot, he remembered a conversation that he'd had a couple of weeks before with Michel, a friend who worked for the Agricultural Directorate of the European Commission. Michel had told him about some scandal to do with fraudulent claims for olive oil subsidies. Apparently, it was well known that if the Italians consumed all the olive oil they claimed subsidy for, each person in Italy would have to drink half a litre per day. But there was another aspect to the story that interested him, one much more worthy of investigation.
When he got back to his office, Giselle, the secretary, told him that he'd missed an editorial meeting. Good, he thought. What's the point? All they ever discuss is which piece of corporate promo they're going to massage into next month's issue and the process for deciding normally involves an estimation of who provided the best corporate hospitality last time they were in town. Instead, he called up Michel and arranged to meet him that night at Kitty O'Shea's, an Irish bar with a nice snug at the back where you could avoid the usual melee of MEPs, journos, and Commission bureaucrats. Ray went there straight from work, bought himself a Guinness, picked up the Irish Independent and went into the back. A poster on the wall announced that on Sunday there would be a political quiz with Neil Kinnock as the quiz-master. He remembered Neil Kinnock from the Commons when he was Labour leader and he wondered how long the quiz would go on for-hours of subordinate clauses and digressions: just ask the question! Michel arrived about ten minutes later. It had started raining and he was folding a black umbrella as he came into the bar and saw Ray sitting at the back. His glasses were steamed up. He smiled, his typical amiable smile and offered Ray a drink in his thick French accent. "Oh! You're not drinking our Belgian beer! You prefer to do in Eerland what the Eerish do, I suppose." Michel seemed to begin most sentences with a surprised 'Oh' and end them with a shrug of his shoulders and 'I suppose'.
When they were sat down together Ray reminded him of the story he'd told him last time. Michel laughed. He laughed at most things and was far and away the most jovial person Ray had ever known: the word bonhomie was invented just for him. "Oh, you are becoming an investigateeve joornalist now?"
"Well, anything has got to be better than writing up copy sent to me by Marketing departments."
"But that story is finished now."
"It can't be! It was only two weeks ago we were laughing about it."
"Well, it's a joke, I suppose, no-one will take it seriously."
"But you said that it involved a cousin of one of the Director Generals."
"The world is full of coozans, especially in Brussels-we have more coozans than we have people. Everyone is a coozan, no?"
"Hang on, Michel, we're talking about massive fraud here and a senior employee of the Commission, who coincidentally owns a plastics factory, has been involved in supplying plastic trees to Italian olive growers so that they can inflate the size of their olive groves to fool the satellite spy technology. That's not a joke, it's big-time corruption."
"Well, a lot of things happen like that, you cannot investigate them all, I suppose."
"No, but I can do this one. People like that shouldn't be working for the Commission-it's our money they're stealing. Just tell me the name of that Italian bloke, the one who coordinated it."
"Oh, Signor Vinetti. You can speak with him but it won't make much difference. They don't appear to worry-they know that everyone is mixed up with it so everyone is protected. If one goes, they all go, the European Commission goes-pouf! we are all out of work. No, things will gradually get better, now we have your Mister Kin-nock to help us. You agree?"
"No, I don't agree. I think someone should be going after these people, to stop them getting away with it."
Michel laughed. "Well, we all get away with something. Nobody worries about it, except you. You never used to look worried. What has happened? Don't you like Brussels anymore. You must drink more beer, I suppose." And with that, he raised his glass and said, "Cheers, here's to corruption."
Two days later Ray was on the early morning flight to Turin. The blue Spring skies had given way to a cold Atlantic front that brought heavy downpours and massed black clouds. They were no sooner in the air than they hit turbulence so bad that the stewards stayed strapped into their seats and announced that they would not be serving refreshments. Which was probably a good thing, because the woman next to him was throwing up into a sick bag. He tried to look the other way as she retched and puked while a pungent smell like cream turned vinegar drifted past him. He held his breath and looked out the windows at the wingtips, which seemed to be lifting and dropping about fifteen degrees every time the plane gave a gut-wrenching lurch downwards.
Ray felt sorry for the woman. Her face was green and she had perspiration breaking out all across her brow. Inbetween a bout of retching he tried to smile and reassure her that he was not bothered and she shouldn't be embarrassed but she avoided eye contact and had that look on her face like someone who's been hit by a wave and is in trepidation waiting for the next one to come along. Ray looked back out the window where the rain was splattering the glass and streaming off the wings in turbulent volutes of vapour. He calculated that they must be coming up to the alps, in which case things would get a lot worse. Sure enough, within ten minutes the plane started dropping into holes 500 metres deep and the black sky was lit up by lightning strikes that flashed everywhere around the plane and seemed to roll right along the wings and into the fuselage like the rippling flasks of electricity in Frankenstein's laboratory.
The woman next to him now seemed to be crying into a handkerchief and muttering prayers. Ray touched her arm and told her not to worry, he'd flown in conditions much worse than this and it was quite normal, everything would be alright. The truth is, this was the worst flight he'd ever been on. Maybe it was her anxiety that was infectious, but Ray started imagining that they'd been forced down much closer to the mountains than they should be, that the pilot had been unable to keep their altitude and that in a moment, suddenly appearing out the mass of black clouds, he would see grassy valleys, rocks, and tiny dwellings, the upturned face of a startled shepherd. He would have time for one last limpid glimpse of existence before they slammed into the snowy glacier of Mont Blanc and Ray's consciousness was compressed into blackness by the weight of 450,000 pounds of flesh and metal reaching a sudden stop against an immovable object.
His knuckles went white as he gripped the arms of the seat and felt this terrible feeling of sweaty panic: Help, I want to get out of here. A silence fell across the plane. Everyone knew without being told that this was bad. They all listened intently to the creaking of the airframe, things being thrown about in the lockers, the roar of the engines as they fought against the savage pressures afflicting the plane. Ray had plenty of time to consider his own death. He thought of who he would phone if he could-still Caroline, his wife. He hadn't met anyone to replace her, anyone who knew him that well. Then he realised how much he wanted to live. He prayed silently to whatever god it was he believed in, to let him come out of this, that he would do something useful with his life, that he would stop wasting his time, that he would find meaning. He swore he would be kind to people, tell the ones he loved that he loved them, stop being sarcastic, cynical, and critical. He would be positive about life and try and change things for the better, he would even give up masturbating. Please, please Big Thingummy in the Sky, don't let me die here in a mess of aluminium, snow, human body parts and duty-free gin.
The lights in the cabin were now dimmed and it was almost dark apart from the frequent flashes of lightning that lit up the windows. With every flash Ray saw the faces of his fellow passengers illuminated like macabre mannequins in a chamber of horrors, their mouths fixed and grim, the shadows of their cheekbones falling across their sucked-in cheeks, their eyes staring fixedly ahead. The woman next to him now had her head buried in her knees; she was rocking backwards and forwards crying, repeating, "Oh, my god, Oh my god." Suddenly the plane lurched to the left, as if the pilot was taking evasive action. People screamed, "We're going to die." Why wasn't anyone telling us what was happening, thought Ray? They must be too busy trying to control the plane. He imagined the pilot fighting with the controls, sweat dripping off of him, his shirt loosened, fear in his eyes. Maybe the co-pilot had passed out or was having a panic attack and was crouched in a ball in the corner of the cockpit, sucking on a napkin like a frightened toddler.
Then, to Ray's amazement, they descended below the clouds. They were nowhere near the ground. Hallelujah, Lord, the ground was right where it should be, a long way from the clouds, and they were where they should be, coming out the clouds, and the stewards were where they should be, walking down the aisle, and the captain was where he should be, talking on the intercom, saying, "This is your captain speaking. We'll soon be arriving at Torino, Caselle, International Airport. Please fasten your safety belts in preparation for landing. The flight today was rather busy but we hope you weren't unduly inconvenienced. Enjoy your stay in Turin, where the temperature is currently thirteen degrees and there is a light rain falling. We look forwards to seeing you again on your return flight."
Conversation started up all around the cabin. Some people laughed, like it had all been a big joke. Others looked around furtively at their fellow passengers, embarrassed at how they'd let their defences down and shown their fear. There were a few more unexpected downdrafts as they approached the runway and the wingtips seemed to wobble alarmingly and everyone fell silent again. They hit the runway with a loud thud, bounced up into the air again, then a slightly lighter thud, then the squealing of the breaks and the reverse engine thrust that threw them forwards in their seats. As the plane swerved left onto the taxi-way, a round of spontaneous applause broke out amongst the less-seasoned flyers. Ray ignored it and affected an air of complete calm, as if he'd known all along that everything was normal.
After the darkness and tension of the plane the arrivals hall seemed like a pavilion of light. Never had solid ground felt so reassuring. Ray snatched a quick sandwich from a booth on the way to the concourse, found a taxi and asked the driver to take him to via Airauda, Pianezza. As they negotiated the rush-hour traffic, the imaginary brush with death in the plane seemed tranquil by comparison. The Italians drove with a passion and commitment that would be admirable in an opera but seemed unjustifiably risky when weaving in and out of lanes of juggernauts on the auto-strada in a rush-hour. Ray sat in the back seat while the driver argued with himself and other road-users as to the wrongs and rights of every high-speed manoeuvre. He drove with only one hand, keeping the other one permanently free to bang the hooter or the steering wheel, or to admonish other drivers with a gesture that miraculously expressed incredulity, anger, and pity in a single flourish that ended with him striking himself on the temple and tutting with disbelief.
When they arrived at the Vinetti headquarters, Ray was less than calm and needed to freshen up before his meeting. The building was a seven-storey fascist monument of black marble and tinted glass, the only variation being a huge burnished steel 'fuck-off' V that rose from the top of the vestibule to the fourth floor. Ray entered the revolving door and came out in a reception area the size of Victoria Station. It was totally empty apart from one receptionist hidden in a dark corner to the left of the imposing marble staircase that wound up to an open mezzanine from where the tinted windows shed a subdued light throughout the atrium. It felt like being inside a silent black heart.
Ray gave the girl his name. She turned sideways and looked at a computer screen, gingerly but expertly pressing the Page Down key with her long-nailed index finger. The black nail varnish wasn't even chipped-this was not a woman used to doing the washing up.
"Ah, Mister Mann, journalist, European Food.", she said, in a smoky Italian accent, "You are early. Signor Vinetti is busy until ten o'clock. Would you like to take a seat?"
Ray asked her where the bathroom was and she pointed to the far corner, where there was no sign of any door, just a lot of marbleised panels. He looked bemused.
"Okay, I will show you. Please follow me."
When she stood up Ray saw she was wearing a butt-clenching pencil-skirt and black stockings. Her jacket, an expensive cut made of the same thin pin-stripe material as the skirt, was pulled taut across her breasts by a single button. Her white blouse was open down to the third button hole where Ray glimpsed the satin fringe of a red bra against her white skin. As she passed him, there was a delicate odour of lavender. Her high heels clicked across the marble floor and as he walked behind her he found himself looking at her legs but then blushed as he noticed her watching him in the reflective tinted glass of the front windows. She had an amused smile on her face and as she pressed the spring-open panel door she grinned at him and said, "There you are, Mister Mann. Enjoy yourself. Oh, and you have some vegetable on your cheek." And she touched the tip of her finger against the corner of her sensuous mouth with a taut lazy wrist.
As Ray walked into the carpeted toilets, considering whether that 'enjoy yourself' had been a slip of the tongue, a mistranslation, or a reference to masturbation, he knew one thing: Vinetti must be fucking her. She acted like she owned the place. At the mirror he inspected himself and found a small piece of lettuce still stuck to his cheek from the sandwich he'd gobbled in the airport. What a loser. His tie was undone and his suit was crumpled, and there was something that looked like a crusty piece of dried cereal near the hem of his jacket. As he rubbed at it with a wet tissue he hoped it wasn't a stray piece of vomit from the barf-bag lady on the plane. He tidied himself up and thought about Vinetti. He was probably one of those slick little Italians who'd made himself several fortunes by the age of thirty and drove around in a black Lamborghini with tinted windows, alternating his time between his yacht in Monaco and his villa in Tuscany. A cold smooth reptile with a killer smile that made your blood run cold. Ray's almost uncontrolled imagination ignited several scenarios involving nubile Italian playgirls when he was stopped dead by an unconnected thought: for the last twenty years, I've fucked no-one but my wife.
Ray made himself presentable and went back to the reception. There was someone else in there now, an old guy with wild grey hair. He looked like a janitor but he was standing behind the receptionist massaging her shoulders with his gnarled hairy fingers. As Ray got closer the guy leaned over, said something in her ear, then kissed her tenderly on the top of the head. The dirty old lecher! Ray wanted to jump right over the counter and hit him. Instead he ignored them both and sat down, picking up a copy of the International Herald Tribune. From behind his paper Ray heard the receptionist laugh, then she said, "Mister Mann, Signor Vinetti will see you now." Ray stood up. The receptionist and the old guy were both just looking at him like they were waiting for him to speak. "Oh, right, shall I just go up to his office?"
The girl laughed. "This is Signor Vinetti."
Vinetti walked from behind the reception and held out his hand. He had a firm steady grip without exerting any force. He was wearing casual trousers and an open-necked khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His arms were strong and hairy, in fact he had a profusion of hair growing out of every pore, even his ears. Several stray wiry white hairs popped out from between the buttons of his shirt. Ray saw that, although short, he was a lion of a man who exuded physical strength and mental control. He looked at Ray from soft, clear blue eyes that registered everything-his fumbling gestures, his inner state, his confusion. And Ray was confused: this man was old enough to be his father and that girl's grandfather. What a bastid. Ray hated him already. Vinetti made him feel small and incompetent, armed with all his power, his money, his virility.
But during the ride in the lift up to Vinetti's office, Ray was won over. He completely changed his opinion. Vinetti was polite, kind, respectful, courteous. He asked about the flight, was genuinely concerned to hear it had been difficult, and when Ray complimented him on the opulence of his headquarters, Vinetti shrugged it off modestly, saying, "It's just a building." Once inside his office, Vinetti became more workman-like and serious. He offered Ray a coffee, which he poured himself from a steel thermos on the mahogany credenza, and then sat down behind his large desk, eyeing Ray with a cool, amused gaze from his tilted executive chair. Ray started on the line he had worked out to entrap Vinetti: he would butter him up with some spiel about a free Marketing puff and then hijack him with the question of the DG's cousin and the plastic trees. He'd only just started when Vinetti cut him short.
"You didn't fly all the way to Torino, Raymond, to write some Marketing blurb. Tell me why you really came."
Ray didn't answer, but his face confirmed the truth of what Vinetti had said. Vinetti smiled and swivelled his chair to look out the window. He spoke with his back to Ray.
"Maybe you're really an investigative journalist and you're going to write another of those articles saying how the plastics industry has been poisoning the people of Europe for thirty years, and how we must all stop drinking from plastic bottles and stop eating microwave dinners? Is that it?"
"But you have come from Brussels, so maybe you've uncovered something unsavoury to do with the European Commission. I don't know, another one of those boring scandals to do with olive oil subsidies." And with that, he spun his chair around.
This time it was Ray who was smiling.
"Aha, I think I have scored a bulls-eye. But you see Raymond, all of this is so tedious. I will give you five minutes to tell me what it is and then, I'm afraid, I'm a busy man and must draw this meeting to a close. You see someone has to generate the revenue that all you Brussels' bottom-feeders grow fat on."
Ray noticed that Vinetti didn't have an ounce of fat on him. This was a guy who never pampered or indulged himself. His hands were rough, as if he went back every weekend to his villa in the hills and built stone walls by hand. Ray looked down at his A6 notebook and saw his own, smooth, office-coddled hands.
"Signor Vinetti, I believe you know Mrs Olafson."
"I know a lot of people."
"She's the cousin of one of the Director General's, in the Commission."
"I try not to mix with politicians and bureaucrats. They seem to get in the way somehow."
"Maybe you know her as a business colleague. She works in plastics, like you."
Vinetti grinned. "There are a lot of plastic people."
"But you have heard of Olaf Enterprises, haven't you?"
Vinetti drummed his fingers on the table top.
"It's just that I'm following up a story that Mrs Olafson's company has been supplying plastic trees to the olive growers of Italy so that they can fool the satellite cameras and claim inflated subsidies based on their crop-sizes."
Vinetti laughed. "Plastic trees? You do write fiction, Raymond, don't you? This is not serious?"
"I have it from a good source that you were the go-between, the middle-man who set up the connections between Mrs Olafson and the farmers and that you were also responsible for falsifying invoices and paying into a slush fund that several Commission employees, including Mrs Olafson, were benefiting from. You see, I believe that Mrs Olafson is being paid on both sides, and that you are the facilitator."
"Raymond, this is ridiculous. I may know Mrs Olafson, but this whole story about the olive growers, plastic trees and a slush fund, it's all a concoction of someone's feverish imagination. You cannot seriously believe all this nonsense."
"Not only do I believe it, I have copies of the invoices and fraudulent transactions passing between your company and hers. I don't know who your contacts amongst the olive growers are yet, but it won't take me long to find out. The only purpose of my visit today is to give you an opportunity to tell me your side of the story."
Vinetti's expression suddenly darkened, as if his craggy brow was shadowed by black clouds. "Why are you interested in all this nonsense, Raymond? Why don't you go back to your comfortable apartment in Brussels and sit in your comfortable office writing nice friendly articles that make everybody feel good about themselves? Why do you want to cause trouble and make life difficult, not least for yourself?"
"Do you think we should sit around and ignore nepotism and fraud?"
"What is fraud? It's business between friends, that's all."
"So you don't deny it?"
"What's the point of denying it or confirming it? It just doesn't matter at all-nobody cares. You see, this is the way the world goes round-we all have to help each other."
"And what about the tax-payers, the people who pay for all of this?"
"Oh, them-well, they will have to pay anyway; the only difference is where the money ends up. Would you rather it went somewhere else, to America, maybe? Would you rather that Bill Gates got it all?"
"If there's a choice, I'd rather we all paid lower taxes."
"Hmm-only the little people pay taxes, Raymond."
Ray was quickly reverting to his original opinion about Vinetti-his warm paternalist exterior concealed a cold, manipulative heart. Vinetti got up and walked over to the window where he started fiddling with the plants growing on a wide shelf. "Do you have a family, Raymond?"
"Do you have a son?"
"Then you are a lucky man. I had a son once, but I lost him, through my own stupidity. But I think about him every day of my life. I could probably find him if I wanted to, but I could never make up for what is lost-I could never make him understand. So my advice to you, is not to get involved in this. Don't get caught between powerful factions and dark forces. Go home to your son, take him to the park, take him fishing, take him to the football. Live in peace."
Ray thought of his son, Samuel, sitting in his bedroom in a Metallica tee-shirt, smoking dope and listening to Death Metal, his hair gelled up into a satanic corolla of black, bleary spikes.
"You see, this little story of yours, this little bubble will burst very soon and will become meaningless. Nothing really matters, anyway. At some point, the whole Common Agricultural Policy will be abandoned so that the people of the Third World can compete with us, and then no-one will care that some time in the past a few dozen olive growers made plastic groves. What you want will never last. You see this tree here?" Vinetti gently touched the sinuous branch of a gnarled bonsai, almost as gnarled as he was. "This tree is a Japanese Cedar. It's over 120-years old. It belonged to my great-grandfather, my grand-father, my father, then me. That is called nurturing. How many scandals do you think have come and gone in that time? How many great events? How many important people have risen and fallen? How many investigations have collapsed?"
As he said 'collapsed', he gently released the tiny branch from his finger-tip. He turned to look at Ray, his blue eyes darkened by some indecipherable sadness.
"Unfortunately, I will not pass this tree on to my son. I can only blame myself for that. But you still have your son-don't grow old without him. Don't live to blame yourself. Now, if you will excuse me, I have work to do."
Ray stood up as Vinetti walked past to show him to the door. As he reached Vinetti and stretched out his hand, he said, "But, Signor Vinetti, you have forgotten one thing."
Vinetti paused, for emphasis. "Hah! 'What is truth? Said Pilate, jesting.' A famous Englishman said that. Take my advice, go home, nurture your family." Then he paused again, seemingly brushing away the whole conversation, his face breaking into a smile, "And I hope that your flight back is less eventful than the one here. Speak to my daughter, downstairs, she will arrange you a taxi. Goodbye, Mister Mann."
Ray got in the lift and waited a few seconds before pressing the button. Several thoughts and impressions were whirling around in his mind together. He needed to reflect on all of them but the one that kept forcing its way to the front of the queue was, His daughter! That femme fatale is the old man's daughter? Which means that he must also have a stunningly attractive forty-year old wife tucked away somewhere, some former starlet, ripened to a mature sexiness by the Tuscan sun. Stop it, Ray! Stop thinking about sex. Think about corruption. By the time the lift had descended, and before it had even reached the second floor, Ray had concluded that Vinetti was nothing but a lying old lecher. All that bullshit about his son, the bonsai tree, nurturing your family, was nothing but that: a crock of shit designed to put Ray off the scent and make him forget the story. When he reached the ground floor, Vinetti's daughter was leaning on her elbows smiling at him as he came out the lift. He asked her to book him a taxi and he stood around waiting for it to arrive.
"It'll take a few minutes," she said. "Would you like a coffee or a drink of water while you wait?"
Ray's throat felt dry and he was suddenly too warm. "Water would be good," he said, walking over to the desk.
She got up and fetched him a plastic cup of water from the cooler. He said 'thanks' and then didn't know what else to say, so he said, "Do you live in Torino?"
"Oh yes, well, just outside."
"That must be nice."
"Yes, it is. Do you know Torino very well?"
"No, not really. I slept in the station once when I was backpacking, on my way to India."
"That must have been a long time ago."
Yes, it was, he thought, but wished that she hadn't thought that. "It wasn't the best way to see Italy, in hindsight."
"Sorry, I don't know that word. What did you say? Hind…"
"Hindsight. It means backwards."
She laughed. "You saw Italy backwards?"
Ray put his cup down on the top of the desk. "Ha ha, no… It means, looking back in time you can see something more clearly and make a better judgment on it than when you were there."
"Oh, retrospettivo," she said, nodding her head. And as Ray went to reach for his cup of water she added, "Like when you look in the mirror and see someone looking at you."
Ha ha! Ray knocked the cup off the top of the desk onto her booking diary. She jumped backwards in her chair and said, "Not to worry, not to worry," and held the dripping diary up by its corner, letting the water run down the page, turning the black ink entries into an organic smear of Chinese calligraphy.
"Sorry, I'm so…"
"Oh, it's nothing, nothing. It will dry." She looked over his shoulder with a condescending smile. "Your taxi has arrived."
Ray got back late to his apartment. Along with the other mail on the mat was a plain brown envelope from Michel. It contained copies of the invoices and transactions that Ray had told Vinetti he already had. He listened to his answerphone. There was one message from Caroline: could he bring her back a bottle of Baileys at the weekend because she was going to a dinner party? She was going to a dinner party? What was he doing? The trip to Turin had tired him out and slept better, waking up the next morning earlier than he had done for years. He was in the office before eight-thirty where he ran into Donck who greeted him in his usual ironic manner.
"Good moaning, Raymond. You are in early today. Pissed the bed did you?"
Ray grinned at him and was going to ignore him completely but decided to ask him the time of the editorial meeting.
"Oh, you're going to grace us with your presence today are you? Questions were asked on Tuesday."
"Yeah, I know, but I had a deadline and then something else has come up, which is why I want to be there."
"Oh my god! Don't tell me that you actually have a story, a real original one, not something sent to you by Kristina Schnapps from the Bergendorff, 'would you also like me to lick your balls' department?"
"That's right. I've been earning my salary for a change. So, when is it?"
"Fifteen past the nine-I'll keep you a seat."
Ray sat at his desk. There were about thirty emails in his Inbox, which he decided not to read. Instead he sat back with his arms behind his head watching everyone arrive for work. It was the first time he'd ever bothered to do that, to really look at his colleagues as a group, and it struck him how young they all were. The average age seemed to be about twenty-eight, and if you took him out of the equation, it probably went down to about twenty-three. He was by far the eldest in the company, not that he had ever worried about his age. The only time it had become blatantly obvious to him was once after a birthday drink they'd all ended up at a club called 'The Factory'. It seemed to be a gay venue although, unlike most places in London, they were not heterophobic and let them in without any discussion. The music was mostly garage and techno. When Ray got up to dance with everyone else he realised that dance was like a language that evolves over time. Expressions change, movements become passé, words fall into disuse, rhythms subtly change. As Ray looked around the dance floor, he noticed a consistency to the other dancers' movements that he could not mimic, although he studied it with as much nonchalance as he could. But his movements still felt gawky and ungainly and he had a flashback to when he was about ten years old and he saw his uncle Freddie trying to do the Twist at a Christmas party, flapping his arms like a demented, undignified chicken, his lips pouted in what he must have thought was red-faced hedonism. As he swivelled himself lower and lower, his well-stuffed belly got dangerously behind his centre of gravity until he toppled over backwards and wriggled around for several seconds like an up-ended wood-louse. It was then that Ray understood this new phrase that everyone was tossing around: the Generation Gap.
It pissed Ray off a bit to think that it now applied to him. He'd always been able to do a passable impression of Mick Jagger, albeit a Mick Jagger with a restraining order on his wrists and ankles, but the rave culture had introduced a whole repertoire of wool-spooling hand movements, rattle-whirling arm movements and wine-treading foot movements that he couldn't quite fake. In truth, he felt a bit of a prat, not as humiliated as his uncle Freddie but it was as if some milk-haired youth in crepes and a zoot-suit had walked up to him with a match in the corner of his mouth and said: You're speaking the wrong language, Daddio-it's just not Rock 'n' Roll. Of course, no-one ever actually said that to him, it was almost intangible, the feeling that this is a young company and you're becoming a bit of an embarrassment. Maybe it was Ray's paranoia; maybe it was him saying it to himself; or maybe it was just the way that animals in groups are evolved to identify tiny changes in status, the young upstarts start taking liberties with the Alpha males and before you know it there's been a shift in power and the leader has been supplanted, pushed to skulk around the margins, a figure of pity finally driven out to forage alone on the plains.
Ray was starting to feel himself on the margins. To be honest, it had occurred to him that he hadn't helped himself by arriving at work at around eleven each day, taking no active interest in editorial decisions, and generally taking the piss out of everything they did. If only he sharpened himself up, was enthusiastic, and got himself back in the decision making process, he would soon find himself back at the centre of things. But in order to do that, he reflected, he would have to feel young again, to drag himself from the stool for one big last round. And the only thing that would make him feel like that was if he could do interesting stories, like the Vinetti one. So he had high hopes when they all arrived for the editorial meeting at nine-fifteen. As usual it was chaired by Luke van der Sloot, the Senior Editor, an efficient, Flemish-speaking Belgian. Jacqueline, the head of Advertising, was the first to speak since so many of their editorial decisions were based on who was placing adverts in the magazine. Sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference between the advertising copy and the articles but, presumably, the people that subscribed to the magazine didn't really care, they just wanted a digest of what was happening in the industry and who was producing what.
Jacqueline thought the next issue should be a dairy special, since at least three of the major producers had new products this month. Everyone seemed to be in agreement, although Ray was not really taking an interest since he was only waiting for the moment that he could drop the Vinetti story on them, which could be run as a special feature. Luke was going around the table checking on the status of various assignments while Ray was looking at the fluttering leaves of an office plant that had been placed too close to the air-conditioning unit. All of the leaves on one side of the plant were pale brown, chilled and desiccated by the cold air that blew them upwards until they became so dry that they fell onto the green carpet like a miniature Autumn. Ray watched amused as the leaves, held on by their withered stems, struggled for life and then gave up, one by one. He was transported far away from the meeting when he heard Luke saying his name. "You did that, Ray, didn't you? Ray?"
Ray woke up and looked around. They were all watching him. John Donck said, "Ah, can't take these early mornings, can you Ray." The bastard, Ray thought, I'll get him back for that.
"Sorry," said Ray, "I was just thinking of something else. Can you repeat the question?"
Luke made a sour expression with his mouth. "Did you write the article on cream production in the Netherlands?"
"Er, no, I'm still working on it. I was called off onto something else."
Luke took a deep breath. "Who called you off?"
"Well, it was my decision. I'm going to talk about it in a minute. I have a big story on the Commission."
"Yes, but who asked you do it?"
"Well, like I said, I got this tip off…"
"So no-one here asked you?"
"Well, no, but I thought that when you heard…"
"But the upshot is that you haven't finished the Netherlands article which we need by when…" He looked around at Nathalie, one of the sub-editors.
"Well, tonight really, but at a stretch we could wait till Monday before putting everything together. I can just block it out."
"That'll be tonight, then" said Luke.
"Well, that's not a problem", said Ray, "I can probably finish it in an hour. Should be done by lunch. Maybe now is a good time to talk about the Vinetti story?"
"Yeah, Alberto Vinetti, from Vinetti Enterprises, plastics, you know?"
"No. But we're not interested in plastics."
"That's incidental. The real story is olive oil subsidy fraud..."
A groan went up from around the table and Luke said, "Ray, that is not even news. The Commission has a Directorate that deals with fraud, it's nothing to do with us."
"This is different. It's much bigger. It involves corruption inside the Commission."
Luke winced but Ray carried on. "I think I can say it here, in confidence, but it involves Stella Olafson, and several of her employees. They're all taking kick-backs and she owns a company which provides the plastic trees, through Vinetti, to the olive growers."
Luke threw his pencil down. "Ray, this is just nothing to do with us. We don't do investigations. You can't go off on your own, chasing stories that are of no interest to our readers and irrelevant to our business, just because you want to be Edward Woodward or Le-o-nard Bernstein. We all have to work in this town and it will become impossible if people can't trust us. We're not running that story, you can just forget it."
Ray sat quietly looking at Luke, eye to eye. "Can we talk about it after the meeting? I really think we should be doing this kind of stuff."
"Yes, we can talk about it, but you won't change my mind. You should have talked to me about it first."
Ray felt the humiliation of a public reprimand. He wanted to kick Luke, and Donck. He wanted to assassinate them all. The meeting changed to other subjects and Ray went back to watching the dying pot plant. That is a metaphor for my life, he thought, stuck in boring, lifeless offices, becoming slowly desiccated, all of my vital forces withering away until, one day, I just drop to the floor.
The meeting wound up with apparent consensus. Ray had made no notes apart from 'publish and Edammed'. Everyone else went back to their desks laughing and joking, full of energy and determination. Ray went back to his seething with anger. He pulled up the Netherlands article and just looked at it, as if it was written in ancient Greek and couldn't be deciphered, a collection of empty signs. Anyway, he would be unable to write until he'd had it out with Luke, but he had to wait for Luke to call him. By twelve-thirty Luke had still not called him and Ray could see him through the glass partition, putting on his jacket and scarf, ready to go out for lunch. Ray sauntered over and after tapping politely on the door walked straight in.
"Luke, can we have our discussion before lunch? I need to get it off my chest."
"There's no discussion to have. I told you in the meeting, we're never going to run a story like that."
Ray offered him the envelope containing the invoices and transactions. "At least take a look at the evidence."
Luke looked down at the envelope with contempt. "There's no point. I don't care what it says-we're not touching it."
Ray's anger returned, "Look, I'm trying to do some real journalism here, to raise the profile of this magazine and you're just obstructing it for no good reason."
Luke replied in the same tone, "If we run articles like this, there will be no magazine to raise the profile of. And, if you want to be an investigative journalist, I suggest you go back to England and try and get a job on the Guardian, although, you might find you're too old for that." With that he walked straight past Ray and went to lunch.
Ray returned to his desk angrier than before. Donck came sidling over.
"Ooh, Luke did not look a happy man when he walked past my desk."
"John, why did you make that crack in the meeting, about me being tired?"
"It was a joke."
"No it wasn't-it was a dig at me. I have enough problems as it is without you stirring things up for me."
"Everyone else thought it was funny. We all know you, it was harmless fun. Anyway, that's not your problem. Your big problem is that Luke and Stella Olafson are good friends. I knew as soon as you mentioned her name that you'd lost it: Mister Shit, let me introduce you to Mrs Fan."
"Really? You're pulling my plonker!"
"No, really, straight up."
"You're pulling my plonker straight up."
"No, seriously, I'm not. It's true. Their families even go on holiday together. You're fucked mate. If I were you, I'd take that envelope home with you and burn it. Pretend that you've never seen it and then get your head down and taste the cream."
Ray realised there was no way out of this. Luke would never run the story and Ray would now be persona non grata because of what he knew. So even if he was now prepared to give up all his ambitions and settle down to a quiet life writing about cheese, he'd probably find himself obstructed at every turn. Luke wouldn't be happy until Ray was out the company. But there was no reason for him to leave. So long as he behaved himself and gave them no reason to sack him, he could hang on indefinitely, filing crap copy and attending boring meetings, being slowly alienated from the office banter, an embarrassment to everyone. But how long could he survive doing that? At some point he would go out of his mind, or just become more and more grumpy and miserable, to the point where no-one would want to go out for lunch with him or drink after work. It was as if Ray had reached a crisis moment in his life and had to make a big decision. Like big decisions often are, it was made without thinking: he wrote a letter to the European Anti-Fraud Office detailing the whole scam, signed his own name on it, and put the letter inside the envelope with all his documentary evidence.
In his lunchbreak he walked down the Rue de la Loi and posted the letter by hand. The moment he'd done it he got a feeling of trepidation in his stomach, that feeling you get on a roller-coaster just as you go over the top and you're not sure what is coming next. He half toyed with the idea of trying to retrieve it but it was too late, it was already in the maw of the beast, being digested by the bureaucratic intestines of the Commission. Instead, he walked to a small bar in place de Luxembourg and sat drinking Stella, watching the trains pulling in and out from the old-fashioned station, imagining he was some peripheral character in a Simenon story, secure in an earlier period of time, not his own, back in the days when smoking wasn't bad for you. When he got back to the office he quickly finished the Netherlands article and just dropped it on Nathalie's desk without comment. He could have made a point about it but decided not to. Then he did some admin work, tidying up his files, and filled out an expenses claim for the Turin trip.
It was Friday afternoon, so like every other Friday for the last three years he left work early and made his way to the airport to fly back to London. The airport was packed, as usual, and even though he always flew Business Class, there was a long queue for the check-in. Some guy behind him was yabbering into his mobile the whole time, arranging a dinner party with his wife back in Surrey. There was someone that he didn't want to attend and he kept repeating, "Strike out Roger, darling, Roger is a bore." He was getting on Ray's nerves and he wanted to tell him to shut up but thought that they might end up sitting next to each other on the plane and didn't want to make a scene. In the queue next to theirs, the one for Barcelona, the ground stewardess was explaining to a man that the flight was overbooked. He was obviously unfamiliar with this routine practice because he was shouting, "How the fuck can you have overbooked the flight? All you have to do it is sell one-hundred and twenty tickets and then stop-a frickin' child could do it." The woman stayed calm and said, "I'm sorry sir, but if you don't stop using such language I will have to call Security. If you calm down, I will see what I can do for you."
The man stopped swearing but carried on raving at her. Ray watched his angry features like watching a cartoon, muscles stretching all over the place, lifting his eyebrows, pulling down his mouth, blowing out his cheeks. It was a comical display, he thought, the human beast in the grip of anger. The other passengers just looked bored, waiting for this minor interruption to be cleared away so that they could get on with their journeys. After checking in, Ray went to the First Class lounge and had a couple of whiskies. His plane was delayed by thirty minutes and he sat in his comfortable armchair with a bowl of cheese nibbles and a plastic cup of whisky and coke watching the silent TV showing pictures from CNN News, something about Afghanistan, men in beards and turbans on a dusty plain gesticulating at a mountain. The lounge was dark and quiet but, despite being busy, very few people knew or spoke to each other; they just sat there in their own worlds reading the free papers and magazines or typing into their laptops. Ray thought about what a weird week it had been, starting with that totally unnecessary trip to Amsterdam, then the suicide, ending with that depressing conversation with Luke. As he watched the First Class travellers entering and leaving through the silent sliding door, towing their sensible little suitcases on wheels that you bump up the escalator, rattle along the moving walkways, and store so conveniently in the overhead locker, he started to feel a growing sense of boredom and irritation. What was the point of it all? He started to get that trapped panicky feel that he'd had on the flight to Turin. It felt like he had some urgent need to get out of his body and leave it behind, accompanied by a light floating feeling as if his insides were being churned by a food whisk. The only other times he could recall a similar sensation was once when he was at teenage party and somebody had given him a pill which had made him paranoid and sick for about four hours, and the other was when his eldest son was about four and he carelessly took him on a fairground ride that turned out to be too scary and fast for him. Strapped into their seats as the ride became more and more violent, Ray looked with growing apprehension at the boy's terrified face until he experienced the same sense of panic himself, a dread mix of empathy and guilt, trapped on a ride he couldn't leave. He noticed that his palms were sweating, even though the lounge was air-conditioned, so he left his drink on the table and walked down to the gate where the regular commuters were milling around like restless bears, waiting to get home.
He joined the queue for the plane but it wasn't moving yet and they could see the plane out on the apron still being serviced by the catering and cleaning crews. Ground staff chatted to each other and took messages on their walkie-talkies while the waiting passengers watched them expectantly like animals about to be fed, hoping that soon whatever unknown obstacles there were would be cleared and they could get to their seats before the plane could be taken away from them. Then it started, with a frisson of expectancy as the ground stewardess unhooked the rope barrier and then announced boarding; they shuffled slowly forwards like people at a soup-kitchen, patiently obedient, knowing that they had a seat with their number on it and a little reward in the form of a cheese roll or a piece of cake and a cup of coffee. When Ray got to his seat, he found a man in it. He was very very fat, not that Ray held anything against fat people, it was just that he assumed that the man had got into the wrong seat and should be sitting next to him, in which case he would take up Ray's space. Aware that he was holding up the queue of people behind him, Ray told the man that he was in his seat and asked him to move. The man, who had olive complexion and black hair, looked at Ray for a second without responding. Then he just shook his head and said, "No, this is my seat," and turned his head to look out the window. Ray started to get annoyed and embarrassed. He took out his ticket and checked that he had the right seat: he did. He asked the man again, with a note of anger in his voice, but he just looked at Ray with an expression close to pity-his eyes were black and smoky, like he was feeling shame on Ray's behalf. Ray was getting hotter and tenser, aware of irritated comments coming from people in the queue behind him. He asked if he could see the man's boarding-card but he was ignored. Then something weird happened to him. He felt himself becoming suddenly enraged, like you do with a child when they've driven you to the point of exasperation, but it was as if all this pressure was building up inside a confined space and was about to explode so that he could hear a hissing noise like the sound a wave makes when it breaks and you're underneath it, a muted roar. Then he felt as if he wasn't in his own body but instead was up on the ceiling looking down; he could see the heads of everyone in their seats and he could see his own head at the front of the queue with everyone behind him, even having time to observe how much his bald spot had grown in the last year. Everything was clear and correct from that perspective-he was watching himself act. Then he saw himself leaning over the fat man. He had hold of the fat man's tie and he heard a voice which sounded like his own, shouting, "Look, fat boy, get out my seat now or I'll personally kick your fat fucking arse all the way from here to Timbuktu!"
And then it was over. The sound was gone and he was back in his body. The fat man didn't blink an eye. He just removed Ray's hand from his tie and looked right out the window. By this time a stewardess had arrived and asked Ray to calm down. He shouted at her, "I am fucking calm!" She reminded him about his language and threatened him with eviction from the plane. That calmed him down-the thought of spending the weekend in Brussels when he everyone he knew had left their subsidised apartments and taken their subsidised flights back to their subsidised homes in their subsidised countries. And besides, people behind him were 'tut-tutting' and he thought he heard someone call him a jerk. Ray explained the problem and the stewardess asked the fat man for his boarding-card, which he produced without any fuss. He was right, it was for the same seat as Ray. The stewardess took control and led Ray to the front of the plane, past the queue of people who now ignored him as if their only interest in him had been in his role as an obstacle to them getting to their seats. Now that the blockage had been removed he was as relevant to them as a hair-ball that's been sucked up a vacuum cleaner. The stewardess checked the boarding list and said that there was a spare seat in Economy class, if he didn't mind. No, he didn't. Well, he did but he didn't, he wouldn't: if only they got him back to Gatwick tonight, he would travel in the wheel bay strapped to the undercarriage eating only tyre rubber and drinking from a grease-nipple, whatever it took to get him home.
Once he was settled into Economy he'd calmed down enough to reflect on what had just happened. He couldn't remember the last time he'd lost his temper. Something is up with me, he thought. He wondered if he should apologise to the fat man on the way out; after all, it wasn't his fault, but why wouldn't he show him his boarding card? Something about him seemed vaguely familiar. Maybe he knew him through work, met him once at some promo, the fat man on the stand with access to all the nibbles he could possibly want. Once Ray was completely calmed he noticed that there was a young woman next to him. She must have been waiting to make eye contact because as soon as they did she said, in a West Coast accent, "Jeez, you got pretty wound up back there."
She had blonde straight hair, blue eyes, freckles, a crooked tooth-she was a young Joni Mitchell with a diamond in her nose. She smelled of flowers. He suddenly felt embarrassed by his business suit, his receding hair, his rolling gut, his face that was twenty years too old. What should he say? I'm unhappy, my life is a mess, my wife doesn't understand me, I don't understand my children, I work with morons, I'm a moron, my brother is a moron, and so is my wife; my dad doesn't speak to me, I feel sorry for my mum, all my friends are business acquaintances, I haven't sung spontaneously for fifteen years, I don't know how to dance, I have no hobbies, I can't do anything at all apart from put bread on the table, I can't get out of bed in the morning until I've had a wank? Should he say that? Best not. Ray looked at her again-maybe she could fancy an older guy. He smiled, he grinned, he almost laughed: they're always having problems with that fat man, he has some kind of mental problem but he also happens to be very rich, so he just sits wherever he likes and the airline is too scared to move him. What can you do with rich people, eh?
He found out her name was Briney, maybe Briony, and that she was indeed an artist (how interesting! just like Joni), and that she was on her way to London for an exhibition of her work at the Laurel Street gallery and then she was going back to California to get married. Wow, that's fantastic! And she didn't speak to him again for the rest of the flight. Well she did say something, but that was after they'd landed and were about to get off. In the meantime, Ray started fantasising about her, her life, her friends, her work, her exhibitions, her lovers, her body. The flight got choppy and after about ten minutes he started to get that feeling of panic again. It started in his stomach and then worked itself outwards, ending in his fingers which were contracted like a claw. Or maybe it started in his imagination and worked its way back through his body. He wasn't sure which but either way he felt out of control, a sense of wanting to run away so that he could assert himself again. But there was nowhere to run and he felt completely helpless, subject to forces his ego could do nothing about. He told himself that this was stupid, they weren't going to crash, statistics proved it but he quickly realised that he wasn't panicking because he thought he was going to crash: he was panicking because he was panicking.
He remembered nothing about the last half of the flight except all his muscles being tensed up with fear. By the time they landed he could feel sweat running down his back and soaking his shirt. He wasn't used to being embarrassed, to feeling a twat, to being afraid, but it seemed to be becoming a frequent occurrence. He could feel it undermining his confidence. Again he told himself, I need to think seriously about my life. He stood up to wait for the queue to move off, his head ducked under the overhead lockers. The American girl waited a few seconds and stood up next to him. Reflecting on it later, Ray thought that he must have had a pained expression on his face. He wasn't even aware of her watching him but as the queue started moving she smiled really sweetly and looked him in the eye, she even touched his arm like he was someone she knew and cared about, and she said, "You know what? I think that life is like a movie; everyone has a part to play, but sometimes you just end up in the wrong movie, and then you have to find a way out. You have to write your own movie." And with that, she walked out of his life forever.
O Caroline No
As Ray took the train back from Gatwick, he thought about that girl's touch on his arm. He couldn't remember the last time a girl had touched his arm like that, with tenderness. He and Caroline barely touched these days, and when they kissed it was perfunctory. Sex occurred about once a month and he was sure that was only because it would seem abnormal if they didn't do it occasionally. When he got back to the house he found two of Caroline's friends in the lounge, having a drink, all dressed up to go out. Tracy, a petite natural blonde, who was in her mid thirties, seemed already half-drunk.
"Hi, Ray, how was Brussels this week?"
"Okay, thanks. Where's Caroline?"
"She's upstairs." Then she laughed, "And how's your Belgian bit on the side?"
"I should be so lucky. Why do you always think I must have another woman?"
"Well, come on, you've got a flat in Brussels, away from home, time on your hands. Most men would give their right arm to be in your position." Then she started prodding him, "Come on, Ray, what's her name then? Got yourself a nice twenty-five year old?"
"No, I haven't. I work too hard and I don't have the time, even if I wanted to."
She turned to her friend Melanie and said, "Well, I know my husband would. I wouldn't trust him to live on his own in Brussels."
Ray went upstairs and walked into the bedroom where Caroline was getting ready. She was standing in front of the mirror, applying her mascara.
"Hiya. Good week?"
"Hmmm, okayish. I flew to Turin to track someone down but the story came to nothing."
She was already not listening to what he was saying. "Did you get my Baileys?"
"Yeah. Where are you going tonight?"
"Clubbing. Don't wait up for me."
The days of his waiting up for her were long gone. He didn't even bother asking her, when she came in, what she'd been up to because he probably wouldn't like the truth if she was prepared to tell it.
"Where are the kids?"
"Jen has gone to Charlotte's birthday sleep-over and Sam is staying at a friend's, so you have the place to yourself."
"That's nice," Ray said sarcastically.
"Don't be like that. I bet you enjoyed yourself in Turin."
"I was only there six hours."
"So you haven't been out at all this week?"
"I met Michel for a drink."
"Oh. Well, you can get an early night at least-you look tired."
"So when's the dinner party then?"
"Tomorrow. It's just a girly thing."
"Why is it?"
"I didn't arrange it, it's at Melanie's."
"Why don't men and women ever do anything together these days? Every time you go out it's girls only. Well, women only."
She turned around and looked at him with one eyebrow arched where she was still applying her makeup. The mascara brush was rested on the long lashes.
"Maybe it's just our age. We've done all that couples things, haven't we. We're both bored of it. Anyway, you used to say it was so bourgeois. It was you who got fed up with it before me; I was always trying to get you to go out as a gang, bowling or something."
"I don't like bowling. It's boring."
"Well, anything. I think you lost your sense of fun."
"I don't want to talk about it. I just get pissed off coming home and being on my own all the time."
"Well, you could arrange to go out with your mates."
Ray didn't have any mates, and she knew it. He'd lost contact with most of his friends since he'd been working abroad, and the ones that he did have had their own families and stayed in at the weekend. Anyway, it wasn't that that he wanted. He wanted company, intimacy, affection. He wanted a woman. He wanted what he used to have with Caroline. As she put her top on and looked at herself in the mirror, she said, "There's a Marks and Sparks chicken tikka in the fridge. You can just stick it in the microwave."
He went downstairs and went straight into the kitchen to avoid the others. They left after about ten minutes and he watched them disappear down the hallway as they called out 'goodbye', all sexily dressed in short skirts and strappy tops. They left a wave of mixed perfumes in the hallway, which he smelt as he carried his dinner on a tray into the lounge. They won't buy many of their own drinks tonight, he thought. He ate his dinner while watching Have I Got News for You but for some reason it didn't make him laugh. Normally he liked it as a way of catching up on the news he'd missed while being away but tonight he thought the humour sardonic and supercilious. He flipped channels but it seemed it was just nineteen channels of crap, so he turned it off altogether. He sat there in the lounge, on his own, thinking about his marriage, and the thought occurred to him: I couldn't be more alone if I was alone.
He decided to check his emails before he went to bed. There was a friendly one from an American Corporation promising him a big dick and another offering him a Russian Lady. He was just about to do a Delete All when he saw one from Friends Reunited. He'd been on there a couple of years back, had contacted a few old friends, caught up on their news, and then done nothing more about it. He wasn't particularly happy at school and had no desire to rekindle old friendships or flames. He opened the mail. It was from someone called Rolan Grey, a name that looked like a typo and meant nothing to him at all. The message had only one line: "You don't remember me do you?" Ray looked at the name, and the guy was right-nothing registered in his memory. He went through the faces of all the boys in his class and nowhere would that name attach itself. So he followed the link to the Friends Reunited web site but when he got there he'd forgotten his password and couldn't be bothered to recover it. He assumed it must be a mistake and deleted it, then cleared his Deleted folder to get rid of the spam. He'd heard stories of people signing up to schools they'd never attended just so that they could go to the reunions. They were lonely shut-outs desperate to make contact with imaginary school friends so that they could create new, richer lives for themselves and inherit dozens of new contacts without having to do any of the hard work.
Although he'd been up early that morning, and his body clock was still on European time so that it was actually 11:40 not 10:40, he still wasn't tired. He went back in the lounge and flicked through the News channels to see what was happening. All of them had the same story from Afghanistan; images of the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These beautiful, 2000-year old sculptures, unique examples of Graeco-Buddhist art, one of them over fifty metres high, created out of devotion to a faith that preaches harmony and moderation, were being systematically destroyed by a bunch of illiterate, ignorant religious bigots. Long shots across the Bamiyan valley showed distant puffs of smoke when the dynamite exploded, followed by the dull thud of tank shells. Close to the camera, excited voices could be heard crying "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) and "Ma Sha'Allah" (Whatever God Wills). My god is greater than your god; my book is better than your book; my guns are bigger than your guns. It seemed the world was full of bullies.
Ray went to bed but couldn't sleep. Seeing those pictures of Bamiyan stirred up memories. He'd been to Afghanistan when he was twenty-two, had stood in that very spot and seen the huge Buddhas carved into the rhubarb-red sandstone cliffs. He still had a photograph of his girlfriend, who became his wife and the mother of his children, standing at the foot of the biggest Buddha. Her head didn't even reach the top of the Buddha's big toe as she stood side by side with a goofy looking Afghan guide wearing a dilapidated uniform and a peaked army hat that was two sizes too big for him and fell over his eyes. He'd refused to let them take a photo unless he was in it, a kind of baksheesh, I suppose, since they didn't know enough about that custom to offer him money, which is probably what he really wanted. So now he'd ended up as part of their history, grinning foolishly next to Caroline as she stood, smiling in the sun, beneath the perfect Hindu-Kush blue skies. She was wearing blue jeans and a brown tee-shirt and a wisp of her long brown hair was picked up and blown across her mouth by the breeze that came down the valley from Central Asia.
As Ray lay in bed he tried to go back to how he felt about her then, how young and in love they were, how much they'd shared together on that trip to India, hitchhiking through Europe then taking buses and trains all the way from Istanbul, through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. So many memories; so many shared experiences. Then suddenly, twenty years had passed, they had three children, two of them left, or almost left, home, the last one a teenager and already semi adrift, spending more time with his friends than with his family. And he thought about how he and Caroline had also changed from those skinny fresh-faced backpackers naively and innocently wandering through foreign lands and dangerous places without so much as a guide-book (it seemed that the lonely planet was not quite so lonely in those days). He'd become overweight and bored with family life. Maybe it was just that they'd had their children so far apart that it seemed he'd been doing the same thing for twenty years: reading bedtime stories, arranging birthday parties, driving them to clubs, swimming lessons, attending parents' evenings, helping with the school fund-raising, campaigning at school Governors' meetings, and repeating the same routine day after day, month after month, year after year. It was that boredom that drove him to work abroad, thinking that by seeing each other only at the weekends they would create a new momentum and discover a new energy in their relations. It seemed to work for a while and then that became its own routine and they were just growing further and further apart, becoming different people.
And he thought how it must have been the same for Caroline: every day for twenty years deciding what to feed the children for breakfast, lunch and dinner, doing the school run, going to the shops, washing and cleaning, nursing sick children, filling out forms, solving the same little squabbles. He'd watched her change and lose interest. Like him, at some point she'd just run out of steam, looked around and said, Where did my life go? And then she'd tried belatedly to get it back, to look younger, to lose weight, to start enjoying herself again. She'd joined a gym and started fitness training, using the sun-beds, toning up and tanning out. She'd started lunching with her girlfriends, eating out, clubbing, dancing, having fun. It was almost like she'd decided (or something inside had decided for her), she'd had enough of being a mother and a housewife and now wanted to be something else, to find the life she'd missed through being domesticated. She signed up for courses at night-school, then took a full-time course in Graphic Design, then started working for herself from home. He could tell by the energy she exuded, the animation in her voice and face, that she had suddenly realised that she could do something else, be someone else, someone more like the person she'd been twenty years before. She'd woken up to the fact that, like Ray, she'd ended up in the wrong movie. But she'd done something about it. Ray lay there in the dark and smiled to himself: at least she had the balls to change her life.
But all of these changes and decisions had left them further apart than before. He looked back over that long vista of twenty years to when they'd climbed up the staircase behind the Buddha's leg and emerged fifty-five metres higher, jumping a gap to land on the flattened head, shorn of it's top-knot by the iconoclastic Moghul emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century. And they'd walked around together, both fearful of getting too close to the edge of the fragile sandstone, but overawed by the height, the view across the Bamiyan plain where the Kushan tribes and their descendants had led their camel herds and camped for generations. It was a scene of perfect peace. They held hands and looked out in wonder from beneath the overhang of rock, a moment in time, with an unknown future ahead of them. And now Ray lay there and thought of how their marriage had imploded and collapsed around them, without either of them really willing it, just like those huge Buddhas collapsing with a cloud of red dust into a pile of rubble at what was once their feet.
It happened almost out of inertia, or maybe it was fate. They'd started out at the same point, like two trains at a station, but as time went on their tracks got further and further apart. They tried desperately to yoke them together, kept tugging back to where they could still communicate and share feelings, to make it like it was, but they were becoming different people, inevitably breaking apart. Maybe they'd never been the same. Maybe what had happened was that their lives had just happened to intersect at the point when they'd met and they'd had the same wishes and desires, which masked the fact that they were really quite different and wanted different things out of life. As the years rolled by, these differences became more obvious until, like fault lines running through rock formations, they could not be disguised. The earth was shifting, the tectonic plates were slipping, and soon they would have to separate.
As Ray drifted off to sleep, images of Caroline ran through his mind. Every few years her hair had changed: first, the waist-length natural beauty of the young girl in the Bamiyan photo; then the shoulder-length practical cut of the new nursing mum; then her first perm when he'd opened the door to her and tried to look pleased because she seemed so, even though the curls were a shock to him; then, when the first traces of grey appeared, bronze highlights; and now, the dyed-blonde short-cut of the independent woman. Each of these changes in hairstyle had also been a change inside of her until, now, she was transformed from the girl he used to know. As he finally drifted off into darkness, the refrain from the Beach Boys song came into his head:
Where did your long hair go
Ray woke at four from a bad dream. Caroline was still not in and it was starting to get light. He rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. Then he heard a car pull up outside and she came in the front door quietly and crept into the bedroom. He pretended to be asleep. She got in bed next to him, smelling of drink and cigarettes, even though she didn't smoke. He wondered where she'd been but didn't want to ask her. In fact, he thought she was looking at him in the dark so he changed his breathing so that it became more of a light snore. Satisfied that he was asleep she lay down and was asleep in seconds. Their bodies barely touched.
She slept in with a hangover the next morning but was recovered enough to go out again the next night to her dinner party. Ray cooked for himself and the two kids and they all sat together and watched a video, American Beauty. At the end of the film, Jen got up to go to bed and Ray had a sudden sense of parting, as if this seventeen-year old girl was soon to go out of his life forever. Who knew what would happen once she went to university? What would happen to all of them? He grabbed hold of her hand as she went past his chair and said, "Give your old dad a kiss, Jen." She made some yucky sound and objected but walked round behind him and, holding his head in both hands, kissed him on the top of it. "Hey, old man, you're going bald," she said. "I've never noticed that before." Then Ray and Sam sat for a while and watched monster trucks rolling over cars. Ray thought it was just cheap television and would have turned over but Sam liked it, and laughed when a truck got stuck and had to be pulled free by a monster monster truck. Hehehehe, hehehehe. Goodnight.
Monday morning, 6 o'clock, and Ray was back at Gatwick, the old Gatwick to Brussels metronome, back and forth, back and forth like a pendulum. At that time of morning he was still in a dream. You are coming to the end of the conveyor belt, start walking now. He started walking. Time for a quick coffee and a look around at who was travelling. All the familiar faces, regulars he'd been watching and avoiding speaking to every week for the last three years. Hang on, that makes about 150 return flights, two hours per flight, total 600 hours, that's twenty-five days he'd spent in their company and never bothered to speak to them. Imagine spending twenty-five days with someone and not speaking to them! That's incredible, and then he thought of the last holiday he took with his wife and family where they managed to present the image of a happy family for two weeks while communicating only in grunts.
It was a perfect flight. The plane was half full and the weather was calm. No need to panic, thought Ray, as he leaned back in his seat and waited for the friendly stewards to deliver his hot bacon roll and fresh coffee. He wondered what science they used to make everything seem fresh: the coffee, the food, even the stewards. It was as if they'd all been freshly unwrapped and emerged smiling and fragrant with the dawn, happy to be assisting you. Ray thought how privileged and lucky he was. He looked out the window and saw the creamy tops of the clouds stained orange by the breaking sun. As the plane tilted left to cross the channel the sky above them was a deep blue and there was a full moon hanging there, pale and lined, like the face of a familiar friend who had been there forever, looking down on thousands of generations of human beings and their non-human ancestors. It crossed Ray's mind that in fifty years commuters like him would be leaving their homes and heading off to the moon. More than likely, all the world's database servers would have been relocated there to protect them from terrorist attack and there would be little communities of ex-pat IT workers sat around in dome-covered drinking places discussing their tax breaks. Or maybe not. You only had to go back twenty years and they'd predicted (on Tomorrow's World probably), that by the year two thousand we'd all have grapefruit-sized nuclear generators in our homes, be travelling in our own private bubble-copters between dome-covered eco-friendly cities, disease and poverty would be eradicated, and you would be able to speak to your aunt in Australia using a private video phone strapped to your wrist. They'd been proven wrong about all of them except the last, and it was comforting to know that whatever happens, we care about our relatives.
Ray arrived at the office and everyone was working intently. It was gone eleven, his normal Monday start time. Some of the other guys who commuted came back on the Sunday night in order to get into the office early, but Ray thought that would eat into his weekend so he preferred to make the time up in the week. Well, that was the theory; these days he just worked a shorter week. On his desk was his expenses claim from the week before with a 'rejected' stamp on it. He went to Accounts and asked what had happened and Stephanie, the controller, said that Luke had refused to approve it. Ray spent the rest of the morning trying to approach Luke to talk about it but Luke was busy in his office, on the phone, in meetings, and whenever he got a spare moment, Luke just waved him away. Ray decided to work late, knowing that he could get Luke alone. Sure enough, nearly everyone else was gone and the Bosnian refugee cleaner had just arrived and was emptying the plastic bin liners with a sullen downcast look, when Ray saw Luke leaning back in his chair with his arms behind his head. The door to the office was open and Ray tapped on it and walked in. Luke raised his eyebrows and said, "Yes?" in a half-friendly, half-irritated kind of way.
"You rejected my expenses for last week."
"Yup. I think you know why."
"They were unapproved. You weren't asked to go to Turin."
"I've done things before without being asked and had my expenses paid."
"That was probably on legitimate business."
"In the past you've let me decide what's legitimate."
"Maybe you're losing your touch."
Ray started getting angry, "What?"
"Maybe you can no longer decide what's a story and what isn't."
"Maybe we should talk about the real reason you rejected that story."
Luke took his feet down from off the desk and leaned forward in his chair, looking at Ray with an open curiosity. "And what's that?"
"Mrs Olafson is a friend of yours."
Luke laughed. He tidied up some papers on his desk and avoided the question, "How old are you now, Ray?"
"What's that got to do with it?"
"Well, it seems to me that you're a bit late in life to start becoming ambitious. I mean, if you'd really wanted to do something with your life and be a serious journalist, you wouldn't work for European Food. We all know what we're about and it's not uncovering wrong-doings at the Commission. We're here to help trade, to oil the wheels of business and generally keep the world informed, in as colourful way as possible, about what the movers and shakers at the top think is worth telling. We're not the movers and shakers, Ray, we're just lackeys. But that's okay. We get paid alright, we have a nice life, we get invited out to nice lunches and dinners at the best restaurants in Brussels. We get put up free at five-star hotels and are wined and dined in luxurious surroundings. Everyone is friendly, because they all have something to trade. Hell, we even get laid occasionally, and it's all kept within the family. No-one needs to know. And that's just the way it is. There are thirty-four people out there who pay their bills on the back of it, thirty-five if you count the refugee, and there's no way I'm going to let you wreck that just because you are having some mid-life crisis of conscience."
Ray tried to interrupt but Luke just held up his hand. "Stop. Don't say anything you might regret. Let's pretend that last week didn't happen. You say nothing. I'll say nothing. Take your little folder and put it in the shredder. Let's go back to how we were before. But Ray, do me a favour, will you? Try and arrive on time in the mornings and look enthusiastic about things. I know it's hard but it's not as hard as what that guy out there is doing. Think about it. And now," he said, putting his coat on, "I have to attend cocktails at the European Parliament. Enjoy your evening."
Ray walked back to his flat carrying his overnight bag with his week's clothes in it. He knew that Luke was right and that it was his problem, not theirs. He'd been happy working there for three years but now he was fucking up. As he thought about the folder he'd left at the Commission, he got an empty sick feeling in his stomach. He felt hot and sweaty and his mind raced with thinking what the repercussions might be. It was only a matter of time before someone there contacted Luke, formally or informally. Even if they decided not to start an investigation, someone would leak it that Ray knew. His cards were marked.
He let himself through the heavy art-deco doors into the large hallway. The house was quiet apart from the subdued sound of a television coming from the concierge's ground-floor flat. Ray walked under the wide winding staircase to collect his post from the pigeonholes. He put the key into the lock but it wouldn't turn. He pulled the key back out to check it but as he did so, the door opened. There were about three or four letters in there. Ray took them out-they had all been ripped open. He looked around, instinctively, to see who was around, but there was no-one. He took the letters and locked the door and knocked at the concierge's. The concierge, a World War II veteran with a limp, looked suspiciously round the door and then smiled when he recognised Ray. They both walked over to the pigeon-holes and examined the lock. Ray showed him the letters and the concierge scratched his head with an extremely concerned look on his face. He shook his head and shrugged at the same time, pursing his lips and blowing out his cheeks as if it helped him to think how such a thing could have happened. Ray didn't want to make a big stir about it and the concierge had no theories as to who could have done it or why they would only open Ray's mail, so they left it at that. As Ray walked upstairs, the concierge was still there tapping on all the pigeon-hole doors and pulling at them to see if there were others that could open.
Ray's mail was all junk and he wondered if there was other mail that had been stolen. His flat seemed terribly empty after being in the house with the kids at the weekend. He sat down and looked around at the walls, and the furniture he didn't own, and decided to go out and think. He walked along Rue Royale, past the palace and on towards Schaarbeek. Who would break into his mail box? They didn't break in, it was opened. So they had a key or they picked the lock. The concierge had a key. Maybe he'd opened it for whoever it was. He was a bit shifty and he'd once lied when he said that he didn't have any spare bags for the vacuum cleaner; Ray had seen a whole pile of them on that trolley thing he pushed around. No, that was probably because he just thought that Ray was rich enough and old enough to buy his own bags. So it was someone else then, someone professional. But if they'd been professional, they would have locked the box again afterwards. In fact, they would have taken the letters away, steamed them open, resealed them and put them back the next day-he would never have known. Which means? Which means that whoever did it wanted him to know. Someone was intimidating him.
Ray stopped and thought: Who would do that to me? It's something to do with the Commission. No, it's Vinetti. It's both. Someone at the Commission has spoken to Vinetti who has spoken to some gangsters in Brussels. Ray had recently read a report in the Le Soir newspaper that said that every international criminal organisation had a foothold in Belgium, mostly operating through legitimate businesses with which to front their activities. Ray tried to remember Vinetti's actual words when he'd warned him off. What was it? Don't get caught between powerful factions and dark forces. What did he mean? Who were the powerful factions? If it involved Italy it had to be the Mafia. Who were the dark forces? Belgian gangsters? The Commission? Shit, now that he thought of it, there were all kinds of links between the Establishment and the criminal underworld. What about the whole Dutroux scandal, all the people who had died during the investigation, all the suicides, murders, and mysterious deaths? Why had they sat on the case for so long? Ray managed to think himself into a state of pure panic. He jumped on a tram to get him away from the Royal Palace and the City Hall with their bullying facades.
The tram was busy and he had to sit knee-to-knee facing an Algerian guy with pock-marked skin. He must have noticed that Ray was stressed up because he kept looking at him. Ray thought his arm was trembling. He looked down at it; it wasn't but he held it anyway, in case it started. The man looked down at Ray's hand holding the other arm. They looked each other in the eye. Who's looking at who? Along the tram there came a Bosnian refugee woman, begging. She was dressed in piles of dirty colourful rags and shawls and looked like something out of a Nativity play, a child who'd been dressed by their mother in every discarded curtain and scarf she could find. As the woman got closer, Ray realised that amongst her shawls she was suckling a baby. Her large brown tit was hanging halfway down her belly and the child was resting there, held in the crook of her arm. With her other arm she held out a pot and begged with supplicating eyes and little moaning sounds. She was probably not much older than forty but she looked seventy-her face was hard and lined, carved from the rock of suffering. Ray tried to picture her back in Yugoslavia, before the war, then her house being hit by shells, Srebrenica, boom! a puff of smoke, fleeing through the trees pursued by rapists and murderers, your children dragging behind you crying. And you lose everything and end up in Brussels, baring yourself to strangers. The Algerian guy shook his head to her and looked out the window. Ray reached in his pocket and gave her a euro. She muttered, 'merci, merci' and walked off down the tram, quietly pleading.
It was now getting dark and the tram was in a neighbourhood Ray didn't know. He thought he should get out before it went too far. It was a busy, immigrant neighbourhood, with lots of 24-hour shops advertising international phone calls. There were cafes filled with men, Turks and Algerians. The women were nowhere to be seen. Ray told himself that he needed to calm down, go for a drink, but not here. He came to the brow of hill and looked down. He could see the lines of the main railway slicing through the houses at the bottom. He knew that if he walked down there, he could get to the Gare du Nord and then back to the metro. As he made his way down, he thought about what had happened. He needed to speak to Michel to see if he'd heard anything. He took out his mobile but then thought better, they might be listening to him. So he went back to one of the phone cafes and found himself a booth. He rang Michel's house, which was in a small town outside of Brussels. He imagined him at home with his wife and two young girls, sitting on the carpet, playing some jolly game with them after having had a delicious meal he'd cooked himself. Then getting them ready for bed, reading them a story, carrying them on his back up the stairs and settling them down with some considered words and gentle touch on the forehead. The phone rang and rang. Ray looked around the café at the men drinking coffee and playing cards, then Michel's wife answered.
"Oh, hi, this is Raymond, I'm a friend of Michel's."
"Ray. Ray Mann."
"Oh, Raymond, yes, Michel spoke of you. How are you?"
"I'm fine thanks. I was wondering if I could speak to Michel."
"No, I'm afraid he's not here. He's gone to a conference in Canada."
"Canada? Do you know when he will be back?"
"He said he should be back on Thursday."
Thursday? Shit, that's three days away. "Okay, thanks. Does he have his mobile with him?"
"Yes, but I tried to ring him and I couldn't get through. You could try it, maybe. Okay? Yes, yes, good evening."
Ray left the café and pulled out his mobile. Is it safe? He was desperate for information, or just someone to speak some sense to him. He rang anyway, but there was a continuous dead tone. He walked down to the railway tracks. It was definitely a dodgy part of town; derelict railyards and warehouses overlooked by rows of crumbling tenements stuffed full of poor immigrants. He took a wrong turn down a narrow alley into a large interior courtyard with tenements on all four sides, connected by washing lines with laundry on them. From a balcony on the third floor a dark-eyed child stared at him through the railings. Somewhere inside, he heard a woman screeching. Ray turned around and went back out. He then found himself on a narrow track beside the railway fence. He'd seen this scene before somewhere: a wire fence, half a dozen railway tracks interweaving, cuttings and sidings, flat-back freight carriages abandoned nowhere, a tangle of overhead lines decorated with intermittent smudgy lights, the fascinating geometrics of stockyard machinery and gantries in silhouette, a clear night sky with a full moon shining down. And on the far side of the tracks, inaccessible, haunting, and nostalgic, a perfect art-deco town house with all its lights on, inviting and impossible. He stood there for a while watching the deserted yards below the indifferent heavens and he became aware of how strange, how lonely it was to be there, in that place, on his own, for no reason. He thought, What the fuck am I doing here? I should be at home with my family. Do I have a family?
He followed the tracks south towards the Gare du Nord and then turned up into the collection of ramshackle streets that comprise the red light district. As he saw the first of the women sitting in their windows, advertising their wares, he remembered where he'd seen that railyard scene before. It was a picture in the museum of modern art, one of the many Paul Delvaux paintings that showed the Brussels railyards at night. But in the Delvaux painting there had been a familiar, reassuring railway porter in a cape and peaked hat, with his back to the viewer, walking along swinging a small oil-lamp. And walking at right-angles to him, across the picture, a pale blonde woman in a purple dress, seemingly in a dream, reading an invisible book held before her. Her dress had slipped from her shoulders, almost to her waist, revealing her milky-white breasts. Ray thought of that woman with the bare breasts, and then looked up and saw her in the window opposite, a pale skinned Eastern European girl wearing a black lace camisole and panties. She was waving at him. Ray sort of smiled and walked on. It was true, he hadn't had sex with anyone but his wife for twenty years and now he didn't even do that, but he'd never been with a prostitute. Never would, probably. And then he saw her: a svelte, beautiful young black panther sitting in the window looking down at her feet with a lost melancholy expression. She looked so vulnerable, he felt sorry for her immediately.
He walked up and down the road a couple of times. There were only a couple of other men around. Quiet night, Monday, they've spent all their money and juices at the weekend. On his third pass, she noticed him looking and tapped on the window, calling him over. She smiled at him as he crossed the road and before he'd even made up his mind to do anything she had closed the curtains and was standing with the door open, dressed in a floor length cream dressing gown that was loosely tied at the waist. She smiled at him again and waved him in. He smiled back at her. He stopped. He hesitated. He crossed the threshold.
Once inside it was not a bit like he'd expected. He'd been expecting something depressingly squalid but this was a real boudoir with expensive looking furniture, a large double bed with a red satin duvet cover, upholstered armchairs, a dressing table, art on the walls. There was even a bookshelf with books. Ray tried to read the titles quickly but the low red lights were too dim. He looked at her, half embarrassed. He blurted out, "This is my first time."
She laughed. "With a woman? No!"
"No, not with a woman. I mean, with a…"
She walked over to him and pulled his head against her chest. She stroked his head lovingly, like he was a baby. Like he was her lover. This totally disarmed him. His image of prostitution was Wham, Bam, Thankyou, Mam. It wasn't supposed to involve feelings or emotions or tenderness. She carried on stroking him and touching him and asked his name. Then she started whispering in his ear very gently, and nibbling his neck. "This is your first time. I'll make it a long time for you, a good time, so that you come back." She touched him gently again, walked off to the dressing table and started taking her earrings out, just like Caroline did when she got back at night. He asked her where she was from. Liberia. How old are you? Twenty-two. Twenty-two-shit, that's only three years older than my oldest child, he thought. Her name was Elonghi, she spelt it out for him. He watched her as she let her robe slip to the floor. She had a kind of retro look, like one of the Supremes in the Sixties, that bee-hive haircut rising up and then falling in a wave. She walked towards him wearing only tiny pink panties and a bra. She sat on the bed next to him and they talked. Not about sex, but about themselves. She asked him a lot of questions that made him paranoid-was she just finding out about him to see if he could be ripped off or blackmailed? She said, "What's the matter? Don't you want to talk?"
"Yeah, of course, but I don't know you."
She laughed, "That's why you have to talk. I saw you walking up the road. You looked lonely."
"Yes. Why are you lonely?"
Ray blushed, "I don't think I am."
The she just went real quiet and touched his leg. Her head hung dreamily, "No, you're not lonely. You have a wife, and children?"
"Yes. What about you, er, no, I mean, do you have any family, I mean here, in Belgium?"
She just ignored the question, and said, "What do you want?"
Ray hadn't thought about it. All kinds of ideas went through his head. "I'm not sure."
She looked at him and said, "You're a funny guy."
"Yeah. You don't know what you want. But you're not happy. You should know what you want."
Ray realised she wasn't talking about sex. He asked her what she wanted. She just laughed. She probably didn't have the luxury of wishes. She was lucky to even be here, in Europe, one step further away from poverty. She said, "I don't want anything. I just want you to enjoy yourself and be happy." And with that, she undid his trousers and began playing with his cock until it was hard enough to roll a condom on. Then she began sucking on it while he looked in the mirror and saw himself, seated on the edge of the bed, his face expressionless. On the wall behind him was a print of Manet's Olympia. They looked at each other, as if to say, So?
Ray looked down at the head of lustrous black hair below him, the soft dark skin, the ripples of the spine, and said, "I want to touch you."
The Last Supper
Despite the relief, Ray slept badly that night. He had the same dream that had woken him up at the weekend and he woke at three A.M. with his heart pounding. I must drink less coffee, he thought to himself, as he paced around his living room with all the lights on. All kinds of crazy thoughts were racing through his mind: I've reached a point in my life; Vinetti is out to get me; the Commission will have me murdered; Luke is conspiring against me; Caroline is having an affair, she'll divorce me and I'll end up with nothing; I don't care, I'll get a divorce then rescue Elonghi, take her away from Brussels and marry her, run a bar in the Caribbean; I'm going mad, I need to see someone; what time is it? my pulse is racing, I'm having a heart-attack; no-one would know, I'd die here alone; my children, I love my children, I want to care for them, I've let them down; I'll ring Elonghi now, she understands me, she's an exile too; I'm not an exile, I'm a hypochondriac; I need to see someone; I don't have her number, she's a prostitute; it's a classic case of something.
He sat down on the sofa and tried to calm himself by controlling his breathing: breathe out longer, breathe in shorter. He counted his pulse. Why is it so quiet at night? There's nothing else but your thoughts. Watch TV. Crap, switch over, crap, switch over, crap, switch over, crap, switch over, ah, business, solidity, reality, sense. A brassy haired woman in a crisp business suit was doing an outside broadcast, standing in front of a fence in front of a field in front of a forest that seemingly went on forever. She had a fixed grin on her face and her American accent was reassuring and confident, like she was a woman in touch with all the facts: Well, Dan, people say that money doesn't grow on trees, but here in Montana, they tell a different story. This is Minetta Krite saying, over to you London. Thank-you Min-et-ta a stor-y just com-ing in, early trading in Tokyo is sluggish after the announcement that Mishima Industries posted a twelve million Yen first-quarter loss. That's worse than expected. And now, here's Tom with the weather.
Ray switched off the TV. It was dead time, the air filled with the garbage of the day. He tried to read a book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the wrong book. He put it down and looked around. He looked at his watch: 3:30. He'd be shattered in the morning, he needed to sleep. He got up and walked toward the kitchen to get a drink. Something strange-the outside landing light is on. A strip of light glowed under his front door. He stopped and thought, Someone just come in, obviously. That's late. Then he noticed movement, a shadow outside the door. Someone there. Ray got down on his knees and crept silently along the carpet to the door. He rested his cheek on the floor and tried to see beneath the crack. He couldn't see directly because his eye was too far away from the floor, but he felt a fresh draught coming through that tickled his eye. Another movement, the shadows travelled right, the creak of weight upon the boards. Ray could feel his heart pounding against the floorboards. He knelt up to look through the keyhole. He couldn't see anything because it was black. Why was it black? Arghhh, there's someone there. There is someone there, they just moved, someone outside the door. O my god, keep still. Should I open, should I freeze, what?
He kept very still, his eye up against the keyhole. Did they sense each other? Did the other, so close, know that Ray was there? Mustn't move, let him go first. Ray waited, his eye starting to water from the draught. Then, suddenly, a movement, light came through. Ray could now make out the view across the hallway, part of the opposite door-frame, and right on the edge of his vision, just stepped back from the door, a man's suit jacket, swinging, pushed back, he puts his hand in his pocket, the pocket, a big hand, a big signet ring on the pinky, a gangster, a Mafiosi, a killer. Then Ray heard receding footsteps, he was walking away, down the stairs. Ray stood up, put out the lights, ran to the window and pushed the blind aside by one centimetre, trying to see the downstairs door. He couldn't see it directly but he heard it close. Someone had left the building. Someone. Who? Oh, my fuck! What is this?
Ray walked back to bed in the dark. He pulled the duvet up close to his chin, like you do as a child when you believe in ghosts, and he lay there projecting all his thoughts onto the ceiling. Everything else that he'd been worried about became unimportant, just this one thing: they were out to get him. He lay there without any sense of time, going over all the possibilities, until the room gradually got light and it was time to go to work. As soon as he arrived in the office, he tried to get hold of Donck to see if he knew anything. As usual, Donck was sat on the corner of someone else's desk having a lengthy, florid conversation about nothing to do with work. They were both laughing, grinning, shaking their heads-unbelievable. Ray watched them, envied them their lack of care. If only he could get back in to the parlour, he would never be a bad boy again.
He caught Donck about an hour later, at the coffee machine. Donck looked at him and said, "Bloody hell, Raymond, you look like you've been up all night shagging. I wish I could work away from home."
"John, I think I'm in trouble."
"You haven't got her pregnant? That will teach you. You'll have to divorce your wife and marry her now."
"No, it's nothing like that. I think they're after me."
Donck made a freaky, scary ghost-train sound, "Whoooooooo! Fear and paranoia in Brussels-they're all out to get me."
"No, stop fucking around. This is serious. I got back last night and somebody had broken into my mailbox and opened my letters. Then in the middle of the night there was someone hanging around outside my door."
"Why didn't you open the door and see who it was?"
"I couldn't. It was three o'clock."
"No. I didn't know who it was, I thought it might be…"
"Why would anyone be interested in you?"
"Vinetti? I thought you'd dropped all that?"
"No, I didn't. I reported it to the fraud office."
"Oh, oh. Mr Mann has done a very stupid thing. You sent it to the fraud office? Why didn't you just cut off your own balls and fry them in batter, since it comes to the same thing. You sent it to the fraud office? Have you lost your fucking marbles?"
"It was the right thing to do."
"Oh no it wasn't. Not if you want to live, in Brussels, at least. Why did you do that, Raymond? I like you, I want you to live."
"I told you, it was the right thing to do. Anyway, I can't just fucking sit around here writing shit about food production forever."
"Well, you won't be doing that for long, I bet. I can't believe you did that, after what I told you about Luke and Olafson. He's bound to find out, you know?"
"I know. But they can't sack me for doing my job."
"They will always find a way to get rid of you, use some other excuse. Oh well, Ray, it was nice working with you. Have you got any other plans? Another career maybe, not journalism."
"No. It's the only thing I know how to do. I just need to do something more meaningful, satisfying."
"Be poor, you mean."
"Okay, if that's what it takes. I just need to sort a few things out."
"You're telling me. Are you alright?"
"You're shaking. Your hand is shaking."
Ray looked down at the hand holding the plastic coffee cup. It was trembling; there were ripples spreading out from the centre of the liquid as if the slightest possible earth tremor beneath the sea had caused a tiny tsunami. But it was coming from Ray's body. "I just slept badly. I'm cold. Yeah, I need to think."
John Donck's face changed. The normal ebullient, jovial Dutchman disappeared and was replaced by the serious mask of a concerned friend, "Listen, Ray, I'll let you know if I find out anything. Just keep your head down for the moment and maybe it will all blow over. You know what the Commission are like-they sit on things for ages until they no longer matter and everyone has forgotten them. It's probably inside gossip anyway. It's just a shame you involved Vinetti. But, you know, what's done is done."
"Thanks, but what about my mail, the guy outside my door?"
"Just a coincidence. They do happen you know."
"Yeah, right. Anyway, thanks for talking to me."
Ray went back to his desk unconvinced, but glad that he'd told someone. He realised that he had no work to do and after the editorial meeting he was no better off; nothing had been allocated to him. He thought this was weird and went straight in to see Luke, who just smiled and said, "You should be happy. Just take it easy."
"How long for?"
"Well, today at least. Tomorrow, we'll see. Anyway, you look a bit worn out, Ray. Why don't you go home and get some rest. We'll discuss the situation tomorrow."
"You know, work, what there is to do. All that stuff."
"I don't see what there is to discuss. I'm paid to work here, so I need things to do."
"Yeah, well, things change all the time, don't they. You heard in the meeting, advertising revenues are down. I think the next six months are going to be hard. All our clients blew their budgets on that Year 2K rubbish, and then gearing up for the euro, so there's not so much money around. It's just a fact of life. We'll get over it, but we'll have to make some adjustments."
"Are you trying to tell me that I'm redundant?"
"No, not at all. Not at the moment. We need to reassess everything. I need to talk to everyone."
"But me first?"
"You asked me. You're the man with the get up and go, that's why I like you." And with a big grin on his face, Luke put his arm around Ray's shoulder and said, close to his ear, "Between me and you, you can do a lot better than this place, Ray. Take the day off, go home and think about it."
Ray left the office and walked back to his flat. He thought of asking the concierge about the person outside his door but knew that he would just get a blank response. It was the first time in years that he'd had nothing to do on a work day. It felt just like truancy. The day opened up, was filled with space and time instead of deadlines and interactions. He didn't have to see anyone at all, if he didn't want to. He decided to enjoy the sunshine and walked down to the Grande Place where he bought a newspaper and sat outside a café in the sun and watched the world go by. It should have been idyllic but he couldn't quite relax. Leaving a tip for the waiter he picked up his coat and went to the tabacs and bought some Dutch rolling tobacco. Apart from the odd cigar on festive occasions he hadn't smoked for years and the first mouthful of smoke gave him a tobacco high, making him dizzy. He sat on a bench near the Place St Catherine, not far from the church, and watched a woman sketching. From where he was sitting he could see her easel and watch the drawing take shape-the row of pollarded trees, the cars parked beneath them, the walls of the church rising out the shadows, the sunlit angles of the soaring gables, the birds flitting to and fro from the roof of the church to their dust baths in the gutter. She worked oblivious to Ray, sometimes taking an eraser and wiping something out, shading with rhythmic diagonal arm movements, concentrating. In the sunlight, with the smoke in his lungs and curling up in the breeze, Ray felt a sense of stillness and peace: the world had stopped spinning, no-one knew where he was, there was nothing to do.
Then, he got the urge to phone Caroline. Was it a sense of guilt about the night before, the sex with Elonghi? Or was it just boredom? He went to a phone box and rang home but there was no-one there so he rang her mobile. She answered and he could hear other women laughing in the background. Where was she?
"Hi, it's me," he said.
"What are you doing ringing in the middle of the day?"
"I wanted to talk to you."
"It's not a good time now, I'm having my nails done." Ray could hear Tracy laughing in the background. Caroline said, "Why aren't you at work?" It sounded accusatory but she was probably just thrown by his calling her in the middle of the day, calling her at all in fact.
"I'm just going to interview someone and I thought I'd ring you."
"What about?" As if there couldn't possibly be a reason that he should call her. She was right, as usual.
He made something up. "Er, about the weekend, I just wondered what was happening."
"Nothing! Why?" From her defensive tone she obviously thought he was criticising her for always going out.
"Oh, nothing, I just wondered what was happening."
"Nothing is happening. Why, do you want me to arrange something?"
"Yeah, okay. Surprise me. I'll see you later. Bye"
Ray had almost wanted to say, 'I love you', before he put the phone down. That's what he would have said before, long before, but now it would have sounded false and he wondered if it was even true. Yes, it was true, but not that Caroline, not the one with the bleached blonde hair who had a personal trainer, a personal beautician, and masseur, whose friends were the kind of people to whom that mattered because it meant that they had arrived and had a certain amount of class. No, not that Caroline, some other one who lived now only in his memory and some faded photographs. Someone who was different, who used to love someone who was not him. Two other people then, their faces emerging out of time, then erased, then sketched again, then erased, slowly taking on new forms until they hardly knew each other, beings unrecognised.
Ray walked around town for the rest of the day. He tried to eat some lunch but had no appetite so he hung around in FNAC and browsed the French novels. It pissed him off that the only novels he could read in French were Simenon or translations of Agatha Christie: il fronça les sourcils. All of the real stuff, Villon, Rabelais, Rimbaud, Proust and Perrec was too difficult, too subtle. He went back to his flat and considered whether he could stick a hair across his door when he went out again, to see if anyone had been in. He'd seen people do that in films, very old films, and maybe no-one had ever really done that. It was probably made up by some Hollywood script writer on a bad day. Maybe if he glued it right at the bottom, no-one would see it. But what if it just fell off? He would never know if it had fallen off or been broken off by someone coming in. He gave up the idea. He lay on his sofa speculating about what was happening, until it got dark. He got up and looked out the window. There was a car parked opposite his block with one man in it, whose face was shadowed from the streetlight. The car drove off. Ray waited. The car came back round again. Ray hid behind his curtains and tried to see the number-plate. The driver was talking on a mobile phone. Seconds later, a woman left Ray's block. She was dressed up to go out and carried a sequined vanity bag. She got in the car and leaned over to give the man a long kiss. The car drove off again.
Paranoia, Ray thought. He considered having something to eat but he still had a sick feeling in his stomach that was worse since he'd seen the car. He thought about Elonghi and decided to go and see her again. She smiled when she saw him walking down the road and he walked straight up to the door and waited for her to open it. When he got in the back, she took his coat off and said, "You came back quick. Did you miss me?"
She started pawing his arm, unbuttoning his jacket. "Were you lonely again?"
He didn't want to stop her but he wanted to talk as well. "Look, Elonghi, is there any way I can see you later, outside of work I mean?"
She shook her head and started rubbing his chest. "It's not possible."
"Could you come to my flat?"
"No. It's nice here. You don't like it here?"
"Yes, I do. I like to see you but I thought that maybe we could meet somewhere else. I could still pay you."
"I don't do that, not with my customers."
"Well, I'll stop being your customer then. I could still help you financially, if you need that. Why not?"
"My boss wouldn't allow it. He watches me."
"What do you mean he watches you?"
"He knows everything I do and who I see. He wouldn't let me get close to anyone. I shouldn't even be talking to you about this."
"Why? Is he watching you now?" Ray looked at the pictures on the wall for signs of movement.
"No, but here, everyone talks. The other girls, everyone. He would soon find out and then it would be trouble for me. I don't want to leave Brussels."
"Why would you have to leave Brussels?"
"That's what they would do to me. I need to stay here, Ray, so that I can save some money."
"I can give you money."
"No, you can't. I need to earn money." She pushed him back on the bed so that he was lying down. "Do you have problems, Ray?"
"You just need to relax. Can you tell me about them?"
"Yes. No. Well, that's why I want to see you outside of work. I can't talk about them here and, I just, well, I really like you and I want to see you more. I want to take care of you."
She smiled at him. "Oh, is that what you want to do with me? You meet a girl once and fall in love. You just need more experience, that's all"
"No, it's not that-I do really like you, and care about you. Why don't you come and stay at my place and I could help you find an ordinary job."
She smiled again, but this time it was wistful, "So you think that would help me, to have an ordinary job? I don't even have the correct papers. They would make me leave."
"I could arrange that. Just bring your passport and I can sort it out."
"I don't have a passport. They took it."
"Who did? Your boss?"
"Yes. And they would kill me if they knew I'd told you. It doesn't matter. You have your own life, and I have mine. You just come and see me when you want love and I will be here."
Did she mean love or sex? Ray wondered as she got undressed. It couldn't be love because love didn't need sex. She lay next to him and looked at him. He felt embarrassed and tried to look her in the eye but she closed his eyelids with her hand. She took his hands from behind his head and held his wrist.
"You're trembling. What are you afraid of?"
"How can you be afraid of nothing?"
"It's easy," he said. "I just want you to hold me, that's all. Just hold me."
Every day that week followed the same pattern. He went into work, did nothing, and left early. At night he went back to see Elonghi. Sometimes they had sex, sometimes they just talked, or she listened to him while he talked. She said to him on the third night, "I think you just need someone to talk to. Don't you have any friends?"
"Not who I can talk to like I can talk to you."
"Because they all know me. They'd know what I was talking about."
"Is that bad?"
"It's not good. I need someone who doesn't know me."
Pretty quickly he exhausted all his cash that he'd picked up at Gatwick and had to use a credit card. Elonghi kept a card reader in a drawer and he watched her fill out the ticket for the right amount and then he signed it. When he got back to his flat, he thought that that had been a stupid thing to do but he trusted her not to rip him off. His nights also followed the same pattern; he would go to bed about midnight, sleep fine for two or three hours, be woken by a nightmare, and then would be awake until dawn. During the waking night hours the same thoughts kept crowding into his mind: my life has led to nothing and will end in disaster. Restlessly he moved from the bed to the couch, back to the bed, to an armchair, and he saw the disaster unfold in detail before him. When daylight came he was able to dispel the phantoms and demons of the night by showering and listening to the News while getting ready for work. But when he forced himself to eat breakfast, his stomach rejected it and he had to run and throw up into the toilet.
Things at work were definitely getting strange. He was not allocated any more work and he noticed a change in everyone's behaviour, as if they sensed he was wounded, on the way down, and no-one wanted to be associated with him, for superstitious reasons. All his colleagues seemed to have plenty to do and were busily getting on with it. Only he ended up with nothing. He spoke to the sub-editor, Nathalie, who was at her computer laying out copy on the screen. "Nathalie, how come everyone around here seems busy except me?"
"Dunno. Ask Luke."
"I already have."
"What did he say?"
"Business is difficult."
"There you go then," she said dragging a picture around on the screen.
"But that's not it, is it? Why should it just be me who has nothing to do?"
"Dunno. Maybe you chose it."
"I chose it?"
"Yeah, you know, further back down the line. Maybe it's your Karma." She laughed and then stopped to concentrate as she scaled down the picture to fit in between two columns of text.
"You believe in that do you?" he asked, wishing that she would stop what she was doing and speak to him properly.
"Yeah. You reap what you sow, and all that."
"Some people don't."
"It's not always obvious." She pushed her chair back and looked at the full page laid out on the screen.
"I prefer to look at the obvious things first, and if I don't find an answer, look for the more obscure solutions."
"Okay, so what's your answer to your question?"
"Someone's doing it on purpose, because they don't like my face."
At last she turned around to look at him. "In that case, maybe you should change your face," she said, scrunching up her face and laughing.
By Friday afternoon, Ray was whacked. After lunch he fell asleep at his desk and would have missed his train to the airport if someone hadn't woken him. He dragged himself to the airport check-in thinking how nice it would be to flop in the executive lounge with a whisky and coke, get a bit juiced, get home, flop on the sofa, get a bit more juiced, get a good night's sleep. The check-in woman, whose name was Greta, had a surprise for him, "I'm sorry Mr Mann, but we sold your seat to someone else, after you cancelled."
"I didn't cancel."
"There's a note on your booking that it was cancelled today at two-thirty. I can double-check that with Reservations if you want."
"Yes please." Ray looked around exasperated. It must be a mistake. Greta phoned Reservations and spoke in Flemish, sharing a joke down the phone. Ray knew it was bad when she put the phone down and put on a serious expression.
"Yes, it seems that you rang this afternoon at two-thirty and cancelled. The message they wrote down is that you would be staying in Brussels this weekend and would not need the return flight."
"That's mad! I never cancelled. I'm going back to Gatwick. It must be a mistake."
"No, sir, I actually spoke to the girl who took the message."
"But it wasn't me. I never phoned anyone. I was at work, asleep, at that time."
A small smile reached her lips and then was banished. "I'm sorry sir but the seat has been resold. And I think the flight is now full."
Ray was confused, and angry, and embarrassed. He was sure that the people around him just thought he'd cancelled and changed his mind. He didn't have time now to think about who would have cancelled his flight, or whether the Reservations staff had just got the name wrong. It's plausible that they just got confused over his surname, it must have been another 'man'. No, that's stupid. Ray left the queue and went back to the ticket desk to get on another flight. As he walked back past the queue he saw the fat guy from the previous week. Ray thought he detected a grin on his face, schadenfreude. He was probably the bastard who got my seat, thought Ray, as if whoever got his seat had anything to do with him losing it in the first place.
At the ticket desk he found that all the flights to Gatwick were full, but they could get him on a Heathrow one in forty minutes. He paid for the ticket and then ran back to the check-in. He rang Caroline while standing in the queue, even though he hated people who did that. She was in the bath.
"Hi, it's me, can you pick me up from Heathrow?"
"Heathrow! You are joking."
"No. Mix up with the flights and I couldn't get to Gatwick."
"I'm not driving to Heathrow now. I'm getting ready to go out."
"That's nice for you. What about me?"
"That's not my problem. Can't you get the train?"
"No, it will take me hours. You could be there in thirty minutes."
"Well what time are you getting in?" Ray could feel her relenting, coming down off her high horse.
"Our flight arrives at seven."
"Shit Ray, we're supposed to be there by eight."
"Where are we going?"
"Didn't you get my voice mail?"
"I've arranged a night out for all of us, you, me, Tracy, Dave, Melanie and Simon. The restaurant is booked."
"That's what you wanted, isn't it? To go out as couples?"
"Yeah, but not tonight. Oh well, you'll have to come and get me then because there is no way that I will be there by eight. We could just make it if you come for me." He could feel her irritation, heightened by the fact that there was no alternative. "It's BA, terminal one."
"Okay, but I'm not coming in, so be outside at seven-fifteen."
She put the phone down. He thought, Like I'm going to hang around inside just to spite her.
The flight got in on time and Caroline was sitting outside, frostily waiting for him. He put his bag in the back of the BMW and said, "Do you want me to drive?"
"No, I will. We'll be late."
Ray didn't like the sound of that. He thought it was a myth that only men drove fast and aggressively. They didn't speak for about five minutes as she negotiated the roundabouts on the way back to the M25. Ray was in no mood to speak, anyway. Eventually, she said, "So what happened to your flight?"
"Someone cancelled it."
"The whole flight?" she snorted.
"No, just my ticket."
She looked at him laughed. He thought for a moment that they would start laughing and joking again, like old times. "Who would have done that?"
"I don't know."
"Well, people don't just phone up and cancel other people's flights, normally, do they. I mean it's not normal."
"You can say that again."
"What's up?" she asked, looking at his face.
"Yes there is."
"No there isn't."
"Well why aren't you talking?"
"I am, now. Listen to me talking."
"You're in a bad mood, aren't you."
"No, I'm not in a bad mood, but I am a bit tired."
"Why are you tired?"
"Well, think about it: I get up every Monday morning at about four-thirty, in order to get to work at about eleven; I then have to work at least forty-hours at a job I now hate; I haven't been sleeping well and when I get to the airport to fly back here, I find that some mysterious stranger has cancelled my flight for me, so I have to wait an extra hour in a boring airport, watching CNN without sound. Oh, and it's now eight o'clock European time, I've had a couple of whiskeys to calm myself down, and I'm somewhat knackered."
"So you've been drinking whiskey. I knew it, you always get stroppy on whiskey."
"I'm not stroppy."
"Yes you are. And you shouldn't have offered to drive."
They drove another twenty minutes in silence, then Ray said, "Which restaurant have you booked?"
"Why?" she snapped, as if he was going to criticise anything she said.
"I just wanted to know."
"Does it matter?"
"Depends on whether it's a good one or not."
She almost stopped the car. "Would I choose a bad restaurant?"
He changed the subject. "How are the kids?"
"How's Reynaldo?" Reynaldo was her personal fitness trainer.
"You don't care about Reynaldo, so don't ask."
"I just meant, how was your fitness program." He looked down at her waist, toned and rippling beneath a tight white top.
"No you didn't. You're being sarcastic, as usual."
Ray laughed, "I'm not being sarcastic. Of course I care about Reynaldo-I pay half his mortgage."
"Why do you say 'I pay'? It's our money. I don't ask you how you spend your money in Brussels."
"Well, I don't have a personal fitness trainer, that's for sure." He thought of Elonghi, naked, stretched out on top of him, giving him a body massage.
Caroline drove at ninety-miles an hour with a fixed, hurt expression on her face. He was going to ask her to slow down, but that expression said, Keep Away! After thinking for a while, she turned on him, "Ray, I hope you're not going to ruin tonight."
"That's the kind of thing you say to children, isn't it?"
"I mean it, Ray. If you mess up tonight, I will never arrange anything for us again."
"Why should I mess up tonight?"
"Because you're in a funny mood. Would you prefer it if I went on my own?"
Ray knew that this was a marriage-ending question. One wrong answer and it would all be over. "Of course I don't want you to go on your own." They were pulling into the driveway. Every light in the house was on.
"Okay then, can we at least try and get on together, and enjoy ourselves without arguing?"
"I'm not arguing."
Ray dumped his overnight bag in the laundry room and went up to get changed. He was standing in front of the mirror combing his hair when Caroline walked in behind him. She had a simmering, concentrated look about her that he didn't like.
"Ray, why do all your clothes smell of perfume?"
He turned around to face her. "What?"
"You heard. Why do all your clothes smell of perfume? Are you seeing another woman?"
"No, of course not. They don't smell of perfume."
"They do. Smell this." And she threw a shirt at him. He put it to his nose and smelt Elonghi's skin.
"No, that's just walking through the Duty-Free at the airport. There're always people spraying samples all over the place. I must have got sprayed."
"What, all your clothes?"
"They're all in the same bag together, that's why."
She sat and thought for a while as he went back to combing his hair. He sneaked a look at her. She sat on the edge of the bed with a grim mouth, like something had just hit her really hard. "Well, you can wash your own clothes from now on." And she threw the shirt down onto the floor and walked out.
"I love Capriccios, since they've extended it, and done the back room up. Remember when it used to be a pokey little place with the kitchen right off the restaurant and you had to walk past it to get to the toilets?"
Tracy was sitting opposite Melanie's husband Simon but she was talking to her husband, Dave, who was sitting opposite Caroline, who was talking to him about the holiday she was planning in Florida next year. Ray was sat in between Simon and Dave thinking of talking to Melanie about her new car but couldn't really be bothered. Instead he poured her another glass of wine, said, "Cheers everybody" and sat in the middle buffeted by the history of Capriccios and the revelation of where he was going on holiday next year.
"But it wasn't called Capriccios then. What was it called, Dave? You used to come here." called out Tracy, across the table.
"Savages," answered Dave, without pausing to think.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. It was owned by that bloke, Dave Savage, whose dad owned the casino. Loads of money, the whole family."
"What happened to them?"
"They moved to Spain. Sold up the business, lock, stock and barrel, and moved to Spain. I heard that they're set up down there as well. Some people just know how to make money, don't they? He was a really flash geezer though, arrogant piece of…"
"You're just jealous," said Tracy, defending the Savages.
"Why would I be jealous of him? We could move to Spain if we wanted to."
"Don't you want to then?" asked Simon.
"Don't get me wrong, I like Spain. We were in… Tracy, where were we in Spain last year? The place you got really ill."
"Thankyou, Dave-we won't go into details, if you don't mind. Puerto something."
"Puerto Vallerta. Absolutely beautiful, we had the villa, the pool, the whole lot, satellite TV, five minutes from the beach. It was nice, you know, but I wouldn't want to live there. What would you do all day? You see the ex-pats, I mean, don't get me wrong, if I could give up work tomorrow, I would, but just sitting around all day, reading the papers, going down the pub, you'd end up frazzled, wouldn't you."
"When we were down there, you said you liked it," said Tracy.
"I did like it. I did like it."
"Why don't we go then?"
"I don't wanna go. I just told you. Simon, didn't you just hear me tell her, I didn't wanna live in Spain?"
"Not getting involved in domestic disputes-sorry," said Simon. "Anyway, Spain has had it's day. Prices have shot up-you can't get anything decent for less than 200K. Croatia's the next one. I'm thinking of buying something down there, as an investment."
Melanie raised her eyebrows, "I'm not sure that I want to go to Croatia. Haven't they just stopped killing each other?"
"That was ages ago. It's all over now. It's supposed to be the new Provence but you have to get in quick while everything's cheap."
Melanie said she would have to go there on holiday first, to see what it was like, and Dave said he wouldn't go because they don't speak English, he'd seen a programme on it, with that bloke, you know the smarmy one, a bit pouffy, who does the holiday programme? Oh yes, I know, the one who wears the chain, I quite fancy him. Him? he's a pouf. So what? he's nice. Which led onto a conversation about gay guys and fag hags which Simon and Dave couldn't get their head around. Simon said, "I don't understand what a bloke like that has got to offer you, if he's gay, I mean, you can't do anything with him, can you?"
"It's not just about sex," Melanie agreed with Tracy who nodded to Caroline, "Is it? That's just the way your mind works. It's nice to have gay friends because you know you're safe with them, and anyway, gay guys are more like women, they're considerate and listen to you."
"Oh yeah, " said Dave, "how many gay guys do you know?"
"My hairdresser is gay." said Tracy.
"Oh, what a surprise! Do bears shit in the woods?"
"That's just prejudice, there are loads of male hairdressers who aren't gay."
"Well, in that case, it's prejudice to say that all gays are sympathetic listeners."
"Well, more than you are, anyway."
"I listen to you."
"Only when you ask me how much money I've spent."
"Oooh, that's unfair." Dave turned to Simon, "Rescue me here, brother, I need some back-up."
"Well, I think it's a good strategy," said Simon, "You meet a nice girl, tell her you're gay, get really friendly with her, and when she's let you into her bedroom, watch her get undressed and everything, say that you like her so much you could make an exception."
"Oh, there was a film about that. Who was it? That French bloke, the one with the big nose…"
"No, don't mess around, you know, Gerald…"
"That's it, Gerald Depardieu. I think, he's sexy, don't you Caroline? We saw it together, remember?"
"Yeah, it's funny though isn't it, because he's French, he can be fat…"
"And ugly" added Dave.
"I don't think he is ugly," said Melanie.
"He's got a massive conk."
Tracy giggled and pretended to look outraged, "A massive what?"
"Conk, conk. Here," passing her the water, "wash your ears out."
Tracy, still laughing, "Well you know what they say about men with big noses…"
Simon joked, "Well my nose is tiny so that's that theory blown."
It took Caroline a second to get the joke, "Oh, I get it. Is that true, Melanie? Your husband is bragging again."
"What, I didn't hear him."
"He said a big nose doesn't necessarily mean a big, you know what."
"No, I was just pointing out that they're not necessarily related, that's all. And in my case…"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, in your dreams," said Melanie, "And, no, we don't want you to prove it thanks."
As they waited for the main course to come, Melanie said to Ray, "You're very quiet tonight, Ray. What's up?"
"Nothing, just a bit tired, that's all."
Tracy chipped in, "Oh yeah, what've you been up to then, in Brussels? I told you, didn't I Caroline, he's gotta bit of stuff over there, some young Belgian bit." Caroline didn't smile, but looked straight ahead at Dave and started asking him about conservatories. Simon, Melanie, Tracy and Ray carried on their own conversation. Ray told them about the problems with the flight.
"That is so bad," said Tracy, "You should sue them."
Ray laughed, "There's nothing I can do, if someone genuinely cancelled it."
"Seems a bit weird though," said Simon, "You know, someone just cancels your flight."
Tracy had a theory. "I bet the flight was full and there was someone on it that knew you always travelled and that if he cancelled your ticket, he could ring five minutes later and get it. I bet that's what happened."
"Maybe," said Ray.
Melanie looked at him a bit more closely. "Are you really alright, Ray? You don't seem your normal self. You look thoughtful. What's up."
Ray liked Melanie most of all Caroline's friends. She had a warm, sensitive side to her that made her see below the surface. She was less ostentatious, less bothered about wealth than the others and you could see her, at some point, quietly going off to work for some charity, helping others. He noticed that she was wearing a cross, so maybe her empathy was something she'd picked up from her Christian upbringing, or inherited from her family.
She gave him a long look, like she was intuiting something, then she quickly grabbed his hand and squeezed it, while saying, "Right everyone, who ordered the Arabiatta?"
That hand squeeze went right through him. He felt a rush of warm feeling towards her, like falling in love, except that he knew it couldn't be falling in love. Maybe it was the wine, but he got a strong urge to touch her leg with his underneath the table. His mood suddenly heightened: he felt voluble and talkative, just because of that one hand-squeeze, that one tender gesture. All night he'd been pensive but now he started smiling. Everyone was eating and drinking, there were little jokey conversations kicking off all around the table, everyone butting in, butting out, keeping it light. Ray even managed to speak to Simon about cars, something he knew almost nothing about. He vaguely kept up with the latest models but could never remember the acronyms. Was it an M5 or MX5, MR2 or M2? ABA or ABS? Was there still such a thing as an overhead cam, a phrase he remembered his dad using? A V6? Whatever happened to the Wankel Rotary engine? So his part of the conversation consisted of nodding and going, Wow! as Simon told him the 0-60 of his Lancia. Or was it an Alfa Romeo, or a Fiat?
Things were going so well that Ray thought it might be possible to go the whole evening without anyone noticing that he wasn't talking to Caroline, which they had already noticed, obviously. He tried to talk to her, once or twice, and she tried to talk to him, once or twice, and then when either of them was talking, the other one listened without expressing any sign of annoyance. Pretty soon, Ray was quite pissed and relaxed, and he noticed that he was saying 'fuck' occasionally. He also noticed that he was the only one saying 'fuck' occasionally. Whenever he'd been with Simon and Dave on their own, he noticed that they said 'fuck' occasionally too but he thought they had a sense of etiquette or decorum that stopped them saying it in company. Or maybe it was in front of 'the ladies'. Ray noticed that Caroline and Dave were sharing each other's food and were laughing a lot about loft conversions. Dave thought that they were a good idea because you could 'get away from each other'. Ray said, "Why the fuck would you spend twenty-thousand pounds to get away from each other? It must be cheaper to get divorced."
Dave turned to him, good-naturedly, "No, you know what I mean, sometimes you just need your own space. Well, look at you, you've got your own flat in Brussels. You must like having the whole place to yourself, don't you?"
"That's different. I have to live alone, it comes with the job. But if you're saying that people need to convert their lofts so that they can get away from each other, it makes you wonder what they're doing together in the first place. I mean, fuck…"
Caroline jumped in, "Ray, do you have to say fuck all the time? It's not necessary. I thought you were supposed to be articulate."
"Did I say 'fuck'? Dave, did I say 'fuck'?"
"Well, fuck is no longer a dirty word, is it. You can hear it on the BBC."
Caroline was obviously getting exasperated, "That doesn't mean that you have to say it when we come out for a meal. Other people in this restaurant don't want to hear you saying it."
"How do you know? Lot's of people say fuck these days."
"Ray, will you just shut up!"
"Okay, I'll shut the fuck up."
The trouble with Caroline was, she was always right, and that made him even madder, at himself, but still madder. There was no reason he had to say fuck, it was just an affectation-he wouldn't write fuck so why should he say it. He thought about it for a moment: Figures released by the Danish meat industry reveal that they sold a fuck load more bacon this year than the one just gone. The Minister for Agriculture, Mr Jespersen, said they'd had a fuckin' good year. They expected next year to be more difficult but, what the fuck, it was only bacon. She was right, it added nothing to the meaning of the sentence other than that Ray was the kind of personality that liked to say fuck in polite company-big fucking deal. He sat there quietly for a while, a bit embarrassed, not about saying fuck but because him and Caroline were obviously primed to explode if brought into proximity. He could feel everyone wincing on their behalf. Then, o my god, they started talking about schools. Okay, so you send your kids to private school and it's massively expensive and you want to know that it's money well-spent, but do we have to talk about it every time four or more middle-income adults get together? Ray moved some olive stones around his pasta dish and wondered whether it would be cool to smoke. No-one else was, and there were no ashtrays, but that wasn't definitive. Then he saw a sign saying, 'This is a non-smoking restaurant'. Well, that was definitive, but there wasn't a sign saying 'No Saying Fuck', which was something.
"The trouble is," said Tracy, "if you send your kids to the state school, and that's what I would rather do, you have all the children of the asylum seekers. Hardly any of them speak English, and it drags everyone down."
Dave agreed with his wife. "It's not just that, is it. Most of them don't work so they hang around the streets all day. It stands to reason you're gonna get trouble. Remember last year? They had riots on the streets down near the Bramley estate. So if your kids are going to school there, they're going to see all of that, they'll end up getting into trouble, getting beaten up, all sorts."
"And who's paying for it?" said Caroline, "They're all on benefits, you know, thousands of pounds a year it costs for each one. To my mind, they should just be held in like a prison, not as bad as a prison, obviously, but you know, held in like a big holding centre until their case is decided. Then if they don't get let in, they should be sent back to where they came from straight away."
"Most prisons are like hotels these days," added Simon.
Ray turned to Simon, "How do you know that? Have you ever been in prison?"
"No, but you see it on TV don't you. They've all got televisions in their cells, nice rooms, en suite bathrooms. It's too easy."
"So a bog in the corner is an en suite bathroom is it? Next time you go on holiday and ask for en suite, so long as they have a bog in the corner, you'll be happy?"
Simon looked around the table for support, "No, it's true though, isn't it, it must be easy going to prison these days. Hell, I'd like it to not have to worry about my mortgage, bills, no getting up for work every day, just sit around watching daytime TV." Everyone, apart from Ray, seemed to be agreeing with him but then he blew it and alienated half the table by adding, "It's almost like being a woman."
All three woman were shocked and outraged. Melanie glared at him. "You bastard! You should try staying home looking after the kids every day. You'd soon want to go back out to work. You wouldn't know where to start. My working day doesn't end at five o'clock, I'm on call twenty-four hours a day. If you had to pay me the same hourly rate that you get, plus extra for being on call, you'd need to earn twice what you do."
Simon back-pedalled so quick you didn't see his legs move, "I know, I know, it was only a joke. You know that I appreciate you."
Despite Simon's sarcasm, Ray thought that some men secretly enjoyed their wives not going out to work. It was a status symbol, an acquired piece of symbolic capital that reflected favourably on their manhood and earning capacity. The subtext was: I'm such a good provider that not only does my wife not have to go out to work, she also drives a BMW M5, belongs to the best private health clubs, spends four afternoons a week paying lavish attention to her personal fitness and physical appearance, plus organising a nanny, two baby-sitters, and three holidays a year. She also has the body of a nineteen year old who could crack walnuts in her buttocks, wears enough gold to attract a Spanish Armada, and whatever her natural hair colour is, it's not the one you're seeing because that would imply she doesn't have a personal coiffure called Maureece who also tells her that her cuticles are deevine.
Simon managed to recover the situation by saying that most refugees ended up either as criminals, or on the game, if they were women.
"Hang on a minute, Simon," said Ray, "you can't just go around making sweeping statements like that without any facts to back them up. How many refugees do you actually know?"
"I read the papers. I saw a documentary about it. Down in Dover, it's a nightmare."
"I don't deny that, but what have refugees got to do with it? And which papers do you read, because the ones that I read don't say that? They say that most refugees are either persecuted in the country they're fleeing or they are hard-working economic migrants who are trying to provide for their families. They live, and work, in the shittiest conditions that you know nothing about, separated from their homeland and their families, living amongst strangers who treat them with suspicion and frequently prejudice, and then they get accused of being criminals and prostitutes."
"But why do they come here?"
"Because that's where they think they can improve themselves. I mean, you're not from here are you? Where were you born?"
"Hendon, but that's different: I'm English."
"But, Simon, we're all refugees and migrants, or we're descended from them. No-one started where they are now, except maybe some Africans, whose ancestors were the first humans. Human history is a tale of migration and dispersal."
"My dad was born here, and my dad's dad."
"Yeah, and your dad's dad's dad's dad's dad," qualified Dave.
" I have a right to live here," said Simon, looking aggrieved as if Ray had just told him he was being shipped out in the morning.
"I'm not saying you don't, but so do other people."
Tracy tried to cool things down, "But, Ray, you have to admit that there's not enough in this country to go around."
"Not enough what?"
"Houses, schools, jobs."
"But that's an issue of capacity, not someone's origin. You could say that the reason the South-East is so over-crowded is because it's filled up with people from the other regions which weren't doing so well financially, so they came here to better themselves. Are we going to send them all back?"
Then Dave chipped in, "Now, come on Ray, you're a clever bloke an' all that, you know there's a difference from someone who's English and someone who comes from Albania, or something."
"Why? What's the difference?"
"Well, they're not English, they don't have an inherited right to be here."
"Well, you can go and live in Spain."
"Ah, but they're in the EU."
"So if Albania joins the EU, end of problem?"
"No, because they come here to skive."
"Look, there you go again. How do you know that?" asked Ray. "Where are the figures for the ones who work. I bet that if you sent all the refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, whatever you call them, back home, this country would grind to a halt. Just about every office block in London is cleaned by refugees."
"Well, if they want to work, that's different, so long as there's room for them, which I don't think there is. Property is dear enough as it is."
Ray sighed. He was never going to win this argument, so he changed tack. "Okay, Dave, what's your surname?"
"And how do you spell that?"
"And that's a pure Anglo-Saxon name, is it?"
"No, it's Polish."
"So, your family, in part, are refugees."
"No, my grandad came here to fight Hitler."
"Whatever the reason, he still came here and settled. It's the same for everyone. If you go back through history, you'll find relatives that come from all over the place. And if you go back far enough, we all come from Africa, so…"
"Yeah, but hang on Ray…"
Caroline was getting sick of the whole debate. "Can we stop talking about this now? You'll never sort it out."
"We're not trying to sort it out, we're just discussing it," said Ray.
"Yeah, but you always get on your high-horse about things. You can't just talk about them reasonably."
"I was being reasonable."
"No, you always make it personal, and start insulting people."
"I was not insulting anyone, just because Dave is Polish…"
"Okay, you made your point, can you just forget it now, please?" She turned away and drained her glass of wine. Dave immediately poured her another one.
"I didn't start the discussion about refugees. I mean, it's okay for people to make moronic comments based on lies and distortions they've read in the tabloid press, but it's not okay for me to challenge it," said Ray, angrily.
Dave put his arm around Ray's shoulder. "No, really mate, you did lose it a bit there-Caroline has a point."
"I did not fucking lose it. I was speaking calmly and just giving my opinion," he said, twisting out of Dave's grip.
Dave gave him a hurt smile and patted him on the back, "Don't lose it with me, brother, I'm just trying to calm everything down."
Caroline said, "Leave him, Dave, he's drunk. He was half pissed when I picked him up."
Ray found it painful to look at her. He detested her so much at that moment he wanted to hit her. "Caroline, you know I was not pissed. Don't lie."
She turned quickly around to face him and he could see all kinds of activity behind her eyes, like the movement on the deck of a destroyer as they sight the enemy and get them into range with their guns. Then, with perfect timing, she let loose. "Me lie? You're the one who comes home and all your clothes smell of another woman. I mean, let's ask Melanie and Tracy: if your husband came home and all his clothes stunk of another woman's perfume, you would think he's been cheating on you, wouldn't you?"
By this time, everyone at the tables around had fallen quiet and were listening. Ray said, as quietly as possible, "Caroline, just calm down, you're making a fool of yourself."
She stood up and screamed at him, "Don't you tell me to calm down, you prick! You're the one trying to make a fool out of me, but I won't let you, so just fuck off!" And with that she threw a full glass of red wine all over him and, collapsing back into her chair, she burst into tears.
When your palms are sweating, your breathing is shallow, your thoughts are circular, your body is trembling, and the office you are in pulsates with menacing sounds and swelling lights, that's panic. When you think that the person sitting at the computer opposite you is watching you panic, that's paranoia. And when you see two men dressed in slick business suits pointing at you from behind a glass panel in your Senior Editor's office, well that's just reality. Ray experienced all three in quick succession and wasn't at all sure they could be separated. He decided that the third one would be the easiest to live with after he'd done something about the first two, so he left his desk and walked down the corridor to the WC. Someone should write a book on misapprehensions: why not opening your letters makes bills go away; why sexual conquest cures you of desire; why splashing water on your face is a cure for paranoia. Well, it worked momentarily-it gave him something else to worry about. He looked at himself in the mirror: Jesus, you're looking old; look at those heavy lids, the blackness below the eyes, the lines around the mouth, the heavy jowls, the acres of brow, the missing man. The missing man.
Ray deep breathed until he calmed down. Who are those guys? He'd never seen guys like that in Luke's office. And why were they pointing at him? Donck would know. Donck was reliable, lucky, solid, friendly, uncomplicated, clubbable, easy-going, well-informed, unambitious, secure, contented. Oh, I wish I was Donck! If the earth could only swallow me now and spew me out as Donck, I would behave myself for the rest of my life-I would be content with my lot. By pure coincidence, he heard Donck's laugh coming down the corridor. Donck was right behind it.
"Raymondo del mundo et profundo, how are you matey?"
"Fine, fine, who are those guys in Luke's office?"
"No, really, fuck off."
"Okay, they are investigators from the Fraud Directorate come to investigate your little Vinetti story. They want to take you in. Quick, climb up on the cistern and squeeze your fat arse through that little window there-I'll push you."
"John, if you don't stop messing me around, I'll…"
"Okay, okay, calm yourself down, father, be thee calmed. They be auditors come for the purpose of auditing our annual accounts and telling us how many people we have to sack."
"They were pointing at me."
"Were they? Are you sure it wasn't your guilty conscience pointing at you?"
"No, they were definitely pointing at me."
"Hmmmm-maybe you're first then."
"This is serious, fuck you. They were definitely pointing at me and talking to Luke."
"Maybe they were saying, 'Why is that paranoid guy in the corner looking at us all the time?' Ray, can I ask you something?"
"Have you been taking mind-contracting drugs? You know, you seem a little nervous these days. Got a monkey sitting on your shoulder, screeching bitter nothings in your ear?"
"Don't be stupid. Listen, I have every reason to be paranoid, don't I?"
"I don't see why. There's all sorts of shit going on the Commission that is known to various people all the time. Most of it gets sorted internally, sat on, and withers away. Same thing will happen to the Mrs Olafson thing. Just keep your head down and stop being paranoid. I mean, you're starting to make me worried and I'm only your friend, sort of."
"Don't mention it. Any time you need a shoulder to cry on."
Ray grabbed a cup of cold water and went back to his desk. The auditors were still there. Luke walked over to Ray and said, "Ray, we need a couple of desks for the auditors. I was wondering if we could have yours for a few days. You could work on the end of Nathalie's desk, just take your laptop over there." Ray complained but Luke wasn't hearing. He just said 'thanks' and walked off. Ray moved over to Nathalie's desk and tried to work but he was too close to her and she was too close to him and they were interfering with each other's vision-thoughts, which started making Ray uncomfortable again and then he thought, No, the panic is coming back, so he got up and went back to the WC and splashed cold water on his face and neck. The same old misapprehension. Then he had a brilliant idea: sick, sick, sick! I've never been off sick, all the time I've been working here. Never, ever. That's what I'll do. I'll not suffer the indignation of losing my desk, instead I will plead illness. He tried to make himself look as sick as possible, which really wasn't too hard, and popped his head around Luke's door to explain. Why are people so polite? Four grown men all listening to a blatant lie, yet they all shake their heads with mock concern and sounds of sympathy come out their mouths. Yes, I noticed you were looking a bit peaky this morning. You go home and rest for a few days. Don't worry about your work, we can sort it out. Don't come back until you're completely over it. You don't want to give it to the rest of us. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. The human condition. Ha, ha, ha.
Ray spent the rest of the week lazing around his flat trying to read One Hundred Years of Solitude but he couldn't get past year one. All the time there was a buzzing in his thoughts that wouldn't let him settle. He kept returning to his worries about work, Vinetti, his marriage. When night came he wanted to go and see Elonghi but he'd already made up his mind not to see her again. In fact, he realised what a fool he'd been to become so infatuated with her. It was just because he hadn't slept with another woman besides his wife throughout their marriage and suddenly, there was this beautiful, exotic twenty-two year old who seemed so loving and vulnerable. It was stupid to think that they could ever have an affair or that he was anything more than a client to her; he saw that now. He also thought of Caroline and how he couldn't lie to her. Well, he could lie to her but he couldn't deal with her finding out. Although he thought this all through, he only resisted seeing Elonghi until the Thursday night, and then he only went to tell her that he couldn't see her again. When he got there, her curtains were closed so he waited up the street a little, in the shadows. After about five minutes a respectable businessman came out with his face all red and puffed. Ray gave her time to clean up and get herself ready and then he walked over so that he was there when the curtain opened, to surprise her. But when the curtain opened, it was by a well-rounded, fifty-year old Belgian woman squeezed into a leather basque, fishnet stockings, and various straps and girdles that cut into her white flesh. He took two steps back as she smiled at him. He mouthed the name 'Elonghi' to her but she just picked up a little whip that was on the floor next to her and waved it at him, lightly flicking her fat thigh. He shook his head and motioned for her to come to the door. She appeared in the hallway but wouldn't come near the pavement. Instead she invited him, in French, to come in. Did she know Elonghi? Where had she gone? She didn't know her. She was new here, normally worked in Charleroi. Ray thanked her and walked down the street to find some of the other girls; Elonghi had told him that they all knew each other's business so one of them must know. He found another African girl that he'd seen Elonghi talking to before. She just made a dismissive gesture with her head and arm, "She gone."
"She gone back."
"Why? She wanted to stay here."
"I don't know. I don't know. There's no reason."
And then she wouldn't say another word. She went back inside her window and sat there reading a magazine. She refused to look at him when he pressed his face up against the glass and carried on knocking. Then some rough-looking Belgian about six-foot six appeared from nowhere and aggressively asked Ray what he wanted and when Ray asked him who he was, the guy just started pushing him backwards down the road, swearing at him in French and English, "Nique ta mere, salaud, go, fuck off, sors de là, fuck you, fuck, fuck, Englishman."
Ray went to the police station to report her missing. He sat and waited on a bench while the policeman behind the desk finished filling in some forms and turning over some large ledgers. On the wall behind him was a poster headed 'The Brabant Killers', showing an artist's impressions of several members of a gang wanted in connection with the assassination of twenty-five people in seven different supermarkets. Ray thought they all looked like caricatures of Agatha Christie or Cluedo characters; there's Major Mince with his military moustache, Luigi the Mediterranean gardener and hothouse specialist, Doctor Picard with his boffin specs, and Roger Smoothe, local estate agent, Lothario, and all-round cad. It had been almost twenty years since the first of these killings and still no-one had even been arrested. You would have to be paranoid to think it wasn't a conspiracy. Gunmen burst into a supermarket and spray gunfire at all the checkouts, randomly killing men, women and children. This happens seven times over a period of three years. Meanwhile the police lose their records of the crimes, radio logs go mysteriously missing, representatives of all arms of the state apparatus are implicated in a Right-wing conspiracy to instil fear in the general population, and still no-one is arrested. It didn't give you much reason to be confident and Ray started to feel uncomfortable. He was going to get up and leave when the policeman turned to him with a severe look and asked what he wanted. Ray explained about Elonghi and the man started writing everything down until Ray said he didn't know her surname and that she was a prostitute. The policeman just pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "Your friend is one of many people who don't exist in Belgium. You see, we never knew she was here and now we don't know she has gone. Belgium is full of people like her." Then he laughed and said, "You'll soon find another one." Ray knew he was right and decided to get out quick when the man asked him for his papers. He told him he didn't have them. "You should always carry identification in Belgium." Ray remembered he had his journalist's card with him and took it out. The man looked at it, looked at Ray, and grunted. Then he pulled a form from beneath the desk and started writing down Ray's details. He asked him for his address in Belgium and when he'd finished writing it down, said, "We'll get in touch with you."
Ray was suspicious why his details were logged after the man knew he was a journalist. "Why will you get in touch with me?"
"If we find out anything about your friend."
"But you didn't write down her name."
"I have your name. We can always come and see you."
Ray didn't like the sound of that. He looked at the portraits of the Brabant killers and they seemed much more sinister. He wondered what they were doing now. Maybe that was one of them outside his door. He left the police station and walked home where he sat in the dark. At midnight, the phone rang but no-one spoke. He dialled last-number recall but it was withheld. It rang again at one, at two, and at three-twenty four. He wrote down the times. He tried to sleep but wasn't tired. That week he'd been falling asleep at lunchtime and his waking hours were turned upside down. He felt his hand trembling in the dark, like the beginnings of Parkinson's disease. He put the lamp on and watched his hand shake. He thought he could stop it with his mind so he stood up and held his arm out in front of him until he could make it steady. It seemed to work. For some mysterious reason, holding his arm out like that triggered a memory: he had a set of pencils and a drawing pad somewhere that his children had given him as a leaving present when he'd left to work in Brussels. The children had remembered when he'd used to make drawings for them when they were young: here's a man on a horse, coming down the slide, into the swimming pool, where a BIG shark is waiting to get him, but oh, what's this, another man with a big net is running out the sky to catch the shark and put it in the boot of our car and take it to the fish and chip shop where this man with the big moustache and big beard and the big white hat is going to chop him up with his axe and cook him so all the little birdies can have a piece each. And then there were the drawings of them he had made, as babies in their cots, asleep on the sofa, playing in the garden, and once, when Samuel was seven and in hospital to have an operation, he sat next to him all day until he woke up and he drew him asleep on the bed with all the tubes coming out of him. That picture was in a frame somewhere.
He couldn't remember why he'd given up drawing. Maybe he was too busy or maybe it bored him but he now remembered how calming it was, sitting there concentrating, all other thoughts excluded. He went and found the tin of grey pencils, 12-Soft-Tendre, still sharpened as they'd come from the factory. He opened them and picked out a 2B, hard enough for detail but soft enough to shade. He laid his left hand on the table and drew it, paying attention to detail, the ridges of the nails and whorls around the knuckles. It took him about an hour. He folded the page back and started drawing the room. It forced him to really look at everything for the first time. He copied the painting on the wall, an eighteenth-century rural scene showing harvesters bailing hay. That took him three hours. By then, the sun was coming up. He sat on the sofa and drew the scene from the window, the tops of the trees against the sky, some fresh clouds whipping past-they were changing so quick he couldn't catch them and after they were gone had to remember what they'd looked like. By nine in the morning he was tired again and went to bed. He slept well for three hours but was woken by a dream: he saw the face of a Brabant killer getting closer and closer to his, with a sense of menace. He heard the sound of a gun exploding and sat up. The sun was shining onto the bed and his heart was palpitating.
It was the end of the week again and he wondered what the atmosphere would be like at home. Caroline hadn't spoken to him since the scene in the restaurant. She'd got up early on Saturday, picked up her gym bag and hadn't returned until midnight. The next day she mostly stayed in bed and read the papers. He shouldn't have worried about it because when he got back from Gatwick the house was completely empty and all the lights were out. There wasn't even a note. He thought about ringing her mobile but since he hadn't rung her all week, he couldn't see the point now. He looked in the fridge but there was no food that he could easily warm. He threw his dirty laundry in the washing machine and turned it on. He stood for a long time on the bare concrete floor of the laundry room, watching the clothes go round, absorbing the emptiness of the house. He didn't want to be alone again tonight but there was nowhere to go. He logged on the computer and accessed his email. There was another one from Friends Reunited, the same guy, Rolan Grey. It said, "Oh, by the way, there will be a Reunion." Nothing else. What a loser.
Ray rang Jen and Samuel. Jen was going to the cinema but would be back later. He surmised that she probably knew where her mum was but had been told not to say. Samuel was staying at a friend's again. Should Ray phone up and check with the parents? No, that would have been too intrusive, you were just expected to trust them. Ray walked around the house, looking at the family photos on the wall. A trip through the past, it felt like a museum of former selves. It felt cruel, like something that should still be alive was preserved in aspic. It felt like the end. So what if it was the end? Every end is a new beginning, unless it's the end end, the final one. It didn't feel like the final end, just one of those ones that happens in the middle and is only an end because the bit that was before it was so big and lasted so long. All it required was for him to make a decision, to use his power. He thought of Elonghi, and all the powerless ones spinning off into the dark night without control. He said to himself, Okay, this is it, I'm going to do this, I'm going to put a stop to this. I'm going to turn my life around.
Monday morning, for the first time in years, he didn't fly back to Brussels. Instead he emailed Luke that he was still ill and was going to stay in the UK for a few days. Caroline woke at seven and wondered why he was still there. She was forced to speak to him.
"Haven't you missed your flight?"
"Yes. I'm taking a few days off."
"I need to sort some things out. Well, I want to speak to somebody."
She sat up. Her face showed concern and amusement, like she didn't believe him. "Who?"
"What's wrong with you?"
"I'm not sure. That's why I need to speak to someone."
"Are you depressed?"
He considered it. "No, I don't think I'm depressed. But I am something with a name I suppose."
"Is it to do with us?"
"It must be part of it. It must affect me."
"It affects me too."
"I know. That's why I want to sort it out."
"You can't sort that out without me, if it can be sorted out."
Ray knew that neither of them believed that it could. She lay back down, doubled up the pillow and turned her back on him. He could tell by the quality of the silence that she was concentrating intently.
"You've changed, Ray. You've changed so much I don't know you anymore."
"I thought that we would spend our whole lives together."
When it came down to it, she was much better at confronting the truth than he was. He couldn't bear the finality, the resignation of her words.
"Who says we won't?"
She made a sound between a laugh and a groan. "Will you tell the children? I couldn't bear it."
Ray was alarmed. She'd jumped three steps ahead of him and was voicing the thoughts that were only just developing in the darkroom at the back of his head. She'd grasped the situation with one clear look. He was still hedging it around with denials and evasions, pretending it wasn't real but women, women, they get to the essentials straight away. She started sobbing, slowly at first, then it got louder until her body was contracting in and out of a foetal position. He tried to put his hand on her shoulder, to comfort her, but she shook him off. Her teeth were clenched to hold back the pain and she said, "No! Don't touch me, don't - touch - me."