Lives / Paul Nightingale

1

Default and Samuel belong in a romantic comedy. They meet and squabble, and dislike each other straightaway, and go on meeting and squabbling because they have to work together. A plot twist – neither can believe it when introduced as colleagues and bitch about it to anyone prepared to listen or, cornered, unable to avoid it. After working late one time they have impulsive sex but decide it was a big mistake. Everyone says they’ll get married and live happily thereafter, but neither Default nor Samuel are buying it.

It’s useful to bear in mind they didn’t always belong in a romantic comedy, a fate creeping up on them, pieces falling into place one by one, day by day, until they sit opposite each other on the eleventh floor. Good for jumping from, I suppose, best friend Margaret weighing up her options when Default’s latest rant doesn’t look like ending any time soon. Her parents’ trophy girl until she didn’t get the grades she needed for her first-choice university, she had to settle for second best, where she first met Samuel, surely you can see it was never supposed to happen, Margaret nodding on cue, and was even in some of the same classes. And then she forgot about him until years later and the meet-cute when, briefly, they fought over a cab, each insisting they got there first. Recognising each other, unable to deny they did, in fact, remember each other, they reluctantly agreed to share, it’s just a cab ride, happens all the time with strangers helping each other out, what’s the worst; but then found out, oh no, please tell me it isn’t true, not only were they going in the same direction, they were going to the same address. And not only that, they were going to the same company, being interviewed for the same job. Stuck in traffic, Default thinks she’ll get out and walk. I can’t bear it any longer with this fool. They’re close enough now. Just another couple of blocks, you’ll be there in no time, really, Samuel keen to agree. I could get out and walk; anything to be away from her.

He’s still trying to remember Default from university. He remembers the fact of her, or thinks he does, he’s almost convinced himself of that much, but can’t remember knowing her, being acquainted. Perhaps she made it up to put him off his game, she thinks it’ll give her an advantage at the interview. Life’s a brutal, unforgiving competition, dog eat dog, reminding himself, watch your own back because no one else will. You’re right, what dyou think, her voice breaking into his thoughts, you could so walk from here. Is she offering to pay the cab fare, or does she expect him to give her half, even though he won’t have travelled, if she has her way and he gets out, the full distance? Well, she says. Woof, he says.

It’s a long story, and complicated, how they’re both appointed, it wasn’t life and death after all, not a dog in sight; but the work they’ve been given to do, a contract worth millions, could mean the company’s future prosperity. I trust you, a managing director who fancies himself a puller of strings, you bring out the best in each other, confiding as much to each in turn, implying you bring out the best in him (or her). The hell we do, thinks Default. The hell we do, thinks Samuel. The hell he does. The hell she does. Neither, however, is prepared to say as much; each fears they’ll be the one moved to work elsewhere, a demotion of sorts, the other staying to finish the job and take all the credit for saving the company.

2

Michael belongs in a thriller, the kind where you think it a normal day and find it isn’t, you’ve been mistaken for someone else, which means bad guys want to kill you. They have foreign accents and appear out of nowhere and try to kill you, but always fail because, well, there’d be no story if they succeeded. Well OK, there would be a story but not this one; the other story would have to be some kind of weepie, opening with widow and twelve-year-old son at a funeral asking why and then trying to put their lives back together without you. You’re not there in the other story. Melodramatic, hopefully, and heart-warming, doubtless feel-good, but not a thriller. Not unless the grieving widow falls prey to a manipulative psychopath seeking to exploit her vulnerability, she’s the only one who can’t see through him, twelve‑year‑old son saying wise up, mum, but that’s a whole other story. So Michael can’t die and won’t die, no matter what they throw at him. Today it was a high-speed chase on a winding mountain road somewhere in an unnamed country with bright sunshine. They tried to run him off the road, but he kept his nerve and was soon back on the 5.17 homeward bound, standing room only. Michael finds he can be quite resourceful when bad guys with foreign accents are trying to kill him; he can’t deny he looks forward to these daily encounters, opportunities. To begin with, the foreign guys were interchangeable, but he’s used to them now, he can tell them apart, they have personalities, the one who follows him on to a train and tries to garrote him going through a tunnel, the one in the queue for coffee playing mind games, I’ll see you outside. One silent, one who speaks. Outside, the way he says it. Michael’s glad Margaret knows nothing and suspects nothing, although he couldn’t help telling Cameron; they’re not getting on at the moment and he wants his son to be impressed and think him glamorous for having such a life outside the home. Cameron, however, bored, mumbled so what, and asked if he could watch a programme on the new eighty-inch tv, it takes up an entire wall, none of his friends have anything over sixty inches.

Before Michael could reply, could ask if Cameron had listened to a word of what he said, what he confided, what he opened his soul about, Margaret had come in and said no, not now, I want to watch a film. Cameron groaned because he knew only too well his mother’s taste in films and quickly left the room. You’ll have to watch it in there, she called after him. But that’s so crap, hoping they hadn’t heard him use a word they disapprove of. None of his friends have parents like Michael and Margaret, he’d swap them if he could. He’d like to be in a story where they said he could have new parents, a story worth being in.

Shifting in his seat, Michael felt a little dizzy, nauseous, a reminder of the chase earlier when he was thrown forward in his seat, knocking his head against something. Quite a bruise you’ve got going there, Margaret landing next to him, something I should know about? After the attempted garroting she asks about his neck and he blamed it on a new shirt, the collar’s giving him trouble, must have been designed for torture. She turns from the television to take a closer look. You men and your shirts, the old collar‑and‑tie routine, you must think there’s something manly about the suffering you put yourselves through. After a fight that leaves him with bruised knuckles, he tells her he punched his office wall. You ought to get a job where they appreciate you. A downside, then, each day he comes home and has to invent new excuses for his appearance; he might be about to lose control. But he gets away with it; she believes whatever he tells her. The next time the bad guys are after him and the adrenaline flows, he has only one thought, how he’ll outwit them and live to fight another day, pretty much word‑for‑word how he explains it to Cameron. It surprises Michael how Cameron has taken to these father‑and-son bonding sessions; the boy’s growing up fast these days.

3

Raymond knows both Michael and Samuel. Sometimes Raymond thinks he’s living in a romantic comedy, the times Samuel stops him in the corridor to complain about Default. She’s impossible, I mean impossible, y’know, the most impossible person ever, how can they expect me to work with her? He can’t bottle it up any longer, what friends are for. Just go out for lunch together and chill, and get a room and work things out, take the afternoon off and just work things out. Go for it. Samuel says they tried that already, they had sex a week ago; if anything, she’s been even worse since that happened. Raymond asks what it was like, the sex. Pretty good, you’d be surprised. But then it’s over and you have to go on talking to each other, ending quickly as, over Raymond’s shoulder, he sees her exit the lift. And working together on important accounts with looming deadlines, Raymond adds helpfully as Samuel dives round the nearest corner.

At other times Raymond thinks he’s living in a thriller, the kind where you find yourself living next door to a guy who’s been taken for someone else, he’s always got bad guys trying to kill him. He knocks on your door late one night and says you’re the only person he can turn to; he’s putting your life at risk saying anything, but there’s no one else. Thanks for that. He says he’s started wondering what it would be like to let the bad guys kill him. He has to come up with explanations for his battered appearance and Margaret will start having suspicions sooner or later, it’s amazing she hasn’t yet realised something’s amiss. I married a really stupid woman. If I tell her the truth now, after all that’s gone on, she’ll want to know why I didn’t tell her sooner, and that’ll be awkward; she’ll want to be part of it, like when we sit down and do the budget together, what we can afford to spend money on this month, stuff like that. A problem shared is a problem halved, she always says. You’re inclined to disagree, no it isn’t, but say nothing. And then he goes on about letting them kill him. I know that can’t happen, it’s against all the rules. But I feel I should be taking a few risks, it’s time I took it to a new level, it might even be fun to see how the story turned out with that twist thrown into the mix. You almost point out he’d be dead in that case and wouldn’t know much of anything but, again, bite your tongue and busy yourself brewing coffee for a long session instead. And Cameron needs to know he might come home from school one day and find his father dead, his mother weeping, Michael with his eyes closed now in your favourite armchair of all places.

You’ve lived here a while and spoken a few times to Michael and his wife, you’ve said hello at work, and even the boy when he’s on his way home from school. He says he hates school and you almost offer to help with his homework; you were good at homework when you went to school. You almost make the offer but don’t; if anything were to happen to him you’d find yourself in the kind of police procedural where they’re investigating a missing child and you’re accused of being a paedophile because you live next door and neighbours are always suspected. Michael’s talking now about turning the tables and going after the bad guys, they can see how they like it for a change. The one in the queue for coffee followed him outside and stuff happened in a quiet side street – so what would happen if I went for him when we’re, get this, in the coffee queue, with all those people there, witnesses. You make a note to avoid speaking to the boy if possible. Just quickly say hello or something; refusing to make eye-contact should do it. Sooner or later he’ll get the message.

4

Edge belongs in a gritty neo-realist story where she spends all day behind a counter selling people stuff, every day the same, before going home to look after a sick parent, probably a sick mother but perhaps a sick father, it was never spelled out and now it’s too late, she’d feel a fool if she said there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask. And she sees the world go by each day and gets quite philosophical in a certain inarticulate working-class noble‑savage kind of way. Edge has a heart of gold, Cameron said so. He’s in here all the time, he must have a crush on her, which wouldn’t be so unlikely if only this were another kind of story, one with less grit. That’s so nice, she says when he pays her yet another compliment. Does the crush include daydreaming about her naked body? Does he, y’know, play with himself while fantasising about her with no clothes on? Take better care of yourself, Cameron offering advice, already a man of the world; wear makeup and stuff, I bet you’d be quite a looker. Do something about your hair. She thanks him for his concern and asks if he came in for anything special. She’s used to neo-realism and resents him trying to turn it into a coming-of-age thing, a loss-of-innocence thing, wistful and charming. He’s wet because it always rains where the shop is, the kind of grey rain that makes you think of the words grey and relentless, the rain as relentless as her sick parent, who’s certainly grey. Hanging on all this time and refusing to die’s grey, all right.

Cameron thinks about it, or pretends to, she knows what his answer will be. Gum, he says, I like gum. We’re not allowed gum at school so I can’t get enough of it when I come home. No, I just can’t get enough gum, Edge wondering if she’s supposed to read between the lines. I might even be addicted, that’s how bad it is; I can’t stop chewing. She sells him gum and says it must be time to go and do homework. I hate homework, two pieces of gum stuffed in his mouth straightaway, the noise he’s making. I used to hate homework also, Edge confesses, which is why I ended up here in this gritty neo-realist story with a sick parent who drains me, y’know, I mean drains all the life out of me. Do your homework and avoid gritty futures and sick parents who go on living when they should be dead, who go on living and draining, just living and draining.

Cameron slows down the chewing; he’s captivated by her words. I thought I had it tough, living with a dad who has bad guys trying to kill him all the time and it’s the only thing he ever, I mean ever, wants to talk about. I can guarantee it’s what we’ll talk about tonight after dinner, my mother in the kitchen, oblivious to everything her husband my father’s telling me. What kind of day did you have? Oh I had French and history, both of which I hate, by the way, they’re so pointless, what kind of day did you have? And he’ll launch right into it and say they made another attempt on his life, but he was resourceful, my dad’s always resourceful, and escaped in time to come home and have dinner. And he’ll show me the cuts and bruises, don’t tell your mother, she can’t know what’s going on. I mean, what kind of a way is that to treat a twelve-year-old who still hasn’t fully outgrown innocence yet, sneaking another look, if she’s not mistaken here, at her breasts. I think I’ll have more gum, I need it to get through French homework, irregular verbs just kill me, and so she sells him another pack, one shaking hand passing gum to another shaking hand.

5

Default and Samuel constantly misunderstand each other. One of them says something and the other immediately jumps to the wrong conclusion. You’re the most obstinate person I’ve ever known. No, you are. You’re the worst colleague they could have asked me to work with. You think so – taken a look at yourself? Default has a date with Margaret at the gym and confides in her, and Margaret tells her to come to her senses, it’s high time she recognised true love when it’s put in her way, don’t be so foolish. It’s gone on long enough, this nonsense. Margaret, after all, is happily married with a delightful son; she knows all there is to know about true love. The trouble with you is, this rom‑com thing you’ve been caught up in, it means you don’t give true love a chance here and now, you think you have to go on fighting. The happy ending’s always later. Default didn’t like being called foolish by a woman she considers an airhead; when did it happen I’ve got to confide in her, she thinks we’re best friends, we have to share secrets about everything? She’ll expect an invite when I finally do marry Samuel, the thought exploding before she knows it’s coming. All this time I’ve known, deep down that’s how the story must end, me marrying Samuel. Suddenly vindictive, she’s on the point of saying something snide about the thriller that Michael inhabits, the garroting scene was too ridiculous, but then remembers that Margaret knows nothing about the bad guys trying to kill her husband.

You could always tell her, Raymond suggests, an idea when, yet again, it’s becoming a bit of a habit now, he dreads it, he opens the door to his neighbour late one night. Put the coffee on. Share with her, what wives are for. Michael says he couldn’t possibly tell Margaret he has bad guys taking a pop at him every day. Anyway, what dyou know about wives, he can’t help adding here, when was the last time you were ever married?

6

Cameron asks Default where she got her name; it’s hardly the kind of name you’d expect to find in a romantic comedy, patiently stating the obvious, you should have a more realistic name. More plausible. They should have called you something like Margaret, only that’s my mother’s name so you’d have to be called something else, two Margarets in the same story’s hardly plausible. We’d keep getting you mixed up. Relieved her name’s not Margaret, it’s not all doom-&-gloom, then, Default says she always felt she was destined for something else, and Cameron says a part in a postmodernist thing, maybe, some kind of hysterical realism where everyone has a weird name to draw attention to the fictiveness element of what’s going on. Something must have gone wrong if this is where I ended up. I took a wrong turning, got into the wrong cab.

Hysterical realism’s something Cameron thinks he knows about since his English teacher said something in a lesson last week. He’d just read a story with a character missing, perhaps it was you. The author wrote a story and fell asleep; when she woke up the character was missing; she asked the other characters, but no one knew anything. Paranoid, the author suspected they did know everything; they knew the missing character was the author’s favourite, the one she’d been waiting all her life for – you. And they’d bumped you off or something. Or bribed you to go off and join another story, or threatened you, anything to get rid of you. They all knew what was going on, the author’s always the last person to find out’s what she was thinking here. So the author starts asking all the other authors if a strange character just turned up in one of their stories out of the blue, was just all of a sudden there when, five minutes ago, she wasn’t there. The other authors say no, sorry, making out they’d love to help the first author if only they could. But why would they tell the truth, what’s in it for them if the missing character’s far better than any of their own characters? No one in their right senses would pass on an opportunity to, so to speak, adopt you. The missing character’s a protagonist, you’re not just anyone, a minor nobody who won’t ever be missed, it’s a story missing its protagonist, Cameron elaborating freely, getting carried away, not caring if he did justice to what his teacher had said or, forgetting the detail, was simply making up what he wanted Default to hear. Everyone else is waiting for you to turn up before they can do anything. We’ve been over it a thousand times. One this page she goes first and does stuff, then me, I do some other stuff – that’s how it’s written, dammit, you’re the damn author, no one to tell him he shouldn’t use language like that. Every time you’re supposed to be there it’s just an empty space with a footnote – temporarily removed, we’re working on it, try again later.

Well Default’s convinced of her destiny long before Cameron has finished. I could so do it; I know I could, be a protagonist in my own story, with no Samuel to play opposite and have to share with. To be honest, I’ve always felt I was wasted there. Cameron says it makes sense, she should have been elsewhere and ended up in a stupid rom‑com just for money because the paying punters are always most comfortable with what they know, it’s too much of a gamble to do anything different. It’s fate, no telling how that works, shrugging, popping more gum in his mouth.

Default decided she had to meet the English teacher to find out more about the story with a missing protagonist, which is how she disappeared and didn’t turn up for work the next day, or any day after that. Tell Samuel I’ve found my true home, but Cameron forgets; he has history and French homework to do and it always takes hours. He needs to go out and buy gum and, one thing leading to another, forgets to say anything to Samuel until it’s too late, there’s no time for him to finish the big contract by himself. Where is she? Let us all down – that’s where she is, Raymond once more on the receiving end.

If I told him now he’ll only go off on one, they’d blame me for everything, the company losing the contract and going bust, Samuel losing his job – everything, Edge nodding that’s a pity. They’ll say it would have been OK if I’d spoken up sooner, they could have fixed everything. She still wouldn’t have been there, but they’ll find a way to say it’s all my fault. I think you’re chewing too much gum. Perhaps I should tell him anyway; if he did love her after all he’d want to know what happened. You’re looking at my breasts again, aren’t you, always my breasts. I can always tell – you chew the gum so furiously there can be no other explanation.

7

What kind of day did you have? Michael asks Cameron after dinner, Margaret in the kitchen doing dishes again, safely out of earshot if Michael has anything to say about the latest attempt on his life. I got an A for French, and an A for history as well. I think they’re my favourite subjects. Michael says he thought Cameron hated those subjects and Cameron says he did, but then Edge gave him a good talking to, she said I didn’t want to end up in a gritty working-class neo-realist story like she did. I should avoid that fate at all costs, and so I decided to work harder at school. Michael has been in Edge’s shop a few times and seen her behind the counter, and not thought much of her, to be honest. Very plain, I always thought. Cameron nods. I told her she should sort herself out and have a makeover, and I think she’ll take my advice. She just needs to pluck up the courage. She’s already looking so much better; her sick parent just died, they just had a cremation, it’s official, she’s free to leave and begin again. Today was her last day in the shop, so I said goodbye and all the best. Michael asks if she ever tried anything on, if you know what I mean, I’ve no idea how much twelve‑year‑olds these days know from being on the Internet 24/7 – has she, well, touched you somewhere she shouldn’t, or asked you to go into the back room and take a heavy box from a shelf or something? It’s called grooming. You take down enough heavy boxes, and she praises you and says you’re so big and strong, where did you get those muscles, how it always starts, no one knows what will happen next, Cameron agreeing it could have turned out that way. There could’ve been a crossover between the gritty neo‑realist story and the police procedural they’re always trying to get Raymond mixed up in. To be honest, I’m fed up of being nothing but jailbait. High time I had my own story instead of having to listen to everyone else’s latest episode.

Michael is about to tell his son the thriller’s over; the bad guys have been defeated permanently, their car going off the road at great speed with no survivors after it burst into flames. At first, he just assumed they’d be back; but he hasn’t seen them since and he’s slowly getting used to the idea it’s all over. He’s afraid to say anything in case saying it changes it, but he hopes the news will cheer Cameron; it means they can start again and finally enjoy a normal father-son relationship. These are the thoughts forming in his mind when Margaret comes in with tea. A film will start soon on television and he promised to watch it with her. Margaret likes romantic comedies because she always knows how the story ends and she enjoys crying with happiness when the lovers get together in the final scene, and there’s nothing better than having her husband next to her.



Paul Nightingale is a teacher in London, England, currently working on a collection of stories and a novel. His blog (Schoenberg’s Favourite Colour @ isread.wordpress.com) includes critical work on Pynchon’s fiction and Howard Barker’s plays.

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