Today everything is animal. The 121 Circular steams and mutters, hisses and roars away into traffic, spewing a herd of spattered raincoats with upturned collars and faces cast down. They scurry beyond the bus-shelter and eddy in and out of shops like creatures trapped in cupboards or drawers, behind a wall or beneath floorboards, or hurling themselves from sickening cliffs to perish in icy water and grey. After twenty-one steps along the pavement, MM reaches the big green doors of Beech Brothers Printing and Packaging, the most limited company on God’s earth.
Dragging his feet up the creaking stairs he trudges along the corridor, past rows of shelves stacked with dusty files, past the grinning coffee machine and the fire-bucket stuffed with plastic cups, till he stands at the door with the splintered hole where Ted ran his trolley into it. Breathe deep. Swing the door open. Step inside.
It’s like any other Tuesday morning. Worn lino, that fluorescent glare, the angels rummaging through their bags to find change for the coffee machine. But it’s not. He turns towards his desk. His coloured pens are in the wrong pot, his middle drawer hangs open and despite the initials taped to its back – in red, for christ’s sake, in BRIGHT BLOODY RED – his hole-punching machine has vanished. Could it be a mistake? Oh no. Fat Bastard’s pissing about again.
A face is smiling up from his desk, a circle outlined in paperclips with multi-coloured elastic-band hair, a mouth of red-topped drawing pins and sky-blue stickylabel eyes that will leave unshiftable smears of glue. And rosy felt-tip applecheeks. Like burglars who not only steal your stuff but have to crap on the carpet too.
He slides the drawer back into place and tugs his chair harder than he intended. As it tips and clatters onto the floor, the angels raise their golden heads. Carol flashes him a smile as she disappears into the corridor jingling change and swinging her plastic tray. But Marion (aka Badangel) wanders towards the desk, tilts her head and looks down at the paperclip face.
“Good, innit? Must have taken him ages. The mouth’s a picture… and that hair. I reckon Frank’s a bit of an artist.”
She must be joking. Mustn’t she? Deep breath. Ignore her. Carry on. Soothed by the hollow plop of pens dropping softly into their chipped blue mug, he straightens the files, puts the stapler away, unhooks the paperclips one by one and counts them into their pot one two... When everything’s in its proper place it’ll be just like it never was. But Badangel won’t let it lie.
“That wild look. What’s the word for it? Like kids do, or those ancient cavemen. There’s something really sexy about it. I’ll try it down the Toucan one night.”
Don’t say it. Not out loud. Don’t say
“Why not? You’ve tried everything else.”
Her eyes are little dark pointy needles.
“No need to be sarky, you know. Don’t take it out on the rest of us, just because Frank’s got up your nose. Anyway, look on the bright side. It could be a blessing in disguise.”
He stops, the thirteenth paperclip poised. Ignore. Ignore ignore ig…
“What d’you mean?”
She lifts a shapely eyebrow.
“You know what they say about a neat desk.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You must do. On those funny postcards.”
She slides a hand around his chair, her blonde head bending close to his. As she leans forward he smells her skin, sees her smooth and bursting inside her blouse. Her warm breath whispers in his ear.
“A sick mind, that’s what they say it means. A neat desk means you’ve got a sick mind.”
He lets the thirteenth paperclip fall.
“It’s my desk, and that’s how I like it! What’s sick about being tidy, for god’s sake?”
“All right,” she says, all treacly now, all mumsy, all butter-wouldn’t-melt. “No need to make a fuss about it. It’s just what people say, that’s all.”
She stalks back to her desk, smirking and looking down her nose at him. He sits with lips and fists clenched tight. His face is hot and sweaty, and he’s lost count of the paperclips. Turn the pot over and start again. One, two…
…thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six. The paperclips are back in their pot, but a row of drawing pins lies on the desk near a mouth-shaped pattern of little holes, off-centre, not even symmetrical and grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Would shoe-polish do the trick, the right shade of it, rubbed in with a scrap of cloth?
He’s still thinking of shades of shoe-polish when Carol returns with the coffee. Marion catches her eye and nods at him and thinks he doesn’t notice. As usual. From the drawer he takes the little mat with MM on the back in thick red biro and places the plastic cup in the centre. Carol lowers her lovely eyes, as blue as a painted summer sky.
“You all right?”
Warm fingertips on his sleeve. He flinches.
“Don’t let it bother you. Frank only does it to wind you up.”
He moves his hand towards hers, but... no. Instead he starts to unpeel the eyes.
“Here,” she says, “I’ll help you.”
“Thanks, Carol. That would be...”
Wonderful. As she gathers the elastic bands and drops them into the topleft drawer, he makes a note to shift them to their proper place in the second drawer later. She gets washing-up liquid from the kitchen and sets to work on the sticky patches. He’s rubbed and smeared them worse than before, till they’re stuck with hair and bits of fluff and his fingers burn with friction. Hot.
When the glue has gone, she returns to her desk. He covers the pinhole grin with a file and watches her hair fall round her shoulders. Maybe… It’s been a while. Since Suzanne. No harm in asking, is there? Is there? Reaching inside his bottom drawer he takes out a sheet of Beech Brothers paper and writes himself a little note: Wednesday morning – ask her then. He slips the note into a file, writes her name on it in capital letters, underlines it carefully and shoves it to the back of the drawer. As he looks up, Badangel glares at him.
“You gonna spend all morning on that? You’ve not fetched my dockets yet. They won’t walk up here by themselves, you know.”
Her dockets. He has to trudge downstairs through the stink and pounding noise of machines, collect the dockets from the foremen and trudge all the way back up again.
“Well? They’re half an hour late already.”
“All right. I’ll go and get them now...”
But he hangs about till his coffee cools, putting Marion’s nose nicely out of joint, before trawling through the factory breathing air thick with the stench of ink, hot oil and hissing rows of machines.
The angels shop at lunchtime, leaving MM in the office alone. He slumps and waits for the slam of Frank’s door, his footsteps fading down the stairs on his way to the Two Anchors, as usual. Gone. All empty and silent. For him. He stares at the sun beaming through the window, the motes of bright dust dancing in rays that travel ninety-three million miles to poke through grimy windowpanes, shining on clusters of floating specks that might be planets for all we know. Suspended in lazy lunchtime air they mingle with the clock’s soft tick, the trembling of its bony finger, until the clouds close and they disappear. He yawns. Time for his midday kip.
Slumped with his head down on the desk and cushioned by his folded arms, he dreams the dream he always dreams but hardly ever remembers, though it sleeps inside his head all day. He’s standing on a bridge, beneath a moon half-hidden by streaky cloud. A grey canal stretches in front of him, and the bushes by the towpath shiver. Something scuttles over the bank to slip into the greasy water. He can’t move. Everything in him is numb. He folds his arms on the parapet, rests his head against them and looks down.
Dark figures slip from a little boat. Their skin is black and shiny, and the tanks strapped to their backs weigh them down. As they vanish into the water, lines of bubbles float like chains of spawn along the ragged edge of the reeds. The chains become a circle, shrinking and closing to a single point. A masked face breaks the surface and a black arm waves towards the bank.
They haul her dripping from the canal, streaked with slime and hung with streamers of weed. She’s naked and her face is blank, and her legs splay over the side of the boat. As she turns her head, her eyes flick open and stare directly into his. Though he’s shaking, he can’t look away till they zip her into a bag. She’s gone.
He looks down from the parapet at her face drifting just beneath the surface. She knows he’s watching from the bridge, she knows he’s there and she knows it was him and she stares into his eyes as though she can see everything inside his head. The figures on the bank look up. They point their fingers and scream at him and move closer, their shiny black arms outstretched…
He jerks awake, not sure where he is, as the clockfinger clicks for the fortieth time. The angels clomp up the corridor, drop their shopping bags by their desks and start rabbiting about biscuits and space and Marion’s Mum, like they always do.
“So stuff the pills,” Badangel says. “It’s only the Jaffa cakes stop her moaning.”
“But can’t she go and get them herself? I mean, she can still leave the house, can’t she?”
“When she wants to. And when she doesn’t, she can’t. Aggro-bleedin’-phobia! I’m telling you, it’s all in her head. If she doesn’t watch out, I’ll be off. Like me Dad.”
They pause to extricate sandwiches – or in Marion’s case dry crispy stuff you could tile a living-room ceiling with – from plastic boxes in their desk drawers. Carol looks across at him.
“Been busy. Stuff to do.”
She rummages inside her bag, pulls out a golden bar of Twix and lobs it high across the room. It clunks on his desk.
“Butterfingers!” says Marion.
She walks towards him, hand outstretched.
“We’ve got no change. Come on, cough up.”
He thought he coughed before lunch, but still… As he fishes for change in his trouser pocket, she picks a letter up from his desk.
He makes a grab, but misses.
“‘Dear Dicky, I regret to inform you…’”
“Give it back!”
At the second attempt he wrenches it free, leaving Marion with a scrap from the middle.
“Do what on your packaging? And who on earth’s Dicky – your secret boyfriend?”
“None of your business. It’s just a letter.”
Marion sniffs and walks back to her desk.
“Funny sort of letter. Sick. By the way, Frank wants to see you.”
She lets him get as far as the door before she says
“Not now. Tomorrow.”
He sits down, fists clenched in his pockets. Don’t be bad to Badangel. And don’t let her wind you up. Like yesterday. And the day before. And...
“Did he say when?”
“Two o’clock, in his office. He’s out with Captain Jack all morning.”
“What’s it about?”
“Search me. Thought you’d know.”
As he wonders what FB might want a rumble drifts down the corridor, fading and drawing closer again like Mrs Flynn when she hoovers the stairs and stops for a smoke on every landing. It’s all the same long, empty ache. It must be Ted on his weekly round, stopping at every office as he approaches, wheeling his trolley before him. Today he manages to get in without demolishing the door.
“Afternoon, Ted,” says Marion. “Got everything this week, have you?”
“All present and correct,” says Ted.
He slides a notebook from his pocket and flicks a page with a licked, grubby finger. Badangel narrows her eyes at him.
“You’d better have. Last time you left us short, and after I’d promised my Mum as well. She bent my ear rotten about it all week.”
Ted picks up an empty plastic cup, holds it like a megaphone and imitates a platform announcer.
“We apologise to customers for last week’s operational difficulties, due to a misunderstanding between George the driver and the new security guard. But by the grace of almighty God, and with the aid of a decent bung, our normal service has now been resumed.”
He puts the cup down, winks at Badangel and lifts a white cardboard box from the trolley. It has a logo on its side – E and E in fancy letters, surrounded by a thick, blue circle. It represents English Electricals, the largest and most gullible of all Beech Brothers’ customers. He slides it across to Marion, who removes the lid to check the contents: two packets of butter, some processed cheese, half a dozen fruit-flavoured yoghurts and a small jar of creamy sick that’s dotted with lumps of orange and green. Sandwich spread. She’s still not happy.
“Another thing – why are we always last? Next week you should start up here for a change and make them wait in the factory.”
Ted ignores her. He hands the last box to Carol, makes a couple of ticks in his notebook and slides it back into his trouser pocket. All that’s left on his trolley is a parcel tightly wrapped in brown paper, about half the size of a dinner plate. He drops it onto MM’s desk with an air more of hope than expectation.
“You didn’t order this, did you?”
Gingerly he pulls back the wrapper. A slab of crusted white stinking cheese, runny and with deep blue veins like marble or varicose auntylegs, is squatting underneath their noses. Stinking hardly covers it – an intense, gut-churning, throat-wrenching stench you could hang your hat or overcoat or probably whole wardrobe on. Ammonia? White stinking stuff. MM pulls away in disgust.
“For god’s sake, Ted, take it away! I don’t want your stinky old cheese.”
Swiftly Ted re-wraps it, using yards of sticky tape from the holder placed on the corner of MM’s desk. That’s okay, Ted. Help yourself.
“George must have picked it up by mistake. Or maybe having it half-inched is the only way to get rid of it. It’s true what that bloke said, you know – it’s a greater crime to make this stuff than to nick it.”
MM hunches the way he always does when wanting to look as though working but not, but Ted ignores the hint and draws closer. His hand flops onto MM’s shoulder – pink, grubby fingers with sprouting hairs and lines of dark dirt beneath the nails. Below the knuckles are tattooed letters: e… v… o… and …L spells… evoL? Hang on. Upside down. It’s Love. He peers at the hand spread on his desk as though it had a right to be there: o... n... e... and ...y on the fingers, and a big M on the thumb.
Ted lowers his voice and leans so close MM smells the grease on his shiny hair.
“I got some quality stuff this week. Top-notch VCRs, all the gizmos, straight from the land of the rising sun. Pop down for a butcher’s, okay?”
Every week Ted tries it on. This month there’s already been a nest of carved occasional tables (just the job for a bedsit, ‘cos they all fit into each other, see?) a twenty four inch TV set (the programmes are still crap, but then you can’t have everything, can you?) and a three-speed electric toothbrush (you can choose how clean you want your teeth, and the missus might... though you... never mind). Every week MM gives the same reply.
“Sorry, Ted, I can’t. I’m skint.”
Except… this week it doesn’t work. Instead of shrugging and shoving off, Ted smiles and prods his shoulder-blade.
“Come off it, mate. You’re pulling my leg.”
“Honest, Ted. I’m stony broke.”
Ted winks and moves his face closer still. A piece of half-digested Twix is rising into MM’s throat.
“Bright lad,” says Ted. “Best keep it mum. Don’t let on to Carrion.”
“Carrion – Carol and Marion, see? Suave Dave thought it up. Clever bastard. But pop down and see me soon, okay?”
Ted trundles off, but leaves behind to linger in the afternoon air like specks of dust in a shaft of sun or soft ticks from the big brown clock, the unmistakeable reek of cheese.