Noun: the existing or actual state of affairs
So, here it is.
An hour ago, Jackson, love-of, texted me to say his friend Callum is coming for drinks tonight and to get myself home. Pronto. Now when Jackson asks (tells) me to do something, I usually get on it. ASAP.
Life is much easier that way.
Only today when he messaged, I was stuck in the office finishing up an urgent report for the boss, a report that I had been trying and failing to finish up all day because the boss is, a) never happy and, b) always unhappy. Changes had been made and remade and unmade, a frustrating exercise made all the more so given that he is currently in Finland, staying at the Hotel Finn – they really stretched themselves thinking up that name – and travels without a smart phone or an iPad or a computer. Nothing useful in other words.
The boss, Malcolm Clay, known (un)fondly as Feet-of, has an ultra-basic, Nokia brick; the one we all used back in the Stone Age of modern technology. He believes this old school approach gives him kudos as someone hip and thrifty, out-of-step yet somehow ahead of the crowd. It doesn’t. It just makes life a living hell for the PA – me – as I spend half my life feeding pages into an ancient fax machine and waiting for them to burp their way into existence (on another ancient fax machine) somewhere else.
So, when Jackson’s text sprang into being, I bravely said that I was tied up at work and would be home later. Jackson insisted and I ended up doing what I always do when Jackson insists; I obeyed. Shoving the latest updates into the reluctant fax machine, I legged it out of the office before the boss could phone with yet more changes.
And here I am, at home, as requested, almost on time and studiously ignoring the eleven missed calls from Finland.
What I don’t know is where the hell Jackson is, although I am looking forward to a rare moment of smug triumph when he finds I got home before him.
Callum, who moved to New York a few years ago in a hail of self-congratulatory plaudits, is back in Blighty - a whole year earlier than anticipated. Which is a shame. I was delighted when he flew off across the pond even if I did have to endure an extended period of (hotly denied) sulking from Jackson, hugely miffed to have missed out on the chance for a move to the Big Apple. What I don’t know is why he is back, although I would be prepared to hazard a guess and say that the US Immigration came to their senses and realised that Callum was a first-class dickhead and should be allowed to sully the land of the free and home to the brave no longer.
I am also interested as to why Jackson has invited him for drinks, unless it’s to get the gory details first and do some gloating – which would make perfect sense, come to think of it - and why he is so adamant I should be here.
I check my phone in case an update from Jackson has slid into being without my knowledge – it hasn’t – and then I eye the wine fridge. Jackson, hiding misogynistic tendencies behind outdated social values, considers it a crime for women to drink alone, or to even start drinking alone; an absurd doctrine that I chose to ignore. Besides, a few gulps of something cold and fruity right now would go a long way to smoothing off my fractured edges before Callum gets here. Jackson only drinks red wine, which leaves me some space for manoeuvre in amongst the whites. He draws the line at rosé – my favourite - and won’t have it in the house, so I have been forced to restrict consumption to evenings out with the girlfriends, Kim and Nina, although these days it is usually just Kim and me. Getting Nina out of her office and into a bar lately involves a lengthy negotiation conducted well in advance. Do not even think about a last-minute spur-of-the-moment drink, the one where you get to 5.25pm after a monumentally crap day, text the girls for an emergency pick-me-up and hoof it to the appointed bar lickety-split. Nina never makes those any more. I don’t think she even leaves her office before about 10pm these days. Voluntarily.
It is all about the job.
Only it is not a job, it’s a career, Stella.
Glass of wine in hand, I call Jackson but he doesn’t pick up. Maybe he is somewhere on the Underground, rumbling through the honeycomb of tunnels where we all know it is not worth even trying to use your phone. Apart from the fact there is no network, there is not enough space in the crush to safely use a phone. Last time I tried, I dropped it while cemented firmly in an upright position by the hordes and never saw it again.
Dammit, that must be Callum. He has beaten Jackson to it. If there is one thing I do not want to do, would pay good money not to do, even for a minute, is deal with Callum on my own. Maybe I should just pretend I’m not back yet, couldn’t get away, got stuck on the Tube, fainted in the crush on the platform…..
Then again, I can just see Jackson’s face when he finds Callum kicking his heels on the front door step and me hiding out in the guest bathroom. Not gonna go well. So, taking a final swig of wine, I hide the glass in a cupboard behind a pack of pasta and make my way slowly downstairs, pulling open the front door and cobbling together a welcoming smile.
There he is in all his smug glory.
A sinkhole, God? Any chance?
I say hello and he says hello, and then we both stand there looking uneasily at each other. This is going to be excruciating if Jackson doesn’t get a wiggle on. I give a last desperate glance towards the end of the road, praying that he will be striding towards us – he isn’t - take a deep breath and invite Callum in. He looks as reluctant as I feel but eventually steps past me and makes his way up the stairs to the living room; we live in one of those weird buildings where the front door is downstairs, with the rest of the flat is upstairs. I believe this is called a duplex although multiplex would be a more accurate description of our home, a vast expanse of real estate with stunning views out over Primrose Hill. I love living here, I really do; it’s convenient and close to town, not to mention palatial, I just wish Kim and Nina lived closer by.
Kim lives with Bart – yes really, Polish, short for Bartosz – south of the river near Wimbledon (Bart since becoming an ardent tennis fan) and Nina lives in a converted warehouse in the Docklands. Although it would be fair to say that warehouse is something of an undersell; the place is a spectacular modern / vintage mishmash with huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Thames. The view couldn’t be more different from ours although it still captures the attention, especially at night with the jagged city skyline reflected out over the water. Not that she is ever there to appreciate the view. Building that career in the city involves long hours, with evenings and weekends dedicated to getting the edge on her colleagues by holing up in the office while they are foolishly enjoying some down time.
Callum stands now in front of the wall-to-wall plate-glass window, legs apart, hands on his hips, admiring the view and nodding his head in approval.
‘Not too shabby at all. I could enjoy this view every morning before work.’
Thankfully you don’t, I think, digging deep to summon the level of sincerity required to respond cordially. ‘It’s not bad is it? You get the full four seasons out of this window. Spring is gorgeous, but autumn is my favourite. It’s stunning. Now, what can I get you to drink?’
He ignores me, turning back to the view and I have a sudden panic that he might have gone all healthy living in New York and is going to ask for a glacial water from Tibet, with a slice of cucumber and a side of parsley.
Which would mean a giant G&T posing as a glass of sparkling water for me.
‘Callum? Something to drink?’ I try again.
He swivels around, clapping his hands and rubbing them together in anticipation. ‘Glass of one of Jackson’s reds would sort me out nicely,’ he says, managing to make it sound as if I have just asked him for rampant sex on the sofa.
Bolting off to the sanctuary of the kitchen, I pull open the wine fridge. Is he expecting me to open one of Jackson’s top-shelf wines? Some of them up there are worth more, much more, than my monthly salary and are strictly out-of-bounds. Hedging, I go upper-middle and pull out a bottle at random; Chateau Lafleur, 2009. No idea, but I like the name. Jackson has tried on occasion to educate me about wine, but when you mainly drink with your girlfriends in wine bars, or at home alone (I know, I know….), it is hard to remember what you are meant to be appreciating; something fruity and unchallenging that can be swigged with gusto tends to be the overriding objective.
Speaking of which - this Lafleur stuff is fantastic.
A quick check on Vivino reveals it’s a snip at a mere £450 a bottle. For fuck’s sake! I should have gone lower-middle; this stuff is far too good for Callum.
Right, olives, salted cashews, guacamole, Kettle chips and, pride of place, my special wasabi peanuts from Japan – they are quasi-inedible but good entertainment value in the uninitiated. I pour two large glasses of Lafleur and put them on the tray; I don’t want him to see the bottle in case he thinks I opened it to impress him. Or worse, please him.
Pushing open the door with my hip, I find him on the phone, still gazing out at the view.
‘Chill, I’ve got it,’ he says with a throaty chuckle. ‘You owe me one. We’ll sort paperwork tomorrow. Ciao.’
‘Good news?’ I slide the tray carefully on to the table, terrified of spilling the precious nectar, and hand him a glass.
‘Very. I have somewhere to live,’ he says, taking a sip of wine then showing off by swilling it about and gurgling.
‘That was quick. Where will you be living?’ I ask, the epitome of po-lite.
‘Right here in Primrose Hill,’ he says with a sly smirk, taking another sip.
My heart goes into freefall. ‘Really?’ I try to speak calmly, but it comes out as a fraught bark, like a dog who’s just discovered a new cat flap on his back door. ‘How lovely. Jackson will be thrilled.’ Which is a complete lie. Jackson doesn’t do thrilled.
‘Oh, I doubt we’ll see much of each other.’ He turns back to the window. ‘I’m looking forward to this view though. I lived in the Village in New York. Greenwich Village. The place to live of course, awash with delis and books shops but short on the green stuff. Costs a bloody fortune too. Not that I couldn’t afford it, but you get seriously more floor space for your money here, and trees. And I’m looking forward to running around the park.’ He pats his stomach as I simultaneously pull mine in. I rarely walk around the park let alone run, though I am partial to a spot of sunbathing on the rare occasions that the sun and the weekend agree to a joint appearance.
‘I read there’s an outdoor gym. Any good?’ he asks. ‘You need a decent workout to burn off the day. In an ideal world, it would be morning and evening, but there’s simply not enough hours in the day in my business. When do you work out?’
‘Lunchtime,’ I say. Total fabrication.
‘Chance would be a fine thing. I expect you have two-hour lunch breaks every day. At my level that’s not permitted. Every minute counts.’
I look at him in disbelief. ‘Bullshit! You guys are permanently on three-hour lunches in the name of entertaining a client.’
He dismisses me, saying crossly, ‘you have no idea what real work is.’
‘You what? We do all the work while you guys waltz about doing fuck-all and pocketing all the money.’
‘Answering the odd phone call and typing a letter. Hardly all the work.’
‘You know nothing about my job,’ I snap, gulping some more wine to calm my nerves, already frazzled after, oh, all of five minutes with this dickhead.
‘You work for that Clay.’ He takes a handful of cashews and starts throwing them a little way into the air and catching them in his mouth in a show of bored nonchalance. ‘Poisonous personality, but he’s clever, I’ll give him that. Made something of himself against all the odds.’
Hello? Pot. Kettle. Black.
‘Still got a shocking reputation though. Thought you might have moved on,’ he pauses, then making sure to catch my eye, continues, ‘moved up.’ His lips make a tiny popping sound on the p. ‘He pulled any more spectacular bargains out of the hat while everyone else was looking the other way?’
He drones on, inevitably moving back on to the subject of himself. ‘I found myself Senior Floor Manager within months. And let me tell you, Slymann’s New York office is the most aggressively competitive environment I’ve ever worked in. Makes the London office feel like kindergarten in comparison. Your wits about you twenty-four seven. I used to take the contents of my trashcan home with me to burn. I had a real live fireplace, wood logs and all the works, perfect for burning tell-tale scraps. Glass of Napa’s finest Pinot Noir, feet up, personal debrief, good end to the day. Been telling Jackson and he’s finally…..’
I tune out, concentrating on finding all the olives with the red pepper stuffing and alternating with sips of the lush wine. When Callum got the job over there, Jackson insisted ad nauseum that he was not interested in New York – he doth protest too much methought, until he got very persuasive about Hong Kong. ‘Asia is where it’s at,’ he said on repeat, elaborating on the future of the markets out East, especially the all-powerful Chinese. He was so compelling I became convinced he was hatching a move to Hong Kong and it seemed only reasonable to start preparations. There are a ton of very informative ex-pat forums on the internet and I became a regular, genning up on where to live and the best schools for learning Mandarin. It was only when Kim found me flat hunting in the Sai Ying Pun area – popular with ex-pats living in the city – that I was forced to acknowledge that I was perhaps getting ahead of myself.
‘……uber extended hours, requires full cerebral commitment and you can expect an IPO bake-off every Friday for months on end. It’s a tough climate.’ He fixes me with a penetrating stare, eyes bulging, and I feign interest while trying to work out why he is suddenly talking about baking.
‘Bake-offs,’ I murmur. ‘Well, I never!’
‘You don’t even know what a bake-off is, do you?’ he says, swilling his wine and oozing so much supercilious self-satisfaction that there is only one thing for it.
I hold out the wasabi peanuts, thrilling as he takes a handful and pops in four or five. At once.
There is a delicious delay as his bleached teeth crunch through the bright green shell before the cut and burn of the pungent wasabi kicks into action. I watch closely as the magic vapours get to work, cleaning out his sinuses and blazing a trail through to his unsuspecting brain. His nostrils flare, red blotches stain the pale cheeks, a repressed cough and, oh, is that a bead of sweat I spy upon the suspiciously smooth brow?
He is tough, I’ll give him that. His chewing is determined, unwavering, punctuated only occasionally by a choke of pain. Finally, a lone tear dribbling forlornly down to his chin, he raises his glass to me in an unspoken touché, draining it – a waste, he won’t taste anything for hours – then handing it to me for a refill.
He doesn’t speak, can’t speak, vocal cords no doubt burnt to a crisp.
When I come back with two more generous glasses, he has disappeared. His leather folder was on the floor by the window and I see it’s gone too. My heart gives a double bump as I wonder if he has really just walked out, picturing Jackson’s face when he gets here and finds me with an open bottle of Lafleur and no Callum. I put down the wine and slump onto a chair – a frail antique thing that Jackson has told me many times never to sit on – just as Callum reappears, strolling casually out of our bedroom with a tape measure in his hand. He is unperturbed to find me there, pulling out a pad of paper and noting something down.
‘Checking who has the biggest bed?’ I quip.
‘Very droll,’ he mutters, coming over and grabbing a glass of wine. He sucks up almost half before turning his back on me and staring out at the park; an ever-evolving view in the fading light, the darkening colours changing the tableau minute-by-minute.
I send up another silent plea for Jackson to get back here, now. I have done my bit.
Dragging his eyes away from the window and no doubt wondering what to say next, Callum spots a photo that stands on a low table. My favourite. Kim, Nina and I, taken about ten years ago when we were young, lithe and carefree. Untroubled. Inseparable. If there was a fire, this is what I would grab first, only don’t tell Jackson; he is not one for photos and keepsakes, no family pictures, no university shots, no nothing. But I love this picture of me and my girls. We were packing up to leave after a week’s holiday in Crete; our skin is tanned, our smiles are bright, our cares are fleeting. The owner of the small apartment we had rented, Mr Zoumpoulakis, was checking we hadn’t trashed the place when we asked him to take a picture of us, huddling together on the tiny balcony, the bright turquoise of the Aegean Sea blurring into the cloudless sky behind us. Our arms were tight around each other as we grinned into the camera. Best friends forever.
‘When was this taken?’ he asks.
‘About ten years ago. Crete.’
‘That’s Kim, right?’ he taps a manicured nail on the glass and I nod silently. ‘And Nina of course. She hardly looks any different now.’ His tone is admiring, which is typical but not unusual.
‘Neither does Kim,’ I say, wanting to even up the scores.
He looks at me, a tiny smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. ‘Working for Clay taking its toll?’
I try not to let the hurt register on my face, feeling the strain as I attempt a weary, untroubled, laugh.
‘Just kidding,’ he says, although his eyes say otherwise. ‘I saw Nina recently in New York and thought she was looking better than ever.’
I look up in surprise. ‘She never mentioned it.’
‘Keeping under the radar, I expect.’
I am put out. Not just because Nina never said she was going to New York – Kim and I always have a list of requests, mainly involving Bergdorf Goodman’s beauty department – but because Callum knows more about my friend than me. And what does he mean, under the radar?
‘She’s doing well, going places,’ he adds, the comparison with me unmistakeable.
‘She is,’ I murmur, wondering if we are opening a session of the Nina Appreciation Society.
‘Up for promotion too. Incredible woman.’
‘Indeed.’ I keep my voice low, steady, but he has rocked me again. I had no idea Nina was up for promotion. She is not a serial bragger, but she would be excited enough about a promotion to tell us, Kim and me, surely? We have always been each other’s first port of call for news, the good, the bad and the downright grisly. It is true that we have seen less of her lately; nonetheless, how come we have been kept out of such a large loop?
‘She did look lovely. Certain blush on her pale Scandinavian cheek.’ He grins and I feel a bit sick. ‘Radiant.’ He puts his hand on his heart and briefly closes his eyes. ‘Just radiant.’ His voice is no more than a whisper as a shiver of unease tiptoes its way down my spine.
Callum and Nina?
Apart from the all-consuming job that leaves no time for dallying with hopeful candidates, Nina has sworn off all men since she dumped the all-too-amiable Angus. Kim and I loved Angus, Bart worshipped him, even Jackson tolerated him and he is hard to please. We were distraught when she called it a day while never getting to the bottom of why? We dug and pried but Nina was giving away nothing. Bart thought it was the loafers and cords he wore on weekends, Jackson refused to indulge in such trivial speculation and Kim and I leant heavily towards the idea that Angus was just too nice.
‘Being nice doesn’t pay, Stella,’ she likes to lecture me.
There was no side to Angus, no agenda, no malice. Wealthy, educated, family seat in the country, a leading something-or-other in the City, handsome enough; he was a good bet. I had even suffered fleeting moments of virtual infidelity to Jackson on more than one occasion – a distant ache for his simple undemanding niceness. I love Jackson, but I am the first to admit that he is not always nice and demanding is his middle name.
I clear my throat, keeping my tone light. ‘Good to hear she was looking so radiant.’ The word feels strange in my mouth, inappropriate, implying that she might be expecting a happy event and if there is one thing Nina never ever wants, it is children.
‘Can’t be easy having a friend like Nina,’ he says, back on the insults.
‘It’s very easy. Thank you for your concern.’ I look him in the eye and say slowly, ‘You wouldn’t know, but it is possible to be ambitious, successful and beautiful, yet still be a good friend. She’s like a sister to me.’
He snorts disbelievingly. ‘Sisters have a complicated chemistry sometimes.’
‘It’s very uncomplicated, thanks.’
‘Love is complicated too,’ he drawls soberly. ‘Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people……’ his voice fades out.
Oh, fuck. Now what is he talking about? ‘Gravitation? Sorry, you’ve lost me.’
He gives deep sigh. ‘Einstein.’
‘Right.’ Nope, still no idea.
‘Look it up.’
He finishes his wine and announces he has to go. I make a feeble attempt to persuade him to wait for Jackson, which he thankfully ignores and two minutes later, he has gone. I sit for a moment on the bottom step, my head in my hands, mind buzzing like a demented fly, bashing again and again against the same impenetrable truth. Nina and Callum. My feisty, daring, darling friend. Why him?
There has got to be a mistake. Wandering back up to the kitchen where the wine is, I call Kim.
‘Hey sweetie, how’s it going?’ she asks.
‘No, Callum. Jackson’s not even here yet.’
‘Look, Callum was being really creepy about Nina and, well,’ I hesitate, ‘I know this is going to sound weird, but I think something might be going on between them.’
Kim laughs out loud. ‘Don’t be soft. Nina wouldn’t touch him if he was the last man alive on earth.’
‘I know, I know. It’s just that he kept going on and on about how gorgeous and amazing she is, said he saw her in New York. Said she is - ’
She cuts me off, ‘Nina hasn’t been to New York for an age.’
‘That’s what I thought. He insists she was there recently. Keeping under the radar, he said. Something about a promotion.’
‘Promotion? Hang on, putting you on speaker phone, Bart’s here.’
‘Stella my Bella, how is Calamity?’
‘Painful as ever, Bart, worse if that’s possible. New York has not improved him.’
He tuts sympathetically. ‘Why he back?’
‘I have no idea, but he’s going to live around here somewhere, Primrose Hill. I’ll probably bump into him in the deli on Saturdays pontificating about coffee beans. He was so full of himself and he wouldn’t stop talking about Nina. Then he started quoting Einstein.’
‘Einstein?’ Bart sounds interested. ‘How so?’
‘Something about gravitation and responsibility. Told me to look it up.’
‘Gravitation cannot be responsible for people falling in love,’ murmurs Bart. ‘Albert Einstein.’
How does he know this?
‘Come again, Bart?’ Kim sounds worried.
‘Gravitation cannot be responsible for people falling in love.’
‘Did he say that, Stells?’
‘Something like that.’
And just like that my evening, already devoid of sun and light, takes on an altogether darker and more troubling aspect. Nina and Callum? It can’t be true. Nina has class, something Callum wouldn’t recognise if it knocked on the door and formally introduced itself. She also has a life plan, one that can be boiled down to; career, aim high; husband, aim higher. Although no one with their sanity intact could possibly consider committing to Callum, even if he has been promoted beyond all rationale and reason.
I must be missing something. And where is bloody Jackson? An absolute stickler for punctuality, it is unlike him to even be late, let alone a no-show. Unease slithers through me, and not because I think he has been taken ill or had an accident - but because I don’t.
What I need is a distraction, I need to occupy my mind. TV and a cup of tea. And food. Maybe a bowl of pesto pasta on the sofa; something I can only do if Jackson’s out and, as we have established, that is the case tonight. Filling the kettle, my eye falls on the luscious Lafleur. I pour what is left into my glass and take a few deep sips, enjoying the luxury of drinking such a heavenly wine on my own, without pretence or restraint. The kettle boils and I stuff a teabag into a mug and pour in the water, swilling it about with a teaspoon and opening the fridge for the milk.
No milk. Which is typical. There is little worse in life than black tea.
Then I look at the wine fridge. If I were to open another bottle and drink half, no one, not even Jackson, needs to know.
Hiding the first Lafleur bottle in my handbag to dispose of tomorrow, I open a second and pour myself an enormous glass, taking it through to the living room and turning on Netflix.