The Househusband

i.

When he spoke to his colleagues and co-workers about his intention to leave work and care for his children, their response was more muted than enthusiastic, like it was a flight of fancy. Caring for your children, isn’t that your wife’s job? A few eyebrows were raised at the prospect of him becoming a househusband, mainly by his male co-workers. In truth, he suspected that few were sorry to see him go. He had always been the odd man out around the office. Non-committal and insubordinate, cynical to the point of superciliousness, hot-headed and self-aggrandising, prone to bouts of festering silence. Most were aware he had long harboured a desire to disappear, and they acknowledged that disappearing might make him happier, however briefly.

Since becoming a father he had been unable to wear the friction between his home life and his work life, the two continental shelves of selfhood continually grinding against one another. His employers expectations would never match his responsibilities as a parent, the love he had for his wife and son always overrode the bullshit nature of his job, the presenteeism, the arbitrary power structures, and the obtuse human resources procedures which made him feel useless and invaluable. Powerless. Invisible. Perpetually unhappy. After years of suppurating cynicism, before he left he made a public statement which accused the industry he worked for of unparalleled greed, of social cleansing, of confusing avarice with altruism, something which he hoped would make him feel heroic, but which had the precisely the opposite effect.

He had written a letter, a letter which when his organisation’s new chief executive saw it caused all the colour to drain from his face and made him swear profusely, a letter which was published in a trade magazine with a 60K circulation (100K for its digital version) on the morning of his employer’s high-profile fundraising event at City Hall, the day before his planned last day at work, an event which, rather than face the music or be forced into contrition, he had fled from like a naughty child that evening, switching off his mobile phone and going to ground, leaving work without saying goodbye to those colleagues who had made his time at the organisation tolerable, if not truly enjoyable, those who had found his company tolerable, if not truly enjoyable, and who no doubt spoke ill of him once he was gone.

A letter which guaranteed that he would not be able to call on either of his previous employers for a reference, should he be fortunate enough to find another job in the future. He had intended to leave his job on better terms and with a glowing reference, but that was before The Letter, written and sent impulsively and without forewarning his wife, who had reluctantly agreed to him leaving work in the first place. When he delivered the news of its imminent publication, he face fell momentarily, before she regained her composure and wrinkled her forehead in sympathy, and told him, It’ll be okay, and We’ll manage, even when, by her own admission years later, she had been terrified. She was a good friend and a wonderful wife, too good for him in fact, as undeserving of his behaviour as he was undeserving of her love.

 

ii.

He wasn’t overly concerned about becoming a househusband, as he had always viewed himself as being sufficiently domesticated. Growing up, his parents had been fastidious about maintaining their property. If you look after things, they’ll last longer. This, along with Cleanliness is next to Godliness, had been drilled into him from an early age. His mother cleaned constantly, compulsively. For him, creative pursuits always gave way to the demands of his domestic duties. Disorder made him anxious, unable to focus. Though more relaxed about dust and detritus than his mother, outside the office his home life felt like one long to-do list. He hoovered and dusted and swept and wiped. Changed the bed and scrubbed the bath and hung out the washing. Emptied the dishwasher. Cleaned the windows. Mowed the lawn. Kept up appearances.

His father had done little to help his mother around the home. For his father, labour consisted of that which could be physically observed and financially rewarded. Cooking, cleaning and caring for his children were not considered work. Renovation work, yes. Domestic duties, no. When his mother left him and his brother in their father’s care, she often returned to find them in bed, with his father reading the newspaper, at peace. His father worked fourteen-hour days on site or at the office, late at night and even at weekends, and believed he would do whatever he wished with his limited free time. Once he insisted she find someone else to help with his eldest son’s birthday party as he was playing golf. Eventually he burnt himself out and was hospitalised with acute pneumonia in his mid-thirties, and after his brush with death, he slowed down a little, but not enough to re-balance their marriage.

On his birthday, his wife had given him a book by The Guardian’s Weekend columnist Tim Dowling, How to be a Husband. At that point in their marriage, he believed things were going fairly well, but evidently he was mistaken. At the beginning of the chapter titled ‘Fatherhood for Morons’, Dowling wrote, You may wonder what kind of father you are going to be. Don’t worry: you are going to be your father, more or less. Not likely, he thought, determined he would not repeat the mistakes of the preceding generation, that he would change nappies and read bedtime stories and prepare feeds, care about his children and tell them that they were beloved.

From the very beginning, he threw himself into fatherhood, with his customary paucity of common sense or forethought. On the first night at home with their new son, his son woke in the early hours in some distress. He lifted his son, writhing like an enraged sphynx cat in a cloth sack, from the Moses basket and carried him through to the spare room, where he attempted to wipe away the meconium gummed to his tiny scrotum using a wad of cotton wool dipped in cold water, which caused the mewling child to scream uncontrollably and urinate all over his sleep suit. Sometimes he thought his eldest had never forgiven him for that, the traumatic memory rooted deep in his unconscious.

In the coming months, when his son woke early for his morning feed, once his wife had finished breastfeeding he would carry the boy downstairs and lie him on a blanket, where he would watch him, kicking his legs in the air, making small noises. Contented and carefree. As that first year progressed, he changed his son’s nappies, dressed him and prepared his bottles. In the evenings he and his wife split the bathing and bedtime story ritual. Placing his son in his crib, he would play him Satie’s Gymnopédies, Chopin’s Nocturnes or Brian Eno’s Music for Airports on the small stereo in his room. If he heard his son cry, he would rush to him, stroke his soft, warm head and calm him with soothing tones.

Later that year his wife transferred two months of her maternity leave to him, and they spent a blissful first Christmas together, the days drifting by in a post-natal daze of having little to do other than tend to the needs of their infant, and being kind to one another.

 

iii.

Two years later, their second son was born. To their incredible good fortune, he and his wife now had two happy, healthy boys. Overnight, everything changed. Caring for one small child on his own was just about manageable. Caring for two small children was akin to juggling two water balloons filled with wet shit, with one hand tied behind their backs. Every day brought a new configuration of unanticipated calamity. Irrational tantrums. Explosive diarrhoea. Nocturnal vomiting. Nothing had prepared them for the onslaught, the sheer relentlessness of raising two children. The irregular sleep, the near-permanent fatigue, the inescapable odour of excrement, the heightened state of irritability at everyone and everything, especially one’s spouse. The physical and financial inability to do anything other than feed and clothe and spend time with his children.

Before his second son was born, he had worried about the effect this would have on their relationship with their first son, and his relationship with his sibling. Those first two years of parenthood had been unnaturally calm. Bucolic, almost. He hoped that becoming a househusband might bring about a return to those days. Hours of play with his children, followed by long naps and hours at his laptop.

He knew from caring for his children outside his time at work that most essential child-rearing tasks could be undertaken in a half hour. A further half hour could be allotted to activities related to work, rest or play. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all took a half hour. Bathing his boys and reading bedtime stories. Trips to the park, play around the house or in the garden took in excess of an hour, but very rarely two. Far from being mechanistic, it enabled him to map out his day and fit his work in around his children. He was still supposed to be researching and writing his PhD thesis. If he could find a few hours each day to work, then he would be able to make steady progress.

He should have known that was far too optimistic. In the first week after he left his job, his wife found some supplementary work as a dresser at London Fashion Week. It was a financially lucrative job, but physically demanding. Each morning they rose and breakfasted as a family, then his wife would depart for work, leaving the boys in his care until late in the evening. Some days she was out of the door before first light, on others not back until almost midnight.

In that first week, their settled routine he had envisioned was obliterated by the complexity of getting his eldest son’s to nursery every day. It was ludicrously problematic. A few months earlier, he and his wife had registered their son at a nursery the next street over from their former home, but had then moved to a new house a couple of weeks before he was due to start at the nursery. As the nursery was close to the home of their childminder, who had looked after their son since he was a baby, and who while he and his wife were at work continued to collect their son from nursery, and as they were fearful that he would miss out on a nursery place if they tried to move him to one closer to their new home, after he left work they had to take him to the nursery in their old postcode each afternoon.

Because they didn’t have a car, and because the local bus service was so infrequent as to be virtually non-existent, taking his son to nursery each afternoon involved a round trip of almost three miles, a half hour on foot each way, pushing an erratic second-hand buggy across several south London locales renowned for their elevated views over the capital. They were almost always late setting off because one child or another had either refused to eat his lunch within the half hour he had allotted for the purpose, or soiled himself at the point of departure.

To begin with he pushed both children in the buggy, the youngest in the chair, chugging on his lunchtime formula, and the eldest, who was always reluctant to go, stood on the buggy board at the rear. His eldest son, being three years old, was still napping in the afternoon, and on a couple of occasions he arrived at the nursery to discover he had fallen asleep on the protective hood of the buggy, before gently waking him and leaving his groggy little boy in the care of the nursery assistants.

After exhausting himself over the first couple of weeks, he transferred his eldest to his micro scooter, and pulled him along using a leash. He had envisioned his child happily scooting on the level sections of the route, lessening his endeavour when they reached one of the many hills but instead his son clung to the buggy on the hills and on the flats.

When he did manage to convince his son to scoot freely, they were still required to avoid slow moving elderly couples, rampaging shop-mobility scooters, parents or childminders with multiple children advancing along the pavement in some disarray, impatient joggers, mobile-distracted teenagers, wheelie bins strewn across the pavement awaiting collection or return to their driveways, looming lampposts, inevitable crops of dogshit, and a selection of kerbstones, loose flagstones, tree roots, pebbles, sticks and twigs that jammed into the wheels of his son’s scooter and sent him sprawling painfully, tearfully, onto the pavement.

When he got home, if his youngest son was still asleep in the buggy, he might get half an hour or more to work on his PhD. If his youngest son woke up at the nursery, as he was wont to once perambulation ceased, or particularly when he was being carted down the steep run of steps from street level down to the nursery building, or even once back at home, parked in the narrow alley beside their house, where a change in the atmosphere or gentle breeze playing upon his face might wake him, and for that hour and a half between arriving at home and having to set off to collect his son again, he wouldn’t be able to work.

Sometimes his son, on waking and finding himself strapped in his buggy, would erupt with the righteous rage of the falsely imprisoned, and calming him usually took a half hour. Then he would put him back in the buggy and set off to collect his brother.

Come evening, once his children were in bed, preparing and consuming dinner with his wife, home from work, took a further hour. After that, he had two hours to work on his research. Then another half hour to read before sleep. If he made it past the first page before his eyes closed. Sometimes he and his wife made love. More often than not, they didn’t.

iv.

Many years before, he had caught the end of a TV screening of Mr. Mom, starring a very young Michael Keaton. As he watched the film, in his youthful naiveté, he thought it would be fun to be a stay-at-home dad, even though the premise of the film, a standard fish-out-of-water concept, implied otherwise.

After being made redundant from his Detroit car plant, engineer Jack Butler, played by Keaton, has to become care for his children when his wife Caroline, played by Teri Garr, returns to work. As a young father, Jack struggles with the most basic household chores and childcare duties. Loses his children in a supermarket. Battles with self-aware domestic appliances. Treats a dirty nappy like a nuclear clean-up. Becomes engrossed in daytime soaps. Plays poker with other housewives. Fends off the amorous advances of a divorcee neighbour.

In each scenario, Jack’s prior masculine identity and social standing were drawn into conflict with his newly-adopted role as househusband identity. Early in the film, Jack and his wife attend a corporate party hosted by Caroline’s boss. Once there he is goaded by her boss into competing in an obstacle course race, an annual event organised by her boss to reaffirm his authority. Near the end of the race, as Jack closes in on the finishing line, with victory in sight, he realises the effect that could have on her career, and instead of racing for the line, he throws himself to the ground, conceding victory to his wife’s boss. By allowing Caroline’s boss to win, Jack symbolically throws of the competitive facets of masculinity. At the close of the scene, when Jack leaves the frame, he is accompanied by his children, who celebrate his loss as if he won, reinforcing this paradigm shift within the narrative.

The film also contained several ironic reversals of the social expectations and pressures placed upon new mothers. One evening, when Jack brings Caroline something to eat as she works upstairs, she takes him to task for, as she perceives it, letting himself go, by sporting a shirt and beard which looked to have been modelled on Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of American folklore, and symbol of the frontier mythos. Take a look at yourself, you’ve really thrown in the towel, Caroline chides, to which Jack replies: My brain is like oatmeal. I yelled at Kenny today for colouring outside the lines. Megan and I are starting to watch the same TV shows, and I’m liking them. I’m losing it.

In a later dream sequence, he imagines Caroline shooting him for reciprocating to his flirtatious neighbour’s advances. Not long after this scene, which can be read as the narrative’s crisis point, normality is restored. First Jack casts his lumberjack shirt onto the fire, bidding farewell to his slovenly interim persona and masculinised delusions. Then, Jack’s employers accept they made a terrible mistake in letting him go, and offer him his old job back. Caroline, meanwhile, tired of working in advertising, and returns to being a housewife.

Everyone loves a happy ending.

Mr. Mom was an early foray into feature script-writing by the late American filmmaker John Hughes, inspired in part by a weekend spent caring for his children without his wife’s assistance. The film bore many of the magic realist motifs which were a hallmark or Hughes’ work, and an early treatment of the male Kidult trope that Hughes and others such as Richard Linklater and Judd Apatow would profitably mine after the former’s death, from a sudden heart attack, in 1998. By that time, Hughes had redefined the coming-of-age teen movie market, co-authoring and sound-tracking the formative years of countless Gen Xers, sensitively essaying their segue from childhood and adolescent lassitude into the anomie of adulthood.

As a late Gen Xer, born in 1979, Hughes’ film had merely coloured his own consciousness, rather than overtly remoulded it. He had missed most of the classic Hughes films of the 1980s, being first too young, and then too sneering for the likes of Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller, Weird Science. The later Hughes films encountered were humorous, if largely saccharine. The Great Outdoors. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Uncle Buck. Home Alone. When Beethoven was released, Hughes’ career appeared to be on the wane, and his coronet as the friendly, benign uncle with the uncanny ability of mapping the emotional terrain of young people passed to Pixar’s John Lassetter, whose game-changing animated movie Toy Story came out the year after Beethoven, effectively obliterating the market for live-action kids movies almost overnight.

By then, he was too old for Hughes’ child-focused films. It wasn’t until much later that he understood the genius of Hughes’ early work, his distillation the permeable boundary between adolescence and adulthood, through the tropes of teenage identity, platonic love and social status. Hughes’ vernacular was unmistakeably American, like Mall culture in celluloid, yet it was irresistible to the transatlantic yearnings of his own angst-ridden adolescence. In his late teens, he had finally watched The Breakfast Club, and watched it over and over, almost obsessively, for much of that year, until he could quote from it at length, even though he had no one to quote with, as none of his friends, all boys, had the remotest interest in it. The script zinged and the sentiment soared, and he fell ever-so-slightly in love with each of the characters and the actors, who were already a decade into their careers by the time he caught the film.

The Nineties and Noughties were not kind to The Breakfast Club Brat Packers. All endured career lulls as they struggled to transition from teen pin-ups to serious adult actor. Formerly Hughes’ muse, after turning down the lead in Pretty Woman and Ghost, Molly Ringwald moved to Paris to study and act in low-budget French films, working only sporadically for the next two decades. Judd Nelson’s movie career fizzled out after St Elmo’s Fire. Hall’s stalled after a spell in rehab for alcoholism, and when he returned to the screen he had lost his boyishness, bulked out. Sheedy’s promising career lapsed into substance abuse and a well-publicised addiction to sleeping pills, before a brief redemptive return as a drugged photographer in High Art in 1998. Success at an early age is far more difficult to handle than failure, Nelson later remarked.

Of The Breakfast Club cast, only Emilio Estevez managed to make meaningful work in the Nineties, the profitable consequence of having a father and sibling already in the business. Then, like the others, he too disappeared.

Michael Keaton knew something of disappearances. Though critics such as Roger Ebert derided Mr. Mom, the film made him a household name, his performance notable for early flashes of the comedic persona he deployed in movies such as Beetlejuice and The Dream Team. While many critics highlighted his performance as an alcohol and cocaine addict in Clean and Sober, released the same year as Beetlejuice, as his finest work, in commercial terms his career peaked when he was cast, much to the annoyance of die-hard DC Comics fans, as Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s production of Batman. An inferior sequel followed a couple of years later, and after walking out on the second sequel in pre-production, his career never really recovered. A string of mediocre movies followed in the late Nineties, followed by several unmemorable outings in the Noughties. By the end of that decade, he was talking up the possibility of doing a Beetlejuice sequel.

It wasn’t until 2014, when he was cast as Riggan Thomson, the protagonist in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a washed-up Hollywood actor trying to shake off the ghost of his superhero past by staging a Raymond Carver production off Broadway, that Keaton’s career regained any kind of traction. In fact, the film, to all intents and purposes, Birdman was written about and for the actor. When Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu originally conceived the film as a single shot in a theatre, in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, he did not have a specific protagonist in mind, but one he and the other screenwriters had concluded the script development process, they believed that there was only one actor that could play Thomson. When Iñárritu first approached Keaton, the actor reportedly asked if the Mexican auteur was making fun of him. Sensibly, rather than taking offence, he agreed to do the picture in less than 30 seconds.

While the movie is a phenomenal cohesive work and a highly-theatrical ensemble piece, with exceptional performances from all involved, casting Keaton elevated Birdman from an intellectually-interesting picture to the level of high art, adding a further layer of metacinematic reflexivity to the picture’s postmodern apparatus. The casting of other actors either against type (Zach Galifianakis as soft-hearted agent Jake), or to emphasise particular traits in their character (Ed Norton as talented, arrogant, script-altering buffoon Mike Shiner) added to this metacinematic frisson. As Riggan argues with his cast members, agent and daughter, rages against his alter-ego and displays apparently authentic moments of supernatural power, which may or may not be hallucinatory flights-of-fancy, the film invited the viewer to speculate upon the depths Keaton was prepared to plumb for Riggan’s disintegration.

Commercially successful and critically lauded, Birdman won several awards, including the 2014 Academy Award for Best Feature. Keaton himself was nominated for numerous lead actor awards, winning several which placed him firmly back in the A-list firmament. Back where he belonged. Above them all. Everyone loves a happy ending.

iv.

Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) had begun with an epigraph:

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

He was already familiar with Raymond Carver’s poem Late Fragment. There was a beguiling ambiguity to it, and he couldn’t decide what Carver’s feeling of being beloved referred to. Was it platonic or romantic love? Godly love? The love of his second wife Tess Gallagher? Of his children? The feeling of self-transcendence, of elevation to a sublime spiritual state? Of self-knowledge? Self-love? Or was it critical appreciation, the cultivation of a readership who appreciated his art, that his work and his name would endure, that its reputation would transcend the temporal limitations of his ontology? He couldn’t decide. That the poem had been chiselled into Carver’s gravestone accentuated the ambiguous close of Birdman.

Then he thought of another poem he had first read many years ago, like that of Carver, by the Beat poet Gregory Corso, the youngest member of the Beat Generation’s inner circle. When he read both poems, he had no designs on becoming a parent, and simply assumed, due to his incompetent attempts at wooing the opposite sex, that he would never become one. Corso’s poem always stuck in his mind as his first encounter with literature by a male author which directly, and apparently without irony, addressed the male Messiah complex, what others referred to as toxic masculinity, others the patriarchy, a term he was only beginning to comprehend.

‘She Doesn’t Know He Thinks He’s God’ was taken from Corso’s 1960 collection, The Happy Birthday of Death.

 

He is God

John Rasin is God

He stands by the window smiling

Watching a child walk by

‘I am God!’ He screams. He knows

 

His wife taps him on the shoulder.

‘John the baby is sick will die

His fever is up. Get a doctor.’

 

John Rasin stands as though he were dead

With the health and freshness of life

Exaggerated in his deathness

He stands a man stunned with the realisation

That he’s God. He is God!

 

His wife pleads screams stamps the floor

Pounds her fists against the wall

‘John the baby will die!’

 

Corso had been abandoned by his mother as an infant, left in the care of Catholic Charities in New York, where his garment-maker father found him and placed him in a foster home. Corso’s father had been abusive to his mother, and informed his son that his mother was a prostitute who had been exiled back to her native Italy in disgrace. Corso was regularly beaten in foster care, and again on the rare visits from his violent father. During this time, he received a putative education through the Catholic church’s parochial schools system. When the US entered the Second World War, Corso’s father brought his son home as a means of avoiding the draft, but when he was drafted and sent overseas, Corso became homeless, living on the streets of New York, sleeping in the subway in winter or on the city rooftops in the summer. He was eleven years old.

Corso was a survivor. Imprisoned several times as a teenager, he had the knack of talking himself out of situations, or ingratiating himself with those who could offer him protection. He was first taken under the wing of a powerful Mafiosi while in prison, and then, after his release, by an infatuated Allen Ginsberg, then a student at Columbia, who found a twenty-one year old Corso writing poetry in lesbian bar in the Village. Possessed of a compelling streetwise vernacular, rebellious authenticity and the gift of the gab, Ginsberg and the other Beats, Burroughs and Kerouac, adopted Corso as one of their own. Later, when the autodidact Corso was bumming around Harvard copping a free education, he managed to convince dean Archibald Macleish not only to let him stay on campus, but to make him an unofficial poet in residence.

Decades later, Corso found his estranged mother thanks to the detective work of the filmmaker Gustave Reininger, who was planning a biopic of the Beat poet. Corso’s mother, Michelina, explained she fled the city after being brutalised and sexually abused by his father. Being unable to support herself and her son during the Depression, she left him in the care of the Catholic church. She started a new life in New Jersey and remarried, never revealing she had a lost son to her new husband. Corso and his mother were reunited on screen for Reininger’s film, rebuilding their relationship for just a few months before Corso was diagnosed with the bowel cancer which would claim his life at the age of seventy-one.

Corso’s negative thoughts on fatherhood were cemented in another poem included in The Happy Birthday of Death, ‘Marriage’:

Yet if I should get married and it's Connecticut and snow 
and she gives birth to a child and I am sleepless, worn, 
up for nights, head bowed against a quiet window, the past behind me, 
finding myself in the most common of situations a trembling man 
knowledged with responsibility not twig-smear not Roman coin soup-- 
O what would that be like! 
Surely I'd give it for a nipple a rubber Tacitus 
For a rattle bag of broken Bach records 
Tack Della Francesca all over its crib 
Sew the Greek alphabet on its bib 
And build for its playpen a roofless Parthenon

No, I doubt I'd be that kind of father

Carver’s own death from cancer, of the lung, at the age of fifty, followed decades of alcohol abuse and heavy smoking. Like Corso’s parents, Carver had married young, becoming a father at nineteen. Both he and his wife Maryann worked to support the family, with Carver working initially as a delivery man, janitor, sawmill worker, and library assistant, and his privately-educated wife later taking jobs as an administrative assistant and high school English teacher, saleswoman and waitress. Lower-middle class occupations. Keeping the family afloat. Strangers in a doomed marriage. Like characters in one of his stories.

At the outset of the marriage Carver wasn’t writing, or indeed drinking, but both began in earnest when he enrolled at Chico State College in the early Sixties. He started drinking heavily in 1967, the year his short story ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ was published and he moved with his family to Palo Alto in California. Carver’s life up to that point reads like a list of missed opportunities and silly mistakes. Studying half-heartedly, working occasionally, moving his family from town to town, all exacerbated by his ever-increasing inability to lay off the drink. While incapable of holding down a job, he proved himself capable of putting pen to paper, enjoying modest publishing success. By the early Seventies he was no longer writing, but simply drinking. The short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was published in 1976 at the height of his dissolution. A minor miracle given the circumstances.

Carver’s wife Maryann put her own career on hold to care for their children so her husband could intermittently study, and work, and write, and drink. She packed fruit at a supermarket for two weeks to buy Carver his first typewriter. Few people remember that when they talk about Carver being a literary God, or the progenitor of contemporary short fiction, or while they pore over Gordon Lish’s edits to determine which of the two men was the true author of Carver’s stories. None of this would have happened without Marryann propping up the crumbling edifice of their marriage. In the narratives of notable authors’ lives, their nearest and dearest, the first wives and spectral young children, are always reduced to bit-part players.

Maryann Carver put her husband through college. She stood by him when he had an affair with Diane Cecily in 1972, after which he ramped up his drinking and physically abused her, including smashing her over the head with a wine bottle when he thought she was flirting with another man at a party in 1975. She dropped out of her PhD and drove him to his teaching classes at the University of California when alcoholism overtook him. After he was hospitalised due to his drinking, three times between 1976 and 1977, she helped nurse him back to health.

In 1977, Carver stopped drinking and started attending AA meetings. That same year, he met and fell in love with the poet Tess Gallagher. In 1982, Carver and Maryann finally divorced, a lag of five years from learning of his latest and last infidelity, as if she was still holding out for that belated reconciliation. I never fell out of love with him, she wrote in her memoir. Then it was Gallagher’s turn: Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver chose to live. I would meet him five months after this choice, so I never knew the Ray who drank, except by report and through the characters and actions of his stories and poems.

What do we talk about, when we talk about love?

v.

No sooner was his youngest able to walk than he wanted to scoot like his elder brother. He wasn’t remotely ready for a scooter, but it was no bad thing, his eighteen-month-old’s determined push for a different form of hypermobility to that of his brother, as it meant that the bedevilling travel pushchair that had long been their default mode of child transportation could now be consigned to its new home in the loft. The flimsy canvas and steel contraption had the nasty habit of tipping over backwards whenever additional weight was placed upon the handles, specifically otherwise-innocuous objects like his camera or the change bag, resulting in whichever child was strapped into it being flipped backwards and left lying prone, and at an inverted forty-five degree angle. It had caught him out several times, almost braining his children by dashing their head against the pavement.

As much as the pushchair was a source of stress, that was nothing next to his youngest’s erratic scooting, which terrified him to the point of mania. Like a three-wheeled heat-seeking missile, his little boy seemed preternaturally drawn to danger, and persistently strayed toward the deep fissures and irregular bumps and uneven paving slabs that lent the streets of south London their character, and which inevitably brought him crashing to the ground. He quickly learnt to use his son’s scooter like a miniature Segway, leaning over and manipulating the handlebars to slow his approach to any obstacles, moderate inclines or fellow pedestrians which might prove hazardous. In so doing, he discovered that lumbar pain brought a new level of discomfort to his vexed existence.

School drop-offs and pick-ups were indubitably the most taxing times of the day, a confluence of social anxiety, inconvenience and fear that his youngest son would be trampled in the stampede of marauding parents and oblivious older children. In principle, the primary school he and his wife had chosen for their son had established a carefully-honed system for the collection of children after school. In fact, there were two systems at work. The first was a finely-tuned framework designed to prevent the abduction or escape of children from the school’s grounds, and the second was an absolute clusterfuck, perfectly-calibrated to cause maximum chaos at home time.

Parents and carers were to wait outside the school grounds until the bell signalling the end of school was sounded. Once it was sounded, a small electronic gate would be remotely unlocked by the reception staff, enabling parents and carers to enter the school grounds. Once through the gate, they were to proceed to their child’s classroom, where the teachers and classrooms assistants would hand their children over to them. As there were almost five hundred children at the school, every afternoon an equivalent number of parents and carers assembled outside the gate. If the gate didn’t unlock immediately, this was enough to trigger a growing ripple of annoyance among the gathered throng. If the gate didn’t unlock at all, this ripple of annoyance built to a crescendo of clucking and tutting.

Eventually, a member of the reception staff had to come down from the school building to manually open the gate. As the gate was only large enough to allow one person through at a time, by the time the first parents and carers had collected their children and returned to the gate, there was still a large crowd waiting to get through. This created a bottleneck, and a stand-off between the respective groups of parents and carers. Those with children, and those without. Arriving early lessened the inconvenience, but in arriving early he might find himself being drawn into conversation with another parent, something he wanted to avoid at all costs. There were some parents he did want to talk to, but their children were in different classes, and they were often through the gate and away by the time he’d managed to collect his son.

Once the gate was open, he and his youngest son, who was still groggy having just been woken from his nap, would make their way to the allotted spot where they would take receipt of their fatigued and grubby offspring from the teaching staff. Now there formed a micro-throng of parents in front of the teaching staff, each being eager to retrieve their child and get away as quickly as possible. He would stand to one side with his youngest and wait for the least patient members of the crowd to collect their kids, then move forward to greet his son, who each day greeted him with the query, Where’s mum?

vii.

After dropping his eldest at the primary school at the end of their road, he and his youngest had the day to themselves. Mondays and Wednesdays they went to the playgroup in the church around the corner from their home. St Michael’s and All Angels. A modest, modernist building in London brick, the gable end facing the street, with high windows lining the side walls. Without stained glass, it was more like a chapel than a church. Inside, a small area of the nave had been cordoned off for the playgroup. There was a large sofa and a couple of careworn rugs for the smallest children to sit on, plastic chairs round the perimeter, and a kitchen with a kettle and tea and coffee for the adults. Occasionally the vicar came in to say hello, his friendly manner and soft voice almost enough of an inducement to pop along one Sunday morning. Almost, but not quite.

The playgroup was run by a no-nonsense childminder called Kath, a tall, slim woman with a knotted pony-tail and a commanding voice, who didn’t suffer fools gladly. There was always a couple of other carers, Shelbie and Karen, two large and loud south Londoners, each with a retinue of preschoolers and a charmingly blase approach to minding them. There other parents were mostly mothers. Another south Londoner whose daughter had red curls and a blood-curdling scream. A woman with a dark bob who had adopted orphaned boy twins from India. Her gym bunny friend who had a suspiciously-enduring cold, and a little boy who threw spectacular tantrums. A blonde with her mini-me daughter in pigtails and pink.

Very occasionally there would be another father there. Whenever there was, he and the other father would circle each other uncertainly, as if sizing up their claim to the territory, before one of them felt compelled to break the ice with a genial, if guttural, Alright, mate? They might chat for a half hour or so. After that, he would never see the father again. In truth, he preferred it that way.

Monday was his favoured day, as the playgroup was almost always half empty. When they arrived, his son would immediately make a bee-line for one of the Cozy Coupe plastic ride-in cars, of which there were two, a police car and pink princess, but his son had already worked out that the other boys wanted to sit in the police car, which had more bells and whistles, and wasn’t bright pink. With his son safe behind the wheel, he would go into the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee, before retreating to the same quiet corner each week, away from the rest of the group, close enough to overhear their conversations but not so close that he would have to participate. There, he would try to crib some notes for his research, while keeping half an eye on his son.

Wednesdays were the exact flip of Mondays. On Wednesdays, there being no other playgroups in session that day, every exhausted mother or carer in the entire postcode threw themselves at the doors of the church, as if upon the mercy of God himself. On Wednesdays, the playgroup became without fail dangerously overcrowded, with children squabbling over toys, treading on or falling over one another, crying at length and soiling themselves while their parents or carers were distracted.

If Mondays were the perfect balm to a long weekend of frenetic child-focused activity, Wednesdays were like the uncontrolled aftermath of a failed anthropological experiment. Mondays were a morning of quiet reflection and contemplation, Wednesdays were Mondays were a shaded glade in a undiscovered forest, Wednesdays were an inner city tinderbox, the collapse of society in microcosm. It was on a Wednesday that the son of one of his neighbours menaced the other children, stalking each one in turn before creeping up behind them and scratching their faces with his fingernails. Karen, the ponytailed childminder, told his mother off, and he didn’t see either of them at playgroup again.

Wednesdays always infuriated Karen. She took great pleasure in turning people away once she deemed the playgroup full, her mouth set in indignant defiance, impervious to the pleas of desperate parents. Nevertheless, the playgroup was still far too busy, and if had he been running it he would have bolted the doors shut once the Monday regulars were in. On one particular morning, the playgroup was already at capacity when two unfamiliar carers appeared at the door with seven preschoolers, all different ages and all in varying states of dishevelment and distress. The nannies steered the children to the centre of the room, took a seat on the sofa, got out their phones and ignored the children at their feet for the next hour.

On Wednesdays, he rarely left his son’s side, ushering him through the cacophony of noise and rapidly escalating conflicts, much as he tried to keep him from crashing his scooter. Now that there were three or four older boys vying for control of the ride-on cars, he kept him out of their way, consoling him with a story from a gnawed picture book or by fashioning a train track out of several mismatched pieces. Sometimes they built a tower out of imitation Duplo, aided, or hindered, by another child.

His son seemed contented, more contented than the other children at playgroup. Now fully mobile, he was still speaking in toddlerese, able to enunciate only a few words of nonsense. But was happy in his own little world, much like the enclosed space of the car. Safe in his plastic cocoon, he would pootle around the floorspace at leisure, watching what everyone else was doing. A nascent form of anthropology. Reserved in his interactions, he refused all the fruit offered by the childminders at communal snack time. Only very occasionally could he cajole him into joining in with the messy-play or craft activities. Even when he did, his son simply wanted to spread glue using the small white plastic spatulas supplied. Once he had to place something on the liberally-daubed globules of glue, he lost interest.

Instead, he took greater interest in the collective tidying sessions near the close of playgroup, as it meant he could push a broom around or sweep shredded paper into a dustpan. The tidying session was followed with half an hour of half-heartedly singing nursery rhymes. ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’, ‘Ten Little Monkeys’, ‘Zoom Zoom Zoom’, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’. By the time they reached the grand finale of the Oke Cokey, his son had dispensed with any pretence of participating, and was instead running around the nave or climbing on the pews, while he was left to dance with the other carers and children.

Mothers chatted with ease, arranged playdates or went out for drinks. Fathers did not, and while caring for his son and working on his thesis both required long periods of enforced solitude, he never proposed a meeting up with any of the fathers he knew. Perhaps he should have, but the thought of sitting in a park discussing their children’s behavioural traits, or past careers, the obvious conversational start points for people with little in common, left him feeling lachrymose. Besides which, he didn’t particularly like other people’s children. Given the choice, he would rather spend his mornings alone with his son, either at playgroup or at the shabby local library run by septuagenarian volunteers, even though when it was just the two of them he yearned for someone to take him off his hands, for just a few hours, so he could work on his thesis. No matter what he did, there was always something else he would rather do.

Speaking to the mother of the twins, he learned that her partner was unhappy in his career as a recruitment consultant. As her earning power as an executive assistant was greater than his, she was planning on going back to work, while her partner would stop work to become primary carer to the twins. Once she returned to work, he met her partner at playgroup once or twice. In business casual attire, he looked uncomfortable. After a while, he and the boys started missing the sessions. When he next saw them, in their local park, he noticed that the recruitment consultant was wearing loose clothing, jogging bottoms and a hoodie. He had huge bags under his eyes, and the beginnings of a beard.

Throwing in the towel. Letting himself go.

vii.

After the birth of his second son, Sean, by his second wife, the artist Yoko Ono, John Lennon famously withdrew from the music business to become a househusband. From Sean’s birth in 1975 until his re-emergence with the album Double Fantasy in 1980, the former Beatle all but disappeared from public view. Speaking in Tokyo in 1977, he declared, We have basically decided, without any great decision, to be with our baby as much as we can until we feel we can take time off to indulge ourselves in creating things outside of the family. During this time, so the story goes, Lennon’s creative energies were completely focused on looking after son at their large apartment in the Datoka, an imposing Gothic-styled edifice overlooking New York’s Central Park.

Prior to Sean’s birth, Lennon had been on a two-year booze-soaked interregnum in his marriage with Ono, a period Lennon later dubbed his Lost Weekend. After discovering she was pregnant, Ono, who had suffered three miscarriages since they married, informed her husband that she would only proceed with the pregnancy if he agreed to care for the child. Each day he rose at six a.m. to be with his son and plan his day, establishing a safe, stable and caring environment for him. Lennon would later say of Sean, he didn't come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I've attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. He didn’t write or record a single song for almost five years.

What he did instead became the subject of some conjecture. Beatles obsessives, being heavily invested in the life of John Winston Lennon, Liverpool’s most famous son, a man so beloved in the city of his birth that he received that rare and ecologically unsound accolade of having an airport named after him, believed that they knew the man. They could derive kinship from absorption in the music and words and interviews and photographs and film-reels, a narrative from which they lifted key moments like neatly-parsed lyrics of a familiar song.

Born 1940, parental abandonment, Aunt Mimi, mother dies, The Quarrymen, meets Paul and George, Liverpool Institute, Stuart Sutcliffe, Hamburg, The Silver Beatles, Cavern Club, Brian Epstein, Pete Best/Ringo Starr, Please Please Me, ‘She Loves You’, birth of Julian, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, Ed Sullivan, A Hard Day’s Night, Bob Dylan, Help!, ‘Nowhere Man’, Shea Stadium, Revolver, Candlestick Park, Yoko Ono, LSD, Strawberry Fields Forever, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Epstein’s death, Paul’s ascendancy, Magical Mystery Tour, heroin, White Album, Two Virgins, Apple Corp, ‘Ballad of John and Yoko’, Allen Klein, Beatles split, ‘Cold Turkey’, primal scream therapy, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine,  New York, May Pang, LA, Lost Weekend, return to NY/YO, birth of Sean, semi-retirement, Double Fantasy, shot by Mark David Chapman, dies 1980.

The tendency with any artist’s biography is to focus on the rise and thereafter the fall, while ignoring the lull. Hagiographers such as Philip Norman glossed over the last five years of Lennon’s life, but for speculative and unscrupulous biographers the lull provided a rich seam. After Cynthia Lennon’s tell-all memoir A Twist of Lennon was published in 1978, Albert Goldman’s The Secret Lives of John Lennon established a micro-industry for character assassinations of the late rock star. Published a decade after Cynthia’s memoir, Goldman’s book alleged that Lennon was an antisemitic, schizophrenic, epileptic, anorexic, bisexual wife-beater, who spent his reclusive years nursing a cocaine addiction in the Dakota while a retinue of hangers on cared for Sean.

Two other biographers continued Goldman’s systematic demolition of the St John ‘peace and love’ mythos. In 1992, Lennon’s personal assistant, Frederic Seaman, published his own memoir The Last Days of John Lennon, which depicted a perma-stoned occultist under the spell of his domineering ‘Mother’ Ono. This was followed, almost a decade later, by Robert Rosen’s Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, a fictional imagining of Lennon’s psychic realm which was drafted from his journals, letters and other ephemera, which the dutiful Seaman had pilfered and passed to Rosen after Lennon’s death. While Seaman and Rosen’s books corroborated some of Goldman’s allegations about Lennon’s Howard Hughes existence and Ono’s ruthless management of her husband’s business, and extramarital, affairs, none could agree which Lennon was the true one. Seaman was sued by Ono for the theft of Lennon’s possessions, and was compelled to apologise in court for his libellous allegations.

Becoming a househusband was a relatively novel enterprise in in the 1970s, one which gestured towards an oblique feminism in its narrative of shared parental responsibility and non-traditional masculine identity. A radical statement, one intertwined with the sexual politics of the decade, although it was perhaps an option available only to the fortunate few. The salacious accounts of Lennon’s last years sought to undermine the tropes of domestic contentment and marital bliss by suggesting they were a projection, a self-masking by Lennon and Ono which reaffirmed the former Beatle’s mythic, or saintly, status and made the couple multimillionaires. This married with the narrative of Lennon as an unrestrained egotist, if not entirely with his being the victim of Ono’s manipulation. In his book, Rosen proposed that John knew that his sudden disappearance in the late Seventies would, perversely, make him more visible, and in so doing confirm his cultural power. Tragically, this assertion was partially borne out by the wave of global mourning following his murder.

Lennon’s becoming a househusband was, more pertinently, a complete reversal of his first, failed attempt at fatherhood. Julian, John’s son by his first wife Cynthia, had been born in October 1963, at the height of Beatlemania. In an echo of John’s own childhood, his first son endured the kind of peripatetic paternal interest that had caused some of the former Beatle’s chronic neuroses. Theirs was an uneasy relationship, played out under the camera’s glare, characterised by long absences, paternal cruelty and short-lived moments of reconciliation, a reflection of what James Herzog defined as father hunger. Whenever he thought of their relationship, he saw that picture of John, Yoko and Julian at the Rolling Stones’ Rock n’ Roll Circus, Julian sat on his father’s knee like a sullen marionette, a velvet-jacketed ventriloquist’s dummy. A couple of years later, after leaving The Beatles, Lennon sang, I just believe in me / Yoko and me / and that’s reality. Difficult to imagine what Julian felt when he heard the song.

It is tempting to view John’s commitment to Sean’s care as atonement for the mistakes he made with his first son, but that would be to ignore the complex, inconsistent nature of Lennon’s personality. Having denied Julian the affection and understanding he needed while he was alive, after his death John left little to Julian by way of a bequeath. Eventually he sued the Lennon estate and was awarded a substantial sum, some of which he used to buy some of his father’s possessions when the estate refused to pass them to him. Due in part to his difficult relationship with his father, in later life Julian declined to get married or have children, stating in an interview, I want to know who I am first. On the 20th anniversary of John’s murder, an embittered Julian issued a statement on his website accusing Ono of manipulating his father and continually frustrating their attempts at rebuilding their relationship.

When he was twelve-years-old, he happened to see Julian perform at the Radio 1 Roadshow in Newquay. He was holidaying with his parents and brother in the town that summer, and the children’s entertainer took a gang of them to join the large crowd gathered on the bluffs near Fistral Beach. First they were treated to Simon Mayo goofing around with Cathy Dennis’ backing singers, before someone in an oversized Bart Simpson bodysuit danced to ‘Do The Bartman’. Finally a nervous-looking Julian was invited on stage and interviewed by Mayo, standing awkwardly with his acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, before pretending to emote into a microphone while his song played over the speaker system. He looked, he thought, profoundly lonely up there on his own.

The song Julian mimed to was ‘Saltwater’, his lachrymose ecological protest ballad and top ten single back in 1991, the opening bars of which recalled the Mellotron intro of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. The banal lyricism and its plea for universal transcendence echoed, somewhat inevitably, Lennon’s most famous solo record, ‘Imagine’, the foundation of the Gospel According to John. We are a rock revolving / around a golden sun / we are a billion children rolled into one. As an act of ventriloquism, the lyrics sounded not unlike those his father might have written, but they lacked the precision and bite of Lennon Snr, if not the sincerity, or indeed the hypocrisy, of the earlier record. Here perhaps Julian was staking his claim to the ‘peace and love’ ethos that his father failed to show him. God is a concept / of how we measure pain, Lennon sang on the eponymous song on his debut album. Julian might have said the same for paternal love.

Back then, he knew enough about The Beatles to know the difficult history of Julian’s early life. Choosing to enter the music business as a teenager had left Julian in a double-bind, promising little more than a lifetime of comparisons to his father, and a career as a one-man tribute act to his music. ‘Saltwater’ certainly wore its influences lightly. There was an argument, uncharitable perhaps, that ‘Saltwater’ was only a success because of its imitation of his late father’s work, and for being released twenty years after ‘Imagine’. It was unarguably the high point of Julian’s musical career. After that record, he all but disappeared from public consciousness. When Sean followed his half-brother into the music business to embark upon a successful career of his own, he was fortunate that Julian had already fought all the difficult battles for him. In art, as in life.

ix.

No one understood the decision he had taken, the new existence he had made not only for himself, but for his wife and children. It was a selfish move, crippling them financially. His PhD was little more than a self-funded vanity project that would do little to aid his precarious state. His parents were puzzled, if not bemused, and the first time he saw them after leaving his job, his father asked him what it was like to be retired. When they tried to send him money to make some repairs to his home, he sent the money back to them, with a handwritten letter explaining why he couldn’t accept it, and they seemed more offended that he hadn’t accepted it than if he had kept it and simply frittered it away.

He had failed on their terms, according to their rules, but not his own. Now his terms, his rules, were no longer important. What was important was that he had two young children to care for, and he was unsure if he could do it. When he grandly announced that he was quitting work to care for his children, he imagined himself like the male seahorse or the ocellaris clown fish, nurturing his offspring as a pure expression of paternal responsibility. One of his eldest son’s favourite films was the Pixar animation Finding Nemo, a touching if fanciful exploration of the co-dependent dynamic between two anthropomorphised clown fish. He wasn’t a male seahorse, nor an ocellaris clown fish, only a fool incapable of facing this new reality he had single-handedly created, the product of his impetuosity, his indignation, his masculine rage.

I just believe in me.

For the moment they were reliant on savings to pay their small mortgage. His wife’s wages as a part-time librarian for all other outgoings. They were fortunate to have savings, but they had no money, no disposable income to speak of. They stopped eating meat almost altogether, and instead subsisted on the same basic meals, the same pasta and rice and pulses, soups and stews and steamed veg. Each week he would push son’s buggy to the local budget supermarket to buy their supplies, returning with a buggy loaded with enough food to last them a week. It wasn’t until they were living hand to mouth, that he recognised what he had done.

Because they had no money, he retreated to a hermetic existence, separated himself from friends and family and former colleagues. He simply wanted to be left alone. Kierkegaard wrote, the greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. By leaving work he had hoped to release or realise a part of himself that had remained dormant while he had been at work, but in fact a part of him had vanished when he left his job, the part of him that provided for his family, the part that met everyone else’s expectations of him as a father, and he sensed, correctly, that now it was gone it would not come back. Something had erased itself, shrivelled and withered, and around that absent part was left a layer of scar tissue, invisible but painfully tangible.

What replaced it was arguably fundamentally more important. Time with his children. Time watching them grow and develop and change from infants into small boys. Time nurturing and comforting and attending to their desires and demands. Time showing them how to confound expectations. Time teaching them how to fail. Showing them how to disappear. Helping his youngest take his first steps. Building Duplo with his eldest. Fancy dress and finger-painting and trips to the playground. Lifting them from the bath and drying their hair. Keeping them safe from harm. Being a good-enough father. His blessing, and his curse.

He was still using cocaine. No less frequently, but in smaller quantities, with less intensity. Much of the time he was able to keep clear of it, but every now and again his cravings got the better of him. Anything might trigger the urge to consume cocaine, if he read an news story about it, or had a deadline to meet, or if he was listening to a particular album, if the sun was shining or he was feeling down in the dumps, then he would scrape together the funds to satisfy the urge. Cashback from his supermarket trips. Borrowing from money set aside for his university fees. Raiding the children’s piggy-banks. All paid back later, as if nothing had happened. He knew he had a problem, but knowing he had a problem still wasn’t enough to make him stop, not when he was still able to fulfil his paternal duties with a mind fuzzed by the drug, if the house was kept clean, his research done.

At times he could be unnecessarily cruel to his children. Once he made his eldest walk all the way home from nursery in tears for scooting too far ahead and not stopping when he commanded it. In the aftermath of those moments, he felt a raw shame, like a naked flame upon his face. Then he held them, clung to them, told them that he was sorry, that he loved them. At night he stood over them in the darkness of their room while they slept and felt stricken by love, by grief at the inevitability of their growing old, those two small boys with their blonde hair and blue eyes and raspy voices, made in his own image, his short-tempered, melancholic, over-exuberant, drunk, drugged, indifferent, perpetually inconsistent self, the self he was always at war with.

The Rottweiler

It was a damp day in late winter, or early spring, when he set off on one of his customary mid-week, mid-morning runs, out from his front door, up the street into his local park, and several times round the elliptical path which circled the under-used cricket pitch, a path measuring approximately five hundred meters, so that by completing two laps he knew he had run approximately one kilometre, and in this way could relatively accurately measure the distance travelled without recourse to a runners app, another contemptible crutch of the terminally networked, his phone’s memory being scarcely large enough for the thousands of photos and videos of his children which he was loath to transfer or upload to the cloud, seeing as he liked to scroll back through them on almost a daily basis, not that he was living in the past but as a reminder himself how quickly his children had grown, and once they were off his phone and onto his laptop they would rarely be looked at, or might end up being inadvertently deleted, and what was it Roland Barthes had said about photography, the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially, and yet if someone took his photograph at that moment he was repeating precisely what he had already repeated multiple times, running around the elliptical path in his park yet again, padding along over the patchy tarmac, admittedly a routine subject to different temporal and spatial configurations, certain variants which might impede or improve his performance – the season, climate, wind speed, his fitness, fatigue, hydration, hayfever, asthma, niggling injuries, degree of commitment – that could be said to be make each instance existentially unique, but it was still him undertaking the same process, his weekly routine, his workout regimen, loping the same laps around the park, anything between ten and twenty times around, five to ten kilometres, followed by pull ups, press ups, tricep curls, abdominal crunches, burpees, this on a good day, of course, when he was in fine fettle, what was it Murakami said he thought about when he thought about running, exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life - and for me, for writing as well, although now it seemed that everyone was writing about running, or walking, or climbing, or wild swimming, communing with the natural world in some way, while urban parks were what passed for the natural world for city dwellers, with their commonplace trees and bug hotels and nature reserves, this was as close as it got for many to the great outdoors, besides today was not one of those days, today he would run as many laps as he could possibly bear, the first six always being the worst, his body resisting its own impulse to exertion, before yielding to to kinesis, then home to write or work on his doctoral thesis, which he should really be doing on a day like today, a day damp and wet and cold, the café half empty, the playground silenced, the tennis courts abandoned, a few straggling dogwalkers toughing out the faint scrim of drizzle and one or two young parents with swaddled toddlers on trikes, and him, loping around the park, forcing himself to do another lap, delaying the inevitable rendezvous with his desk, when he started off on lap fourteen or fifteen, a small group of dog walkers had gathered for a confab on the path, forming a small crowd near the large sessile oak, and as he made to pass them, running on a slithery patch of mud beside the path, eyes down, watching where he was putting his feet, his mind still marginally preoccupied with the theoretical propositions of the chapter he was working on, Hegelian phenomenology and Buberan otherness, a large dog, a rottweiler, broke away from the group and leapt up and bit the underside of his left arm, in between his shoulder and his elbow, pinching the sagging muscle of his tricep between its canines, hanging there for a split-second, until its owner, a silver-haired man in a sky blue ski-jacket, a regular walker in the park, who looked a little like his father-in-law, called out No! and Down! and pulled hard on the rottweiler’s lead, a long blue corded rope, whereupon the dog released his arm and dropped down onto its front paws, where it stood panting, You startled her, the owner said and not wanting to remonstrate with the owner of a dog whose blood might be up, and not wanting to risk continuing his run in case the dog made another attempt at biting him, he continued his run and returned home to inspect the damage, examining his arm in the bathroom before the steam fogged the mirror, the unbroken skin of his arm purpling where the rottweiler’s jaws had applied their momentary pressure, the first intimations of the bruise that had deepened and then yellowed when he next saw the silver-haired man in the park, on a warmer Sunday afternoon when he was taking his eldest son, then aged four, to the playground, and he approached the silver-haired man and spoke to him, indicating his arm and pointing at the dog, She really caught me, you know?, thinking that the presence of his son might give the man pause, but the man said nothing, either he didn’t recognise him or couldn’t remember or didn’t care, either way he said nothing, stood stock still, holding the blue rope lead at the end of which was the rottweiler, unmuzzled, licking its nose and sniffing the delicate sunlight, they stood there for a moment, at a short distance, the rottweiler between them, before he turned and walked with his son to the playground, entering through the gate and locking it shut behind them, where he pushed his son on the swings for a half hour or so, until he was certain the silver-haired man and the rottweiler were gone.

The Stag Beetle

He was taking his son to nursery one morning, when something heavy fell from the sky and landed on his foot. At first, he thought it was a stone, or a pine cone. Then he looked again. It was an large chestnut-coloured insect with long, antler-like mandibles.

A stag beetle. The first time he had seen one. As a child, he had been fascinated by the fearsome-looking thing, and its distant cousin, the poo-rolling dung beetle. Unchanged for millions of years in evolutionary terms, the insects spent years feeding underground as larvae before pupating and emerging for a few weeks in the early summer to find a mate. Much like their deer namesake, the large antlers of the males were used for fighting with other males over food, mating rights and territory, and could give unsuspecting or cavalier humans a nasty pinch.

As a child he’d hoped he might see one on the playing fields at school, or in the woodland near his grandparent’s house, though of course he never did. Back then they were rare enough. Now they were an endangered species. Protected. Dwindling. Apparently doomed.

Which was why he was surprised at the beetle’s robust solidity as it bounced off his foot. Presumably a bird had dropped it mid-flight, to crack its armour before feasting on its interior. Or else it had flown there of its own accord, landing clumsily on its descent, a not uncommon problem, he later learned, due to its erratic and ungainly flight behaviour.

Using a stick, he carefully lifted it from the pavement onto a brick wall so that his eldest son could get a closer look. As they were watching it, other people stopped to look as well. It felt like a scene from a Shirley Hughes book.

His parents had dubbed him beetle when he was a baby. Something about the way his arms and legs moved excitedly when he was on his back, having his nappy changed. Perhaps he scuttled around like one when he became mobile. Due to his hypermobility, his eldest son had been a reluctant crawler, and didn’t start walking until he was almost two. In his early attempts to crawl, with his drool and lumpen posterior, his eldest son resembled less of a beetle and more of a slug.

The stag beetle was still. Worryingly still. Such was the beetle’s stillness, he was concerned it had been stunned in the fall, or else it was fagged out from all the excitement, playing dead, or actually defunct. After a while the beetle began to stir and, as though remembering it had to be somewhere else, crawled to the edge of the wall and flopped onto the flowerbed, where it disappeared.

Disappointed, they set off for nursery once more . As they continued up the road, he realised he had failed to take a photograph of the beetle. No matter. He assumed that his son would remember the day the beetle fell from the sky. That he would recall being with his father, and that his father knew what to do. That he might think the moment remarkable.

Small moments. Small matters.

Years later, they were eating dinner as a family when he remembered the stag beetle that fell from the sky. He asked his son if he remembered seeing it, and his son stared at him doubtfully, and shook his head. Given their endangered status, it was very possible that he wouldn’t see a stag beetle again. There was much from their time in London his son had already forgotten, so much so, that he now wondered what remained.

The Tooth

His wife was away seeing friends in Scotland, and he had been left to fend for himself, and his two boys. She had left him without instruction, apart from Take care, so he decided to chance a storytelling session at the local bookshop. It was something his proactive self had wanted to do for some time but never managed to as something always seemed to come up, usually his being too hungover, but with no other plans for the weekend and being sober of mind and able of body, he resolved that today was the day.

That morning he rose, breakfasted, and fed and dressed his children without incident. When it came time to leave, he manoeuvred the unwieldy and barely-roadworthy Bugaboo containing his six-month-old through the front door. Once outside his three-year-old perched on the buggy board, and he pushed them, like a labourer wheeling a laden barrow, in the direction of the high street.

It was not-quite-spring, with a heavy frost on the ground, so he considered taking a short cut through the park at the end of their road, to allow his eldest to crunch through the ice furred grass and crisply crumpled leaves. They had set off early, so he was confident they would make it on time. As they approached the playground, deserted at that early hour, his son chirruped that he wanted to go in. Reluctantly he relented, after first checking the time on his phone, and cautioning his son, But only for a little while.

With his youngest already fast asleep in the pushchair, they entered the playground. Frost as thick as snow lay on the ground, and as he had neglected to bring a towel with him to wipe down the equipment, his son’s choices were relatively limited. He told his son to Take care as he trotted towards the infant’s climbing frame, which with its rope bridge and small slide was his favoured apparatus in the playground, him being too small for the imposing timber-framed fort.

Labouring in his winter coat and thick trousers and disposable nappy, his son carefully negotiated the short flight of metal steps up to the raised walkway. Then, holding the green safety bar, he turned to look at his father and started laughing and bouncing up and down vigorously on the walkway, until he suddenly slipped and dashed his teeth against the metal bar. They looked at one another for a second to establish what had happened, his son open-mouthed and frowning in shock and pain, and him no doubt mirroring his son’s look, when he realised that there was now a gap instead of his neatly arranged front teeth. At which point his son started crying, and he moved quickly to comfort him.

One of son’s teeth was partly missing. He hadn’t knocked the entire tooth out, but cracked it diagonally from left to right, leaving him with a short, sharp fang in place of an incisor’s bevelled square. He now had a supplementary canine, and in entirely the wrong place.

He hadn’t noticed the patch of ice, formed when a small puddle had frozen, in between the metal bars of the walkway. His son had been jumping in that precise spot when he slipped. There was what appeared to be a triangular piece of tooth on the rubberised matting below. He picked it up and pocketed it.

He managed to calm his son and stop the bleeding. He considered calling his wife, but decided to resolve the issue himself, and phoned the local dental surgery. The receptionist found him an appointment. The dental surgery was on the upper floor above a book-makers in his old postcode. It took them half an hour on foot to get there, during which time his son’s discomfort had subsided. When they arrived, he left his youngest son, still asleep, in his buggy in the cramped vestibule inside the entrance and carried his eldest son up the steep flight of stairs to the reception. After a short wait, the dentist’s assistant called his son’s name, and they went in.

As the dentist looked at his son’s mouth, he showed him the shard of broken tooth. Sitting in the palm in his hand, it resembled a small fragment of grit. The more he looked at it, the less certain he became that it was in fact his son’s tooth.

Can we reattach it? he asked. The dentist shook his head. I’m afraid not. The assistant took the fragment from him.

As he was checking his son’s mouth, the dentist noticed something else. He’s actually got a hole in one of his other teeth.

He peered into his son’s mouth. There was a brown stain on one of his molars.

Christ, he muttered. Well, he does like apples.

Does he brush his teeth?

Of course.

When? How often?

Twice a day. After breakfast and before bed.

Does he do it, or do you do it for him?

Bit of both.

Do you want me to fill it?

Probably ought to. Will he have to have an injection?

I’ll do it without an injection. If I’m quick, he won’t even notice.

The dentist donned the dreaded mask while his assistant prepared the filling cement. Taking his drill, he applied it to his son’s molar for a nanosecond and quickly plugged the tiny hole. Next, the dentist carefully fashioned a minuscule crown for the incisor, as if putting the final touches to a waxwork of a princeling.

His son sat remarkably still throughout and made barely a sound. When he was finished, the dentist turned to him and lowered his mask.

We’re all done. Don’t let him eat anything for a couple of hours until the cement goes off. I’m not sure if the crown will last if I’m honest. He might need to have the whole thing taken out.

The crown lasted less than forty-eight hours. When his wife collected their son from nursery on the Monday, she noticed that it was missing. She asked their son what happened to it, he said he felt it come loose when he was eating his lunch. He thought it was a crumb of food, So I swallowed it.

He returned to the dental surgery a few days later. Inspecting his son’s mouth again, the dentist ran his finger over the area where the broken tooth gum, and his son jerked in the chair and began to cry.

Sorry, young man, said the dentist, patting his son’s leg. Then to him: As I suspected. It looks like the root has been exposed. This is a problem. The dentist was concerned that the exposed root would die, and affect the adult tooth growing above it.

As I see it, we have two options, said the dentist. Remove the entire tooth, which he’d need to go to hospital for. Or drill out the nerve and fill it.

Can we do that?

Yes. But it will be painful, so I’ll need to numb his mouth.

Let’s give it a try. Fingers crossed it won’t be too painful.

He watched as the dentist took a large needle from his instrument table and applied it to his son’s gum. A large bubble of anaesthetic formed above his son’s broken tooth. His son began crying again, huge tears that rolled off his cheeks and splashed onto his jumper.

Now we just need to wait for the anaesthetic to take affect, said the dentist, stating the obvious.

When they returned to the waiting room, he placed his son in the chair and stood to one side to keep out of the dentist’s way. He folded his arms, then realised that looked too stern, too unsympathetic, so he put his hands in his pockets instead. As soon as he was back in the chair his son became very upset and started to cry hysterically. After tentatively insinuating his drill against his son’s tooth, the dentist stopped and switched the drill off.

I don’t think it’s going to work, he said, shaking his head. The root is too small and I don’t want to damage the gum. Or cause your boy unnecessary distress. I think the best thing to do is refer your son for a tooth extraction.

A fortnight later he took his son to his appointment at St Thomas’ hospital. They watched CBeebies in the waiting room until his name was called. He was incredibly nervous, but his son was calm, distracted by the familiar antics of the Twirlywoos, unconsciously rotating his feet as he studied the screen.

They were led through to the operating theatre by a nurse, and he was introduced to the dental surgeon and anaesthetist. The anaesthetist had an accent that he couldn’t place. Middle eastern. He seemed very interested in his son’s gait.

Could you walk your son to the corridor for me? The anaesthetist asked. Your son has problems with his feet?

He has hypermobility. In his hips and ankles. Since he was a baby. Used to be able to get his ankles behind his ears.

This is his feet I’m talking about. He shouldn’t be walking like that. My son was exactly the same. Have you taken him to see a doctor about it?

He’s been seen by the paediatrician. In Lewisham.

Make sure they do something about it. Don’t let them fob you off. Its important.

Yes of course.

They lay his son on a bed in the operating room. The anaesthetist spoke to his son in a soft voice, gently explaining what was going to happen, and showed him the mask for administering the anaesthetic. Then he placed it over his son’s face, passing the elasticated band over his head. The anaesthetist handed him the oval pump and said, You’ll need to do this. Pump gently until I say stop.

He perched next to his son on the bed and held his hand. He slowly pumped the anaesthetic into his son’s central nervous system, watched his eyes grow drowsy and began to close, his head slump against his shoulder and, as if in a last-ditch attempt at fight-or-flight, his legs softly thrash against the bed. Then he went completely still.

You can go now, said the anaesthetist. We’ll call you when he comes round.

He returned to the waiting area. ZingZillas was on the TV, the episode with special guests Dan and Justin Hawkins of the The Darkness. He marvelled for a moment at the incongruity, before reasoning that their cartoonish personas and glam-rock riffs were a near-perfect addition to the hyperactive musical show. It must have been an old episode, he thought, because the elder Hawkins hadn’t fixed his teeth yet. Or had a hair transplant. Or morphed into the heavily-inked younger sibling of Johnny Depp.

He googled Justin Hawkins Darkness on his phone and scrolled through the photographs for a while. Hawkins had submitted to the contemporary vogue for whitening teeth beyond their natural colour, to the point of being unnaturally blemish-free. Even his son’s teeth newly-cut hadn’t been that white. The cosmetic alterations were not without precedent: teeth had long been treated as markers of wealth and societal status. It was only very recently in human history that teeth might be expected to remain for the duration of an individual’s lifetime. Indented teeth sometimes outlasted bone, such was their strength.

He thought of the little envelope of his own milk teeth in his desk drawer at his parent’s. Mostly molars, including one almost entirely decayed. By this time the true identity of the tooth fairy had long been revealed. The handful of teeth pulled out when he was eight, to make room in his crowded mouth. The only time he was given a general anaesthetic. Dazed and disconcerted, he wept when he woke. His mother was ready with a tissue. Back home, he tried to look at the ragged holes in the back of his mouth in the mirror, running his tongue over the raw and bloody gaps where his teeth once were. The next morning there was blood on his bed sheet. His gums had bled as he slept, like a Freudian dream made real.

Other teeth yanked out with local anaesthetic and brute force. A few teeth, mercifully few, drilled and filled. He had his father’s teeth, large and strong. His mother was snaggle-toothed, her mouth seventy per cent mercury. While living in London he had an impacted wisdom tooth removed at King’s hospital. They gave him a barbiturate and wrenched it from his gums, then set him loose on the streets of Denmark Hill. Wired and slurring in the recovery room like a somnolent ketamine casualty. His wife, then-girlfriend, helped him home. He returned to work the next day, gargling with salt water to stave off infection, but his mouth mourned the lost molar. There was a hole in his gum for almost a month.

The nurse appeared, smiling. Your son is awake now. Would you like to follow me?

The nurse led him to the recovery room. His son was sitting up, blinking. As he drew nearer, he could see that the tooth was completely gone. It was like a ragged hole had been punched into his beautiful face. As if he had done it. He stroked his son’s fair hair. The nurse handed him a small square envelope containing the broken tooth, which he slipped into his pocket like a till receipt.

He carried his son through to the waiting area and sat down with the boy on his knee. On CBeebies, the programme had now switched to Chuggington. Absurd, interminable Chuggington, with its moronic theme tune, moronic characters and barely-credible animation. His son asked if he could sit in his own chair and slid off his knee. They sat that way, side-by-side in silence, for a little while longer, his son watching the TV, him trying not to, then when he could no longer stand it, he collected up their things and took his son home to his mother.

The Appraisal

 

i.

Given his size, it was fortunate that the birth of his second son was not more traumatic. Judging by his wife’s pregnancy bump, he was a large baby, and already long-overdue. Having originally planned for a home birth, the due date came and went, before faded into the near-distance. A fortnight later, his reluctant wife was compelled to book her induction appointment at the local hospital.

She was instructed to arrive at the hospital late in the evening. When they arrived together, she was given a bed on the maternity ward, hooked up to a monitor and told to wait. They waited together in the dim sodium glare of the ward for some time, her reading a book, him writing a paper for an academic conference, listening by the sound of their son’s heartbeat, and trying to ignore the quasi-orgasmic noises of a Polish girl’s protracted contractions in the next bed. Eventually he had to leave and went home alone on the 185.

After a near-sleepless night, during which his wife was monitored and prodded by the ward nurses, she was induced the next morning. He was at home, looking after their eldest son, when she texted to tell him her contractions had started. After leaving their boy with the childminder, he returned to the hospital. A difficult, discomforting labour followed. For his wife, this was on account of her cervix not dilating enough; for him, it was due to a male trainee midwife silently observing his wife’s evident agony.

As with the first time his wife gave birth, he felt utterly helpless, useless, incapable of easing her pain or offering any meaningful words of comfort. His wife was determined to give birth naturally, as she had done with their first son. Her body had other ideas. Several times the midwife offered her an epidural or a c-section. She refused, at one point pulling out the epidural needle before the doctor could insert the line.

Sometime in the early afternoon, with his fatigued wife at the point of exhaustion and his son’s heartbeat fading, another team of nurses and doctors bustled into the room. It had been decided that they would deliver of his son by ventouse, using a suction cup applied to his head and what resembled a length of washing line to pull him out. The stocky midwife charged with using the ventouse looked like she was engaged in a tug-of-war contest. Slowly but surely his son emerged, purple and bloody. Once clear of his by now deathly pale mother, the boy was weighed and placed in a small crib where he lay, sagely and snugly, looking for all the world like he might be about to fall asleep. All ten pounds ten ounces of him. Even in those first moments, his had an aura altogether different to that of his sibling. Already he could tell the boy would be trouble.

Miraculously, the midwife found his wife and son a private room on the over-crowded maternity ward. That evening, while he was at home, the obstetrician diagnosed jaundice in his new son, and as a precautionary measure determined that they should remain in hospital for the next week. The next day, he brought his oldest son to the hospital, who tottered happily towards his absent mother, and met his new brother with puzzlement and be-furrowed brow.

 

ii.

The year earlier he had found a new job, at a charitable organisation with ties to the property industry. His initial impulse, which had been to quit the industry for good, had been superseded by his inability to find work in a different sector, and the urgent need to continue earning money.

His morning routine and commute into the city remained much the same, for the charitable organisation’s offices were in the same building as the lobbying body. In fact, they were literally around the corner. Upon exiting the lifts on his floor, instead of turning left to enter the offices of his former employer, he turned right to enter the offices of his new employer. The job he had taken was less a sideways move, more a crossing of the floor. He was also learning less, a lot less, than before.

A chance conversation with the charity’s chief executive, a perky, pony-tailed woman a few years older than him, had revealed that there was a role available for him, should he want it. We’re looking for someone full time, she explained. I know you’re doing a PhD, but I think we both know that won’t really lead to anything. He hoped she was joking.

He had met the chief executive several times in the communal spaces of their shared offices. She liked to pepper her speech with light management jargon, while letting it be known that there were many demands upon her time, and giving the impression that she thrived in the face of adversity. She was very different to the chief executive at his last organisation. Dynamic. Proactive. Inclusive. He liked her and thought he would enjoy working for her.

A couple of days after being informally offered the job, the chief executive called him into a meeting, where informed him that after canvassing the opinion of his formal employer about his suitability for the role, as an informal reference, the job offer had to be temporarily withdrawn pending a formal interview. The next day, he was formally interviewed for the role, by the chief executive and the deputy chief executive, where he was asked, pointedly, if he had ever found himself in an argument with a senior member of the industry, a hugely influential individual with a high net worth, and if he thought that might make him unsuitable for the position, to which he could only repeat a by-now often spoken lie. I’ve learnt my lesson.

The next day he was offered the job. By accepting it, he had effectively deposed the communications manager already in position, a man who tied his sweater around his shoulders without any noticeable degree of sartorial irony, and who was unable to commit to the additional hours because of his childcare responsibilities. This, it appeared, caused some upset among his future colleagues. We’re sorry to see him go, he’s been an absolute diamond, said one. Another disgruntled former team member, who had confessed her dislike of the chief executive, called him traitor the next time they met.

During his handover period, he and the incumbent met for an awkward lunch at a Japanese-styled cafe on Piccadilly, where his future self warned him, between slurps of ramen, that managing upwards effectively would be vital for the sake of his sanity. At his leaving drinks, one of his work buddies said to him, privately, Are you sure you want to do this - I mean, you do realise she is an absolute nightmare, don’t you? He shrugged and laughed it off.

He didn’t have to wait long for either theory to be tested. In his first week, the chief executive, who thrived in the face of adversity, announced that it was her intention to re-brand the organisation, redesign and relaunch the website and newsletter, and undertake a review of their communications strategy. Responsibility for project managing these three strands would lie with him, but final approval on the next steps would come from herself. Moreover, the entire team should be consulted throughout.

He was introduced to the PR firm who provided pro bono support for the charity, and was grilled at length by their account director, a former property journalist. The director was a generally avuncular and occasionally truculent character, with a good nose for sniffing out bullshit. Amusingly, he had the measure of the charity’s chief executive, who had revealed herself to be unfocused, digressive and all-too-flappable. The director was also utterly unhelpful whenever urgent assistance was required, which was most of the time in those first few months, and he came to dread the director’s terse, single line responses to his detailed emails pinging into his inbox, each of which implied, though without making it explicit, that he was out of his depth and doing a terrible job.

From time to time the charity’s president, the chief executive of a property development company, a man who could usually be relied upon to make inappropriate comments during his speech at their events, would call the office switchboard and, whenever he answered, ask who he was speaking to, and no matter how many times he reminded him, he persisted in getting his name wrong, calling him Alan or Alistair or Ian. The first time they met after he started the role, he introduced himself to the president, who looked vaguely at him before turning to the chief executive and asking, What happened to the other guy?

He struggled through that first year, being a little sheepish with his former colleagues, a little awkward with his new ones, balancing the competing demands of being a parent again, earning less money than before, and having less disposable income, with his wife on maternity leave and their eldest in full time childcare. His workload was insurmountable and the demands on his time relentless. He’d had a degree of autonomy at his last employer, here everyone was invited to critique his work.

The dynamics of office life had also completely changed: his team in his last office was almost all men, and now he was the sole male in an organisation of just ten employees. Most of the team were cramped into a tiny office space, and he was sat next to the chief executive. There was nowhere to hide. Team meetings on Monday mornings almost always overran, and he would listen with growing frustration while any number of unfocused ideas with were discussed, criticised and quibbled over. If he ventured an alternative view, it was usually discounted.

Frequently he felt excluded, sometimes marginalised, and he began to understand how it must feel to be the only woman in a male-dominated office. Or career-minded women in general, eager to get ahead but impeded by obstructive and destructive men. Though he had an inkling, he could never truly know what that would have been like. To be paid substantially less than his male counterparts, to be overlooked for promotions or pay rises, to be leered over or sneered at. He did learn, to his cost, that what had previously passed as banter in a male-dominated team was no longer acceptable in this new working environment. When his gestures towards commonality with his colleagues fell flat, and after a couple of instances of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, he regressed to the selective mutism of his adolescence. It was better to say nothing, he felt, than say something that might invite ridicule or reprimand.

 

iii.

Midway through his second year the chief executive announced she was leaving the organisation. Always fiercely ambitious, having raised the profile of the charity and expanded the team, she was now ready for the next chapter in her career. She was, understandably, very excited about starting her new role, without considering the team and organisation she had re-made in her image.

Around that time, he also learned that the incumbent chair of the charity was stepping down, and the new chair would be the chief executive of his former employer.

Before she left, the chief executive announced that she would be conducting a final round of appraisals. He had been dreading his, which would be his second at the organisation. His first appraisal been conducted during the honeymoon period of his employment, a relatively tranquil time by comparison with the previous six months, where he had been unable to engage in dialogue with his chief executive without it descending into a protracted discussion, then a heated debate, followed by an executive decision, which usually settled the matter. The new website had been the source of much conjecture, including one particularly ridiculous argument in the communal kitchen about the relative difference between editing out and editing down content, after the chief executive had swamped the site with paragraphs of impregnable text. Back at his desk, he received an email from one of his former colleagues: What is the difference between editing out and editing down?

The day of his appraisal arrived, and he sat down in a small conference room with the chief executive. She announced that she was restructuring the team before her departure. Certain responsibilities he once held would now lie with one of his junior colleagues, who had been promoted. He would no longer report directly to the chief executive, but to another colleague who had been promoted internally. Having been promised autonomy at the start of his time with the organisation, it had now been officially withdrawn. This, he was informed during his second appraisal, was due to his attitude problem.

I think we need to talk about this, for the sake of your time here, however long that might be, and for the sake of any plans you might have career-wise, but more importantly, most importantly I’d say, because of how your behaviour affects the entire the team. Because, and I hate to say it, there is a feeling in the team that your behaviour has become a problem. It’s not just me saying this, I’ve had several conversations with others who say that you are unapproachable, unhelpful. That you don’t engage. That you are grumpy. Some things you may already be aware of, but there are others that you won’t. We are a positive organisation, with a positive team, making positive changes to people’s lives. Everyone in this organisation wants to be a part of that. Everyone, but you it seems. Because you are always miserable.

L—- and I were talking before, and she said she knows someone who is in his late sixties, and he is just such a miserable man, never happy, never has been, never will be, and she said, imagine being that person, imagine working with him or being married to him, or having him as a father, and no one ever took him to one side and told them that they need to stop being miserable all the time, and let him be that way all his life. Well, that’s what I’m doing now. I’m telling you.

She continued, but he was no longer listening. It was obvious he had made a terrible mistake in accepting the job, and that the chief executive had made a terrible mistake in offering it to him in the first place. By accepting the role, he had hoped to prove his capability as a professional individual outside the restrictive confines of his old office, but had simply proved that he was congenitally incapable of functioning like a normal person, and that his behaviour at the charity was emblematic of how he dealt with people more generally. He had been given an opportunity to prove himself, and he had failed.

That night, after his appraisal, he went home and begged his wife to let him resign. She calmed him down, and suggested he wait until the new chief executive was in position. Things may change then. Things could only get better. He was not so sure.

A week later he saw a photograph of the preferred candidate for the role. The picture showed a middle-aged man of average build, vaguely athletic, with thinning blonde hair and square glasses. A man who was, physically at least, his exact mirror image. His doppelgänger. His second self. His alternate. His uncanny Other.

The next day he handed in his notice.

At their first team meeting after his appointment, the new chief executive insisting on standing throughout, an unintended consequence of which was that the entire team’s eye-line rested upon the same zone of elevation as his crotch.

 

iv.

On the Friday of his last week, as was customary he was checking a trade publication for mentions of the charity’s work. The organisation had been referenced in an op-ed piece extolling the virtues of doing charitable work as a way for the property industry to beat the January blues. The tone of the article, by a senior property fund manager, was largely innocuous, but there was something about the self-interest at the heart of her sentiments that prompted him to pick up his phone and type a response. He then sent it to the publication’s editor, which she said she would publish in the next week’s edition.

A few months earlier he had attempted, unsuccessfully, to deflect the inquiries of a STV journalist who was doing a report on homelessness. The reporter wanted to know if he was aware of landlords and property management companies putting anti-homeless spikes in the entrances to their buildings.

I’ve been looking at your website and I saw some of these companies are listed as your foundation partners, the reporter said. So your charity claims to be supporting homeless and disadvantaged people, but some of your donors are using measures that deliberately prevent rough sleepers from finding shelter and warmth. I just wondered if you had a comment about that?

It was impossible to give the appropriate comment to something so fundamentally inhumane without speaking the truth and losing his job.

He wanted to make a public statement that would shame the industry and rattle the foundations of its complacency. Make them see how their actions, conscious or unconscious, fuelled homelessness. How their regeneration projects were pushing lower income families out of London. How fundraising for the Conservative Party by the charity’s own president had brought about the austerity policies which were causing child poverty to spiral. How all their charity runs and bake sales and sponsorship drives wouldn’t make a scrap of difference. How they weren’t doing enough, how they could never do enough, until they stopped chasing profit and started putting people first. How he was sick to death of working to make the industry look good. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. He wanted to stand up and be counted, even though he knew he was pissing in the wind.

Thursday came. The day before the magazine’s publication. He began to get cold feet. He could picture the faces of his colleagues when they read the magazine. The incredulity and hurt. It was then that he panicked. That morning he emailed the editor and asked if there was any possibility that his letter could be removed from the magazine. After lunch he received her response. Sorry. Magazine has already gone to print. Anyway, what’s wrong with the letter? We’ve made it our Star Letter of the Week!

He had to break the news to the new chief executive. He knew there was no way to do this without the risk of sparking a conflagration. The man had only just begun his new job, and he was just about to encounter his first major bump in the road, his first patch of scorched earth by a disgruntled former employee.

In the end, he decided to deliver the news using the medium which would best allow the new chief executive to process the information and formulate an appropriate response, and which would enable him to nip out for lunch before the shit hit the fan. He sent him an email.

An hour later, the new chief executive called him into a conference room. The deputy chief executive was also there, her eyes downcast. There was a printout of the letter on the desk.

He sat down. The new chief executive turned to him.

It’s a bit of a FUCK, this letter. I mean, it hasn’t been published anonymously, has it? You’ve clearly got your name on there and it has been attributed to our charity. Which makes it look like it has come from us, it’s what we think, what we feel, as a charity. And a lot of people will be questioning why they support us at all. I imagine quite a few of our partners will be pissed off by it. Not to mention the Board.

Without looking up, the deputy chief executive spoke. I agree. There are a lot of people who are going to feel hurt by that letter. It’s wrong.

Okay, the chief executive continued. Here’s what’s we’re going to do. I’ll speak to the PR guys. See if we can fight some of these fires. You are going to go into the office and explain to the rest of team what has happened. What you’ve done. They have a right to know, and I think they should hear it from you.

As they stood up to leave, the chief executive spoke again. A word of advice. Don’t write angry.

The three of them returned to the office where his colleagues were working. Possibly they already knew, but if they did, they gave no sign. The new chief executive said, Hi everyone, we’ve got some news, it’s quite important, and gestured for him to speak with the open palm of his flat hand, as if he had him in the centre of it and was ready to close it into a fist.

He cleared his throat and began to speak. To explain the letter. Why he had written it. As he spoke, he watched each face turn from expectancy to incredulity, disappointment to dismay, and finally, anger and grief.

The Newspaper

If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.

Norman Mailer

i.

The career adviser was a prim, middle-aged woman with a gentle face. Short brown perm and oval glasses. Bony wrists protruding from the cuffs of her navy blazer.

They were sat in her small office to discuss his work experience placement, as was compulsory for all the boys in his year. He was by this time fifteen years old. When she asked him where he would like to go for his work experience placement, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and said he wasn’t sure. She asked him which his favourite lessons were. English and history, he replied after some deliberation. After she pressed him what he wanted to do for a career, he said simply that he wanted to be a writer. Writing is a hobby, she replied, not a career. She suggested that he might want to consider another option, like being a journalist or a librarian or a teacher, as writers rarely made any money through writing alone. Unless he was content to be a penniless writer starving in a garret, which she imagined his parents wouldn’t be too happy about, this might be a more realistic career plan.

Very few would-be writers are published. And of those even fewer make any money from writing. Any of those jobs – journalist, librarian, teacher - might provide a springboard into writing later in life. You need to gain some experience first, I’m afraid, before you can even begin to think about writing a novel. Most importantly, once you have finished your studies, you won’t be able to rest on your laurels. You’ll need to earning right away. Once you are earning, then you can focus on writing in your spare time. No. If I were you, I would choose a career to work towards first, and then start thinking about which A-levels would help get you into your career of choice.

A career in journalism would hone his writing skills, provide him with access to interesting stories and allow a writer’s sensibility to develop. Would he like to try a week’s work experience at a local paper? Having once watched an episode of Press Gang, ITV’s comedy-drama about a newspaper run by teenagers, it looked like lots of fun, so he agreed.

ii.

By the time he was fifteen, he had amassed plenty of work experience from doing his chores at home. Mowing the lawn, washing his parent’s cars, weeding the garden, raking the gravel paths or sweeping out the garage. Sometimes there was a wheelbarrow of sand that needed moving, or some bricks to dress. His father had been keen to instil in his sons the hard work ethic that had been somewhat unsympathetically drilled into him by his own father. Hard work meant self-sacrifice and self-sufficiency. Motivation. Drive. Success.

For most of his peers, their experience of work up to that point was a paper round or delivering the Buy and Sell on their estate. Few that he knew were expected to do chores around the home. They found it bizarre that he did.

Then there was the local market, a small encampment dating back to Elizabethan times which pitched up on the town’s common land every Thursday. After school a troop of green blazers would march, or straggle, down to the stalls to do a couple of hours packing up in exchange for a couple of quid being pressed into their palm. A rite of passage for most of the town’s teenage inhabitants.

In the summer that he turned fourteen he had found work at a fabric stall, helping a taciturn trader called David lug boxes of bed linen into the back of his battered, old Transit. Being a slight and still-small fourteen-year-old, he was ill-suited to the heavy lifting the market required, but the trader tolerated his efforts. The trader was probably in his late twenties or thirties. One of the youngest. Quiet. A lurker. Most of the older guys, the spielers and pitchers, had been kicking around for decades. They remembered the market in its post-war heyday. Long before Safeway arrived and started to suck the life blood out of it.

iii.

Work experience had long been compulsory for boys in the fifth year at his school, helping to preserve the distinction between academic, or intellectual, work, and real work, the kind that earned real money. Going to an all boys school, where one was but one among several hundred future paterfamilias, real work entailed rolling up one’s sleeves and committing oneself to a lifetime of hard and meaningful graft.

For many in his year a lifetime of employment, gainful or otherwise, was already just around the corner. A few of the older lads in his year had effectively ditched school to start working. Ironically, many of them had been among the most disruptive, unruly and disinterested students in the school. With their nascent beards and defiled uniforms and total disregard for the school’s rules, they had made the leap from adolescence into adulthood a long time ago. It was the diligent ones, the dreamers, the permanent students, the ones who might have ideas above their station, for whom the work experience programme was truly intended.

Each boy had been encouraged to select a profession or trade which at best inspired them, or else interested them, or which they would doubtless fall into once they left school. Here the social stratification of his peers became clear. The boys from the council houses and rougher parts of town spent a week scuffing around car repair workshops, construction companies, builders’ merchants, leisure centres, supermarkets, warehouses and the local ERF factory. Most of the middle-class kids spent a week with a local solicitor, at the local council offices, the law courts, at the offices of a blue-chip company on the town’s perimeter, or with one of its many estate agencies. An unfortunate few spent the week shadowing their father or another relative, knowing they were almost certain to follow in their footsteps.

He resisted that. It would be easy to follow his father into the building trade, at the firm his grandfather established. Like him, his father had resisted it but had been compelled by his own mother to take over the business due to his father’s ill-health. Running a business was rewarding, particularly financially, but profoundly stressful if it wasn’t successful. Lacking business acumen of any kind, he wasn’t sure if he would succeed in the building trade. In truth, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to work for his father either. But in terms of a career, this was the path which most clearly presented itself.

Generally, he preferred mundane tasks that required little concentration, which allowed his mind to wander, to ponder the many distractions of youth. Once with his mother he spent a couple of hours at his father’s office, sat on the scratchy carpet tiles on the cold floor, folding timesheets and slipping them into the slim envelopes that his employees would complete that week. Years later, once gainfully employed, he found a similar zen-like meditativeness folding letters and stuffing envelopes.

It wasn’t that he was averse to hard work. Outside of his chores, when he was eleven his parents bought the house that would become their home for much of his adolescence. That year, while his friends were off riding their bikes or playing football in the park, he spent most weekends with his family, pulling up floorboards and demolishing internal walls, before gathering together to eat their packed lunch on camping chairs in rooms thick with plaster dust.

If there was a pallet of bricks that needed dressing or a wheelbarrow of sand that needed pushing, he could usually be called upon to do it. On one weekend he might be helping his father to build a stone wall to line their driveway, selecting the stones and pushing them into position as his father laid the mortar. On another, he could be up a step ladder with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, helping his mother strip wallpaper.

Helping his parents. Building a relationship. Being deferential.

iv.

At fifteen years of age he was still painfully green, the gauche and inhibited product of puberty and a single sex school. Too shy to speak to girls and certainly too shy to pick up the phone and harass a councillor about bin collections or vandalism in the local park. The thought of going into the offices of a newspaper and having to do these things was terrifying.

On the eve of his placement he slept poorly. He drew open the curtains of his bedroom to reveal a clammy mid-November Monday. It was his mother who took him in. The traffic, as usual, was appalling, and he was worried that he was going to be late. She dropped him outside the newspaper’s offices, wished him good luck, and merged back into the flow of traffic.

He rang the doorbell and was admitted by a middle-aged woman with a blonde shampoo and set, whom he took to be the receptionist and editor’s assistant. Once inside he could hear the persistent ringing of a telephone. She asked him to take a seat in the hallway and wait while she answered the phone. He sat quietly and smoothed his tie, a green affair with golfing elves on it. He was probably overdressed but had thought it better to wear a tie than look too casual. Somewhere behind him, he heard the low murmur of voices. Further off, the dim echo of another conversation in full flow, but, curiously, little suggestion of any work being done. He had anticipated hearing the staccato, almost Reichian rhythm of keys being pummelled, and instead there was near-silence.

The assistant returned. She ushered him into the editor’s office, a small room lined with overflowing shelves. In the centre of the room was a similarly cluttered desk. Behind it sat the editor, a youngish looking man who might be in his mid-twenties, barely out of university. He noticed that the editor was wearing a shirt and tie and felt reassured.

The editor shook his hand and invited him to take a seat. His assistant loitered in the doorway. Adjusting his glasses and leaning forward over the desk with his hands clasped in front of him, with fingers interlaced so they could be splayed for effect, the editor gave a short account of the newspaper’s history, its circulation, the role it played as a champion of local causes and campaigns, before moving on to the importance of accurate and impartial journalism. His father had edited the newspaper for many years and upon his retirement handed over the reins to his son. Just as the editor hit his verbal stride, his phone rang. I’m sorry, I’ll have to take this, he said, and upon picking up the receiver gestured for him to leave.

The assistant took him down the hall to meet the news team. Their office was at the back of the building. Deep in the bowels. As he neared the opening, his stomach knotted with trepidation.

He stepped through the opening into a large, cramped room, where he could see five journalists seated at their desks. Three men and two women. Their desks were arranged asymmetrically, randomly, and were flanked by bookshelves packed with files. The walls of the room were barely visible for bookshelves packed with files. Each desk faced one of these walls, with the news editor’s desk to his immediate right, facing the room. There wasn’t a huge amount of work being done. Most were staring at their screens through the steam of a hot beverage or leafing through copies of last week’s paper.

It was a distinctly anticlimactic image. He had expected frenzied typing, phones ringing off the hook, unsmoked cigarettes mouldering in ashtrays, journos screaming obscenities at each other. Here was an eerie quiet, like the morning after some collectively traumatising event that none were remotely ready to confront. A condition he would come to know in later years as Back to Work Blues.

Like the editor, the journalists all appeared to be in their early twenties, save for the news editor, who looked to be in his early forties. He had the harassed countenance of someone who wanted to be somewhere else, someone for whom time was running out. His skin was pallid and pockmarked, the pores of his creased face blighted by decades of bad decisions.

Flashing a smile, the news editor indicated that he was on the phone by gesturing to the plastic appurtenance wedged underneath his chin, so he was shown around the room, passed from reporter to reporter for perfunctory introductions. Each had their own remit, a particular area of focus. Council meetings. Court reports. Planning consultations. Littering.

Eventually the news editor came off the phone, so they were able to be introduced. Hello, I’m Neil. I’m the news editor. He spoke with a soft Welsh lilt. They shook hands. I’m afraid we don’t have a desk, or a computer, for you to use, but you can sit at my desk when I’m not here. Monday’s can be a bit quiet. The newspaper goes to press on a Thursday, so for the moment we’re just collating press releases. Gathering stories. I should have something for you to do by the end of the day. What it might be worth doing for the moment is having a read through some of the past issues. The news editor pointed to a bookshelf containing bound copies of the newspaper. That’ll give you a flavour of the sort of stories we’ve been covering lately. I’ll let you know when you we have something for you to work on. All right?

He spent all of Monday reading old copies of the newspaper, desultorily flicking through a year of Rotary Club jumble sales and announcements by local businesses, planning objections and plucky schoolchildren, with the odd motorway pile up thrown in. There were few of the campaigning stories described by the editor in his speech that morning. Little of the spirit of Upton Sinclair, HL Mencken and Woodward and Bernstein. He returned home more than a little dispirited. He wanted to be a writer. Local journalism seemed more of a distraction than an apprenticeship. An artistic dead-end.

 

v.

The next day, Tuesday, he was dispatched by the news editor to the law courts in the next town with one of the cub reporters, Mark, a beleaguered and paunchy young father who had only qualified as a journalist a couple of years ago. They made the journey in his decrepit, grey Mini Metro, across the backseat of which were scattered the combined detritus of early parenthood and infancy. Crumbs, cassettes, cuddly toys. It took them over an hour to get there due to the traffic, and there was a possibility that they might be late for the first session of the court. This had a particularly adverse effect on what the journalist described as his recent attempts to cut back on the fags. Babysitting the work experience kid probably didn’t help either. By the time they arrived, the journalist had comfortably polished off a ten pack of Benson & Hedges.

They left the car in a nearby multi-storey car park and hurried into the courthouse. It was the first time he had been to the courts and he was looking forward to the experience, if a little worried about encountering any hardened criminals in the toilets. They had arrived in the nick of time for the first session, and after locating the correct courtroom, took their seats at the press table. The journalist unpacked his notebooks and Dictaphone.

Someone approached their table. A badge pinned to the lapel of his suit jacket said court clerk.

The clerk

He’s not allowed in here.

The journalist

I’m sorry?

The clerk

Him. He’s not allowed in here. Why is he in here?

The journalist

He’s with me. We’re from The Chron. He’s on work experience.

The clerk

I don’t care if he’s on the World at One, he’s not allowed in here. Today’s youth court. Young offenders. Him being here is contempt of court. So he can’t be here.

The journalist.

Ah. Right

The clerk

We had another lad on work experience this week shadowing the clerks. We had to tell him to go home.

The journalist

I see.

The clerk

I’m glad you do. You can stay. He’ll have to wait outside.

The journalist

That’s okay. How long do you think it will take? This session?

The clerk

How long’s a piece of string?

As the clerk departed, the journalist looked at him and shrugged.

He went back out into the waiting area and found a seat. Wanting to appear diligent, he hadn’t brought anything with him to read, just his notebook and a pen. He doodled for a little while, wrote some notes, then watched the defendants milling around the room with parents, and in some instances, girlfriends and children. It seemed slightly academic to banish him from the courtroom, as he was just as able to identify the defendants from his position in the lobby. Though of course, now he wouldn’t know what they had been up to.

All were lads from the less affluent parts of the county. The best they could hope for was an assembly-line job at Rolls Royce, if they were lucky, though this seemed unlikely given that they were about to go up in front of the beak.

Most were in possession of a regulation crew cut, complemented by neck chains and earrings. Permanent scowls. Simian-looking. Furtively smoking near the entrance. He recognised the type from his school, but he couldn’t tell if any were from his home town. Lads with limited horizons. Unpromising futures. Billy Caspers. He thought of his friend Joe, whose dad scraped a living on the market, and whose brother had broken his neck diving into the shallows of a local beauty spot that summer. Joe was doing his work experience at his uncle’s garage, but he had zero interest in being a mechanic. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. Smoking weed and going to jungle raves, and that was about it.

Growing bored, he wandered outside. On foot he made a couple of circuits of the courthouse, plodding along the pavement in his school shoes, hands in pockets. He didn’t want to stray too far in case the session ended when he wasn’t there, and the journalist wondered where he was.

Eventually the court came out of session and the journalist emerged from the huge double doors.

Sorry about that, he said. I didn’t realise it was youth court today. Neil might have known. I feel bad as its a bit of a waste of a morning for you. Anyway, we’re all done here now, for the moment, so I’ll take you back to the office.

When he returned to the office the news editor seemed surprised to see him. What are you doing back here? He explained that the youth court was in session, so he hadn’t been allowed in. Never mind, the news editor replied. I ts as well you’ve come back, I’ve got something that wants doing urgently.

The news editor handed him a black and white photograph of three beaming Boy Scouts holding certificates, flanked by two adult Scout Leaders.

We need to get the names of these scouts before we go to press this week, the news editor said. You’ll need to call the scout group. The number is on the back of the photograph. Find out what they have been awarded. Get the names and ages of the scouts, and the names of the two Scout Leaders. Then I’ll let you write it up and send it to the editor.

When he asked why the newspaper’s photographer hadn’t got those details when he went to the event and took the photograph, the news editor replied, He’s the photographer, we’re the journalists. It’s not his job. It’s ours.

The news editor had cleared a small space at the end of his desk, so he now had somewhere to work. While the news editor tersely rattled away at his keyboard, he picked up the phone and phoned the number on the back of the photograph. A female voice answered. The voice was hoarse and wobbly, and sounded as if it belonged to a woman older than his grandparents. Older than the Queen Mother. He noted the names down as she relayed them, taking care to check the spelling, then hung up.

The news editor was out all the next day. At the law courts, Mark explained. He normally comes back from there in a foul mood. While the news editor was out, he was able to type up the picture story about the scouts. This took him almost an hour of labouring over the wording. When he thought he had finished, he left the document open on the computer.

After asking the other journalists if they had anything for him to do, he returned to reading past issues of the paper. He went back several years, hoping he might spot someone he knew in the pages. Someone from school or one of his parent’s friends. Every now and then there was a photograph of someone he recognised, which made him pause and smile, as if he’d spotted a familiar face in a crowd. Occasionally he came across an advertisement for his father’s building firm in the classifieds, and whenever he did, he felt the warmth of filial affection.

It was almost dark by the time the news editor returned. Everyone seemed to duck their head down when he came in. As Mark had foretold, the news editor was in a foul mood. Snippy and tyrannical. He flopped into his chair and immediately began complaining about his day at the courthouse, directing some of his ire in the absent editor’s direction.

When it came time to look at the short paragraph for the picture story he had worked on that morning, the news editor stared at the screen for several seconds without saying anything. Then he began speaking.

Hmm. This looks fairly okay. Sentence construction is largely fine. Nothing that can’t be ironed out. One of the names I’m not sure about though. George Georghingham? Are you absolutely sure that is his surname? Or his full name? George Ingham? Can I have a look at your notes? Pass me your notes, please? Thanks. Okay. Just as an observation. Your handwriting is going to have to get a lot better than this if you’re serious about being a journalist. This is far too sloppy. I mean, is this supposed to be an H or an N? I can’t tell. I doubt anyone else could tell. There’s not really any excuse for handwriting like this. How old are you? Fifteen? Are your teachers okay with you writing like this? They are? Well I wouldn’t be, let me tell you. You’ve also made a lot of crossings out here, which worries me. It really worries me. It makes me wonder if any of the names you’ve written here are the ACTUAL names of the people in the picture. So I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to phone them MYSELF. Because I can’t send it to print like this. Pass me the photograph please.

As he handed him the photograph, the news editor lifted the arm off the receiver and punched the number into the phone. Listening at the news editor’s elbow, he heard the same female voice answer, and the news editor explained that he just wanted to double check the names prior to going to print. The lady on the line obliged, and as she replied to his queries the news editor typed. There seemed to be a lot of corrections. Far more than he expected, and he began to blush with embarrassment. Thanking the lady, the news editor hung up and turned to face him. He began speaking in a raised voice.

Well. What an effing disaster. Did you even check the name of this guy? It’s George Ingham, not Gorgingham, or whatever you wrote. George Georghingham. Ridiculous. Not surprising it was wrong given the state of your notes. When you were on the phone yesterday, I knew you were making a complete hash of it. I didn’t say anything at the time but it’s a good job I checked it, wasn’t it? We’d have got a right bollocking for that. I think that’ll do for now. You can go back to reading the papers.

His fury excised, the news editor turned to his screen and began working on his court report.

v.

He almost didn’t go back the next day, but his father persuaded him he couldn’t not go, after they’d taken the time to make the placement available to him. It would look bad. It might mean someone else doesn’t get to go. He couldn’t not turn up. So he returned sheepishly and determined that he would leave if anything further criticism was directed his way.

As it happened, the news editor was far too busy. Early that morning a substantial fire had broken out at a local leisure centre, and the news editor had spent several hours there with the photographer. With the newspaper going to print later that day, all the journalists were frantically trying to file the last of their stories by lunchtime. When the news editor returned, he was adamant the fire story should be on the front page. The editor refused to halt the presses. Neither was prepared to give ground, but eventually the editor won the day. By way of conciliation, he suggested that the fire story could have a colour front page, next week.

He wondered if local journalism was defined by these little battles over stories which would barely warrant a couple of column inches in a national newspaper. As each day had passed, he had become more sceptical about the profession.

After lunch the careers adviser visited the newspaper offices to see how he was getting on. They sat opposite each other on two plastic chairs in the space underneath the building’s fire escape. I hear you had a bit of an issue this week, she said. News about his bawling out had obviously reached her through, either via the editor or perhaps the news editor. He wondered how it had been reported, as a complaint or an apology. It shows you just how seriously they take their work here. A good learning experience, if nothing else. Other than that, have you enjoyed your week?

There was little he could offer her by way of a response. He shrugged and said he was glad it was almost over.

For the rest of that afternoon, he sat leafing through decade-old copies of the newspaper, while the news editor led a discussion about the hypothetical genital hygiene of several prominent people from the local area. He wondered if that display was for his benefit. He decided not to go back on the Friday.

On returning to school the next week, he found a copy of the paper in the library and flicked through the pages until he found the image of the three smiling scouts, flanked by their two scout leaders, clutching their certificates. He inhaled sharply. His name was on the by-line. He hadn’t expected it, and seeing it now reminded him how phony it was, how little pride he drew from that small endeavour. He stared at the image for a few seconds, holding his breath, as if waiting for something in the picture to reveal itself to him, before closing the pages and tossing it onto a tub chair in the reading area, where it slid onto the floor. Then he walked into the library’s fiction section, looked at the spines of the books waiting patiently on their shelves, and exhaled.

The Iggle Piggle Dance

One of the things he liked to do whenever he was drunk or feeling maudlin, or both - the two usually went hand in hand - was to google the names of old flames and former objects of lust, to see how their lives had progressed in comparison to his. He didn’t view it as stalking so much as a form of self-insurance: ensuring that his past failures, myriad though they were, had by now converted themselves into a form of success, thereby assuring himself that decisions which continued to torment him had in fact been borne out, that he had made the correct choices in his life, or for those times in the past when he had been faced with a non-negotiable position or foregone conclusion, it no longer mattered. In this way, he was able to shore himself up against any scathing self-scrutiny that may follow, and that out there, among the images and profiles, the Rachels and the Charlottes, the Gemmas and the Naomis, the Katrinas and the Claires, for there was in reality only a handful of women he had known intimately in his life, he would find a reckoning of sorts, a soothing of his fractious nerves. It was on one such expedition, late one night, after too much whisky, too much angst, that he came across a video of a former paramour, or rather, in truth, a girl from university he had drunkenly kissed just the once and, a common theme running through his university years, with whom he had become moderately obsessed. At university she was unprepossessing brunette with a good figure and prominent teeth, just his type. Being well-endowed in the bosom was her chief appeal, though he had no doubt she was very intelligent, as a maths and economics undergraduate, but as she resisted his overtures she seemed flighty, aloof or disinterested, traits which simply piqued his interest further. In his final year, when his mind should have been on other matters, he pursued her, halfheartedly, for months, made overtures at countless social occasions via their mutual friend, asked for her telephone number, all to no avail. He gave up hope. Then, in the last week of the final year, at a party in his shared house, she turned up unexpectedly, and he ignored her for almost all the evening, until the moment when she approached him and ran her hands over his closely cropped hair, he told her to leave him alone. Retreating, she sat sullenly in a corner, arms folded across her chest, staring at the ground. He didn’t see her again until a mutual friends’ wedding, almost a decade later. He was single, and she was with someone. He didn’t speak to her. Instead, he became drunk and obnoxious, so drunk and obnoxious that, in the taxi back to their hotel, one of his friends put his elbow across his throat to silence him. And now, this very evening, he had found a video of her on youTube, filmed presumably by her husband or partner, in some slightly shabby house with a patterned red carpet and a surfeit of detritus spread about the place, dressed in a shapeless cardigan and flared trousers fifteen years after they went out of fashion, her hair not the short bob it once was but now long and lissom and without shape, almost unrecognisable but for the prominent teeth which were unmistakably hers. She had aged, as was to be expected, but he was shocked at how old she looked, given that she had only just left university. Then he remembered that she hadn’t. With much hilarity on her part, she was performing the Iggle Piggle dance, the jaunty Iggle Piggle dance from Ceebeebies’ bedtime programme The Night Garden, for some nameless child, flapping her arms and kicking her legs with scant coordination. He realised why he had never seen her dance at the student’s union. Perhaps she was drunk or high, or both. More likely neither. As a performance it was regrettably lacking in charm, a discovery which made him profoundly happy, a dopamine-infused hit of schadenfreude, though there was a gentleness about it that was unfamiliar to him, being revealed only under the gaze of an intimate other. He had never really known this woman, and even at the time he had known he never would. The video was several years old, and the children for whom it had been recorded had presumably outgrown The Night Garden by now, much as his own children had, neither of whom particularly cared for the antics of Iggle Piggle, though the narration of the esteemed actor Derek Jacobi had a mesmeric quality, providing an effective calmative in the moments before bed, for himself and for his children. He often thought about those small boys with their truncated bodies and nascent identities. They were no longer infants, and their early years had passed by in the flick of an eye. That night, as he undressed for bed, he caught sight of himself in the mirror of his wardrobe. He looked old. Not old in the sense of infirmity, but old in the sense that the remains of youth had fled from him. Physically, he felt utterly estranged from himself. It took him longer to fall asleep that night than was customary, and when he woke the next day and faced the mirror, regarded himself in the dim light of morning, it looked as if he hadn’t slept for twenty years.

The Photographer

He first met the photographer a few weeks before Christmas, at an open studio event near his flat.

His favoured prints had been framed and hung on the walls of his studio. Industrial landscapes which recalled Burtynsky and the Bechers. A stack of other prints had been arranged in a wooden crate like rare vinyl. Bunting and beachfronts. Bleached-out colours.

As he flicked through the prints, it was clear that the photographer’s technical ability was his strength. These were clean, sharp, well-composed pictures. But they were lacking in some way. Soulless. Without joy or humour. Perhaps it was the digitisation. Perhaps something else.   

The photographer was portly and balding, with a careful laugh and the finest trace of a beard. A few years older than he was, he comported himself with reserve, with a studied arrogance, as if he wasn’t completely confident of the quality of his work, his aesthetic. His perception.   

He introduced himself and complimented the photographer on his work, explaining that he was a relative newcomer to contemporary photography, trying to bring it into his realm of knowledge. The photographer listened distractedly, then disappeared into a dark room for a moment and returned with a handful of books. The photographer said he should take them away and study them.

The Hungry Eye by Walker Evans. Dream Street by W. Eugene Smith. Shinjuku by Daido Moriyama. He had already come across some of their work in the writer Geoff Dyer’s unfolding digressive essay on photography, The Ongoing Moment. While he admired the American flair for striking compositions, he was by now more interested in the mundane British vernacular of photographers such as Martin Parr or Paul Graham. He didn’t mention this to the photographer, and with gratitude took the books on loan.

The photographer’s partner was also a photographer. Their work was very different. Her work had a depth, a visual power that her partner was only able to gesture towards. Standing in their compact and stylish home, adorned with their respective bodies of work, he found himself envying their life, their art. It was one of her prints he bought that day, framed and ready to be hung in his living room, on the wall where it could be seen from the street.

He wasn’t taking photographs at all back then, but in the months that followed he became increasingly obsessed with the form, purchasing different formats of cameras, trying out different techniques, trying to teaching himself what worked and what didn’t. He studied the websites of the photographers to try to get a feel for what distinguished their work, their individual aesthetic. It was then that he truly appreciated the technical quality to their work, the precision of their technique and the delicate balance of their compositions, and knew he would never be able to replicate it.

A few months later there was another open studio event and he expressed an interest in possibly buying one of the photographer’s pipe pictures. The photographer said he would send him some small prints of the photographs, which he posted through his letter box a week later. The prints had been glued onto small squares of MDF and then joined together with duct tape to make an elaborate concertina portfolio. He looked at the prints, and the prices, and realised he couldn’t afford any of them.

There followed a slightly terse email from the photographer requesting the return of the concertina. He took it to their home and finding the large metal gate closed, dropped them into the letterbox.

The next time he saw the photographer, he had been taking photographs more purposefully, more concretely, for the past year. Upon hearing this the photographer offered him some wall space at the next open studios event. He couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

When he had a handful of photographs which he believed to be good, workman-like, or not bad for a beginner, he attached them to an email and wrote, Some photographs I’ve taken recently. Quite pleased with how they came out. Now wondering what I should do with them. Welcome any advice.

A week passed, then he received a response. Thank you for sending these over. I see you have been playing at being a photographer. Keep looking at the work of the great photographers, you can learn a lot from them. And always try to get a bit closer.

I see you’ve been playing at being a photographer. It felt like a slap down, a rebuke for infringing upon his territory. After that, they didn’t really speak again.

From time to time he would encounter the photographer in their local branch of Sainsbury’s and exchange the briefest of hellos. He always found it rather odd, seeing self-proclaimed artists engaged in everyday activities like visiting the local supermarket or walking the dog. He always felt they should be creating. As though their lives depended on it.  

Years later, after he had left London, he received an invitation by email to another open studios event. Just in time for Christmas, as always. He scanned the list of artists. The photographers were there. He wondered if they still had their little dog.

He clicked through to the photographer’s website and reacquainted himself with his work. It was much the same, a combination of the banal and commonplace, the everyday and overlooked. In his portfolio, he could identify the work of the great photographers, his influences. Few past or planned exhibitions. Waiting for that major retrospective.

He pictured him wandering in the hinterlands of some unfamiliar place, skin pinking in the sun, toes freezing inside his boots, camera lens dangling like a limp phallus. Finding something interesting and pointing his camera at it, framing the image with painstaking precision, failing at being a photographer.

Capital

By the time he moved to London, some three years after graduating, almost all his university friends had progressed their careers. Keeping true to the commitments of the milk round, most had entered the financial services sector, either as traders, financial analysts, underwriters or accountants.

He moved into a flat in south London with a close friend, a stifled creative spirit who was working on the trading desk in the London office of a US bank, a job ill-suited to his temperament. The rent at the flat was £400 per month. The flat was on the top floor of a converted house overlooking Lee High Road, just outside Lewisham, and was owned by one of his friend’s work colleagues, who was a few years older than them. This was the first flat he had bought with his annual bonus. He was about to move into the second.

The flat was a short walk uphill to Blackheath, an enclave of conspicuous affluence in south east London. Looking across from the heath, the city stretched out like an elaborate and bedevilling three dimensional jigsaw, one awaiting the piece with him in it to be complete. It was a thrilling feeling, like being an understudy about to step out onto the stage, on the cusp of some magnificent performance.

Every weekday morning at 6am he was woken by the funky clavinet riff to Stevie Wonder’s hit single Superstition when his flatmate’s alarm went off. Then again at 6.05, 6.10, 6.15 and so on, until his flatmate eventually rose from bed at 6.30am and proceeded to shit, shower and shave in the bathroom.

They threw a flat-warming party where the raucous friends from his hometown rubbed awkwardly against the serious-minded university diaspora. For his own part, he was unsure which side of the fence he sat on. Inspecting his room, one of the university girls looked at the copy of Gregory Corso’s ‘Bomb’ pinned to his wall, and said simply, That’s a bit weird.

The poetry was there to remind him of his greater purpose. Unlike those he knew from university, he had moved to London not to find work, but to become a Poet. This remained uppermost in his mind. He hoped seeing these poems each morning would bring focus to his days of idling, for much idling was done during those early days in London.

Inevitably, things soon became muddied. Prior to moving to south, he had applied for several editorial roles listed in The Guardian Jobs supplement, receiving in the post a handful of rejections entirely disproportionate to the applications mailed. He applied for jobs at bookshops in Blackheath and Greenwich, without joy. With almost all his savings frittered away, he began trawling the Evening Standard’s classifieds.

Few of the roles advertised in the Standard gave any real detail about what they entailed. Kitchen porter. Night staff. Stock supervisor. Warehouse assistant. All required at least one year’s experience. There was no clue as to how he might go about acquiring the requisite experience without first securing the job.

Then there were the roles that he was spectacularly unqualified for. Hairdresser. Receptionist. Nail technician. Undertaker. Alongside these, several requests for volunteers and general assistance, all unpaid.

He briefly contemplated becoming a librarian, before realising that librarians were now known as information assistants, and that you now needed a qualification to stack shelves.

There was, however, a surplus of media sales positions, but he wondered who in their right mind would want to work in media sales? Or be an estate agent, for that matter? There too an abundance of roles in recruitment consultancy, or people-shuffling as he’d heard it called, which had always struck him as an entirely manufactured profession, the last refuge of the useless.

All these he ignored, along with anything that involved working in a call centre. He discovered that in London, even the most nondescript job involved selling of some kind. This narrowed the field considerably.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to work. There were simply certain types of work he didn’t want to do. He had been raised to believed that it was better to do a low-status job well than a high-status one poorly. People could be roughly divided into those tenacious few who worked hard, and those who were adept at convincing others to work hard on their behalf.

A degree of romanticism had coloured his relocation to the capital. Some months before his move he had read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit, Orwell intoned.

Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?

What could he possibly know about poverty? He knew about hard work, having worked on building sites in the employ of his father, but this was something altogether different. While he was quite prepared to scrape by with next to nothing, to eke out a living in a series of dead-end jobs, he was quite unprepared for what this might entail, what would happen if he failed to find work.

If push came to shove he could always go back and work for his father. He could always go back.

He couldn’t go back.

By now he was desperately short of money. That autumn he responded to a small ad offering commission-based work in the city. Must be fit and enjoy listening to music. Little additional information was provided. When he was offered a day’s trial, unpaid, he gladly accepted.

I’ve found a gap in the market, the managing director explained during the brief interview.

Consumer shopping habits change by the day, by the hour. By the minute. They don’t listen to the radio anymore. They don’t buy singles anymore. We bring music direct to the consumer. We give them the music that they want, when they want it.

For the rest of that unseasonably warm day in November he tramped the streets of south London in his suit and jacket, attempting to sell CDs from a holdall to shop owners, passing strangers and pub drinkers.

His companion for the day was an out-of-work bassist in his early thirties. Shortish, pudgy, thinning brown curls. After starting at Peckham Rye station, by lunchtime they had slowly but surely crept into East Dulwich and stopped for lunch at a greasy spoon on Dulwich High Street. As the bassist lit a fag, he asked him how long he’d been doing it for.

Since the tour with St Etienne finished, he replied. And the session work dried up. So a year or so. No money in music anymore.

There was no gap in the market. This did not bring music direct to the consumer. They could barely get a foot in the door before being turned away. It was demeaning, demoralising and utterly fruitless.

And painful. By the end of the day his heels had been rubbed raw by his cheap shoes. They finished up in Nunhead in the early evening, before calling it a day and heading back to the office near Old Street with their unsold CDs.

As they arrived, he could hear the clanging of a bell. Walking into the office, he saw a blonde, rakish man in a sharp suit ringing the bell over his head, like a Mod town crier.

Looks like he’s had another good day, said the bassist. Sold all his CDs. Always does.

That evening, he saw an advert in the window of The Railway pub in Blackheath asking for part time bar staff. He walked in and picked up an application form. The pub was an upmarket brand, but part of a larger chain. Dim lighting, wood interiors, shabby chic furniture. Run by a couple with two boxer dogs and staffed by undergraduates on minimum wage.

Within a few days he was pulling pints and cleaning ashtrays. Meeting new people. Lee and Karen. Nikki and Guy. Iso and Alice. Kate and Nina. Naomi and Lydia. Nipon and Phil. Unfamiliar faces who briefly became firm friends. Sometimes more.

Money, Orwell wrote, frees people from work. Unlike Orwell he had no money, and a small amount of personal debt, in the form of two credit cards, which he watched slowly increase each month. There was little hope of clearing it. He barely survived on his meagre earnings from the pub, and the small white envelopes containing tips meant for the barmaids.

He registered at a local employment agency and was offered a job at a warehouse in Charlton, picking magazines bound for newsagents in Greenwich and Blackheath. For a period he got the train to work at 7am, headed home for a shower and supper at 5pm, then started at the pub around 6pm, finally finishing around midnight.

It was the hardest he’d ever worked. It was the most money he’d ever earned.

Still every decision he made remained subject to financial pressure. The ability to stand a round in a pub. To split the bill in a restaurant. Invited to join friends for drinks after work, he took the northern line up to Bank, against the flow of commuters fleeing the City. His friends favoured upmarket bars with upmarket prices, and he arrived knowing he could barely afford a single drink, much less several.

Instead he drank away his earnings elsewhere, heading to the Live Bar in Deptford after last orders in the company of his new friends, or sitting in his room, smoking and writing and drinking his flatmate’s mid-priced bottles of wine, late into the night.

That December, on a break between shifts, he sat by the open fire in the Prince of Wales up on the heath, nursing a pint of Guinness and smoking a roll up while reading J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, believing himself the reincarnation of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, or Donleavy himself, or any of the other writers who had called a great city like Dublin or London their home.

God’s mercy / on the wild / Ginger Man.

He and Dangerfield shared a certain fecklessness, both being fiscally reckless. When he moved to London, he bought his first mobile phone, a contract device. At the time he could only afford the contract itself, not the insurance to cover its unexpected loss. A few months later, he got pissed with friends in Covent Garden and left his mobile on a bar table.

The next morning, unable to find his phone, he went to the police station to report it stolen. After calling his network to block the device, the operator informed him that several calls had been made that night. These calls totalled over £300. It would have been more, but the operator viewed the calls as suspicious and eventually blocked them. As he hadn't taken out any insurance, he was liable for the charges.

Every time his bank account went overdrawn, which was often, his bank debited a £30 fine against his account. If he went further into his overdraft, they took another payment. When the standing order for his rent cashed in on the same day as direct debit payments for utilities or card payments for food and travel, he could be left with hundreds of pounds of debt, without any way of repaying it. An ill-fated trip to Scandinavia with his flatmate pushed him further into the red.

He was simply incapable of managing money, of holding onto it. It ran through his fingers like water. In a city awash with liquidity, like the muddy river coursing through it, he had none.

But he had made it. That was irrefutable. He had finally arrived. And now, like the protagonists of the many Bildungsroman his adolescent self had read, he awaited the next electrifying chapter in the novel of his life. All he had to do was sit, and wait.

The Milk Round

Until he went to university, he had never heard the term the milk round, other than to describe the antiquated, and by now redundant, process by which milk used to be delivered. But in his final term, people suddenly started talking about this thing, the milk round, with a great deal of sagacity, as if he should know what it was, when he hadn’t the foggiest. One of his friends, whose elder brother was finishing his law studies, explained that the milk round was a week-long recruitment fair or a week-long piss up, depending on your philosophical inclination.

Officially the milk round marked the arrival on campus of many of the UK’s largest corporate organisations. Their express purpose was to entice the university’s most promising students onto their graduate training programmes. They included, in no particular order, HSBC, Barclays Bank, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Arthur Andersen, Lehman Brothers. The heavyweights of global finance. The swinging dicks of big business.

Some of these he’d heard of. Others he hadn’t. Merrill Lynch for instance. Even if he had no intention of working there he quite liked the name, Merrill Lynch, thinking it apt, reflecting the method by which the company co-opted students onto its graduate programme (lynching) and the type of leisure shoes favoured by those who worked there (Merrells).

Almost all undergraduates treated it as a opportunity to get drunk for free, enduring the lengthy presentations before polishing off the complimentary refreshments. Some went determined to secure the professional career which was the culmination of several years of hard work. It was a mutually agreeable process, funnelling new graduates into the corridors of corporate power while tantalising them with the benefits of employment and the balm of money.

Entry-level employment. Fast-track development. Competitive starting salary. Annual bonus. Gym membership. Possibilities for promotion. Share options. Interest-free mortgage. Final salary pension.

Other than not studying politics, he had no clear idea of what he would do after university. Writing, travelling, earning some money when circumstance called for it. He didn’t see himself as part of anything, much less a cog in a corporate mechanism.

Even the offer of free booze couldn’t persuade him to go. Over that fortnight he remained in the living room of the shared house, watching television and smoking weed, while several people he knew came back from the milk round with a clearly mapped career path.

Where others saw a career path, he saw only a conveyor belt feeding a mincing machine in need of fresh meat. After three or more years of being encouraged to think critically, he couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would throw out that learning to assimilate the practices and operations of some corporate monolith. The very organisations whose political influence and unscrupulous he had spent the better part of his time at university questioning, if not directly challenging.

Few eyebrows were raised when one of their number, a trustafarian from a fee-paying school who renamed himself in the first week and became their dope dealer for the next three years, ended up running counter-terrorist programmes during the War on Terror.

Many years later he encountered the critical pedagogy of the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, who came up with the term the banking model of education to describe the process by which children are force fed with the necessary knowledge to make them economically productive citizens. Freire wrote: The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.

He couldn’t help but link Freire’s ideas to Michel Foucault power-knowledge paradigm, the means by which knowledge and power intertwine inextricably, thereby subtly reinforcing the ‘disciplinary society’ which exercises its power through institutions, including schools and universities. Critical thought, the continual questioning of systems and selfhood by interrogating what constituted knowledge, was essential for challenging the mechanisms of power. The only way he knew how to challenge the mechanism of power was to opt out of it, to resist. Je me rebelle donc j’existe.

No one seemed to know the precise origin of the term the milk round. Perhaps it had something to do with skimming cream. Perhaps it was a play on that Shakespearean phrase, the milk of human kindness, reflecting the benign, nourishing generosity of the corporate paymasters.

The very narrative of milk as a substance, from the nurturing, precarious bond between lactating mother and suckling infant, was much like the relationship between state and citizen, underscored by the tropes of separation and detachment. He thought, almost inevitably, about the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the architect of deregulation, who had begun her illustrious political career by scrapping free milk for the country’s schoolchildren.

All which is given charitably can be snatched away. He’d rather be broke than suckle at the corporate teat. Though in the years that followed, as one by one his friends moved to London to forge careers and stake their claim to the city, he wondered if, when he had the chance, he should have milked that sucker for every last drop.

Cocaine #2

All the places he consumed cocaine. All the rooms and flats and houses. All the pubs and nightclubs and restaurants. The theatres and cinemas. Galleries and museums. Libraries and universities. Train stations and airports. Casinos and strip clubs.

All the kitchens and living rooms and bathrooms and bedrooms. Desks and bedside tables. Park benches and alleyways. Train carriages and the back seats of buses.

All the homes of friends and friends of friends and people he didn’t know. The coffee tables and kitchen worktops and toilet seats. Discrete shelves in concealed places. Strange people in unfamiliar settings. Familiar people in strange configurations.

All the portaloos and aeroplane cubicles and supermarket toilets. The cisterns and hand sanitisers and toilet roll dispensers. Boxed-in pipework. Greasy surfaces. Smeared excretions. The stale smell of urine. The sour odour of benzoylecgonine.

The bolt snicking the lock. The tentantive tipping. Preparation of line and note. The application with precise care.

All the times he had stood waiting for the man. The inquisitive texts. Hurried phone calls. Short detours on his commute home. The minutes and seconds running into hours. Waiting for the car at the designated destination. All the corners of the city he came to know from pacing the streets in concentric circles.

All the back seats and front seats and the accumulated miles of ten second rides. The small talk and bonhomie. The quick exchange. The folded cash. The baggies of coke.

Leaving the car to slip back into the jostling crowds. The empty suburban streets. Another faceless commuter. Another interminable journey.

All the times when cocaine was consumed. The specific instances. Special occasions and every day occurrences. Birthdays and anniversaries. Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Whitsun weekends. Stag dos and weddings. Club nights and poetry gigs.

All the house parties and street parties and work parties and after-work drinks. The last train home a symphony of sniffing.

If he was out drinking he was almost always taking cocaine and if he was out drinking he was almost always taking cocaine and if he wasn’t in or out drinking he was still taking cocaine just to pass the time.

Big nights out. Quiet nights in.

Dissolute Fridays. Hungover Sundays. Midweek casuals. Early morning pick-me-ups.

And every time he used cocaine, every time he bought it, snorted it, insufflated or ingested it, he moved a little further from the person he used to be and a little closer to the person he hoped to become.

All the cumulative moments. The minutes and hours and days. Weeks and months and years.

All the times he could remember. All those he could not.

Quotation Marks

SCENE ONE

EXT - AN OFFICE - DAY

A white building with large windows overlooking a busy street in London’s West End.

INT – THE OFFICE - DAY

A large conference room with a long table and a number of chairs running around its perimeter.

Three white men in suits are sitting at the table. They are positioned an arm’s length apart, facing door to the conference room, with their backs to the window. Several sheets of paper are on the table in front of them. Each idly scrolls the screen of their smartphone.

On the left: The VICE PRESIDENT.

In the middle: The PRESIDENT.

On the right: The JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT.

The door opens and three people come in: a middle aged woman and man, and a younger man. They take their seats on the opposite side of the table to the three men.

On the left: The COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR.

In the middle: The MEMBERSHIP MANAGER. The MEMBERSHIP MANAGER is THE FAILURE.

On the right: The CHIEF EXECUTIVE.

THE FAILURE

Good afternoon everyone.

The three men slowly put their phones down.

PRESIDENT

Good afternoon.

PRESIDENT

Hello.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Hi.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

Very briefly, before the Board meeting, I’ve asked [THE FAILURE] to bring in the new member marketing materials for you to have a look at.

PRESIDENT

I’ve already seen them.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

I know you have but [VICE PRESIDENT] and [JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT] haven’t yet, so we thought now might be a good time. Now these are very much up for grabs so if anyone has any comments or thoughts please feed these back to [THE FAILURE] today so we can incorporate them and make the changes before they go to print.

THE FAILURE hands a small sheaf of papers to the VICE PRESIDENT and JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT.

VICE PRESIDENT

These are for…?

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

These are for recruiting new members primarily, but I believe they can be used as a general membership pack, [to THE FAILURE] is that right?

THE FAILURE

Yep. These are the standard membership booklet template which can be tailored -

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Remind me why we need these? What do we normally send to prospective members?

THE FAILURE

We normally send a letter inviting them to join, in addition to the annual review and an application form. These go out to any non-members who attend a recruitment event.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

If we already send them an annual review with the joining pack, why do we need this?

VICE PRESIDENT

Indeed. Seems like a bit of a waste of money to me.

THE FAILURE

It’s a marketing tool. Most membership organisations send something detailing the benefits of membership, either when an organization or individual has agreed to join or is being approached to join. We have had a membership pack for some time, but it hasn’t been refreshed for a few years. We produce it in house and it isn’t quite as slick as it could be. How we produce it, what it looks like. It isn’t fit for purpose, shall we say.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

I’m confused. What are we looking at here, a booklet and a folder?

THE FAILURE

Yes. There is a booklet which can be tailored for the different membership categories, which fits inside the folder along with the application form and other materials. The booklet details the benefits of membership and our networking events, key policy issues we are working on and a full list of members.

VICE PRESIDENT

How do you print these booklets?

THE FAILURE

In-house, on our own printers. With InDesign, a desktop publishing package, we can produce these as and when required. If the Chief Executive has a meeting with a prospective member. We can distribute them at internal or external events. We can even give our Board members a stack to display in their reception.

VICE PRESIDENT

Hmm. I wouldn’t go that far. What about the folder, how does this get produced?

THE FAILURE

The folder will be printed professionally.

VICE PRESIDENT

What sort of cost are we looking at for that?

THE FAILURE

It’s pretty reasonable. I think £300 + vat for 500 was the quote. Less if you order more.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

How big are these? The booklet and folder?

THE FAILURE

They’ll be A5, so cheaper to print and post.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Ah. Good.

The PRESIDENT, VICE PRESIDENT and JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT look over the printed sheets.

VICE PRESIDENT

I like how you’ve got a list of members at the front of the booklet here. Good to see them all listed in one place. Are we on there?

THE FAILURE

You should be.

VICE PRESIDENT

Ah yes, there we are.

PRESIDENT

I’ve already found a typo.

VICE PRESIDENT

Me too.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT.

And me.

THE FAILURE

Just the one?

PRESIDENT

No.

The three men scrutinise the sheets.

PRESIDENT

PLC is either upper case or lower case, not capitalised.

THE FAILURE

I’m sorry?

PRESIDENT

The list of members. You’ve got a number of companies, including mine, down as being a plc with a capital P. It’s either upper case or lower case, but not capitalised.

THE FAILURE

That’s a matter of opinion…

PRESIDENT

It isn’t a matter of opinion. Its upper case or lower case. There’s no matter of opinion about it.

THE FAILURE

Apologies. I’ll get that corrected before these go to print. I’ll probably drop the PLCs and Ltds and LLPs anyway. They’re a little extraneous.

PRESIDENT.

Hmmm.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

Some of these testimonials, these quotations, from members…I like this one on the cover from [REDACTED], and another from [REDACTED] but then you’ve got one from this tiny insurance company that I’ve never heard of.

THE FAILURE

I’m still collating testimonials at the moment. I agree we do need more. What I wanted to illustrate was that membership is a broad church, and that there are a number of members of varying types and sizes. Which is why these booklets can be tailored for different membership types. If we sent this booklet to that particular type of member, I’d include that testimonial -

VICE PRESIDENT

I think you’re going need more prominent members than that.

THE FAILURE

It really depends who we are sending these to. For smaller prospective members a testimonial from an existing smaller member would be useful. Anyway I’d be delighted if the Board members could let me have a few words for these as I’ve only had -

VICE PRESIDENT

Have you asked the committee members?

THE FAILURE

Absolutely. Some just haven’t come back to me yet.

The PRESIDENT waves his papers at THE FAILURE.

PRESIDENT

Why haven’t you used quotation marks?

THE FAILURE

For the testimonials?

PRESIDENT

No, for the list of members. Of course for the testimonials. All printed quotations should have quotation marks.

THE FAILURE

Should they?

PRESIDENT

Yes.

THE FAILURE

No necessarily.

PRESIDENT

Not necessarily?

VICE PRESIDENT

Come again?

THE FAILURE

In terms of the overall design we – the design company and myself – thought that they looked better without. More impactful. Cleaner.

PRESIDENT

I disagree.

THE FAILURE

Okay.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

It won’t be a problem to put them back I imagine?

THE FAILURE

No but…

PRESIDENT

But what?

THE FAILURE

It’s not completely out of the ordinary to have a quotation without quotation marks. I agree they probably should, but in terms of the design spec and the look and feel of the booklet I feel it looks better without them. And it’s kind of clear who has made that particular comment.

PRESIDENT

How is it remotely clear without quotation marks?

THE FAILURE

Well, the sentence is clearly attributed to someone. You have a name and organisation underneath the sentence. Underneath the testimonial. That makes it pretty clear I think.

JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT

But the testimonials should have speech marks, don’t you agree?

THE FAILURE

I do, but from a design point of view I think it looks better without them.

VICE PRESIDENT

I think it would look better with the quotation marks. So it’s clear what people are looking at.

THE FAILURE

I disagree.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

Gentlemen, I’m aware that we have our next meeting in a few minutes, so we’ll have to bring things to a close. [THE FAILURE] will incorporate your suggestions for revision. Thank you [THE FAILURE], you can go now.

PRESIDENT

Before you do anything with these I want the quotation marks put back on.

THE FAILURE

I’ll put them on but if I still don’t think they look right, I’ll take them off again.

SCENE TWO

INT – THE OFFICE – DAY

The next day. A smaller conference room in the office containing a circular table and six chairs. THE FAILURE and the COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR are sitting opposite each other.

COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR

[CHIEF EXECUTIVE] asked me to have a word with you about the meeting with the Board yesterday. You know, the President was very upset last night. You really upset him. Not so much the things you said, but the way you said them. In fact, [VICE PRESIDENT] and [JUNIOR VICE PRESIDENT] were upset too. [VICE PRESIDENT] said ‘who does this guy think he is?’ You’re not supposed to argue with the President. You do as he says. Even if you think you’re right. You do as he says. If he says jump, you say how high? He said that if you’d have been working for him, you wouldn’t have been working for him anymore. You’d have been asked to leave. In no uncertain terms. But we don’t do that here. We don’t do that here, so I said I would speak to you instead. So consider this a warning. Not a formal warning, or even a verbal warning, but a warning nevertheless. Heed my advice. The President is not to be messed with. You picked the wrong person to rub up the wrong way yesterday. Remember, the Board has to approve pay rises and promotions. You were asking if you could go down to part time last week? You can forget it now. You’ve burned your bridges with them big time. Forget that idea for the time being. Now with that in mind, and I’m only telling you this to help you, we feel that the best thing to do, for all concerned but particularly for you, is to do what the President said and put the quotation marks back on. Whether you think that they look right or not. Put them back on. Put. Them. Back. On.

THE FAILURE

They weren’t on in the first place.

COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR

I don’t care. Put them on.

THE FAILURE

“…”