Lonely and depressed narrator moves to new city to rebuild his life but meets an old face from his past who he eventually realises he must kill.
The narrator works for a nameless government department in a dead-end clerical job. He moves to a new city after the death of his parents, with whom he had lived after suffering a nervous breakdown. He asks for and expects little from life. He works, eats, sleeps. By chance he meets Alex Caldwell, an old acquaintance from university who remembers the narrator as being clever if slightly unsocial. Caldwell’s girlfriend Marie and the narrator gradually draw closer until she becomes frustrated with his passive outlook on life. There have been a series of attacks on homeless people in the city, and as they grow closer the narrator begins to suspect that Caldwell is behind them, and one evening after a few drinks, Caldwell invites the narrator to attack a homeless woman. Caldwell tells the narrator that violence is cathartic and that it will help him break out of his depression and boredom.
The narrator returns to the family home in Scotland to finalise its sale. While there, he meets an old girlfriend who makes him realise what a malign influence Caldwell has become. She tries to make the narrator stay, but he refuses and resolves to break off the friendship with Caldwell for good.
On a night out Caldwell arranges to buy some drugs and attacks the dealer at her flat. The narrator protects her and attacks Caldwell instead. In the chaos it is unclear whether Caldwell is alive or dead. Fleeing the scene, the narrator wanders the city and ends up sitting on a bench as the first of the day’s commuters begin to appear. He looks up to see Marie standing in front of him.
Friday afternoon. Although the wind was whipping viciously up Baldwin Street, the sky was an agreeable shade of blue, the colour of infinity, and as I walked home from work, I sensed the subtle change of mood in the city. For forty-eight hours everyone could forget about their crummy jobs and dull, shitty lives. The quotidian nightmare was about to go on hold.
That evening I stood on my little balcony and looked out across the marina to the neon-lit stretch of fashionable bars and restaurants that clung to the riverbank like so much shit. Even now, although it was only quarter to seven, there were couples and groups of young men and women strutting along the promenade, trying at once to both impress and antagonise each other. The men in their Ts and shirtsleeves despite the season, the women in their minis and little see-through dresses that showed their underwear. It was unbearably sad; humanity on its day off, not quite knowing what to do with itself but thinking that it ought to do something.
The night would end, inevitably, in vomiting, extreme violence and sexual disease. The police, right wing politicians and other assorted vested groups will wring their hands in despair and condemn, but what they fail to understand is that this is in fact a necessity, a corollary to the corrupt system that they themselves have created. Without recreational violence, society would disintegrate. Factories and offices would burn, and the bosses would rightly be dragged out and butchered in the streets as we finally opened our eyes to the absurdity of our existence.
The level of boredom in a society has a direct correlation to the level of economic and technological sophistication in that society – the more advanced the society, the more bored it becomes. Utter boredom is the hallmark of a successful capitalist civilisation, the high-water mark that leads inexorably to decline and exhaustion as we devise ever more sadistic and increasingly brutal ways to entertain ourselves and alleviate the crushing tedium. Cruelty, selfishness, hatred, stupidity – these hardwired human traits find an accelerated outlet in our culture, play and politics as we strive to mask our collective and individual nullity – the supreme, glorious pointlessness of our lives.
When you have no friends, no hobbies and, let’s face it, absolutely no interest in anything, the weekend can drag a little. Of course, statutory holidays are worse, where one day bleeds endlessly into the next, but weekends have a depressing regularity all their own as they bookend the tedium of your job with your pathetic attempts to fill your free time. And however much you hate your job and detest your colleagues you can’t deny that work provides a verisimilitude of structure to your life, the structure of a slave in his cage undoubtedly, but a structure, nonetheless. When you reach a certain age, life’s disappointments no longer seem to matter that much anymore. You have become accustomed to them; you are no longer surprised when you wake up each morning and remember that your life has simply turned to shit. It seems as natural to you as the passing of the seasons.
It’s Saturday morning, I get up early and decide to go into the city centre – an area which, whilst it may once have been a planner’s dream, was now a festering shithole; a dismal pile-up of low budget chain stores, human detritus, fast-food joints and spirit-crushing ugliness.
On a whim I stop outside a phone shop and decide to go in. As I step over the threshold, I realise that this is a momentous occasion. I have never owned a mobile phone before – I am Napoleon crossing the Rubicon. I decide not to mention this to the shop assistant who is pretending not to notice me, despite the fact that I am the only other person in the shop. He eventually comes over. His name tag identifies him as Ash. He is an exemplar of the modern twenty-first century telecommunications employee. His shiny, black Topman suit (two sizes too big), acne (getting better) and gel-sculpted cubist hairstyle (no mirror at home?) mark him out as a potential leader of men. I sense that he has a bright future ahead of him in middle management. I tell him I want to buy a phone. He asks what type, but before I can answer, he points to one that he informs me is their bestseller and then proceeds to launch into a barrage of facts about the device’s spec that frankly leaves me none the wiser. I stop him mid-flow. “It’s fine,” I say, “I’ll take it.”
As he bags it up and takes my bank card, I have a nagging afterthought. “I can make phone calls on it, right?”
After putting the corporate lackey from the phone shop in his place, I feel unusually pleased with myself. It’s only later that, as I’m dodging the pensioners who can shop at any time of the week, all come out on a Saturday and wheeze round like decrepit fairground dodgems, I realise how ridiculous my purchase has been. What’s the point in having a phone when you have no one to call? It occurs to me that perhaps I should have bought a music playing device instead, but then I don’t really like music either. My whole approach to fulfilling my civic duty as a consumer needed rethinking.
On the way home I stop at the White Lion on Rupert Street. As soon as I go in I wish I hadn’t. There is a football match showing on Sky and the place is rammed. I dimly become aware that someone is standing in front of me, staring. “I knew it – I fucking knew it was you as soon as you walked in.” It takes several moments before I realise that I know him. Alex Caldwell. “Fucking hell. I can’t believe it. What are you doing here?” “Having a drink.” I say with a smile. He laughs. Just then a girl comes up. “Ready?” “Sure,” he replies, “This is Trevor, by the way, an old university friend.” “Hi, I’m Marie.” She’s very nice-looking.
“Listen mate, we’ve got to go. Do you fancy a drink somewhere next week? I’ll give you a ring and we can sort something out. What’s your number?” I show him the bag. “No idea. I’ve just upgraded.”
He writes his number on a scrap of paper. “Ring me, OK? We’ve got to meet up.” As they turn to leave, Marie looks back and smiles. “Nice to have met you, Trevor.”
I had simplified my life to the point where I didn’t have to think anymore. I had eliminated worry and, to all intents and purposes, choice as well. I went to work, I came home, I ate, I watched TV. But bumping into Alex again had unsettled me. I had blotted out that part of my life entirely and wasn’t sure I had much desire to revisit it, but Sundays can do funny things to you. With the withering of the Christian religious impulse, Sundays don’t really have much point anymore. Often regarded as the worst day of the week by those in the know, even worse than Mondays, it’s generally spent in a fugue state washing the car and mowing the lawn or going to an out-of-town shopping centre and getting into a fistfight. Younger people will quite naturally spend most of the day in bed, or at least until opening time, when they will go out and get pissed all over again. It’s even worse if you’re on your own. You could go on long walks round the municipal park, but the parents with young children playing on the swings will rightly view you with deep suspicion and call the cops as soon as look at you. To be honest, it’s best to stay indoors.
So, I can’t really explain why I phoned Alex and arranged to meet him, except to say that it was a Sunday.
Looking back, things might have been better if I hadn’t. For one thing, he would still be alive.
On Monday morning I had an email from Jacky requesting that I come to her office at 10:00. It wasn’t anything to worry about apparently, just a quick informal chat to see how I was getting on.
Her office was like every other office in that shithole; a dog-eared Impressionist print, Monet’s Bathers in this case, was blu-tacked to one wall and a grim motivational poster hung from the other. There was, curiously, a framed photo of her dogs on her desk but not one of her husband. She looked up and smiled.
“Take a seat.” She pushed her keyboard forward a little to show that I had her full attention and rested her mottled arms on the desk. Her tits were rammed up against the desk’s edge like two soggy mis-shapen bags of dough. “So, how are you getting on?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay.” She repeated. It was difficult to say which of us felt more awkward. At any rate, the meeting proceeded pretty much as I had envisaged. She wanted to know how I was settling in, was I getting along with everyone. I suppose she just wanted to make sure I wasn’t some kind of nut who might just lose it one day and come to work tooled up with a massive arsenal and massacre everyone in the office.
As is customary in such situations, we spent the rest of the meeting exchanging niceties and platitudes, her to reassure me that she wasn’t singling me out or picking on me, I to assert that, yes, I was enjoying my work and no, I didn’t have a borderline personality disorder, so far as I was aware.
As she droned on, I looked past her and out of the window. It had started to rain heavily, and it spattered off the concrete in inch-high staccato machine gun bursts. The people in the street ran for cover; men and women in pinstriped clown suits holding handbags and newspapers over their heads, almost doubling themselves up as they ran into doorways or cafes, as if getting closer to the ground would somehow stop them getting wet. Watching them, I realise that I couldn’t really tell them apart. I realised that they must all have their own individual dreams and desires, and even lives, but I simply couldn’t comprehend what they might be.
I don’t know how long it had been, but I was suddenly conscious that the ambient background droning had stopped. I looked at Jacky again. She was truly repellent. She probably knew that I hadn’t been listening. “One final thing,” she said, “we’re all going out on Friday for a few drinks and some food. It’s nothing so grand as a team building exercise, but we do it every couple of months and it’s always a lot of fun. You will come, won’t you?”
It was clear this wasn’t really meant as a question. “Of course.” I smiled.
Walking fast against the wind I crossed Charlotte Square and cut down the Christmas Steps towards the city centre. Stupidly, I had agreed to meet Liam, one of my colleagues, for a drink on Friday evening before meeting up with everyone else, and now I was starting to get mild palpitations. I had been on works nights-out before and knew what was coming. It’s one thing working eight hours a day with people you don’t really know or even like; it’s another thing entirely to go out socialising with them, where the limitations of your relationship soon become strained under the weight of pretending to be interested in the moron at the next desk who you’ve spent the last ten years quietly despising, or cracking an ever so slightly risqué joke with someone you have nothing in common with except shared ownership of an Excel s/s. You quickly realise that neither you nor anyone else has anything interesting to say and this leads, as often as not, to an increased sense of bitterness and an angry contempt for your colleagues. The only thing left is to get as pissed as possible as quickly as possible, which naturally brings its own set of problems.
It’s clear to everyone that these types of occasion are fraught with difficulty, and as I made my way up to the Cornucopia on the corner of St. Nicks market and Corn Street, my unease only increased.
The pub was tiny and resembled a pensioner’s living room inside. It was completely rammed with Friday night punters looking first for a fight and then later a fuck. I had no difficulty spotting Liam though; six five with ginger hair that looked like he’d cut it himself in the dark, he was standing at the corner of the bar, wearing a deliberately atrocious Hawaiian shirt which, though clearly several sizes too big, still couldn’t disguise the gut hanging over his belt like a fleshy slagheap.
I eased my way across to the bar, being careful not to elbow anyone or spill their drink and ordered a modest pint of Fosters for myself and a double vodka and coke for Liam. “Cosy, innit?” He laughed. “That’s one way of putting it.” I replied. “Are you a regular here then?” “Nah. No one’s a regular here. It’s just a starting point for most of them. A few cheap shots and doubles then they all fuck off up to the more salubrious environs of Park Street. There’s usually some half-decent skirt here though.” I looked around. In the corner by the toilets there was a raucous hen party going on; all L-plates with fishnets and sashes…there are old slags on the pull, under-agers wearing too much mascara and lippy, a couple of middle-aged wannabe bikers and a cohort of slightly overweight office girls hoping to find the blandly reliable plasterer or estate agent of their dreams who isn’t going to screw them over and with whom they can mortgage themselves to death before breeding a clutch of stupid, happy children. If this was what Liam thought was half-decent skirt, then he was beyond help, but then it occurred to me that I was hardly in a position to judge anyone else’s love life, and anyway, they all looked happy enough, gearing up for the evening’s fun and games by getting as drunk as possible before making their play for glory.
Liam looked at me, then bent closer to speak over the rising hubbub. “Listen, d’you want something to make this shitshow a little more…how shall we say… palatable?” I looked back at him. “What do you mean?” He glanced around, instantly making himself look sus, then pulled out an old-fashioned black plastic film canister from his inside jacket pocket. “Russian soup. Think of it as an amuse-gueule to get you ready for Jacky and her incessant bullshit. Believe me, you’ll need it. I’ve been on dozens of these things. They are never anything other than fucking horrendous.” Without waiting for a reply, he furtively reached up and then, in one sweeping motion, emptied the contents of the film canister into both our glasses before scooping his up and draining it in one draught. Waving a twenty ostentatiously in the direction of the bar like he was some kind of high roller, he ordered us two more. “Don’t worry – we’ve got plenty of time.” I looked at my watch. We were already late.
Naturally, we were the last to table. The restaurant was old school Italian in the mock rustic style; candles melted and rammed into wine bottle necks on red and white checked tablecloths, plastic vines hanging from an overhead trellis, and the waiting staff dressed up like Mafioso penguins. I was slightly disappointed to note there was no full wall composite of the leaning tower at Pisa, though the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps were all amply represented.
Our party was seated at a long trestle table at the back. A mock cry of surprise went up as we took our seats at one end. Jacky, seated, thank god, at the other end of the table squinted down at us then raised her glass. “Good of you to join us.” Chuckles from the rest of the team. It was going to be a long night.
Liam had sat next to Gil, a middle-aged QA manager and was already bending his ear. Gil’s expression suggested patient forbearance. I ordered a small glass of house red and looked at the laminated menu. It seemed to crackle in my hand, the plastic laminate, and I couldn’t really get a proper purchase on it. I placed the menu back onto the wicker mat and took a swig of wine. I realised I had started to sweat. Sitting next to me was Mina, another older woman who had been with the department all her working life. She loved rugby (union, not league), her garden, her grandchildren, her children, and her husband. In that order. She leaned over. “Are you OK? You look…well, I’m not sure really…” She gave a nervous little laugh. “It feels quite hot in here,” I said, “don’t you think so?” “Yes, perhaps.” She was diplomatically noncommittal, but no one else looked hot. No one else was sweating. In fact, a couple of people still had their coats on. What was happening to me? Then I remembered Liam’s Russian soup. I tried to catch his eye, but he was listening intently, mock-intently, to Gil as he espoused the efficiency savings that he asserted are inherent in the new Lean model of working that is to be shortly introduced in the department. I catch the occasional “really?” and “that’s fascinating” from Liam. There is a filigree of sweat clinging to his forehead like slug trails on a damp floor, but he doesn’t appear to be in any discomfort. Mina is just about to speak again, but I ask her to excuse me and get up to go to the toilet.
My legs feel like pieces of rope, and the floor of the restaurants suddenly lists wildly like a tanker in an Atlantic storm. What-the-fuck was in Liam’s film canister? In the gents the mirror must have been nicked from a fun fair. There can be no other explanation as my face distorts, elongates and contracts, then suddenly snaps back into position. My muscles and bones move and slither, as if the fascia beneath my skin has been rendered down. I pull at my collar. It feels like a noose, growing tight, tighter still, until I cough up a huge Glasgow oyster into the sink where it moves around the dank porcelain before slithering down the plughole. Standing at the urinal, my penis feels cold and dead sitting limply in my hand, an alien worm grafted on to my body without either my permission or knowledge. A small body of steam rises from the streaming piss.
Back at the table, Liam is regularly wiping down his brow with a napkin as the waiter brings over the starters. I have ordered a simple garlic bruschetta with basil and chopped tomato. I bite into it. The taste makes me think of what it must be like to be buried alive, soft wet earth filling my mouth, my nostrils, my eyes, until I can’t breathe or see at all… I spit the chewed-up bread into my napkin. Mina looks astonished. “Oh my god, are you sure you’re OK?” I smile, weakly, back. “I’m not sure really. I think I may be coming down with something.” She nods sympathetically. “There’s a lot of it about at the moment. Jo from Estates has been off all week. Terrible runs, she said.” I nod. With difficulty I try looking further up the table. Jacky and the other managers sit at the top end of it. Huddled together they gesticulate wildly and talk in low voices, long canine teeth glinting in the pallid candlelight as they conspire, there is no doubt, about which subordinate they will choose to bully next.
By the time the main courses arrive, the red-and-white checked tablecloth is throbbing to its own twisted rhythms. I let it throb. It’s none of my business if the tablecloth wants to throb, hum or waltz across the parquet.
Liam tucks into his seafood pizza with gusto. He’s either so used to his Russian soup that it doesn’t faze him at all, or else through some sleight of hand I got the full canister. Either way, he’s enjoying himself, gently tormenting Gil and Mina in between stuffing huge scoops of shrimp, calamari, scallops and anchovies into his gob.
My own more modest margherita at least seems more palatable than the bruschetta, and I give it a few exploratory stabs with my fork. Nothing moved across the plate. So far so good. The panic I had felt in the bathroom had subsided and my heart rate was approaching normal. I took a look down the table. Everything, everybody, looked normal. Everything being relative of course. Liam caught my eye. He gestured at me with a forkful of minced crab. “How’s it going? You look a little off-colour. You didn’t have the soup, did you? I heard it’s a bit dodgy here.” He laughed, and then I could have sworn that he winked at me. “Anyway, old Gil here, he’s been telling me about some very exciting innovations he’s planning for the post room. I must say, I think they’ll revolutionise the way we’ll work. You simply must hear about them. Gil me old mate, over to you.”
Gil, to his credit, was either oblivious to the sarcasm or had decided he would rise above it. My money was on the former. He very carefully finished chewing what was in his mouth before putting his knife and fork down. Then, excruciatingly slowly, he removed his glasses and took a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and began cleaning the glasses, first the left lens, both sides, followed by the right. He cleared his throat before placing his glasses back on, taking three tries before finding just the correct spot on the bridge of his nose. I looked expectantly at him. Liam’s shoulders rocked with silent laughter. Mina sipped nervously at her glass of Pinot.
“Gil. Gil!” A shout from the other end of the table. “Can you come up here a second?” It was Rob, one of the other managers, whose role in the department, like Jacky’s, was essentially a mystery to everyone. Including himself, I imagined. Gil got out of his chair, brushing past most of his post-room ladies as he trotted obediently up to the managers end. Mina slumped back in her chair and Liam’s silent laughter suddenly wasn’t silent anymore. “I cannot fucking believe it – you were going to get the full Gil experience there. That twat Rob’s ruined it.” Mina looked at him. “You really are a shit, aren’t you?” He just shrugged. I had assumed his attitude was little more than a pose, an affectation, but it seemed that he really didn’t care what anyone thought of him at all. It was admirable really, in its own way, but I wondered how happy it made him. It would be easy to say it was some kind of defence mechanism, a form of self-protection against a world that didn’t have much time for those who were naturally just a bad fit. But then that kind of amateur psychologising gets you nowhere and besides, maybe Mina was right after all. Perhaps he was just a shit.
As dessert was eaten and then coffees pondered, people began to make their excuses and leave. Monies were left with Jacky who said loudly and ostentatiously, not to worry, she would sort out the bill. Good for her. I waited for Liam to go to the bathroom before making my move. I said goodbye to Mina and Gil before quickly stepping out of the restaurant.
The night air was bitter, the wind icy. On Victoria Street Bridge, in the shadows between flaring car brake lights, spectral figures were hunched over, swaddled in blankets against the cold. Many of the city’s homeless lined the bridge at night, hoping that the next drunk who stumbles along might give them alms rather than a kicking.
I crossed back down Baldwin Street heading to the Christmas Steps. “Excuse me, mister, can you spare some change?” She was half in shadow, hidden away in an alcove tucked between a closed storefront and a group of municipal refuse bins. I instinctively muttered “No, sorry.” And hurried on. Halfway up the Steps I slowed down, then stopped. I had plenty of change. Why did I say I hadn’t? It was hardly an inconvenience. I went back. When I reached the alcove, she repeated what were the only words she had said aloud all day. All week. “Excuse me mister, can you spare some change?” I saw her clearly then. She can’t have been more than fifteen. Her fair hair was filthy, and she was wearing a grubby torn orange puffer jacket. There was a gap where her front teeth should have been. A soiled blanket almost covered her lower half. I bent down to administer my charity in her styrofoam coffee cup. “Thanks mister.” The street was deserted now. The poor girl was utterly wretched. I reached into my wallet and pulled out a twenty to give to her. “Here.” I said. Her eyes widened as she took the crisp note and hid it away in her rags. I walked quickly away.
I spent the rest of that weekend in bed. I didn’t feel ill, not exactly. When I texted Liam to ask what- the-fuck was it that he had given me, he told me that it was an industrial-strength hallucinogenic compound, first synthesised in Eastern Europe during the cold war but now cooked up by enterprising wannabe Mr Bigs in council estates up and down the country. So that was all right then.
During the afternoon I called Alex to postpone our drinks. He didn’t seem surprised. In fact, he said that he had seen me the previous night stumbling along Baldwin Street looking for all the world like the worst kind of inebriated office worker trying to make it home. I don’t suppose he was exactly wrong in this but in any event, we arranged to meet up during the week. It was only afterwards, lying in bed, that I wondered why he hadn’t bothered trying to catch up or speak to me. Maybe he was on his own works night out.
Sunday was even worse than usual. I only managed to escape from my bed in the evening, hoping to make myself something to eat. Passing through the lounge on the way to the kitchen, I stopped to put on the TV. The local news was on. It seems there had been a murder in the city on Friday night. Another homeless woman had been battered to death. A child really, only fifteen years old, her body had been found by council street cleaners early on Saturday morning. There was no picture of her, but the police published a photo of her coat in case it might help to identify her. It was a torn orange puffer jacket.