© Tom Spencer
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There were four of us that lunchtime. Myself and Jim, my boss. And opposite were Mags and Trixie. They were the client, and not one we could afford to lose. We’re talking power-being-cut-off levels of dependency. We had lost a couple of other clients recently; losing this one would sink us.
We were sitting in a corner of a seafood restaurant in the City of London. The kind of place to make you despair if you were not of that world. It was right beside the Gherkin, and not far from many other swinging-dick monstrosities that obscured the sunlight. It was a vast room full of tables and suits and briefcases. Red-faced middle-aged men and their cossetted transactions. Bellies that struggled to fit under the table. Interviews, ogling of waitresses. Too much wine, wasted afternoons. All the glamorous things in life, basically. As you entered, you’d pass a window display where crabs had been stacked on their backs against moulds of ice, their claws waving slowly. Probably gasping for air. Some people would always stop to look at them, sometimes waving back. Mags said it made you feel like you were at the seaside. Like you were once more a little girl playing in a rock pool.
This is the sort of bollocks she came out with. Mags, that is. The person we had to impress. Mags the how-the-fuck-did-we-ever-come-to-depend-on-this-person decision maker. Along with her sidekick: Trixie. Trixie Trickster. There to add a bit of intellectual weight to proceedings.
It was our Christmas lunch with them. We were in February. I know – not exactly auspicious. We were onto our second bottle of wine and Trixie was talking about the death of her marriage.
“At Christmas I was just in tears the whole time,” she said. “I said I knew it was my fault and I knew that I was too emotional. I said I would change. But he just said that I would never be able to change.”
Jim and I listened carefully to this, as you can well imagine. We were blinking lots, big eyes, nodding gently, all of that. Not that this was really our forte. We were a content marketing agency. We’d come to talk strategy. Blogs, web design, exciting new ways for them to spend their money. To schmooze, sure, absolutely, but not this. Neither of us was Oprah.
Also, it was difficult to really eat while this was going on. You had to sort of pretend you weren’t really hungry, like the food could wait, or just take these very small nibbles. But, of course, it was still possible to feel very hungry while listening to someone talk about divorce. Particularly if you made a point of never eating breakfast on the day of a client lunch.
Mags, meanwhile, did not have any such concerns, and was perfectly comfortable shovelling oysters down her throat while Trixie ploughed on with her narrative. “He just spoke like I was ill, like I couldn’t be repaired. I walked around the street in tears, all these carol singers, just just,” said Trixie, tapping her fingernails against her glass. Tap tap tap. Like she was hoping it would crack, or maybe testing for something that was solid. Antidepressants meant she was on the diet coke, but she barely touched it. The fizz had all gone.
I told myself to just keep nodding. And blinking. Nothing else matters – just listen. If talking *was* required, Jim would have to go first. It was his business after all. I was just a wood chopper, brought along largely to tell the odd funny story. That and the fact I was the actual day-to-day contact for this account. So kind of hard not to have me along, even for a man as silver-tongued as Jim.
Trixie took a bread roll from the basket and started pulling pieces from it, squeezing them between finger and thumb. “The tree, I ended up putting the tree out the window.”
Mags put down whatever she was eating and placed a hand on Trixie’s arm, like she was stopping her from toppling over or something. She wiped something from Trixie’s cheek, like you might with a child.
Jim refilled our wine glasses and mumbled something about Christmas often being difficult. We murmured in agreement. I could sense Jim trying to pivot, hoping to bond over this newly declared vulnerability. They’ll never be able to get rid of us after all of this, I knew that was what he was thinking.
They did like us, I’m sure of it, but we knew that wouldn’t be enough. There were murmurs of this account being put out to tender. Mags didn’t say as much (of course!), but she allowed us to think it. We knew other agencies also would have been taking them out for lunch. Waving their lobsters about.
A formal tender never favoured an agency of our size. The big boys would just come in and stomp all over us. Spend more on the pitch than our entire payroll. Not that we let on to clients quite how small we were, of course. Jim and I, we spoke sometimes as if we were captains of a much larger ship, with crew members they just happened to never see. Always too busy working below deck, you see, sweating away to deliver the very best content. Never did we invite clients to the office, our rooms above a massage parlour. With a toilet flush that didn’t always flush, and not a gherkin in sight.
Despite these challenges and lack of ‘scale’, we had a plan – a business proposal no less. It rested all nice and laminated on Jim’s lap, waiting to be brought out at just the right moment, after lots of alcohol. And talk of divorce.
Jim had worked on the proposal flat out for weeks. It was to change everything we did for their business, apparently. Future-proof the company, increase its reach, business development, all that good stuff. Not that I really knew much about it; I was involved in such matters less and less these days.
Our starters arrived. Squid covered with tiny bits of olive and almonds and paprika. A mackerel fillet scorched black and covered with pickles and capers and blobs of yoghurt. Scallops served with Serrano ham, salad and vinegar dressing. Already Trixie seemed to be eating less than the rest of us. There was a strangeness to her, like she was disoriented.
She was looking good, though, despite everything. Beautiful, even. Her hair had acquired this fringe that hung down thickly over her forehead, like a thatched roof. Like it was providing protection, the thickness, its thereness, somehow compensating for the obvious frailty in her face. She wore a tight blue dress that showed off what seemed like a fuller figure. More womanly I thought, or maybe I just noticed it more. Either way, I told myself not to drink too much.
“Trixie, I very much like your hair.”
She looked bashful, as if she had forgotten all about it. Like it might have been cut while she was asleep, or just wasn’t looking.
“Thank you,” she said. The words were a struggle. She pulled more pieces from her bread roll and squeezed them, dropping them onto her saucer. She said it was the third different cut she’d had in a month. She said her hairdresser thought she was having some kind of breakdown.
The whole table laughed at this.
Trixie watched me with a pained expression as I spattered some of the oysters with shallot vinegar. Apparently their texture reminded her too much of the sea.
Jim said I was chewing the oysters too much. Little nibbles only, he instructed, and no more than twice. For some reason Mags found this very amusing. I wondered if Jim would also tell her off – she was simply shovelling the things down her throat, no bothering to chew with her. I wondered if she might choke on one of them.
She was a cackler, was Mags. It was not so much about mirth this cackle, as far as I could tell, so much as a way of relieving feelings of stress. I think she actually saw us as a kind of release. This was probably time off for her. Away from office politics and all the brown-nosing of people who actually brought in the money.
She had a big nose, Mags, without which maybe she would have been pretty. At least when younger, before the kids and stretch marks and the lines that were now cutting into her face. Particularly when she laughed. Cackled.
Cackle Mags, cackle.
Trixie’s divorce. So this is how it came up. We had only just sat down and ordered, and we were steadily making inane conversation about all the usual things. Holidays and the weather and unpleasant individuals in their company. All stuff to make us feel like we were somehow together, looking out at the world from the same place. Just the four of us. So close.
Some olives and halloumi fries arrived and we ordered another bottle of wine. Mags was saying they were good olives, and we marvelled at how easily the wine went down, especially for a white. In between mouthfuls of wine and olives and pieces of halloumi, Mags asked me if I was planning any more romantic trips to Rome. She seemed quite pleased with the question, probably thought she would just sit back and poke a bit of fun.
I said no and chewed a bread roll, hoping Jim would jump in. But he actually put down what he was eating and turned to look at me. All three of them just looked at me expectantly. I looked straight past them.
“We’ve kind of gone in the other direction,” I said.
Mags covered her mouth and sat back a little in her seat, playing like she was embarrassed to have even asked.
“We’re still living together, just no longer *together*,” I said. The table fell quiet. The air felt fragile all of a sudden, like something might smash.
I said it was the situation I was in but that I didn’t really understand it. I felt my face reddening, heating up, and they watched this, like it was a curious phenomenon, and this just made me redden even more, like I was some sort of trapped animal. Maybe it wasn’t very long, the time they spent just looking at me, but it was certainly longer than necessary. There was no real excuse for it. Except the fact that we are sometimes less good than we pretend. Most the time, actually.
We returned to the nibbles, but I struggled to eat anything now. I just wanted to throw it all in their faces.
That’s when Trixie said it. Pulled things wide open.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “I’m in the process of getting divorced.” She looked straight at me as she spoke, it was like she was trying to reach across.
Maybe she needed my scrap of a story, to feel that hers was not quite so removed from everyone else. She seemed relieved almost, grateful somehow, as if empowered enough now to speak, to speak about something she might have felt very lonely with.
And so it continued, and before we knew it the oysters had arrived and Trixie was telling us how she had put the Christmas tree out the window.
More and more stuff kept coming, just tumbling out. Like it was not really us she was speaking to, like this was something that just needed to get out, that had been pushing to get out for some time. “He just packed up my things and drove me to my parents,” she said. “He acted so calm the whole time, like he was helping me. I never realised until later what had really happened. He never really told me.”
Jim and I nodded and tried not to say too much. Mags had told us some things in the lift at the end of a meeting, but we didn’t know much. And nor did we know how much we were supposed to know.
“He acted like it was just a temporary thing,” Trixie said. “As if he was taking care of me. But that was it – he just never came back. He told my parents later that he was divorcing me. It was like I was an animal being returned to the pet shop.”
Jim poured more wine into the three glasses. He actually seemed pretty buoyed by all of this. His knee bopped up and down underneath the table. This is how we can get to them, that’s what he was thinking. They can’t drop us after a story like this, not if we show the right kind of sympathy. We’ll prove ourselves to be an agency for all seasons.
To be fair, I’m not the one with a wife and two kids to support. He *was* a good guy. The other clients we had recently lost, they had been his and he took it very personally. You could tell he was wounded, just from the way he sat at his desk, or sometimes left early. He had started working from home more and more.
Trixie was speaking still, saying she went to therapy every Wednesday afternoon. “The abuse, it was really bad,” she said, daubing her eyes with a serviette. Mags was leaning in, touching her arm, doing that thing women do when other women are upset. The way men very rarely do.
“It was both verbal and physical,” continued Trixie. “I didn’t realise at the time how bad it was.” Her voice was slightly mechanical. The tone and emphasis, it wasn’t what you’d expect. As if it was a record being played that had been playing inside her head for months. Over and over. Over, over.
Eventually the main courses arrived and we marvelled at each other’s food. Mags took some pictures and posted them somewhere. I didn’t actually think Jim’s stewy seafood thing looked very nice at all. It had a few prawns and green stuff bobbing on the surface but otherwise it could have been any kind of slodge. I told him I thought it looked amazing and pretended like I wanted to steal it. I noticed him grinding in more and more pepper as he worked his way through it. Mags was struggling with the tagliatelle, bits of it spilling out the side of her mouth. She started using her fingers to get it back in. Trixie’s risotto, meanwhile, just looked depressed. My own sea bass looked splendid. Not at all the type of thing I cooked at home. Would have gone down very nicely, if it hadn’t been for the tonne of lobster also heading my way.
Fucking lobsters. They were placed down on the table with great ceremony. The amount of food on our table now just looked ridiculous. We were not a team of rugby players. We had to move our plates to the sides just to make room. Even the waiter seemed slightly embarrassed.
Lobster lobster lobster. Yes, it really was going to make all the difference to the success of this meeting. I could see that now. Well done, Jim.
Just in case things weren’t already awkward enough, Trixie decided that she had changed her mind about the lobster. “I really cannot face it,” she said, shaking her head. We all acted like this didn’t mess with the rhythm of things at all. Like it was almost a good thing. I said it meant there was even more for me. Jim said he thought he had just seen one of them move. Mags played with a claw and ooh didn’t it have such a strong grip. Oh, how we laughed.
We were such a bullshitting group.
It just felt somehow wrong, Trixie talking about such painful experiences and still clearly being dragged down by them, while all around us was plate after plate of food. Mags didn’t care, she even asked if she could try some of my sea bass.
After the first few mouthfuls we were back to Trixie’s story. Honestly, I had never known her to be so verbose.
“At night time I get to thinking how lonely I really am,” she said. “That’s when it’s hardest, when it gets late and quiet. All these thoughts come crawling out, inside my head.” She smacked her forehead with the palm of her hand.
Jim’s murmuring picked up a pace, becoming louder, more frequent. He started to chip in with his own sad tales, although I did not think any of them really compared to Trixie’s. His main attempt was a story about an older ex-girlfriend who tried to steal all their mutual friends after a break-up. It was while at university. About 40 years ago. He spoke about the anguish and sense of persecution. But the narrative was too crisp, it lacked all of the from-the-belly rawness required to really get people’s sympathy. When he had ended we all just sort of murmured, as if to say, ‘You poor thing, that really must have been very tough on you indeed.’
Then came Mags’s effort though this seemed even worse than Jim’s. She had recently joined Tinder she said, after everything that had happened with Tom (some bloke who used to get a mention and the father of her sprogs). After the initial excitement she said she found that some of the men really were not very good. I nodded keenly to this, thinking she might show us some pictures, maybe we’d even get to look at her profile and offer advice, but she kept just going on about lies and a lack of backbone.
And then it was my turn. But I felt empty of anything to offer up. Could I just make something up? It felt like, given the two options – muteness or some traumatic bullshit – they would have preferred the bullshit. Something for them to chew over, at least.
Can you eat this part? I said, trying to get in with a knife around the side of my lobster. It was an awkward fucker what with its shell and claws and me never having eaten one before. Again, the others did that thing of just watching, no assistance, just looking, like they thought they were sending me positive energy or something.
“I wasn’t allowed my own door keys,” Trixie said. “I’d just have to wait outside.”
“I just look back and feel so guilty,” Mags said. The way she spoke, it was like she had been there as well or something, outside the locked door, also waiting to get in. Or inside the house, maybe. That would be more like it, inside having a fag on the sofa, cackling away like a hen party and wondering which chomp of a vendor to put the squeeze on next.
“I feel such a fool. After it all came out at Christmas,” continued Mags. “The weight loss, all the tears, all the being sick – I just never joined the dots.”
Too busy stuffing her face probably, but I didn’t say this. I wanted to ask Mags about the kids and how they felt about mummy using a website to meet men and their dicks. I thought about her taking the men upstairs past her kids’ bedrooms, and then I thought about how my own sadness made me a bit nasty. Like I wanted to bring other people down, wound them somehow. All the while acting so pleasant.
The whole lunch was crumbling away. I started to feel responsible somehow, and I drank more and more wine.
I decided to say what was on my mind. It had been long enough. I put down my knife and fork, because this could take some time. “Your situation, your horrid situation Trixie, it’s like the parable of the toad that is placed in a saucepan of water.”
“I don’t think I know that one,” said Jim. Something about his tone, like I should tread carefully.
I tasted the wine, as best I could. Then I continued, “If a frog, or toad – one or the other – if it’s placed in boiling water, it jumps out. Right? Like we would.”
I made motions with my hand in and out of the glass. They were nice big glasses that my hand could just about fit inside as a fist. I was quite pleased with this physical depiction. I thought it could really help. In and out, my hand went – in and out. As I performed this demo I told myself that I was in fact fisting at a client lunch, and this amused me a great deal, so much so I started to slightly laugh out loud. I couldn’t stop myself. Looking around the table, however, the others did not seem so amused. In fact, the whole toad parable didn’t seem to be doing it for anyone.
I cleared my throat. “But if it’s placed in cooler water that is slowly heated up, the toad never jumps out – you see. Because the water heats up gradually.” I fisted some more – fist going back inside the wine glass but staying there this time, hovering just above the wine. “No matter how hot the water, the toad it never jumps out. Even when it’s boiling.”
“And what happens?” Mags asked.
This surprised me. It wasn’t some fairy-tale I was telling them. “Well nothing – it boils to death,” I said. “That’s the point. It never jumps out.”
The point was that Trixie had been the toad but no one seemed to appreciate this. Mags just returned to her food, like the last five minutes had never happened. Jim grabbed his wine glass and held it to his mouth a good while. Trixie looked almost tearful. I poured myself more wine.
We pushed food around our plates trying to find something to say. Something that would fit the moment. Something not about toads or fisting. I was still thinking about the physical abuse Trixie had mentioned. I just couldn’t help myself. I spoke to Trixie on the phone so often. Every single week, sometimes every single day. She used to ring so much, always needing something. Sometimes I’d think about the phone calls when I got home, what she meant by a certain phrase, whether she laughed that much with other people. And yet. I had known nothing. For two people to speak so much and say nothing. What a fucking travesty.
Jim was saying something to me, asking if I would like some water. Or coffee. Mags looked worried about something. I poured myself some wine because we had to finish it. I offered some to Trixie but she indicated her coke. Jim was trying to grab a waiter’s attention. I topped myself up. It wasn’t bad wine.
The room was thinning out, some people finally staggering back to the office. Or moving to a pub or bar, or going somewhere to lie down. I could feel Jim tapping his feet anxiously. We were close to desserts now. Running out of time. The proposal would die unless he got it out soon. Die like an animal. Maybe I’d bring it out for him. Lighten his load this one time. I could see the folder thing sticking out all shiny on his lap. Could easily just grab it.
“Like an animal being put down, that's how I felt,” Trixie said. She said this a few times, like the idea was echoing inside her mind and then finally coming out her mouth.
“Sometimes I actually want to hurt this person,” Mags said.
This was a bit more like it. A bit of nasty. Bit of truth at the dinner table. Good for you Mags, a nose like that you deserve to give it out. I can see how you got into your senior position, after all. It’s not all just about industry expertise.
We were capable of our own nasty, Jim and I. Back in the office. Sometimes after a conference call with Trixie or Mags, or even before the call – a call usually about nothing – we’d mimic their tones of voice, what we considered to be their ridiculous quirks, their idiocies.
Did that make us unprofessional? Or cruel even, unfit to have their business, deserving of every workplace misfortune going? Maybe. But I actually think it just made us human, wanting some escape from the constant requirement to be nice and polite, which is unnatural if anything on this planet is unnatural. Sometimes at work it felt like we were gasping for air.
I’m sure they had their names and jokes for us, me in particular. I hope they did.
The three of them were looking at me more and more, wanting me to share something. Without realising it I had gone a bit quiet. I tried nodding my head more, like I was the table’s designated listener, but there was a change to their eye contact, a kind of impatience.
I’ve often felt people have reproached me for my lack of sharing. It’s like they think I’m being aloof or something, superior even. But the people who share least are the least aloof of all people: they simply feel more vulnerable. They worry that if they open up they will break and nobody will care for the pieces they’d be reduced to. So I clam up, make a shell for myself, while other people resent me and call me names later on.
Probably she was lonely, Trixie that is. During the phone calls. Just needed someone to talk to. Someone who wasn’t a colleague, who wasn’t too close. Just wanted to break through.
Like all of us did.
The restaurant was almost empty now. Jim and Mags had emptied out, too. Just gone from the table. Somewhere else. Everything was somewhere else.
I moved myself around the table, sat down next to Trixie. Where Mags had plonked herself. Whenever the others returned they’d think this was weird, but I was ready for that. Ready for their bullshit.
Just you and me Trixie. We’re gonna have a talk. Because enough of these charades of lunches and meetings, time for a proper actual conversation for once. Just one fucking sentence of truth; wouldn’t that make a nice change? Because it was tiring, having to talk and talk without really saying anything about how you felt, what you really thought. It wore you down.
Just to be able to breathe, if only for a few moments. Because she was suffocating. All of us were.
The blue of her dress really was very nice. “Trixie,” I said. I stopped, unsure of my next few steps. If I was to do anything good this lunch, possibly this whole year, it would be at this moment. “Trixie,” I said again. “Earlier this lunchtime you said I was lucky. You might not even remember saying it, or that word. But that one word–”
I wish I could say something revelatory then happened. That we shared a moment, an understanding, but the truth is I was drunk and she was depressed and I really didn’t have a clue how to really connect with somebody, let alone at a time like this.
I wish I could say I got her to place her hand upon my hand, and that we moved these hands around the table and came to some realisation. But that would not be true. A jerk does not change in the course of one afternoon. Takes years. Might not happen at all.
My words, whatever they were, they came out all weak and feeble and not nearly as good as they were inside my head.
She stopped me before too long, like nothing I had to say mattered. But not nastily, just as though there was something more, something bigger than anything I might have been about to say. It was meant to be me somehow helping her, but that’s not how she seemed to see it.
To say I was not equal to the task would be an understatement. I was not the person she needed sitting next to her.
I was not the person I needed.
Eventually the other two returned to the table, having had their chat. The adults. Jim’s proposal thing was now in evidence and he placed it down on the table, beside some lobster. He looked a bit more relaxed. I think Mags thought I was trying to hit on Trixie, she had that look about her, but I stayed sitting where I was. She could put her fat bum somewhere else. On the lobster, maybe.
We had desserts, and then coffee and talk of proposal. So many opportunities. I murmured away, nodded my head. I said something or another was very interesting.
Finally we made our way outside. Glaring sunlight. Pavements and everything shiny wet. We had missed the rain.
We did that thing where you kiss on the cheeks or pretend to kiss on the cheeks, I’ve never known which. I tried not to get things wrong. Not to get things wrong. We must do this again. We all said this many times, like we almost could have gone right back in and repeated the whole thing. Must must must.
We had fallen back on ceremony. Like the last few hours had barely happened. Already I felt the absence. Things I might have said, things I could have done; things I might have been.
But they were gone.
“I’ll see you back at the ranch,” I told Jim. “I just need to pick a few things up.”
He looked at me uncertainly. I think he wanted me for the journey back, to talk and discuss, to figure out how things had really gone. “I’ll be right behind you,” I insisted.
I watched him disappear around the corner, until it was just me, brushed against by strangers.