Some mornings on the bus to work the dream of the house lingers and Jack expects to end up in the multi-roomed place, walking down corridors and staircases with his parents, both dead and resurrected and wife and daughter and granddaughter and dog and others he doesn’t know, who all begin to jostle him with unsteady arms and falling off fingers. It is like the manor house he visited last summer with Maggie. When he looks through the window though the glass turns to cellophane and he’s inside the doll’s house he built in the shed. It sits on a work bench. If he has to exit to avoid the scuffling, the grabbing for him, he’ll have to drop – jump - to the chair, climb down a leg to reach the floor. Hope to hell the cat’s not around.
Instead every day, like today, Jack walks around the security barriers, nods to some, the whistler who doesn’t stop whistling as he nods back, Ted Simms in his getting-shiny suit, and on into the vast building that looks all windows. On the stairs he coughs like a dog and Gregg coming up behind slaps his back. ‘All- right Jack-o? See yer at break.’
Forgets his password again and he has to ring IT and they are as ever sarcastic. Tut tut Mr Bond. And they’re all of what – 30s at most – following him, his every move, tracking him across the Atlantic or the other side of the world on the web he creates from his desk. His keyboard makes him spell the simplest words wrong. Worsd. Apicrot. Grils.
At desks around him people are urging their screens on, forward, ‘come on then.’ Someone is always applying cream or lotion to hands and neck. Today Patrick is showing off nicks caused by thorn or fence, evidence of a weekend walk. Jack tries not to look at Michelle’s legs as she goes past. Doesn’t succeed. This man, what’s his name, can Jack have forgotten, pads up and down looking, sniffing with a fine long nose, for anything wrong, flaws in the air and the concrete, the desks and the people.
A birthday card is waiting to be signed on his desk: Abigail warns him to hide it before Patrick, 40 at the weekend, spots it. He signs it with no note, not like others who advise the man to get drunk or to buy a red sports car, or to hibernate until it’s all over.
It’s getting on for forty years since they married. Is Maggie fed up with him now after all the years rolled up together? He’d first seen her as a teenager at basement dances, dancing in the crude flashing colours, time of the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, all those bands. She’d gone out with him, then his mate, but came back to him. The way she danced in and out of those blobby ‘psychedelic’ lights, her hair flicked out at the shoulders. Her face now smudged with age like his, but still soft, not many wrinkles, still her teeth pushed forward her lips, the eternal pout, from then to now. The lives they've lived together from basement disco to sheds and kitchens, via the bedroom. Chuckle, tickle, shush. He titters and his colleague beside him lifts his head from coffee never knowing how to take this older man who talks to himself a bit, quietly and maybe he’s imagining it.
Jack focuses on work. All he has to do is attend to the emails that command, finish off the files from yesterday or yesteryear, chase up the missing orders, hiding in a warehouse somewhere, acknowledge the report from the stationery subgroup. With his comments. He has no comments. It is simple, it is straightforward, it is staring him in the face, the C drive full of folders. All he has to do is open them and get on.
Someone is always following Jack around second guessing and peeping into his tilted world – he has a stoop now from somewhere, the age of him, the curl of death coming up from his toes already – measuring that corner of it, where wall met skirting met floor, is it all correct, is it all in balance is it going to withstand the wind and rain? Everybody wants to know everything: how things were between them. Man and wife, cat and dog, tree and house on a scale of one to ten, what dances they’d ever attended, which sexual position they favoured and what was their favourite soap and what made his only daughter Gemma, his only child born so late to them they’d given up, what made her up and marry that bloke, Gerard, that worthless bloke without an idea in his head or a penny in his purse. His purse. He has one. He stays home and lurks, he’s done for her mentally, no violence at least, no sign, meandering on about socialism as if he knows what it is, and computer games. He sucks the energy out of every room he’s in with those dog green eyes and shoulders down. It was drugs, chasing the dragon he found out, watched a programme about it; the dragon was smoke from heated black dribble across silver foil. He found evidence by the shed in the mornings. It was no good talking to her: Gemma coming off the stuff was like a drunken doll version of herself, legs on the rickety table he’d made, watching nothing on the box and her face blank. Spaced she called it. Dad I’m spaced. Static coming off her. But not any more, surely, with Jenny to look after. She’s sensible that way. Is she? Takes after her mother, her clear-eyed mother. Does she? With Gerard though there’s something more. Grudge somewhere. Full of bricks and rubble. Jack had seen him pumping some poor girl in an alley, an energy found for that, during some party he’d come out of, music following.
A woman comes down from upstairs. ‘Follow up session,’ she says. She is wearing a pinkish suit that makes Jack think of one of the figures – too small to be dolls, said Gemma at 6 – in the house. Stood forever by the fireplace greeting visitors. Both have a lipstick smudge in the corners of their mouths. ‘Then you’ll be ready to cascade.’
Jack realises after she has stood beside him smiling for a while, her eyes betraying no warmth and getting colder, as stones at night, that she wants him to get up, to offer his seat, like on the bus someone interrupting his daydream asking for tickets. He gets up and she sits down quickly like a planned, rehearsed manoeuvre, sighing a little at the strangeness of his mouse. ‘It’s back to front.’ She clicks in her memory stick and opens the relevant program. ‘I’m putting it on your desktop,’ she says.
‘How you get totals,’ she says, ‘how you get averages.’ How to change screens and use other programs in conjunction. Jack says yes and I see and nods and then when it comes to showing her what he has learnt, after they have swapped places again and he is to show her the totalling function, he tries to remember the movements of her fingers across the keyboard, he nudges a few keys and a figure turns up.
‘Good, good,’ she says but all he can remember now are the rings on her fingers, one gold but lacy, the red nails and the sound they made on the keys, the thin linked silver watch, freckles on the back of her hands. The tops of her breasts, a white bra strap. The faint smell of soap around her. Imperial Leather like Maggie at home, almost silent now and he doesn’t quite know why.
They’re there, checking, checking, cameras turning as he passes. Even the flowers bend as he walks by. Matt Helm. He’s found somewhere though, a line crossed to safety, a space where they can’t see, can’t follow. Down beneath fire stairs, along a corridor no one uses, a room with a broken door lock that can be latched inside. He sits for half an hour or so a day amongst discarded items, clumpy computers and screens and cabinets and broken chairs, dust springing in his nose. Clutters of broken staplers and filing trays, wire and plastic.
Not like his masterpiece at home in the shed which he still tinkers with at weekends. Like smokers with their first cigarette he inhales deeply the smell of varnish, tool metal and sawdust as he enters the shed. He might inspect a chair, almost weightless in his palm, or pore over perspective drawings. Then he gets to work, measuring (with a metal ruler so worn the figures have almost disappeared), cutting, shaping and joining. After working for an hour or so, his muscles still buzzing from the motion of plane or saw, his teeth tasting where nails had been, he stops and gazes into each room, moving furniture about until it meets with his satisfaction. He loves the way the panelled door opens with a little tug on its brass hinges. Inside it was the fireplace, windowsills and skirting boards that cost him most effort. And the stairs – they turn corners and run to landings with Chinese fret handrails. He tries to keep to the period - mini chandeliers are suspended into the downstairs rooms, little bulbs that work - but Gemma wanted a telly for them to watch, the residents and visitors, the milkman with crate and unbent legs leant on the chaise longue. The TV screen now has a picture stuck on of Emma Peel, her eyes, nose and mouth, half smiling, for him.
These days you can get kits off the internet to put together the house he’d built by himself, working out the structure from books from the library which he never visits these days but keeps saying he will and he will, maybe see the woman he brushed by in the aisles, her wave of black hair. Almost reached for it, that hair, changed his hand's direction to a shelf just in time.
He started it when Gemma was born; almost straight after he’d seen her slippery body emerge, to Maggie's final scream, anointed in oily colours. That night, when they finally chased him out of the ward, her smell still all about him, he started on the plans, smiling, the smile staying for days. And finished – never quite finished. There is always something to change: classier cutlery for the table; some new figure to see if it fits; a miniature Picasso, completely wrong time but what the hell, from his blue period, to hang.
In the toilet washing his hands Gregg catches him and says straight away how so and so botched up a job and still got promoted. ‘Doesn’t that stink?’ He leans into Jack, can see a gold filling in a back tooth, feel the ginger breath on him. Gregg always knows, is keeping tabs: the downsizing, the rumours, the temporary staff they’re going to bring in, who’s fucking who.
‘Always the same crowd. Round each other’s houses for cheese and wine.’ Gregg whines like a wolf, his head back. ‘They all know too much, know where all the bodies are buried.’ He turns, unzipping, to the urinal but carries on over his shoulder.
‘That’s the hold Ted Simms and Jackie Ripple have over them all. You know they’re liaising don’t you. Fucked in that stall there’ – he nods to the side of him and Jack nods back at him in the mirror. ‘Heard em, must have been a week ago, recognised his cough and her.. little cry. Aahh, ah.’ Gregg is pissing merrily now. ‘I looked under the door but she’d pulled her feet up. Probably sat on his lap.’ He zips up and turns. ‘Fucking bastards. If I were you Jack I’d kick up hell the way they’re treating you, you’ve been here longer than all of them put together. These warnings they’re giving you are a disgrace.’
Jack has forgotten the warnings they’ve given him.
He could make it to his daughter’s street and back in the lunch hour, just to say hello, spot how she’s doing with Jenny, remember how wearing five, six year olds can be, but fun too. Talk about getting the doll’s house ready for Jenny to play with when they visit, new things, a miniature computer maybe in the corner of a room, take out something, the bookcase because the books weren’t real looking, weren’t separate things. Can’t really bring it to her, would have to dismantle the shed to get it out. It wouldn’t fit through door or window. Maggie was not surprised to hear of that. He would always cock something up, she reckoned. Look at that wonky table in their front room. He’d never been able to adapt his skills to their home, gave up after that one attempt, the larger scale defeated him. ‘Can’t you unglue, unscrew it, take it out in bits?’ He couldn’t bear the thought of that.
Jenny is the same age as when Gemma was formally presented with it, a blue ribbon wrapped round, a bow tied between the chimneys. He continued to work on it though, from her 6th to her 16th, sometimes while she was there having little conversations between the characters, the figures he bought for her, an odd assortment, tended to be firemen or police or film stars then, Clint Eastwood in a dining room demanding his beans on toast. Even in her teens, 14, 15 she’d come and move them about, a refuge from bullies, a gang who called her names and wrote bitch and worse about her on walls. He’d try and talk to her about them, the names called, the hurt, while sanding a door, or screwing in a hinge with a spectacle screwdriver, such close beady eyed work, but she didn’t want to say. Looking across to her though, her pinched face coming into focus, he thought she was glad of him there. Within arm’s reach.
Then it was short skirts, boys, drugs. Those days of nothing doing, a tired insolence, and then the pregnancy sprung on them all. Until recently the house unused, not played with, or upgraded or changed while Gemma brought up Jenny. She left for a starter home, one storey with a mezzanine, a balconied bedroom, still there with her non-starter husband. Gerard works on and off but never accumulates enough to leave. Maggie and Jack were together then, united in their help and time spent with Gemma, with Jenny shared between each other’s arms. Baby sick back in their lives. Songs sung and stories told about wolves and pigs. Tolerating Gerard. ‘Can’t pin that bloke down,’ Maggie would say after an hour of smiling at him. Sex returned, briefly, like a flare in the night. Before the cat reclaimed her lap.
And now, on visits, Jenny found granddad’s secret house in the shed, and tried all the doors and peered into rooms and got her big childish fingers into his rooms and the figures were once again moved about. He didn’t mind, not even the inevitable breakages, a chandelier, a chair leg. He was there with her, sniggering over her fat teacher with her, asking about her dad, does he help her mum, does he read to her?
At lunch on his way there Jack stops to buy a cake, a present for Gemma and Jenny, not for Gerard, Slim-Jim, man about the sofa. He has forgotten supermarket etiquette, how you have to respond quickly to movement, shift with the queue or get a trolley in your thigh. And then there is the point where he thinks he doesn’t have enough money and searches pockets he never knew he had, and the man behind tuts in smoker’s throat until he finds the coins and counts them out and leaves carrying the cake out in front of him, can’t have it on its side, its filling would come out.
Jack reaches the corner of her street and sees Gemma leave, go the other way, maybe he could shout but it’s a long street, she’s quite a way down so he tries to run with the cake box in front of him, but gives in and stops outside her house, he is almost looking down on its one boxy storey, seeing her ahead disappear. Thin as her bloke with long black hair, always naturally curly, he’d brushed it until sleek for years. She looks small now, pulled along by a little dog, smaller than when she was a kid somehow. Dog shit everywhere on their strip of lawn below. He is taken over by the vision of her moments before - turn from the door, tug the lead, her dark jeans, her knee turns, away, that movement, her turning from the door seconds before, takes over him. He stands still in the street, someone bringing out a black rubbish bag, a car reversing into a space beside him, outside her house with the cake box held before him. Half way down a street curving to the left, blurred movement around him, like it is raining all around, at the edge of the space he creates. He can’t move, he can’t go on.
A woman wheels a pushchair past, the half asleep baby wakes and points at him, a dog comes up and sniffs the back of his knees and he stands like a horse sometimes stands in a field, not moving an eyelid.
And then there he is, Gerard, the left wing man, Jack and Maggie are on that side too, but he takes it too far. Shoot the Royal family and cigar smokers, redistribute wealth into his pockets. There was the night of the party when Jack caught him with another woman, he’d come out because he was drunk and needed air and made the mistake of walking a bit. His son-in-law’s back, his uncovered arse going back and forth and the girl lifting her skirt up, sat on a wall, down an alley. He knew the girl, friend of Gemma’s, she was turning the other way with the thrusts but then her head turned round to see Jack. Didn’t stop, just looked with eyes like buttons. Later he’d said to Gerard, returning to the party, he waited for him, ‘Why don’t you piss off, run away with her?’ And he’d never told Maggie, he didn’t know why, he didn’t want her to think about it. Or Gemma.
Here he is, not pissed off with anyone, not properly dressed, smelling of days indoors taking Gemma’s and Jenny’s and not his present from Jack’s hands and talking into his face but Jack can’t seem to respond to the cocked eyebrow and the shrugged shoulders of him turning away, except to say when he reaches the door down below him ‘I spose she’s out getting your drugs for you?’ and he goes in to the little house with the cake balanced on one hand.
He is late back; he goes down to his room again, under the stairs. It was on his third visit he masturbated. Sat on the wheeled chair, pushed up in a corner to stop it rolling. Thinking of the good days with his wife that fell upon them not at once, but after a struggle, misunderstandings. When she didn’t get pregnant and they’d thought she never would, sex - for a while - became easy, slow and messy, but no rushing to clear it up as before, an acceptance.
He also thinks, now, of Jackie Ripple, her flesh like ice cream to go with her name, leaving lipstick on him, all over him.
The sperm went, goes now, into the drawer of an old desk nearby, fingers clamped until he gets in the right position to let go, splash against the inside wood, whacking the dribble in. How nice to slide it shut after, the tissues he always carries or if forgot paper from the Gent’s, now applied. Stood, stands, the king of his room, anyone who came in, comes in, would see a man exalted. As if his child had become rich and famous, safe. And happy, happier than any film star on a set. But also everything is pushed away, there is only him, having come, in a room beneath the stairs.
Jack is called into the boss’s office, maybe he’s been seen below, maybe someone’s been in there and spotted something, a drawing he’d scribbled on wood, his pen dropped nearby. He passes the model under glass: a cleaner, whiter blanker building, figures outside, mini-trees, a bus stop with a single decker pulling away. The future.
There is a woman present who sits between them and looks from one to the other. His boss is telling him how appreciated he is, overall, but there were certain things, certain worries. Jack thinks he’ll get on with everything now, he’ll finish off those files, those training portfolios, he’ll be an ace of the Supplies Department. An exemplar. How would it be if everyone came up and told him how good he was at his job and how loved by everyone he was, didn’t he know it, he was a fixture, been here from the start, when the company set up here, blimey been here pre-computers, he was the permanent figure in the house always doing the dishes.
His boss’s moustache seems a little wonky and Jack wants to ask if he’s fucking Jackie Ripple in the Gent’s too much to concentrate on his appearance, or wouldn’t that make you more meticulous with it, trimming the ends to point at her breasts while you're doing it. Gregg is convinced that Ted Boss is wearing a wig and Jack tries not to look to check at the hairline that does seem a little too neat, a little too perfect. No, she’d pull it off during all that activity and laugh, or maybe she didn’t mind.
Everything he says, bewigged fucker of perfect wobbling flesh, just jealous, the man with notes in his hand, his line manager, begins or contains ‘just’.
‘Just that you were seen running, stopping and then running again. Back the way you came.’
‘We’re just a little concerned now. Progress on your objectives has been slow, Erica tells me.’
‘Well, we’ll just see how it goes. No need for a big fuss just yet.’
Ted Shatmachine’s eyes seem to have bits in them. Little red bits like bits of match heads. The woman seems to be in a pool of grey air, when she speaks the grey air shudders as if plucked, although she doesn’t speak much, she turns mainly to fucker - perhaps she wants a fuck too perhaps they’re all going off to the toilet together to have a merry threesome - and nods him on or slightly shakes her head or raises an eyebrow at what he is saying.
Jack is reminded of his forthcoming IPR, the goals he’d set in the last one, how far had he got? Were they achievable, did the training help? He has to break out of silo thinking. He hasn’t completely blown it, he can tell from the smiles the crease of his boss’s mouth only seeming to one side because of the little scar on the other. Had he had a childhood accident? Is the window coming undone behind him? His boss moves back and forth in his chair, back and forth and Jack listens to the squeaks.
There is a fair chance everything will turn out just fine. Let’s make this department the envy of the Western world. Everybody with the correct supplies at the correct time. Not a pencil out of place. He just has to watch his footsteps that’s all, see where they go and stop them if need be. Was that clear? The square of the room was rounding out, beginning to spin, like someone has started to play some daft rock and roll like ‘Rosalyn’ by The Pretty Things, not the Bowie cover version, what if Maggie had gone for Richard, his rival in the youth club days, he would sing different songs. All he has to do is watch where he's stepping, none of the dog shit in his daughter’s house, none of that. Pass on his recent training. Let’s see him back on track. That’s the way don’t you see?
Gregg catches him on his way back to his desk. What were the ins and outs, what had Cocky Ted said now, should they get the unions in? We should just let them all have it, he machine guns everyone coming down the corridor, ack ack ack, tell them everything we know, hey? He taps his nose at Jack.
He’s only been at his terminal minutes when she arrives, it’s not the same woman as this morning she smells different: Sure deodorant Jack reckons, tuna for lunch. Same hair as his daughter, except thicker, richer, cleaner like Gemma’s was, pre-Gerard days, fuller in figure too. Stood by the side of him as bright as strip lighting talking.
More training, thinks Jack, when she mentions the program he’d been shown this morning, and he knows exactly where it is on the screen, it’s on the desktop, he can go right there and double click it into life. Ping. ‘There you are,’ he says. ‘Was there extra? Add-ons?’ he’d heard someone say that recently.
She looks up and down the room, confused. Her stance, why is he noticing everyone’s stance: his daughter in the street turning, Maggie standing by the door each morning to see him out, peck on the cheek, Gerard’s head hung before him, get his nose into everything first, this girl as if about to flee and her lips pink with a gloss on them, he appreciates the gloss, her lips try to say something but decide not to. Then he realises what her stance is trying to say, is telling him, he is supposed to train her. She is waiting to be trained, she is taking her first steps in office work, her career there may be forever like his, every day she’ll come on the bus or drive or maybe she’ll get out, she’ll escape, she’ll drop to the floor and fight off the bothersome cat, its claws and teeth, easily.
He gets off his chair again, to offer it to her. While she settles and moves his strange mouse he goes to the window, hello hello Abigail and Patrick, I nod nod nod you and he tries to open the window beyond the suicide bar and whistles down at the security men sat in their little booth near where the bus drops him each morning, he thinks of Jesus in a hay barn, Hayley Mills and lemonade. He comes back to her, looking over her shoulder at him, along the burning pavements of his youth, the wasps and the bees, the land all blue.
How like his daughter she is, at one point in her life, how she might have been. How she could be loose limbed and carefree, if she’d ditched Gerard, if she’d escaped. If she’d never met him. This new girl in his chair was Janette, she’d said, and gave him her hand didn’t she, didn’t she have the cold quiet fingers reaching for him in the dream, on the bus, the ticket collector, the queue of zombies wanting more. Janette’s eyes reflected all the sex she’d had and all the sex to come. Her eyes said he would be replaced, he would be gone soon. Like Gregg said, after thirty years service, nearly. How the office would be without him, how it was already without him, once thought indispensable, everybody’s pal, her eyes told him all this.
‘What it does’, he says, eyeing the screen, ‘is eat numbers. Nombres. Numbbums.’ Janette nods, glad to talk about the program at last, after all the waiting. He leans over, so close to her hair and neck, to use the mouse and clicks on a figure in a box.
‘It eats numbers,’ Jack says, ‘and has a big fat brelly.’ He rubs his stomach like he is telling Gemma Red Riding Hood when she is old enough to be scared, to respond. ‘Then spews them out, regurgitates them. We should serve them up, sever them up, on little tiny plates,’ he shows how big with the tips of finger and thumb, ‘covered in roses to the royalty here, the bosses and ladies of the manor, don’t you think?’
He says the hub, where they should go, to see the engine and wave at the driver, is downstairs. He’ll take her there, would she care to stand up and follow him. He grasps her shoulder, it fits like a socket joint in his palm, he can feel her clavicle, her flesh and bra strap beneath white blouse, the warmth and shiver in it, the hardness of bone, her black hair nylon strands against the back of his fingers. He has it in mind they will both squeeze into that crowded small room he has made and he’ll show her the furniture, the broken wheeled chair she could sit on and he’ll bark out his orders like Clint Eastwood, only it will all be sexual.