‘No, Continuity,’ said Kate to the Client Adviser, shortly after the start of her first interview at the Employment Centre. ‘You’re not putting “Contingency”, are you?’
The Adviser, a needlessly glamorous woman in designer frames, smiled dismissively without checking her screen. ‘Sorry, slip of the tongue. So, you’re one of those people who makes sure stuff looks the same from one minute to the next, checks that the characters always wear their watches on the same arm, all that sort of thing?’
Kate laughed, surprised and grateful not to have to explain it for once. ‘Yeah, that’s pretty much it. And, you know, reading through the scripts to make sure no one says anything that conflicts with their back story,’ she added grandly. ‘But yeah, mainly it’s just a question of making sure nothing looks out of place.’ Like me out of work, she thought, and buttoned it.
‘Is that it, though? Just “Continuity”?’
Kate nodded, though the question puzzled her. ‘That’s what it always said by my name on the credits.’
The Adviser winced apologetically. ‘I hate to say this, but it doesn’t sound enough like a real job title, somehow. Mind if I put “Continuity Adviser”?’
‘Not really, but I did more than just–’
‘Mm... alright then.’
‘And what were the circumstances of your leaving the job?’
Kate looked out of the window, dismayed and ashamed that all the time she’d spent in the waiting area, her car, her bath and her bed trying to finalise how she’d answer that question had been a waste of time and fingernails, because even now, at the very last minute, she was torn between her desire to tell the truth – that she’d lost her job by doing it too well – and her awareness that to do so would make her sound like an embittered nutter. ‘The production team,’ she said haltingly. ‘I fell out with them. Over... the show’s direction.’
‘Mmm?’ coaxed the Adviser, and immediately Kate knew she couldn’t possibly go into specifics. How could she admit, so soon after boasting about checking the scripts, that this was the very Area of Responsibility in which she’d been found wanting?
The argument had started towards the end of a typically terse meeting with Bob Ronson, the senior producer. Kate had just been over a new batch of scripts and felt more than usually perturbed by their contents: in particular she had trouble accepting the idea that Clifford Bingley, the retirement-age antiquarian bookseller, Neighbourhood Watch busybody, pillar of the community and all-round generic bemoaner of falling moral standards, could suddenly become an alcoholic cocaine fiend and initiate a passionate affair with his granddaughter’s best friend simply because his wife had written a successful novel.
‘Yeah, I was worried about that at first, too,’ Bob had said. ‘But the way Tim explained it to me, it made a lot of sense. Clifford’s jealous, you see – because he sells books but he can’t write them, yeah? I know that’s a bit psychological for us, but the fans’re just going to love seeing Bill’ (Diggle, the actor who played Clifford) ‘turn into a badass. And he’s totally up for it, too – says he’s fed up with the old lady stuff we usually give him. He might even’ve been on the verge of walking, actually, but now he’s sweet. So everyone’s happy.’ This last observation was made with an air of complete confidence that it would preclude any further discussion, but when, after a long pause, he was forced to add, ‘Is that all, then?’, his eyes were wary.
‘Yeah, but...’ Kate took a deep breath. ‘Well I’m still not completely happy about the Clifford thing, to be honest. It’s not his motivation I’d question – I mean, maybe he would be jealous – it’s just his reaction. Do you really think it’s plausible for him to change so much, and so quickly?’
Bob looked oddly wounded by her objections, and Kate felt oddly like a spoilsport. He leaned forward with a grave countenance and clasped his hands in front of him, suddenly very convincing now he was acting his age. ‘Katie,’ he said, incorrectly, ‘I’m going to be brutally honest with you, now.’ (It seemed, too, that his argot had gone AWOL.) ‘Truth to Tell isn’t The Forsyte Saga. Let’s face it – it isn’t even Home and Away. We’re a low budget soap on an obscure digital channel with ratings so low as to be literally unmeasurable. As such, nothing we do – excepting gross indecency or religious defamation – actually matters. At all. Now I know you’ve got a job to do and I respect you for trying to do it well but I’ve got a job too, and part of that job is to ensure that the unhappy few whose lives this show affects are well served by it. So if Billy Diggle wants to foam at the mouth, it’s my job – my duty – to make that happen. Capeesh?’
Perhaps that was what had done it, that ‘Capeesh’. Bob had been given a Sopranos box set for his birthday and Kate, who abhorred sexism no less than gratuitous violence, was the only member of ‘the team’ who’d turned down the chance to borrow it. They’d all been, to her mind, subtly taunting her with catchphrases ever since.
‘Okay, but I have to say I think that’s a completely bloody stupid way to make a television programme. And isn’t it sort of like... corruption?’
Bob stared stolidly at the edge of his desk, raising his eyebrows after a few seconds as though he’d found something interesting to read there. ‘Well, as they say, if you don’t like it, you know what you can–’
‘Thanks, I will.’ And the next thing she knew she was walking out, literally and in all seriousness, throwing her scripts in the bin and knocking a phone to the floor as she grabbed her handbag – but not slamming the door, which had an unreinforced windowpane.
Looking back, she half-wished she’d stayed and tried to hammer out a compromise, perhaps suggesting that the granddaughter’s best friend became the wife’s bridge partner and the cocaine were swapped with Viagra for a more gently humorous effect. But it had been a matter of principle. What they’d proposed was wrong – not morally wrong, perhaps, but wrong like vending machine coffee or modern dress Shakespeare. What was the point of making anything, even a soap opera nobody watched, if you were just going to do it wrong?
‘Well, I suppose you could say I walked out,’ she finally admitted. ‘But only because they made it impossible for me to stay.’
The Adviser smiled glumly before explaining that, since she’d left her job voluntarily, Kate would not be receiving any benefits for a period of up to twenty-six weeks.
‘Twenty-six weeks... My God, that’s half a year!’
‘Better to think of it as twenty-six weeks. Up to twenty-six weeks. I mean, if the Adjudication Officer finds you had good reason for leaving when you did... Were you harassed at all?’
Kate thought of the Sopranos. ‘Kind of...’
A pair of pricey lenses briefly twinkled.
‘Not much, though.’
‘Well it’s all going to come out now, I promise. The Adjudication Officer will be contacting you, your employers and anyone else with a bearing on the case, and I know for a fact she’s as thorough as they come. So don’t look so worried! I’m sure you’ll be fine.’
But Kate carried on looking worried – in the car she might soon have to sell, in the flat she cleaned from top to bottom to take her mind off things, in the unnecessary second bath she filled with herbal infusions to wash away the stresses and strains of the day and in the bed she finally fell upon at 5 pm because there simply wasn’t anything left to do but wait for Gore.
Only then did her features regain some of their usual tranquillity, and only then because she knew she wouldn’t be waiting long. Thank God for Gore, she thought – even softly whispered.
Gore had indeed been a godsend. When Kate first met him she had been in what she liked to think of as ‘a bad place’. An interested observer, had one been nearby, would have found it hard to pinpoint exactly what was so bad about it: she had, after all, managed to find a job in TV just three weeks after leaving university, and her new flat was much nearer town than any of her contemporaries could’ve hoped to be. But it annoyed her that she’d only got the job because of her annoying mother (an old friend of Bob’s), and she didn’t even think she liked it that much anyway, and she couldn’t even sleep properly at night for all the drunks coming out of the clubs. She was also in the grip of a profound psychosexual malaise brought on by the fallout of her first real lesbian experiment: a worrying feeling that she was neither gay nor straight but somehow universally damp-proof.
Gore changed all that. He only worked on Truth to Tell for a couple of months – their usual sound man was off battling his alcoholism – but he still got plenty done as far as Kate was concerned. Whenever he spoke to her the corners of her eyes teemed with spotlights, sweeping the safety curtain of his baggy combats for any sign of the performers behind. Whenever she spoke to him it was as though she’d never had a conversation before: her mind was a ream of empty pages she skimmed in vain for a suitable remark, and when the time came to settle for the least disastrous substitute she’d utter it with such brutal awareness of her own features that every curl of her lip felt like an impossible lunatic contortion.
That said, the very fact of his presence on the crew proved a big help. By mimicking the air of sarcastic forbearance with which he did his job she found a way to enjoy her own without embarrassment, and Gore, for his part, really seemed to appreciate having someone to exchange smirks with. Mutual admiration blossomed into an unspoken alliance, and when his two months were up she was – incredibly – not that surprised to find herself asking him out.
And then he was actually living in her flat, sleeping in her bed, kissing and holding and fucking her with more success than she’d ever thought possible, laughing tolerantly at the rowdy yodels below her window and teaching her to do the same. It would not have been factually inaccurate to say he was the love of her life. And her mum just hated him!
The day of her Jobseekers’ Allowance interview also happened to be their 18-month anniversary, but she wasn’t yet sure how best to play this. Her own view was that the occasion deserved to be marked in some small but meaningful way: a bottle of Cava, The Breakfast Club on DVD and a shitload of scented candles, say. Realistically, though, she had to concede that Gore might well be unaware of the date’s significance (she hadn’t mentioned it for fear of looking drippy) and that, after working in the rain all day, he probably wouldn’t fancy anything more demanding than his usual beer and cartoons (‘Anime,’ she heard him correct her).
She heard his key in the lock. It made her jump off the bed and dash across the room, but the sound of the front door closing made her stop. Did she really want to be the sort of woman who rushed to meet ‘her man’ at the door, helped him off with his coat, asked about his day? Was that what he wanted?
She stood, frozen, by the bedroom door while he hung up his coat. Then he started coming down the hall so she tiptoed quickly back to bed and lay down with her face in a pillow.
‘Hey,’ he said.
‘Ohhhhh, hiya,’ she sighed.
‘How’d it go then?’
She smiled bravely. ‘Not good. Apparently it could be twenty-six weeks before my benefit comes through.’ For all her genuine anxiety, it gave her an odd little flash of pleasure to hear herself sounding so streetwise.
‘I know.’ She sighed again and lowered her head. After a few seconds he sat down beside her.
‘Well. Never mind.’ He put his hand on her shoulder. ‘You’re bound to find something else soon. Did you send your CV off to anyone yet?’
‘No…’ Another surprise: it hadn’t even crossed her mind. ‘I thought I might just chill for a couple more days – you know, get used to the idea.’
‘Yeah, why not? You deserve some time out after all the crap you’ve been through lately.’ His hand slid down her back, patted her behind.
‘Thanks, babe. Hey, let’s have those enchiladas for dinner. With the potato wedges?’
‘Actually, I had a pub lunch just a couple of hours ago. We fell behind because Nick and Sarah kept arguing. I think maybe they’re going to split up.’
‘Just the enchiladas then.’
Afterwards they watched TV, their bodies braided into a limb-lock on her little sofa, and she realised they were having a good anniversary even without the candles. Then Truth to Tell came on.
The episode – the sixth-from-last to bear her screen credit – opened with a close-up of old Mrs. Bingley stacking the post office stationery shelves, then a slow pan to the door as the bell rang and Clifford came in.
‘Brrr! It’s positively arctic out there!’ he announced, pulling off his comic hat and mittens.
‘Yes. It’s a shame you couldn’t drive,’ his wife replied with a wry smile.
‘Let’s not go over all that again, Christine – I said I’d fix the car myself and that’s all there is to it.’
‘Yes, but when? You finished reading that car book two weeks ago and you haven’t even had the bonnet up yet!’
‘I’ve more research still to do. That first book was... a little further out of date than I’d anticipated.’ Only a heightened blink rate and tremulous moustache betrayed his embarrassment: vintage Diggle. ‘Anyway, I don’t care how long it takes. I’d sooner die than give that lout at Burton’s Garage another chance to scam me.’
‘If this snow keeps up you might just get your wish. Really Clifford, it isn’t worth walking three miles in this weather just to meet me for lunch.’
His expression softened as his left hand crept around her waist. ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night... shall keep me from kissing the prettiest woman in Romnal!’ His right hand flew to the back of her neck and, in a single abrupt and rather incongruous movement that was nonetheless familiar to every regular viewer of the show, he swung her around and kissed her like it was VE Day.
The fond smile with which Kate had been watching this exchange now began to falter – not because she was thinking about losing her job, or remembering that the broken car would ultimately cause Clifford to miss the twins’ recital, but because she’d suddenly noticed how fondly she was smiling. It seemed she was going to miss Clifford and Christine. They’d never been the most diverting of characters – actually, she’d often found their antics insufferable – but at that moment they just looked like two old friends who really didn’t deserve what was about to happen to them. Of course the time would eventually come for Clifford to repent his sins and be back to his old self again, but even that would be a kind of living death, for Diggle as much as Bingley: the viewers of Truth to Tell would be no more likely than the people of Romnal to believe in his character again.
On screen, he broke the kiss and gazed down lovingly at his wife. Clearly identifying this as a propitious moment to broach a difficult subject, Christine smiled stiffly back and said, ‘That publisher rang again earlier.’
His smile froze, his face fell, his gaze grew cold and hard: Diggle was bringing out all the old standbys but Kate wasn’t enjoying it any more. Just to have something else to do she said, ‘It’s lucky you got that job when you did.’
Gore groaned in a good-natured show of weariness. ‘Isn’t it, though.’
‘And you’re sure you won’t mind me spongeing off you for a while?’
‘No, course not – just a bit jealous, if anything. I know I’ve only been working a couple of weeks but I already miss having time for my music. I’m always too shagged by the time I get home, these days.’ Gore maintained a small home studio in Kate’s utility room, the first fruits of which had been widely distributed around the local indie scene – and, less widely, the internet – two months before. The most they’d generated in terms of ‘buzz’ was a two-word notice in a small press listings magazine: ‘Nondescript electronica.’
Gore’s audaciously Enoesque response had been to declare that all his future productions would be named after anagrams of this lone critique – hence the forthcoming CALCITIC NERD PERSON TONE.
‘Aw, don’t worry babe,’ smiled Kate. ‘You’re still number one with me.’ She gathered him into her arms and drew him to her bosom, holding his head as if shielding it. But he wrenched himself away.
‘So is that what you thought of me when I was out of work? That I was “spongeing” off you?’ His voice wasn’t raised, but she recognised the look on his face from the day of the review.
‘Eh? What makes you–’
‘Because if you’d been in this business a little longer you’d realise that that’s the nature of the beast: short spells of work interspersed with long spells of downtime. Just count yourself lucky you’re not freelance like me!’
‘I know, I’m sorry. It was a joke, honestly!’
Silence. And then: ‘Think I might have those wedges after all, actually.’
He stayed in the kitchen until they were ready; through the French windows Kate could see him reading the paper at the table, which she had never seen him do before. By the time he returned to the sofa with the steaming bowl she was determined to make amends. ‘Go on, then. Gizza wedge.’
Gore smiled, and she sensed things were OK. ‘Yeah, sure.’ He picked one from near the chipped side of the bowl and held it up between them. ‘Take this one.’
‘Why? What’s wrong with it?’
‘So why that one in particular?’
‘Don’t you want it?’
‘Of course.’ He chuckled, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘I just want to see how much you trust me. A trust test!’
‘There really isn’t anything wrong with it?’
‘Don’t you trust me?’
‘To the ends of the earth, my lovely man.’ She plucked the wedge from between his fingers, dropped it into her mouth and swallowed it whole. He was beginning to grin.
‘Go on, then, what was wrong with it?’
‘It did go under the cooker... but only for a second.’
She tried to smile back but had to look away because she couldn’t, really: that grin of his was pissing her off. When she glanced at Truth to Tell it was just finishing; she was unreasonably surprised to be confronted with her name, and the name of her lost job above it. Seeing it now, she had to agree with the Adviser that it didn’t look at all like the name of a real job. It looked like someone had made a mistake.
‘Go on, one more.’ She reached into the bowl and it was empty. Not only empty, but circled with various bits of wedge crud: scraps of skin, pulpy residue. ‘What did you do? Where’re the others?’
‘Look, come on. They’d better not be anywhere dirty – that would be a real waste.’ It was like her mother had just walked in, but for once Kate felt pleased to see her.
Gore patted his stomach, then lunged forward and pincered his arms tightly around her waist. ‘Oh, they’re somewhere dirty all right.’
‘I know, but what? What’s the fucking problem?’
He was obviously sincere and, not knowing what to do about that, she sighed. He relaxed his hold but did not release her. They sat frozen in this empty clinch for a long moment until, wanting to get up, Kate looked down at his clasped hands. She let out a tiny gasp.
‘Didn’t you used to wear your watch on the other arm?’
She could tell he was trying hard not to wake her the next morning from the squeak of the bathroom door, which was more drawn out and agonised than usual. The sound worked its way into her dreams three times – first as a cheeky pelican, then as an arthritic leg and finally As Itself – but never quite got her eyes open; it was the distant, thoughtful click of the front door as he left that woke her up for good.
She lay staring at a beam of light that came in through a gap in the curtains, her legs as limp as pasta salad and comfortable, certainly, but not, she felt, as much as if she’d been properly asleep. She knew that the pleasant sensations she was experiencing were just products of that weird state of grace which sometimes marks the transition between sleeping and fully waking, that her body was slowly rousing itself bit-by-bit and as soon as it had finished it was going to pull her mind up short, and this bothered her. It wasn’t time to sleep and she didn’t even need it but oh, she wanted it.
Her mobile rang, and there could be no doubt whatever as to why. With an angry moan she picked up and the expected voice said, ‘I notice you didn’t phone yesterday.’
‘Bloody hell, Mother, what time is it?’
‘How am I to know.’ A muffled kissing noise as her lips tried to keep hold of the fag her fingers were taking away. ‘When you can’t sleep it’s all the bloody same anyway. Your father’s no use.’
‘Well I’m sorry, but I was a bit depressed yesterday. It is depressing to suddenly find you’re no use to society – but I suppose you’d know all about that...’
‘Your bloody boyfriend’s the one who wrote the book...’
‘He’s bloody working right now, Mother. What more do you want?’
Her mother sighed pityingly, a timely reminder that mere facts could have no bearing on this case. ‘So what happened?’
‘Well, they don’t really advertise jobs like mine at the Job Centre...’
‘Jobs that don’t exist? No, I don’t suppose they would.’
‘Ha. You know what I mean.’
‘Just promise me you won’t end up like that lump.’
‘He’s got a bloody job, Mother!’
‘Twelve weeks picking flowers with a bunch of newsreaders?’ Sadly, Kate could not deny that this was a fair portrait of Gore’s work on News in Leaf. ‘That’s not a job, it’s a theme holiday.’
‘Anyway, look. Was there anything else? I’m supposed to be doing my CV now.’
Another sigh, but with the pity redirected. ‘No, I’ll leave you to it. I know you don’t have time for my troubles. Just don’t forget to look for that photo.’ This was an old picture of Kate’s dad dressed as Superman, the idea being to use it on the invitations for his forthcoming birthday party.
‘I won’t. And don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get some sleep soon.’ As, please God, will I. ‘Ring me back in a couple of hours if you still can’t.’
‘Will you be doing that now? Looking for the photo, I mean. You know you’ll only forget otherwise.’
‘Oh, but there’s plenty of time...’
‘I need to know today if you can’t find it so I’ll have time to think of something else. Go on – do that for me, at least. Then ring me back to let me know one way or the other.’
They both knew she had to, so she did – cursing and stamping around the living room, whipping up great billows of scrap paper and leaving a trail of upended drawers in her wake. She didn’t think it could be in the bedroom – the bedroom was fully minimalist – but there was a little drawer in the base of Gore’s Bettie Page statuette that eventually became the only place she hadn’t looked.
It was empty apart from a small brown rock wrapped in clingfilm; the vague odour that wafted up as it flaked to powder under her fingernails was unmistakably of dope. This had been presented to them months earlier by Gore’s friend Shed, shortly after they finally got him off that sofa and out of this bloody flat. Gore had started to say they weren’t really into all that but Kate had silenced him, determined to extract whatever recompense was available.
She was rolling it between her fingers when she rang her mother back, and somehow this seemed a more satisfying form of fidget than the usual biro acrobatics. After hanging up she passed it absent-mindedly from palm to palm, thinking about breakfast; then she looked at it again and thought, Hmmm.
She still had rolling tobacco and papers from the last time her sister came to visit, so all the necessary materials were readily to hand. And, you know, why not?
Her thoughts as she hunched over the living room table to make her first ever ‘doobie’ (Shed’s preferred term) were all of the photo and where it could be. The odd bits of joints she’d sampled at parties had never really done much for her, so she didn’t expect anything particularly interesting to happen. When she’d finished, and finished admiring her workmanship, she lit up and put the TV on.
The opening titles of Bewitched appeared. Bewitched! It had been her favourite programme as a timid pre-teen; just hearing the theme tune took her back to those golden weekday teatimes when her parents’ house still smelled of cats and potpourri, they still had that sofa with the squashy cushions and her mum wasn’t angry all the time. She puffed away carelessly, unable to believe her luck. Fucking Bewitched, man!
After about ten minutes she was surprised to find she wasn’t altogether following it, and when the ads came on she relocated to the bedroom to watch the rest on the portable. Her bed was amazing, just amazing. As soon as the joint was stubbed she had a massive stretch, and felt so wholly comfortable afterwards that there seemed a serious risk of melting into the undersheet. Even her skull felt comfortable; it felt like a comfortable place to be. If a tiny man had crawled into her ear just then he’d surely have discovered a pleasant lounge with easy chairs, plasma screen TV and a well-stocked liquor cabinet. And her brain, lolling on a massive paisley-pattern bean bag... no, relaxing in the jacuzzi. Hey, ‘mind’ you don’t wrinkle!
She laughed again, just because she was so obviously stoned. Bewitched ended, and the man said it’d be back tomorrow: she silently rejoiced. The beam of light that came in through the gap in the curtains began to tickle her ear and suddenly she realised she’d got it back, that weird state of grace – and this time she could keep hold of it for as long as she wanted.
She smoked another after lunch, and by the time Gore came home she had been reading in the bath for nearly two hours.
‘And here was me thinking you’d had enough of soaps!’ he called out, wondering at his first glimpse of the disorder in the living room.
‘Hi babes. Just getting out!’
She could hardly have asked him there and then; nor did it seem strictly prudent to mention it while they were exchanging details about their days. It was over dinner, in the wake of Gore’s revelation that ‘Michael Buerk cannot pronounce the word “rhododendron”’, that she finally cracked.
‘Oh yeah, by the way – someone rang up looking for Shed earlier. Do you still see much of Shed?’
She went to see him a couple of days later, blowing a significant percentage of her final pay packet on getting enough for a good long while. When she got home she cut off a chunk for her pocket and put the rest in her knicker drawer. ‘Put’, mind you, not ‘hid’: the way she saw it, this wasn’t so much a secret as an off-the-record sort of thing. Gore certainly wouldn’t approve, but she could count on his being middle-class enough not to make a big thing of it.
Within days she was committed to a strict timetable: wake up, smoke, Bewitched, nap, wake up, eat (+ Truth to Tell Gold on UK Replay), shop (when needed), smoke, read in bath. It was enough to make her feel quite busy – even that there just weren’t enough hours in the day. When the book she’d been in the middle of since their last trip to France was finished and on the charity pile, the only thing left to read in the flat was a flashy set of Dante’s Divine Comedy she’d bought at university to make herself look brilliant and dangerous. She shied away from it at first, buying magazines from the corner shop as cover, but then thought, If not now, when? Inferno turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than she’d assumed – the dope really helped her visualise and shit. She even started... actually no, better not, it’s just too embarrassing.
In the evenings, of course, she was still very much Gore’s Girl, and not unhappily so. Whatever it was that had gone wrong that one night didn’t go wrong again all week: he was a bit uncommunicative, perhaps, but she’d seen hard work do that to him before. He kept on about her CV, though, and sometimes the cleaning – and sometimes she caught him staring at her as though she’d just done something peculiar when she clearly hadn’t. More than once he asked, a touch too jovially, ‘So what exactly do you do all day?’
She felt a bit anxious the day before her first proper signing-on, so when Gore came home and swore at the Cup-a-Soup spillage on the telephone table she was tempted to just ignore him and turn the hot tap back on. But he’d always been such a good boyfriend.
‘Jesus, Kate. Didn’t you say you got sacked for being too much of a perfectionist?’
A moment’s disjunction, as though she were watching a film with frames missing. She looked around in bewilderment and everything seemed subtly changed: the lights a little darker, her bath a little shallower. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I was going to clear up while you were having your shower.’
‘Never mind,’ he sighed. ‘But when you come out I think we’d better have a little chat.’
She dried herself quickly, trying to believe it had only happened because she’d been torn away from the fourth circle too soon. With her dressing gown on she went into the living room where Gore waited, a bouquet of empty mugs in one hand and a junk mail assortment in the other.
‘Come on, put that down,’ she told him. ‘I’m doing it right now, honestly.’
‘You’re always saying that.’ He didn’t look at her as he made his way to the kitchen. ‘Some of this stuff has been here days...’
‘Er, have I ever actually said I’d do it right now before?’
He left the mugs and envelopes on the kitchen table and came back. ‘Can you blame me for being sceptical? The phone’s been covered in soup for two days and the 9 key doesn’t work any more. I mean what if there’s an emergency?’
‘It’s hardly covered. And it’s been broken for ages – actually, that’s what made me spill the soup in the first place.’
‘The point is you just left it there, like it didn’t even matter. Is that what you think, that it doesn’t matter?’
‘Well, you know, what can I say? I don’t really notice things much in the hall.’
He sat on the arm of the sofa and shook his head as though this were the saddest thing he’d ever heard. ‘I’m worried about you, Kate. I mean, what do you do all day?
‘I’ve told you. Just... enjoy myself. I know it’s not forever.’
‘Because when I was out of work I used to do six hours a day in the studio, one hour cleaning and one hour for lunch, like clockwork. And I’d always have your dinner in the oven by the time you got home, do you remember?’
‘Yeah. And thanks!’
‘The thing is, you know, we’ve all seen these things about unemployment and the effects it can have, and maybe we shouldn’t think those things can’t happen to us just because we’re the sort of people who normally have proper jobs or whatever...’
Kate blinked. ‘You’ve lost me.’
‘Kate, when people get depressed, they withdraw from the outside world and stop cleaning up after themselves. It’s a scientific fact.’
‘I think cleaning only does you any good – spiritually, I mean – when you’re doing it for other people,’ she mused, mock-airily. ‘Strangers, ideally. Cleaning up after yourself is just ritualised self-loathing.’ She laughed, delighted to have finally had a chance to say it.
‘You see? You wouldn’t be thinking crazy shit like that if you still had a job. Christ, this is probably how your mum got started...’
She detected another excision, the most glaring yet. This time she actually saw the blankness, heard the angry hiss of amplified silence as she waited out the cut. And then she was back, and he was... older. Not significantly, but by several years at least: she noticed a distinct fattening of the chops and the burgeoning of a young widow’s peak. Her mind was elsewhere, though. ‘You know I’m nothing like my mother. Fucking take that back!’
‘Alright, okay, I’m sorry.’ Realising he’d gone too far, he laid a placatory hand on her shoulder. ‘I just didn’t know how else to get through to you, y’know? I can feel you drifting away from me, Kate, a little more each day. And you just seem so fucking calm about it all... Frankly, it’s tearing me up inside.’
The little man who’d crawled into Kate’s ear the week before repeated, It’s tearing me up inside, and laughed so hard her brain felt slightly uncomfortable. Why was it that people who made a big deal about refusing to watch the soaps so often sounded like they lived in one?
‘I won’t drift far,’ she returned, putting her hand on his. ‘I promise. And when all’s said and done, it has only been a week and a half.’
He shook his head again and looked at the floor, annoyed not to have found a reasonable excuse to go on arguing. She noticed a minute patch of stubble just slightly to the right of his nose – the bit he always missed shaving. It made him seem like a boy again so she hugged him. ‘How did it go today, anyway?’ she asked, rubbing and patting his back.
‘Fucking shit, actually,’ he spat over her shoulder – and, drawing back to gaze soulfully into her eyes: ‘That Huw Edwards is a right tool.’
The signing-on turned out to be far more straightforward than she’d feared – they didn’t even ask to see her log book, with all its details of the jobs she could’ve, but hadn’t, applied for. Just minutes after walking in she was back out, a free woman with two more weeks of freedom to look forward to, and so excited by the thought of her own life that it was all she could do not to jump up and click her heels together like she was in the Wizard of bloody Oz.
She got back to bed just in time for the end of Truth to Tell Gold. She watched it with the joint she’d rolled that morning but hadn’t dared smoke, transferring her attention to the beam of light during the boring bits. Tiny golden motes of dust sank serenely from the curtain rail to the foot of her bed, oblivious to the plumes of smoke rising to engulf them. How weird, that dust could be so pretty...
‘I see. So you’re smoking dope now.’
Impossibly it was him, standing in the bedroom doorway – he must’ve crept in. Kate thought fast. ‘Not really. I just found that bit Shed left us and thought I’d give it a try.’
He made a sucking noise with his teeth, a wet tut. ‘Okay, but is that really such a good idea? You know what it does to people’s motivation.’
‘I thought you said I didn’t have any.’
‘Hang on – does this have anything to do with you asking for his number the other day?’
‘Um...’ She couldn’t think fast enough. Without really meaning to she took another drag of the joint, glancing at the TV as though expecting it to jump in at any moment with a credible alibi.
‘So you lied to me? And you’ve been smoking it all this time? For fuck’s sake!’
‘I’m sorry, baby, honestly. I just didn’t want you to worry.’
‘Of course, of course, it all makes sense now. The talking bollocks, the living in your own filth...’
‘Oh, now, hang on.’
‘I want my girlfriend back, Kate! And I’m sorry, but I can only see one way of getting it.’ He ran over to the bed, snatched the joint from between her fingers, grabbed her lump of dope off the copy of Heat on which she’d been planning to roll a celebratory follow-up and stormed out. He stormed hastily, perhaps imagining she’d fly to bite his ankles like a thing possessed, but she wouldn’t have given him the satisfaction. When she heard the toilet flush, several times, she just thought of her knicker drawer and tried to stay calm. It wasn’t his fault, he was only looking out for her. So important to stay calm.
TtTG had already finished, and the lunchtime repeat of the previous day’s new episode was just beginning. Kate never usually watched this but the first scene was so bizarre she was immediately absorbed, in spite of herself and everything else. The setting was the Bingleys’ stiflingly genteel living room: all carriage clocks and doilies, with a fusty old chaise longue that had once been the site of one of Kate and Gore’s most emphatic snogs. Clifford stood beside the William IV rosewood breakfast table, strangling his wife.
‘Clifford, stop! Please!’ gurgled Christine.
‘Why should I?’ roared Clifford, releasing her nonetheless but grabbing her hair at the back. ‘Why should I do anything you tell me to, ever again?’
‘I care about you!’ she sobbed, gasping for breath. ‘I was worried about you – we all were! What are the twins meant to think?’
At this his eyes bulged maniacally and he raised his free hand as if to strike her. She flinched and, grinning, he slowly lowered it. ‘You’re always telling me to keep my nose out of other people’s business…’ He pulled at her hair, steering her head towards an absurdly massive heap of cocaine on the breakfast table. ‘Now keep yours out of mine!!’ he shrieked, forcing her face into the white powder.
Her muffled cries seemed to pacify him; he giggled childishly as he pushed her head around the tabletop. ‘Cleaning – that’s all you were ever good for.’ When he’d finally finished he pulled her up and dragged her bodily to the front door.
‘Clifford – please – think about what we had together. The happiness we shared!’
‘Did you think about that when you walked out on me?’
‘It was a book signing tour. All writers have to do them!’
‘And I have to do this.’ He cast her roughly into the street, where she stumbled and fell on the wet cobbles. ‘I know we were happy once but you changed, Christine. Well, guess what? I can change too. This is me, now – and I can do anything!’ He slammed the door and returned to the table, burying his own face in the towering mound and snorting lustily.
A sound from the other doorway made him look up: a beautiful woman was watching him, smiling. Though clearly in her early twenties she was dressed as a schoolgirl, skirtless but with a blouse of sufficient length to respect the watershed. ‘Cliff?’ she purred. ‘Are you coming back to bed?’
Gore strode back into the bedroom and started picking bits of Kate’s clothing off the floor. There were only three, and two of those were socks, so it didn’t take long. ‘My advice to you, now,’ he said, bundling them together, ‘is simply to get dressed, get out there and get yourself a fucking life.’ And he threw them in her face before walking out.
That, she felt, was enough. ‘A life, eh?’ She leapt from the bed and followed him into the hallway. ‘Like what – picking flowers with a bunch of newsreaders?’
‘It’s better than sitting on your arse doing fuck all.’
‘I doubt that. And I wouldn’t know anyway, because actually I’ve had plenty to do.’
‘Yeah?’ He stopped at the top of the little stairway that led to the living room and turned to eyeball her. ‘Like what?’
She hesitated, suddenly very embarrassed by the way she’d built it up. ‘Oh, like reading Dante’s bloody Inferno, all right? I know that doesn’t sound like much but I’ve been meaning to do it for years, and I’m reading the footnotes and everything. I wasn’t going to say anything but I’ve even had this idea for a script, loosely based on it but set, like, in the present day, with the characters and situations altered to reflect, you know... modern morality...’ She cleared her throat, which felt very dry all of a sudden.
Gore could only sneer. ‘Sounds like typical dopehead bullshit to me. Hardly going to put food on the table, is it?’
Oh, he really shouldn’t have. ‘You stupid cock,’ she slowly intoned. ‘How long have you been putting food on that table, eh?’
‘It’s not about–’
‘I’ll tell you how long: three bloody weeks. Otherwise you’ve spent the last six months wasting your time and my electricity on that fucking... nondescript electronica!’
Pleasingly, he was stunned. ‘You said you understood my work!’
‘I was being nice. In reality I think it’s shit.’
‘God, fuck you! And your fucking “script”!’ he shouted, hurtling down the stairs. There was a wobble in his voice whose authenticity she felt inclined to question; it wasn’t like him to be so easily upset. At least she didn’t think it was.
‘Oh look, come on, I was exaggerating,’ she lied, following him down. ‘It’s just not my kind of thing, that’s all. Like if I did do a script it probably wouldn’t be your kind of thing either, or anybody’s.’ She sat beside him on the sofa as he switched on the TV. ‘I’d really like to find out for myself, though. Can’t you let me do that, just for a month or two? I promise I’ll get a proper job by the time your contract runs out...’
Gore scowled, moved further down the sofa, and started looking for his horoscope on Ceefax.
‘Speaking of which, why aren’t you there now?’
‘Fucking walked, didn’t I? Not that it’s any of your business.’
Kate was cheated out of her reaction shot by a further unnecessary cut: bright white light with grubby speckles and a fluttering hair stuck in one corner; crackling scratches on the soundtrack. Then back to Gore, still looking at her with that face on, except it was old again and there was a moustache on it.
This she could not ignore. ‘My God! What’s happening? How did it... Your face!’
‘What bollocks is this now? Are you “freaking out”?’
She touched it: real. Prickly but trim, white with just a few dark hairs. And somehow familiar, as though she’d seen something very like it on an elderly relative. ‘Babe, you’ve got to look in a mirror, right now. Go on, it’s incredible!’
‘Fuck’s sake...’ He stood and went up the stairs; she honestly expected to hear him cry out in surprise at any moment. Then she heard the front door slam.
Kate’s lump of dope loitered in the curve of the U-bend for days. Occasionally a hard flush would galvanise it to bob up and caper exuberantly in the surf, but as soon as the waves subsided it always tumbled straight back to the old hangout. She wondered why Gore hadn’t taken it out and thrown it away, or made her eat it or something. Was it some kind of test? Perhaps he hadn’t even seen it.
He’d been out most of the week, coming home only to sleep or noodle ominously in the utility room. She had no idea what he’d been up to the rest of the time because they still weren’t talking. No matter how gently she tried to break the ice he just sulked it off, and the moustache made it hard for her to persist. Even when she could stand to look at it, it just reminded her of the argument and infuriated her all over again – but she couldn’t actually say anything about it in case he tried to get her sectioned or something, so she did her best to look the other way. Particularly when there was food in it.
Because he’d been around so little she’d been smoking a lot more, and by the weekend she’d run out. Shed’s idiot flatmate told her he was at some stupid festival, and probably wouldn’t be home for several days because he was planning to hitch back, the tit. How old was he, anyway?
There was the toilet, of course, but no – far too symbolic. It was bound to happen eventually but there was no sense in rushing straight to the last resort. She chose instead to instigate what Shed referred to as a ‘blim hunt’, i.e. a just-barely-less-demeaning crawl through the flat on her hands and knees, foraging for any crumbs that might have been dropped during the rolling process. She was nearing the end of this ultimately fruitless expedition when, sliding her fingers into the gap between her bed and the floor, she came across something else: that photo her mother had wanted.
They hadn’t spoken for nearly three weeks by that time, mainly because Kate hardly ever felt straight enough to attempt it. Looking at that picture, though, she was painfully aware of just how stoned she wasn’t – and, almost as painfully, that she actually missed the old cow. It struck her that her mother’s most likely reaction to the news of the photo’s recovery would be to demand that it be brought to her immediately, to which she’d most likely reply that she could whistle for it. It hardly seemed worth having that conversation. And why should she, now she was feeling so intensely alert, so irrepressibly proactive?
It seemed weird to be driving again – nice, though. She smiled at the sunlight and found herself hoping it was sunny where Shed was too. She was almost looking forward to seeing her mum; she’d have to deflect the odd snipe, sure, but at least it would be a conversation.
She pulled into her parents’ Leylandii-shrouded driveway and was disappointed not to find her mother’s car there. It wasn’t book group day; where could she be? Resolving to leave the photo with a note in an ironic hiding place, Kate fished her old key out of the glove compartment and crossed the gravel to the front door.
She got the door open and was confronted with buttocks: a man’s buttocks, heaving up and down with a woman’s leg either side. Kate knew at once that the man was Gore because of the Rorschach blot of hair on his back, and she knew at once that the woman was her mother because the noises she was making were in her mother’s voice. She wanted to laugh; for a few seconds it was almost a good feeling. There was no way she could be responsible for this, and no way on earth she could have seen it coming... For the first time in her life, she knew for a fact that she wasn’t the one making the mistakes.
Gore was grunting softly with each downward stroke, the way he did. Every time he pulled back there were frames missing.
When the door had swung all the way open her mother finally noticed her. ‘Baby!’ she cried, horror-struck. ‘Oh Christ.’ Taking her exclamations for imprecations, Gore rutted on. ‘Baby, you have to believe me – I never meant for this to happen!’
‘Really, Mother,’ said Kate, straining for deadpan. ‘No one talks like that in real life.’
At last Gore realised something was going on and stopped moving. He turned his face towards her; it was Clifford Bingley’s face.
Multicoloured vertical bars. Continuous high-pitched tone.
A week or so later, Kate had her meeting with the Adjudication Officer. She found this quite enjoyable in its early stages – it was, after all, the first chance she’d had to have a proper bitch about Bob Ronson – but when she reached the end of her story there was a long, awkward silence. The Officer looked oddly annoyed, and Kate felt oddly like a crybaby.
‘So let me get this straight: you left because you didn’t like this... Clifford Bingley person?’
Kate tried to explain, about consistency of characterisation and how it wasn’t possible for people to change that quickly, but then she thought of Gore and began to wonder whether she’d been the stupid one all along. (In summary, then: a stupid crybaby.) The Officer was soon looking at her watch, and although she made a few vague noises about follow-ups it was obvious she didn’t expect to see Kate again.
Kate was back on set the following Monday – watching Billy Diggle throw up over the chaise longue, and making sure there was still some on his face when they came back after lunch.