Authors: Claire Seeber
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
‘Hardly. I mean, she’s beautiful, but – well, you know.’
‘Maggie –’ His voice was so quiet as he stared at me, and he almost said it and I could practically hear the ice cracking in my chest; feel my heart starting to thaw as Alex took a step towards me, his scarred hand extended. I froze for a second and then I forced myself to take a step back. I picked up a dishcloth and began to wipe the counter energetically. My mind was racing, rushing down alleyways that turned out to be dead-ends. He always did this to me. Could charm the birds out of the trees, Alex, on a good day.
‘I mean, Serena’s all right when I’ve had a drink or –’
It was a bad day, though. I stopped wiping. ‘I thought you
‘I’m not.’ Too late. He wouldn’t look at me, searched desperately for any fragment of nail left to bite. ‘Well, hardly at all.’
‘Oh God, Alex. Why do you always have to lie?’
‘What – and you never do?’
My foot was hurting from standing too long; I sat heavily on one of the chrome kitchen chairs that he’d insisted we buy one drunken Sunday afternoon on Upper Street; chairs I’d always hated in the cold light of day. He always knew best, though. The silence spread between us like ripples in a pond. I felt so tired, so sad, so tired of being sad.
‘I’d rather – I think it’s better if we don’t see each other right now, Alex,’ I whispered eventually, staring at a hole in his trainers. ‘I don’t want to know about your new girlfriends, really.’ I felt a great depression soaking me, a depression so greedy and black it engulfed me entirely.
, it whispered, its tentacles crawling,
there is nothing for you here
. Nothing loomed in my
future apart from loneliness and my best mate leaving the country and working for bloody Charlie against my better judgement. I was trapped. ‘Could you really not just have been on your own for a bit?’
‘You’re hardly the Virgin Mary yourself, now, are you, sweetheart?’ Alex snapped, pushing a hand through his hair.
I narrowed my eyes at him. ‘What the hell does that mean?’
‘Nothing.’ He turned away to pick up his keys. ‘Look, this is all bollocks. I only came to say let’s put the flat on the market.’
‘Oh, right.’ I stared at him. ‘Bloody great. So you want me homeless as well.’
‘We’re gonna have to do it sometime, so why not now?’
‘And that’s what you came all the way round here to say?’
‘Yep.’ Digby was worrying at the scarf that Alex had stuffed in his back pocket. ‘Leave it, Dig.’
‘Why didn’t you just phone?’
‘Did you?’ I was sure he hadn’t. Had he?
‘I came –’ The dog still wouldn’t let go. ‘I came because’, Alex swiped at him half-heartedly, ‘I thought it was the decent thing to do.’
‘You never do the decent thing.’
‘I do.’ He looked like a belligerent teenager. ‘Sometimes.’
I looked back in disbelief, and felt the sudden urge to laugh. It was the moment the tension that twanged so tight between us could have been dispersed. He sensed it too, grinning sheepishly at me, and my heart did a tiny forward-roll.
But I didn’t laugh, because Digby finally freed the stripy scarf from his master’s holey jeans, trailing it victoriously round the kitchen in his mouth like a trophy. Something followed the scarf, tumbling out of Alex’s back pocket, floating to the ground between us. We both watched it as it hit the floor: a packet of gold and silver confetti stamped with the immortal words ‘
and Johnno Forever – You Betcha!
’ Confetti they’d been giving away at their party the other night. I picked the tiny packet up and turned it over, frowning again.
‘Where did you get this?’
‘I don’t know,’ Alex shrugged, biting the skin round his thumb now. ‘It must be yours. Look, I’ve got to go.’
‘It’s not mine. You weren’t at Bel’s, were you?’
He kept on at that thumb.
‘Alex! Were you at the party?’
‘No.’ He rubbed a hand through his short hair so it stuck up on end. I shook my head in confusion. ‘
Hardly the Virgin Mary
,’ he’d said. I didn’t understand. I remembered Sebastian – definitely the first man I’d so much as flirted with since I’d split with Alex.
He jangled his keys. ‘I need to get going. Serena’s expecting me.’
‘Alex, tell me the truth.’ I stepped towards him. ‘Were you there?’
‘Well, I was going to drop in, but then –’
‘I couldn’t face it, so I – I just sat outside in the car for a bit.’
With a shiver, I remembered the car that had nearly run me down.
‘Did you see me come out? Did you – you didn’t try to run me over, did you?’
Alex looked at me like I was mad. ‘Christ, Maggie! Are you insane?’ He retrieved the scarf from Digby’s slobbery mouth. ‘I’ll have that, buddy, okay?’ His voice softened talking to the dog, and I winced as I thought of all the times he’d talked that way to me. With a great ache in my chest, I considered the violence of change. I remembered the row that had propelled me onto the coach – and then, suddenly, something else. Slivers of that humid night in town, piercing the fog in my brain, slivers of a broken mirror unable to reflect an image accurately any more. I clutched my head – but they’d gone again.
‘I’ll be in touch about the flat.’ He broke through my thoughts. ‘Is it okay for the agent to come round to value it tomorrow?’
‘I suppose so.’ My turn to shrug. ‘But I might want to stay.’
‘Fine – if you want to take over the whole mortgage.’
‘Fine. I might do that. I’ll put the rest of your stuff in boxes, shall I, and you can collect it sometime.’
‘Fine. Sometime when I’m not here, obviously.’
‘Obviously. No problem. See you around.’ And he was gone, loping down the stairs with not so much as a backwards glance. Digby watched his departure mournfully.
‘I know, silly thing.’ I scooped up the trembling dog. ‘Too much excitement for one day, eh?’
On the kitchen counter, the little packet of confetti glistened in the artificial light. The phone began to ring again. When I picked it up, no one spoke.
The first time I met Alex he was in the middle of a huge row with his father. Back in the day when I still had zest and ambition, I’d finally convinced Charlie to give me my first show to produce alone. I was still a novice really, and impressing my boss mattered massively to me.
Those were the halcyon days of believing I could make some kind of difference in my work; striving to bring great entertainment and vital information to the masses. My future soared out before me, rainbow-like: my future, chasing fool’s gold. It wasn’t so long ago but it felt like an eternity. With the bit truly clamped between my teeth, I’d spent days agonising over a subject I thought was imperative and timely for debate, and then I went with all guns blazing to persuade Malcolm Bailey to appear.
Malcolm Bailey was a thug-made-good – though it took me a while to fully realise it. Infamous for championing unfashionable causes, he’d originally made his money with a raft of
innovative computer equipment in the eighties; then he’d used his business clout to buy airtime for his controversial opinions. He was truly Left, left of left, old Left: his political heart belonged in Russia circa the Revolution, though he certainly wasn’t averse to a bit of what money could buy, principles or none. And he was full of the things – principles, that is. Chock-f.
I needed Malcolm desperately for the show I was producing on domestic violence: I had to prove to Charlie that I could come up with the goods, and Malcolm would be a truly contentious booking. Unfortunately he’d already sensed my desperation and, calling the shots, arranged an early breakfast meeting on a Monday morning at his new offices in Clerkenwell. I’d spent a hideous weekend working all hours, and then had finally slid into bed on the Sunday night only to be woken by the phone. In the first stages of Alzheimer’s, Gar was not well at all, and in the end I’d slept in the chair by her bed in the nursing-home, waking stiff, sore and late, not to mention terrified by my grandmother’s fragile state.
By the time I’d screeched into the foyer of Bailey’s building a minute before eight, I was beside myself with exhaustion and ill humour. The offices were part of a new block that was causing a huge row – ecological triumph or eyesore, the jury was still out. Frankly, this morning I was past caring. I was more interested in the offer of coffee that Bailey’s ferocious PA Charlene made as she escorted me humourlessly to the tenth floor.
‘Strong as you can make it, please.’ Light-headed with lack of sleep, I collapsed onto a boomerang-shaped leather chair outside Bailey’s office and, spotting a big glass ashtray, delved for my cigarettes.
‘It’s strictly no smoking.’ Charlene pursed her thin lips and thrust a paper cup of very weak coffee at me. She had a hairy mole just below her left nostril. ‘Mr Bailey’s first meeting is over-running.’
I smiled wanly. It was only eight a.m. The man was obviously possessed.
I was nursing the unpalatable coffee when a door was flung open somewhere out of sight, smacking against a wall; angry voices crashing into the lobby. Charlene busied herself, loudly ordering a car for Bailey in ten minutes (my heart sank further at the little time this left me) – but, despite her best efforts, I caught every word.
‘You’re fucking mad, Pa. You’ll make yourself a laughing stock. You only do it to be provocative, that’s what pisses me off so much.’
An imperious Cockney drawl replied, rough as a rake on gravel, the words drowned by the phone now ringing on Charlene’s desk. She snapped into it officiously.
‘Of course it’s my right.’ The first voice again. ‘I’m embarrassed you’re even considering it. It makes us all guilty by association. Mum’ll go mental.’
‘You get on with what you’re good at, all right, Alexander, whatever that might be, and let me get on with what I’m good at.’ A chair scraped across tiles. ‘And when I want your opinion, or your mother’s, I’ll ask for it.’
‘You couldn’t give a toss about either of our opinions, that’s exactly my point. I give up.’
A tall man strode out into the lobby and then stopped at the sight of me. Furious yellow eyes blazed down at me, a newspaper rolled tightly like an offensive weapon in a rather scarred hand, knuckles grazed on two fingers. He looked like he was contemplating hitting me over the head with the paper. I attempted a charming smile.
The other voice was on the phone now. ‘And get that fucking
git out of my doorway, all right? It don’t look good for business.’
There was the clatter of the receiver being dropped into its cradle, then a barrel-chested man strolled indolently out of the office, hands in pockets.
‘Aha.’ Malcolm Bailey leaned in the doorway, studying me. ‘Maggie Warren, I presume.’ A statement: a man who always knew he was right; a strong, cruel face, a prize-fighter’s stance.
I stood quickly, aware that my flaming skin was now clashing with my hair most unattractively. ‘Yes. Yes, hello.’ I stepped forward to shake Malcolm’s hand, my cigarettes falling to the floor as I did so. The younger man and I both bent to retrieve them, clashing heads in the process.
‘God, sorry.’ I rubbed my forehead with an embarrassed smile.
He didn’t speak; just handed me the packet inscrutably. I noticed how chewed his fingernails were.
‘So you’ve met my son, Alexander,’ Malcolm smirked. He was much shorter than the younger man, but he seemed giant-like now in his superiority. ‘This is his place, you know.’ Was that pride or contempt in his tone? I couldn’t quite fathom it.
‘Alex Bailey.’ Alex shoved the rolled copy of the
into the back pocket of well-worn jeans, and rubbed his face tiredly. I had the uncomfortable notion that the paper he’d just pocketed was the copy that had originally attracted me to Malcolm Bailey. A strongly worded article on the reasons behind male-on-female domestic violence, and the rights that Bailey felt the perpetrators deserved, despite their criminal actions.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ I lied, offering Alex my hand now. He didn’t want to take it, I could tell, but eventually good manners overcame his anger. ‘Are you the owner of the building? It’s amazing.’ Desperate now, I tried flattery.
‘Hardly. I’m just the architect.’ He didn’t look like an architect. He looked like a workman. ‘One of them, I should say.’
‘Pa’ ignored us both, looking at the fag-packet I clutched. ‘You don’t smoke, do you, Maggie? Tut tut. Not a nice habit for a young lady. We don’t like smokers, do we, Alex?’
‘Oh, only occasionally, you know.’ I shoved my cigarettes away. Tiredness was slowing my brain, my grandmother’s delicate
coughing frame my main concern. I didn’t have the energy for a bully like Bailey right now, and this situation with his furious son was making me nervous. They’d obviously been arguing about my show. I’d built my career on coolness; on the ability to keep calm in a stressful situation. Axe-murderers, paedophiles, soapstars – I’d met the lot without so much as stuttering. So it was bizarre that I was struggling right now. As I tried to collect my thoughts, Malcolm’s gaze penetrated me like Clark Kent’s X-ray vision.
‘What can I do you for then, Ms Warren?’
I cleared my throat, wishing his son’s eyes weren’t boring into me like two yellow flints. ‘Well, Mr Bailey,’ I began my pitch, ‘it’s more what you might like to share with us.’
‘You’re desperate to hear my thoughts, you mean.’
Another statement. Unconsciously I took a step nearer his son, who considered me for a moment before heading towards the door. Then he stopped, running a hand through his short dishevelled hair so it became a mountain range of tufts and spikes.
‘Actually, you know what,’ he turned back. ‘I’ll join you, shall I? I’d love to hear what exactly my dad’s got to say.’
. I forced a smile as Alex grinned at me, his strong face illuminated suddenly, his eyes shining. ‘And I’m dying to know how you’re going to persuade him.’
‘Right. Well, yes, of course, please do join us.’ I managed to hold the false smile as I followed the two men into Bailey’s office. The fact that at least one of them possessed some kind of morals was small help. I felt exactly like I was off to face a firing squad.