For Life: a novella in progress 5

Five: James

James clicked off his phone in the lift before he left the building. Why the hell would he want to see Rob looking alive on a flat screen when he’d never be 3D again? It was Manda’s own variation on fake news and she was spreading it all over. Maybe he should have checked how many followers she had these days. Maybe he should have told her the blindingly obvious truth that it wasn’t what Rob would have wanted, not being egotistical or maudlin either. It was her tribute, and she needed it more than he needed any three-day weekend, but she might be better off with a flotation tank, jewel therapy, or even an averagely unhealthy intake of booze.

   Remembering the tender concern on Jacquie’s face, he wondered whether she might have consented to sex, however pitying, if she’d been single – instead of a still-happily-married grandma. Not that he’d been lusting after her for the twelve years she’d worked for him – not often anyway – but he’d dreamed it rather vividly, which was disconcerting. Libby thought he should sign up to a dating agency, but he wouldn’t know how to start, not after three years of celibacy. He must progress beyond up-market dinners in foil containers.

   People talked about being stunned by grief. And when he thought of animals in abattoirs – which Manda had done a lot, before she went vegan like Rob – that was how it still felt, sometimes: knocked cold and out of it. Except that sometimes he was much too awake and everything was too bright and real and normal, as if it never happened.

   James was heading for the coffee shop in the mews opposite when he rerouted, picturing too many customers on their phones, and Omar who would probably put a kind arm around him before he’d even ordered. Omar, who’d only run that café for a year or so but was an online friend of Manda’s for reasons no one had explained. Instead he crossed the road to the small park where bees buzzed around the lavender. Apart from a couple of teenage lads spread out on the grass and smoking what might be weed, and a slow old man walking an ever slower dog, it was quiet. James made for the recently installed water fountain and drank like a schoolboy, wiping his jacket and shirt collar with his hand before he realised it would dry in seconds under the sun.

   A young mum walked past, pushing a buggy where a child wailed. “I know, hun, it’s too hot,” she muttered, her tone tight.

   For some reason he thought of wispy Gem, who cried so silently at the funeral that he almost didn’t see the tears. He took off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder like a model from a TV ad, Sixties-style. Already his head seemed to be soaking up the heat, leaving his hair damp at the edges. Not the day for a walk after all. Squinting ahead at a pub he could already hear, he imagined a pint of lager, spilling foamy and cold from a tankard. Rob’s drink, when he wasn’t downing kale smoothies. There were people sitting outside under sunshades; the salty scent of fried food raised his hopes of chips, thick ones. The place would be heaving but no one would know him. If he chose, he could watch that film of Manda’s unnoticed.

   Once inside, waiting to get close to the bar, he started to watch the clock. He had a big client in the diary for two thirty. Even though he was only half a mile or so from the office, he didn’t normally venture this far and felt oddly out of his orbit as he tried not to assess the earning potential of the other suits, some of them half his age. Then he saw Nick. Rob’s Nick, his best mate and co-owner of the car that Rob wrote off…

   “James? Mr Craig?” Nick rose from a table beside an open window and beckoned him over. He was holding a beer, but looked longer and leaner than ever. No suit, just jeans and a loose, cream linen shirt. Nick was a photographer, a creative. His hair length proved it.

   “What are you doing here?”

   “I’m on a job.” Nick checked the time on his phone. “Good to see you, but weird that it should be today – you know, after Manda’s film.”

   “I think everyone’s watched that but me.”

   Nick didn’t hide his surprise – or was that incomprehension? Recovering, he said he gave Manda a bit of technical support. James made an “Ah” noise, feeling like the one boy in the class who wasn’t invited to the party.

   “You can’t face it?” Nick asked, not so hearty now.

   James shook his head and without warning his mouth wobbled. Nick laid a hand on his shoulder.

   “I know,” he said. “I still can’t believe he’s gone.”

   Soon James was in the seat Nick insisted on vacating in spite of his resistance. Then Nick was taking drinks orders. The short, curvy woman now looking straight at James with disconcerting openness said, “Pineapple juice for me, thanks,” and added, “I’m Tanya.”

   “Tanya, this is James Craig, the architect. Rob’s dad.”

   Her “Ah” had a softer edge. “I work with Nick, on and off,” she added as Nick joined a queue. He noticed the black varnish on her nails and the perfect shape of her long fingers. Safer, he thought, to look at those than her distracting chest with its sunburned freckled cleavage. Her hair was a colour he might call magenta and he couldn’t estimate her age with any confidence. “I’m sorry you lost your son,” she said.

   He pulled a straight sort of smile and nodded repeatedly. “Thank you.”

   “Nick showed me the film and told me all about him. He was a cool guy. Nick says he’d never have sold out like him.”

   James couldn’t imagine what that meant but he had to agree. “Rob never had any money,” he said, remembering how grubby he used to feel, towards the end, on account of being well off.

   “You must have been proud of him,” Tanya said. “I mean… everyone’s so focused on all that, and status and spending. Sounds like your Rob knew what really matters.”

   “He got all that from his mother,” he told her, and realised he sounded sad. Tanya looked more interested than pitying, and her mouth was full and red. “Look…  the thing is…”

   “You don’t want to talk about it. I get that. So what’s your favourite movie?”

   He didn’t answer exactly, but by the time Nick came back with drinks, they’d discussed Kubrick, Kieslowski’s trilogy, the Coen brothers and her own great love, Mary Poppins. He was laughing at her Dick Van Dyke impression when Nick, noticing a free table outside, led the way to it.

   The wall of heat sapped his spirit just when it had been reviving. He needed to drink up and make a getaway from Nick but he’d be sorry to part from Tanya. And suddenly, as the two colleagues’ bodies brushed together in the act of sitting at the wooden picnic table, he imagined them as lovers. Hoping he wasn’t sweating too visibly but afraid to check his underarm for a dark patch on his best shirt, he squinted into the urban distance.

   “James, I did ask Manda…” began Nick.

   James doubted whether he wanted to hear the rest. Tanya’s sunglasses, produced from a bulging denim handbag, made her look… stylish, yes, but also complete.

   “But she hadn’t heard from Gem. I don’t suppose you…?”

   James hadn’t expected that. “I’m afraid Gem didn’t keep in touch with any of us. Libby had her phone number but they didn’t really hit it off. Sorry. Did you need…?”

   “Ah, no, it’s O.K.” Nick pushed back his hair. “How is Libby?”

   James mentioned the job but not the boredom, the social life but not the boyfriends, the smartness of the new flat but not the emptiness of the fridge. Not the unhappiness he had just realised she felt, or how sad that made him. Needing firmer ground, he explained about his four-day-week in the rundown to retirement, and trying to keep his heart fit.

   “Happiness is more important for health than going to the gym,” said Tanya. “Or diet. I read that but it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

   James felt read. “I guess it is.” But he hadn’t really felt its absence before. This was an unsettling day. He wasn’t even sure that Rob had been happy when he died, but he hoped so, and if it was true then that was down, at least in part, to Gem. As a family they should have been more grateful. They should have made sure she was… what, O.K.? But she barely spoke. She gave them nothing, so how could they tell?

   Nick and Tanya talked work and debated when they should leave. James watched a dog apparently sleeping in the shade under the neighbouring table while its tail wagged slowly. Would Manda have been happy, if he’d lived? Would their marriage have held? He doubted it. Manda would still be grieving, for humanity, the earth, the lost species. He couldn’t imagine where she found the energy.

   Nick took a call. Tanya mouthed that they should be heading off. They began the “Nice to meet you” routine and he thought about kissing one or both cheeks but instead she hugged him. Not a perfunctory hug but no gapping, like a good waltz, and for a few very warm, slightly damp seconds. James felt moved. Then Nick shook his hand, explaining that he was “probably too sweaty for that”, and gave him his business card. They walked away in step, talking and purposeful but relaxed too.

   James looked at the lager tepid now in his glass. He checked the business card. Nick Gorski was based in Highbury so the chances of their paths crossing again were remote, there was no mention of Tanya and no one had used her surname. He remembered how the hug had felt and hoped someone had offered Manda the same kind of gift today. Libby too.

   He turned on his phone and found the film on Twitter. Environmental groups were sharing it. There was an arrow he could click on to begin viewing but he didn’t. Not yet.

   Instead he called Libby, more than half-expecting her answerphone.

   “Dad, I was going to call you. I mean, what the actual… how could she?”

   “It’s her way of remembering. A tribute. And we were told…”

   “She knew how I felt but she did it anyway. I mean, he wasn’t Bowie! The world didn’t have to be invited in on it. He was ours. The loss was ours, right? A private thing. She has no self-control.”

   James sighed. “That’s unfair, Lib. She’s made it public because she wants his life to inspire people.” No response. “Libby?”

   “You always defend her these days.”

   I wouldn’t have to if you didn’t attack. “I just met Nick. He was her technical adviser.”

   Libby wanted to know what Nick was doing and he wished he had a clearer idea. He remembered she used to have a crush on him at one time. At any rate, she seemed to have cooled down.

   “Have a good afternoon, poppet,” he said, but she’d gone with a quick “Bye”. He was certain she was good at what she did, whatever exactly that was. Manda thought market research was a way of propping up capitalism and when he’d suggested it was better than pole dancing Manda wasn’t sure.

   “You weren’t an eco-warrior at twenty-two,” he’d pointed out. “No,” Manda agreed. “Sadly. Shamefully. But we know better now.” She wouldn’t accept that the majority of people still didn’t look beyond their day to day realities, even though Libby was one of them and she probably included him in the same category.

   It was heartening that Tanya admired Rob; everyone should. But did that mean she was an activist too? Because he wouldn’t want her to make him feel bad. In the early days with Manda the way he’d felt was attractive. Suave was what she’d called him, her own Roger Moore. She’d been a bit of a hippy herself, declaring a hatred of shoes, but a well brought-up grammar school girl with manners to pass with his parents. And a sense of humour that meant a laugh he called dirty although it was really just abandoned.

   He supposed the world gave her little to laugh at now. But there were concerts and exhibitions and some good dramas on TV, and he hoped Tanya might want to experience some of them with him. Maybe he was still attractive for his age, as long as hers wasn’t unacceptably different. And she didn’t prefer Nick.

   What was selling out, really, and had he been doing it all his life?

Chapter Six will be posted on Friday 15th February at 5:30 UK time.

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