It’s true, I couldn’t shake off the concern that smashing his half-sister on his birthday in his house might tarnish our friendship. That’s the kind of guy I am, have always been. There she was, nuzzling up against me, her simper nibbling at my heart, and I stood thinking. Anybody else would have reached for a jacket, cadged a condom and led her to felicity untold. Where did I go? Back to my bed. Where did she go? Back to her baby, her boyfriend. Oh well, I’m sorry, darling, but what can I say? You met a thinker.
Larry Nixon’s the name. Let me introduce myself. Luscious brown locks coated with D:FI D3struct wax, which conceal the virility of my eyebrows, brush my flushed earlobes and outcurve at the back; amber eyes; pitted and fiercely pilose cheeks; three-day stubble (thank god for BaByliss); a lower lip like wrung rope; and, the reason for my brooding countenance, substantial overbite. The sum of these features: a shamelessly raffish visage, I’d say.
Let’s move down. Nothing of note on the neck. But the shoulders, oh the shoulders. They’re home to a panoply of spots: sessile mounds, tension-bloomers, cerise flares, you name it. No cream helps. No lack or abundance of light helps. Trust me, I’ve prostrated myself beneath the most pitiless sun. And did it work? Did it fuck. I have my theory. I think it’s the showers: those thirty-five minute saturnalias soothe the mind, but they desiccate the skin. Seriously. I’m telling you. Forswear them. I will too. We’ll do this together. Ah, who am I kidding?
On to physique then. I’m tall. That’s ineluctable. Six-one, last I checked. And I’m skinny: artfully skinny. Buying me a turtleneck? XS thanks. Buying me a blazer? XS thanks. You won’t find me in sloppy fleeces: try fedoras, try Oxford shirts, try black jeans, try Chelsea boots—and jewellery: the necklace du jour is the eighteen-centimetre gunmetal double-chain choker; no New Age beads, no tribal bunkum.
Right. That’s the basics felled. I’ll rig up the background. I’m twenty-five, I work in greeting cards, I live at home. There we are. Additional details: the father’s a bibulous life coach, the mother’s a depressive housewife, and the brother’s a disabled video-game addict. Not the fab four, but, hey, we’re a family. We keep ourselves to ourselves. We manage fine.
Sure, you say, but what’s so special about you, then, Larry? What’s your story?
Well, I was nursing my coffee this morning, reflecting on my solicitude, on my decision not to bonk Brett’s half-sister, and it hit me.
Larry, I thought, you’re an inveterate overthinker, you really are. Still, why always repine? The life of a cognitive creature is arduous—of course it is—but, man, you can cash in on your cross. In amatory affairs, you’ve come a long way in the last month. I mean, the lead-up to New Year’s Eve was a bona fide climacteric. Let your mind loose on that: pen your tale. You’ve been wanting to give The Great 21st Century Novel a bash for years. Now you have your material, your odyssey. Everything’s in place. You’ve read edaciously, and, well, Lord knows you have no difficulty in angling the mot juste.
I nodded then. I’m nodding now.
Two packs of Camels repose on the window ledge. The ashtray is spotless. The lighter fizzles and flames. And a bottle of red wine—organic Cabernet Sauvignon—abuts the table lamp.
To the crescendo tinkle of the seven am alarm, I stirred, relinquished my polar bear, threw off the duvet and scrambled out of bed. In the bathroom, I brushed teeth, sluiced face in cool water, lathered cheeks and shaved. Downstairs, I necked a raspberry-and-peach smoothie, had a lustrous piss and then shuffled into the shower. Half an hour later, splashed with the banana fragrance of body wash, the vanilla of shampoo and the coconut of conditioner, I emptied a bowl of Fuel muesli, while, in the background, a grizzled news presenter bleated on: something about the high street, something about shops slipping into administration.
The journey from Shenfield to Liverpool Street lasted twenty-three minutes: not long, then, and it wouldn’t have felt long if the carriage hadn’t been ill-equipped, rammed and frowsty. There was no chance of a comfortable seat. The key was not to seek a seat. The key was to jostle for a metal handrail, something to lean against, a nook for luxuriating over the TLS or the LRB. To let other suckers rove the train for the few inches of spare fabric, invariably sited between snifflers or paunchy herberts.
The tube was no more agreeable. There, success was squeezing on, inclining your head, clutching your bag. After six minutes on the central line, I alighted at Holborn. Half an hour to spare, ample time for a coffee, a cigarette.
Ah, December: the month of niveous hopes, crackers and Lucullan meals was my third at Felicitations.
9:28. I stubbed out my cigarette, hauled open the black iron door, winked at Lizzie, our svelte receptionist, and sauntered to the lift. In front of a full-length mirror, I elevated my fringe, let it fall and then brushed some hairs softly from right to left. Once the wind-damage had been suitably patched up, I stepped in, rapped the rutilant two. The floor was occupied by three teams: UK sales, European sales and us, the Scribblers. Together with five other saps, I had the perennial task of formulating sunlit witticisms, mnemogenic puns, bawdy tag lines. (A personal pinnacle was have a ha pea birthday: the card’s cover featuring a dehiscent pod from which rapturous peas were flying forth.) With the last-order date for Valentine’s Day having passed, our workload was thinning, so considerable time could now be spent on the intranet.
The Scribblers: four men, two women. Unlike the sales reps, we had our own islands. On mine I had a laptop, a couple of cracked pens, a highlighter, the COED, the COT, The King’s English and The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin.
Ginger sat to my right. She’d joined in August. How to characterise my companion? Well, she was large, but in an awfully agreeable manner: buxom, comely. A thirty-six-year-old single mother, her cheeks would mantle with excitement as she prattled on about her daughter’s lunchbox, her ballet lessons, her forthcoming theatre production. I would nod politely, re-reviewing her rack. Of late we’d become acquaintances, even friends. Her father was a novelist, and, though not an artist herself, she could recognise a selfless soul and enthused over my formidable concinnity. I’d brought in CDs for her to listen to, Dylan, Cohen, and lent her some books, Faulkner, David Foster Wallace, Nabokov, all of which, with my imprimatur, she’d sucked up. Yes, we had a first-rate working relationship.
The others? Dmitri, a forty-one-year-old film buff with a stentorian voice and a penchant for khaki slacks and slippery leather jackets. Ralph, a bespectacled physics graduate, whose shirt pocket was stocked with two pencils, an eraser, a sharpener and a compass. Sarah, a pink-haired R&B fan, who’d inveigled Safari into auto-updating her Facebook profile every four minutes. And Brett, whom I lunched with: a mesomorphic grammarian well known for his outré T-shirts, his taste for marzipan and his weekly trips to the zoo.
I slipped out of my coat, set down my coffee and turned on my laptop. What have we here? Larry, I fucking love your sentences! Larry, you should send this to Rolling Stone! Larry, when are you going to write your first novel? Before spooring homophones, I would trawl through my inbox, rereading the emails I’d saved, reminding myself of the exact wording of my colleagues’ encomia. Larry, I wouldn’t ever have been able to think of that! Supernumerary? You’re shit-hot today! Thereafter the morning dragged: listless rumination punctuated only by fitful messages from Ginger and bass-heavy YouTube links from Sarah.
I kept an eagle eye on the time. 12:30: I slouched over to Brett.
‘Hey, I’m sans comestibles. Shall we hit the Rainforest Cafe?’
‘It’ll be chock-full past one. We should head down now.’
‘Nah. We’ll be fine. Chill.’
‘Coat. Satchel. Sorted. We can have a smoke on the way.’
‘Ten minutes, man. I want to listen to “Suicide Policeman”.’
‘It’s Yuck’s new track. Six out of ten in NME.’
‘Screw that. Come on.’
Thanks to the promise of a family-size Rasta Pasta, Brett straggled behind me.
‘Just going to pop to the loo,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back in a sec.’
The venerable pre-lunch piss: I knew his bladder wouldn’t betray me.
I hotfooted it to the kitchen, transferred Mother’s mixed-leaf sandwich from satchel to bin, wheeled round, smoothed out the collar of my All Saints shirt and then marched into reception. Twenty to. At least ten minutes before every cad in the building would be here.
‘How are you?’
‘Oh, comme ci, comme ça.’
‘Had a busy morning?’
‘Not really. A few calls.’
‘Great. Manage to snatch some reading then?’
‘A few pages.’
‘Terrific. And what are you revelling in?’
‘A book by. Erm. Oh, Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner.’
‘Fabulous. Enjoying it?’
‘Are you rea—’
‘Me? I’ve just been rereading The Seven Types of Ambiguity. William Empson. What a close reader! He’s one of the forerunners of New Criticism, along with his lecturer I. A. Richards, of course. Funnily enough, Paul de Man avers that Empson’s also a forerunner of deconstruction. But. Anyway. Empson’s dissection of the “Come, seeling Night” passage in Macbeth—oh, it’s imperishable. The man writes with such elan. You know, I think you’d lap it up. I really do. If you want to tuck in when I’m finished, just let me know. This copy’s a bit foxed, but—’
Larry, you beast.
‘So. Did you have a pleasurable weekend?’ I continued.
‘It was fine. I went to a restaurant with my parents on Saturday and saw a film on Sunday.’
‘Excellent. Which film?’
‘Friends with Benefits I think it was called.’
Oh, Larry, you are in.
‘And how was it?’
Running out of material here though.
Running out of adjectives too. Christ, Brett, how much coffee did you consume?
‘Yeah. I like films. I ordered a Bergman box set last night: his religious faith trilogy. My favourite? That will eternally be Through a Glass Darkly, though—’
‘Sorry, Larry, there was a line.’
I slapped him on the back: if you want to impress a woman, there’s no substitute for tactile camaraderie.
‘Well, it was lovely talking to you, Lizzie. Let me know when you want to borrow the book. I’ll see you later on.’
Settling into a colloquy on the use of ‘should’ in conditional and purposive clauses, we made our way to Shaftesbury Avenue.