Rubbing soap about his body, he thought of Rose-Maria. In his mind it was her body that his hands were moving over. But not as if she were in front of him—rather as if his mind were inside her body, as if his mind were pinioned on top of her body and her body below him. He began to understand his presence in the world as her presence, so that the dimensions were no longer him but her; her naked body in the shower and his hands running over breasts and curving pelvis, touching knotted pubic hair. His fingers, moving over his own body, could almost feel the small bump of her beauty spots, one by her collarbone, one by her hip. And then, as his body, her body, relaxed into the warmth and his eyes opened, the image left him and he was returned to the clarity of this chore. He finished washing, turned off the shower and began to dry his body in the cold.
Rose-Maria left an hour before. ‘Gosh,’ she had said, ‘I’m late,’ and from doing hardly anything at all, had grabbed six different things, put them in her bag, dressed for the outside in a continuous glide towards the front door and was gone. And Roy still sat in bed. He’d gone back to sleep for another forty minutes, the morning radio directing his now more vivid dreams so that he felt that it were he alone who was responsible for the financial crisis, that it somehow was his very body, that near but not quite unseemly thing, which was riddled by debt, as if numbers were a pathogen. He’d had to tunnel up to consciousness.
At the bank, he woke his computer from its sleep with a cruel tap of the mouse; got a coffee as his desktop appeared. His face felt a little thick, his mind peering at things from the back of the room. Holding his coffee-cup, his clumpy, hair-splotched hand looked for a moment (like some woman on the opposite platform seen through a moving train) to be her hand, to be Rose-Maria’s slender hand, red nailed, curved about the large mug.
‘Mr Samplen, he lives to tell the tale,’ said Gary as he approached.
‘I have quite the headache,’ answered Roy.
‘A good night,’ declared Gary.
‘Pretty good,’ said Roy.
Roy finished his coffee, went to his desk. He worked an acceptable day of work, returned home.
‘Gosh,’ said Rose-Maria, ‘I thought we had cream. We’ll have to do a different sauce.’
‘Sure,’ said Roy.
‘I mean, you could pop-out if you wanted,’ said Rose-Maria.
‘Sure,’ answered Roy.
Roy found his hat, picked up her coat by mistake, then found his and put it on; he left the house and walked over to the garage for cream. In the queue, he unbrokenly starred at the Dairy Milk bars by the side of the counter, did not buy one. Paid in silence. He was thinking: every German, and Dutch too, he had met, say eleven or twelve, loved Cadbury’s chocolate when they came to England. He wondered if Cadbury’s knew this; he wondered how he could sell this knowledge to them. It is wrong, he thought, to think Europeans are more refined in their taste than us.
‘I got it,’ said Roy, and Rose-Maria took the cream from him.
‘Thanks,’ said Rose-Maria.
Again, she got up before him. She was showered and gone this time before he had noticed she had left the bed. He showered at 7.30; again his body became hers—mundanely he cleaned it, under his shorn armpits, over his breasts, between his legs. He got out, dried his body as if he’d wrapped a towel around his head, as if a long towel were tied around his chest.
At work he read nine new articles on mortgage defaults, prepared a report for his boss. It was tricky to say how things were going to go. He practised his vacillating sentences, managed, he thought, to sound authoritative and responsible, so that he would not be responsible for much. He could not change this, he thought, and he could not predict how it might pan out. His boss wanted to know how things would look at the end of the next quarter.
They could look like anything, Roy thought. ‘Better,’ is what he said, and handed-over a report that was defensible even if everything was worse. He did not like such generality, he did not feel confident with general observation that moved outward from him; he was more comfortable with the specific. Looking past his boss’s shoulder at a window cleaner outside, suspended forty-one stories up in his cradle, Roy thought that perhaps he should have been a window cleaner. Roy sat back at his desk. Before him was a modest unbloomed bunch of daffodils he had bought that morning outside Temple station. They looked like watercolour brushes in a jar, still and solid, as if this was their final state, as if they would never change from this.
On Saturday morning Roy and Rose-Maria had sex. She on top of him; his eyes closed. She moved and leant over him. He thought that as she moved, she was moving into him. He thought that he could feel, could almost feel, how she must feel, with him inside her. He opened his legs a little further apart on the bed, raised his knees as much as he could. His body was unmoving as she moved; it felt reversed: as if it were she that was within him.
When he came, he imagined that nothing was leaving him. It seemed almost as if she came into him. But then he awoke from this imagining, and felt a little open, a little stunned by such silly passing thoughts, and was quiet as she lay by his side.
‘You look sad,’ said Rose-Maria.
‘I’m fine,’ said Roy.
‘Gosh,’ said Rose-Maria, ‘I should shower. They’ll be nothing good left at the market.’
At the market Rose-Maria bought three quail, five shallots, some coriander, a small cheesecake, some potatoes, 100g of Stilton, a bag of pistachio nuts, mushrooms, asparagus, then on the way back she stopped at Sainsbury’s for the rest of what was needed. They were having Gary around to eat that night because Gary had been left by his girlfriend the previous week. It was not clear why.
‘This is a lovely meal,’ said Gary.
‘Thank you,’ answered Rose-Maria.
‘Really delicious,’ said Gary.
Roy ate and enjoyed the meal. Drank more quickly than he would have had it been just the two of them. By the dessert he was, he realised, a little drunk, so that he began to talk less; he was not opinionated at this point, he was a studier, he was, he thought, more keenly understanding. But Gary and Rose-Maria were talkers and laughed and chatted as Rose-Maria went to the shelf for another bottle of wine.
‘Well, she hardly needs any more dancing tips,’ said Rose-Maria as she passed the bottle to Roy for him to open.
‘No, no, but he’ll give them,’ said Gary.
‘It reminds me of Thomas Jenson, do you know him? Took driving lessons with Carol for ages just to see her. Though he could already drive.’
‘Ha! I never knew that,’ said Gary. ‘Why did he not just ask her out?’
‘He’d separated from his wife; I think he wasn’t up for that, not after fifteen years, he needed time to get to know her. For her to know him, I guess.’
‘And does she know?’
‘Oh yes, he mentioned it in his wedding speech. It was a really nice wedding.’
‘Yes, I’d heard that.’
She was flirting. Gary may not have noticed but Roy had. Having watched Rose-Maria now for near six years he knew the actions that she did not know. She was smiling more than normal. She looked down. She played with the corner of the tablecloth. She forgot to glance at him when she talked; she talked only to Gary. It was, Roy thought, quite impossible to know her; despite their closeness, their happiness, there was that final absolute divide—her specific self immensely, terrifically, alien to him. The sudden rush of this realisation held in it something of the sublime, so that his presence seemed, too, to be intensified by it, the concreteness, the solitude, of how he was sat there, eating cheesecake, which was, despite it all, fairly nice cake and worth its cost, watching his partner talking to his friend.
‘Did you know Susie left Derrick?’ asked Gary.
‘Gosh, no,’ said Rose-Maria.
‘Took five hundred pounds from his bank account, flew back to China.’
‘Well, I did, to be honest, think it was always going to be difficult for her,’ said Rose-Maria.
‘Though I never thought she would steal,’ said Gary. ‘You can never tell.’
‘Well,’ said Rose-Maria. ‘It’s hardly stealing; they were together two or three years. He should have paid for her flight home if she wanted to go. Having left a professional job there, to come here to be with him. Knowing Derrick—well, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d asked for the money and he said no.’
‘Is that like Derrick?’ asked Gary. ‘I suppose you can never tell.’
At his desk, his jam jar of daffodils had started to flower. He leaned back in his chair, stretched and yawned. There was a meeting at 9.30, the whole ratings team. The office was quiet, the occasional nervous energy starting up then dissipating quickly. Redundancies were expected.
‘Okay, shall we begin?’ said Roy’s boss, at the front of the conference-room; twenty-seven people stopped talking. ‘I want you all to know, and to know this clearly, one hundred per cent, with no ambiguity: we, Dennis, Dennis & Collzwiski, are not fucked. We…are…not…fucked. It is everyone else who is fucked. I want you to know this: to be confident of this. Now, there will be some redundancies…’
But Roy survived. This is what he said to himself as he walked from the building that evening: I survived. It was as if he were walking unscathed from a burning building, from a bombsite, from some natural disaster. He felt specific; he felt special.
At the pub, Gary toasted everyone’s success. There were eight of them, all men.
‘It had to be done,’ said Gary, ‘in all fairness those fucks had to go.’ And everyone cheered.
‘If you don’t pull your weight, your going to get tossed,’ said George, ‘simple as that. When the tide goes out the boats are full up pretty quickly.’
They were drinking pints of larger and vodka shots. There was a scale model of stacked empties in the middle of the table, like some proposed new business park.
‘I could most definitely get me into that,’ said Brian, eyeing a woman walking passed. ‘Indeedy, indeedy.’
‘Another round, sirs?’ asked Len.
‘Yep, those fucks deserved it,’ said Gary, still thinking his earlier thought.
After showering, he lay naked on the bed. Rose-Maria had gone to the Saturday market. He ran his hands along his sides, parted his legs, moved his fingers between them. When he came, nothing left his body, all stayed within, electric and self-contained, hidden and specific.
He stood and dressed. Rose-Maria arrived home.
‘I thought I’d unpack the shopping,’ she said, ‘and then maybe we could go for a walk in the park.’ She moved into the kitchen and looked out of the window. ‘Oh gosh, looks like its going to rain. Maybe we can just go for a drive.’
‘Sure,’ said Roy. He looked at her mouth as she spoke of where they might go, as if by looking he might sense her mind’s voice. What might it be like, he thought, to be her, right at this moment, what was it to be her?
‘Those mother-fucking fuckers,’ said his boss, a copy of the FT in one hand, a coffee in the other. ‘I knew it, I thought I didn’t but I did.’
He dropped the paper on Roy’s desk and went back to his office. Roy looked down to see an advert from a competitor announcing a new sub-prime product. It was to be expected, he thought.
Roy’s boss opened his office door. ‘We need to react to this before the end of the quarter. We need to attack them. Kill them.’
At lunch, he and Gary sat with Alison from HR in the Pret next door.
‘We should already have had something,’ said Gary. ‘With more people we would have been on top of this.’
‘Don’t look at me,’ said Alison. ‘I’m not involved,’ and she took a too big bite of an all-day-breakfast sandwich, cress sprouting from between her lips as she chewed.
‘Well,’ said Roy, ‘we can be on top of it now. We have enough time to think it through.’
‘We should be aggressive,’ said Gary. ‘There’s money to be made that we’re not making.’
‘I need to head back,’ said Alison, having finished the first half of her sandwich and taking the rest with her.’
‘Not too bad,’ said Gary, looking at Alison as she walked out the door, ‘though she could do with loosing a bit of weight.’
‘You could give her a break,’ said Roy.
‘Jesus,’ answered Gary, ‘what’s got into you?’
Rose-Maria had bought a large bouquet of flowers in full bloom. They looked quite nice in the vase on the windowsill. Lilies and chrysanthemums, he guessed, with some foliage. She had been to the market again. She went every Saturday morning. What kept her going with such enthusiasm? She got out of bed so easily. Even the explanation for this simple volition was kept from him.
She had bought a paper but he did not pick it up. He did not want to read of more problems, of more ill forecasts, of more reports of conspicuous bonuses; these reports had once excited him, amused him, even, but not anymore.
‘I thought I’d maybe head into town, do some clothes shopping. You don’t have to come along,’ said Rose-Maria.
‘Sure,’ said Roy.
‘Thought I might get something nice, for spring.’
‘Yes. That’s fine. I mean, that’s a nice idea.’
‘Good,’ said Rose-Maria, and she left.
He put on the T.V. and sat in his armchair, unattached to the day; he wandered without due purpose over the channels, watched a cookery programme; watched a nature programme; watched a sitcom he had already seen.
He was in his boss’s office. His boss was sat on the corner of his desk, his hands cupping a knee.
‘You’ve definitely kept your head recently, Roy. I’ve noticed. You have that leadership skill in you, I can tell: keeping your head when all about are loosing their heads. That’s Kipling. Do you know Kipling?’
‘Yes, a little, well, a little bit.’
‘He’s good, Roy. Here take this copy. You should read it,’ and the boss took a hardback book from his cabinet and handed it to him.
‘Thank you,’ said Roy.
‘I’m going to let Gary go, Roy,’ said his boss, ‘see if we can’t consolidate things.’
‘I need you to talk to him.’
‘I see. Though isn’t that something for HR?’
‘We’re not letting him go until the end of the day. I need you to have a meeting with him now, for as long as it takes. I need you to get all the information on his customers, everything we need to know that’s in his head that can’t be found in the files: personal numbers, special contacts, future ideas that he has. I want everything.’
‘I see. But how do I do that?’
‘Find a way. Just ask him for it. Say he’s being considered for promotion.’
Roy spoke with Gary for more than two hours. Gary acquiesced for the most part; occasionally he seemed surprised by the detail of Roy’s questions—I don’t understand why you need to know all this, he said. They want me to check that you’re on top of things, said Roy, it’s all fine, just keep on, everything you can remember, all is good. Very well, said Gary, very well. I have no problems with it, don’t mind being looked at, the boss will be amazed at how on top of things I am.
Roy left before the end of the day. When he came to work on Monday, he was given a promotion to Manager of Asset Research. All his flowers were in full bloom, although his desk remained in the same place. Mostly, he felt no different than he had before.
‘I’m going to the market,’ said Rose-Maria, standing over him, beside the bed.
‘I hadn’t notice you get up,’ said Roy.
‘I won’t be long,’ said Rose-Maria.
‘I’ll come along,’ said Roy.
‘Gosh,’ said Rose-Maria. ‘Okay, that’s fine. But you need to be quick.’
‘I won’t shower,’ said Roy, ‘I’ll get dressed straightaway. I’ll be five minutes.’
At the market he felt a little unclean, a little groggy, so that he was a step removed from his surroundings. He was more an observer. She looked quite beautiful as she moved, an unadvertised, ordinary beauty. She seemed untroubled. She bought sweet potato, and cauliflower, which she put into plastic bags that she had balled in a canvas bag over her shoulder. She bought a loaf of apple and rosemary bread. The stall holders seemed to know her, greeted her by name. It was strange for him to see her this way. Roy thought that maybe he too could be this way. And yet he felt quite uncomfortable in offering friendliness to strangers, to stall holders, to waiters, indeed, even to the people he worked with each day. It had always seemed false to him.
That evening, after eating, he sat with a bottle of beer in his armchair. Rose-Maria had driven to her friend’s house in Milton Keynes; the next day she was driving her friend, who could not drive, up to Leeds to see her sick mother.
What might I have been, thought Roy, the T.V. on in front of him, if I’d not been this? He turned the channel over, settled on the middle of a police drama set in Liverpool.
‘A white male,’ said the detective, ‘he’s raped three already and he’ll act again.’
I won’t pretend that it mattered what happened to Gary, thought Roy. Why should it matter? Into his mind came a fantasy that sometimes played to him. He was a sniper, on some high ground far away, firing into the city at a target. The target was never clear to him. Only the feeling was clear, that feeling of control, of the tap of the trigger, of releasing a bullet out into the world. He lent into the daydream so that he was immersed within it, almost as if it were a dream, and he sleeping, until the T.V. flicked to the noise of adverts and he awoke, near ashamed, though he did not wholly sense this.
As if to wash away the thought, he got up and showered. After drying he looked into the smudge-steamed mirror at his body. He looked for a long time. Gosh, he said. Gosh, gosh, gosh, gosh, he said, quietly, repeatedly, the word losing meaning but keeping its gentle comforting sound, his lips pursing and relaxing each time he said the word until the word became an incantation, until he saw a beauty spot appear by his collarbone, and one by his hip, until his pelvis widened, and his skin smoothed, becoming in the mirror a changed thing.