ROOM ON TOP
Unfortunately merely hospitalised. Billy Swift unfurled the Telegraph which he
bought principally for the crossword. At least the bugger wouldn't be in the
depot. The news had been broken by Elaine Wiggins. As pleasant to his mind as
Evans was repugnant. Was it true he wished him dead ? Yes. The platitudes of
family, school and church assailed him. Sod it. I'd be glad if he was. The
crowded double-decker plunged downhill towards the river, swerved left with a
cardiac tilt then right with a dramatic compensation to negotiate the
roundabout, and uphill again. Work. Bloody work. Late. Well, so was she. Elaine,
he would say to her on the bus station, may I lick your will you marry me what
if... They piled off as every morning, and on again. She offered him a polo.
Clever remarks about holes and tongues flooded his brain.
liked the town but worked miles out of it on a lonely industrial estate whose
only intercourse was with a lugubrious crematorium.
should’ve got a job in town," he said to her.
gazed out of the window and made no reply. Visible in her bag was a copy of
Loving. Sexual advice. Someone was doing it. Probably. No doubt. Shit. Should've
been a bloody film star. He looked at the paper. The Russians had gone into
"Bastards!" he muttered.
know nothing about sexual positions."
"You're bloody cracked you are !"
A faraway country of
which we know little," he smiled.
You're a bloody nut
case you are."
I'm a bloody nut case I
am. He looked in the mirror. In the crease above the flair of his nose two
whiteheads had appeared despite his ministrations at seven thirty. He squeezed
them and splashed his face with hot water then cold. Needs a bloody blow lamp.
On the right of his chin he could feel beneath the skin the pulse of an
incipient red swelling. He touched it with the tip of his finger. Big bugger on
the way. Companion for the three-day-old carbuncle right between his eyes, on
the broad bridge of his nose.
He swung into the
office and strode to his swivel chair. Joe had a Senior Service burning between
his lips and he gave off the smell of stale beer like Elaine reeked of Chanel.
They would work through the morning as they did each morning and Joe would slip
Billy's paper under his jacket as if no-one could tell and spend half an hour in
the gents conning form. If work and pleasure are parallel lines Billy was
walking the rail of the latter. He did this, he did that. It was the job. What
was it for ? Who cares! Joe, on the other hand, was compulsive for the horses,
the dogs, the fags, the beer, the birds. He was a devout Catholic.
“Black tea, luvvie!"
At ten thirty, Mrs
Kirkham, who had once called him the boy with the come-to-bed eyes, brought her
serendipitous trolley to a halt by his desk. To go to bed with her or a woman
like her would have been to Swift the pinnacle of disgust. That beneath the bulk
of her white overall which seemed to cover three cardigans, even on the hottest
days of August, there skulked indeed a femininity which desired fulfilment like
any other, was beyond his tender imagination. In addition, she brewed tea the
Arabs sink wells for.
The internal phone,
which squatted on the end of the desk like a predatory beetle, emitted a
ferocious whine, the aural signature of Jock Craig, warehouse supervisor.
"Fack me, laddie!"
Swift smiled at the
obnoxious Mrs Kirkham as she pushed her two tiers of unpalatable wares into the
"Wet tha fack d'ya call
"What's the problem,
“You're the facking
Swift reflected that
had the Russians really wanted to put the shits up the Czechs, they could have
called for Jock. He was absorbing his insults through his right ear as the shaky
partition rattled and the door admitted Elaine.
“Yes. Yes." he
"What the fack ya
talkin' aboot, laddie!"
“Yes. Of course."
Swift replaced the
receiver, swivelled in the direction of the pert seventeen year-old. All
five-feet three of her. She held her chin slightly aloft and he could never
conclude whether this was the result of snootiness or the weight of the blonde
hair that hung to her delicious bottom. He smiled his crooked little smile and
the idea of his come-to-bed-eyes danced in his brain. The beetle whined. He
flicked the disabling switch. Elaine walked haughtily past but the residue of
her loveliness was the drug that kept him at his desk. Her breasts were utterly
silent yet articulate. They asked him to fondle and kiss them. He flicked the
switch again and the beetle screeched.
"Feck me, laddie!"
Joe clanged through the
partition door and waddling on his splayed feet and the tree-trunk legs which
supported the mass of his prodigious belly, returned to the desk and slipped the
obvious paper on top of the pigeon holes
"Jock's going loopy!"
urged Swift, his hand over the mouthpiece
Joe took it from him.
"Hello Jock. What's the
He had an emollient
voice. On the keyboard of his emotions anger was a dead note and Swift, whose
temper flared like a matched gas-jet, tried to imitate his elder. His listened,
picked ready salted Smiths from his greasy packet and tried to think of an
excuse for following Elaine. As no excuse could be found, he got up and followed
without one. She was on her tiptoes leaning forward through the hatch which
communicated with telesales and her little blue skirt dotted with white flowers
had ridden up over her bum into whose pulse-accelerating fissure her white
knickers were disappearing. The Image was branded onto Swift's brain like those
others in the tormenting mental photo-album whose pages he turned slowly alone
in bed. She straightened, closed the hatch, swung round and walked towards him.
"Want a crisp?"
She eyed the derisory
crumbs in the pit of the crumpled bag.
"You're blocking the
"I'm trying to stop the
"Excuse me, William."
William Now I call that
polite, don't you? Six months my junior and she addresses me with punctilious
Joe thrust his head
round the door as he straightened his tie.
"Temple wants us in his
Swift squashed between
his fingertips the last disintegrating morsels of fried potato, screwed up the
packet and seeing no handy bin stuffed it into his trouser pocket.
"What's this about ?"
he said to his mentor as they rushed for the stairs.
"I'll just nip for a
Swift examined himself
in the mirror. Yes, as expected, more whiteheads had matured since nine o'clock.
One, tight and juicy, had flowered on the end of his nose. The humiliating
thought that Elaine had looked straight at him oozed through his brain. He set
his fingernails at either side of the pustule and squeezing sharply with the
expertise of a veteran speckled the mirror with off-white pus. He wiped away the
smear as the blood trickled and dripped into the basin. Dousing a paper towel in
cold water he dabbed frenetically but it wouldn't abate. Oh shit! Temple was
waiting! He threw back his head and applied the soaking pad firmly. For the
first time in his two years of employment with VFD Ltd he was looking at the
ceiling in the gents. What has that ceiling to do with me ? Why this ceiling and
not any other ? The thought brought a curious calm. Was this merely a dream? Was
the deputy manager really waiting for him below?
Thank God for that!
After some minutes the bleeding had stopped but the shiny red wound on the end
of his snout glowed like a Christmas light. He bounced down the stairs, tapped
on Temple's door.
Temple was behind
Evans's desk with that customary expression of self-referential, low-key
excitement on his face, as though he were being secretly, slowly fellated by a
concealed, kneeling secretary. In the seats opposite were Joe, Jock Craig and
Albert Brown, the West Indian cold-store supervisor.
"Excuse me," offered
Swift as he sat beside Joe.
"Don't you think you
should fasten your collar before you come to see me?"
Temple had a faint
Welsh accent and talked to his staff as if from the top of the Eiffel tower.
Swift fumbled with his button. As he sat down the crisp packet in his pocket
Now you'll all have
heard," began Temple, sententious as a politician, "the sad news about Mr Evans.
It seems the heart attack was serious and he may be in hospital for some time."
Swift felt rising from
his feet the impulse to jump and dance.
"Of course, that means
in his absence I shall assume his responsibilities, and there are one or two
Changes? Swift let his
eyes drift towards the window, the bottom half of which was opaque. The
transparent upper section permitted him a view of the sky across which at that
moment a flight of small birds, maybe starlings, black, quick and free, was
passing. Why did the sight of the birds make him think at once of Elaine? Her
pubic hair would be light brown, thick and springy. What would his life be worth
if he were never to run his fingers through that wiry bush of concealment?
Temple must have spoken
for some minutes during which Swift had floated out of the office and into his
delicious daydreams. He was awoken by Temple's sharp enunciation of his name.
"Do you understand
A decisive knock and
Temple let forth his automatic command of entrance Elaine came in with a floppy,
triplicate document in her hand.
"Sorry, Mr Temple."
Swift detected a
semi-quaver of obsequiousness in her voice which disappointed him.
"This needs to be
signed so we can....”
The ersatz manager had
already taken his fat, expensive fountain-pen from his breast pocket. Eiaine
leaned forward slightly to hand him the requisition and the seam of her knickers
was momentarily visible to the assembled men Joe and Albert exchanged salacious
"I think our new
regime...." began Temple as Elaine's bottom bounced enticingly from the room.
At four that afternoon
the fleximachines fell silent and Joe and Billy bade an internal farewell to
their evening's freedom. The engineer was a called immediately and arrived at
six by which time the two young clerks were before the dartboard in the Bell and
Bottle where Joe, imitating his father who had been for years a tap-room
hustler, playing for pints and a few bob, was about to win their fifth game of
Twice Round and Two Tops.
"He's an even bigger
twat than Evans," he observed as his last arrow sank with a deadened thud into
the double twenty slot.
"What are these
changes, then ?" asked the eighteen-year-old.
listening!" Joe raised his thick, dark brows mischievously as he quaffed the
last half of his pint. " Come on we'd better get back."
They picked up the
packets of sandwiches prepared for them by the fat, obliging, prosperous
The lights were still
on in reception. Elaine working late too! The quiet depot! Obscure corners! As
they passed she was clicking away at the typewriter and showed no sign of
"I'll be sniffing round
that later!” boasted Joe.
Swift was baffled by
his work-mate's licentious pursuit of all girls but his fiancé who was to be
virgin at marriage, in keeping with Catholic dogma. He thought of the chaste
kisses they must exchange as he thought simultaneously of his devastating lust
and love for the blonde typist. They bounded up the stairs, hung their jackets
on the back of their chairs and began sorting the dockets now spewing by the
yard in regularly perforated six inch squares from the rattling machines. At
seven thirty they paused for sandwiches and Joe took from his drawer , where it
lay beneath the half-completed, monthly statistical returns, a copy of
Penthouse. He set his feet on the desk as he flicked through the sheeny images
and chewed on beef and onion on white. Swift glanced over his shoulder at the
huge breasts, the assorted muffs, the unnatural and posed expressions of the
faces and was semi-tumescent when the door clicked and slammed and Elaine came
gliding on her perfect legs and Scholes sandals towards the flexiroom. He looked
at Joe, the magazine.
“Put it in the drawer!”
As Elaine drew level
with him Joe exposed the centrefold. The angel from reception conned the
picture, smiled coyly, looked away and went through the door.
"See that! I'm in!" Joe
jumped up leaving the magazine on the desk.
The thought of him
being in was too distressing for Swift to contemplate. The mortifying vision of
the moment of inness invaded his mind like a disease. He hallucinated the sound
of her pleasure. Horrible! Horrible!
Joe disappeared into
the flexiroom and moments later Elaine emerged, glanced at the lewd publication,
ignored the pleading come-to-bed eyes of the besotted clerk and went straight to
the tiny staff kitchen at the rear of the office. Joe was five seconds behind
her. He picked up his masturbation fodder, winked at Swift as though the lad
would be impressed, and followed the girl into the ante-room closing the door
At first it was
laughter. Then whoops, sharp-edged cries of surprise, longer notes of delight,
finally, a prolonged silence which indicated their retreat into the cubby-hole
of a filing-room. Was there space! Swift counted and sorted dockets as his heart
worked more manically than a fleximachine. He set them in neat piles topped with
the loadsheet on which he scribbled the driver's name, the number of drops, the
estimated mileage and hours. Never had he toiled so rapidly. By the time the
machines had exhausted themselves, he had caught up with their furious rhythm.
He went to the gents and looked in the mirror. Three whiteheads in a tidy row
curved round the fold of his right nostril. He squeezed them: one, two, three.
He collected his dismal, penultimate overcoat from the cloakroom and as he was
about to go down the stairs, Elaine appeared, swept past him, rushed ahead and
he heard the door of the downstairs ladies open and close.
He went down and
through reception where the light still burned and the typist's chair which bore
the imprint of her exquisite rotundity sat, at the angle of its abandonment,
before the loaded typewriter. Outside in the night he looked up at the office
windows. Joe was checking his work, his white sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a
cigarette stuck to his lower lip.
"Russian bastards!" he
said to himself and set off at a sprint towards the road along which, in the
distance, he saw his virtually empty, illuminated double-decker, speeding
towards the deserted stop out of the impenetrable, Siberian darkness.