ROOM ON TOP
Dead ? 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.
He liked the town but worked miles out of it on a lonely industrial estate whose only intercourse was with a lugubrious crematorium.
"I should’ve got a job in town," he said to her.
She 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 Czechoslovakia overnight.
"Bastards!" he muttered.
" What about 'em?”
"They know nothing about sexual positions."
"You're bloody cracked you are !"
"They've invaded Czechoslovakia."
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 flexi-room.
"Wet tha fack d'ya call this,laddie!"
"What's the problem, Jock?"
“You're the facking prooblem, laddie!"
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 twittered complacently
"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 trouble?"
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 door."
"I'm trying to stop the Russians."
"Excuse me, William."
William Now I call that polite, don't you? Six months my junior and she addresses me with punctilious formality.
Joe thrust his head round the door as he straightened his tie.
"Temple wants us in his office, now!"
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 slash."
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 crackled impertinently.
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.
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 that, Andrew?"
"Indubitably," Mr Temple.
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 glances.
"I think our new regime...." began Temple as Elaine's bottom bounced enticingly from the room.
Russian bastards, thought Swift
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.
“Weren't you 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 landlord.
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 acknowledgement.
"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 behind him.
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.