By the time he managed to get shot of Ric Riley, the afternoon was fading to an evening glow. Helmet on, backpack, lights, he wheeled his bike out from behind the office block, one of a cluster in the new business park, glassy cubes jutting out from what were once river meadows. Their lights burned all night like space missions on some empty planet.
At least Riley had not said anything about another party. It was only two days until Halloween but not a word, thank Christ. He could not say what he might do if he had to watch Riley flaunting meat and smiles for the second year running.
‘POETS day, eh Mark?’ was what he did say. He was always saying ‘eh?’ as if it meant something. Nudge, nudge. Suggesting that you colluded with him in some idea. As if Ric Riley ever, in fact, had ideas. Ploys, tactics, ‘angles,’ certainly. What’s your angle on this one, Mark?
Yes, leaving early. Slightly. Because today for once, when he got home, Judy and Laura would be out.
Of course they were in when he crept back after work last night, later than usual because of where he had been. He had managed to stash his purchases in the garage, under the garden table which they had brought in for the winter. He left the bag leaning up against pots of paint and polyfilla. At the thought of it, waiting there in the cold darkness, a pulse went through him which left him weak in the shoulders.
And Riley hadn’t mentioned any party. He could manage to remain civil to the bloke on the surface. Just. But another do like last year – no. If there had been a party, Laura would have wanted to go. She’d had fun with Riley’s girls, in the end. She thought it was all cool, all that tacky showing off.
In his back-pack were the same things as every day: sandwich box with just the wrapper of his Jacobs Club biscuit inside, the foil folded into a tiny fan, spare inner tube and pump, yellow kagoule; today’s shirt rolled up, ready for the wash. Each morning he cycled the 6.8 miles along the Thames Path from the other side of town. He always wore this navy tracksuit, pale blue polo top and cycling shoes with rigid soles which Laura said were ‘gimp’ but he argued were well designed.
On the morning trip there was a clean shirt in the bag. He’d found a good way of folding shirts so that they came out looking reasonably all right. He left a suit, towel and black lace-ups in his office cupboard so that he could shower and change on arrival. That was one of the things about modern business premises - at least there were showers.
Beneath the folded kagoule in the back-pack was a wash bag which Laura had bequeathed to him, like a large zip-up pencil case, wet-look pink, with a ribbon bow on one side. ‘Here y’are Dad – you can have this one. It’s a bit girly for me.’ He had pretended to balk at it - appalled - before accepting. Christ, imagine if Riley caught sight of that. But Riley was no cyclist. He never took a shower at work.
He clicked on his front light and pedalled along the pavement of the business park’s access road. Round the office blocks were clusters of birch trees, skeletal as line drawings. Cars accelerated past him. He pressed the button for the pelican lights.
‘Yeah,’ he muttered to the stalled traffic as he crossed. ‘You can all stop – you in your fucking Audis.’
Once over the road, he swept down across the field to the towpath with its mature arches of trees, the river to his right. Other cyclists rushed towards him, only the hi-viz parts of their bodies visible in the dying light.
Judy was taking Laura to Romeo and Juliet, somewhere in London. It was on the GCSE syllabus, a school trip on the Friday before half term. There would be no Judy cooking the solid carb meals which had thickened the three of them into snowman-like waddlers. Nor would she be on the sofa, feet tucked under her, buried in notes from work. Laura would not be hunched at the table over homework, behind her hair, hardly noticing his arrival. When he came home he often felt like something austere and unyielding entering this female world, a probe forcing into soft tissue.
Judy’s job as a midwife still felt mysterious to him, even after they’d had Laura. Fourteen years later, recalling the sounds he had overheard through the doors of other delivery rooms as they waited for Laura to arrive, he could still feel disturbed, inadequate. Yet few of Judy’s reports from this primal territory were about the actual births or the women. Instead he heard a litany of complaints about NHS staffing levels, rock bottom morale, about how she ought to get out like everyone else. But she never did. Laura had already vowed she was never going to be a midwife. ‘It just makes you tired and grouchy.’
Cycling now, an image of Judy’s haunches presented itself in his mind, heavy and reassuring, filling him with sudden longing to move inside her: not his cock especially, or not just, but head first, all of him. He imagined entering a haven, not pulsing and dark, but tepid, full of green reassuring light, where he could lose the weight of himself, as if under the surface of a sunlit pond.
The ride was undemanding; only a gentle pull on his thighs. The air smelled of trampled leaves and a whiff of the river. Trains throbbed past now and then, only yards away at this point. Reaching the bridge, where the river and canal met, he dismounted, hearing scraps of talk from two Polish lads fishing with rods in the dusk. He pushed his bike up the footbridge which curved round to deposit him on the bank once more.
He was in the process of getting back on the bike when two cyclists coming the other way swerved round the bend in the path and almost into him. He yanked his bike aside. One of them murmured ‘thanks.’ Mark watched as they receded up the slope of the bridge, two lean figures in Lycra with streamlined helmets, bikes light as wire no doubt. They appeared sexless in those outfits, though the voice had sounded male. He wondered whether in these clothes, with his own broad haunches and the hair Laura kept nagging him about – ‘Dad, you look really seventies’ – his black-rimmed, outdated yet suddenly fashionable again glasses, whether in fact they had wondered as well. Was that a man or… ?
Cycling under the arches of horse chestnuts, their scorched looking leaves aglow all around him, he thought of his package under the table in the garage. He allowed himself, then, as if removing the dressing from a suppuration, to think about Riley.
Riley had thrown the Halloween party last year, only a couple of months after he joined the firm. He had two daughters, one older and one younger than Laura.
‘Bring her along – bring the wife,’ he invited expansively. ‘We’ll get out the barbie.’
‘Who the hell has a barbeque at the end of October?’ Mark complained to Judy. As they turned their old Polo into Riley’s drive, off a wooded road in the Chilterns, he remarked, ‘You can always tell a wanker by his car.’
‘Language!’ Judy protested.
‘It’s all right,’ Laura said, holding a cardboard witch’s hat on the back seat. ‘I know what a wanker is. Dad’s got lots of them at work.’
‘I rest my case,’ Mark said, partly to annoy Judy who loathed that particular expression. Usually she told him to go and rest his case somewhere else but this time, instead of objecting or telling Laura for God’s sake not to repeat that to anyone, she was silenced by the spectacle in front of them.
There was the Audi on the semi-circle of tarmac, a white coupé with black hood and number plate RRLEY1. Beside it, a red Freelander – the wife’s, presumably. Skirting the front of the house, which was large, brick and of indeterminate age – mock something-or-other, Mark thought - were a row of brick columns with black chains strung between each, bordering a neat front garden. On each column sat a glowing pumpkin lantern. Across the house and round the front door were strung opulent pumpkin-shaped lights and between them, skeins of cobwebs, white ghosts and masks of witches and demons.
‘My God, they’ve really gone to town.’ Judy sounded suddenly nervous. She was only really confident at work. And they looked a lumpish crew, in jeans and fleeces, aiming to keep warm. ‘Fancy dress,’ Riley had thrown in last minute.
‘My hat’s not very good is it?’ Laura said. She had painted a cone of paper with black poster paint.
‘Never mind,’ Judy said. ‘You’ve made an effort.’ To Mark she muttered, ‘I hope his girls are OK with her. Let’s not stay too long.’
In fact, once Laura recovered from the fact that Riley’s wife Elaine and the girls, Katy and Aisling, appeared in elaborate costumes, witches and ghouls obviously bought off the peg, and that the house was adorned inside with every sort of supermarket Halloween decoration, Laura had a wonderful time. Katy and Aisling proved giggly and friendly and as well as the games and the food the house had its own home cinema. They ended up watching old episodes of Buffy half the evening.
Elaine made a curvaceous witch. She wore a lacy blouse, black velvet cloak and patent heels and was welcoming in a blurry, on-the-way-to-being-drunk sort of way. She told Judy she had once been a physiotherapist but was now a career coach. Judy said later that she thought Elaine was rather brave, branching out like that. She was at least a talker, which meant Judy didn’t have to.
Nothing about the evening was actually terrible they agreed afterwards. Mark had to admit that the red wine was superb. But it was all so showy. There were a few others from work - not some of the worst ones, although Riley had invited the CEO to butter him up. Mark exchanged a few words, or rather Jez Lineham talked at him until he managed to get away, muttering about another drink. As they stood round surely the biggest gas barbeque on the market, with patio heaters pumping noxious vapours over the surrounding autumn meadows, Mark found he was actually getting warm.
Back then he just thought Riley was, as he had remarked, a bit of a wanker. Ostentatious, shallow and not his type. Of that evening, what stuck with him was the conversation out by the barbeque. It was already dark. Most of the garden was invisible, the patio a ring of light encircled by coloured bulbs, fading to a cool darkness beyond. Judy and Elaine Riley were sitting under a little gazebo at a low table dotted, like every other surface, with drinks and bowls full of nuts and glossy Japanese snacks. Mark tried to catch Judy’s eye but she and Elaine seemed to be chatting intensely.
They all helped themselves from the plates of cooked meat and bowls of salads, to the crisps and dips and relishes, the mounds of French bread. The women sat down again, the children appearing from time to time, heading for them. ‘Can we have ice cream?’ ‘Mum, where’s my…?’ ‘Is it OK to open the….?’
It was so hot now, standing anywhere near the barbeque, that Mark stripped off his jumper and left it on a chair. He pulled his shirt out, hoping it would minimise the shelf of his belly.
‘Come on Mark! Riley waved tongs almost a metre long at him. ‘Come and grab a lump of meat!’
He was wearing a blue and white striped apron, the sleeves of a white shirt rolled up his chunky arms. Riley was not a tall man but stocky, with a muscular bounce to his walk as if at any moment he might break into a run. He kept his hair clipped very short, with one of those little quiffs brushed up at the front. Oh so cute, Mark had thought when he first met him. Even from the beginning, Riley had made him feel sour.
He tonged a lump of steak on to Mark’s plate. ‘Sausage?’ Mark nodded. Riley leaned closer and peered at Mark’s T-shirt. If he was honest, Mark knew he’d worn it as a wind up, a test. Riley read aloud, slowly,
‘THERE ARE 10 TYPES OF PEOPLE IN THE WORLD – THOSE WHO UNDERSTAND BINARY AND THOSE WHO DON’T
‘Ah – ha!’ It took him a couple of moments. ‘Oh yes – very good!’ He laughed properly then, satisfied he’d got it. ‘Ah yes – it’s all good.’ That was another of Riley’s expressions. It’s all good. Whatever the facts.
‘Nice place,’ Mark said as Riley deposited sausages over the flames. Steaks burned with a sullen sizzle. Riley put the tongs down on a nearby table and pushed his hands into his pockets. Once again, Mark was struck by the arrant muscularity of the man.
‘See that over there?’ The fringes of light just incorporated a half brick, half- timber outbuilding. ‘Just had that built. Got the home gym in there. Best part of an hour in there, every day before work.’ He leaned his torso back, in a flex of satisfaction. ‘Pool next, eh? Yes – it’s all good. So how do you keep in shape, Mark?’
Mark took a slow sip of wine before replying. ‘I cycle to work. Helps keep the carbon footprint down.’
In the corner of his sight the women seemed to be watching them, their husbands, talking. His woman, eyes on him. In that moment, he wanted their life not to be full of distances and things unsaid. For her to know everything of him. He felt the way he used to with his two sisters, their bedroom a sanctuary of strewn clothes, make-up, whispers, from which he was banned. He longed not to be standing here with Ric Riley, in this place of scorched meat but with the women, coddled between Judy’s soft largeness and Elaine’s dainty heels, her diaphanous lace, her velvet. He wanted to be taken into their circle, where he might soften, breathe…
‘Good man, good man,’ Riley was saying, retrieving the tongs to worry at a piece of steak. ‘But yes – we love it here. Moved in a couple of years back. Not bad - ’ he gave Mark his grin, that confiding, brown-eyed-pup expression he offered to customers, ‘ - for someone who’s never set foot in a university, eh?’
At first Mark had admired this, reluctantly. Richard Riley was a bright lad, a fast moving comet who had worked his way up in Sales on his wits and some sort of college course. Not like him with his years of plodding research, his PhD.
Now, fourteen months later, on catching sight of Riley in the distance along a corridor, he would have to stop, turn aside, work to control his breathing.
‘This is ridiculous - he surely can’t just agree to something like that without you, if he doesn’t know what he’s doing?’
The first time Judy had asked, she was looking up at him from a sheaf of papers from work.
‘But he has agreed, he explained. ‘And he hasn’t a clue what Safety Integrity Levels mean and how difficult it is to produce the software.’
‘So he’s overpromised?’
A sigh rushed from him. ‘To put it mildly. And the Brazilians seem to have no idea that the safety standard has changed either.’
‘Well why don’t you leave if it’s getting that bad?’
‘I’m the Technical Director. And I’ve never walked away from a project.’
At first she had asked several times, lying beside him in bed, or over their evening meal. But mostly she had stopped enquiring because in the end all he could do was rant. The guy heading up Quality Control was past it, had no idea about software; Jez Lineham, the CEO a bully with some tin pot engineering degree. And that cretin Riley had to be stopped…
Lately her tone had become impatient, implying you’re not the only one who’s stressed you know. ‘Look – why can’t you delay the blasted thing - or call it all off?’
Too late for that. The purchase order from Saõ Paulo had long been approved, the software development outsourced to SoftCo in Lahore. All because Mark hadn’t been there. Just once. At one meeting. Bob Stevens, one of the sales managers, a mild, balding guy, had been incredulous when Mark complained, aghast, at the deal Riley had done with the Brazilians.
‘But Ric said it was something we’d done before, routine. And anyway, he definitely said he’d run it by you in the morning when you were back from holiday.’
‘I wasn’t on holiday,’ Mark snapped. ‘I was called away. My daughter broke her arm... My wife was delivering a baby.’ He found himself waving his arms. ‘You know, life – stuff happens.’
‘Listen, I’m not blaming you Mark… It’s just he said we’d done SIL 2 …’
‘Yes, we’ve done SIL 2.’ He swallowed his rage. He could waste his breath outlining the details: yes, we’ve done it, but only as a simple hardware system. Riley’s gone and sold them a complex software based system with no idea what he’s committed us to – and Jez Lineham didn’t have the wit to stop him . All he said was, ‘This system’s not going to be anywhere near SIL 2 until all the software in it’s rewritten, Bob. It’s a huge job. SoftCo in Lahore won’t have a clue.’
Riley had gone swanning over to Saõ Paulo to visit the company, FerroSaP, in July, perspiring charm, randy for a commission. The Brazilians wanted to buy in high voltage controllers for the electric motors they manufactured which would find their way all over the world – into pumping stations for pipelines, steelworks, you name it. It had not occurred to Riley to ask any actual engineers what Safety Integrity Levels meant. FerroSaP needed to be at SIL 2: up until now, they had never attempted any SIL job. Riley had seen fit to agree the purchase order that evening without worrying about any technicalities – without Mark.
The conversation at that party, as Riley worried at wads of hissing flesh and boasted his lack of education, had played itself over in Mark’s mind for the last three months. His rejoinder to it – which he had never begun on in reality - always followed.
‘The thing is, Ric, if you had bothered to go to a university, like some of us bothered to do, if you had learned to do anything systematically, with actual education and knowledge, instead of bullshitting your way into project-managing things you know absolutely nothing about, you might by this point have some clue what a destructive, moronic little shit you are. Have you any idea, Ricky boy, what happens if the start-up sequence and fault checking embedded in these highly sophisticated and scientific controllers you have sold them as if they’re bottles of fucking Coca Cola, goes wrong and they melt the core of the motor and burn out the transformer? Have you – eh?’
‘You told them we’d get them to SIL 2?’ He had been back at his desk the day after that meeting. There was a stupid plastic wedge facing him: ‘MARK COOMBS,’ gold letters on black, as if he might have forgotten his own name. Riley stood before him, hands in his pockets. Mark kept his own hands, their tremor, below the desk. His breathing felt compromised, as if some hard thing had lodged in his chest, something rooted, tenacious.
Riley shrugged. ‘They were up for it. You want the stuff safe don’t you?’
Mark reached carefully for a breath, sitting up straighter to extend his rib cage. So many things he might say, none of which would unsign the contract. Under the desk he caught the edge of his jacket, stroking it between thumb and fingers.
‘We’ll need two years – minimum.’
‘I told them next April.’
‘So you’re telling me I’ve got to brief SoftCo to do a two year job they’re not equipped for in the first place - in nine months?’
‘The Pakis’ll do what we ask them. It’s all good.’
‘Ric.’ He leaned over the desk in emphasis. ‘We’re not going to meet it – not in that time.’
‘Ah, come on - ’ Ric was on his way out. ‘Not my problem. Tell that to Jez. I’ve done my bit getting the contract – it’s over to you now, Mark.’
Week on week the problems were building. He had re-briefed SoftCo in Lahore, who thought they were contracted for a straightforward software upgrade. More than once he’d had Imran, the head programmer, weeping down the phone.
‘Still,’ Riley had said that morning, standing before the desk, ‘if we don’t get to SIL 2 in the end, they’ll just have to have it as it is.’
‘But Ric - ’ Mark saw an alternative version of himself leap from his chair, seize Riley by the shoulders and nut him with all his strength until Riley was prone and he was kneeling over him, fists mashing at him…. ‘What about George Parker?’
Parker was the independent certifier, also known as the Prince of Darkness. He was a fiend of attention to detail, whose piercing eye would be all over this, cross- examining Mark as Technical Director and my God what a fucking mortifying melt-down that was going to be. Without Parker, no product would be released to the market, no matter how much blagging Riley might try about how it was ‘all good.’
He had cycled a couple of miles without noticing a thing about where he was. He was not far from town now, where the path ran along an open stretch of parkland. Braking for a moment, he propped himself on one foot. Across the grass, gulls clustered, gleaming in the dusk like white stitching. From the dark water behind him he could hear the rubber-toy squeak of a coot, smell coal smoke from narrow boats tied up along the bank. He took in deep gasps of air, trying to release the feeling he had constantly now, of having a fragment of rock lodged inside him. He could not rid himself of the sensation, the nub of hardness that had accumulated over the weeks, as in the dripping darkness of a cave, calcifying in him crystal by crystal.
He pushed off again, following the juddering light from his LED. Judy and Laura would be in London now. For a moment he thought of Laura, years ago when she was four or five, the sweetest thing he had ever seen.
‘Daddy, your hair’s like liquorice.’
‘Well so’s yours then! What’s Mummy’s hair like?’
‘It’s like…’ She deliberated. ‘Hay.’ Food for her rabbit.
‘Oh, thanks very much,’ Judy laughed. ‘Just about better than straw, I suppose.’
‘Straw’s paler,’ he pointed out. ‘More blonde.’
‘You’re so literal.’
Literal? Was he? Careful, yes. It was his job to be. The reality of things would swarm in his mind, overwhelming him. Consequences. The implacable weight of technical knowledge. Every day, he’d read, nineteen people in Delhi alone die of electrocution. There were the really big ones, titanic accidents – the Deepwater spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that power plant explosion in Connecticut… Often engineers didn’t made it to court after these disasters - the guys topped themselves first. If you knew about these things, how to make then safe, you felt responsible, even by proxy, the way Judy sighed over childbirth mortality rates in Africa. Responsible, yes, for not being at that meeting, which was not his fault, nor was it his fault that Riley had rushed the deal through without him – but still, it felt as if it was. Bottom line - he wasn’t there. And it wasn’t Riley who would have to face George Parker.
The last part of the ride was the darkest, weaving through a tunnel of trees as the path curved westward away from town. His light gave only a ghostly thread against the vast weave of night. Here the air smelled cleaner. There were fewer boats, only the old smell of water and sweetness of decaying leaves. White, daisy-like flowers rose up for a moment in his passing light then turned away again.
Sometimes, now, he stood alone in his office, hands on his waist, just breathing.
The figure was there suddenly on the path, so close that he almost rammed him. He braked - ‘Fuck! You stupid fuck!’ - bursting from him.
The man, darkly dressed with a black beanie hat, stood aside to let him pass. Mark caught an impression of him, the impassive face, grizzled beard, the lowered eyes. A saint, he thought for a weird second. He looks like a saint under torture. He recognized him. The man who walked. Every day he passed back and forth along the paths of their suburban village, morning one way, returning by evening. Sometimes Mark passed the man on the pavement as he set off for work. Seeing him in daylight, he had wondered whether the man’s look of circumscription was because he was blind. If so, the dark towpath would be the same for him night and day.
‘Sorry,’ he panted. He felt ashamed at his own outburst, as if he had done something atrocious. ‘Sorry mate – didn’t see you.’
No reply met him except a quiet clearing of the man’s throat. His silence seem to reinforce Mark’s sense of the man’s goodness, gentleness, set against his own monstrousness.
He found himself muttering as he cycled on, ‘Oh God… God.’
He lugged the bike up the steps of the footbridge over the railway. His limbs felt weak.
Still, he could scarcely believe the darkness of the house, that it was truly empty. He had thought he would be jinxed, find lights beaming out. He propped the bike against the step. Feeling for keys in his zippered track-suit pocket, he leaned down to pull on the garage door and wheeled the bike inside, stowing it against his work bench. The door was still open, the road silent. He stood for a moment, a man alone in the dank garage of his modern brick house, unseen and unsteady in the dark.
‘Jane,’ he whispered. In a throatier voice, he repeated, ‘Jane – it’s all right my girl – I’m here.’
Once sealed inside the house, he carried the bags, half unbelieving, upstairs. The ladies in the little boutique across town, to which he had cycled last night had been kind beyond any expectation, pouring female sweetness on his overwrought soul. Yes, you can use that changing room dear, no one else will come in… He had pushed off the tracksuit, wafted silky garments against his thighs before the long mirror - and oh that looks very nice, oh yes dear, it really does suit you.
Closing the bedroom door behind him he lifted the bags on to the bed. Tipping his head back for a moment, he drew in a ragged, questing breath. With a trembling hand, he reached for the softness inside.
Annie Murray has published stories in a wide range of magazine including London Magazine, Pretext (UEA), Tindal Street Press anthologies and SHE Magazine. She has written a number of historical novels for Pan Macmillan and is a founder member of Leather Lane Writers.