Chapter one: Monday 2nd June 2003
Did anyone in the cellar bar think they were a couple? It seemed unlikely. Bruce was forty, fat and frumpy while she had a face like a Disney character’s; innocently round, with oversized blue eyes, a pert little nose and plump, pouty lips. Her body would never have got past Disney’s arbiters of taste though — nor proportion, as each of her enhanced breasts was almost the size of a man’s head. Equally synthetic were her stiletto nails, spider lashes, caramel tan and platinum blonde hair. Bruce looked down at his unopened bag of ‘healthy eating’ crisps, which were free of non-natural colourings, flavourings and preservatives and low in salt and fat. Frankly he preferred the 1970s, when the women were organic and the food was full of artificial additives.
The barmaid approached their table, which had been carefully chosen by Bruce for its discreet corner location. “Those men want to buy you drink,” she said to the blonde, jerking her thumb in the direction of two inanely grinning suits stood at the bar.
“I’m with someone,” said the blonde, without looking up at the barmaid or across at the men. Instead she continued texting on her mobile, which had an ostentatious gold plastic cover.
She was with someone. Bruce liked that.
“Do you get this a lot?” Bruce asked, gesturing with his eyes at her admirers.
“Fuck yeah,” she said, ripping open Bruce’s bag of crisps so the contents were easily accessible to them both. She made an alluring ‘o’ shape with her fat red lips and slowly bit into a single crisp, revealing perfect white teeth that could have just clacked their way from the set of a toothpaste commercial.
Bruce took a deep gulp of his Guinness, giving his slightly podgy face a foamy white moustache. Yes, she probably did get it a lot. He didn’t. In fact he’d never had it before. But then he’d never been sat in the cellar bar of Marelli’s with a beautiful busty blonde half his age before.
“Does it bother you?” Bruce asked, distracted by the gold pendant which was almost being consumed by the shadowy cavern between her breasts.
“What? Middle-aged men clocking my tits for their wank bank?” Her elegant fingers passed another crisp into her seductively sweary mouth.
“I was looking at your necklace thing,” Bruce protested, hands raised in a gesture of supplication. “And don’t be fooled by the grey in my hair, I’m experimenting with the distinguished look.”
“I’m only teasing you, Bruce,” she said. Her hand clutched the gold pendant and she leaned closer to Bruce so he could see it more clearly. “Do you like my charms?”
“They’re very attractive,” he replied, gazing at the two gold objects dangling at the end of the gold chain. “What are they?”
“One of them is a pot of honey and the other’s a peach,” she said. “They were bought especially for me by one of my fans.”
Her fans. Listen to her. Anyone would think she was Madonna. The charms just looked like a ball and a stumpy little cylinder to Bruce, but he was enjoying having her face so close to his, breathing in her musky scent.
“You’re not trying to take advantage of an innocent young girl, are you, Bruce?” chided a familiar voice, driving a horse and carriage through the moment. Jan, AMG magazine’s editor, plonked her zebra print handbag on the table between the two of them, causing Honey Peach to back away from Bruce. Poking out of the bag’s zip was the neck of a bottle of gin.
Although in her early forties, Jan looked at least a decade younger. Her auburn shoulder length hair had yet to be colonised by a single grey and her face remained fresh, which she put down to plenty of early nights. Her quirky dress sense also contributed to her youthful appearance – her distressed retro jeans had been featured in the fashion pages of Celebs & Scandals magazine the previous week – but next to Honey Peach she looked distinctly mumsy. But then so did every other woman.
“She was just showing me her charms,” Bruce replied.
“I bet she was,” said Jan, pulling out one of the two vacant chairs at the small round table and sitting next to Honey Peach.
Bruce sighed. No one was going to think he and Honey Peach were a couple now.
“Sorry I’m late,” Jan said to Honey Peach. “I had to stop off at the off licence to pick up something for my Aunt Edith.”
“Don’t worry,” Honey Peach said with a smile. “Bruce has been entertaining me.”
“Has he indeed?” Jan said, raising her eyebrows. “I suppose he was regaling you with tales of when he was the UK Donkey Kong champion?”
Honey Peach laughed. “No, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“Oh yes, in his prime he had the fastest fingers in the West Country. If anyone wanted a princess rescuing, Bruce Baker was their first port of call…”
“Can we talk about something else?” Bruce protested.
Honey Peach reached across the table and grabbed Bruce’s hand. Staring imploringly into his eyes she said: “Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.”
Jan and Honey Peach burst out laughing at Bruce’s confused face.
“She’s teasing you, Bruce,” Jan said then, looking across the bar, added: “Oh I see Nick’s finally made it through the throng. Who stands and talks on the stairs?”
Nick was threading his way down the wooden staircase through a group of chatting women in primary coloured clothing. At first they had beamed approvingly at Nick’s tight T-shirt, crammed to almost bursting with muscles earned from many hours in the gym. But as he passed them their expressions changed. Although stocky enough to play scrum half – quite successfully – for his local amateur rugby club, Nick stood less than five foot four inches tall. And as he’d celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday the previous week, this was unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. The women towered above him and when they caught sight of his scrum-battered face, several of them scowled in disdain.
Marelli’s was one of Bath’s busiest post-work drinking destinations, catering for three different crowds. The cellar bar was originally a traditional working man’s spit ‘n’ sawdust drinking hole but in recent years it had been colonised by the city’s creative types. Above it, on street level, was a wine bar, popular with thrusting sales executives, while the first floor housed an exclusive restaurant where management could relax among their own kind, with the exorbitantly priced menu enforcing a ‘no hoi polloi’ policy more effectively than any doorman.
“Why are there so many corporate types down here tonight?” Nick whined as he joined them at the table, pulling out the remaining empty chair.
“That’s the problem with voluntary cultural apartheids,” said Bruce. “You still need borders of some kind and someone to police them.”
Jan gave Bruce an amused look which appeared to say ‘if you think you’re going to impress the blonde with that, you’re deluding yourself’.
Honey Peach hadn’t been listening anyway. She had been texting on her mobile. Bruce noticed the gold case had her initials etched into it. Probably another present from a fan, unless Hewlett Packard had branched out into gaudy phone accessories.
“Where have you been until now?” Bruce asked Nick.
“Mate, I got held up,” he replied. “And it took me ages to fight my way through the crowd upstairs.”
“I think there’s been some kind of conference in town for junior executives,” Jan said. “I can confirm that they are packed like sausages upstairs, which is why we’re getting the overflow down here. Don’t get comfortable though Nick — as you’re the last to join us, and lateness is a discourtesy to others, it’s your turn to get the drinks.”
Nick groaned. Despite his impressive girth, crowded bars still presented a challenge when taller heads hid you from the barmaid’s line of sight.
“Yeah right, you can fuck right off,” Honey Peach said to the screen on her mobile.
“Problems?” Jan asked her.
“Only Milkman, the dickhead,” Honey Peach said, tapping out a reply on her mobile’s keypad. “He reckons I’ll have to bunk down with him tonight because his cleaner hasn’t made up the spare bed. I’ve made one film with him and he thinks he’s my manager.”
“He gave me that impression too,” Bruce said.
“He couldn’t manage a piss-up,” said Honey Peach.
“In a brewery?” Nick said.
“Anywhere,” she replied.
“Well thanks again for today,” Jan said to Honey Peach, changing the subject. “I thought you came across very well.”
“Cheers,” Honey Peach replied, stabbing the buttons of her keypad again.
Jan continued: “We’ve set aside four pages for the feature and…”
The rest of her sentence was drowned out by the booming voice of the slick-haired suit whose offer of a drink had been turned down earlier. He’d moved from the now crowded bar and stood, leaning against a pillar, close to their table.
“Give me advice?” Slick Hair said to his acne-faced companion. “I’m four points up so Cartwright can suck my cheesy bell-end!”
Acne Face thought this was the funniest thing he had ever heard, involuntarily spitting some of his drink out of his mouth.
“Well, there goes the neighbourhood,” said Bruce. “It’s usually a tosser-free zone down here.”
“And he might be up four points but what’s his ROI doing?” Jan added.
“What does that mean?” asked Honey Peach, raising her glass to her lips and noticing it was empty. She held the glass in front of her, emphasising its lack of contents to her companions.
“I don’t know, I heard someone over there say it,” said Jan.
Slick Hair had heard Bruce’s comment and was now glaring at him.
“Oh I’ll get the drinks then,” said Honey Peach, with an irritated sigh. She pointed to the table. “Same again for you, Bruce, and White Zin okay for you, Jan?”
They both nodded.
Honey Peach rose to her feet, all five foot three of her — plus a further four inches of heel — and the busy bar collectively gasped. Her skimpy white top was struggling to contain her bulbous breasts while her short denim skirt emphasised her slender legs. Male mouths dropped like cartoon characters opening unexpected tax demands. Female eyes narrowed venomously, first at the body then at that perfect face. She grabbed Nick’s arm and pulled him up. “Come on, you’re carrying the drinks,” she said.
As she strode towards the bar the crowd parted in awe.
“We are not worthy,” said Bruce.
“She does have quite an aura about her,” Jan said, taking a small compact from her bag and checking her face.
“How does she know what you drink?”
“We went out for lunch last time she came over,” Jan explained.
Honey Peach was back in less than two minutes, with Nick trailing in her wake with a metal tray containing their drinks.
“That didn’t take long,” said Jan, as her wine was placed in front of her.
Over the next hour the cellar bar thinned out, leaving just a few renegade sales people, including Slick Hair and Acne Face, who continued standing close to Honey Peach’s table despite there being vacant seats elsewhere.
Honey Peach looked at her watch, a tiny glittering thing, and announced: “Well this has been fun.”
Had it? She’d barely looked up from her phone all evening, thought Bruce. And how could she tell the time on that watch? He couldn’t even see the hands let alone where they were pointing.
“I suppose I’d better think about catching my train.”
“You can’t go yet,” Nick said. “We’ve got to have another round, at least.”
“Have you got a big day tomorrow?” asked Jan.
Honey Peach nodded.
Bruce imagined that every day was a big day when you looked like Honey Peach.
“I’m staying at Milkman’s tonight because I’m cutting the ribbon on a new shop for Spaghetti in the morning,” Honey Peach said. “But let’s have one more for the road, shall we?”
“Shouldn’t that be one more for the track?” said Nick. “Because you’re catching a train…”
Honey Peach gave him a withering look in response.
“He used to work in IT before he became our graphic designer,” Bruce said. “That joke would have got a round of applause in the server room.”
Honey Peach stroked Nick’s cheek. “Bless him,” she cooed. “I quite like ugly men.”
Bruce whispered to Honey Peach: “Please be careful or he might go off – he doesn’t meet many women. He spends his spare time getting muddy with blokes in shorts and then they all shower together.”
Honey Peach giggled and squeezed Nick’s stocky thigh, causing him to blush even more.
Jan stepped in on Nick’s behalf. “When you say you are cutting the ribbon on a new shop for Spaghetti, you don’t mean the shop specialises in pasta, do you?”
Honey Peach laughed. “No, I’m opening the shop for him. He’s got the local paper coming and he’s invited a load of his customers. Milkman is driving me there, which is why I’m staying with him tonight.”
“Spaghetti is a person?” Jan looked confused.
Bruce stepped in. “His real name is Gerardo Sachetti. If you haven’t heard of him you have heard of his shops – there’s a Love Shack in the town centre, not far from the station.”
“Is he Italian?”
“With a name like that I think it’s probably safe to assume he is, at the very least, of Italian descent,” Bruce said.
“And everyone calls him Spaghetti?” Jan said. “Doesn’t he mind? I thought we’d moved on from casual racism towards our European neighbours. That would be like me calling Nick ‘Frogs Legs’ because he’s French.”
“I’m not French,” Nick said.
“He’s called Spaghetti because he’s like Spaghetti Junction,” Honey Peach said.
Bruce, Jan and Nick looked blankly at each other and raised their eyebrows in expectation.
“Because you don’t ever want to cross him,” Honey Peach explained. “They say he can’t make an omelette without breaking legs.”
Fuelled with four pints worth of confidence and spotting the break in the conversation, Slick Hair finally made his move. “I think you mean eggs, love,” he leered at Honey Peach as he wiped sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
Bruce and Jan exchanged amused glances as Honey Peach stared up at Slick Hair. “Excuse me?” Honey Peach said to him.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead again. “You’re excused, we all make mistakes,” he said in his booming voice. “Let me get you a drink, I know just the thing for you.”
“Would it be a rude-sounding cocktail, by any chance?” Honey Peach said. “A Slippery Nipple or a Screaming Orgasm?”
Slick Hair grinned. “What about a Quick Fuck?” he said.
“Yeah what about a Quick Fuck?” echoed Bruce, in a perfect impression of Slick Hair’s voice.
“Mimicry is one of his few talents,” Jan said to the surprised Honey Peach. “Some say his only one.”
“It sounds absolutely mad but it’s completely genuine, I promise you,” Slick Hair persisted, guffawing at Honey Peach while simultaneously scowling at Bruce. “It’s made from one part coffee liqueur, one part Midori and one part Bailey’s…”
“Have you ever had a Throbbing Bollocks?” Honey Peach asked Slick Hair.
“Can’t say I have,” he boomed, a huge grin spreading across his face as he moved closer to her.
“Here you go then,” Honey Peach responded, jabbing her elbow hard into Slick Hair’s crotch, which was just a few inches away from her.
Slick Hair doubled over in pain but before he could react, Nick leapt out of his chair. Chest expanded, arms spread and muscles tensed, he said: “Come on mate, we’ve all had a drink, let’s not spoil the night.”
As she watched Acne Face help Slick Hair up the stairs of Marelli’s, encouraged by Nick, Honey Peach said: “Funnily enough, I do fancy a cocktail now. How chilly is that!”
“Yeah, something that’s cooler than cool. It’s my new saying and I’m going to try and make it catch on.”
Nick returned from ushering duties and Honey Peach stood up and hugged him. “My hero!” she squealed.
Blushing again, Nick said: “Are we having another round then, or what?”
Jan nodded. “Cocktails this time, please,” she said. “You can choose.”
Nick walked off towards the now much emptier bar and Honey Peach followed him, holding onto his arm, before taking a left turn into the ladies’.
Jan looked across the table at Bruce. “Well this has been…”
“Chilly?” Bruce said.
“That’s the word I was looking for,” Jan said. “She’s definitely got something there.”
“Oh she’s certainly got something,” Bruce said. “Imagine what it must be like, always being the centre of attention.”
“I can’t imagine,” Jan said.
“If it’s any consolation, I think Acne Face had his eye on you with a view to a foursome.”
“I’m not terribly good at reading signals like that,” Jan sighed. “Perhaps that’s why I’m still single.”
“Don’t worry,” Bruce said. “You might collect china frogs and have a cat called Buffy, and you might be in your mid-forties, but I’m sure you’ll be a great catch for someone…”
Jan narrowed her eyes at him. “I am not in my mid-forties…”
“Perhaps we could have a reader competition?” Bruce suggested. “Win a date with Adult Movie Guide’s editor!”
“Dating one of our more gauche readers has always been my dream,” Jan said, in the style of an overwhelmed talent show winner. After a pause, she said in a rather wistful voice: “Actually the only dream I ever had was to buy a camper van and just bugger off around Europe and see what happens.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I suppose I never found the right person to go with,” Jan said. “Don’t suppose I’ll ever get around to it now.”
Bruce was wondering if he should attempt to lighten the mood when Nick returned to the table with four glass tumblers, each filled with a murky red liquid. He gave one to Bruce, one to Jan, took one himself and placed the final one on the table for Honey Peach.
“What have you got for us?” asked Jan.
“It’s a Red Hot Dutch,” said Nick.
“I’ve never heard of that,” said Jan.
“I saw vodka, tomato juice, grated Edam cheese and chilli powder go in,” said Nick, chugging his Red Hot Dutch down.
Bruce and Jan exchanged resigned glances and did the same, leaving a residue of lumpy yellow-red goo at the bottom of their glasses.
“Who puts cheese in a cocktail?” said Jan, inspecting the dregs.
“For me, the cheese aspect is very much a secondary concern,” said Bruce, his face gurning with disgust.
“It might have chilli in it but it certainly isn’t chilly,” Jan said.
Bruce mimed applause, which Jan accepted with a bow.
When Honey Peach returned from the ladies’ she picked up the final Red Hot Dutch. “Is this a cocktail?” she asked dubiously.
“Oh yes my lover,” said Bruce in an exaggerated West Country accent. “Tis the chilliest in this here fair city of Bath.”
“You’re funny,” said Honey Peach. “It doesn’t smell too good.”
Nick said to Honey Peach: “We didn’t notice, we all drank ours down in one.”
“Stick around,” said Bruce. “We’re going to be putting our hands in the fire next and we’ll be counting on you to do the same.”
Honey Peach threw Bruce a curious look.
“She has no cultural reference point,” Jan said quietly to Bruce. “I think mothers stopped saying that to their children in the 1960s.”
Honey Peach took a deep gulp but then quickly slammed down her glass, her perfect face distorted with revulsion. “That’s vile, I am not drinking that,” she said, ferreting in her leather handbag for a gloss stick to wipe the taste off her lips.
“Waste not, want not,” said Bruce, picking up the half-drunk cocktail and offering it to Jan.
“Nobody says that anymore either,” Jan said to him, taking two large gulps of the Red Hot Dutch. “Dear Lord, it actually gets worse.”
Bruce took the glass from her. “Stand back feeble old woman, this is man’s work,” he said, finishing the drink. Jan was right, it tasted even more offensive the second time around.
“Well, on that rather depressing note, I think we should call it a night,” said Jan, getting to her feet. “We’ve all got to be up for work in the morning. Bruce, you and Nick had better escort Honey Peach to the station – she’s not really dressed for walking the streets alone at this time of night.”
Bruce shook his head. “I’m going to have another drink first – to get rid of the taste of that abomination.”
“She’s got a train to catch,” Nick said, gesturing at Honey Peach. “And like Jan says…”
“Anyone else want another one?” Bruce said, ignoring him.
“Oh go on then,” Honey Peach said. “Make it a brandy. A good one.”
“In that case I’ll join you,” said Jan, sitting back down at the table.
“What about her train?” Nick protested.
Honey Peach looked at her watch. “I’ve got a few minutes yet.”
“Well I’m not having anymore,” Nick said.
“Oh come on,” Bruce said. “It’s not like you’ve got anything to go home for.”
After she had finished her brandy, Honey Peach looked at her watch again. “I really must go now,” she said. “I’ve got to change at Newport to get to Chepstow.”
“Are you alright to drive?” Bruce asked Jan, feeling beads of perspiration prickling his forehead as the group marched up the stairs.
“Absolutely not,” Jan replied. “I’ve got to get my gym bag out of the car but I’ll catch a cab.”
By the time the four of them made it up the stairs, through the still bustling wine bar and out into the night air, Bruce started to feel a little woozy.
“You’re not driving either, are you Bruce?” Jan asked with genuine concern. “Because you’re starting to sway.”
“No, I’ll walk home and leave the car in Vicky Park,” Bruce said. “Hopefully someone will steal it.”
Jan exchanged embraces and air kisses with Honey Peach and walked off towards Royal Victoria Park, where her car was also parked. It was one of the very few places in central Bath where it was possible to park all day free of charge, if you arrived early enough in the morning.
Bath Spa railway station was just a few hundred yards further along Manvers Street from Marelli’s, and Bruce and Nick positioned themselves either side of Honey Peach as they headed towards it.
“Honestly guys, there’s no need,” she said, waving them away as she removed her phone from her handbag.
“I’ll just walk you part of the way there then,” said Nick.
“I’d really rather have some privacy,” she said. “I want to make some calls.”
Bruce could see the lights of the train station twinkling in the distance. Out of the corner of his eye he could also see two familiar suits, leaning against the wall of Marelli’s. They were both devouring burgers and staring at him.
“Are you sure you don’t want us to walk you to the station?” Bruce said, though the words came out a little slurred. He tried to focus on her but his vision was blurred. Slurred and Blurred, that would be a good name for a cop show featuring two alcoholic detectives…
“I’m really sure,” Honey Peach said, from somewhere distant. “It’s only like a couple of yards down the road…”
Suddenly Bruce felt a huge blow to the side of his head. He crashed to the pavement and then everything went black.
Chapter two: Tuesday 3rd June 2003
Bruce woke with a start. Every part of his body ached, especially his head. He was lying in a shop doorway just down from Marelli’s and a bearded man in a bobble hat and stained overcoat was squatting by the side of him, holding a steaming cup of coffee under his nose.
“Hey pal, I got this for me,” the man said. “But you look like you need it more.”
Bruce took the plastic cup gratefully, his hands trembling. Dawn was breaking over Bath and with it came the sound of clattering diesel engines as delivery trucks made their way around the city. Bruce greedily gulped the coffee down.
“Well this is a new low for me,” Bruce said, holding his throbbing head and taking in his surroundings of cigarette butts and ketchup-smeared burger wrappers.
“This is one of the nicest doorways in Bath,” the man corrected him. “A couple of streets over and you could have been robbed, beaten up, butt-fucked…”
“Thank you,” Bruce said, holding his hand up in an attempt to stop the man speaking.
“And that’s just if the police had found you,” he cackled.
Bruce’s head felt like someone was kicking him in the temple. He slowly got to his feet, leaning on a wall for support. He dug three pound coins out of his pocket.
“Can I pay you for the coffee?” Bruce said.
“That’s very princely of you,” the man replied, taking the cash. “Is this all you got?”
Bruce brought out some smaller denomination coins and offered them to the man. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, attempting to walk. “I need my bed.”
“Oh that’s right, rub it in, you flash bastard,” the man yelled at Bruce as he hobbled away.
The walk back to his flat took Bruce past the forecourt of Reeves & Jeeves, purveyors of fine quality motor carriages to the residents of Bath for several generations, and he stopped to admire their ‘Car of the Week’, a maroon Jaguar XK8 convertible. He peered through the side window at the black leather upholstery and wooden trim and then at the long, elegant bonnet, beneath which was a V8 engine with the power of three hundred horses. He stared in wonder at the £29,999 price sticker on the windscreen.
“Imagine driving a car that costs more than your salary,” Bruce said to a man in a hi-visibility vest who was picking up litter. “You’d be frightened to park it anywhere.”
Bruce noticed the man had earphones in, so he hadn’t heard him. Then he vomited a horrific looking torrent of red, yellow and black liquid over the Jaguar’s gleaming bonnet.
Six hours later Bruce was back in Bath city centre, pushing open the heavy wooden door of the four-storey Georgian building which housed Adult Movie Guide’s office. The property had once been owned by a firm of solicitors but it had been converted into separate office suites in the 1980s, with only the grand staircase and the imposing oak reception desk on the ground floor remaining from the original features. All of its tenants paid towards the cost of the receptionists, who answered their phones, signed for their mail, greeted their guests and gossiped about them behind their back.
“What time do you call this?” said Dee, the perky blonde, interrupting the text message she was composing on her mobile. “Some of us are getting ready to go on lunch.”
“As the weather was so glorious I took a few liberties,” Bruce said with an air of confidence he didn’t feel. He was alarmed to discover that he slurred the word ‘liberties’.
“I’ve put through several messages for you…” Dee yelled after Bruce, as he slowly climbed the stairs.
AMG magazine lived in One East, the smallest suite in Legal House. The other tenants included architects, accountants and a public relations firm, each of which rented the part of the building which best suited their bank balance and sense of self importance. One East, along with two other suites, was located on the third floor and every step of the stairs was an effort for Bruce this morning. There was no lift.
“Bruce!” Plum barked at him when he eventually crossed the threshold of One East. “My office!”
Bruce staggered through the open plan area to Plum’s glass-doored lair, where utilitarian functionality gave way to the luxurious indulgence of thick carpet and cherry wood furniture.
“Close the door,” Plum said, an edge of irritation in his smooth as chocolate public school voice. He flicked his foppish greying fringe out of his eyes, in a manner which may have been considered endearing thirty-five years ago, and pursed his thin lips.
Bruce sighed as he gently pushed the glass door closed.
“We need to have a chat,” Plum said.
“Do we have to do it now?” Bruce whined, staring at the excess weight that always collected around Plum’s neck when he sat back in his chair. It’s like a cravat, Bruce thought, a cravat of fat.
“Time is of the essence,” Plum said. “I need to appoint an acting editor.”
“Why would you do that?” Bruce said, pulling a confused expression.
“Well call me old fashioned but with the incumbent currently enjoying an unscheduled city break at the Royal United Hospital, with the very real possibility of following this up with a stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, I rather thought I’d like my business to continue functioning. ”
“Plum, what are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about Jan of course,” Plum said, thumping his desk with his fist. “The stupid cow got sloshed last night and wrote off her car.”
The words stung Bruce like a slap in the face. His stomach lurched and his throat tightened. “Is she alright?” he finally said, almost collapsing into the chair reserved for visitors which was positioned opposite Plum’s desk.
“That depends on your definition of ‘alright’ — if it stretches to being taken to hospital unconscious with a myriad of broken bones then yes, she is absolutely chipper.”
“That’s unbelievable,” Bruce said.
“Isn’t it? Nick has rung in sick too and here you are, waltzing in half-way through the day. A good night, was it Bruce?”
“No – well, yes it was but it wasn’t a session. We only had a couple of drinks and we were all fine when we left.”
“Much as I would like to believe that, your tardiness and shambolic appearance today hardly inspire confidence in you as a credible witness,” Plum said. Pointing to the large lump on the side of Bruce’s head, he added: “And what’s that? Have you been in a fight?”
“Jan wouldn’t drink and drive.” Bruce said, shaking his head.
“Tell that to the police who attended the scene,” Plum said. “Or the doctors who pumped her stomach. In the meantime we have got next week’s magazine to put out and we need an acting editor.”
Bruce put both palms to his head in an effort to ease the pain. “Obviously I’ll be happy to take on extra responsibilities,” he said.
“I’m glad to hear that because I’m putting Alex on the masthead until we know what’s happening with Jan. She’s going to need a lot of hand-holding, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate.”
“You’re making Alex the acting editor?” Bruce spluttered. “But she sells the ads.”
“And?” Plum said, looking down at the fingernails of his left hand.
“And she can’t write. And she’s been here less than six months. And I’ve been here since the magazine started,” Bruce protested.
“She’s very bright…”
“She brightens the office up, I’ll give you that,” Bruce said, his voice getting louder. “But so would a couple of poinsettias.”
“Alex is popular with the advertisers,” Plum said. “Now keep your damn voice down.”
Too late. The disturbance had attracted her.
“I take it you’ve told him the good news then?” Alex said in her Coronation Street accent as she barged open Plum’s door. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the lump on Bruce’s face. “Ooh, what’s happened here, Bruce? Did you upset the wrong person this time? That looks really sore. I hope it is.”
“Would you mind pissing off, Alex?” Bruce said to her. “I’m having a discussion with Plum and words are likely to be said that you might find upsetting.”
“Plum!” Alex bellowed, her face losing its smugness. “Are you going to let him speak to me like that?”
“This doesn’t concern you,” Bruce said, holding the glass door open for her and attempting to usher her through it.
Alex glared at Bruce. “If it’s anything to do with the magazine, it does concern me,” she said. “Because you’ve alienated so many of my clients.”
“I’m afraid she’s right, Bruce,” Plum said. “It’s like I always say – selling pages pays the wages. We can’t survive on just newsstand sales. We need advertisers, and handing over the reins to you, even on a temporary basis, wouldn’t have gone down terribly well.”
“How can I sell space to someone when you’ve said that their new film is shittier than the bogs at a chilli festival?” Alex said, pointing her finger in Bruce’s face.
“Alright that’s enough,” Plum said, before Bruce could reply. “The decision has been made. Needs must when the devil drives, so in celebration of Alex’s ascendancy to the big chair…”
“Jan’s in hospital and you think we have something to celebrate?” Bruce said.
“It’s onwards and upwards, Bruce,” Plum said, pointing to a framed motivational poster of those very words on the wall behind his desk. “As I was saying, in celebration of Alex’s ascendancy to the big chair I’m delighted to inform you both that lunch will be on me today. I’ve got my regular table booked at Marelli’s restaurant and you are welcome to join me.”
“No thanks Plum,” Bruce said. “I don’t really have the appetite for celebrating.”
“We’ll also be going over the soft proofs of the issue,” Plum said. “Though your glazed eyes and toxic breath suggest you wouldn’t be able to tell a restrictive pronoun from a relative clause.”
“That’s right,” Bruce said. “Best leave that to Alex, eh?”
After Plum and Alex had left for Marelli’s, Bruce flopped into the chair at his desk. The red light on his phone was flashing, indicating that several messages had been left for him, confirming what Dee had said. Ignoring them, Bruce called the hospital to enquire about Jan. After being passed between departments he eventually learned that her condition was stable and he should be able to visit her between seven and nine this evening.
Relieved, he turned his attention to his messages. The first was from Milkman, asking Bruce to ring him back as soon as possible. The next message was from Zara, film director and chair of BATA – the British Adult Trade Association – who claimed to have ‘exciting’ news. He returned Milkman’s call first.
“I’ve been trying to get hold of you all morning,” Milkman said, in his distinctive Welsh accent.
Bruce powered up his computer. “Why?”
“What time did Honey Peach leave?”
“About nine, I think.”
“Nothing happened,” Bruce said. “She was only here a couple of hours. After Jan interviewed her we went out for a couple of drinks and then she caught her train.”
“Well she never arrived with me,” Milkman said. “Did she say anything last night?”
“Oh yes, she said how much she was looking forward to spending the night in your bed.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?” Milkman said. “Spaghetti’s been on the blower and I’ve had to tell him I didn’t know where his guest of honour was. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“Like dancing?” Bruce suggested.
“She won’t be doing no dancing if Spaghetti gets hold of her,” Milkman said. “No wonder she’s not answering her phone today.”
“Maybe she caught the wrong train,” Bruce said. “Or maybe she just changed her mind and went home instead.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me, women are so bloody flaky,” Milkman said. “But even so, you’d think she would have had the decency to let me know what’s happening.”
After Bruce established to Milkman’s satisfaction that he could provide no more information about the whereabouts of Honey Peach, he returned Zara’s call. Her ‘exciting’ news was that BATA had written to the Department of Culture Media and Sport enquiring about funding for an overseas trade mission to the world’s biggest adult industry expo in Las Vegas.
“Imagine how brill that would be!” Zara trilled. She added that she had met with representatives from the department last week and had received a sympathetic response, once she had explained about the unfair restrictions the UK adult industry faced.
Bruce smiled. Zara must have been wearing her tight white blouse, pencil skirt and fishnet stockings ensemble. He jotted down the details, closed his eyes and sat back in his chair with his feet on his desk.
Unfortunately his recuperation was continually disturbed. Dee was aware that every other member of staff was out so she directed all calls for AMG to Bruce’s extension. In every case it was one of Alex’s friends trying to get in touch with her. She had left her mobile charging on her desk, along with the latest issue of Celebs & Scandals magazine, and Bruce concluded that she had sent out a blanket text to everyone in her contacts list informing them of her promotion before she left the office. And it seemed everyone she knew wanted to congratulate her. He swiftly put her mobile in silent mode but when that went unanswered they called the AMG number. And Dee put them through to Bruce.
With each successive call, Bruce’s ‘she’s not here’ script became more abrupt. He could have just let them go to his voicemail but then he would only have to endure listening to their screechy little voices at a later date. Removing the handset from its cradle resulted in an irritating warning tone being triggered so he decided to unplug his extension from the wall. As he was following the cable’s route to the socket it rang again.
“Hello, AMG magazine,” he parroted.
“I’m trying to find my sister,” said a female voice that could have belonged to a Radio 4 continuity announcer.
“I suggest you ring Marelli’s in Manvers Street,” Bruce said. “Just ask them to take the phone to the woman with a face so smug you’d think she’s learned to cunniling herself.”
Bruce didn’t hear the response to his improvised verb because on the stroke of ‘herself’ he pulled the telephone cable from the wall socket.
Rather annoyingly, even though the office was now peaceful apart from the sounds of the street below wafting in through the front window, Bruce’s aching head prevented him catching up with his sleep. He resolved to get the lump looked at during his visit to Jan. But why did Slick Hair and Acne Face assault him? For doing one lousy impression?
The small hand on the office clock went from two to three and now it was approaching four. He walked across to the rear window, which looked down onto the private courtyard. He pushed the sash window up as far as it would go and sat on the ledge, with his head and body outside but with his legs still safely inside, and lit a cigarette. Legal House had a strict ‘no smoking’ policy but Bruce would often get around it in this manner if he was in the office alone. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t contravening the policy – as the cigarette and all the smoke it emitted was outside the building – though he suspected that he might be breaching Health and Safety regulations by sitting outside, forty feet up.
After he stubbed the cigarette out on the stone window ledge and clambered back inside he paced around the office. With neither Jan nor Nick in, Alex’s monitor was the only one besides his displaying signs of life. It revealed that she had taken over All About Me, the inside back cover page that closed each issue. All About Me asked an industry personality a standard set of questions which allowed them to show off their self-deprecating sense of humour and plug their latest product. In Alex’s case she was the product as she introduced herself as AMG’s new editor, though there was scant evidence of a sense of humour. Her childhood ambition was to have a pony; the three words her friends would use to describe her would be fun, flirty and fabulous; she liked to relax away from work by taking her dog for long wanks on the beach…
Hang on, how did she like to relax away from work? His eyes scanned back up the screen and checked — yes, she really had typed what he thought he’d seen. Normally he would have instantly corrected the typo but he didn’t feel particularly normal today. Besides, maybe that was how she liked to relax?
Feeling a little happier, Bruce decided to finish early so he could sneak in a snooze before visiting Jan. It was after four o’clock and it didn’t look like Plum and Alex would be getting much done today, assuming they even returned, so he closed the windows, turned off the lights and locked the One East door with the spare key that was kept on a hook in the event of the designated keyholders, Plum and Jan, not being around to lock up. Company policy, in this situation, was for the last person out of the office to lock up and leave the spare key with the receptionists.
Clomping down the grand staircase he heard raised voices coming from reception. Dee was trying to placate a woman wearing a pink beret. As soon as Dee saw Bruce, her face lit up. “Bruce, there’s something wrong with your pigging phones and you’ve got a visitor,” she yelled in her broad West Country accent, causing Pink Beret to visibly recoil.
The woman turned to look at Bruce. She had an unremarkable but quite agreeable face. “Are you Bruce?” she asked in a confident and cultured voice.
Bruce nodded and wondered why any woman who wasn’t a student would wear a pink beret with a billowing lime green skirt.
Pink Beret’s response was to slap Bruce so violently in the face that Dee dropped her mobile in astonishment. She had been composing an epic three-screen text, and she watched in horror as her Motorola bounced off the reception desk and landed on the hardwood floor, separating itself from its back cover and battery.
Pink Beret raised her hand to her mouth, seemingly shocked by her own actions. “I am so sorry,” she said. “That was inexcusable, regardless of the provocation.”
Bruce gently rubbed the side of his face. Why did it have to be on the same side as yesterday’s blow? “What provocation?” he asked.
“You were so horrid and dismissive of me and then you hung up,” she said. “I tried ringing back but your receptionist wouldn’t put me through…”
“Hang on there, sweetheart, I explained to you that no one was picking up,” said Dee.
“Nobody has ever spoken to me like that before,” Pink Beret continued. “So I decided I had to let you know exactly how I felt.”
“Well I think it’s safe to say you can now tick that particular box,” said Bruce, lightly massaging the side of his face. “Now if you’ll excuse me…”
“I will most certainly not excuse you — what about my sister?”
“I told you — Alex went to Marelli’s.”
“Isn’t she your sister?” As soon as he said it, Bruce knew that she couldn’t possibly be, not with Pink Beret’s Sloaney accent.
Pink Beret shook her head.
“Is Jan your sister?” Bruce asked, suddenly concerned.
Again Pink Beret shook her head.
“Well I’m sorry but that’s the only two possible candidates we have at AMG,” Bruce said.
“I never said she worked at AMG,” Pink Beret said, retrieving a rolled up copy of the magazine from a denim bag. “But if you’d given me the opportunity I would have said that she was recently featured in it.”
She flicked through the magazine to the inside back cover’s All About Me section and held it up to Bruce.
“Your sister is Honey Peach?” he gasped.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Pink Beret said, gesturing with her eyes at her slender frame and flat chest. “I should have demanded a recount when it came to the family tits allocation.”
Bruce chose not to comment. He didn’t want another slap for being overly familiar.
“I need to get in touch with her,” she continued. “It’s a family emergency.”
Bruce rubbed the side of his face again. That girl knew how to slap.
“Bruce I’m so sorry, I’ve completely forgotten my manners,” she said, offering him her hand. “I’m Rachel, and I’d really appreciate it if we could grab a coffee and have a chat. I know you were on your way out but could you just spare me a few minutes?”
As Bruce led Rachel through Bath’s bustling streets crammed with tourists, she threaded her arm through his. It had been a long time since anyone had done that. Her fine fair hair flowed out from below her beret as she walked alongside him. When she turned her face to smile at him, Bruce noticed very slight laughter lines around her mouth and he guessed she was in her early thirties. He smiled back, enjoying the unfamiliar feeling of having an attractive woman on his arm. When tourists occasionally slowed to take in the splendour of Bath’s Georgian architecture, Bruce indulgently slowed too, instead of tutting loudly and impatiently marching around them in the manner of many Bath residents.
Bruce spotted the bearded man who had brought him coffee early in the morning. He was sat on the edge of the pavement selling magazines. Bruce stopped, causing people walking behind him to tut, and took a ten pound note out of his wallet. Bending down, he offered it to the man.
“I can’t split a tenner pal, I’m sorry,” the man said, staring at the note.
“I’m not asking you to,” Bruce replied, taking a magazine. “Thanks again for your act of kindness this morning.”
There were no free tables in the coffee shop Bruce usually frequented, so he took Rachel to Marelli’s. Outside the building, he looked up to the first floor restaurant and saw that Plum was sat at his favourite window table, alongside Alex. Even from street level, Bruce could see Plum’s florid complexion, indicating that several bottles of Merlot had been consumed.
The cellar was much quieter today, with just a couple of shabby old men sat morosely at the bar — the creative types tended to spill in after five so Bruce and Rachel practically had the place to themselves for the next half hour. They had plenty of seating options but Bruce chose the same corner table as the day before.
“What will you have?” Rachel asked. “I know I asked you out for a coffee but it seems a bit of a shame to enter licensed premises and not sample the vino.”
Bruce smiled. Rachel was his type of girl. He imagined it would be bad form to watch her drink alone, so when Rachel ordered a glass of house red, Bruce had one too.
“Well, this is rather rustic,” she said, gesturing at her surroundings as she brought the drinks to the table.
“Cheers,” he said, taking a deep glug. It was surprisingly drinkable, he thought, for a house red.
“Gosh, this is evil,” said Rachel, wrinkling her nose in distaste.
“So you’re Honey Peach’s sister,” Bruce said. “You’re so different.”
“It’s a long and winding road of a story — same mother, different fathers, neither of which could stand the pace.”
“You don’t look anything alike.”
“She has always been the attractive one in the family,” Rachel said.
“You’re just as attractive as her,” Bruce replied.
Rachel moved her head backwards and threw him a quizzical stare.
“Perhaps in a less obvious way.”
“A ‘less obvious’ way? Isn’t that what you journalists would call being damned with faint praise?”
“That’s not what I…”
“Look, if you don’t mind, can we talk about my sister rather than mousey old me?”
Bruce shrugged. She wasn’t mousey. Or old.
“I really need to speak to her but I don’t have her number. You must have it?”
Bruce explained that he didn’t. “If only you’d asked me yesterday,” he said.
“Why? Would you have known it then?”
“I could have asked her for it. I was sat at this very table with her last night.”
“She was here?” Rachel looked around the gloomy bar.
“She’s been here a few times actually. Last month she popped in and signed a load of posters for us to give away as competition prizes.”
Rachel frowned. “What was she doing here yesterday?”
“She was being interviewed for our Performer Profile section, which is an in-depth piece, charting her career highlights.”
“Career highlights?” Rachel almost snorted. “What have they been?”
“Well, as I’m sure you know, she’s only done one film — Legend of the Amazon Women — but that made a quite a splash when it was released earlier this year.”
“Did it have a compelling storyline?” Rachel sneered.
“Yes it did,” Bruce said. “It was about a bunch of women who buy a lot of books from a mail order company.”
Rachel stared at Bruce and slowly started to smile. “You’re quite the card, aren’t you?”
“Well, I’m sure you know all about her chosen line of work, being her sister.”
“Unfortunately we lost touch a while ago,” Rachel said. “And now I really need to speak to her because Mummy is seriously ill.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Bruce said, taking another glug of wine. It still tasted perfectly drinkable to him.
Rachel looked at him imploringly. “So will you get her number for me?”
Bruce said he would.
The quiet cellar bar suddenly erupted with braying laughter as four men in grey suits stumbled down the stairs and ordered a magnum of Marelli’s most expensive champagne. They cheered as the barmaid poured its contents into crystal flutes. The men looked around and made straight for Bruce’s table. They all appeared to be in their fifties and already drunk.
“I say, you brighten this old dive up,” one of them said, pointing at Rachel. “Got dressed in the dark this morning, did you?”
His companions laughed like road drills hammering concrete.
“I’d still give her a dig in the ribs though,” the man said.
“Guys, do you mind?” Bruce said, standing up. Was something like this going to happen every time he brought a woman to Marelli’s?
“Do excuse us old fruit, we had some luck on the gee-gees this afternoon,” the man said. “Will you two share some bubbles with us?”
Rachel suddenly stood up and snapped: “We’re in the middle of something here so just fuck off, will you?”
Chastened, and slightly shocked, the men retreated to the bar. Bruce was also a little taken aback. The harshness of Rachel’s words contrasted sharply with her cultured voice — but then he remembered that he too had been on the receiving end of her displeasure a little earlier.
“Do you always get such lascivious types in here?” she asked.
Bruce’s shrug suggested he didn’t know how to answer that.
“Time for me to go then,” she said, pushing her unwanted glass of wine into the centre of the table. She retrieved a tiny slip of paper and a pen from her bag, wrote a number down on it, and passed it across the table to Bruce.
Bruce was delighted to see she used a fountain pen. He carefully folded the piece of paper and put it in the breast pocket of his shirt, alongside his phone.
“Promise me you’ll call me when you get her number?” Rachel said.
Bruce promised. She hugged him. He didn’t want her to go. She kissed him lightly on the cheek. Now he really didn’t want her to go.
As she walked across the bar towards the staircase Bruce decided that she was actually more attractive than her sister. She’d certainly struck a chord with the four toffs, one of whom directed a lewd comment at her as she passed them.
She smiled coquettishly, then grabbed one of the champagne flutes from the bar and threw its contents into the face of the offender. And without saying a word, she stomped up the stairs.
Bruce sunk as low as it was possible to go into his chair and hoped the toffs wouldn’t notice he was still here. They did. They marched across the bar towards him and, hooting with laughter, poured what was left of their champagne over his head.
Chapter three: Wednesday 4th June 2003
The stench of stale booze assaulted Bruce when he was forced awake by his stretched-to-capacity bladder. He realised why when he opened his eyes — he was lying on his sofa, still wearing the previous day’s clothes. Last night had been another late one. He had ended up getting completely blotto with the toffs, who turned out to be enormous fun – particularly when advising him of the best way to keep that ‘filly’ of his under control.
He removed his mobile and the piece of folded paper containing Rachel’s number from his shirt pocket. The phone’s tiny keys were sticky from the champagne. The LCD screen was blank, hopefully only because the battery was exhausted. Rather unsteadily, he got to his feet and stumbled across the lounge to his television. As the screen burst into life he noticed the digital clock in the corner was approaching nine o’clock. That wasn’t what he wanted to see. He couldn’t be late two days in a row. Well, he could, but he shouldn’t…
A shower, shave and taxi ride later and he was in One East, only to find it deserted. At first he wondered if the celebration of ‘Alex’s ascendancy to the big chair’ had turned into a session, and he was the first one in, but if that had been the case the office would still be locked up. Then he heard voices coming from the boardroom. As he approached, he could see through the glass door that Plum, Alex and Nick were deep in discussion around the mahogany table that dominated the small room.
“What’s going on?” Bruce asked as he opened the door.
“Sit down, Bruce,” Plum commanded. “You’re late. Again.”
“Late for what? We had the Next Issue Planning Meeting on Monday.”
“AMG has a new editor now and, following ideas we kicked around yesterday at lunch, she’s outlining some changes she’s planning to make,” Plum said.
“Changes?” Bruce started to protest.
“Look, the best thing you can do is sit down and be quiet. I’m not at all pleased with you, Bruce — you got Jan sloshed, you left the office early without permission yesterday, and now you’ve been late two days in a row.”
Alex said nothing but Bruce noticed she was wearing a particularly smug smile. It transpired that one of the changes she intended making was to add the news pages to Bruce’s workload. Another was to introduce a diary page in which she would namecheck everyone she had been socialising with that week.
“Any comments, Bruce?” Plum asked.
“If I’m going to be doing the news now, as well as contribute to features, then I’m not going to have time to do all the film reviews,” he said.
“Why not?” Alex said. “All you do is read the back of the box isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s exactly how I review films,” Bruce said. “You’ll find The Guardian’s movie critic does the same.”
“We could get a freelancer to do them if it’s going to be an issue,” Alex suggested. “Or we could just cut down the number of review pages.”
“Is this a hidden camera stunt?” Bruce said, looking around the room in a theatrical manner. “Alex, are you aware that the name of the magazine you have been made acting editor of is Adult Movie Guide? We exist to review adult movies, that is our purpose, which is why over half of our pages are devoted to them.”
“That doesn’t mean…” she started to protest.
“And as for your diary idea, why would any of our readers want to know which parties you have been to? Aren’t their lives depressing enough as it is? They buy a weekly guide to masturbation material, for goodness sake. Don’t you think they already know that your life is so much better than theirs, without you ramming it down their throats?”
Plum stood up. “Right, I think we’ll adjourn this meeting for now. I’d like a word in private with you, Bruce.”
Alex and Nick filed out and Plum closed the door behind them.
“Bruce, I simply can’t have you speaking to Alex like that,” he said, waggling his finger. “I said she would need your support, and you agreed to take on extra responsibilities.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Bruce said, a slight tremor creeping into his voice. “Because it feels like you’re making my position untenable.”
“Oh Bruce, you take yourself far too seriously,” Plum said in a conciliatory tone. “AMG’s position in the market is simply to point people in certain directions. Buy this book if you like reading about spanking, buy that film if you like seeing naked housewives, visit that website if you want to know more about goats…”
“The expression is goatse,” Bruce quietly corrected him.
“I know you like to think you’re ‘the voice of the reader’ but more of our income comes from advertising than cover sales, so our priority is to keep our advertisers happy, and that’s why Alex will be an ideal editor.”
“Ideal in what way — she’s cheap?”
“In all candour, I’ll concede that economics did play a contributing part in her appointment,” Plum said. “Granted she doesn’t have your urbane way with words but she wears short skirts and low tops and the advertisers love getting sloshed with her. This is actually a great opportunity for the magazine. Jan had the air of a maiden aunt about her. And there’s nothing wrong with that when you’re the editor of a needlework title – which of course she was, and a damn fine one too – but I’ve often wondered if bringing her to AMG was a mistake.”
“It sounds like you’ve wondered that about me too.”
Plum spread his arms and shrugged.
“Well thank you for that resounding vote of confidence.”
“This is a much smaller business than video games and it really is all about relationships,” Plum said. “The trouble with you is you’ve made a name for yourself as a hatchet man. You’re the guy who tells it like it is. And that talent doesn’t transfer particularly well to other areas of the business. The advertisers already know and like Alex. They like being with her, they like…”
“Excuse me, I’m going to be sick,” Bruce said, walking out of Plum’s office.
After a calming cigarette in the bright morning sun of the courtyard, Bruce made his way back up the stairs to the office. Plum was back in his den, Alex was on the phone and Nick was quietly dragging page elements around the screen on his computer.
“The world’s gone mad,” Bruce said, rolling his wheeled chair along to Nick’s desk. Nick’s extra-large monitor displayed pages two and three of the next issue. Page two contained an advert while page three housed the editor’s Welcome column, a list of the magazine’s contents and the flannel panel, which provided details of the AMG staff. Nick was reducing the size of the flannel panel.
“It certainly has, mate,” Nick agreed, still looking at his monitor. “I was flabbergasted Plum made Alex editor instead of you.”
“You were flabbergasted?” Bruce replied. “How do you think it made me feel?”
“Not quite,” Bruce said. “And that’s my line.”
“What happened to you yesterday?” Bruce said.
“Yesterday? I wasn’t in work yesterday.”
“Yes, I was aware of that, which is why I asked – why weren’t you in work?”
“Nothing serious mate, just a dose of the squits,” Nick said quietly. “Must have been the kebab I had Monday night.”
“Listen, about Monday night…”
Nick’s face was screwed up in concentration as he resized the flannel panel box by a tiny percentage. “Mmm?”
“Don’t ignore me,” Bruce said, poking Nick in his arm and causing his mouse pointer to dash wildly across the screen.
“Oi, don’t touch the guns,” Nick warned him, forming a fist. “They might go off in your face.”
“What happened, after we left Marelli’s?”
“I told you, I had a kebab.”
“Did you see what happened to Jan?”
“How could I? She went in the opposite direction and I was watching Honey Peach to the station…”
“You make it sound like an act of chivalry,” Bruce said. “You were heading that way anyway because it’s on the way to your flat.”
“What’s your point?”
“You didn’t see anything happen to me, did you?” Bruce asked, pointing to the lump on the side of his head.
Nick stared at it. “You picked that up Monday night, did you?” he said. “It looks quite tender, mate. Have you had it checked out by A&E?”
Bruce shook his head.
“You should,” Nick said, staring at the lump and prodding it. “You can get brain damage from a blow to the head. That’s why we wear scrum caps in games these days.”
“Don’t finger it,” Bruce said, in response to Nick’s prodding.
“Who gave it to you?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure? How smashed were you?”
“I wasn’t smashed, I only had a few pints…”
“Did you report it?”
“How could I when I didn’t see who it was?”
“They’ll only have a couple of thousand suspects. I suppose it goes with the territory when you make a living from pissing people off.”
“I didn’t piss anyone off,” Bruce protested.
“What about those two blokes?”
“You were the one who escorted them out of the bar. If they were going to attack anyone it should have been you.”
Nick grinned and tensed his bulging biceps. “Mate, nobody is going to mess with these bad boys. Now let me take another look at that lump on your head…”
“Will you stop poking it?” Bruce yelped. “We’ve already established that it’s sore.”
“There’s something awfully sad about middle-aged people who get smashed in public places, don’t you think?” Nick said. “I tried to talk you out of that last round but you wouldn’t listen.”
“I told you, I wasn’t smashed,” Bruce said. “And one brandy wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.”
“I didn’t say you particularly,” Nick said. “I might have been talking about Jan…”
“Jan wasn’t drunk either. You were there – you saw how much we had.”
“You might have done shots or something before I got there…”
“We did not do shots – we’re not teenagers.”
“Well maybe she stopped off somewhere before she went back to her car?”
“She wouldn’t do that.”
“Maybe you don’t know her as well as you think you do. She told us she was going to catch a taxi, didn’t she?”
“Well she obviously didn’t. And did you see she had a bottle of gin in her bag? Perhaps she drinks alone every night…”
Before Bruce could reply, Alex interrupted her phone call to shout across the office: “Bruce, instead of gossiping like an old woman, get chasing up news stories for the next issue — you do know our deadline is Friday?”
“Funnily enough I was just thinking about that,” Bruce replied. “I was thinking that every news story should be about you this month – how great you are, how great your friends are, how great your life is, that sort of thing. What do you think?”
She pouted and glared at him, before making another call.
“How can Plum make her acting editor?” Bruce said to Nick. “It’s not that I even wanted it, I just hate to see her with it. I wouldn’t trust her to write a shopping list.”
They both stared across the office at Alex, who was perched on her desk, her short skirt showcasing her legs to great effect.
“I think you’re just saying that because you fancy her,” Nick said to Bruce.
Bruce mimed putting his fingers down his throat. “No thanks, she’s repulsive.”
Nick gave Bruce a quizzical look. “Mate, how can you say that? She’s young, slim, she’s got a pretty face…”
“She’s repulsive on the inside,” Bruce stopped him.
Bruce couldn’t look at her any longer. Turning his attention to Nick’s monitor, he said: “How much longer are you going to be dicking around with this? You are familiar with the phrase, overegging the pudding? And why are you cutting everyone’s pictures from the flannel panel?”
“Alex says there’s no need for them,” Nick replied. “And with the extra space we can have a large picture of her above the Welcome column.”
Bruce sighed. “Of course we can. Even though Jan’s profile pic was always the same size as everyone else’s. Let’s hope we’ve only got to put up with her for a few issues.”
After a pause of a few seconds, Nick said: “Have you been to see Jan yet?”
“No, I haven’t had chance,” Bruce said.
“Same here,” Nick said. “But when you do go, in all seriousness I think you should get them to check your head while you’re there. It looks like you took quite a hit.”
“Bruce!” Alex yelled in his direction. “Can you please get on with the news?”
Bruce stared across the office at Alex and contrasted her with Rachel, the woman he had met yesterday. Even though Rachel had demonstrated that she had a feisty side, she was also elegant, chic and she used words like ‘lascivious’. And she was attractive, even if it wasn’t in an obvious way…
Back at his own desk, he flicked through his collection of business cards and considered who to chase for information that could be churned into news stories. He picked four candidates from the pack and shuffled them, deciding who to call first, but now her name had cropped up he kept thinking about Rachel. He would much rather talk to her again, but before he could do that he needed to have Honey Peach’s number. And to get that he would have to see Jan – unless he could get it from Milkman…
“Has she turned up yet?” Bruce asked when Milkman answered his phone.
“No she hasn’t,” Milkman said. “I’m starting to worry about her now. She didn’t say anything to you, did she, about going somewhere else?”
“No, but you couldn’t blame her if she did,” Bruce said. “Sending her a text saying she was going to have to share your bed…”
“That was only a bit of banter,” Milkman said.
“And you’ve tried ringing her?”
“Dozens of times.”
“Would you mind giving me her number?”
“Do you think she will answer the phone to you and not me?”
“It’s not for me,” Bruce said. “I only want to pass it on to her sister.”
“She came to the office yesterday trying to find her. Some kind of a family emergency. I said I’d get her number so she can let her know…”
“I didn’t know she had a sister,” Milkman said, suddenly interested. “How big are her tits?”
“In your eyes they would be disappointingly diminutive,” Bruce said. “And I don’t think she’s your type anyway. She looks about thirty-five.”
“Thirty-five!” Milkman snorted dismissively. “Fuck that shit! I’m not into grannies.”
Bruce was about to point out that Milkman was at least twenty years older than Rachel when the old roué read out Honey Peach’s mobile number to him.
“If you do speak to her, tell her to ring me,” Milkman said. “We’ve got other things we’re supposed to be doing for Spaghetti and I need to know where I stand.”
Now Bruce could speak to Rachel again. To his surprise, the thought of doing this gave him butterflies in the stomach. That was a feeling he hadn’t had for a considerable time. To savour it for as long as possible he decided to chase up his news contacts before calling her. The first three calls he made yielded a few little snippets he could write up, leaving him with just Julian Gregan, CEO of pressure group CRSP – the Campaign to Restrict the Sale of Pornography.
CRSP was formed as a direct result of the year 2000 legislation which allowed hardcore pornography – given an R18 rating by the British Board of Film Classification – to be legally sold in the UK through licensed sex shops. The aim of CRSP was to get this legislation overturned and Julian Gregan was occasionally quoted in the mainstream media if they ran an anti-porn piece. Some of his more alarmist public statements were occasionally reproduced and ridiculed in AMG.
Bruce scribbled four questions down on his pad, based on his notes from yesterday’s conversation with Zara, and dialled Gregan’s number. He answered immediately, like he always did.
Bruce adopted a Home Counties accent and introduced himself as a journalist. He did not say which publication he worked for but he went on to explain that he was looking for a reaction from CRSP regarding the government awarding grants to makers of pornography.
“They’re doing what?” Gregan spluttered.
“I must stress there has been no official announcement yet,” Bruce cautioned, mangling his vowels in the same way he imagined a Royal Correspondent for Tatler would do. “But, assuming there will be in the foreseeable future, does CRSP think it appropriate for the government – which, by definition, really means the taxpayer – to subsidise pornographers’ overseas jaunts when there are pensioners living in poverty and life-saving drugs are subject to postcode rationing on the NHS?”
Gregan did not think this was appropriate. After asking for more details, Gregan composed himself and gave Bruce an official ‘on the record’ quote: “I find it inconceivable that a serving government would stoop so low as to court popularity with pornographers by using decent, hardworking families’ taxes to help them peddle their sordid wares in other countries.”
Thank you Mr Gregan, that’ll do nicely. Now to put a different spin on it for AMG’s readership. Something about the enemies of freedom attempting to stifle an already overregulated industry, putting British jobs at risk, preventing UK firms from reaching their potential, frustrating the industry’s attempts to help the country’s balance of payments…
After typing up the story Bruce dragged it across onto the network drive and sat back, feeling a little guilty. Gregan actually had a perfectly reasonable point – why should pornographers be subsidised by taxpayers? But then he remembered that it wasn’t actually a real story…
Now he could call Rachel. He ferreted in his shirt pocket for the precious piece of paper with her number on. Pulling it out, his heart sank. It resembled a twenty pound note he’d once found in his jeans pocket after it had been through the washing machine. The champagne which the toffs had poured over him had soaked through his shirt and into the paper. It tore as he unfolded it, revealing that the ink had run into an indecipherable confusion of squiggles.
To continue reading, get the complete novel from Amazon in either paperback or ebook format. The UK site can be found here and the US site here and The Honey Peach Affair can also be purchased from other Amazon platforms worldwide.