Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

As it turned out Nick’s much-abused credit card proved resilient enough to support the purchase of several bottles of fairly expensive claret. He also bought a couple of bottles of Rolling Rock for Martin, his teenage son who was studying hard to go to University. Shouldn’t really encourage him but – well, he was a good lad, the apple of his eye. Anyway, all his mates drank, better he did it at home, under supervision.

He was, he decided as he climbed back into the taxi, in the mood to get drunk. Very drunk. Paralytic in fact. Well and truly smashed out of his head. Why not? Tomorrow he would be sober. And bankrupt. Time enough then to face the consequences.

“You’re early!” exclaimed Maureen, beaming, “And you’ve brought the wine!”

“I’ve brought lots of wine.”

“Oh dear. I don’t like that look in your eye. You’re not going to go over the top are you, Nick?”

“With all guns blazing,” Nick replied, reaching up for the bottle of gin in the cabinet beside the cooker. “Want one?”

“It’s too soon for me. Listen, dear, go easy will you. You know what you’re like when you’ve had too much to drink.”

Nick took a sip of his gin and tonic, looking thoughtful. ”Witty? Entertaining? The life and soul of the party?”

Maureen made a face. “Argumentative. Boring. A royal pain in the butt.”

He took his drink through to the lounge and settled down with the local paper. It occurred to him that he’d probably be featuring in it soon. If not on the front page at least in the Public Announcement section where the liquidators would publish the winding up notice. Fame at last. Or notoriety at least. Soon everyone would know. All his friends. His fellow businessmen at the Chamber of Commerce. Public degradation would inevitably follow. At the very least he would be the talk of the village. Ritual humiliation manifested in scandalised whispers and knowing sideways glances from the other side of the street. And why not? He deserved his fate after all. Hubris. No question about it. Positively arrogant. So confident in his own abilities that he had been blind to what was really happening. He turned to the back page of the paper. Scotland had lost another home friendly and the coach was being excoriated again. Nick took some comfort in the knowledge that there was always one person in the country who was in deeper trouble than he was. Sometimes he thought this country positively luxuriated in failure, wallowed in a sort of inverted jealousy.

By the time their guests arrived he was onto his third gin and already feeling light-headed. While the three women stayed and chatted in the kitchen the men stood with their backs to the big open fireplace, drinks in hand. They were all around the same age, early fifties, and had been friends since university, where he had met Maureen. Alastair Murray had worked for the council all his life and was some sort of director of strategy in the planning department. His rise had not exactly been meteoric but there was no doubt he was now considered a success.
Raymond Binney, on the other hand, a short, tubby man with an unnaturally waxy complexion, was a primary school teacher who spent most of his waking time meticulously planning for early retirement, touring in a camper van in the Dordogne.

“How’s business then, Nick?” said Alastair Murray, sipping his sherry appreciatively. “Still making millions?”

Nick stared into the fire. “Not exactly. It’s tough out there right now. Very tough.” He drained his glass.

“Where’s the Merc by the way?” asked Raymond Binney, squinting suspiciously towards the driveway, “I don’t see it anywhere.”

The liquidator had taken the Mercedes that afternoon. “It’s in for a service,” lied Nick. He’d spun the same story to Maureen earlier, having caught a taxi home.

“That car must cost you a fortune to run,” continued Raymond, looking envious. “Makes my Polo look a bit downmarket I must say. Still, at least I’m not harming the environment quite as much as you two.”

Alastair Murray drove a big grey Audi of which he was inordinately proud. He beamed in delight at the insult. “Got to keep up appearances,” he said, “Especially in my position.”

“You’re right, Raymond,” agreed Nick, “It is irresponsible. My next mode of transport will be a bike.”

They all laughed, but Nick wasn’t joking.

At that moment Maureen announced that dinner was ready and ushered them through to the dining room.

“That looks good,” said Raymond, admiring the spread.

“This wine is delicious. Mm. You can’t beat a really good French wine.”

“Some of the newer Spanish wines are pretty good too.”

“Not a patch on this.”

“This lamb is meltingly tasty,” said Claire Murray, licking her lips in a way that might once have appeared suggestive but now appeared simply gluttonous. There was a general murmur of assent. Everyone knew that Maureen was a brilliant cook. Nick took a deep draught of the wine. Her skills would be tested to the limits over the coming months. How many variations on bread and dripping did she know, he wondered.

“I don’t know where you find the time to cook like this,” said Isobel Binney. “In our house we seem to live on ready meals.”

“They’re all right,” said her husband defensively, “Sainsbury’s are pretty good. Anyway, that’s how everybody eats these days.”

“I think Markies are definitely the best when it comes to pre-prepared meals,” said Alastair, “Always have been. You pay a bit more but it’s worth it.”

I wonder what Somerfield’s ready meals are like, wondered Nick gloomily.

“We can’t afford Markies any more,” said Raymond Binnie, “Not on my salary. It’ll be even worse once I’ve retired. Bread and water probably.”

Alastair snorted. “You’ll get a good pension. Teachers do all right. Even better than the Local Authority.”

Nick’s pension was his investment in the company, which was now worthless. He swallowed hard. Maureen was a teacher too but she’d left the profession for several years to bring up their son – her pension wouldn’t amount to all that much. Besides, he wasn’t sure if there’d be much left after the bank had taken their cut.

“Nick’s the one who’s going to score,” said Raymond Binnie, making a face, “He’ll sell out his business for a fat profit and go and live the high life in Spain or Monaco or somewhere. Isn’t that right, Nick? I tell you, I wish I’d started my own business instead of going into education. I’d have buggered off to the south of France long ago.”

Nick looked at his plate, not meeting anybody’s eyes. “If only it was that easy.”

Everybody laughed, including Maureen. They all thought he was rolling in it. Little did they know. Nick drained his glass and poured some more drinks. Working for the public sector was a doddle compared to working for yourself. They had no idea. Jobs for life. No worries about getting paid. No fighting for business. Plenty of holidays. A big fat pension at the end of it all guaranteed by the government. Fuck them, he thought to himself, fuck them all.

“It can’t be that hard,” said Alastair, “You’ve done it for long enough.”

Everybody laughed again, the mood round the table was buoyant.

Nick felt his hackles rising. “That’s total crap,” he snapped, “You’ve never had to sit across the table from a fucking VAT official whose got you by the balls because you’re in arrears when some fucking customer can’t pay you. Those guys in the public sector don’t give a toss for your problems. Pay up or we’ll close you down. That’s their mantra. Never mind all the people that will lose their jobs. Or the fact that you’ll lose everything because the bank have forced you to put your house on the line as security. Alastair, you wouldn’t last five fucking minutes in the private sector, you’d get eaten alive.”

Nobody laughed. Alastair coughed, looking embarrassed and annoyed at the same time. “Maybe you shouldn’t take on work if you don’t think you’ll get paid.”

Nick shook his head in disbelief. “Get real, Alastair. This is the world of work I’m talking about. Not the public sector. We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing our customers. Nor do we have a guaranteed income stream . If we need more money we can’t just turn round and put up taxes or raise the rates like you guys. Christ, right now we’ll take anything we can get. It’s fucking dog eat dog out there.”

“There’s no point doing work for someone if you’re not going to get paid. That doesn’t make sense,” Alastair protested.

“You never know if you’re going to get paid. Even the biggest companies can go tits up these days. Or find a reason for not paying you, which is just as bad.”

“It all sounds very unpleasant,” said Claire Murray, pushing her half-finished plate away from her. “Suddenly the Health Service doesn’t feel so bad after all.”

Nick looked at her balefully. “Unfortunately we can’t all work for the public sector. Someone’s got to go out there and create the wealth to pay your wages. Fucking mugs like me in fact. Jesus, I wish I had taken the easy way out and become a fucking teacher.”

“Nick, please, your language,” said Maureen, looking distraught. For some reason Nick had toppled over the edge. Something must have happened at work which she didn’t know about. Something very bad. Fear made her feel faint.

Nick retreated into his shell, his mind silted up with the fallout from his company’s collapse, saying little after his outburst. The evening gradually petered out, suffocating itself on a familiar chorus of complaints about kids who refused to cut their financial umbilical cords and grandparents who had discovered the secret of eternal life and refused to fade away gracefully, selfishly frittering their children’s hard-earned inheritances on private Care Home fees. Their guests left just after nine, subdued and embarrassed. Rising unsteadily from the table Nick dragged himself off to bed while Maureen tidied up in the kitchen. When she finally joined him he was lying on his back snoring, out to the world.

Maureen climbed into bed and turned her back on him, sliding as far away from him as possible, clinging to the edge. At times like this she hated him, wished she’d never married him. Another performance like tonight’s and she really would leave him. He’d had his chances. It was always the same. Whenever he felt under pressure he took it out on her and anyone else who came within range. That bloody business he ran was the problem. Had been for years. It meant more to him than she did. Was the only thing he really cared about, if the truth were known. She wished he’d never started it. Wished he had become a bloody teacher and given up all his stupid ambitions, his obsession with money and trying to give them the best of everything.

She wiped away a tear in the dark. All she’d ever wanted was an ordinary happy marriage, the kind other people had.