Tuesday, 29 September 2015

That Tantalising Coin (Winner of the 2011 Anne Pierson Young Writers Award)

In Henry’s head the moment is as familiar as memory. He has replayed every motion and every sentence. He has spent recent nights orchestrating it again and again. And all this on the hope that it will propagate a thousand futures: hope, that fleeting hope, that tantalising coin dancing between heads and tails.

Now the moment is about to arrive. Henry is sitting with a small beer in a grand house, and he has been preparing all week. On Tuesday the man from Regency’s did the windows; on Friday someone was in to clean the carpets. He has dusted all the surfaces, glanced in every mirror, turned every plant round to its most attractive side, bought new claret, binned all the unappetising food, and sewn the buttons back on his pyjamas. They won’t actually see his pyjamas, but ... well, anyway.
Now to relapse into limbo. He plucks at the pages of a paperback about an aspiring senator but it’s fairly dull fare. He turns on the TV to find the main story is about some overpaid model. He flicks through a Christmas catalogue. Too expensive. Too gaudy. Too suggestive.
The bell tinkles.
Stand up. No, Henry, too fast. Sit down. Stand up again. Pour that titchy beer down the sink. Now, with ease, stroll to the front door – that’s it – tidy your cufflinks, arrange your face. And open – voila. Perfect. The crowds are cheering you.
Here they are on the doorstep, just as he imagined: Mr and Mrs Neale. One of those rare couples that look like brother and sister. They are more or less the same height and age, and they have the same hands, huge white hands. Nigel’s a well-known civil servant, who for some reason nobody quite knows benefited enormously from the scandal five years ago involving that politician whose name Henry always forgets. Matilda’s the successful lawyer who once trumped Ronald Fitzwilliam and has served on some of the most important cases of recent years. Henry thinks they’re childless but can’t be sure. They don’t discuss their private lives much. Not with him.
“Evening,” Henry says with a cheery hand movement (well-rehearsed, Henry, but redundant). “Come in, come in.”
“Thank you,” says Mrs Neale as he takes her coat. “Well, this is a nice place, Henry.”
“Thank you. I hope you’re both well?”
They glance at each other, briefly, considering how to word their official press release. “Very well,” Mr Neale concludes. “Matilda’s sister came up to spend the Saturday with us.”
“And brought the children,” adds his wife. “You’d like the eldest: he’s reading Physics at Cambridge – and he’s an absolute charmer.”
Henry makes an interested face and gestures for them to follow him through the sliding doors and into his conservatory.
“We’ll sit in here. On an autumn evening it feels like hallowed ground.” Henry has a sudden urge to face-palm. Hallowed ground? What an idiotic expression! But they don’t seem to have noticed...he regains his balance on the tightrope.
The room looks as though it were the last frontier of the world. Beyond the windows is a shifting wasteland of black cloud with no trees, no lights, nothing to contradict their solitude. In here with the sweet, mild gold of the lamps and the beat of the heaters, Henry can stare out at the nothingness and laugh; to him it really is nothing, and here in his little counting-room he can be king and the storm can ram the castle keep all it wishes.
He pulls up an armchair, but Matilda refuses it seemingly as a matter of course. “No, no,” she says firmly, “I’ll be quite happy here,” and settles into the sofa. Nigel sits opposite. He fondly rubs the leather arm, but then Henry notices the chunky Patek Philippe on his wrist, and he understands.
The side-table is decked with a bowl of sad, blind olives, pimento peeping out. The champagne is poured out, frothy and light.
“Cheers,” says Nigel, clutching the glass of sparkling yellow with his thick fingers. “So how are things, Henry?”
It’s a dangerous question, and Henry serves up a “Well” and a “Not too bad” before committing to an answer. It’s safest to talk about leisure rather than employment. A scrabble of topic-hunting and he is ready: rugby tournament last month – yes, you do have to put in the hours – no, no major injuries this season – Spain next September – just with a few friends – counting on salary rise of course.
All the while their faces look interested, so he assumes they aren’t. He thinks Nigel is judging him and boxing him into some precise category in his mind with every new sentence he speaks. This isn’t a proper interview, not a bit of it, but the man’s not a fool – he must know where Henry’s applying.  
There’s one olive left, floundering in too much brine. Henry takes it.
During dinner – Henry’s lemon & white wine scallops recipe: delicious and so easy to make – the conversation pirouettes far and wide, touching lightly on quantitative easing, then skipping to prison reform and finishing on Chinese politics. The Neales are charming guests. A little distant perhaps, and they make no concessions – Henry has to make an effort to keep up, but to his delight he manoeuvres everything so he can maintain that balance between saying enough to look intelligent but veiling all signs of ignorance.
They drift back into the conservatory. On the coffee table in the corner lies a chess-game approaching checkmate.
Nigel gestures at the board. “You black or white?”
“White,” Henry replies, bringing in the coffee.
Nigel examines the board and delivers his verdict: “Should’ve been King to Queen 1 on your last move.”
Damn. Henry doesn’t need to look; in his head the game unravels. “No, no,” Henry says. “I thought of that; doesn’t work.” Then amid a mix-up of caffeinated and decaffeinated, the crucial move is forgotten.
For another two hours they talk, of this and that; Henry forgets things the Neales have said seconds after they say it, and no doubt vice-versa. But it does not matter. Henry is doing well.
Now. After the little box of white chocolates has done the rounds, Henry feels he can raise the topic. “So,” he says, brushing his crossed trouser legs carefully, “how’s business?”
Nigel grins widely, and launches into some smug spiel. The long answer is not what Henry was expecting but he suffers it for a few minutes. And then, quite coolly, calmly: “Ah, and do you give references?”
Henry doesn’t look up to see if Nigel replies. He’s agonising over being casual, staring at something in his coffee. And then he realises Nigel has said something. In that moment Henry sees the tiniest of shiny bubbles as it hits something material. It vanishes. He almost chokes on his coffee. The escaping fox. The burst balloon. The toppling towers.
But he must say, “No matter,” and he must give a little smile. The surface of his coffee roils from his movement, the brown ripples shiver and quake.

It is almost midnight. Henry stands at the window and the Neales walk down the steep driveway. For a few moments he can see nothing: they are shapeless, formless, in waves of cloud. And then a dim rumble, the minute gleams of headlights slice through the dark, and as they move off, just for a moment, they look like defiant fiery beacons on a hill far below. But the black sea crashes in around them, and the beacons are doused, and the waters settle. The charcoal ocean is all.

Henry still has the sweet mild gold of his lamps. Pfft, narrow-minded fools! But he shrugs, and proposes a silent toast to himself, and drains his glass, and cries.

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