This Is Your Carstairs Speaking
Table of Contents (PDF only)
Acknowledgements and Disclaimer 3
Chapter 1 – You must remember this 4
Chapter 2 – Mosque you bring this up? 35
Chapter 3 – When in Rome 50
Chapter 4 – Begin the legume 86
Chapter 5 – 'Well, I can see who wears the trousers.' 107
Chapter 6 – What's in a name 117
Chapter 7 – Spread 'em 157
Chapter 8 – Have your cake and a free car 174
Chapter 9 – Open Sushime 211
Chapter 10 – You can come down now 234
Chapter 11 – Game. Check. Point. 259
Chapter 12 – Next contestant, please 297
Chapter 13 – The Dhow factor 324
Chapter 14 – There's no office like the Home Office 347
Chapter 15 – Call of the hunter 360
Chapter 16 – Deep underground 377
Chapter 17 – The faint light at the end of it 390
From the author 401
Your eBook reader software will be able to display a table of contents based on page size.
My thanks to proofreaders William Harr and Steve B. Pilots Adrian Leverkuhn and Dale Clapperton checked the A380 scenes and gave their blessing on the understanding that this wasn't supposed to be a flight training manual. Freedom Zeev designed the cover. Special thanks to Mr. 'Blacksash', who helped to clean up my poor Italian translations. Any mistakes left are mine alone. And my thanks to everyone who has ever paid for one of my books. It helps me to dedicate as much time to writing as possible.
This is part five of a series:
For more information, visit http://www.funnyandsexyebooks.com
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, companies or actual events is purely coincidental.
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This is version 1.1, with improved Italian translations. First draft was completed Oct. 7th 2017. Two proofreaders had a go at this. First released on December 20th, 2017. You can always get an updated version (if available) if you purchased this via my website.
For my son, who has become everything to me.
Say, do you like sports? Not just watching, but actively engaging in them? Oh, how I envy you... I just don't get it. You wouldn't sand and then paint your house just for fun, would you? Or volunteer to move a piano for anyone who asked? So how is that any different from running or badminton? Is it just the points you score? Seriously? Because it's not like those buy you anything. They're not Nectar points.
I suppose it could be about the cheap silver-plated cups. I mean, you can just order those online but some people are afraid of credit card theft. Seems like a roundabout way of getting them, though.
It's not that I'm lazy. There's probably just something wrong with my dopamine receptors. I only ever get tired and agitated, because I'm sweating and wasting my time. The runner's high is not something I've ever even come close to experiencing, though that might also be because I tend to give up after about ten minutes: I keep imagining my meniscus slowly crumbling into a million pieces, one step at a time. Running can't be good for a person, surely. Show me a runner (or any kind of athlete, really) and I will show you someone who has at least five hours' worth of horrendous anecdotes about all the physical therapy he has received and how the one they're with now is a 'miracle worker'. If your hobby requires you to have miracles performed for your resurrection, may I suggest reading? Or stamp collecting?
I'm also not very competitive. So you can kick a ball, can you? Or get a shuttlecock past me? Well done. Now go do a lap of honour while I sit on this bench, reflecting on how much I hate changing rooms and the smell of sports halls. I hate everything about them: the smell of stale sweat. The equipment, all offering unique ways in which to break one's spine. Plimsolls, or tennis shoes as Americans call them. Can't stand those, or the sound they make on rubber floors. Communal showers, those are awful as well. I stopped using those as soon as I found out skipping showers after gym class only got me half an hour of detention. I never needed a shower anyway, because I didn't exert myself in the slightest. Which didn't make me very popular with my classmates, but that never bothered me too much. When math class came around they'd all want to be my mate again, copy off me.
The thing is: I'm a big guy. Not so much tall, but wide. Broad-shouldered. I looked fine until I was about eighteen, even though I couldn't outrun a tired snail on crutches. Then I went through a rather dark period and gained about fifty kilos in five years. But the thing is: that's exercise too, in a way. Could you make it through the day with a fifty kilogram backpack? I could. And I grew up in Holland, where we all ride bikes and where schools and universities really don't bother with escalators. I was fit enough to make it through daily life, even if I sometimes had to watch a bus or a train pull out without me because I couldn't run two hundred metres without blacking out. I gave badminton a go once and after four weeks I decided I really, really did not care for the company of people who got emotionally invested in something as stupid as badminton. And that was my sports career.
Well, that attitude came back to bite me in my early forties, after I'd had rather an eventful year. First I broke an arm and a rib. Recovering from that took ages. Then I dangled off of a bridge by my left arm for a few minutes, holding on to a young woman with my right arm. Didn't do much for my ligaments, let me tell you. I followed that up the same day by doing a very physical comedy sketch, which required me to fall down a lot. And wouldn't you know it, that was the straw that broke the camel's back: three days later my back was sore, my left shoulder was swollen and I had more complaints than the Wailing Wall has bits of paper sticking out of it. My sister Kate and my wife Melody dragged me to a physical therapist and other assorted quacks (one of whom wanted me to throw a heavy ball at her at a rate of seventy pounds for half an hour) and eventually I ended up with a tailored workout to help me recover, supervised by my sister. There was no getting out of it, even though my own instinct was to just sit in a chair very quietly until the throbbing stopped.
And that is how, for the past three weeks, my routine had been to start the day by having a swim. I work for a PR firm called Keller & Fox. They have a very swanky office in Bayswater, one of the most expensive areas of London. It's on Sussex Street, on the North side of Hyde Park. They also own several adjacent buildings, some connected by basement tunnels or glass walkways. And underneath one of those buildings is a very fancy gym, which includes a pool. The rich in London like to burrow, you see. Their houses aren't that small to begin with, but apparently you really need your own indoor cinema, play room, man cave, wine cellar, safe room or indeed climbing wall to make life bearable if you've got a few million in the bank. And that's why you can't walk through Kensington, Chelsea or indeed Bayswater without seeing at least a few conveyor belts coming out of the basements of stately homes. The facades, with their doric columns, porticos and dentilled cornices remain untouched behind their imposing fences, but below street level it's like a coal mine. Sometimes they bring in mini diggers, those small excavators with a hydraulic arm road workers use for digging trenches. These machines essentially dig their own grave, because after the job is done there's no economical way to get them out again and so they're just buried underneath the floor of the lowest level. Some of these houses plunge deeper into the earth than their actual height from street level. I don't begrudge anyone an extra guest room, a sauna or some storage space, but you have to wonder why someone would want a private ball room. Seriously, how often do you have to host dances to make it worth a few million in subterranean construction costs? What's this, nineteenth century Vienna?
The pool underneath this building wasn't meant for parties: it was only three metres wide, but about twenty metres long and one and a half metres deep. This was a pool for doing laps, which was ideal for me. And even though the gym was open to all employees of Keller & Fox, it was understood that Mr. King really didn't care for company during his swim. Each morning I would find the water perfectly still, a stack of fresh towels in the changing cabin and the underwater lights shimmering. I'd turn on the radio, tune it back to Classic FM, take off my suit and change into my swimming trunks. I'd take a shower, turning the mixing knob from thirty-seven to twenty-five degrees so as to get used to the cold and then I'd curse under my breath as I sat on the edge and lowered myself into the water. I'm not a morning person. Never have been. Being a night owl is a sign of intelligence, they say. But then they also say vaccines cause autism. They say a lot of stupid shit. If I were intelligent, I'd have stopped chasing that eighteen year old boy after he'd beaten the tar out of me the first time.
The first few days I couldn't manage more than three or four laps. Not that I was in any danger of drowning if I went on, but my arms were sore and I just didn't have the energy to do more. But that got better day by day and by now I could do ten laps easily, in just under fifteen minutes. That's only four hundred metres, but given where I started from it wasn't too shabby. Besides, this wasn't the only part of my recovery: even though my job came with a chauffeur driven car, I would sometimes go home on public transport. It was half a mile on foot to Lancaster Gate Station and another half mile from Park Royal to my house on Dallas Road. And then after dinner, which I would prepare, either Melody or Kate would supervise my exercises: some weight lifting, some sit-ups, all kinds of annoying swinging motions with my arms, stuff like that. And afterwards there'd usually be sex, because that is the one thing I don't mind breaking a sweat for. No matter how poor my stamina: I can fuck like a porn star. You may wonder what my sister Kate has to do with that, but in that case you are a bit late to this story and I would suggest starting from the beginning.
Even though I have the radio on as I swim, I can't really hear the music over my own splashing about. That's okay: I know most popular classical music by heart, so I only need to hear one or two bars for my memory to kick in and provide the rest. I just focus on the underwater lights to keep me on track. And that's why I was more than a bit surprised to see two female feet in open, high heeled shoes when I came up just before a turn. It's a sight I welcome, by the way. I stood upright and looked up at the owner of those feet. A tall, elegant woman dressed in a designer outfit stood at the edge of the pool, her arms crossed as she looked down at me.
“Hello dear, don't stop on my account. You've only done six laps so far.”
“Have you been here that long?” I asked, wiping the water from my face. I like Caroline. I call her my pet dragon, even though she's my boss. Actually, she isn't: I'm the director of a Keller & Fox subsidiary, called Scytale. And I'm also a director at Keller & Fox, albeit one without shares. It would be more accurate to say she outranks me. I'm fine with that, by the way. We're friends, sometimes a bit more than friends, and she is one of the most amazing women you will ever meet. She's also Godmother to my son, Edwin, and one of the most influential women on this planet that you've never heard of.
“That's okay, I can take a break.”
She kneeled down, as if I were a slightly dim dolphin. Great legs. I wasn't quite sure of her age, but based on the stories she sometimes told me I guess she was around fifty. She didn't look it, not even from up close. Not that she looked like a thirty year old, either. Caroline has a timelessness about her. She's in great shape, with the frame of a ballet dancer. Seriously, she could hide behind a lamp post if it weren't for the hats she likes to wear. Her skin is incredibly light, but not pasty or pale. Her eyes, on the other hand, are nearly black. If she likes you they're fine. If she doesn't, a mere look will make you want to chew through your own wrists to get away from her. Her clothing budget is twice what Finland spends on suicide prevention, although you could argue it is better spent. And her accent is similar to mine, the difference being that I am an impostor.
“No dear, I want to see you swim and move about. I'm trying to get an idea of the status of your recuperation.”
“So you're a doctor then, are you?”
I like to tease her. It's my version of bungee jumping.
“No, obviously not. But I have been a professional dancer for half my life and I know a thing or two about injuries and the human locomotor system. So if you would?”
And so I did another lap, with her walking alongside me and peering into the water.
“Enough?” I asked, when I was back at the start.
“Do you usually do eight laps?”
“Only ten? Surely if you did ten yesterday, you can do eleven today?”
“Yes, but I am actually supposed to get some work done. That's what you pay me for. I want to be out of here in fifteen minutes.”
“Give me fourteen laps. I can afford the extra five minutes.”
She began to look impatient.
“Martin, I wish to asses your health. You are a company director, a company asset, a friend and the father of my Godson. Now, without stopping, please do the remaining laps. I'm asking nicely.”
She was, for her. And anyway, I knew I could do six more. It took me just under ten minutes and then I found her at the end of the pool, holding up a towel.
“It's not quite James Bond emerging from the sea, is it?” she said, as I took the towel.
“Thanks very much.”
“I take it the Dormeuil has been relegated to the back of the closet? It can't possibly fit you anymore.”
The Dormeuil Ambassador was a bespoke suit she once gave me as a present while we were in Japan together. I was measured in our hotel room and it came two days later, including extra pants and some tailored shirts. And she was right, I wouldn't look very presentable in it right now. At the time I had just completed shooting Fatherland, my one and hopefully only Hollywood movie. I was in good shape, mainly because I was too distracted to eat. These days I had less going on and I was the cook of our household, so yes... guilty as charged.
“I'd say... one hundred kilos? Give or take?” she said as I towelled myself dry.
“I haven't actually checked in a while,” I grumbled.
“No, of course not. Why would you? You were a clean ninety when you were fitted for the Dormeuil. Oh, don't look at me like that. I was being generous just then, but I don't actually need scales to know your weight. You're one hundred and two kilos. Your left shoulder seems to be recuperating nicely, but your constitution is very, very poor.”
“Excuse me, I just did fourteen laps!”
“Yes, and you are panting like a dog. There's barely any musculature, Martin. I hope you weren't planning to have another rooftop fight to the death any time soon, because unless you're fighting Her Majesty I don't fancy your odds. In fact, the Prince of Wales could steal your lunch. How many sit-ups can you do?”
Just to get away from her I walked to the radio and turned it off.
“What, here? None. Can't do it on tiled floors. Hurts too much. At home I can do ten.”
“Ten. That's... surprising.”
“I have been doing exercises, you know. Kate is making sure that I do.”
“And clearly she has managed to restore you to the condition of a forty-something endomorph with a sedentary lifestyle. Quite an achievement on her part.”
She followed me to the changing rooms.
“Excuse me, I'm going to get dressed now.”
“I shall avert my gaze, though it's nothing I haven't seen before. I seem to recall I am a member of the W.S.P., after all.”
The White Spot Club... Don't get me started on that. My friend Susan came up with that's one. Trust me to befriend the only lesbian in existence with a sense of humour. Okay, Samantha is funny, too. But she's bisexual so that doesn't really count. Neither does Ellen DeGeneres, if you're wondering.
“Look, you've had a look and you've had your say. I'm not up for a part as a body-builder. Right now I'm trying to recover from my injuries. When that's done and Edwin stops driving Melody up the bloody wall maybe I shall find the peace of mind to lose some weight. In the meantime, the Dormeuil will have to wait.”
I stepped into one of the changing booths, not dissimilar to what you might find in a clothing store, and closed the sliding door. That didn't stop her.
“You should find a sport, Martin.”
“I've tried that. I don't like any of them. Well, I like sailing and jet skiing, but neither are conducive to losing weight.”
“That game we play... The maze game...”
She was referring to Team Fortress 2, a computer game I played with my IT department every other Friday. One day Caroline had decided to join in, because she couldn't stand the fact she found herself unable to socialize with a group of nervous computer geeks. She watched the game, asked hundreds of questions, poured soft drinks, distributed nachos and then asked me to install it on her office computer. Two weeks later she joined in as a pyro and tore us a collective new asshole.
Maybe I should briefly explain Team Fortress 2. There are two teams, each composed of up to eight players. There's a blue team and a red team, but each side has the same characters, or 'classes': a scout, who is very fast but gets injured quickly. His opposite is the 'heavy', who can lug around a massive machine gun but isn't very quick on his feet. Then there's a soldier with a rocket launcher, a sniper, a medic (who can heal other characters and even make them temporarily invulnerable), a grenadier (called demolition man), a sneaky spy and a mechanic. The mechanic builds gun turrets and other useful devices. And then there's the pyro, a maniac with a flamethrower...
He's lethal at short range, but fairly easy to kill. I tend to favour the role of medic or mechanic, though I've played all classes for hours on end. Well, Caroline had focused on the pyro and by God, was she good! Or annoying, depending on which side she was on. She knew the arenas inside and out and endeared herself to our IT guys simply because of her dedication to the game. She had mastered a skill that was completely alien to her two weeks earlier, simply because she felt she should be able to get along with every department. If they wouldn't join the Media Department for drinks, she'd join us for some multiplayer. And that's Caroline Keller for you: an extraordinary woman. Also a complete and utter pain in the backside if she wasn't on your team, which is also true in real life.
“Isn't there a real life version of the maze game? With laser guns?” Caroline asked, as I was changing into my office clothes.
“Yes, there is. Laser Tag.”
“Well, do that! Lots of running around, that will do you good!”
“Ah, yes, but you see... It's more of a group thing. Bachelor parties and all that. It's a bit pathetic to show up by myself as a middle-aged man to take on a group of students on an outing, or a gaggle of drunk bridesmaids.”
“I see. Such a pity. But would you be interested in that as a sport?”
I opened the door to make eye contact.
“Please don't make those weedy hipsters from the Media Department take up Laser Tag just so I can get some exercise. They'll only trip on their designer beards or overheat from wearing woolly hats indoors. Please? Now I'm the one asking nicely.”
“Suit yourself, dear,” she shrugged. Clearly I had read her mind. To distract me from this minor victory she knocked on the door.
“Don't do your tie, dear.”
“Oh, I was nearly done,” I lied. Caroline can't help herself. She has to do men's ties, even when they're on perfectly straight.
“Liar. You'd never do your tie before your trousers. So how is Edwin?”
“It's a struggle,” I sighed, buttoning my shirt. “He's teething, he's having a hard time getting used to solid food... Mel looks as white as...”
I was going to say 'as you', but thought better of it. “... a sheet.” Melody, my wife, is dark-skinned. Coffee and cream, to be precise. Mocha, if you will. She's absolutely gorgeous, although having to look after our son had aged her by about five years so far. I did my bit, obviously, but at the end of the day she's his mother and he just won't stop crying when it's only me holding him. She had a hard time letting others take care of him, which took its toll on her.
“I'm sorry to hear that. Still, he's very welcome to come and stay with Peter and me.”
I opened the door and handed her my silk tie.
“I know. We'll see how it goes.”
“Oh but you must go!” she said, looping it around my neck. “Elton always has the place ready, the weather is lovely right now... You really should go.”
She was referring to a trip to Rome Melody and I wanted to take. We were married in September of 2014 but still hadn't had our honeymoon. Edwin was just too young to bring along.
“I know. But in the end it's not up to me. And I'm not staying in Elton John's Palazzo, or whatever it is. I've seen it on TV. It's where taste goes to die. Besides, paparazzi must be keeping an eye on it and I want some peace and quiet this time. I'll make my own booking when we're ready. Hey, I have a job applicant coming in at two. Are you available?”
“No dear,” she said, focussing on some exotic knot I'd never be able to do myself. “Peter and I are taking a first aid course this afternoon.”
“Really? I thought you knew first aid.”
There's an annual company-wide refresher course. I'd been to the last one, which took two days. They don't mess about and Caroline is in there with us, on her knees, pounding the life out of that dummy. Do regular first aid courses address gunshot wounds, by the way? Ours does. And stabbings. And overdoses. In fact, it focusses on those more than, say, sprained ankles. Well, we are in show business after all.
“This is a specialist course for infant first aid. As Edwin is coming to stay with us, unless you keep putting off your trip. Stand still for Pete's sake!”
“Wait, wait, wait... You're doing a special first aid course because my son is coming over for a few days?”
“Yes. And I'm having the builders in to childproof the doors. You sometimes hear how their fingers get stuck in the hinges, or how they get into the medicine cabinet.”
She practically shuddered thinking about that and messed up the knot.
“He can't even walk yet.”
Caroline took her role as Godmother very seriously. Actually, we didn't put her in charge of overseeing Edwin's religious upbringing, because we're atheists. It's just a nice word and we did ask her to take on the role of guardian in case anything happened to Mel and me. My own parents are getting on a bit, you see. In daily life we treat her like she's his aunt and she relishes the role.
“Well I imagine he'll suss that one day. He's a bright lad. There... perfect Eldredge.”
There was a mirror on the wall behind her, so I leaned to the side. My necktie now had a knot with a sort of tapered, sort of... fishtail... braid-like effect. Amazing.
“I was going to do a fishbone but that's best suited for taller gentlemen. Anyway, as your new hire will be for the IT department, I really don't think I'll have much to add. Unless he wants to discuss the maze game.”
“She. It's a she.”
“Really? Wonderful. Where did you find her?”
“Job agency listing, where else?”
We were done here and made our way to the exit. Behind a big window I saw two young men on exercise bikes, watching a TV mounted on a wall. Apparently there had been some sort of collision involving double decker busses. It looked nasty. I saw lots of blue lights and they had set up a screen to shield off the incident. Terrible. It's one of the reasons I don't watch the news much.
“And what do we know?” asked Caroline, as we walked towards the lift.
“Uhm... Mother of two. Works at a school. Wants to do more programming. Lives in Barnet. Loves to bake cakes.”
“Oh dear, that's not going to help your diet. Well, I shall trust your judgment. Those boys won't know what hit them, having a female colleague.”
“You really don't want to meet her?”
“No, dear. Your department, your budget, your decision. As long as you follow our HR guidelines I'm sure it will be fine.”
She stepped into the lift and smiled until the doors closed. I took an underground tunnel to an adjacent building and started my day. A special first aid course to deal with children... I was going to have to tell Melody about that. And then she'd sigh, cry because she felt like a bad mother for not having thought of that and sign us up for one. Poor thing. She hardly got any time to herself as it was.
I try to avoid the news. Given that I work behind a computer with an internet connection that's rather difficult, but mostly I manage. I understand a responsible citizen should be aware of what goes on around him, so he can cast a considered vote when the time comes, but as I was now living in a two-party state with a 'first past the post' electoral system, I no longer saw the point of that. Labour always wins in London, anyway. The margin is so big that my vote really doesn't matter.
There's also the fact this barrage of news gives us a warped sense of how dangerous the world really is. I'm really sorry to hear about, say, an awful bus crash in Switzerland or a big fire in Australia. But just because it's possible to get that news to me in a matter of minutes, with clear pictures and live video reports, does not mean I should know about it. A fire or a crash half a world away does not impact me in the slightest. All it does is make me perceive the world as cruel and dangerous, when statistically speaking it's safer than ever. It's just that there are never any live reports from when the fire department showed up within three minutes to put out a small fire, or how the anti-lock brake system on a bus kicked in exactly when it was supposed to so that thirty school children came home safe and sound. And that happens all the time.
If it bleeds, it leads. I'm not sure I agree with that philosophy. Did you know they found a type of seaweed that, if mixed in with cow feed, can reduce methane emissions from cattle by ninety percent? That's awesome. That's exactly what we need. But I guess you missed that, because some idiot ran away from the police and they showed the chase on live TV for an hour and a half.
Still, the news is often inescapable. And so even though I was trying to do my job, which included reading Slashdot, skimming a white paper on network security and placing a call to our human resources department in preparation for my interview, I learned that some maniac had gotten on a London bus and detonated himself on the top deck, killing himself and three others. Because Jonathan from HR apparently felt it necessary to ask every person he spoke with today if they knew anyone who had been on that bus. Even me. There are 19,000 bus stops in London, served by over 9,000 buses. More than two billion individual trips are made annually. A bomb could go off on a bus every day and it would still be safer than driving to work by car.
“Wouldn't want to be on that bus,” said Jonathan, even though I had announced I had all the information I needed twice now.
“No? You wouldn't want to be on a bus with a suicide bomber?” I said, trying out this thing called sarcasm I've been hearing good things about.
“Hell no. I'd be out of there like a shot!”
“You do understand explosions aren't all in slow motion, right? That's just on TV. You can't outrun one. It's literally over before you realise it.”
“Yeah but I mean, when some shifty looking guy comes on... wearing a turban...”
“That's a Sikh.”
Apparently he thought I had launched into an impression of Super Mario or something, because he answered with an enthusiastic:
“Yeah, that's sick, right!”
“No... a SIKH. One of the most decent religions you could hope to find. They wear turbans. Well, the men do. And you don't want to make them angry, historically speaking, but they tend not to be suicide bombers. Or terrorists. So don't worry about turbans.”
“Yeah but I mean, when they wear them white shirts. Djellabas or something.”
“I think you're referring to a thawb or a disdasha and I've never seen anyone in London wearing them, except really old men on their way to Aldi. They'd stand out a mile. Hijackers and terrorists wear jeans and a shirt, like everyone else. They want to blend in. That's the idea.”
Jonathan suddenly seemed to remember his place in the chain of command.
“Yes, Mr. King. Of course. Well, do let us know if we can assist you further.”
“Thank... Hang on, did you just call me Mr. King?!”
“You work in HR! You of all people should know my real name!”
“Yes, but... I don't call Elton John Mr. Reggie Dwight, do I? All the world knows you as either Mr. King or Mr. Carstairs.”
I sighed. I do that a lot.
“I suppose you're right. Thank you Jonathan.”
“You're welcome, Mr. uhm.. vanday... kessi... cashew...”
“Oh, don't bother!”
Slamming a phone down was a lot more fun thirty years ago, when they had some heft to them and the mechanical bell inside would give a satisfying 'ding!'
My real name is Martin van de Casteele. The name is Flemish in origin, but I am Dutch. Because I have at one point in my life been an actor, I have a stage name. I didn't pick it, but one of the requirements of 'Equity', the UK trade union, is to have a unique name. My sister picked this one. She did that because she is Kate Castle, one of the most important asset managers of Keller & Fox. Castle is not the name of her husband, but the English shorthand she uses for her Dutch name. That's how we managed to hide the fact we were related for a while. Why we wanted to hide that has various reasons, but nepotism is one of them. So I'm King, but not really, and she's Castle, but not really. And I'm also Carstairs, a character I play from time to time. He's a butler.
I am both an 'asset' of Keller & Fox and one of their three managing directors, albeit the one without any shares in the company. For the time being I'm in charge of the IT department, although I am also the managing director of Scytale, a Keller & Fox subsidiary. Wow, two jobs? Well, to be honest: Scytale doesn't take up more than an hour or so per week. I developed a piece of event ticketing software, which we license. But it works, so there's not much to do. In fact, we get paid mostly for NOT using our software. Look, this is what you get for reading someone's private journals and then not even bothering to start at part one, okay?
The IT department of Keller & Fox is the backbone of the organisation, although plenty of people get by without a spine perfectly well so that's not saying much. The agency represents artists, writers, composers, dancers and various other suspicious characters. Not only do we arrange their bookings and handle their PR, but we also save their asses when they do something stupid that might damage their reputation. We also make sure they honour their commitments: artists signed up to Keller & Fox show up when agreed and perform as best they can. If not, people like Kate step in and unleash a bout of hellish fury that would make Muhammad Ali wet his keks. (Oh, you should know that even though I am Dutch I take a particular delight in using British idiom.) If you're an asset and Keller & Fox guarantees your appearance, you will show up even if we have to perform taxidermy on your coked-up corpse and animate you like a muppet.
Our IT department makes all of that possible, by providing an IT infrastructure and dedicated applications and databases. We also run the Media Monitoring Service, which comprises an entire floor of the main building. That department is operational seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. We monitor hundreds of websites, newspapers, TV-stations and virtually all social media. We dispatch lawyers, drivers, troubleshooters, 'medication' and anything else our assets might need. We know everything and we can fix anything. Kate used to be an asset handler but she is now a supervisor of the MMS, because I was sick and tired of taking her to the airport three times a week. I need Kate with me. I need to see her, hear her, hold her. Because I didn't get to do that for far too long and it broke me.
My two o'clock was ten minutes late, although I hadn't noticed because I was doing something else. Actually, I was probably catching up on Dilbert. (This was before I found out the guy who writes Dilbert is a monumental cunt.) The guard at the front door called my office.
“Mr. King, I have a Mrs. Zinia Jackanini for you.”
“Send her up, please.”
“Yes sir. Right love, you want the second floor and then left as you come out the lift. Don't worry about that, only we just 'oovered the place! Mister King? She's on her way.”
“Don't worry about what?”
“Oh, yeah, uhm the poor thing broke her shoe. Like, the 'eel. She come in all nervous, like, 'cause she was late 'an all. Got her shoe stuck in the grid outside.”
I rushed to the lift and arrived just before the doors opened. When they did I saw a petite woman wearing a headscarf, trying to push the pointy heel of her shoe back onto the sole and clearly hoping they'd stay connected by either sheer willpower or cold friction welding. She turned to look at me, looked positively terrified and then we just stared at each other until the doors began to close. We both scrambled for the 'open doors' button.
“OH! I... I am... Are you... Oh goodness, this...” she said, stuffing her shoe in the crook of her elbow so she could shake my hand.
“Mrs. Jakhrani?” I said, gently pulling her out of the lift before the doors would close on us again.
“YES! You're... Carstairs! I... I'm not... My shoe...”
The poor woman was trembling. This wasn't a good day for her: late for a job interview, broken shoe and apparently unaware that she had an interview with someone she knew off the telly.
“Listen, take a deep breath. It's fine. You're in the right place and you've found the right person. This is London, I fully understand you're a bit late. And I'm sorry to hear about your shoe. Let's get you sat down with a cup of tea and take it from there, okay? This way, please.”
Scytale occupies half of the second floor of the prosaically named Building Three. The other half is taken up by another subsidiary. I never see anyone there and they're behind a secure door. I think Peter Fox owns that particular company, so I have nothing to do with it. As Scytale currently has two employees, including myself, we have six empty offices and a large pantry to ourselves. I share my office with my legal assistant Daphne, because it would be weird to both come to work and sit in different rooms. Besides, she's great fun. This was her day off, because she's still working on her law degree and had classes to attend.
Mrs. Jakhrani hobbled alongside me, clearly surprised by how empty this floor was. She wasn't all that short, really. Maybe an inch shorter than me. Two inches, depending on the foot she was standing on at the time. I had her sit down in my guest chair.
“Now, first things first: what can I get you? Tea, coffee, soda, juice, water?”
“Oh, anything is fine, really,” she said, clearly trying to steady herself. “I'll have what you're having.”
She bit her lip, realising that hadn't come out quite right.
“Really, it's no bother. I'm having tea.”
“Oh yes, please.”
“Good. I'll just be a minute. I'll be back with one of those wooden boxes with dozens of varieties, so why not have a little think about what you're in the mood for?”
When I came back with a tray she seemed to have calmed down and she opted for peppermint tea. I also had some cookies to offer her.
“I can't believe Mr. Carstairs is serving me tea!” she said, trying to break the ice. I smiled. People often react like this, most often when they turn around in Waitrose and find me patiently waiting for them to move aside.
“Yes, I'm sorry about that. Sometimes people react like that, but it would be weird for me to end every phone call by saying: 'By the way, you may recognize me from the telly when we meet.' So...”
“I wasn't sure you were him. I mean, you. The doors opened and I was just... my shoe, you see, it...”
“Ah yes, about that: what size do you take?”
“Excuse me? You mean... shoe size?”
“I'm a five.”
“Let's see what we can do...”
I picked up the phone and called Caroline's secretary.
“Alice? It's Martin. Listen, I have a visitor here who got her shoe stuck in the metal grate at the front entrance. No, building three. We have a metal grate. It snapped off her heel. She takes a size five. I wonder if you could check the emergency wardrobe for us, so she can get home without doing an impression of Heather Mills.”
That made my guest laugh, even though she tried to hide it. I continued my conversation.
“That would be most kind. Something presentable, if at all possible.”
“Actually, some glue might be...” said Mrs. Jakhrani. I raised my hand, as if I wouldn't hear of it.
“Thank you, I expect she'll be here for at least half an hour. Thank you. Thank you.”
I hung up and stirred my tea.
“I think we might be able to arrange something. At the very least you should send us the bill for a new pair of shoes. That grate is a menace, it really is.”
“Oh, I'm sure it's fine. But did you say 'emergency wardrobe'?”
“Yes. Actually, that is one of the least weird things about Keller & Fox. We have emergency clothing to hand for many occasions.”
Including several highly illegal Police, Fire and Ambulance and UK Customs uniforms. Don't tell anyone.
“But... It's just you here!”
“Yes. This is not Keller & Fox. Well, it's their building. I'm in charge of their IT department, but my office is here.”
She looked at Daphne's empty desk.
“So would I be...”
“Oh, no! There's seven people in IT, in the main building. I share an office with my legal assistant. No, it's even worse, I'm afraid. You'd share with seven men between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-six, only three of whom have managed to attract a girlfriend. They read UserFriendly, they quote XKCD at each other, they have their own fridge with super-caffeinated beverages and whenever something weird happens they say: 'Half-Life Three confirmed.' And they all have ill-advised facial hair. And they're quite, quite brilliant.”
“Oh. Well... I suppose I should meet them,” she said, sounding a bit shocked. “But if I'm honest I didn't get all of that. What is xkcd, some sort of Linux distribution?”
“No, it's a daily comic. As is UserFriendly. I was trying to warn you about their group culture, but they're decent guys, really. It's just that you may have a harder time fitting in than if you were a pasty white guy who comes home to a water-cooled PC with neon tubes and nothing else.”
“Oh... I see...”
“It's not a very diverse group, is what you're saying.”
“Yes. Well, not right now. But here's the thing: I am not looking for someone to mother them. You'd have to find your own place in their weird little world, but they should still pick up after themselves. I'm pretty sure they'll try to make you wash their disgusting stack of moss-filled coffee cups, though. The cleaning lady won't touch them and I backed her up. You need to be able to stand your ground at first.”
“I have two boys, age five and seven. I expect it's not so different.”
“That's the right attitude! Still, they'll have to get used to a few things.”
“Such as...” she said, and pointed at her headscarf.
I'm not saying this to get any kind of moral credit, but why are we upset about headscarves? Seriously, I don't get that. They generally look extremely elegant. Do you have any idea how many hairs we shed every day? Well, not me. But hairy people, I mean. It's awful. Besides, my grandmother used to wear a headscarf whenever she left the house, and so does my mother on occasion. She folds hers differently, but it's the same thing. Of all the things to get worked up about...
Yes, I understand they're a symbol of something else. They force modesty on women, serve as a continuous reminder men can't be trusted around them unless they wrap themselves up. I know there are women who would prefer not to wear them, but who like the idea of being hissed at or called a whore by their peers even less. But at the end of the day it's just what some people wear. I have a useless piece of cloth around my neck, tied in a... whatever the hell it was, an Elroy or something. And apparently the width of my lapels and the number of buttons on my jacket is really important, although I can't for the life of me figure out why. Some people walk around with jeans that have been sandblasted, bleached and torn, which can't possibly be because they think it looks good. What in God's name is the problem with an attractive piece of cloth, carefully wrapped around someone's head? It's not as if my baseball cap is the height of fashion!
“Yes. That might be a thing, for a while,” I admitted.
“I know you're not supposed to ask, but I'm free to bring it up, right? So I'm Muslim, which I think you figured out. I do shake hands, but yeah... I wear the hijab. If it's going to be an issue I'll consider taking it off for certain occasions, but I've always worn it when I'm out of the house. I wear it at my current job. And let's see, what else...”
“Do you observe Ramadan?”
“Oh, yes. It's in the middle summer this year, which is a bit of a bummer. But I do understand that's my thing. I don't expect people around me not to eat, though it's only polite if they don't stare at me while they chew their sandwiches. I mean, the same courtesy you give to someone on a diet is appreciated. So... That's me. Are there really no Muslims here?”
“None that are observant, at any rate. Well, I have no issues with any of it. But you won't be working with me. May I ask: do you pray?”
“Not at work. I won't need a special room or a carpet, if that's what you mean. Sometimes I do, like when my head is full and I need to focus. But there's usually a quiet space somewhere. Like the empty offices next door. It's fine. I'd much rather talk about the job, really.”
“Then let's do that.”
I've conducted close to a hundred job interviews over my life. Some people hate it, because at the end you have to tell some people they aren't what you were looking for. I don't mind that, really. Of course, I had the luxury of interviewing for very skilled positions. I'm sure it's different if you have to turn away ten desperate single mothers for a cleaning job. That gets to you, I'm sure.
If candidates want to know, I'll tell them what went wrong and how they might do better next time. Usually it's just a matter of honesty: so many people will promise you the world when they interview, as if it's a prize to be won. But if you speak to someone for half an hour or so, you'll know if they are really okay with the work that you need doing or if they just really want a job, an income or simply some respect from their family and are so desperate for that they're willing to promise me the moon.
I've had one or two people reach out to me, sometimes a year later, telling me that the questions I asked them made them think about what they really wanted to do. One became a zoo keeper, which is quite different from being an administrative assistant. Someone else decided to go back to school. And yes, some people got angry. That just proved my point.
For Zinia it was clear that she had simply never been given much of a chance to grow. Although she worked in the IT department of a school somewhere in London, most of her day consisted of resetting passwords, restoring images to workstations that someone had tried to subvert, swapping out monitors and answering basic questions about Word and Excel. They wouldn't let her do anything else, so even though she taught herself some advanced skills, the only place she had to put them into practice was running a website for her community center. Whenever I asked for examples, she'd go back to that. It was the only project where she was in control.
“It's a bit pathetic, isn't it...” she said, unprompted, after coming back to that website for yet another example. We had been looking at some code she had written in PHP. That and Ruby were the only languages she knew, but picking up another programming language is a lot easier than learning another real language.
“That's very harsh. I quite understand how building a database that serves no real purpose isn't very motivating, so why would you do that? I didn't learn how to write code on the off-chance it might come in handy one day, I taught myself how to do it because I needed to solve a problem. I think the problem is you haven't been challenged enough. That's part of learning.”
“Yeah, but... You only get hired if you already know how to do stuff, right?”
“Like in that advert: 'Wanted: waiter with five years working experience. Must not be older than nineteen.'”
Even though Zinia didn't have my rather posh accent, she was born and raised in the UK. It might be said her accent was more genuinely British than mine. Her family had come over from Pakistan in the sixties, hoping to find work in restaurants. Her husband had a full-time job, but life in London is expensive and so she had to work as well. We bonded over kids, lamenting those difficult first months and how it's all worth it just to see them smile when you walk into the room. Melody was in one of the pictures I showed her on my phone.
“So, you really are married?” she asked, now completely relaxed.
“Yes. Since September.”
“I thought you were a widower.”
“Really? Why would you think that?”
“Well... That's what Kelly said. That your wife had died and you... Oh my goodness, that wasn't you! That's Carstairs! Oh, how stupid am I!”
Now I had to laugh. Yes, Kelly had spun quite the backstory for poor old Carstairs, her loyal butler. In our version of 'Dinner for One', the sketch that had caused me so much physical discomfort, at one point she does a bit of exposition. She tells Carstairs she's aware how much he misses his late wife, Gertrude. (I didn't come up with that name, by the way. In fact, I have nothing to do with the entire story.) Ever since, solemn looking elderly ladies have offered their condolences on the passing of my wife. Which is really off-putting if you're just trying to do your weekly shop and your real wife is at home, alive and well as far as you know.
“Don't worry about it. It happens all the time. So, shall I take you to the IT department? You might want to see who you'll be dealing with before you sign up.”
“I'd love to, but... What would the job be? I don't want to sound stupid, but what use would I be to you?”
“Your first job is easy. Well, maybe not easy but certainly within your skill set: backups. This organisation is terrible at them. I need them made, I need them recorded, I need them to be encrypted and kept off-site. At present our most important back-up provider is Apple's iCloud. That's just awful. I've fixed the worst of it, but it needs to be coordinated. And... Oh hello, there are your shoes!”
The security guard appeared in the doorway with a small stack of shoeboxes.
“Compliments of Miss Keller. There's supposed to be a few sizes here, just in case. You can have all the pairs that fit, she says. She ain't wearin' 'em no more.”
“Thank you. Well, Zinia, why don't you try them on while I make us another cup of tea?”
“That really wasn't necessary,” she began, opening the top box. “Oh no!”
“What? Are they the wrong size?”
“No! They're Louboutins! Look at them! They're gorgeous! Mine are just from an outlet!”
“Well, have fun,” I said, exchanging an amused smile with the guard as I stepped out to boil some more water.
“Maintenance will replace that grid for one with a smaller mesh tomorrow, Mr. King. We still need it tomorrow morning so your Daphne can come in wiv' 'er wheelchair.”
“That's fine. Were these really straight from Caroline?”
“Oh! No, her secretary called me to come get 'em. But that's what she said. 'Ere, did you hear about that explosion on the number thirteen? Right near Regent's Park it was! Five dead now, half a dozen in 'ospital.”
“I had heard, yes. It's tragic.”
“Well,” he said, winking at me to let me know a good joke was coming up: “At least we know it weren't her!”
He nodded towards my office. I knew what he meant. And I understand that humour is a release mechanism, but all I could do was growl at him.
“That will be all. Please return to your desk.”
His face froze mid-smile.
“Oh. Right. Yes, Mr. King. Uhm... Yeah.”
“Find anything you like?” I said, as I came back with a kettle that was just off the boil. Three pairs of shoes were out of the boxes, lined up in front of her chair.
“All of them, really. These three fit. I think I'll have this pair, if I may.”
She pointed out what, as far as I know shoes, looked like the cheapest pair. They were black, with a flowery brooch on the tip. The others were almost metallic red and black, respectively, with an ornate pattern of crystal studs.
“Don't you like the others?”
“Are you kidding? I don't know if you know shoes, but these are hundreds of pounds a pair, easy. I feel bad just taking one pair, really. Mine were fifty quid on sale, last year.”
“Well, take all three, if they fit you. She did say you were welcome to them. Provided you won't sue us over getting stuck in that grate, I presume.”
“I can't. I really can't. It would look greedy,” she said, with a pained expression.
“Look at it as a sign-up bonus. If you decide to give it a go after you've met the gang, I mean. And if not, then why would you care if we think you're greedy? You'll never see us again.”
She looked me over for a few seconds. I held up one of the shoe boxes and seductively stroked it with my hands, like the prize girl in a game show would.
“This is the weirdest job interview I've ever had,” she giggled.
“I'll tell you about mine one day.”
We had another cup of tea while I tested her general knowledge and by the end of it I had decided I'd offer her the job, but only after she had met my staff. And so we went to the main building, making a brief stop at the Media Monitoring Centre. I always like to visit there. It's where Kate is in her element. It's a massive open space, not unlike one of those NASA control rooms but with cubicles and Dell computers rather than rows of metal consoles. At any one time there are at least twenty people there, each monitoring several newsfeeds, TV stations and God knows what else. They're all immaculately dressed, giving the impression that the Starship Enterprise had suddenly been overrun by a law firm. Each workstation has several large displays, but there are even bigger screens mounted on the walls. Daylight doesn't get a chance in here, but there are expensive lamps on the ceiling that simulate a night and day cycle so people won't go nuts. You enter via a cage, after having been checked by a guard. That had been my suggestion, because security at Keller & Fox was a bit laissez faire for my taste. Personal electronic devices were now banned and stored in lockers that acted as Faraday cages. All USB slots had been removed from the workstations, or sealed. I had even ordered the software drivers for USB storage devices to be removed from the Windows installation. Mind you, someone like me would only be stopped for about five minutes by these measures, but we were trying to make a point.
Kate wasn't on duty. Instead, a young man with a crew cut sat in the swivel chair on a podium at the end of the room. He spoke to operators, mostly women, via a headset. Every now and then he'd look at some footage on a screen overhead, usually of a car crash or of two people holding hands or kissing. Our assets get into all kinds of trouble. There's also a legal desk, where two lawyers, one versed in international penal law and one for domestic matters, are available to dispense advice. The man in charge of the room recognized me and got up, but I just waved at him to let him know I wouldn't be bothering him.
“This is amazing,” whispered Zinia. “What are they all doing? I'm hearing so many different languages!”
“This is the nerve center of Keller & Fox. We see everything. And as long as our clients don't break the law, or at least no important ones, we will do what we can to help them.”
“Help them do what?”
“Anything. Show up on time. Book hotels. Handle their contracts. Get one of their roadies out of jail for urinating on a police car. Stop the press from finding out about their affairs.”
“You condone people having affairs?”
“We have no opinion about that. But we are not in the business of helping newspapers fill column inches with gossip, especially not from people we rely on for our income. You do understand we're a talent agency, right? We're not a school, or a church.”
“Yes. But I'm in IT, right? I won't have anything to do with that.”
“No. We just keep the wheels spinning. Where they go is not our concern. So, ready to meet the gang?”
Before I became their manager, the IT department was a bit of a mess. Caroline and Peter really dropped the ball there, but as they had picked extremely competent people, the department had trundled along under its own steam. Winston was nominally in charge, even though he didn't want to be. They had set up their own support ticketing system, they managed their own duty rosters, they did their own purchasing and overall they were as content with their jobs as any group of nerds left to their own devices. Our IT department didn't exactly deliver service with a smile, but it did fix what needed fixing. My job was to turn it into something more professional and if at all possible, less smelly.
I think the term 'nerd' is overused. Anyone who can plug in a mouse is labelled a nerd by the sort of people who would lick a fusebox if those were candy-coloured. But the true definition of nerd, at least to me, is: 'A person who knows an awful lot about something, but who lacks social skills and has trouble fitting in.' If they're lucky their field of expertise is something useful, but some know all there is to know about Magic the Gathering and very little about personal hygiene.
Most IT people nowadays are not nerds. They're perfectly normal people who, like most of us, also struggle a bit with relationships and working the room at birthday parties. Some are actually highly social, managing vast social networks via social media, forums and the chatrooms of game servers. They bother to read manuals, their abstract reasoning is above average and that's why they're good at 'computers'. Caroline and Peter had initially hired only people who were socially capable, but over time there had been a need for specialists and those had been put forward by the department. Finding themselves completely unable to judge their competence, Peter and Caroline had relied on their employees to make hiring decisions. And so, over time, the department had become a mix of personality types. Some were just regular people who preferred not to talk much, others were bearded monsters with appalling breath who didn't have a mouse plugged into their workstations because they lived in the Unix command prompt and did everything in 'vi'. Or Vim, if you're some kind of semi-literate newbie faggot who needs hand-holding features like syntax highlighting and diff comparing. Multiple undo? Why don't you just ask your mum to write your code for you! (Don't blame me; I'm just relaying the views of hardcore Unix users. I'm going to let you look up what the hell vi and Vim are, but I'm telling you now you'll be disappointed.)
Winston was a fairly normal guy. Shy around women, a poor dresser and a bit too eager to demonstrate his expertise, but I am pretty much the last person on Earth who has a right to call anyone out on that. When I looked at Winston I always thought: 'There, but for the grace of Kate, go I.'
Winston always wore cargo pants and striped shirts. Nothing was ever ironed and he seemed unaware of the existence of shoe polish. He looked a lot more presentable in a suit, but also a lot less relaxed. Initially he wasn't very happy about having to deal with me, his experience with management within Keller & Fox being that they couldn't tell their ass from their elbow when it came to his department. He was aware I had a background in IT, because through him Peter and Caroline had even tried to get their hands on my software, but one of the first things I had asked him to do was to inventory everything the department did and what everyone's original job description had been. This, he assumed, would be a lot of work for him and the resulting report would end up in a drawer somewhere, but after a few weeks he found out I was actually on his side and taking over a few responsibilities he could really do without. I also fired a guy who had been getting on his nerves the past three years. If nothing else, it made their office smell a whole lot better. And that's why Winston had now slipped into the role of my second-in-command, a role he preferred. Now he could get back to writing code.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
“HEY MARTIN, HOW HAVE... Oh! Uhm... Hello, Mr. King.”
We generally kept things very informal, but Winston spotted Zinia hiding behind my back.
“Can I have ten minutes of your time? From all of you?”
I won't describe all of them, but let's just say six people finally wrestled their gaze away from their screens with an annoyed expression and then managed to warp their faces into one resembling polite attention.
“Yes. Certainly,” said Winston, probably expecting me to introduce a new member of the Media Department. “Guys, stop typing! Bloody hell!”
“If I can just commit this...uhm...” said one guy at the back of the room, still typing but without looking at his screen. He was facing us, but in his mind he was still working the terminal.
“Yeah, okay. Just...”
Craig just kept on typing, staring at a point at least five metres to our left. The man was fucking brilliant, but I would bet my house he'd one day be clubbed to death with a shovel for being so excruciatingly pedantic. Probably by a nun... Yes, I'm going with nun. Clergy, at least.
“Okay, we've lost Craig. But I'm all ears,” said Winston, with a resigned smile. Then he offered his hand to Zinia.
“Hi. Winston. You new here?”
She shook his hand and waved at the others, ensconced behind their desks. They waved back.
“Guys, this is Zinia. If you can manage to leave a good impression on her, she might join you in this department.”
“Oh? Not... Media?”
“No. I have two new positions to fill and I think Zinia would be a valuable asset. We need someone to coordinate our backups and our fallback systems. Once that's up and running there are more than a few things that urgently need updating and Zinia is very keen to expand her skill set. She is...”
“So, vi or Emacs?” asked Craig, interrupting me. He was done typing.
“Uhm... What?” asked Zinia, looking to me for some help.
“Craig, shut the fuck up,” said Winston. “Oh, sorry Miss!”
“What's your favourite web server? Apache or Nginx?” asked someone else.
“What? Uhm... I use Internet Information Server, actually.”
“WINDOWS?!” they roared. Winston got up, walked up to Craig and kicked his desk so hard his LCD screen toppled over and fell to the floor. I wasn't bothered: there were about fifty displays in storage. Winston had every right to make this point, though his timing could have been better.
“I said shut the fuck up! You do not conduct job interviews, Mr. King does. You just sit there and type, you fucking code monkey.”
“Code Monkey think maybe manager want to write god damned login page himself,” sang someone, which made the others laugh.
“Code Monkey not say it out loud,” sang someone else, continuing the song. The rest, save for Winston, joined in:
“Code Monkey not crazy, just proud! HAHAHAAAAA!”
When the commotion had died down I turned to Zinia.
“Well, there you have it. I have one sane person who is stuck in a room with six poster boys for Asperger's, who will never know the touch of a woman before death takes them in his merciful embrace. Which, at the rate they're scarfing down energy drinks and Doritos should be in five to ten years. Help this man, Zinia. Help him make their lives a living hell, so they quit their jobs and we can replace them with actual human beings.”
“It's tempting,” said Zinia, which made Winston laugh. He was clearly embarrassed about the whole thing. So was I, but we're an IT department, not a military academy.
“They're not usually this rowdy, really,” said Winston. “You caught us at a bad time. But yeah, we could use a real human being here. To lead by example, so to speak. I hope to see you back.”
“I'll think about it. Best of luck to you, Winston,” said Zinia. And that was it. I took her back to my office, made her take the three pairs of shoes that fit her home and collapsed in my chair. Via our internal messaging system I spoke to Winston, but we decided this required a separate meeting about our hiring needs. I was royally pissed off at the way we had presented ourselves to a potential hire. Too bad it was Daphne's day off. I could use a cup of tea and some banter right now.
I was browsing through some recruitment websites, because I still had two job openings and given half a chance I'd kick out Craig as well. The thing about IT people is that they know all your secrets. Kick one out and you have to change a lot of passwords real quick. I had already taken steps to compartmentalize our information and to make sure that the people running our web services didn't necessarily have unlimited access to their contents, but Rome wasn't built in a day. Still, a text message from Kelly was most welcome.
“Martin, are you at work?”
She knew I was, because we could see each other's location on our iPhones. It was just an opening line for a chat.
“Yes, what's up?”
“Can I come over? Ride home 2gether?”
I don't know what's wrong with me, sometimes. I've known Kelly for all of three years. I have a wonderful sister, an amazing wife and the cutest baby boy you'll ever see. But I just can't seem to let go of Kelly, even though she's an adult now and has a very extensive social life. Her best friend is Emma Lestrade, an international movie star. Her parents have fixed their marriage after her mother dealt with a few mental issues (and an ass the size of an ice cream truck). She's bright, she's got a bit of money in the bank and she can literally smile at any man in London and make him salivate. She really doesn't need me anymore, if she ever did at all. But I need her. I need her to be well. I can't really work out what void she fills in me, because you'd think I have more than enough people to love as it is, but I met this rather timid, worried little girl a few years ago and watching her blossom into a confident young woman has been amazing and immensely gratifying. There are very few people who can speak with charm and poise about the fact that, yes, they poo in a bag that's stuck to their stomach. Thousands of people with a stoma see her as a role model, as an inspiration. And yet, she's not just 'the girl with the bag'. She's Kelly Newman, a talented young actress and an inseparable part of Carstairs and Kelly, our double act if you will. She's a model, which is hardly an achievement except when you have a hole in your stomach and you manage not to give a fuck about it. She's always ready to support a good cause. And by supporting I don't mean 'retweeting', but actually helping to raise funds with a guest appearance or by voicing a commercial.
And my idea of a good evening is when she comes to our house at around four, helps me in the kitchen and settles in next to me on the couch so we can watch a stupid show together and make awful jokes about it that annoy Mel and Kate.
Kelly had her eighteenth birthday a few weeks ago, and had made it very clear what she wanted from me: to be her first. Most men would have jumped at the chance, but even though I have an unusual relationship with my sister, that doesn't mean I can just turn around and have one with Kelly, too. On the other hand, she has made the point repeatedly that she is now an adult and that I am not her father, even though I've acted like it for a while. There's nothing stopping us, really. My wife understands, as long as it won't be a regular thing. Kate is fine with it, too. It's just me. I have it in my head that what we have might break if we're not careful. That almost happened a few months back and I remember how it affected me. I depend on too many people for my wellbeing, I really do. Thankfully it seems to be mutual.
Kelly made it past reception without the guard calling ahead, because warning Carstairs that Kelly is on her way is like giving Rudolf a heads up that Santa is popping over. What's he gonna say: 'Now isn't a good time for me'?
She found me reading the white paper I had started on earlier that day. This one was actually good. A few years ago some marketing a-hole found out that you can have an intern write a basic introduction to whatever it is you're selling, call it a white paper and use it to harvest prospective contact details. Some people write them just to gain access to a business conference, which amounts to a few days off work and a free trip to Vegas or Orlando. Did you know there are even so called 'bogus conferences', that serve just one purpose: collect attendance fees from people who mostly sign up to get out of the house for a few nights. I kid you not. Quite often there isn't even an actual event, but the organisers are just collecting registration fees. If they actually bother to book a hotel, they lure in speakers with the opportunity to present their papers. Any paper they can find is accepted. In fact, there's a paper generator for people who need a flimsy excuse to attend and then not show up but go to the casino. (It's at https://pdos.csail.mit.edu/archive/scigen/ if you're curious.)
This paper, however, was good. That's why I didn't hear the lift doors opening. I sat with my back to the door because I dislike reading PDFs on a monitor, so I was reading an actual printout and wanted the natural light from the window. I heard a single footfall behind me, but before I could even turn around she had me in a bear hug and kissed my cheek.
“Hi sweetheart! Oooofff... Can I get some air?”
“I dunno,” she said, pushing my shoulder to make the chair swivel. “Can I get some sugar?”
And then she wanted to sit on my lap, facing me! Which wasn't easy, as I was in a swivel chair. Besides, I wasn't having it.
“Hey! What do you think you're doing?!”
She couldn't get her legs between mine and the hand rests, so she gave up.
“You should get a sofa here,” she said, looking around. “Plenty of space.”
I didn't have a sofa because I can't be trusted around one. I'm a terrible one for napping, even though my life as it had been of late had almost cured me of that. But I knew I wouldn't be able to resist sleeping away half the day if I had a sofa in an otherwise empty office in a quiet building, especially after the nights Edwin had been giving us.
“Where have you come from, anyway?” I asked, to distract her.
“Singing lessons,” she said, opting instead to sit on my desk.
“Aren't those on a Monday?”
“Yeah. Had an extra one. Some of us need to work at it, you know.”
I have a passable baritone and I've always been able to make my voice do pretty much whatever I want, except an American accent. Kelly was very much an unpolished diamond. She had a good ear for pitch and rhythm, but anything she sang above a whisper just didn't sound quite right. Kate has been a professional backing singer at one point, and had spotted her potential. Kelly was taking quite a few courses nowadays, as school wasn't particularly challenging and she was mainly waiting for her first year at the LSE to start.
She wore a medium length grey skirt and black tights, which is what schoolgirls in the UK tend to wear. Her top was bright red, however, so I expected she had changed her appearance after school. She caught me looking.
“Oh right, let's get rid of those,” she said, casually kicking off her shoes and then wriggling out of the tights. She had to get up for a second to get them past her behind, but then she sat back on the desk again and calmly rolled them down. I guess I was getting some sort of show.
“Are you quite finished?” I asked, as she took her time fastening the strap to her shoes. She just grinned.
“Still haven't had a kiss yet.”
“Well, it's not as if you came back from the war, is it? I only saw you yesterday.”
The grin changed into a plaintive expression.
“Oh come on, don't be like that. You said we'd ease into it, get used to each other.”
I never said anything like that, actually. All I said was that I'd consider her request to be her first, but that I wasn't going to do it on her actual birthday and that I needed a bit more time to get used to the idea. We had a discussion about it the day she turned eighteen, a day which she expected to end in a hotel room with me. When that clearly wasn't going to happen, she sat me down and more or less demanded to know how we were going to go about it.
“Kelly, I'm married! And then there's Kate. It's complicated enough as it is.”
“I know. I'm not asking for weekly visits though, am I? Just once! Maybe twice, if I mess up. I have a lot to try out and get out of my system and then I'll be fine for a while. I just want it to be with you, Martin. Not with some drunk student trying to get it on with the girl off the telly. And I want it to be with someone who knows about my hole and isn't going to be weird about it. I'm not trying to steal you away from Melody, I'd never do that. But she understands.”
“Look, it's just... I've already crossed that line with Kate. I can't just...”
“Listen, Kate is actually your sister. I am nothing to you! Well, I'm your friend, obviously. There is no line! Just because I was a kid when we met, doesn't mean... Oh, I suppose it's my own fault, too. I pretended to be the same Kelly you met at Graham's for a bit too long. Martin, I've grown up! Look at these!”
She'd filled out nicely, as the expression goes. Kelly with a cleavage. What has the world come to?
“Okay. I take your point. A few people have been telling me about their first time, how it was rushed and left a bad taste in their mouths. Proverbially, I mean. Well, maybe literally. Your aunt Susan has been egging me on. Even Caroline has been sharing stories from her past, to make the point. But I need a bit more time, okay? For one thing, I'm a wreck right now. I can barely get it on with Mel, what with my shoulder hurting. I need to get better first. Surely that's not unreasonable?”
“No, I suppose not. So... next month?”
“Ehhh... I don't know. I just don't know. I have to get used to the idea of seeing you like that. Naked, I mean.”
“Martin, we've SEEN each other! We've spent hours in the pool, so that's ninety-five percent of the body right there. And I saw your penis when I caught you adjusting yourself, and you saw my pussy when you found me playing with myself in Los Angeles. And I was topless, that night in the pool. Seriously, what's left?! How are you willing to risk your life for me, but you can't bring yourself to just... you know... play with me?”
“I'll do it. I promise. You're right, if I can... uhm...”
“If you can kill someone who's tried to hurt me, you can have a play with my tits. Is that what you were going to say, hmmm?”
“NO! I most certainly was not. Now let's get back downstairs and join the others, or they'll think we've sealed the deal here and now.”
“And I don't want to spent the rest of the night with Ron thinking I defiled his daughter. You are HIS kid, you know! I do know what it feels like for him!”
“Bollocks. He trusts you with my life. I'm sure he's okay with you shoving a finger up my...”
“KELLY! Enough. And stop giggling. You know, I blame Kate. You used to be a really well-behaved little girl.”
So that was a few weeks ago. And now she was here, asking for a preview. And she knew damned well what she was doing, leaning against my desk with her bare legs on display. That girl knew one too many tricks of the modelling trade.
“Kelly, I'm at work. Anyone can walk in.”
“We're in a building that's practically empty! Are you going to tell me now you want to wait until we're home? Because then it's: 'Sorry Kelly, but my wife is here and Edwin is crying and this and that.' Come on, I'm not asking for anything but a kiss. One like Mel gets.”
I manned up, which was about time.
“Okay,” I said, as I stood up. “Let's do this.”
“Finally,” she laughed, as she got up from the table. She came up to me and locked her hands behind my back.
“Uhm... Okay... So...”
“Just do it,” she said, as she closed her eyes and slightly tilted her head. And so I leaned in and gave her the same peck I'd normally give on her cheek, only I aimed for her lips.
Lips vary so much, from person to person. You wouldn't think that, given what they are. I don't have the vocabulary to describe those differences, not even in Dutch, but it's there. And, like food, it probably has an awful lot to do with the presentation, the smell, the time of day and how hungry you are. But still, it's clear as day. If my girls and I ever played the blindfold game again and I was stumped, I'd ask to kiss whoever was in front of me.
Okay, one more. This one lasted about a second.
I felt my face flush.
“Yeah. That's... how I kiss Mel. Or Kate. When I come home.”
She tilted her head even more.
“You know I can see you guys, right? I'm usually right there!”
“No, seriously! That's how I kiss them when I come home!”
“No, that's how you kiss them when you come in. Then you take off your coat, pull them towards you and you go at it, properly.”
“Not all the time!”
“No, not when my mum's watching. Or yours. Come on, let's do a proper one. We're here now. We've got time. It's supposed to be fun, you know.”
She caught me looking at the door.
“It's just us and the guard. And you can have him fired.”
“You really want your first kiss in an empty office building?” I tried.
“Oh it's hardly my first kiss,” she laughed. “I had that when I was thirteen. Truth or dare at someone's birthday party. His name was Josh and he kissed like one of those lizards that use their tongue to smell.”
She leaned back a bit so she could demonstrate how that boy's tongue had darted in and out of her mouth.
“It wasn't bad, really. I didn't know any better. But the idea is for us to get used to each other. To get you to stop thinking of me as your daughter.”
“Yeah, okay. I get it. Ahem. Okay.”
She still had her arms around me, so I placed mine around hers.
“Tell me about your first kiss,” she said. Because clearly I was the one who needed to be distracted, so that I'd loosen up.
“I'd rather not. Best not to reactivate those neurons.”
“Oh. Okay... Well, your first kiss with Mel, then?”
“With Mel? Oh... That was on the day you and I met, actually. It was after the show was finished. I was signing autographs, for the first time in my life I might add. Kate had come to collect you and took you to the green room. When I was getting annoyed with some weird woman, Mel stepped in and said I was needed elsewhere. Remember the doors we found that took us back to the studio?”
This was a happy memory for me. It was like watching a movie. I stared off into the distance, at a point behind Kelly. I do recall she smiled and encouraged me to go on.
“Yeah. We'd been dancing. Shame the music ended as soon as the cameras stopped.”
“Well, she pulled me behind those doors and when I turned around she stood real close to me. Like you are now. I suppose you know she and I got off on the wrong foot, right?”
“She told me about that. I wouldn't bring up that memory with her. She shudders when she thinks back to how she acted that day. She hated herself for just letting you walk off into the night when she dropped you off back in London.”
“Okay, good to know. Well, she felt she had to make it up to me and that's why she kissed me. And I didn't mind, because she was gorgeous and kind. I just had a rather nerve-racking day, so it was just what I needed to relax.”
“And did you think: 'This is the woman I'll marry one day?'”
“Ha! No. I just thought: 'Well, it seems like I made a friend. Maybe she'll kiss me again one day.'”
“Really? You didn't think: 'Let's take her home and have it off?'”
“No. For one thing, I didn't have a home to take her to. I was living with Kate. For another, that's not how that works. Not for me, at any rate. I didn't think ahead at all. So much was happening all at once. It began to sink in I'd be on TV later that night, and my business career would be over.”
“Turned out alright, didn't it?” she said, and pulled me closer with the knot of my tie.
“Now let's try this again, Carstairs.”
I kissed Kelly. For real. I didn't see stars and the sun didn't explode, none of that. It was weird at first, feeling her tongue and the warmth of her face. She moved her hands up, so she could pull me in a bit closer. Push me in, rather, by having her hands on my shoulder blades. She giggled, which made our teeth collide. That caused me to pull back. She bit her bottom lip, the left side of it to be exact, and studied my face.
“I don't know about you, but I like this...”
I know it's terrible, but all I could think right then was: 'Is she acting? That lip biting thing, the tilted head... Am I being played here? Or did that start the moment she came in? Who is even in control here?'
“You don't think it's weird?”
“Oh, it's weird alright. But weird can be nice. It's nice, kissing a man. I've only ever kissed boys before.”
I remembered the footage from the security cameras at the night club. She had spent a good part of the evening picking the best looking boys from the crowd, and taking them aside for some serious tongue wrestling. (Kate told me they were good looking. They all looked like heroin addicts to me, but then if you were to ask me what a handsome man looks like I'd probably come up with some Disney-esque caricature of a human being, like Gaston or my friend Wayne.)
“Well, now you know,” I said. Only then I noticed my own hands had been resting on her behind. That's force of habit, that is.
“Well, well! We finally broke the ice! Whew! Uhm, Martin, can I get some water?”
“Sure. I'll go and get you some.”
I walked towards the pantry at the end of the corridor. It was cool in the hallway, which was pleasant. So I finally did it: I let go of 'little Kelly'. She was my equal now. 'Hello, fellow adult! Let's all make our own, individual choices and take full responsibility for them, haha!'
I honestly didn't know if I should feel glad about being able to see Kelly in a new light or chide myself for being such an easily led fool.
“There you go,” I said, offering her a glass. London's tap water tastes just fine and it's controlled more strictly than the bottled-water industry. I've had about a million cups of tea over the past three years, so I know of what I speak.
Kelly was standing near the window. The view isn't fantastic from my office, but the street I look out onto has quite a few trees and they were sprouting new leaves.
“I just realised that we'd be on every front page in the country if we were to have a kiss outside, where people could see us,” she said.
“Then let's not do that.”
“No, of course not. But it would cause quite a stir, is all I'm saying.”
She had a few sips of water. I wasn't sure what to do. Normally I'd stay in the office for another hour or so, but I didn't have any meetings.
“Can I have another?” she asked.
“You've not even finished that one.”
“Not water, silly. A kiss.”
“Oh. I don't know... Let's let this sink in, okay?”
“We kissed for all of thirty seconds! And I had to plead for at least five minutes to get you there. Come on, we're not going to get another chance for a while. Please?”
Without waiting for an answer she positioned herself against me, took my wrists, placed my hands on her buttocks and then slung her arms around me again, all with an impish look that would melt the North Pole in a day. I carefully untangled her fingers by reaching behind me.
“No, I think enough is... What?”
She was staring at me.
“Something on your lip.”
With any luck it would be a booger. That would scare her off. I briefly rubbed my upper lip with the side of my index finger.
“Still there. Let me just get that. It's probably something...” she mumbled, as she delicately rubbed the same spot. It felt wet, which is icky.
It's bad enough when your mother uses spittle to clean your face, but I was a few decades too old for that kind of thing.
“Relax, it's just condensation from that glass of water. I used it to wet my finger. It's probably some red lint from my jacket, it's terrible. Gets everywhere. Stand still.”
And so I stood there while she more or less painted my face. Look at us: who's pretending to be family now? Look at her, fussing over me. She was growing her hair long again, at my request. Okay, not my explicit request but because she knew I liked it better. That pixie cut she had for a while was cute, but she looked a bit like Emma Lestrade's twin. Girls should have long hair. I'm old-fashioned that way, I guess.
She didn't need to look like Emma, anyway. She was pretty enough by herself. A finely chiseled face. Very light freckles. She usually wore a rather serious expression, but that would make it even better if she turned to me and smiled. And now I had kissed her, as a way of getting used to the idea that one day I would have to undress her, take her to my bed and do everything she had been fantasizing about ever since she cornered me in the bathroom of Kate's house and invited me to look at her half-naked body. I wouldn't hear of it, obviously, but I didn't want to hurt her feelings, either. And so I had a look and was ever so pleased she left it at that.
“So... One more time? I'm sure you can do even better?” she whispered. And I did. Now that we'd broken the ice, things were different. Even the room felt different. Musky, as if we'd been doing God knows what. I sighed through my nose, if that's a thing, as we kissed. This was relaxing. I let her do the exploring with her tongue, giving her every chance to back out. But she didn't, and I didn't mind. My hands were cupping her behind, but hers were wandering a bit, trying to see what worked for us. I stopped watching the door, as my ears took over and monitored the hallway for the metal clang of the sliding lift doors as they juddered into motion.
At one point, about a minute in, she moved her left hand between us. I didn't spot what was going on, but all of a sudden she was cupping the outline of my dick, which was at ten o'clock.
“Hey... What the...” I said, way too engaged in the kiss to pretend to be upset.
“Glad you're having fun,” she whispered, our lips still connected.
She grabbed my wrist, the one resting on the flank of her right buttock.
“I like it too...”
Kelly gently guided my hand between her legs. Somehow she had managed to hike up her skirt. Before I could pull back I had already felt the inside of her thighs. A small streak of moisture ran along her leg. It was slippery, not like water. Okay, this was getting seriously out of hand. I stepped back.
“You can't do that. You can't just shove a man's hand...” I said, but my voice tapered off because I didn't really have an argument there. She gave me a look I can only describe as devious. Her right hand was holding up her skirt, just low enough to hide her pubic hair.
“No? Don't you want to know what you've caused?”
“I'm no longer comfortable with this, Kelly.”
She didn't seem offended. Quite the opposite.
“No? Wouldn't you like to have a bit of a feel?”
Jesus, when did my office change into the set of a porn movie? Sex has a smell, as hopefully you know. Well, it does when it's done right. And it's not something you'd bottle, but when you're caught up in it it's fine. It's the human body desperately trying to bypass logical thinking, because it's all in the name of making babies and the species would do better if we didn't have the self-restraint to put on a condom or consider what the hell we're doing. That's what that smell does: it drowns your brain in airborne chemicals, trying to shut it down. The brain isn't needed for the next bit: our nervous systems can handle that by themselves.
Apparently I wasn't selling it, because she raised her skirt just a bit higher.
“I'm not growing it long there.”
She stepped forward, but my back was against the window. Ours had translucent curtains, because we were in a fancy part of London and keeping a presentable facade was essential in maintaining good relations with the neighbours. Kelly took two steps forward and simply began to kiss me again, pushing her hips against the bulge in my pants.
“I took off my knickers when you were getting me some water,” she whispered. “Please? Just... have a feel. You'd be the first. The very first. I won't ask you to do more. Promise.”
A voice came from the corridor. A very familiar voice, that was singing.
“He aint' heavy... He's my brother...”
Kate bounced into the room, just a millisecond after Kelly had scrambled away from me.
“Hi guys! Hey Martin, I think you want to get down to the main building. They're having a bit of a spat in the IT department. NERD FIGHT, ha ha! Hi Kelly.”
“WHAT? Are you kidding?”
“I heard Craig is having his ass handed to him by... whatshisface. The one guy that's normal.”
Winston had snapped. I couldn't blame him, but it was up to me to stop him. I pelted out of the room, launched myself off three flights of stairs, ran down the basement tunnel that connected our buildings and ran back upstairs. Well, from the basement to ground floor, anyway. Then I decided there was no way in hell I'd able to make it to the third floor without blacking out. That meant running into the main hallway, to get to the lift.
“Mr. King?” asked the security guard on duty behind the reception desk.
“Come with me. There's a fight going on.”
It took bloody ages for the lift to get there and take us up.
“Who's fighting?” asked the guard.
“Our IT guys.”
He relaxed at once.
“Well... It can't be more than a bit of pushing and shoving. Unless that fat guy decided to sit on someone, but in that case we're already too late.”
I didn't wait for the rest of his comedy routine. Having had the chance to take in some air allowed me to run the last few metres. I burst into the room, where seven people nearly had a stroke.
“Mr. King? What's wrong?” asked Winston, behind his desk at the end of the room.
“WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?”
The guard waited in the doorway as I paced up and down.
“Who's fighting? Pfff... pfff.... argh...”
I was in better shape than I used to be, but this had still been a serious exertion.
“Fighting?! What, here?”
“I think I'll go back to the front desk. Call me if you need backup,” said the guard, trying not to sound sarcastic.
“Yeah... Thanks... Pfff... Sorry, guys. Kate was having a laugh with me. She told me you were kicking the shit out of Craig.”
“Can we?” asked three people, including Winston. “Because that would be great!”
“My genius is not recognized here,” said Craig. “And I can take on all of you with one arm tied behind my back.”
After that statement he lost interest in me and the rest of the conversation, put on his headphones and resumed typing.
“Wait, Kate said we were fighting?” asked Winston, looking dumbstruck.
“Never mind. False alarm. Carry on.”
What on Earth could have possessed Kate to pull a stunt like that?! I mean, I'm all for jokes. I know I come across as very serious and somewhat dour, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate a bit of fun. You don't send people with my girth barreling down hallways filled with fragile hipsters for no reason, it's just irresponsible. I took my time getting back to the office, because I needed to let my anger dissipate. That's why I took the stairs going up.
“I thought that was you,” said the guard, as he spotted me when I passed the ground floor.
“Very perceptive,” I mumbled, trudging upstairs.
As I rounded the corner from the stairwell I could hear a heated discussion coming from my office. Actually, it was more of a heated lecture.
“I get it, okay? I, of all people, GET IT. But you HAVE to wait until HE comes to YOU.”
“I'm really sorry!”
“So you keep saying! WITH YOUR FUCKING KNICKERS OFF!”
I wasn't quite sure what they were arguing about, but there weren't that many options. I hit the lift call button and waited for the doors to judder open, hoping they would hear.
“He'll do it. If he says he will, he'll do it. But I swear to God... If it wouldn't break his heart, AGAIN, I would send you...”
KLUNK. Tsjik. Whirrrrr.
Their conversation seized abruptly. I walked in and faked a smile.
“Good one, Katey. You really had me going there.”
“Yeah, uhm... They may have been talking about a computer game,” said Kate, with a sheepish expression. Kelly rushed up to me.
“I'm going to tell him. Martin? Listen. I've done something bad.”
“Yes. And Kate stopped me, just in time. I... I came on to you too strong.”
Kate disappeared into the hallway. I could hear the tap running in the pantry.
“Yes, you did.”
“And I shouldn't have. If... if... men do that to women, it's... bad. You know... Rape. Or something. And I did it to you and...”
Her face scrunched up and she began to cry. Cry ugly, I mean. Like a kid. See? I'd just kissed a child. Damn it!
“There there,” said Kate, as she stepped in with a wet rag. “Something on your lip, Martin. Stand still, would you?”
“Hey! What the...”
Before I knew what was happening she was vigorously rubbing my face.
“There, that should do it.”
She stepped away from me as if she were a member of a Formula One pit crew, so I could get to Kelly. By now I had a pretty good idea what Kate had washed off my lip, and what Kelly had been trying to pull. But here's the thing: I didn't care. She was young. She was impatient. And she wanted to play with me, which I found flattering. Yes, if middle-aged men seduce young girls it's icky and probably illegal. But if Kelly, my Kelly, wants something that badly... And anyway, me getting angry would accomplish absolutely nothing, except to create a rift between her and me. At the end of the day no amount of pheromones can make me do something that, deep down, I don't want to.
“Hey, sweetheart, there's no reason to be upset...”
“But I... I...” she said, seemingly afraid to accept the hug I was offering.
“Least said, soonest mended,” said Kate, behind my back.
“It's okay, Kelly. Whatever it is. It's okay. Come here.”
She walked up to me and placed her chin on my shoulder. The Kelly I had met three years ago would only have been able to reach my chest. But this wasn't the same girl. We hugged for a minute or so, as Kate took some cups from my desk and brought them to the pantry, where a small dishwasher was desperately waiting for a more demanding job than two cups and saucers plus a few tea glasses.
“Shall I shut down your PC?” asked Kate. I just nodded. When I saw the screen go dark I let go of Kelly.
“Come on, girls. Let's go home and make dinner.”