One Day, Page 7David Nicholls
And no, it didn’t have the arty gleam of photography or the credibility of reporting from a war zone, but TV mattered, TV was the future. Democracy in action, it touched people’s lives in the most immediate way, shaped opinions, provoked and entertained and engaged far more effectively than all those books that no-one read or plays that no-one went to see. Emma could say what she liked about the Tories (Dexter was no fan either, though more for reasons of style than principle) but they had certainly shaken up the media. Until recently, broadcasting had seemed stuffy, worthy and dull; heavily unionised, grey and bureaucratic, full of bearded lifers and do-gooders and old dears pushing tea-trolleys; a sort of showbiz branch of the Civil Service. Redlight Productions, on the other hand, was part of the boom of new, youthful, privately owned independent companies wresting the means of production away from those fusty old Reithian dinosaurs. There was money in the media; the fact sang out from the primary-coloured open-plan offices with their state-of-the-art computer systems and generous communal fridges.
His rise through this world had been meteoric. The woman he had met on a train in India with the glossy black bob and tiny spectacles had given him his first job as a runner, then a researcher, and now he was Assistant Producer, Asst Prod, on UP4IT, a weekend magazine programme that mixed live music and outrageous stand-up with reports on issues that ‘really affect young people today’: STDs, drugs, dance music, drugs, police brutality, drugs. Dexter produced hyperactive little films of grim housing estates shot from crazy angles through fish-eye lenses, the clouds speeded up to a soundtrack of acid house. There was even talk of putting him in front of the cameras in the next series. He was excelling, he was flying and there seemed to be every possibility that he might make his parents proud.
‘I work in TV’; just saying it gave him satisfaction. He liked striding down Berwick Street to an edit-suite with a jiffy bag of videotapes, nodding at people just like him. He liked the sushi platters and the launch parties, he liked drinking from water coolers and ordering couriers and saying things like ‘we’ve got to lose six seconds’. Secretly, he liked the fact that it was one of the better-looking industries, and one that valued youth. No chance, in this brave new world of TV, of walking into a conference room to find a group of sixty-two-year-olds brainstorming. What happened to TV people when they reached a certain age? Where did they go? Never mind, it suited him, as did the preponderance of young women like Naomi: hard, ambitious, metropolitan. In rare moments of self-doubt, Dexter had once worried that a lack of intellect might hold him back in life, but here was a job where confidence, energy, perhaps even a certain arrogance were what mattered, all qualities that lay within his grasp. Yes, you had to be smart, but not Emma-smart. Just politic, shrewd, ambitious.
He loved his new flat in nearby Belsize Park, all dark wood and gunmetal, and he loved London, spread out vast and hazy before him on this St Swithin’s Day, and he wanted to share all this excitement with Emma, introduce her to new possibilities, new experiences, new social circles; to make her life more like his own. Who knows, perhaps Naomi and Emma might even become friends.
Soothed by these thoughts, and on the verge of sleep, he was woken by a shadow across his face. He opened one eye, squinting up.
Emma kicked him sharply in the hip.
‘Don’t you ever, ever do that again!’
‘You know what! Like I’m in a zoo, you poking me with a stick, laughing—’
‘I wasn’t laughing at you!’
‘I watched you, sat straddling your girlfriend, chuckling away—’
‘She isn’t my girlfriend, and we were laughing at the menu—’
‘You were laughing at where I work.’
‘So? You do!’
‘Yes, because I work there. I’m laughing in the face of adversity, you’re just laughing in my face!’
‘Em, I would never, ever—’
‘That’s what it feels like.’
‘Well I apologise.’
‘Good.’ She folded her legs beneath her and sat next to him. ‘Now do your shirt up and pass me the bottle.’
‘And she really isn’t my girlfriend.’ He fastened three low shirt buttons, waiting for her to take the bait. When she didn’t, he prodded again. ‘We’re just sleeping together every now and then, that’s all.’
As the possibility of a relationship had faded, Emma had endeavoured to harden herself to Dexter’s indifference and these days a remark like this caused no more pain than, say, a tennis ball thrown sharply at the back of her head. These days she barely even flinched. ‘That’s nice for you both, I’m sure.’ She poured wine into a plastic cup. ‘So if she’s not your girlfriend, what do I call her?’
‘I don’t know. “Lover”?’
‘Doesn’t that imply affection?’
‘How about “conquest”?’ he grinned. ‘Can I say “conquest” these days?’
‘Or “victim”. I like “victim”.’ Emma lay back suddenly and squeezed her fingers awkwardly into the pockets of her jeans. ‘You can have that back ’n’ all.’ She tossed a tightly wadded ten-pound note onto his chest.
‘Dexter, listen to me. You don’t tip friends.’
‘It’s not a tip, it’s a gift.’
‘And cash is not a gift. If you want to buy me something, that’s very nice, but not cash. It’s embarrassing.’
He sighed, and stuffed the money back into his pocket. ‘I apologise. Again.’
‘Fine,’ she said, and lay down beside him. ‘Go on then. Tell me all about it.’
Grinning, he raised himself up on his elbows. ‘So we were having this wrap party at the weekend—’
Wrap party, she thought. He has become someone who goes to wrap parties.
‘—and I’d seen her around at the office so I went over to say hi, hello, welcome to the team, very formal, hand outstretched, and she smiled up at me, winked, put her hand on the back of my head and pulled me towards her and she—’ He lowered his voice to a thrilled whisper. ‘—kissed me, right?’
‘Kissed you, right?’ said Emma, as another tennis ball struck home.
‘—and slipped something into my mouth with her tongue. “What was that?” I said and she just winked and said, “You’ll find out”.’
A silence followed before Emma said ‘Was it a peanut?’
‘Little dry-roasted peanut—’
‘No, it was a pill—’
‘What, like a tic-tac or something? For your bad breath?’
‘I don’t have bad—’
‘Haven’t you told me this story before anyway?’
‘No, that was another girl.’
The tennis balls were coming thick and fast now, the odd cricket ball mixed in there too. Emma stretched and concentrated on the sky. ‘You’ve got to stop letting women slip drugs into your mouth, Dex, it’s unhygienic. And dangerous. One day it’ll be a cyanide capsule.’
Dexter laughed. ‘So do you want to hear what happened next?’
She placed a finger on her chin. ‘Do I? Nope, I don’t think so. No, I don’t.’
But he told her anyway, the usual narrative about dark back-rooms at clubs and late-night phone-calls and taxis across the city at dawn; the endless, eat-as-much-as-you-can buffet that was Dexter’s sex-life, and Emma made a conscious effort not to listen and just watch his mouth instead. It was a nice mouth as she remembered, and if she were fearless, bold and asymmetrical like this Naomi girl she would lean over now and kiss him, and it occurred to her that she had never kissed anyone, that is never initiated the kiss. She had been kissed of course, suddenly and far too hard by drunken boys at parties, kisses that came swinging out of nowhere like punches. Ian had tried three weeks ago while she was mopping out the meat locker, looming in so violently that she had thought he was going t
o head-butt her. Even Dexter had kissed her once, many, many years ago. Would it really be so strange to kiss him back? What might happen if she were to do it now? Take the initiative, remove your spectacles, hold onto his head while he’s still talking and kiss him, kiss him—
‘—so Naomi calls at three in the morning, says, “Get in a cab. Right. Now.”’
She had a perfectly clear mental picture of him wiping his mouth with the back of his hand: the kiss as custard-pie. She let her head loll to the other side to watch the others on the hill. The evening light was starting to fade now, and two hundred prosperous, attractive young people were throwing frisbees, lighting disposable barbecues, making plans for the evening. Yet she felt as far removed from these people, with their interesting careers and CD players and mountain bikes, as if it had been a TV commercial, for vodka perhaps or small sporty cars. ‘Why don’t you come home, sweetheart,’ her mother had said on the phone last night, ‘Your room’s still here . . .’
She looked back to Dexter, still narrating his own love-life, then over his shoulder at a young couple, kissing aggressively, the woman kneeling astride the man, his arms flung back in surrender, their fingers interlocked.
‘ . . . basically we didn’t leave the hotel room for, like, three days.’
‘Sorry, I stopped listening a while ago.’
‘I was just saying . . .’
‘What do you think she sees in you?’
Dexter shrugged, as if he didn’t understand the question. ‘She says I’m complicated.’
‘Complicated. You’re like a two-piece jigsaw—’ She sat and brushed the grass from her shin. ‘—in thick ply,’ then tugged the leg of her jeans a little higher. ‘Look at these legs.’ She held a tiny twist of hair between her finger and thumb. ‘I’ve got the legs of some fifty-eight-year-old fell-walker. I look like the President of the Ramblers Association.’
‘So wax ’em then. Hairy Mary.’
‘And anyway, you’ve got great legs.’ He leant across and pinched her calves. ‘You’re gorgeous.’
She knocked his elbow away so that he fell back onto the grass. ‘Can’t believe you called me Hairy Mary.’ Beyond him the couple were still kissing. ‘Look at these two here – don’t stare.’ Dexter peered over his shoulder. ‘I can actually hear them. Over this distance, I can hear the suction. Like someone unblocking a sink. I said don’t stare!’
‘Why not? It’s a public place.’
‘Why would you go to a public place to behave like that? It’s like a nature documentary.’
‘Maybe they’re in love.’
‘And is that what love looks like – all wet mouths and your skirt rucked up?’
‘Sometimes it is.’
‘Looks like she’s trying to fit his entire head into her mouth. She’ll dislocate her jaw if she’s not careful.’
‘She’s alright though.’
‘Well she is, I’m just saying.’
‘You know some people might think it’s a bit weird, this obsession you’ve got with being in a constant state of intercourse, some people might think it’s a bit desperate and sad . . .’
‘Funny, I don’t feel sad. Or desperate.’
Emma, who did feel these things, said nothing. Dexter nudged her with his elbow. ‘You know what we should do? Me and you?’
He grinned. ‘Take E together.’
‘E? What’s E?’ she deadpanned. ‘Oh, yes, I believe I read an article about that. Don’t think I’m cut out for mind-bending chemicals. I left the lid off the Tipp-Ex once and I thought my shoes were trying to eat me.’ He laughed gratifyingly and she hid her own smile in her plastic cup. ‘Anyway I prefer the pure, natural high of booze.’
‘It’s very disinhibiting, E.’
‘Is that why you’re hugging everybody all the time?’
‘I just think you might have fun, that’s all.’
‘I am having fun. You have no idea how much fun.’ Lying on her back and staring at the sky, she could feel him looking at her.
‘So. What about you?’ he said, in what she thought of as his psychiatrist voice. ‘Any news? Any action? Love-life-wise.’
‘Oh you know me. I have no emotions. I’m a robot. Or a nun. A robot nun.’
‘No you’re not. You pretend to be, but you’re not.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind. I quite like it, getting old alone—’
‘You’re twenty-five, Em—’
‘—turning into this bluestocking.’
Dexter wasn’t sure what a bluestocking was, but nevertheless still felt a Pavlovian twinge of arousal at the word ‘stocking’. As she talked, he pictured her wearing blue stockings before deciding blue stockings wouldn’t suit her, or anyone in fact, and that stockings should really only ever be black or possibly red like those ones Naomi had worn once, before deciding that maybe he was missing the point about the phrase ‘blue stocking’. This kind of erotic reverie occupied great swathes of Dexter’s mental energy, and he wondered if perhaps Emma was right, perhaps he was a little too distracted by the sexual side of things. Hourly he was rendered idiotic by billboards, magazine covers, an inch of crimson bra-strap on a passing stranger, and it was even worse in summer. Surely it wasn’t natural to feel as if he’d just got out of prison all the time? Concentrate. Someone he cared for dearly was engaged in some kind of nervous collapse, and he should concentrate on that, rather than the three girls behind her who had just started a water-fight . . .
Concentrate! Concentrate. He steered his thoughts away from the subject of sex, his brain as nimble as an aircraft carrier.
‘How about that guy?’ he said.
‘At work, the waiter. Looks like captain of the computer club.’
‘Ian? What about him?’
‘Why don’t you go out with Ian?’
‘Shut up, Dexter. Ian’s just a friend. Now pass the bottle, will you?’
He watched as she sat and drank the wine, which had become warm and syrupy now. While not sentimental, there were times when Dexter could sit quietly and watch Emma Morley laughing or telling a story and feel absolutely sure that she was the finest person he knew. Sometimes he almost wanted to say this out loud, interrupt her and just tell her. But this was not one of those times and instead he thought how tired she looked, sad and pale, and when she looked at the floor her chin had started to pouch. Why didn’t she get contact lenses, instead of those big ugly spectacles? She wasn’t a student anymore. And the velour scrunchies, she wasn’t doing herself any favour with the scrunchies. What she really needed, he thought, ablaze with compassion, was someone to take her in hand and unlock her potential. He imagined a sort of montage, looking on patrician and kindly as Emma tried on a series of incredible new outfits. Yes, he really should pay Emma more attention, and he would do it too if he didn’t have so much happening at present.
But in the short term, wasn’t there something he could do to make her feel better about herself, lift her spirits, give her self-confidence a boost? He had an idea, and reached for her hand before announcing solemnly:
‘You know, Em, if you’re still single when you’re forty I’ll marry you.’
She looked at him with frank disgust. ‘Was that a proposal, Dex?’
‘Not now, just at some point if we both get desperate.’
She laughed bitterly. ‘And what makes you think I’d want to marry you?’
‘Well, I’m sort of taking that as a given.’
She shook her head slowly. ‘Well you’ll have to join the queue, I’m afraid. My friend Ian said exactly the same thing to me while we were disinfecting the meat fridge. Except he only gave me until I was thirty-five.’
‘Well no offence to Ian, but I think you should definitely hold out for the extra five years.’
‘I’m not holding out for either of you! I’m never getting married anyway.’
‘How do you know that?
She shrugged. ‘Wise old gypsy told me.’
‘I suppose you disagree on political grounds or something.’
‘Just . . . not for me, that’s all.’
‘I can see you now. Big white dress, bridesmaids, little page boys, blue garter . . .’ Garter. His mind snagged on the word like a fish on a hook.
‘As a matter of fact, I think there are more important things in life than “relationships”.’
‘What, like your career, you mean?’ She shot him a look. ‘Sorry.’
They turned back to the sky, shading into night now and after a moment she said, ‘Actually my career took a bit an upturn today if you must know.’
‘You got fired?’
‘Promotion.’ She started to laugh. ‘I’ve been offered the job of manager.’
Dexter sat up quickly. ‘In that place? You’ve got to turn it down.’
‘Why do I have to turn it down? Nothing wrong with restaurant work.’
‘Em, you could be mining uranium with your teeth and that would be fine as long as you were happy. But you hate that job, you hate every single moment.’
‘So? Most people hate their jobs. That’s why they’re called jobs.’
‘I love my job.’
‘Yeah, well, we can’t all work in the media, can we?’ She hated the tone of her voice now, sneering and sour. Worse still, she could feel hot, irrational tears starting to form in the back of her eyes.
‘Hey, maybe I could get you a job!’
She laughed. ‘What job?’
‘With me, at Redlight Productions!’ He was warming to the idea now. ‘As a researcher. You’d have to start as a runner, which is unpaid, but you’d be brilliant—’
‘Dexter, thank you, but I don’t want to work in the media. I know we’re all meant to be desperate to work in the media these days, like the media’s the best job in the world—’ You sound hysterical, she thought, jealous and hysterical. ‘In fact I don’t even know what the media is—’ Stop talking, stay calm. ‘I mean what do you people do all day except stand around drinking bottled water and taking drugs and photocopying your bits—’