So it’s Monday morning and I’m just about to get my second coffee of the day when the email comes through from the editor, subject line: Private and Confidential. I open it and immediately see it’s bad news. My eyes dart over the words. It’s a long, dense document but I don’t have to read it all to see what it is saying. Fragments stab my mind: 'It’s with regret…need to refresh the pages…this is not a redundancy…your post will be advertised and a replacement sought…'
I stand up and stagger back from the iMac, what used to be my iMac. Suddenly all the clutter around it – the post-it notes, the unwashed coffee cups, the framed photo of my wife and child, the schedules, the mock-ups of pages – seem poignant.
'Fuck, I’ve been sacked!'
My colleagues stop typing and look up in alarm. There’s concern in their faces but I can also see they want to check their screens in case they’ve received a similar notice too.
I stagger away. I think: the last thing I want to do is break down in front of them.
Then I’m running, pelting through the office past the ashen faces peering at their computers and past the editor’s glass office. I glance at it for a second. He’s not there. I think for a moment about pushing past his timid PA and going into his room and tearing down all the signed celebrity posters on his wall and the non-ironic notice that reads: 'The buck stops with me so belt up.'
But I don’t trash it. I don’t want to waste my time bothering with him. He’s a cunt.
I push through the exit and run down the stairs into Exmouth Market. It’s getting near lunch-time and they’re setting up the food stalls. The smell of curry and sizzling onions fills the bright air.
I lean back against the wall and phone Hadley.
I know it’s an extremely bad time to call her - she’s probably teaching a class – but I have to speak to her. I have to hear her voice.
Thank God, she picks up.
'I’m in a class…' she says.
I can hear the voices of children chattering in the background. Why do I find this reassuring?
'I’ve been let go. The fucker has let me go,' I say. My voice is wavery but I sound calmer than I actually am.
'Oh Francis, oh Francis, I’m sorry…'
I can hear a child shouting in the background. Hadley puts her hand over the receiver, but even so I can hear her sharp American twang admonishing him. When she returns to the receiver there is quiet. 'Look Francis, I’ll phone you back as soon as this class is finished… But please darling don’t do anything stupid. Just perhaps have a walk, clear your head and I’ll call you ASAP.'
I don’t return to the office, although I part of me wants to. I think: I have two pieces to finish editing and some stuff I really need to commission for next week. However, I wander around Clerkenwell in a daze, my head throbbing with distress. I’ve been fired. The fucker has fired me.
A little later, a couple of colleagues try and call me. I don’t answer. One texts to say that he’ll finish off any work I have to do if I want to go home. That feels like a gesture of support. I text back thanks.
It is April. The cruellest month. The sun breaks through the clouds and glitters on a couple of broken beer bottles lying on the pavement; the light twinkles on dingy cherry blossoms in the square. I look up at the blue sky.
I’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.
I decide to walk home even though it is a long hike. I leave my commuter bike chained to its post outside the office. I can’t face braving the traffic right now. I head through the baroque Jerusalem Passage, along Passing Alley, through Smithfield Market, through the Barbican, through various alleyways near Austen Friars and walk across London Bridge.
I think about getting a train from London Bridge to New Cross, but decide against it. I find the walk is calming me down, making me think things through: yes, this could be a positive move.
Hadley calls me during her lunch hour. She’s already figured out an optimistic way of thinking about things. She talks in that relentlessly upbeat way of hers about how this will enable me to write the book I’ve always wanted to write; that it will mean that I can pick up Tristan from school; that I can help him with his homework; that I won’t be stressed out by being shouted at by that monster. Yes, money will be tight, but we’ll be super-efficient; she’ll show me how to get all the best deals at the supermarket, how to cook, how to do stuff around the house. She’ll help me.
I think about what Ellida would have said. She’d have said: 'Fuck it, Francis. That guy can go and fuck his face. Let’s just rent the house out for a bit and take off. Go travelling. Take Tristan out of school and just go somewhere. Visit the pyramids, go to Moscow, see the lost kingdoms of the Aztecs, write poetry by the fjords, take a boat ride around the Arctic!'
I laugh out loud in the street. Then I remember she’s dead. At least, I’m not dead. Yes, being alive is probably preferable to being dead. But I suppose when you’re dead you don’t feel anything. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything.
After wandering around like this for hours, I pick Tristan up from New Cross Primary. When I say we could go and do something, he expresses disappointment that he’s not going with his child-minder, Wendy. She has a son in his class and they play FIFA on the X-box together.
'Isn’t it nice to see your Dad?' I ask.
He looks at me like I’ve gone mad. It’s not the kind of question I ever ask him.
'What’s the matter with you, Dad? You look weird,' he says.
His big grey eyes examine me.
'I…I’m fine…Look, you go and play X-box,' I say. I smile at Wendy, pretending everything is cool.
Hadley cancels her department meeting and comes home. Since Tristan is still at the child-minders, we have some time to ourselves. We sit in the front room of our small, terraced house and listen to the traffic noises of New Cross as we nurse our cups of tea. Hadley puts her cup down, and takes my hand and squeezes it.
'It’s the best thing you know, you were very miserable there. That editor really sucked. He was a bully, Francis, and you were his whipping boy.'
'Yes, but it’s been my job for the last fifteen years…I was at least a ‘somebody’ when I did it. Now I’m forty five and I know I’ll never get a job like that again. No one’s hiring, and I’ve been sacked.'
Hadley pulls a strand of dark hair back over her ear. She takes my other hand.
'But do think of your achievements. You were fifteen years as Arts editor at a top London magazine. That’s an achievement. You’ll come to value what you’ve done soon I’m sure. But there’s also a lot of life left in you: you’re a good writer, you can write articles and reviews and you could pitch some TV and radio ideas as well…'
'Oh come on, you know people are paying peanuts for that kind of stuff now…'
I watch Hadley struggle to think of things I could do.
'What about writing that story you wanted to do about Ellida? What about that?'
Hadley’s generosity of spirit both amazes and shames me. I bow my head.
'Why do you want me to write about Ellida?'
'You want to write about her.'
'I think it’s more important for you to write about her…'
'But it’s so fucking self-indulgent. I need to get another job. We need the money…'
Hadley grips me by the shoulders. Her brown eyes drill into my head. 'Francis, we need you to be happy…We’ll manage. I’ve been thinking that we really don’t need a new car and we could sell our Nissan. It really is throwing money down the drain. I can easily go to work by train, and I’ve worked out we’d save thousands a year by doing that…'
Hadley explains why having a car is not a good idea. Cars depreciate in value very fast and she’s figured out that when you add up the insurance, the tax, MOT and the fuel, it means that that it’s seriously expensive.
'Yes, I could live without the car,' I say. But I can’t help thinking that losing my job means I’m going to lose a lot of other stuff too.
Hadley springs up from the sofa. Normally, she’s tired when she gets home from school. 'What we need to do is work out our out-goings and then see just how much money we need to make to keep everything afloat…'
On Saturday, we’ve been invited to a wedding anniversary party hosted by one of my former feature writers and reviewers, Deirdre Buttone. The day before it, Hadley and I talk about whether we should go or not. Deirdre was one of my first appointments when I became Arts editor all those years ago and she’s become friendly with both of us. Hadley likes Deirdre but knows what she is like: snoopy. She’ll want all the gory details of my sacking.
'Do you think it’s wise?' Hadley asks again on Saturday morning, handing me a cup of coffee. 'There will be a lot of people there who will be wanting to hear what happened to you…'
'It’ll be fine,' I say, adding with fake good humour: 'I can’t retire from public life!'
And I do think it will be fine until I get there. But the moment I step into the smartly furnished house and see the champagne glasses and canapés laid out in rows and feel Dierdre’s keen eyes upon me, an inexplicable terror seizes me. Throughout the week, I have been perfecting this patter about how the whole thing is for the best and how I had more or less decided a few months ago to leave so that I could pursue my own writing. With every recitation in my head the story has grown stronger, but now, staring at the small chapatis and prawn vole-au-vents on paper plates, I can feel my confidence collapsing.
Deirdre grabs me by the arms and enfolds me in a long hug. I can smell her freshly scented hair and feel the smooth fabric of her anniversary dress. Behind her, her husband, a very successful barrister, smiles in a compassionate but melancholic fashion at me. We disengage from the hug but Deirdre continues holding me on the forearms, examining my face as she says: 'Oh Francis! My dear, how are you? It must be simply dreadful for you, simply appalling. What a terrible man he is! What a ghastly, nightmarish thing to happen…But you must have a drink…'
Her husband, still looking sad for me, with his head held to one side, gives me a glass of champagne. I actually want to leave there and then, but Hadley comes up behind me and holds my hand. Her touch gives me the strength to recite my script: 'No, no. It’s all for the best. I really want to write anyway. It was more or less agreed…'
'That wasn’t what I heard,' Deirdre says, concern that she might have got her facts wrong sweeping over her face. 'I heard it was completely out of the blue.'
'Well, it was unexpected.'
I see Deirdre clock that she hasn’t got her facts wrong.
'And you’ve been at the magazine so long.'
'Oh dear! Oh dear! What a terrible thing. But we’ll do our best to cheer you up…'
But the party doesn’t. As it fills up, I realize with horror that more or less every one of Deirdre’s friends – writers, editors, programme makers, artists, playwrights, arts-in-education people – have some connection to the magazine: they either know people who work there, or, even worse, they actually read it. I neck the champagne and trot out my story again and again, doing my best to be positive about the whole thing but becoming less and less convincing the more I drink. Hadley stays with me for a bit, but then gets distracted by one of Deirdre’s friends, Josiah, who runs an educational charity, Learning for Life. I know from Deirdre that Josiah is trying to head-hunt Hadley to work for it. Until now Hadley has been holding her off because she much prefers being a Deputy Head in a school than becoming part of the bureaucracy of Learning for Life. But now that I’ve lost my job, the extra money being dangled before her must be tempting.
I can understand why Hadley might want to be nice to Josiah. And that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
She’s sitting out in the garden arbor smiling at him. It’s a warm spring evening. Deirdre’s fairy-lights look magical entwined around the ivy-covered trellis and rose-bushes. Everyone else looks and sounds like they’re having a great time: chortles of laughter fill the perfumed twilight.
I tap Hadley on the shoulder. 'I think the child-minder will want us to be home soon.'
Hadley tries to introduce me to the group of people assembled around the avuncular Josiah. He shakes my hand heartily. He’s a handsome man in his fifties, looking dapper in a linen suit and open-necked shirt. He’s married but clearly has sparkly eyes for my wife.
'No. We’ve got a few hours yet,' Hadley says, checking her watch and then turning back to Josiah.
I wander away for a bit and encounter two more people. Once again, I have to talk to about how wonderful my new life is going to be. Surviving this without snapping, I return to Hadley. 'I really think the child-minder will want us back now.'
She says that I should sit down and talk to Josiah. He pats the empty chair next to him. I sit down and then almost immediately get up. I’m sweating. The champagne has made my head fizz but not in a nice way: I can feel a horrible headache coming on.
'I have to go now. Sorry,' I say to Josiah. I don’t look at Hadley. I don’t want to see her disappointed expression.
And so I leave. Except for Josiah and Hadley, no one really notices me go, not even Deirdre who is immersed in conversation with an Arts editor of a national paper.
I slump down on Deirdre’s front steps and wonder if Hadley will appear. I feel a little consoled when she does.
'Francis, are you all right?'
She crouches down beside me and examines my face like a doctor.
'I just need to go home.'
We are mostly silent on the way back. We catch the train from Camden Road. Hadley comments on how easy it is now with the East London line to get to Deirdre’s house.
'Deirdre’s all right,' she says.
'I suppose so. It was just hard that’s all. Trying to be cheerful. To pretend that it’s the best thing that happened,' I say.
'Yes, it must have been.'
But her tone is frosty. Not as sympathetic as before. In the last week, I have become an expert at gauging levels of sympathy. After we get off at New Cross and we’re heading past Goldsmiths College towards our little terrace on the hill, Hadley says that she wasn’t aware that I was frantic to go. I know this is a criticism of me for making her leave so abruptly. Car headlights race past us, highlighting her frown.
'I had to leave.'
'Sorry, I didn’t know you were so anxious.'
'You should have done. I made it pretty obvious.'
'I was talking to Josiah.'
'You can talk to him some other time.'
'We hadn’t quite finished what we were saying.'
'Well, I’m sorry that I broke up your conversation then! But I had to go.'
'Yes, of course.'
We are silent all the way to Wendy’s. We pick up Tristan and learn that he’s been playing X-box all evening.
'Do you have to play X-box all the time?' I say. 'Can’t play a proper game like chess or Scrabble or something?'
'Scrabble, that’s for old women!' Tristan says.
'Well, maybe play tennis or football. Get some exercise,' I say.
'Their garden is the size of a micro-chip.'
'There’s room to kick a ball in it.'
'Oh Dad, there’s nothing wrong with playing on the X-box. I get plenty of exercise. We go cycling all the time. I play tennis on Tuesdays. I do PE. You can’t really accuse me of being obese. I’m hardly a kid who embodies the moral and physical decline of the nation.'
Tristan is nine going on twenty-four. I blame Hadley for reading too many intellectual books to him.
We get home and Hadley puts Tristan to bed. She’s very good with him. She always makes sure that she reads him a bed-time story. They’re reading Alice Through the Looking-glass together at the moment: I hear them laughing about Humpty Dumpty explaining what the Jabberwocky poem means as I pat water on my face in the bathroom. I look tired in the bathroom mirror. It’s increasingly becoming a shock to see my reflection: I’m getting an old man’s neck and crow’s feet. I go downstairs. Pouring myself a whiskey, I sit in the kitchen, ruminating about whether I was out of order to leave the party so early.
I feel drunk and trapped in my own head. I think that the only way of escaping this claustrophobic feeling is to apologise to Hadley. But when she does emerge, the words come out wrong: 'You should have left when I gave you the signal. That was out of order!'
I jab my finger at her. My anger is just as surprising to me as it is to her. She freezes in the doorway: Hadley hasn’t expected to find me in the kitchen. She glances at the empty whiskey glass -- and then at me.
'I thought you’d gone to bed.'
'It was out of order Hadley. You should have left right then: when I wanted!'
'I was trying to talk to Josiah. He was on the verge of inviting me for an interview for a job.'
'Well, that will keep. If he really wants you, he’ll go about it in the proper way!'
'Yes, he will. He will…Look, I’m going to bed.'
Hadley turns her back on me. I find this hurtful but know I shouldn’t be disturbed by it. I hate myself for being such a fucking idiot. I grip my hands into fists and hit the table with them. Hadley jumps, turns around and sees my clenched fists. She backs away as she reaches for something to say: 'Francis...Francis…'
The very fact that she looks so frightened makes me despise myself even more. I am scaring her and I shouldn’t be. I feel strangely dislocated from my own body, as though I am looking at myself through the screen of a flip camera. I look at myself flinging my body on the floor and curling up into a ball.
I thump my fists on the floor with all the force I can muster as I sob: 'I’m sorry, Hadley, I’m sorry. I lost my fucking job, Hadley. I lost my fucking job. I got sacked. They fucking sacked me because I was bloody shit! And all I’ve got is a fucking dodgy novel to write and I know it will be shit anyway. There’s nothing else I can do.'
Hadley hovers over me for a moment looking both stricken and scared, then kneels beside me and touches me lightly on the shoulder, telling me that it’s all right. Then she sits down cross-legged beside me and takes my head in her hands, pulling my face into her lap. She strokes my hair as she says: 'It’s all right Francis. It’s all going to be all right…'
But I know it won’t be.
This chapter is taken from my novel, Who Do You Love?, which I am writing as part of my PhD in Creative Writing and Education at Goldsmiths. You can find another extract in a previous issue of Glits-e here: From Who Do you Love?