Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Free Chapter: Song In The Wrong Key (amzn.to/xaosKp)


Im a little bit suspicious of people who smile on the Tube;
specifically, commuters who smile to themselves. I have no problem with
foreigners in fluorescent cagoules, laden with maps and sheaves of
leaflets espousing the many joys of  anybody’s-guess waxworks and
open-top bus rides in the rain. They’re abroad and don’t know any
better. Smile away. And gabbling, reeking lunatics holding onto empty
liquor bottles for dear life are often very cheerful and capable of
creating their own blissful space in otherwise sardine-packed carriages,
like penicillin in a Petri dish. They can smile all they want to, though
preferably nowhere near me. But that bloke in a suit who, without any
obvious visual or aural stimulation, is just bloody smiling - well, he
bothers me. What I want to know is - what’s so funny, Smiley? What
entitles you to be light of  mood when all about you, whey-faced
drones with their shark-dead eyes are drowning in quotidian gloom?
Worse, The Smiler, snubbing his nose at propriety, is invariably keen
to broadcast his anarchic streak. So he’ll catch your eye to rub it in. He
wants you to know there’s a party in his head and you’re not invited.
And that’s when I get to thinking - and I’m sure he knows this - have
I done something to amuse him, something I ought to be embarrassed
about? Has he spotted a matted glob of  blood on my collar, unwitting
evidence of  a careless shave? Or do I have a hole in my crotch
revealing my ‘Oh crap, it’s Monday’ pants (they were a birthday
present, by the way, which I wear on Tuesdays pursuant to my own
anarchic streak, thank you). And anyway, why’s that funny? A bloody
collar, an unstitched seam, a witty pant? Ok, maybe I’m being a bit
over-sensitive, maybe it’s not me at all or, indeed, anyone else in the
carriage. Maybe something funny’s just occurred to him.
I don’t care. I don’t like it.
That’s the thing about the London Underground. People forget
who they are; that they got on the train with distinct and, in many

Simon Lipson
cases, complex personalities. Yet once ensconced within the sterile
anonymity of  the seething warren, arcane rules of  non-engagement
kick in. The haughty, physical defence of  personal space; the flickering,
fascinated eyes watching stations hove into and out of  view, stations
they’ve flickered at a thousand times before; the intense ‘I’m reading,
don’t disturb me’ po-face. Woe betide anyone making eye contact.
That’s why The Smiler stands out. He’s not to be trusted.
But, you see, that morning, it was me who broke ranks. I’m normally
a pack-dog, an automaton, a leave-me-alone merchant, someone
whose mind is ostentatiously elsewhere. But I was smiling - yes, to
myself - a smile interlaced with the odd gentle convulsion. Maybe,
hopefully, it was me pissing everyone else off  for a change as I ran a
mental video of  the night before. Me, in the kitchen, clattering about,
hopeless-dad-fashion, trying to conjure a meal for Millie and Katia
under cover of  the laboured comedy routine of  which they’d long
since tired. Undeterred by their indifference, I ploughed on. Where
was the pasta? What the hell’s
spelt when it’s at home? Which one’s the
special pasta saucepan? How long do you boil it for - or do you fry it?
Do you need to add meat to Ragu or merely slop it on cold from the
jar? In truth, I didn’t know the answer to too many of  these questions.
Millie wore the weary look she’d inherited, gene-for-gene, from her
mother, eyelids fluttering, barely tolerating my ineptitude and ham-
fisted witlessness, while Katia smiled wryly as she chewed on a waxy
rod of  cheese of  indeterminate colour whilst skim-reading a Jacqueline
Wilson book I’d have found too racy and sophisticated at eighteen,
much less eight.
Sunday evening meals were invariably my domain and I took the
responsibility  extremely  semi-seriously  despite  my  absence  of
domestic skills. Lisa always seemed to be on top of  it when she was in
charge, not militarily, but with that languid efficiency that mums do so
well. But she’d gone out to her book club meeting to discuss some
impenetrable Nabokov treatise - which she’d actually packed in after
thirteen pages (as it turned out, she’d got further than most) - so I
couldn’t refer to her higher authority. Soldiering on, I finally got the
water to boil, chucked in the penne with a flourish - a steaming splash


Song in the Wrong Key
burnt my hand (important lesson there) - and stuck the Ragu jar in the
microwave. Yes I took the lid off, come on. As I collected the requisite
plates, cutlery and glasses, I began to sing ‘Home,’ the all-time Michael
Bublé classic. In my book anyway. The kids pointedly ignored me,
embarrassed for and by me, so I waltzed closer to them, knives and
forks for dancing partners, forcing the poor things to cower at the
table. Katia pulled her book around her face in an attempt to insulate
herself  from the crooning nutter, while Millie stifled a smile as she
coloured in a pencil-drawn map of  Ireland, Peru or possibly Jupiter in
her exercise book. I leaned down, singing first into Katia’s, then
Millie’s ear. They cringed theatrically.
‘Come on,’ I pleaded, ‘you always used to love it when Daddy sang
to you.’
‘That was when we were young,’ said Millie, now seven.
I smiled and picked up the song where I’d left off, upping the
volume extravagantly and losing a little tonal accuracy in the process.
Millie looked up dolefully, half  covering her ears, wincing. ‘The thing
is, Dad, your singing…’ she said. I nodded, awaiting her sweet little
put-down, ‘…it’s shit.’
Shit? I blame the mother. I never say ‘shit’ in front of  the kids. Ok,
I might occasionally slip it in if  it’s contextually appropriate, like
‘what’s this shit you’re watching kids?’ Otherwise? Never. But, even
allowing for Millie’s little cuss - in fact largely because of  it - I was
The Smiler on the train that morning, a contented man breezing
along, not a care in the world.
Funny how your life can change in an instant.
I battled my way up the escalators at Holborn station, slipped,
Astaire-like, through the snapping jaws of  the automatic barrier and
skipped up the final set of  stairs into the hazy sunlight. The cold
morning air was thick with fumes, the traffic jammed and furious, but
I didn’t care. I was awash in smugness, still congratulating myself  on
those brilliant kids of  mine, my wonderful, tolerant, capable wife, my
overall domestic bliss. I observed the poor bastards whose lives
couldn’t possibly be as rich as mine, trudging to wherever they were
doomed to spend yet another pointless day.


Simon Lipson
I floated east along High Holborn, all but whistling a happy tune,
arriving outside my office building within a couple of  joyous minutes.
I spun through the revolving door, nodded at the security guy - who,
as ever, looked down at his desk gravely as though he had several
pressing security issues on the go and couldn’t possibly allow himself
to be distracted - and, eschewing the lift, hopped up the three flights
of  stairs to my floor. I bundled through the double doors and strode
sunnily into the open plan office area where half  the staff  were
cranking up for the day. The other half, like me, were late. I nodded
with what I hope could never be interpreted as condescension at the
handful of  underlings lining the path to my executive office tucked
away in the far left hand corner. A couple of  yards from my door, I
was intercepted by Pete Moore, my immediate superior. Of  course, he
was only superior in terms of  job title, salary and perks - and, ok, he
lived with a young Spanish model in a Docklands penthouse, had a
first class Oxford degree in some social science or other and drove
something silver and supercharged - but that’s not how you judge a
man, is it? Pete and I went way back. In fact, I started at Edmonds &
White IT Systems a month before him and was, briefly, his boss. But
Pete was all thrusting ambition, a ruthless operator who lived to work
- when he wasn’t spending his vastly inflated salary on exotic holidays
and expensive women. His greatest skills were licking the right arses
and  looking  ferociously  busy  even  when  he  wasn’t,  a  deadly
combination with which I could never compete. Good luck to him.
The poor guy had no family to coddle him in their warm, loving
embrace after a hard day’s work. I wouldn’t have swapped anything I
had for anything of  his. Ok, that’s not strictly accurate, but I don’t
want to split hairs over anything as vacuous as money, status, property
or stunning señoritas.
Pete placed his hand gently on my elbow and guided me away from
my office and towards his. ‘A word?’ was his sole, solemn remark.
Pete’s cavernous suite was cold, not because of  the surfeit of smoked glass, the soulless décor or the absence of  family photos, but because of  his face, his manner. You always know, don’t you?
    ‘Got a problem, mate,’ he said, his voice flat, foreboding.


Song in the Wrong Key
‘Don’t tell me. Those morons at Delta-D complaining about the network again?’ I could already feel myself  drowning, but didn’t yet know which ocean was sucking me down.
‘No. They’re fine.’
‘Yeah,’ I scoffed without conviction, ‘had to work my butt off  to get them onside. Bunch of  complete…’
‘We’re letting you go.’
‘Mike? We’re letting you go.’
‘Ok mate. Let’s do lunch later, yeah?’
‘Mike. I’m not pissing around. This isn’t coming from me.’ ‘Look, I’ve got stuff  piled up on my desk, so…’
‘They thought it’d be better if  I told you.’
‘Ok. Now, I may look cheerful enough, but I’m actually beginning
to get a bit worried, Pete. I thought,’ I chuckled pitifully, my heart
thudding, lungs barely able to replenish the oxygen they were hyper-
exhaling, ‘…I thought I heard you say you were letting me go, but
‘Elliott and Barry hauled me in last thing Friday. They’re making you redundant. No other way to say it.’
I let that one sink in as I struggled to breathe. ‘They can’t do that.’
‘They can. They have. I’m really sorry, mate. You think this is easy  for me?’
‘Oh poor you,’ I said with desperate sarcasm, ‘you’d better sit
‘My hands are tied, Mike.’
‘Why me? What about…what about Arnie? He’s useless. Or
Christine?’ I was pleading now, pathetic, emasculated. This was as
good a point as any to slump into the über-modern, supremely
uncomfortable leather armchair reserved only for the best clients.
Pete stifled a wince.
‘She’s on half  what you’re on…and, you know…’
‘Big tits,’ I mumbled in a sad echo of  the mock-laddish banter Pete
and I occasionally engaged in before his accession to executioner-in-
chief. And Christine did, indeed, have a sizeable bust, which didn’t


Simon Lipson
excuse it, I know, but we’re men and we can’t help ourselves sometimes.
But right now it wasn’t remotely funny, even if  everyone tacitly
acknowledged that Christine’s rise was largely due to the tongues-out
enthusiasm generated by her most prominent physical feature.
‘She’s pulling in the business, Mike; making the boys upstairs happy.’
‘Big tits do that,’ I said, shaking my head like a defeated schoolboy,  ‘I’m at a massive disadvantage.’
Pete rolled his eyes as though this sexist nonsense was, belatedly, beneath him. He’d invented it, the bastard. ‘What can I say?’
    ‘I’ve been here longer than Arnie.’
‘But  Arnie’s  just  nailed  that  Freestone  contract,’  said  Pete, hammering home another irrefutable nail in my coffin, ‘otherwise he’d probably have been the one to go. You know business is bloody tough. Someone had to take the bullet.’
‘Someone?’ I knew all of  this, of  course, but you never quite see it coming. ‘Didn’t you argue on my behalf ? Didn’t you tell them how unlucky I’ve been? I mean, if  I’d pulled off  that deal with Virgin, Elliott and Barry could’ve fucking retired.’
‘But you didn’t.’
I pinched my thumb and forefinger to within a centimetre of  each
other. ‘I was this close.’ I wasn’t even in the neighbouring solar system.
‘They think you fucked it up. And right now, it’s costing us to keep you on. You’re not bringing in the fees. You’re not even paying for yourself.’
‘Costing us?’ I whined. ‘Us?’
‘Them. I mean them, the company,’ Pete said in a hollow display of personal loyalty of  which he then thought better. ‘Well no, I don’t. It is us, isn’t it? We all have to make our contribution. I’m part of  the family here. We’re all in this together.’
‘Are we?’
Pete sighed. I wish I could say this was hurting him, but the guy was
a consummate actor whose prime concern was covering his own
‘And, Mike. How long have we known each other? Of  course I pleaded with them on your behalf,’ he lied. ‘Come on.’


Song in the Wrong Key
‘I was top fee earner…’ ‘In 1998, Mike.’
The internal phone buzzed and Pete held up an apologetic finger as
he rounded his desk to take the call. He spoke sotto voce, but I cupped
my ear. ‘Yes. Yes,’ he whispered, ‘won’t be long. I’ll pop up in a minute.
Ha, ha. Coffee’d be great. Any croissants? Mmm. Ok.’ He put the
phone down, turned to face me and quickly readjusted his features
until they settled on the sympathetic mien he’d probably practised in
the executive washroom mirror.
‘Is that how you pleaded for me? Over a nice plate of  flaky pastry?’ ‘Stop it Mike.’
‘But I’ve got kids and a wife and a mortgage…all that shit. What am
I going to do? I’m forty-two.’ It was lame, after the event. It wasn’t
going to help.
‘We’ve put together a really good package. Six months’ salary. And you can keep the gym membership until the end of  the year. Uh?’
‘Great. I’ll jog to the bankruptcy court. My God, Pete. Six months’ money? After all these years?’
‘And…you can keep the car.’
He’d obviously kept that up his sleeve in case I had the temerity to whinge. Hardly a clincher. ‘Oh, magnificent. Can’t afford to fill it up, but maybe I can fold the seats down and move in when the Nationwide forecloses on my fucking mortgage.’
‘You’ll find something in no time. You’re a good man.’
‘Look, fuck the package. Why not reduce my basic, load it in favour
of  commission? It’ll motivate me. Maybe that’s what I’ve been
‘My hands are tied Mike.’
My mouth opened but nothing came out. I was all done begging. I
gulped in some air and whimpered, ‘But I’m forty-two.’
    ‘What about Lisa? She’s earning good money, isn’t she? You’re not going to starve.’
Which was true, of course. My financial protestations were born
of shock, indignation, humiliation, not the facts. Lisa comfortably
out-earned me; had done for years. Maybe that made me easier to


Simon Lipson
get rid of. But I still needed a reason to get up in the morning. And I was only forty-two. Did I mention that?
‘That’s it for me. Who wants someone of  my age in this game?’ ‘The references will be great and…’.
‘Yeah? Michael Kenton worked for this company for 17 years. He is
reliable, capable, trustworthy and diligent. That’s why we got rid of
‘No-one’s going to take that inference. People in the business know it’s tough. The competition’s horrendous. There are new companies sprouting up as we speak, ready to undercut us.’
‘I know,’ I muttered, ‘I know.’
‘Hey, and…tell you what, I’ll see if  I can have a word with David
Lewis at Crack-IT. I heard he was after someone experienced on the
technical side.’
‘Yeah, right,’ I sulked.
‘That’d be perfect for you. Maybe sales isn’t your thing any more. You were always a techie at heart.’
‘Yeah.’ I squeaked up off  the armchair and gestured at the door. ‘I might as well…’
Pete laced a smile with his best approximation of  tragic empathy and put his arm around me, but felt immediately uncomfortable and turned it into a stilted pat on the shoulder.
I trudged out and slunk along the corridor, dead man walking, until
I reached my office. It already looked deserted. There was no point
sitting down, no point settling into my comfortable little kingdom;
better to clear it out and clear off. I rifled through my desk drawers,
finding all sorts of  items I’d forgotten I had - a liveried letter opener,
my Top Fee Earner plaque from 1998, a useless, frayed felt tip pen
given to me by Millie who insisted I use it at work. I removed the
family photos from my desk - the gap-toothed ones of  the kids in
their prim, ill-fitting school uniforms, the one of  my parents when
they still had a future, the yellowing shot of  me and Lisa looking lean
and shiny-faced, toasting the camera in a long-forgotten restaurant in
Mykonos. I dithered over the pens, the calculator, the plastic ruler, the
stapler, all of  which were company property, then decided to take the


Song in the Wrong Key
lot. Screw you, Pete, screw all of  you. I win!
I piled my sad little bounty into a couple of  the Tesco bags I kept in
my bottom drawer. It was pathetic. I was pathetic. Two plastic bags
full of  useless crap. Was that all the last 17 years had amounted to? I
stood by the door, bags hanging limply from one hand, empty
briefcase from the other, and looked around the room one last time. I
almost bade it farewell, then realised it was only a bloody room, one in
which I was no longer welcome.
What was I going to tell Lisa? 

No comments:

Post a Comment