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Authors: Anthony Camber

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BOOK: The Pink and the Grey
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I found a corner of the bar with a high stool and a table and did the arse-dance to get myself comfortable. The last of the daytime crowd was drifting away into the cold — home for their tea and their soaps. Their cosy family school night in, little Timmy whining about homework, and his son with a switchblade threatening to cut him if he didn’t do it. Happy families.

My own childhood was a haunted forest of arguments. Arguments between my mother and my father, until my father had had enough and slammed his way out. Between my mother and my two elder brothers, until they got girlfriends and had arguments with them instead. And between my mother and me, starting the day I came out to her aged thirteen and ending two years later when I moved in with my grammy.

I was the third of two children.

Grammy had run a middle-of-the-road B&B in Dublin near a theatre. She’d seen a thing or two, and sometimes more than two. She’d put me in her attic room with a lock on the door and told me to use it. And I used the bejesus out of it. Occasionally I’d see a critical eye on her at breakfast and we’d have
A Discussion
, during which she’d wash the same plate forty-nine times and I’d tell her everything was just hunky-dory in fairyland and she didn’t need to worry about me. I did my homework, I did my share of the housework, more or less, and I ate all my peas except for the ones I gave to her little Westey when it sat up and begged like one of the boys from school.

And sometimes at school I got beaten up, and had a cry, and she was there for me, and she didn’t argue with me.

She was there waving at the door when I left for college. She wasn’t there for my graduation. Nobody was there.

Ancient history.

I couldn’t fix my own childhood, and I couldn’t fix Seb’s either. I wasn’t sure whether he’d ultimately gain any solace, any happiness, from kicking Geoff up the metaphorical arse. I knew why he wanted to do it, though.

Seb strolled into the bar almost exactly thirty minutes after I did. I showed no surprise, just raising my near-empty glass a fraction and allowing myself a small grin. Perhaps his source was Eddie, perhaps the hat man, perhaps some ninja hiding under a banquette blending in with the grime and the faded white paint, just out of the corner of my eye.

Seb bought a soft drink, causing all manner of fake outrage and eyebrow action from Eddie, and took the stool beside me. Compared to Friday he’d downgraded the dress code to catalogue casual. One of the expensive catalogues. Pale blue cashmere and mustard chinos: he looked like a damp beach.

“What a coincidence!” he said, knowing I knew.

“Good to see you again,” I smiled. “If I’d known you were this loaded I’d have let you buy
all
the mojitos.”

“I did offer.”

I could only agree.

I expected at least a few minutes of banter before we got down to business, but he had other ideas. He looked me in the eye: “So, Conor. Three days. What have you learned?”

I bought a few seconds of thinking time by downing what remained of my drink.

“I’m a mere junior reporter,” I said. “I don’t have super-mega-ultra-clearance on the top-secret database held in the evil journalist castle just outside Slough. I’ve learned enough, though.”

“Will you help me?”

It was at once the trickiest and easiest of questions. To say
yes
would turn me from a simple and/or naïve journalist seeking the truth into a vigilante, a cowboy gunning down other cowboys in the not-so-wild west. To say
no
would mean I wasn’t interested in the truth, or the short-term or the long-term effects of the stories I hypothetically wrote, when Geoff gave me the opportunity to hypothetically write them and didn’t then cross my name out and write his in instead.

I stared at the ceiling. Behind Seb, Eddie was thumping the coffee machine with a cocktail shaker and inventing swear words. I could do that instead, I thought. I could work behind a bar. Flirt with customers, pour pints, learn how to juggle. A much simpler life—

“Let’s make a deal,” I said finally. “I call this the
Give Him Enough Rope
deal. Together, we’ll come up with a story, somehow, I don’t know how, that’s going to tickle the interest of the dynamic duo back in the office. And we’ll make sure it’s juicy, lucrative and one thousand and one percent toss. And we’ll see if Geoff sticks his little round head into the noose. If he does, there you go. We pull the whole rug out.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Let’s hope he does.”

Seb studied his glass, a piss-weak concoction of lime and lemonade overdosing on ice. He spun it slowly round, examining it like a delicate artefact just unearthed from the ashes of Pompeii, except a little wetter. I was biting so hard on my tongue to stay quiet I expected a chunk of flesh to flop into my pint glass at any second.

He looked up and took a breath. “So what’s the story?”

seven
The Meeting

A purple nail dinged thrice, dully, upon the rim of a full mug of coffee. Silence fell. Amanda dinged twice more, irrelevantly, and called the committee assertively and messily to order. Naturally she performed these actions unilaterally, pre-delegating to herself the responsibility that should rightly have been mine, or so I had been led to believe. My smile wavered not one smidge. My rigid back was unyielding.

I was glad this time to be encountering her above ground, in a bright, high-ceilinged, wood-panelled conference room in Prince Albert’s Court — Top Court. The Bandolinum Room, named after a racehorse upon which our founder successfully wagered a great sum, overlooked the easternmost fringes of the bus terminal. Hardly the most glorious and historic of views for contemplating the very future of St Paul’s, should it even have one. And yet I knew that should events surge against me I might easily offer my excuses and catapult myself through the window onto the roof of the X5 and thereby make my getaway to Oxford, via St Neots, Bedford, Milton Keynes, Buckingham and Bicester. I imagined the free wifi extended to the roof.
 

The conference room’s long, cheap table was cobbled together from several smaller pinewood affairs — possibly detritus recovered from failed businesses — and simply mashed together in an unlikely fashion like poor council house tiling. As college was not blessed with vast wealth and space the table was often reconfigured for use by private firms wanting a sniff of toff and by dubious student societies, and thoroughly sanitised afterwards. Its current layout could sit at least two dozen, were chairs required. The SPAIN committee thankfully comprised only four people: me, our dear Master Amanda, the delightful codger and Praelector Dennis, and our Bursarette Helen. We huddled around one corner of the table, various papers and beverages spread before each of us.

Amanda cleared her throat, or a kettle boiled, I was unsure. “Let me begin opening the proceedings by offering a warmly welcome to Dr Flowers, this committee’s
chair nouveau
,” she said, gripping tightly to a red biro.

“Thank you, Master,” I began, with a nod. “May I first—”

“I find the role of chair full of stifle and pompy, and thus ceremonially disbalanced and not to be stood too heavily upon. Do you not concur, Dr Flowers?” She sacrificed a gulp of the blackest coffee and her eyes blazed.

“Do we have an agenda?” asked Helen, a rather small and squeaky and relentlessly cheerful lady who catered regularly at hockey matches but remained unhappily single. “I scoured my inbox but saw no trace. Is there an agenda, Dr Flowers?”

“I’m not aware—” I managed.

“The agenda is the cartwheel of the savage rodent,” said Amanda, and Helen’s shoulders drooped. “We have merely one singular pressing upon us, upon which Dr Flowers shall now enlighten us upon.”

I leaned forward and opened my mouth—

“Praelector,” Amanda continued, “am I to disbelieve that you have not discovered anything notelessworthy?”

Poor Dennis was rather startled to have the whip cracked so promptly, and jumped from an early doze. He fussed with his papers, moving spectacles up and down his forehead and up and down his nose, groping for focus. “My dear, my dear, according to my investigations we have few rooms of prominence remaining in college unsponsored. Bids for the naming of the boathouse gym, as anticipated, as anticipated, oversubscribed immediately upon announcing unfettered usage during full term. This, I report sadly, is the only bright spark. I fear the alumni, the dear Old Paulines, have already been squeezed quite dry, quite dry.”

Amanda glared at the Praelector and the biro-tapping began. I thought it wise to insert myself verbally between Dennis and whichever death ray Amanda was about to unleash upon him. “Amanda, if I might…”

“You, as it were, might,” she said slowly above her purple spectacles, and I took that to be agreement.

“I have taken the liberty of preparing a small document outlining my proposal,” I began, distributing four stapled sheets of grammatically correct, typographically pleasing, skimmable, bulleted, readable text to each of my colleagues.

A jet of pure white steam erupted from the top of Amanda’s head and I expected at any moment a thunderbolt to despatch her
X Factor
coffee mug to the winds. I sensed she had not anticipated this move. And in truth neither had I, upon waking late on Saturday afternoon with my head attached to my desk by industrial-strength drool. My typed scribbles were, as expected, bordering on incoherence in significant part and I had wishfully inserted the notion of the
Chatteris Batteris
, a chase through the city centre involving the Master and an uncountable number of baseball bats. It had been a simple matter to tidy up those issues and I spent the remainder of the weekend fleshing out sufficient detail to answer all the probable questions, and cursing the word processor, and recovering from backups, and the like.

“As you will see,” I told the committee, “I am proposing an annual charity event open to students and non-students alike, to be called
Band on the Run
. Participants may run or walk between St Paul’s, St John’s and two other colleges: these are to be selected randomly before the race and designated honorary St George’s and St Ringo’s colleges. The course naturally finishes back at St Paul’s: it is thus a giant quadrilateral, and would differ each year to add variety and interest. Each participant has a numbered bucket, and collects for a charity of their choosing. It is not a timed race: the aim is to raise money, not to complete the course quickly. I anticipate the appearance of a miscellany, a smorgasbord, of costumes: pantomime horses, musical pastiches — most especially the obvious quartet — and black tie, for example. No restrictions on dress other than the usual proprieties, with speedos most definitely permitted and indeed encouraged. And whichever participant raises the most money is to be presented with a small trophy and proclaimed the year’s
Fifth Beatle
.”

“I see,” said Amanda glacially. Other brows furrowed, scurrying through the details in the proposal.

“Annual publicity,” I continued. “A good cause — many good causes, in fact. Ideally with a celebrity aspect to the proceedings, although this might prove difficult in year one unless the Master can incant some devil words and summon Lulu. I do certainly anticipate a very many hectares of goodwill and a consequent raised profile, as desired.”

“I see,” said Amanda again. One tap of the biro.

“Dear boy, dear boy,” said Dennis, failing to suppress a smile, “splendid concept. Is there not, though, an issue with the boys in blue, in blue?”

“Section 5.6, Dennis.” I directed him to the appropriate clause. “A three-stage process: informal, formal, archival. Given college, uh, experiences of which I am aware, and assuming many of which I am not, I see no great issue in persuading the authorities of our case.”

“I see,” said Amanda again, her face advancing through the traffic light sequence and her biro tapping increasingly frequently. My chin remained firmly up.

“I’m a teensy confused,” said Helen. “How exactly does this raise any money for the college? Charities, yes, and very much tick V.G. But for St Paul’s?”

I nodded thoughtfully, then indicated to the Master. “Amanda assured me that fundraising was a role designated for a fundraiser, and I am regretfully, legally, not a fundraiser.”

“Oh,” Helen said quietly.

“So,” Amanda began, tap-tap-tap, starting to bubble and froth, “you do before us bring this, this—”

“Fully thought-out proposal,” I said, attempting to rein in any hint of smugness.

A rolling boil. “—with buckets of charity, with musical running—”

“The theme is in truth merely a conceit, linking us and St John’s and two others in a simple and I suggest lightly humorous fashion, to help create a university event rather than a college event, and allowing for an uplift in publicity.”

A mess all over the hob. “—and winners, and trophies, and how in the
Boom Bang-a-Bang
shall we afford it?”

I was rather taken aback by her angry clarity and I recoiled, blinking. “A-a-appendix A,” I stammered. “It is fully costed, admittedly with several assumptions.”

She scrunched bitterly over the pages to find the data, muttering silently and occasionally tossing out an epithet of some indelicacy.

I continued. “I did, perhaps, think that this committee might discuss how best to fund the event. We could share costs with St John’s, obtain sponsorship…”

The bursar swept her calculating eyes over the figures, displaying no obvious signs of distress. “I would need some quality time alone with my spreadsheet, Master, but on first glance—”

“Glance, Bursar?
Glance?
” That appeared to be the sum total of her response.

“On first glance the figures do not appear unreasonable. As to funding…” A mousy shrug.

The fidgeting and babbling from Amanda gradually sputtered and burned out, the purple candle snuffed, during which Dennis successfully dropped off, and she calmed sufficiently to form what passed for a coherent sentence. “I shall of course require to ingest myself of the completed and unabridged contents, Dr Flowers. To allocate sufficient of my remaining minutes such as to appreciate, as it were, the fullest of intents.”

BOOK: The Pink and the Grey
5.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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